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Joanne Grüne-Yanoff and eggshells

An interview with Philadelphia-born artist Joanne Grüne-Yanoff 0

Sheena Malone

Philadelphia-born artist Joanne Grüne-Yanoff has been exhibiting extensively in the US and abroad since the 1990s. For the last number of years, Stockholm has been her base where, in addition to maintaining her busy artistic practice, she is an active member of the artist-run studios and gallery, Detroit Stockholm. In her work, Grüne-Yanoff employs a variety of media, fluently handling the diverse genres of installation, sound, video, photo-based images, sculpture and words. Within these works, she employs her unique and identifiable artistic vocabulary which, over the years, she has skillfully honed and perfected.

Through the month of February until mid-March, Grüne-Yanoff has two concurrent exhibitions in Berlin. InAppropriate Behaviors I is located at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and InAppropriate Behaviors II takes place at SATELLITE Berlin, a new art center based in Mitte; SATELLITE Berlin will focus on art in collaboration, as well as establishing a center for drawing in the city. For these two exhibitions, Grüne-Yanoff has created a body of work derived from a series of letters exchanged between the artist and Dr. Konstantinos Katsikopoulos, a researcher on decision theory at the Max Planck Institute.

Subject and Wings, 2014. Ink, graphite, paper, scratches

You are an American currently living in Stockholm, but during your career you have resided in many interesting places. Do you feel that the differences in location have had an impact on the themes that you explore, or on the work that you produce? If so, how has Stockholm impacted your work?

I have been told that since my move to the Scandinavian/Baltic region, my work has become more reduced, and pristine. That could be. Living as an ex-pat, which makes me a sort of permanent outsider, allows a certain ability to stay as an observer. It also permits an empathy that is not restricted to place, nationality or belief.  I think that everything that I experience impacts my work, including place. That said, the themes that I explore are consistent. Hidden urges, secret desires, a certain interest in communication and isolation.

InAppropriate Behaviors I: Installation Views at the Max Planck Institute

Currently you have two shows in Berlin: InAppropriate Behaviors Part I at the Max Planck Institute, and InAppropriate Behaviors Part II at SATELLITE Berlin, a vibrant new art organization in the city. Can you please tell us a little about the exhibitions?

I was invited by the Max Planck Institute for Human Behavior to create an exhibition for their building. It’s a fantastic space in which they do important work. I took the invitation as an opportunity to create something conceptually, as well as physically, site-specific. To do so, I had a few conversations with a senior researcher, a cognitive scientist at MPI, Konstantinos Katsikopoulos, and eventually asked him if he would try something: to look at a work of mine that in some way touched upon his work, and write a text about it. He agreed, and this began an epistolary dialogue that resulted in letters, artworks, and new ideas. As that project began taking form, I had a conversation with one of the directors of SATELLITE Berlin, an art space specifically created for art in collaboration. The space is run by two powerhouses – Kit Schulte and Rebeccah Blum, both of whom I greatly respect – and their program is inspiring. It turned out that my MPI project was a good fit for them as well, so I decided to create two shows.

Were the exhibitions conceived as two parts of a whole, or did that develop during the exhibition-making process?

The initial plan was a solo exhibition at MPI. When SATELLITE Berlin joined the process, I expanded the idea into two complete, complementary parts. In each building there are works specifically created for that space.

Nonsensical Acts, 2014. Ink, graphite, paper, scratches

With one exhibition taking place in a room designed for the display of art, and the other in a space designed as a center for academic research, do you see the artwork playing different roles in each space?

The work is meant to do the same thing in both spaces. I’ve heard that researchers and scientists might be more comfortable using verbal rather than visual signifiers as a method of understanding, while art-goers might be more at ease interpreting visual cues, and perhaps gravitate toward words in a more objectifying way. I am skeptical of such categorizations. The ideas that I explore are about being human, and I like to think that the work has many points of access, and, once in, holds the capacity to touch all sorts of people. 

Last year, your exhibition Happy Thoughts! at Detroit Stockholm Gallery dealt with the themes of hidden urges, and to echo these secrets, the artworks were in some way hidden or reticent as they were being viewed. Do you see these current shows as a development on the themes explored in Happy Thoughts!, or are you investigating a new set of ideas?

The InAppropriate Behaviors exhibitions are continuations of the explorations that took place in Happy Thoughts!. As you point out, in these two shows the works themselves aren’t shy. Instead, the hidden desires and secret urges are there, in plain sight. Perhaps in some way, this makes them even more inward-looking, a reflection on the state that strives to become something else.

Self Portrait with Words, Eggs, Wings, 2014. Ink, paper, graphite, wings, pvc, thread, scratches. 46 x 63 cm framed

Many people have a, perhaps, outdated image of an artist as someone who works in isolation. You have previously collaborated with The Stockholm Syndrome Ensemble, and for these current exhibitions in Berlin, you have collaborated with a cognitive scientist. Do you enjoy the collaborative process? And how does artistic collaboration work between the two seemingly polar opposites of art and science?

