Interview with Mattias Härenstam by art critic and curator Power Ekroth published in the catalogue titled Failure (2012). The interview was carried out over a series of email-exchanges in spring 2011 with an epilogue in the autumn.
Power Ekroth [PE]: A conversation has to start at one point, and I would like to start at the beginning and ask you what made you want to become an artist?
Mattias Härenstam [MH]: Early on, I imagined myself becoming a writer or something, as inventing stories always intrigued me. When I was sixteen or seventeen, I started hanging out with the "arty" kids, i.e. the black-dressed post-punkers. We would meet up at the library cafe every afternoon, smoke French cigarettes and discuss music, literature and the arts. It was a great education and introduced me to lots of stuff I still value a lot: to artists and writers like Francis Bacon, Marcel Duchamp, Georges Bataille, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, William Burroughs etc., to all the film classics and to lots of music, of course. That was also when I started to make paintings, terrible expressionist things, but somehow there was a kind of narrative cord to it that I still seem to relate to.
PE: When did you move on from painting to video and installation, and what triggered you? Are there some artist/artists that you still regard as important to your own production of art?
MH: I kept on painting for quite some time, although I was never really any good at it, to be honest. Gradually the paintings became more and more conceptual; I started putting them together like installations and began to include video. Eventually the paintings disappeared altogether, and they haven't returned: not yet, anyway. As to which artists I regard as being important to me, I've made a full circle and come back to some of the old things again, especially the work of Bacon which has been a major source of inspiration for some of my newer work. But I honestly think that film and literature play just as an important role-the work by Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch, for example. And I read a lot. At the moment I'm completely infatuated with the writings of Stig Dagerman. Amazing, and in many ways absolutely terrifying.
PE: Wow. Fear, horror, surrealism, a dreamlike wonderland in contrast to a serene sense of reality, and even escapism. Something that's striking in regard to many of your works is a dialog, or maybe a better word would be "collision," between the everyday and a fantasy or a sub-conscious; and somehow this trait emerges even more strongly when you mention the references.
MH: For a long time this "collision" represented a kind of escape, or at least the attempt of one. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I was interested in the idea of the dead utopia, meaning that the large social utopias of the 20th century had all faltered and private escapism had taken their place. So I explored things like the drug-infused techno dream-world, or computer-game fantasies. I wanted to set them up against the frustration of the everyday-life in a stagnated and self-content society-the irony of it all being that even these "escapes" or dreams were being prefabricated and mass-produced by the same forces you were trying to escape.
In more recent work, these fantasies or subconscious elements have turned darker. They're no longer escape attempts, not something you would strive for-rather they seem to be the opposite-something you would try to avoid or forget. Maybe they're more expressions of things hiding just below the surface, the underlying fears and horrors of everyday life in a success- and perfection-obsessed culture, if you like.
PE: Do you consider your work political?
MH: Oh yes, definitely. But it's always made out of a subjective perspective. It comes from personal experiences of living in a certain time and culture. I don't think that art is particularly effective as a medium for political activism on a specific question; let's say child labor, for instance. Most often it's just preaching to the choir; other media with a broader public impact are much more efficient as a means for promoting change on such issues. But I do believe that if I can get to my own fears and desires, they're not so unique after all, and are just as much reflections of societal undercurrents as a whole.
PE: Well, speaking of fears, in your work I also find a very strong cord of what Freud named "unheimlich," the uncanny. There are several aspects, or levels, of unheimlich in many works, and as one example we could speak about the exhibition The Diary of the Unknown Consumer that has been shown in several different places. I say "exhibition" here because the work seems to be a little different every time it's shown, and it also consists of different parts. I have many questions in relation to this show; one that I'm curious about is how do the different parts of the installation and video work together?
