Slackers, Slavs, and Yoga Poses – Interview with Anna Uddenberg (KubaParis Issue 3, 2015)

For our third KubaParis issue, Anna Uddenberg spoke to our author Vivien Trommer. She shared thoughts on her artistic practice, her influences, and on how her early performance pieces relate to her later sculptures. This month, Uddenberg opened a broad solo exhibition of her work, which is absolutely worth seeing, at the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn. So, it’s time a little throwback––please read the interview below.

August 7, 2015

You were born in Stockholm, you studied at Mejan in Stockholm and later at Städelschule in Frankfurt/Main, for a couple months you lived in Los Angeles and New York, now you landed in Berlin. Where do you belong and what does moving mean to you? 

I feel that having to move – or having to make the decision to move – is a quite big change in everybody’s life. At the same time I believe that being an artist today means you also have to travel a lot. Personally, I feel that it is good to also get rooted and land at a place. It just gives me a good feeling. And now I have to admit that I feel very happy in Berlin, and that I am actually really happy about living here.

I would be interested to learn more about Truly Yours (2011), a performance for which you invited professional hostesses to enter a highly staged gallery opening. Like this piece, most of your works seem to create moments of uncanniness, embarrassment, and shame. Do you believe in power of cynicism?

Well, I think if I would try to sum up my works and label them with an overall theme, in which I have been interested ever since my graduation show or maybe even before that, then I would say these are the performative values within our consumerist culture. Beyond fetishizing goods and information, I am interested in how they are translated, appropriated, and enacted through overlapping narratives in social media, online dating platforms, reality TV etc. For sure, these topics are pretty wide or open. So I have been examining it through different perspectives. For example, when I was working on the show Truly Yours, I interviewed 40-50 girls coming from different fields, such as PR, management, acting, or fashion. All of them were hostesses, escorts, and glamour models, or people that would just put up ads in magazines for being “some extras” in a movie. For Truly Yours, I wanted to interview them about their notions of what an “it-girl” is and about what “it” actually means to them. We talked a lot about how to be “effortlessly, cool, and sexy” but we also drew parallels to the history of glamour and lifestyle. The term glamour was originally applied to a magical occult spell. Before the Hollywood industry started out, glamour was a synonym for glam and it was back in the twenties when “it” was suddenly invented as an aphorism. During the opening, five of the interviewed girls were acting out what they thought what an “it-girl” is. I was not instructing them at all, we had all those conversations and they were invited to be “it-girls,” but in that sense they behaved how they wanted. By doing that, I wanted to highlight what the construction of an “it-character” carries. However, I was curious to see how a visitor would actually act when entering the show, and how they would participate. And I asked myself how being present in a gallery space can actually become a performative act. 

Do you think the girls exposed themselves or rather that you instructed them to expose themselves? 

I was pretty explicit about the performance, I would say. I think we were all pretty exposed. I do not think that the girls were more exposed than, let’s say, the visitor of the show or myself. We were all in the same boat. However, I, as the author, had the responsibility to be as clear as possible with my intentions, about my interest, and about what I was doing. I thought I had to try to do this as best as I can, at least.

If I think now of your previous question, I would not say that cynicism is involved in my projects at all. I do not want to use that word. I am much more interested in forms of humor that I want to pursue. For me, being cynical implies being very distant from the subject of criticism. That antagonistic position is pretty unrealistic and dead, it always ends up being dependent of “the bad guy.” Instead of being far away, I want to be more involved, let’s say. My aim is to participate in the subject matter. It is very easy to criticize something as being cynical or being ironic, and with such a judgment the work runs the risk of loosing its complexity. I would not say that I have a cynical approach.

Where does your interest for staged performances actually come from? 

For my graduation show Truly yours (2011), I really wanted to built the framework and create a stage-like setting. This is why I was referring to and using all these PR and management event structures. There were also so many readymade events all over the place. I used to talk about it as a script or some sort of prop; I actually thought that this was something I wanted to approach when I was doing performances. I also wanted to see how these sets would be received as a form of art of course, and I wanted to move the boarders between visitor and actor. Okay, let’s put it like this: In Body Mind (Stretch and Submission) (2011), the visitors would be like “extras” in a movie that I was making. So the performance itself was based on a power play, and examined the idea of what it means to participate. The poses that we as hostesses would take up, came from the performance Yoga Slave (2011), which I did together with Marie Karlberg and Sara Litzen just shortly before that. Yoga Slave was a set of poses drawn from Yoga and BDSM and the whole thing was more about me wanting to do something that had to do with social contacts/structures. In short, Yoga Slave was very much about proposing that BDSM can be a form of mediation or can create some sort of spiritual value. What I essentially wanted to talk about in Body Mind (Stretch and Submission) is a service-labor-situation, and that the one obviously in charge might not actually be the most powerful one. Roles are easily switched. I wanted it to be pretty creepy. Although, I really think it is problematic to have parameters and to work with performance according to one’s rules, I remember that while I was working on Body Mind (Stretch and Submission), I was very happy to do such a thing. It was very manipulative and therefore creepy, but I was really interested in a kind of power play.

As in the performances you just mentioned, the female body seems to be present in most of your works. Against that backdrop, do you believe you have inherited a specific perspective from the last century’s feminist movements? 

