A conversation between Maria Lind and Bella Rune on 22 February, 2019
Maria Lind: Let’s begin by talking about what you are showing at Galleri Magnus Karlsson!
Bella Rune: In this exhibition, I have reflected on my previous work on a series of mohair yarn sculptures, scrutinised the knowledge formation in them from every angle and explored construction types beyond that of load-bearing constructions.
I’ve thought about how little resources they require, the small amount of material needed to create something that links architecture to body, their inherent knowledge, which I want to take with me into the future. The exhibition has been a way of following the works, but also of understanding how other practitioners or knowledge-builders have influenced me, something I maybe didn’t fully realise at the time when I made them.
I have studied a lot of objects from the 1920s and onwards, where artists and architects have experimented with other types of construction.
ML: Can you name a few?
BR: For example, Russian constructivists such as Kārlis Johansons, Brazilian neo-concretists like Lygia Pape, and artists who worked at Black Mountain College in the USA, including Ruth Asawa, Richard Buckminster Fuller and Kenneth Snelson. All of them explore alternative ways of constructing and presenting construction.
ML: Could you say something about these people, and specifically how their practice is relevant to you in relation to this concept?
BR: Yes. Buckminster Fuller, for instance, who taught at Black Mountain College, where Anni Albers was a professor and Ruth Asawa and Kenneth Snelson studied. Buckminster Fuller called this type of construction, where the static elements and elements in tension interact, tensegrity, a compound of tension and integrity. Even if it is never actually explicit, it is very obvious that those construction experiments were inspired by textile techniques, such as weaving, braiding, crocheting. I find that fascinating!
ML: And only with human power, requiring no building machinery, just physical strength, to erect these mighty creations.
BR: Exactly, and that is based on how the human body, or other living structures are built, and the relationship between bones and the fascia that connect them. It’s more about a balance between things that are in tension and things that are static, than needing vast amounts of material to build a wall or a steel construction. Ruth Asawa was a sculptor whose techniques included crocheting with wire, but she was also a teacher. Not only are her sculptures exquisite and fantastic, they are also a way of presenting lines of thought and knowledge-building. The construction itself reveals a thought process or experimenting with thought processes. The sculpture is a surface where you can both “record”, register and generate thinking.
ML: That’s right. The thought process is documented in material expressions.
BR: Yes, in material expressions, and in dialogue with materials and methods. How you process the material with your body and your hands is relevant, so the shape is a recording of the knowledge formation and the decision – and that interests me. Many claim to have invented, or to know who invented, traditional textile techniques that have existed for aeons in cultures where they were used for constructions that can be temporarily erected, as you say, using only body strength. Buckminster Fuller popularised this knowledge and highlighted it so that others could start applying and developing it. This prompted me to look at other folkloristic tendencies or fields of interest that also existed at the time. I am thinking of Whole Earth Catalog, an alternative publication that is often described as a precursor to the internet, where knowledge was shared and whose motto was “access to tools”. The 60s macramé fad was part of this mindset. I don’t have any aesthetic nostalgia for Black Mountain College or the Russian constructivists, but it is inspiring to study periods when they created art and constructions that I perceive as having an inherent feminist principle and an appreciation for different kinds of knowledge.
ML: Knowledge that was previously suppressed.
BR: Knowledge that was previously subordinated and suppressed and classed as vernacular or domestic. There are photos of Buckminster Fuller and Ruth Asawa sitting teaching students to make something called oro in Swedish, a traditional, geometric craft with straw and thread. You can see how folklore is part of their knowledge-building and the explorations that took place at the time. Folklore and modernism are very closely linked, but the history books have severed many of the ties.
ML: It is fascinating how you pick this up, and to observe that you share this interest with artists such as Anne Low in Montreal, Claire Barclay in Glasgow and Dale Harding in Brisbane. Or Michael Beutler in Berlin, who makes larger constructions, often in materials such as wood and paper, using ropes that create tension and can take a lot of weight. You can build a floating house on land, for instance, without nails.
BR: Exactly. That also gives a temporary feeling, in a good way. It is temporary not in a negative way, but it requires a team effort to assemble it, and it can be taken apart and become nothing again or be reused in other ways. The material is not expended but can be dismantled and used differently when other needs arise.
ML: A special kind of recycling. And this also brings to mind the artist and architect Joar Nango in Tromsø. He focused specifically on these methods in Sami tradition and has used them in his own works.
BR: Precisely. It is important, as an architect and artist, to open doors to knowledge that has not been canonised or included in the educational sphere where you learn how things ought to be. Thinking in new ways and using knowledge that has existed for a long time but is reactivated because the earth’s resources are running out and we need to find new paths.
ML: Can you describe how the sculptures were made, with mohair as one of the materials?