MH: This work consisted of three parts-two video loops and a connecting installation between them. When this was shown in group shows, I left the first video out as I thought the connection between it and the following parts would be too weak in such a setting, and I was intrigued about the idea of just a closed white door being the only part of the work visible from the outside. But the most complete version had this video (At the end of a dream/The Diary of the Unknown Consumer I, 2008) at the beginning. It's a looped camera-drive through suburban housing rows in Sweden around Christmas. Cold blue images of a dense snowfall sweeping deserted streets with endless rows of almost identical houses, contrasted only by the warm orange glow of the also almost identical holiday decorations in the windows. It served as a way to "set the scene," meaning that it was intended to put the subsequent work in the context of a certain place and culture. The way these three parts worked together was like a journey inward: first you saw these houses from the outside, in the next part, the corridor with the pinewood panels and orange lights would take you inside, and in the last video you would be inside someone's head or dream.
PE: Another thing is how you came up with the title-because the title doesn't necessarily have a strong relation with the work, does it? Or not that it hasn't, rather that it's just not an obvious choice?
MH: As to the title, it was an attempt to stress the political or social aspects of the work-the psychological or surreal elements felt more self-evident and needed a counter-balance. I did do a similar thing before, giving a rather "private" video-installation the title Everyday Life in the Post-utopian welfare state (the rain) (1998) and thus changing the reading of the piece. Titles can sometimes be very helpful in pushing a work in a certain direction or trying to keep them from getting stuck in certain corners. But it was also a bit of a word game, playing with a reference to "The Grave of the Unknown Soldier," which struck me as kind of funny as the main installation had something "tomb-like" about it.
PE: The corridor is quite forceful in its visual (and "bodily") appearance. It's a passage leading from one point to another, but to me it is also a narrow and also "closed" space. It's made with that sort of wooden panel that I'm sure is used everywhere in the world, but somehow I connect it very closely with the Northern hemisphere, or the German-speaking contingent. Along the whole wooden panel, and also in the roof, there are some finely chiseled-featured, carved fantasy figures. I easily imagine this being the home of a slightly mad person or a person who has a basement where secret pleasures might find their way out of hiding. In short, I see this particular consumer as a kind of "Fritzl" or "Prikopil." I might be taking this a bit too far, since I can't help but think about how we, in a westernized and consumerist society, increasingly seem to wallow in and consume as well as capitalize on the worst monstrosities that happen today and want to know more, see the horrible details, etc.
MH: Well, actually it was me who was alone in the basement for too long-I spent four years carving those walls! But it is a really interesting point, and there does seem to be an insatiable hunger for horror. Maybe it is in part a hunger for emotion or at least "motion," in the sense "to be moved by something." Better to feel disgusted or horrified than nothing at all. This craving for something "real" was also my personal motivation for the project. Having hit a wall, everything I tried turned to shit. As a desperate measure I started with the most down-to-earth activity I could think of-woodcarving. At first it was just something to do for myself, something that would still be there after the computer was turned off. There was something very liberating about this kind of manual labor, just letting the wood and the knife steer the process without any preconceived ideas. But I couldn't stay there, it was more of a temporary situation-like a time-out. And as the "master-plan" of creating the corridor materialized in my mind, the working process gradually became more conscious and goal-oriented.
Having parts of the wall reliefs standing around in the studio, I noticed that everyone seeing the things seemed almost compelled to touch them. That in turn led to the idea of the video for the room beyond the corridor. The video looked somewhat like the virtual reality of a computer game, with subjective camera and "our" hands in front of "us." These hands groped their way through dreamlike landscapes, and now and then everyday objects would appear out of the dark. But as soon as "we" tried to touch them-to grasp reality, if you like-they would immediately disintegrate. For me this desire for tactility or reality was at the heart of the entire project, and I found that the contrast between the very physical corridor and the rather "virtual" video reflects that.
PE: The narrative of the show was built up by your separate pieces that were arranged in a certain "route," which as a visitor one had to make from room A, via B to C and then back through rooms B and A again. Do you often work with a narrative like this in your exhibitions?
MH: Being a control freak I liked the way I was able to control the narration of the work and this was really the first time that I seriously tried this out. Later I used a similar "spatial narrative" with subsequent rooms for the exhibition 28th of February 1986, 2011, but the given gallery space doesn't always allow for this. And sometimes it's the nature of the work that isn't suitable; some pieces are just too autonomous, too engaged with themselves like the 4-channel video-installation Drawing Circles (...the distance is always the same) (2011), for instance. In this case the narration arises within the work itself, in the internal communication between the four projections.
