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An interview with Swedish artist Tobias Sjöberg 0

Sheena Malone

Photos: Philip Keith

Established in 2010 and housed on the ground floor of the former Luise Grimm Museum in Kreuzberg, Grimmuseum has grown to become one of the leading artist-run institutions in Berlin. The space operates as an interdisciplinary platform working in partnership with both established and emerging practitioners to promote visual art, performance and sound art. Its reputation as an open, accessible and process-based exhibition space continues with Swedish artist Tobias Sjöberg’s current exhibition, State of Conservation.

Currently based in Stockholm, Sjöberg is one of the most interesting artists to emerge from Sweden in recent times. He studied at the Helsinki Academy and Goldsmith’s College, and his broad artistic practice (encompassing performances, painting, sculptural objects and installation) deals with rhythm and repetition, and approaches the themes of boundary, limitation, and boundlessness from the poetic, political and social. Sjöberg often employs non-traditional art materials such as perishable foodstuffs, which add a durational aspect to his work with the nature of these materials transitioning over time. For the last few years, Sjöberg has been investigating different forms of unifying and isolating acts, and the often invisible lines we draw between them.  He concerns himself with situations in which solitary entities dissolve and merge with each other, or – from a social perspective – where one is included in a joint ”we” and at the same time, creates a boundary against the outer world. 

On the occasion of his current exhibition, catches up with Tobias Sjöberg to chat about his work.

Can you tell us a little bit about your current exhibition at Grimmuseum in Berlin, and about its title, State of Conservation?

Spontaneously, I would say that the exhibition has become something very important to me. I worked on it very intuitively, letting myself be led by feeling, mostly. It was important to trust the direction in which the physical act of producing it took me. So it was actually at quite a late stage in the process that I saw how each piece was connected, how the work had been set in motion – moving in circles and, along the way, forming common points of contact and fusing together in a way.

The exhibition’s title, State of Conservation, refers perhaps primarily to the works in the exhibition that have been made out of living materials, which I, in various ways, have tried to preserve for the eye, but which at the same time, inevitably allow themselves to change and become something else through their contact with the outside world. I became more and more interested in the aims of preservation/conservation, and my thoughts also revolved around the role of museums and how a civilization, in many ways, is based on what we can conserve for the future.

The State of” part of the title alludes to the paradox of conservation and its attendant problems. It became clear to me that some of the works in the exhibition revolve around various notions of cultivation, culture, heritage, civilization and conservatism.

In retrospect I can see that I, inevitably and in many ways, started to relate to and work with aspects of the times we live in. I can see how the exhibition has almost become political in nature.

This is something I totally stand for – the world is on fire and it cannot be ignored. I am standing right in the middle of it and I would go so far as to say that I, as an artist, and as a gay fellow human being, face a direct threat today.

Where does it all come from, this nationalism, conservatism and conformism that we see emerging almost everywhere today? It seems like history is repeating itself. I hope the exhibition State of Conservation can, in various ways, reflect on or lead the audience to think about the idea that what we have left behind us often resurfaces, but in a new guise.

Grimmuseum is a beautiful space. However, with the exhibition rooms on either side of the hallway, it can be challenging to draw both sides together. How did you negotiate your way through the curatorial idiosyncrasies of the space?

I think the space at Grimmuseum meant a lot to me during the process. I find it very domestic in a way, how the rooms follow a pattern, designed almost like an apartment. It interested me and added something to the work, to the theme, since it awakened questions about the private sphere in me. I even lived in the museum while we installed the exhibition, and that gave me a personal relationship with the space, and some spatial aspects became even more important to me. I decided to divide certain elements in the exhibition in order to let them poetically interact in their separation.

Both sides of the hallway follow their own incantation, one side with more objects, images of something that “happened/occurred”; and on the other side, a bit more open, more like a family room/living room in its gesture, or perhaps a dance floor, a space to practice the exhibition in.
With that as a starting point, I got the impulse to paint all the windows that face the street. It somehow felt important to, in a tactile way and using the old technique “hinterglasmaleri” (a technique for painting on glass), make a direct and personal imprint with my own hands and fingers from the inside out, in relation to the world outside.

I find that the painting isolated the rooms, while it also bound together the entire museum from the outside. I named that piece Civilization. It became like a frontier, a boundary of civilization, or a limitation to what cannot be seen behind it. At the same time, there was also an interaction between the windows that I had decided not to paint – there the view of the museum courtyard was left unobstructed, almost like a direct contact with nature.