Well, I spend quite a lot of time working in isolation. And then, when I come out of that state, it’s great to meet up with others, and particularly interesting to sometimes get together with people who are also trying to figure things out, and who want to engage around making stuff, whether that’s art, music, literature, historical research, the creation of a new scientific or economic model, etc. Collaboration occurs all the time, on many levels, but when there is a real attempt to find common ground, and build new understanding, that endeavor is energizing.

At this stage, there is a well-established tendency for artists to adopt collaborative working methods, to deeply investigate their subjects from the perspective of other disciplines. During these processes of collaboration, is there a danger of the artwork acquiring multiple authors, or do you feel that the creation of the artwork remains solely within the power of the artist?

How I navigate the world, the ways that I experience my days, goes into my work. A book I read, a fall I take, a glimpse of awkwardness, a formal dialogue, a quiet in-between moment. How it comes through me, in the end, is mine.

Within your practice, you adeptly employ a variety of media to explore common themes. Are certain narratives more suited to particular forms?

I like to tell one story from many different angles, and I do so by employing different materials that make sense in the moment. A consistent narrative thread runs through all the work, regardless of media.

InAppropriate Behaviors II: Installation Views at SATELLITE Berlin

The artist Rebbecca Horn created body-extension pieces which she wore during her performances. In your exhibitions at SATELLITE Berlin and the Max Planck Institute, we see the body-extension pieces which you have created in Butterfly Spine, but you also adapt your subjects internally, for example, in Subject and Wings and Ribcage Bird.

In my work I often create props to tell a particular story. The props are psyche extensions, made into wearable gear.  The props can be actual, or they can be depicted as imagined by the subject.

Anyone familiar with your practice will notice that there are several materials to which you return frequently. This recurrence of certain materials in your work has led to the development of a very refined and poetic vocabulary. Perhaps, where we see this unique language best displayed is in your various spines – where we see you use eggshells, threads, wings, beeswax, moss etc. What do these materials signify in your work?

The materials used to form parts of the spines are the same I have been using for years, throughout my work, which form my personal lexicon of visual grammar. The spines themselves I use repeatedly as a symbol of strength and wholeness. Other materials, such as anything made by bees (wax, honey, etc) are meant to represent warmth and connection. The list is pretty expansive, and specific.

InAppropriate Behaviors II: Installation Views at SATELLITE Berlin

Your works on paper often contain gestures that are quite forceful or violent in their creation, such as tearing and scratching. Do you see this as a performative action on the part of the artist?

I see it as a way of layering action of a different speed, a different time, into the work, which needs to reveal our tensions: aspiration and fragility, vulnerability and aggression, etc.

Your work is full of opposites and contrasts (natural vs. man-made, new technology vs. old techniques, refined vs. scratched) which is, in some ways, aligned with the theory of cognitive dissonance which you have applied to your practice. What is this theory and how is it applicable?

Well, in very basic terms, Festinger’s premise, as I understand it, is that when we experience two things at the same time, which are in conflict with each other, that creates a state called cognitive dissonance. We feel this dissonance acutely, like hunger or thirst, and we want to/feel a need to change that and find harmony.  

In my work, I often make props that are meant to serve as a means to transport their wearer into a different state, one that will, in some way, bring about a moment’s harmony. These amulets, like a spine made out of honeycomb wax in order to wrap courage and the warmth of community – act as talismans of sorts.

The external reality and internal wiring may not seem to change, but within this act of creative rebellion, a moment's balm is created. Within such a moment, maybe the wearer can find a strength that, in time, can create an internal shift after all.

Much of your work deals with hidden urges or weaknesses that we try to hide, and you have previously mentioned that your work often deals with failure. Is this something that we can overcome, or do we have to learn to cope with it?

Coping seems a good strategy, along with acceptance.

Flight, 2014. Ink, paper, graphite, thread, scratches. 46 x 63 cm framed

You seem to have a very busy 2015 ahead of you. What other projects can we look forward to?

Next month I have an exhibition opening at IFAC (International Fine Arts Consortium), a gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That show, Between the Skin and the Prop, centers around a dialogue I have with the scholar Monica L. Miller. Miller was visiting Stockholm, where she lives part-time, and saw the exhibition Happy Thoughts!. She wrote to me about a video piece she saw at that show, and how the work touches upon her own. From that inception an extended dialogue – encompassing video, sculpture, images and letters – unfolds, forming a vibrant exchange of new artworks and ideas. The exchange touches upon race, place, oppression and liberation, and becomes a meditation on what it is to be human.  

After the New York show I will be curating an exhibition of photo-based works by the artist Julie Graber, at Detroit Stockholm. In the spring, Detroit Stockholm will participate in the Stockholm art fair Supermarket, for which I will create a sound installation. Warren King, Alannah Robbins and Jenny Soep will also be creating work for that show. For fall, I will focus on making work for an exhibition of my work at Galleri Couture in Stockholm, in September. That show will deal with bees, hives, and home.