PE: Seeing that you're a control-freak, the staging of the works in a strict stage-setting is recurrent, almost as if you're expecting your visitors to become the subject-matter or the "actor," if you will. I'm interested in the 4-channel installation you mention above, Drawing Circles (...the distance is always the same). In one way I sense that you let go of some of your complete control here. I sense a little difference in your approach towards the visitor and also the work itself, am I right?
MH: I wanted to see if I could work with video with a similar "free" mindset as I did with the woodcarving, so I set out with a very loose concept of circular movement. At first I was just letting in whatever images that came to mind somehow connected to that concept. Then I peeled them away one by one until only four remained, one video-projection for each wall of a room. Hence these loops were largely made out of instinctive or subconscious choices. So you're definitely right, it is a less "controlled" piece in many ways. That said, however, it was a very conscious choice to create a situation where the spectator never could get the full picture-standing in the middle of the room, you yourself would also constantly turn around to try to catch the glimpses of the "action," strongly suspecting that the most interesting stuff was going on behind your back. The resulting restlessness and unease seemed to me like a sign of the times-lots of action and movement surrounding you all the time, but very hard to make out a direction or to focus, with the distance always being the same.
PE: The exhibition "set," just like the content of the four pieces that the installation consisted of, was very theatrical in its expression, I would say. There is also a large sense of humor in the pieces, albeit a dark one. Can you describe each piece briefly and tell me how the pieces fit together with each other? Was any one projection more important for you/the viewer than another?
MH: There were four loops, each of a different length. One showed a piece of a floor with a table leg in the background. After a while drops of a dark fluid started falling, creating a growing round stain on the floor. The sound of the falling drops was heavily amplified, providing the entire installation with a rhythm. Another featured a piece of "urban wasteland" lit with a focused spot. The camera moved continuously around the "light circle" on the ground, making it look as if it was this circle moving, a bit like a rotating planet or something. The illusion was only broken when a gust of wind blew garbage and dry leaves over it, or if someone occasionally trampled carelessly across the screen. For the next video loop the camera and a strong spotlight rotated simultaneously around its own axis, in the manner of the sweeping ray of a lighthouse. It showed a winterish forest at night and every now and then shadowy creatures would pass quickly through the light. The creatures were really quite theatrical, with strange surreal costumes, and I actually thought of them as the Wayward Sisters, the three witches leading Macbeth astray in the Shakespeare play. The last of the four loops showed an empty dancefloor in some basement club. A lone naked man, with his head down a hole in the middle of the floor, turned slowly around himself. There was something comical about the absolute futility of his situation, but it was also visibly a quite painful posture. His way of moving around and the lack of a head disfigured the body, turning it into some lump of living flesh crawling around on the floor. None of the videos were more or less important than the other, I was more interested in the interaction between them and you're right-not only was each loop a closed circuit in itself, but the entire installation functioned as a closed circuit in physical space.
PE: The work Portrait of a Smiling Man (2010) is a chilling psychological performance by an actor whom you have shot trying to smile for as long as he physically can. Personally I have problems watching this poor guy as my face muscles start to hurt just from watching him. Crying and laughing are close to each other. Did others react the same way when watching it? Was this physical effect your intention? Tell me more about the work.
MH: Drawing Circles and the ... Smiling Man are probably the two pieces that owe most to the renewed interest for the work of Bacon, mentioned earlier. In this specific case, not so much the famous screaming popes, but a series of paintings with (business-)men sitting alone in dark spaces. I think that Portrait of a Smiling Man just might be the closest to a self-portrait that I will ever make.
My actor was given a very simple instruction-to smile as widely and for as long as possible. He decided himself when to give up (and some of these takes lasted almost 40 minutes!). We spoke earlier of control and the loss of it, and this was an experiment in just that: For how long can you manage to keep it up? The both comical and painful struggle to keep the facade intact, if you like. I liked the way the smile was gradually distorted by muscular cramps, turning it into more and more of a grotesque grimace. Maybe it becomes an almost physical experience to watch because you instinctively want to smile back at someone smiling at you, creating a direct relation to the pain the man inflicts upon himself.
