Mattias Härenstam at The Vigeland Museum


The art of juxtaposition

An artist working in a range of media, Mattias Härenstam is taking on the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s work at The Vigeland Museum in Oslo this February.

Text: Lisa Andrine Bernhoft-Sjødin

Lisa Andrine Bernhoft-Sjødin: Though the exhibition Weaknesses, secrets, lies is predominantly sculpture, there’s a thread that weaves its way through it connecting video, short film, installation, graphics and objects in natural stone. It’s quite an impressive oeuvre.

Mattias Härenstam: I guess so, though I don’t think it’s that unusual. As an artist you tend to work your way towards the same subject matter, and for me different media challenge both the artistic premise and the subject matter itself. My work revolves around questions about the fleeting or transitory in our lives, the way living things are constantly in juxtaposition with death, but which we find hard to get a hold of because it’s hidden somewhere beneath the surface.

LBS: Yes, and often what we find in your work under the surface is dark and disorienting, with the potential to be interpreted as grotesque and gory, although I read your work as about mortality without morbidity. For example, your installations I know you are there, first shown at Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo in 2012, and Sketches of a re-animation, which could be seen at the Sculpture Biennale in Oslo 2013: these are objects cut from wood in the likeness of human parts. While the objects in Sketches... are confined in open structures on whose ‘roofs’ are various homey and rustic objects, those in I know... are rooted to the floor like their original material – trees – but morph into humanlike parts.

MH: Yes, I let the material choose its form as much as possible. The grotesque has a lot of connotations that I don’t identify with, so you might be right about that. The question is rather: what’s pushing its way forth from the inside?  Our surface is a measure of control; underneath are various degrees of chaos just waiting for an opportunity to break out. I’m not interested in the chaos, as such.

LBS: And now, for this exhibition, you’re working with stone for the first time. Amongst the new objects is a 6-metre-tall wooden sculpture and three smaller, close to the ground stone sculptures. How do these correspond to Vigeland’s monumental and patriarchal sculptures?

MH: How indeed! I was thinking about shellfish when I started out: a hard shell and soft insides. It’s my first time working with stone. Though I’m always excited when working with new material, one of the foremost reasons to use stone objects for this show is the dialogue with Vigeland’s sculptures, which are cut from granite, and are as you say, monumental and patriarchal. I wanted to use the same material but render them the opposite. Stone is considered timeless and eternal: if something’s set in stone, that’s it, you’ve made it permanent. But I’ve used natural stone and worked with its natural curves, letting the material choose its shape. I’ve responded to Vigeland’s monumentality by allowing the stone a more fragile form; I’ve humanized it into a weak and deceitful form.

LBS: How do sculpture and video – 3D and 2D – compliment or diverge from each other?

MH: Thematically they compliment each other, as does my graphic work. What’s stunning to me is the divergence of the now in the two media. The now in a still or on camera is a treacherous one: since it’s happening in front of us, we believe at some level that it’s happening right now, though what we’re seeing is past, and often a long-gone past and sometimes a fictitious one. With sculpture, its tactility places it in the here and now. Working with the two forms, I realised that they harbour opposite processes: the video pieces change from living to dying, the sculptures are death trying to be life. This I think is the difference between the two.

LBS: Your installations often combine both, and also a lot of your pieces have some kind of passageway through which the viewer is transported or even transformed. In The diary of an unknown consumer, 2008, first shown at UKS in Oslo in 2008, you step through a door into a dimmed, narrow hallway. The walls on each side are covered with woodcuts of creatures morphing in and out of recognition for the viewer. At the end of the hallway, there’s another door, behind which is a video piece of a pair of arms grabbing for various domestic things that disappear before they can be grasped, surrounded by dark woods. This installation will be shown at Weaknesses…, but in this edition without the video piece.

The diary of an unknown consumer , Mattias Härenstam, 2008. Photo: Halvard Haugerud. 

The diary of an unknown consumer, Mattias Härenstam, 2008. Photo: Halvard Haugerud. 

MH: I don’t think of the passageways in my pieces as symbolic; it’s more a question of form by way of confinement. The diary of an unknown consumer is evolving, and I think both editions work, but it’s a question of circumstance. For this specific show, it’s a freestanding installation in the middle of the room, with doors on each side. The hallway in The diary… leaves very little leeway, which positions the viewer in a situation that’s detail-oriented, but lacks overview. But then again, if you look at Reconstruction, 2013, the only perspective you have is the overview, leaving you with an immense lack of detail. You’re confined to one perspective, unable to get another.

LBS: You’ve included the video piece Portrait of a man reminiscent of my father, 2013, where you see the back of a man sitting in front of a window partly obscured by blind, crying so hard his back is shaking. Why this piece?

MH: This is the piece that I think is the most relevant to the exhibition, thematically, but also in a sense sculpturally. I’m trying to figure out the narrative of the sculpture and one of the things I think about is: where is my standpoint? This piece has a sculptural feel: it’s trying to widen the scope of 2D. Because the crying man is filmed from beneath, looking up at him, he assumes a monumental position for the viewer.

LBS: You’re also working on a short film, Twenty-four-seven, scheduled to be released in early 2017, about a depressed man of few words, failing in every aspect of life. But it´s all contained within him, or under the surface – we don´t really know what he’s thinking. The film ends with a disaster. Are you moving away from video art, as such, towards more narrative-heavy film-making?

MH: I might be. Showing lengthy video work in a gallery is becoming frustrating, and not just from an artist’s point of view, but from the viewer’s as well. Also, with the digital technology today being so good, the leap is much shorter from video artist to film-maker. I really enjoy making longer narratives, as with Twenty-four-seven. Video art is a more form-heavy work, and for me, something that works from one angle. Short film adds angles, widens the narrative space and allows for more motion.

Portrait of a man reminiscent of my father , Mattias Härenstam, 2013

Portrait of a man reminiscent of my father, Mattias Härenstam, 2013

Mattias Härenstam is an artist working with sculpture, video, installation, graphics and narrative film. His upcoming exhibition Weaknessess, secrets, lies will be shown at The Vigeland Museum in Oslo from 19 February to 15 May.