BR: I’ve also worked with rope and string. I’ve tried to emphasise precisely this “recording” of an action or a construction. These constructions are very simple, but I also want to retain a sort of magical quality. When we look at these objects, we understand exactly how they were made, and I also want to appeal to our potential to see the magic in simple things.
This time, I’ve worked with rope, string, yarn, and with techniques such as macramé, and looked at traditions that use knotting, including seafaring, and studied how they are literally tied together. It’s all about making things out of necessity, using whatever is available around us, like the well-known monkey’s fist, a knot made to give weight to the end of a rope when it was thrown to the quayside. But that weight could also knock you on the head if you were a sailor. I read somewhere that this is why people cut them off and used them as key chains. It was a way of venting their anger at that idiotic thing that kept hitting them in the head, like taking a trophy. Now, the knot is found in decorative objects, such as cufflinks or in another male domain where textiles are also very prominent. I was thinking of buttons and fastenings for taking apart and putting together again, and I’ve shown that in the sculptures.
I’ve thought a lot about the body, about making things that aren’t just elastic but also solid, even if there is still some movement in them. Constructions that don’t snap in the wind but can withstand an earthquake or a body that falls. The construction negotiates between space and body and the relationship to movement.
ML: If I’ve understood you correctly, you are interested in a flexibility, a pliant adaptability, in a good sense, without being self-destructing or self-effacing in any way.
BR: Exactly, that they aren’t afraid of death, so to speak.
Constructions that accept change and can adapt to it, without violating the situation in which they exist.
ML: Boats, I guess, and especially sailboats, are a typical example, since they need to relate to both water and wind. A kind of co-dependence, rather than independence. The Viking ships are said to have been exceedingly adaptable to the water, just like the Sami “sewn” boats. The latter were made without nails or dowels; instead the boards were stitched together. These boats also meant that the people on board had to “accommodate” one another, to avoid chaos at sea.
BR: Yes, precisely, to be accommodating to the people onboard, the limited space, the limited resources, and exposure to wind and sea, two forces that are very violent in combination. What I find fascinating about fabric is that it is both the pillar and the sculpture at one and the same time, it has a duality, not an either or, but both. Tapestries can also serve as warm blankets. I’ve studied the looms; when the loom is warped, it is something in itself, an actual machine or tool with a construction that then yields a result, a weave. The relationship within the loom interests me. Not only when the weave is removed from it, but the tense warp and the potential to thread the weft in and out to create a construction, that was my focus in this exhibition.
ML: What are the references to the loom in the exhibition?
BR: A sculpture with the working title Kognitionsmaskinen [The Cognition Machine], which is almost like three looms that interweave in the directions x, y and z, so that their warps meet in a weave, or an interface. It’s both a sculpture, a tapestry and a possible loom.
ML: That sounds fascinating.
BR: Working on the exhibition has been a very enjoyable knowledge journey. I was thinking of something you said about the exhibition Soon Enough: Art in Action at Tensta Konsthall; when you were talking about the exhibition, you described the artist as a seismic force or seismograph in society, with regard to what we bring into the future. It is refreshing for me to think of my own artistic practice as a seismograph in relation to what is going on in the world around me, where you can use the seismographic material, examine it and try to go a bit deeper into what that little needle registered.
ML: I’m pleased you noticed that. Because I believe contemporary art is very important, and your practice is an exciting part of that. Does your exhibition have a title?
BR: It’s called XYZ. That might sound awfully dry somehow... So dry that it’s almost dusty. But there’s a point to it. It’s about exploring very simple constructions and rules for how we experience and communicate knowledge, but in the context of living and experiencing. So, it’s a very dry title, but the content is moist. I’ve been thinking about how we represent and try to interpret three-dimensionality in flat surfaces, and at the same time, at least for me, it is only through lived knowledge that the question itself becomes clear; I have to do it in order to even begin to understand it. The systems in relation to life itself and physical knowledge are what interest me.
ML: How does your exhibition, at a commercial gallery in Stockholm, relate to your work as a professor of textile art at the Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design?
BR: Teaching is an integral part of my artistic practice. In our courses, we work directly with the artistic fungal mycelium that spreads beneath the earth crust of the artistic practice, giving rise to different kinds of mushrooms/fruits. That is secondary to me, really; you work on your artistic practice, or the mycelium, which then sends out various physical manifestations, depending on the situation, relationship and context. Different contexts create different conditions and possibilities, a public commission, an exhibition, or a course at an art college all have their inherent potential for different facets of artistic practice.
You discuss art in one way at an art college, and in another way at a gallery. Even if they are linked to each other, they are different kinds of discussions, and it is exciting to expose one’s practice to these different situations. And it’s very moving when you consider that a work might eventually live in someone’s home. The care and responsibility involved in being part of another person’s life and everyday existence, that’s exciting.