PE: Moving on, I would also like to hear about the exhibition 28th February 1986. This exhibition starts in a rather stripped down, boring, waiting room that could very well be the waiting room at the dentist or at an official institution of some sort. I believe it is a very common feeling to be ill at ease in a setting like this. As if this feeling was not enough, there was also a sound originating from the original sounds from the SOS calls from the evening of the 28th of February 1986 when the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot down and murdered on the open street in downtown Stockholm. A projection on the wall showed the public what was said in the transcribed tapes. The incident became a national trauma, not only because it was a brutal murder of an official person, but also because the self-projected image of Sweden was that nothing bad would or could happen here, that Sweden was a safe country. The exhibition continued, but I know that several people only visited this first room and didn't even dare to open the next door as if it was indeed a waiting room.
MH: The waiting room is, however neutral in its design, a very emotionally "charged" environment. It is a place where you are no longer in control, you just have to sit there passively until you are called in and let the doctor or dentist get on with examining or treating your body. I was also thinking in terms of the idea of the welfare state-a mindset where each individual has to subject oneself to the order of a larger, well-organized structure. There was something with the nature of the voices on the SOS-tape: They start out with professional neutrality and gradually the shock of the event sets in and the facade cracks wide open. The initial denial and disbelief ("But it can't happen here. It is in Sweden we live after all") giving in to the horror of the realization of the fact and the shattering of the illusion of living in the safest of places where no evil could touch us. It was arguably the moment when the idea of the Scandinavian welfare state as a real-life utopia collapsed. This combination, of the waiting room and the SOS-recordings, was very important as a starting point for the exhibition. It did set the tone of it, and you're right, it was the feeling of an acute unease, when something you take for granted, as familiar and secure, reveals itself as being much more unpredictable and chaotic.
PE: The killing of Palme certainly killed a state of innocence in Sweden. If one can generalize, I would say that the Swedish people became more self-conscious too. I also kind of see the exhibition as one installation and would like to ask you if you yourself regard the installation as "one," or as different parts put together to form another completely different "one"?
MH: Well, I would say it was something in-between-they're all separate works and they will most likely be shown separately later on, but they were conceived with an idea of a coherent narrative. I was thinking a lot about the relationship between and especially the order of the work- how each new room you would enter hopefully would "deepen the plot." The layout of the gallery made it possible to dictate the order in which the audience would experience the work, in a similar way as the constructed rooms of The Diary of the Unknown Consumer did. It started out with the public space of the waiting room and the public shock and grief over the murder of Palme. Passing through the closed door you would gradually enter more and more personal spaces. After reaching the dead end of the turned-away crying man, you would have to walk back through the same rooms again, and maybe experience the same pieces from another point of view.
PE: But let us also move on to the next room before heading to the end, in which you had installed a video piece, Closed Circuit (2011), projected on the wall in a very dark room. I quote the description of the piece here, which describes the work very well I believe:
The video shows a quiet residential street somewhere in Sweden. The constantly moving camera travels down the street, into a large pothole at the end, is "swallowed" by a huge chewing mouth and turns up on the same street again. This time the street is darker and the sky red. The camera goes down the street again, down the same pothole that this time leads to a giant intestine, which "we" are passed through until we are back on the street from the beginning and the loop starts over.
Here we find the absurd, surreal and dreamlike state in which the self is engulfed in the mouth, going through the intestines, or womb, going through a rebirth, or being shitted out-either way we are going through some serious holes of pretty heavy connotations-and then hit it again in a very repetitive way. I find the work hypnotizing. Did a lot of people watch the only three-minute-long loop over and over again, as I would have?