With this show you are continuing your investigations into Freikörperkultur, which you previously broached in Galleri Box in Göteborg. What first attracted you to this theme? How has it evolved between both shows and what has been retained?

Freikörperkultur (the liberated body) has, as a theme and idea, been a frequent artistic point of departure for me. It feels as if I’ve been working with it for many years now. It has taken on various expressions and has touched on physical aspects of the body, as well as being explored in relation to social acts, group dynamics and body language.

In Göteborg, I developed a series of works that dealt with the body as bridled within its own limitations – to be physical and to materialize. At the same time, I somehow wanted to approach the idea of liberated physicality through the physical act/action. Some of the works in the exhibition at Galleri Box were developed from ephemeral, living material, foodstuffs (e.g. cream), that in various ways related to a physical/bodily transformation. I think that for me, these works are also about something very personal and existential, since they were produced in a very bewildering and traumatic period of my life (in relation to a family member who was seriously ill).

Freikörperkultur translates as “the liberated body”, and many people are most familiar with it as a term for nudism. What should we strive to liberate the body from? 

That's an interesting question, and to me it has something almost religious in it. Freikörperkultur can be seen as a kind of borrowed conception of freedom that is obviously (also inevitably) quite historically charged from the point of being a cultural expression. But to me, from an artistic perspective, it has become something much more complex and multifaceted.

What should we strive to liberate the body from? I would like to say I don't know, since I find it hard to pinpoint “what from.” To my mind, free body culture (the liberated body) says something about movement, and it is in the movement itself that the very concept of freedom can be tested and reconsidered. This then stands in contrast to fixed ideas and all attempts at conservation.

If I translate this into the social realm, I think that to me it is about the relationship to “the self”, and by seeing oneself among others, which somehow liberates oneself from the self. I have thought of it as a state in which an “I” can become a “we.” Like when a unit becomes a whole, and through this union it merges into something larger than itself. I can see how it easily becomes complicated, a bit narrow and paradoxical when I try to put it into words. I do not know how else I could visualize it other than by the actual practice/creation of the work.

But if I take this question quite personally, I find it important to always relate to something “outside of myself” when I am working. I think, for example, that I am an “artist” together with other artists; I am a “fellow human being” and thus, something larger than myself. In this way the aspiration also bridges the laws of physics and personal obstacles, almost like an out-of-body experience.

And how were these ideas explored in State of Conservation?

Through the exhibition at Grimmuseum, Freikörperkultur became much clearer to me as a cultural expression and popular movement, as well as from a historical point of view. It became important to me to somehow try to understand and relate to how the movement came to touch so many different aspects over the years while assuming so many different forms and integrating so many different ideals.

From my perspective, I think I can see parallels to how the body and ideology, both historically and in our time, are often interconnected. From this, in turn, we can draw further parallels to our seemingly human need to preserve, conserve and protect from change. Our contemporary obsession with the physically perfect, symmetrical, healthy and disciplined body is directly connected with history.

For me it became clear that the Freikörperkultur-pieces at Grimmseum turned out more playful, but at the same time, more austere and serious somehow, almost political in their configuration and color scheme. But it depends on how you choose to see them.

Maybe they can be read as symbols, as territorial demarcations or the like: fallen flags in battle against the free radicals (oxygen); the degradation, decay or transformation of the surrounding habitats. I see them also as a kind of “emergency rations” to be eaten, containing everything a body needs to survive: sugar, salt and fat – the ingestion of which becomes a kind of inner experience.

Children often get a bit of a bad rap when it comes to their presence in galleries. We’ve all seen the images of the toddler climbing all over the Donald Judd. But your exhibition is very child-friendly judging from the inclusion of titles such as Mamma och Pappa, and also your invitation to parents and toddlers to participate in a performance at the opening. Do you see any links with Danish artist Palle Nielsen’s The Model, which was first installed at Moderna Museet in 1968?

Oh, that one; I love that work. It's such a beautiful project, but personally, I haven’t really thought about the connection. But absolutely, there’s something about play or playfulness that has interested me in relation to this exhibition. There is something of our primary needs that children still possess, and this inspires me and means so much to me as an artist.

I somehow want the exhibition to allude to and relate to the paradox – the border between control and no borders. The Freikörperkultur-pieces can, for example, be eaten and thereby be experienced from the inside. There is something about the wild, the unbridled and the uneducated that incessantly interests me. Somehow, I would like to dare to believe more in the uncivilized, the mindless or unpremeditated mental constructions which, unfortunately, I think contemporary art is forced to deal with to a great extent today.