ML: It’s a different way of communing with art than going to a museum or art space, not to mention a commercial gallery.
BR: Totally different.
ML: Which, in turn, is different of how we spend time with art in the tube stations at Östermalmstorg or Stadion.
BR: Absolutely. When I’m sitting here at home or at work, and you’re sitting at home or in your workplace, we can consort with our ideas on Östermalmstorg tube station.
ML: We live with Siri Derkert’s oeuvre, and we visit that tube station regularly, and sometimes we just whiz through, and at other times we stop to look at a detail, for instance The Fogelsta Choir.
BR: Even if you’ve seen a public work many times in everyday life, you can suddenly discover new things, because you’re thinking in a different way. Art in public places is fantastic, revisiting it, and when you consider how other people have looked at it over the years. People on their way somewhere, in the 60s, going to a demonstration or a board meeting, and we share looking at this work. The same goes for museums when the collections are on permanent display so you can develop a longer relationship.
ML: The classic and crucial accessibility issue, including admission prices, which includes the underground, albeit in a different way.
BR: Oh, but certainly. It certainly does.
ML: In comparison, Siri Derkert’s Sverigeväggen [The Sweden Wall] on the façade of Sweden House is an example of something we can just walk by whenever we want, and it doesn’t cost anything.
BR: It’s incredibly generous and beautiful that we all share the public environment in that way. The art there indicates and proclaims that we are all here together, for better or for worse. I am currently working on a public commission for a new school in Årstaberg, Stockholm. It’s nice to think that kids in the future will start first grade there, even after we’re gone, and the art with its thoughts will be there in their everyday lives.
ML: That’s also something I find interesting in your art: that it spans from doing an exhibition at Galleri Magnus Karlsson, with works that will probably find their way into people’s homes, to exhibitions at major museums and art spaces, and then this other part of your practice in a school. Throughout that process, you go on teaching and engaging with young people who want to be artists and crafters.
BR: Yes, it certainly is a privilege to be involved in such a wide range of discussions, to be trusted to teach, to work with public spaces, to have the kind of collaboration that a gallery or art space entails. To co-operate and think together by doing is important and a privilege, like when I worked with the artist/professor Zandra Ahl on outlining a new Master’s programme, or when Helena Selder and I made the exhibition Textila undertexter [Textile Subtexts]. We could work together for a longer period and explore together what an exhibition is and how it embodies thoughts so that they can be physically experienced by others through the body. It was exhilarating.
ML: You have a studio, and you read a lot. You do various kinds of research. Can you describe your process? How do you create a work?
BR: When I was a student at the Chelsea College of Art in the late 90s and early 2000s, studio work was not really on my agenda; the dominating tendency was relational aesthetics and alternative ideas on how we artists could organise ourselves.
I was working with Galleri Ynglingagatan in Stockholm, an artist-run gallery with a strong focus on relational aesthetics. In the midst of all those relations and happenings, I felt a need to engage with art history, by formulating matter and physically developing a relationship to material history. How can works enter into dialogue with people and other art? A lot of what I do includes dance, or choreography as a model for thinking about how an exhibition works, and I see my sculptures as performative objects.
My activities have included teaching, but also many collaborations with musicians, choreographers and photographers, and that makes it even more important to have a place where I can harbour my ideas. Otherwise they would be lost. I also create digital works alongside the material-realistic ones, and that gives me the practical possibility to work during breaks and intervals, since my computer is a portable studio.
Usually, I read a lot and do a lot of research; in the studio I test and look at things, and I try to let pleasures and irritants be like grains of sand in an oyster. I sketch on the computer and materially, often at the same time, and that gap in between is where I want my sculptures to be. Those mohair threads, for instance, they had been lying around my studio for quite some time. I kept messing with those fuzzy, dusty, thin threads, which seemed to want to become a fluffy scarf, but then they triggered different ideas... Something about them disturbed me, and that particular quality enabled me to literally tie together associations and links that were floating around.
Someone once told me that showering can have a cathartic effect because it stimulates very many points at the same time, and this simultaneous distraction breaks up rigid thought patterns and sets the mind free. I am strongly convinced that the shower is where it happens. That this “multi-point stimulation” releases different kinds of knowledge that interbreed, which often spawns new works. But there’s no shower in my studio. I’ve tried holding my head under the tap sometimes, but it doesn’t work, it’s probably those many points that have to be stimulated for something to happen. I have no idea what it is, but it takes place in the shower.
I would say that it’s all around me, the materials I happen to encounter, they become some sort of alphabet that I use to express myself with. Even if I don’t work directly with clothing, the negotiation surface and the social glue provided by clothes is a perfect lab for experiments.
Maria Lind – Swedish curator and writer, currently based in Berlin.