MH: It has a kind of mesmerizing effect, I suppose. The monotony creates a kind of visual mantra that can capture or maybe even engulf you, similar to what I experienced sometimes with music. Closed Circuit started out with an image, a painting called In the middle of Sweden by Peter Tillberg from the early seventies. It shows this gaping hole in the middle of a quiet middle-class neighborhood. In my mind there was a direct link to the image of the bloodstain on the pavement after the Palme murder; it, too, looked and felt like a rift in an otherwise perfect surface. It seemed like a point of transition or a passage into something unknown. But I was looking for a feeling of a more circular entrapment, so I started thinking in terms of a biological circle-swallowing, digesting, shitting and then starting over and over again in seemingly endless repetition. It had something to do with a feeling of losing one's foothold and being drawn into this maelstrom where you are powerless. There is something terrifying, but at the same time very exciting with this "going with the flow," almost like riding a roller coaster.
PE: Losing control is indeed terrifying, and you said once that you are yourself a control-freak, but it is also something one must engage in to be able to gain ground in a way. Anyhow, I can't help seeing this work as a bit more nihilistic in its approach, or hopeless, you know, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" and all that? You mentioned earlier that your work has turned darker and that you are no longer "trying to escape"-is this what you mean by that?
MH: I don't really know-but maybe you're right, that the work could also be experienced as being in a state of apathy, as you as a viewer are being dragged around the continuous circle of passages with no will of your own and without those little glimpses of hope for change of the earlier pieces. Like being stuck in a huge machine that just keeps going and going.
PE: Then there was the room with a large installation shaped like a lamp, or rather a chandelier, made out of a root from a tree. Can you tell me a little more about this piece?
MH: Cannibalistic Solitude (2011) was in many ways the odd one out in the show, and that was largely my intention for it also. The installation of the waiting room and Closed Circuit had this link, a logical connection if you like, and I wanted to break it up in order to make the viewer stop and question what she or he thought they had understood. The sculpture was an oak root mounted in the ceiling, showing only what you would see of a tree if you were buried underground. This "subterranean" perspective was also in a way a continuation of going down the hole of the preceding video. On the root itself there were little lamps, crystal in chains hung from it as from a chandelier, and placed below it on the floor, a Persian rug: All details implying a bourgeois, homely setting and in that sense marking a shift to the private away from the more public space earlier. But there was also human hair "growing out" of the root, and I had this crazy idea of creating a kind of "voodoo-antenna" in order to communicate with the dead. Anyway, I feel that it does have an eerie and somewhat threatening sense of beauty about it with the large dark and chaotic shape hovering above your head.
PE: After such a surreal experience you led the visitor towards the end, the final room that we spoke briefly about. Yet another video-projection is on display here, and one can only see the back of a grown man looking out of a window, sobbing and crying. The angle of the camera is placed from a low perspective. Here one can't speak about fear any more; here it is a pure state of anxiety or "angst." The control is lost...
MH: Portrait of a man reminiscent of my father (2011) was maybe the least "spectacular" work of the show, but to me it was the central, core piece. And I agree, it is a portrait of naked angst in a rather unrefined and raw form. But again the perspective and the placing of the onlooker were of great importance. The low camera angle and the "too high" mounting of the projection in the room make this man a giant, or put you as a viewer in the position of a child looking up at an adult. I was interested in the contrast between his broad "fatherly" shoulders and his utter helplessness. The experience of a child realizing that the authority, like your parents, that you look up to for safety and guidance, are just as lost and helpless as yourself. This collapse of the illusion of safety in a private sphere had a connection to the shock experience of the Palme murder in a public context. I read an article once about Dostoyevsky seeing the painting Body of Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the younger. According to his wife's memoirs Dostoyevsky was absolutely mortified by the very naturalistic depiction of Christ (whom, for a deeply religious Russian orthodox man like Dostoyevsky in many ways, was more a god than a man) as just a corpse, very dead and with no visible hope for resurrection. He later stated: "One might lose one's faith when beholding such an image." These experiences when our constructed view of the world collapses, when chaos disrupts the ordered structure, was the theme I was following, or as one of the switchboard operators on the Palme SOS-recording says: "And when it first starts then, then soon there will be anarchy all over the world. So fucking horrible."
PE: Where does one go after one's world has collapsed? How did Dostoyevsky cope in his works? How do you find that the Swedish/Scandinavian society moved on after the death of Palme? And how are you yourself moving on after "painting yourself into a corner" with this nearly nihilist "closed circuit" like this? What are you working on now, and what is your next project?