The Mamma och Pappa series is, in some ways, reminiscent of stage sets, but ones where the viewer can walk around, therefore revealing their construction. Another work in this series consists of three stretched canvases lying un-hung against the wall – again, revealing and concealing simultaneously. Can you tell me a little bit about your process in relation to these works?

Yes, it has been important; it was there with me from the beginning, almost like a mantra, to completely surrender to this folk art (the family). I wanted to, purely physically and bodily, to try to relate to some kind of conformity to the law; to create a movement pattern, a pattern somewhere between self-control and empathy.

Then, it came to be a process that was increasingly focused on the decorative, although I don’t personally see the work as pure decoration. I can see that the Mamma och Pappa (Mum and Dad) paintings can be perceived as some kind of background motif, or set designs with both a front and a back side. Almost like objects, or – why not – bodies.

The aspect of movement has been important: to allow the paintings to be mobile, not fixed in a museum; to rather be more of a picture of a culture, a heritage, a cultural heritage – one that is just as mobile and possible to be applied to each new tradition. All of the paintings were painted in the same way as the museum windows: directly with the hands and fingers, improvised and measured out with the naked eye.

It’s probably hard to see at first glance, but they are, at times, brutally impulsive and wild in their creation. It was important to me to use the physical act of painting to talk about traces, to make visible all attempts at construction by revealing the underlying reworking and layering.

It is interesting that you ask what do they reveal, and what do they conceal. I think that the actual motifs are, in fact, entirely based on trial and experimentation. I was interested in seeing what happens when self-control loses its grip, so to speak, and becomes something else. When the human aspect, unannounced, comes into play, and an oversight (fatigue, hunger etc.) takes the upper hand, in that way one becomes a bit uncontrolled. These traces have been important to the process and are somehow beautiful to me in their revealing nature.

Repetition is frequently present in your work, whether it be in the painting process or in the performances, or in the themes to which you return.

True, there is something there, and it is, in itself, recurrent. The rhythm inspires me; for me it belongs together with not knowing what to do with oneself and then, through conformity to law and repetition, creating empathy; in a way, this can be seen as a liberation, while at the same time, one loses oneself, allowing oneself to be lost in this context.
I see the repetition as something very exciting and contradictory in that it, just as described above, relates to the entire paradox of self-consciousness. How can repetition become something liberating? The chewing-gum piece [chewing-gum balls with hand-painted patterns] that is arranged in a line on the floor in one of the rooms, alludes precisely to that, I think. I call the work a rosary or a prayer (Bön), as through its ingestion – the repetitive act of eating and chewing – one can find release, or a way to achieve another consciousness.

Your CV states that you live and work in Stockholm and Berlin. What are the differences between the cities? How do you feel that it affects your work? Is it necessary to be present in Berlin to negotiate the international scene?

I recently moved back to Stockholm from Berlin. Yes, Berlin means a lot to me; for me it feels like coming home every time I am back. In Berlin there is, somehow, a place for everyone, and the tempo is different, the ambitions are different.

Unfortunately, this is not how it is with Stockholm, or that's not the way I know my city, even though I was born here. Stockholm has become stressful, the pulse is always fast and with maximum performance requirements. From my point of view, it has become a city with a culture of success, but that is, of course, only for those who have the ability and can afford it, to generalize. It’s actually a very tragic development and I think I have seen significant change in only the last fifteen years.

Stockholm has become so bourgeois and tough – segregated, both ethnically and socioeconomically. Which also means that it’s much harder for artists. If it wasn’t for the growing feminist movement in Sweden, I would probably have given up hope.

And finally, what are your plans for the future?

Well, in the near future I will be working on an upcoming exhibition at Färgfabriken, here in Stockholm. One could say that it’s a sister show to State of Conservation at Grimmuseum, but here the title will be Fria Radikaler (Free Radicals). The exhibition will further explore perspectives concerning borders/restrictions/boundlessness in relation to the freedom of movement, through a larger series of Freikörperkultur-works made from foodstuffs.

At the same time, or in parallel with this upcoming exhibition, I am in the final stages of making an artist’s book, an anthology that will be called “Freikörperkultur”. It will have images from a recent installation and performance, and several interesting texts by Jonna Bornemark, Lukas Sålby and Gunnar Olsson, etc. The book will be published by Arvinius + Orpheus Publishing and will be available all around the world.

Peace love and understanding.