MH: That's a damned good question or set of questions-I don't know, but I think that each collapse is followed by just a very brief moment of staring down that black hole of meaninglessness, and then you get on with reconstructing your world again. The prospect of staying in that state is just too terrifying, and would be the equivalent of a serious depression, I suppose. But the memory of it lingers on, and Dostoyevsky is said to have written his, if maybe not best, arguably most intriguing work, The Idiot, partly based on the experience (the painting also turns up twice in the book, both times playing a crucial role in changing the turn of events). As to Sweden post-Palme, it changed the idea of being a role model to the world, becoming more of an ordinary little country on the fringes of Europe. Not so much trying to export values anymore, but still self-content and fighting desperately not to lose what we've already got.
I, at least artistically, seem to thrive in that darkness, somehow nurturing off it. To me it's not a corner or, if it is, it is an interesting one. Now I'm back at woodcarving, working with a series of sculptures for an installation loosely based on the illustrations by Gustave Doré of the Circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno, where the suicides are being punished by being turned into human trees, forever tormented by the harpies hacking away at their branches and clawing their leaves.
PE: There seems to me something like a strong influence of existentialism in your work-is it something you are consciously or unconsciously playing around with? Moreover, a little less than ten years ago (we are having this conversation during the summer of 2011) the happenings of what is commonly known as "9/11" shook up and changed a lot of Westerners' perception of their safety, their values, their self-confidence in a similar way to the more local Swedish murder of Palme. Just a few months ago the murder of Usama Bin Laden happened in a "cowboy and indian-esque" manner which I am sure changed things again, even if it didn't stop the decade-long so called "War on Terror," and we are currently following up the long struggle for democracy in the Middle East dubbed "Arab Spring" with a backdrop of NATO trying to bomb Qaddafi out of his bunkers. I personally can see your interest towards Dante's Inferno and towards such a backdrop as very relevant and also extremely important. We are currently living in post-modernism, post-post-modernism, post-religion, post-utopias, post-consumerism/commercialism, post-everything it seems. Would you happen to have any comments (other than your works) about this?
MH: To start with the existentialist influence, it was something I was confronted with in response to The Diary of the Unknown Consumer when it was first shown. It wasn't really something I had been thinking about before, but as several people independently pointed it out, I decided to go back and reread a lot. I really do enjoy the crisp-clear harshness and the sense of a looming disaster or mortality so predominant in literature which most often is defined as somehow existentialist.
The aftermath of 9/11, and the similarities to the Palme murder, was something I thought a lot about when working with it. And I don't think that killing Bin Laden can turn the clock back or completely heal the wound (even if it might provide more of a sense of closure than the still unsolved Palme case ever had). The Western dominance is declining all over the line anyway and maybe some of the reactions are actually not all that different to what we discussed earlier on the effects on Swedish society after Palme-an increased interest in defending our position or what we already have (the rise of nationalist movements all over Europe, for instance).
PE: Yup, I suppose the Bin Laden killing left us "shitted out" and ready for a new "go"-towards the Dostoyevskyan underground yet again, I suppose. Is there anything you would like to add here that perhaps will somehow "close the circuit" of the works we have talked about?
MH: Well, looking through what we've been discussing there is a recurrent theme of desire for control and an interest in the situation when it crumbles. Beyond it is the fear of failure and the subsequent fall into some undefined abyss. This "keeping of up appearances at any cost" and the actual cost of doing just that. To me that is not just a psychological or existential state, but just as much a political condition.
The interview between myself, Power Ekroth, and Mattias Härenstam was conducted by an exchange of e-mails during the period June 9-29, 2011. After the bomb near the government building in Oslo, resulting in eight deaths, and the horrible mass-shooting resulting in the death of 69 people, mostly teenagers executed on the Norwegian island of Utøya by a right-wing extremist on July 22 it became clear that Norway had changed. The following nationwide shock, trauma and mourning without question dominated all media in Norway for a long time. The single white male Norwegian perpetrator was caught the same day and it seems he was able to do all the damage by himself. The fact that the killer was caught was probably an important step in grasping the horrible details of the cold-blooded killings. The Norwegian people reacted very quickly with actions such as "holding hands" and drenching official mourning places in flowers. The reactions were of mourning, but with love rather than hate. A very different kind of response than after 9/11, for instance. After the atrocities on July 22 it became evident that our conversation in this interview about the exhibition 28th February 1986 would not have been the same after July 22, 2011. We decided to leave the interview as it is without changes as it pinpoints some interesting things, but also to add an epilogue addressing the fact that something has changed during the summer of 2011.
PE: Speaking about this interview you've told me several times that you were afraid to "lock" interpretations of your pieces by talking too much about your own perspective to your pieces, and that you don't want people to read your work through your eyes, but instead have their own interpretations. I, on the other hand, have insisted that your own intentions as an artist might not be the only one, but it is one of many, and still maybe one of the most interesting takes on it. You showed the exhibition 28th February 1986 in Norway while the title and the date points towards the events that created the national trauma in Sweden, the killing of the Prime Minister Olof Palme on the street in Stockholm. I believe that the reading of this exhibition in particular changed after July 22 in Norway. I'm not entirely sure-no-one can be, of course-but I think that the Norwegian audience would read so much more into the exhibition if you were to show it now. What do you think? Would you show the exhibition as it was then, today? If not, why? If yes, why? And how do you think that the perception of your show, if it were to be shown today in Oslo, has changed from when it was shown then?
MH: It's hard to predict how the work would have been read now in the aftermath of July 22, but I do believe that you're right-the content I was addressing would most likely have felt closer to a Norwegian audience now. The experience of shock, so evident on the sound recordings I used for the show, is absolutely similar to the feeling I had when listening to the radio on July 22, the same immense difficulty of grasping the reality of the event. However unrelated these events are, and July 22 being so much more cruel and brutal with the mass executions and huge destruction, there are some similarities in the way they were experienced. Maybe the main likeness would be between the self-projected image of Sweden in the 1980s and of Norway of today-both some kind of real life utopias, perhaps not perfect but pretty much as good as it gets. These events then appear all the more shocking-"it just can't happen here in this little quiet corner of the world"-as if history had ended as we once and for all had defeated and taken complete control over death and chaos.
I think I would put up the show in Norway in a similar way again; actually the work feels even more important now. But some of the connotations would be different: it might be harder to draw a parallel between the shock of a public event and the loss of belief on a personal level, as the scale of the tragedy is so overwhelming.
Although a lot of focus in the show was on the Palme murder, the rather intimate video Portrait of a man reminiscent of my father was at least as important. The idea of a father had, in my mind, a connection to Palme. Leaders of the Social Democrats, and thereby also almost automatically long-time Swedish Prime Ministers, would often be described as a "Landsfader," a patriarchal father figure for the entire country. The double powerlessness I was trying to describe-the breaking-down, powerless father-patriarch, that you in turn as a spectator or "child" are powerless to help or comfort as he is turned away and distant-was in a way a repetition of the killed patriarch (Palme) and the powerless state, being unable to solve the crime. In Norway now it was different-the perpetrator was apprehended immediately and the state seemed to function rather well under the circumstances. So I suppose that it is possible that the lasting feeling of a failure or breakdown of society will not be as strong. It does, however, pose other difficult questions about how the undercurrents of everyday fascism and the fear of the "other" have grown stronger, more and more affecting the political and cultural climate (and not just in Norway, but all over the West).
PE: In my opinion I'd sum up by saying that I believe the perception of the works has indeed changed, albeit the point you make is the same. However the point is maybe now directly understood through a more emotional level within a Norwegian context, and this makes it even stronger due to the deeper apprehension one now has of the inner impact an event outside one's control has. Picking up on what your last reply in the interview was before this summer's horrific events, where you state that you have: "[...] an interest in the situation when it crumbles. Beyond it is the fear of failure and the subsequent fall into some undefined abyss. This 'keeping of up appearances at any cost' and the actual cost of doing just that. To me that is not just a psychological or existential state, but just as much a political condition." I can't help thinking that the current state of things will indeed provide gasoline for quite a few more works bearing the same "Härenstam-esque" fire.