I had an enlightenment when I was fifteen, and I think that was when I became a feminist. From then on, I have been through a lot of phases; I went through radical feminism and then moving more in the direction of cyborg feminism. Now I feel that the question of weather I am a feminist or not is a question that I am hardly even reflecting on. For me, it is of course out there. If you would ask me how I would approach the performative values of being, I would answer I look at the performative theory that Judith Butler among others developed. Performance is read as a set of acts connected to social conventions and language, rather then let’s say something theatrical. The discussion about what you are and that being is a way of acting happens on a philosophical level. In a sense we perform different roles according to these social scripts, which highlights the artificial or culturally fabricated aspects of being. It also opens up for the possibility of braking out of the pretty claustrophobic and worn out idea that assumes that there is a “natural” state of being, often dictated by the ones in power. For the past couple of years, I was mostly interested in looking at femme-inist theories or Femme theory. It is about the performative value of femininity and how it is functioning as copy without original, but it also analyzes how masculinity has been the center of attention of gender science, ever since Simone de Beauvoir said, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Becoming a woman, a feminine being, is actually considered a rest product within the patriarchal structure. Regarding the ideas of radical feminism that is where it is leading to: feminine expressions are understood as superficial and silly. In this sense femme-theory brings up the aesthetic aspects of communication and a gender-aware identity. You very often end up as a white middle class butch. So femme theory is actually looking at the terms in which femininity functions and proposes that there are different femininities, depending on culture, ethnics, and class. For me, femme theory is the most interested movement in gender science today because it grasps the constructions of femininity and the performative values of being. It opens up the narrow discussion.

Talking about gender relations, do you think that the art world is still run by the patriarchal model you just mentioned? 

I believe it is very essential to be aware and conscious about the system’s structure and its challenges. Not being conscious about it, is being ignorant. However, I feel it is pretty self-destructive to think about it all the time, being too self-aware can actually alienate yourself from your own work process. The odds for being a successful female artist, if you look at the statistics, might not be very high, right? The statistics tell a pretty sad story. Speaking about the art world from a meta-perspective is pretty scary and I prefer not to look at it like that, because I would get paralyzed and would not be able to produce my work. As soon as we maintain to do what we need to do, we are able to change or pursue things, I guess. I also have to say that, from my perspective, the art world is not at all male dominated. There are so many females; every single person I am collaborating with is female. The term “art world” sounds so scary, but the people in the field are actually my friends, with whom I am having a lot of fun. I think, as soon as one starts to say the system was so unfair one walks into victim village, this is just a very stereotypical and weird way to come about those issue.

Your works speak their own language, but still make reference to the Western art history. So, I would be interested in your influences: Who inspires you? How are your works informed? 

I do not want to make a huge list of people who influenced me. But I can say that I had a huge Wow-moment, when I was in Barcelona and visited the close-by Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres. I think that people, me included, perceive Salvador Dalí as an artist who is gimmicky and just acts like a clown. But this is just because his works are usually curated in a very boring souvenir-shop-like way. So once you go out of Barcelona and visit the Teatre-Museu Dalí, a museum that he himself curated as a life-long project, his works appear in a new light. There is so much diversity, and his works vary between perfection, kitsch, and trashiness. When I was there, the beauty of his diversity overwhelmed me. It felt like his paintings were building a bridge to the 3-D generated images of our culture. Also the way he would come about speaking of monetary values in his works. There is this one story when he was still in art school and made an experiment where he made a bet saying that, whatever someone would give him, he would return it in double. His mom was very supportive so he started using money as material in this work and giving it out to people, until eventually people got confused and felt as if they been scammed in some wired way. He has a great sense of humor. I am a big fan. 

Compared with the works by minimalist artists like Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, and Agnes Martin, who exercised a practice to its perfection by repeating it over and over again, Dalí used divers strategies to establish a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. He actually seems much closer to your practice, which includes performance, sculpture, and various activities on the internet. What did you inherit from Dalí’s way of working?

I feel there is a certain generosity in that way of working. I like the idea of just putting things out there and waiting until they make sense in the bigger picture. I mean, you do not need to go around anymore and show that you are very skilled and specialized in a certain technique. Sometimes things can be a bit sloppy. However, I have a hard time to just let go. But I really want to go more into that direction. That diversity in expression was a way of working that Dalí did really well. His practice was formed during a time when the branding of goods had started going more into the direction of articulating peoples desire for products rather then their actual practical needs for things. The way his imagery would talk about the politics of dreams is something that I think is very present in contemporary “bad surrealist” collages in rave party flyers and porn, where I draw a lot of inspiration from into my work.   

A similar moment was created when your sculpture Jealous Jasmine (2014) was shown in the real surrounding at Vårbergs Dansservice, a local bar near Stockholm. Where does your interest in non-white cubes come from?

Presenting works outside of the white space has actually not been an active choice of mine, so I still have to see where this goes. In any case, the reason why I wanted to show Jealous Jasmine in that local bar was because I was planning to make an installation that looked like a sports bar. By incident I was invited to Vårbergs Dansservice and I was just thinking: “Hey wait, there you get the whole set for free. That is pretty good.” Using locations like this as a ready made set, has gradually become a method of mine that allows the works to reflect the environment and vise versa. The bar was in a suburb very far out of Stockholm, basically a place as far away from the art world as you could probably get. And I thought it is pretty cool to do something there.  

It has a big online after-life now. We could actually say that it started nowhere and ends up being everywhere. The internet seems to be an integral part of your work, right?

Yes. I think documentation works like this: only a few people might visit most of the shows, but then the online presentation has a big audience. I am very much aware of that, and that is why I am always thinking about how the installation shots are going to look like. Is the art going to look good in front of the camera, or not? Is it going to work online, or not? This is at least something that I am thinking about all the time when I do stuff. Of course you want it to work in the physical space, too, but I mean the life online is as equally important, too. There are not many options to be against it. I guess it is just there as much as it is here. Presenting works outside the white cube or outside the gallery space is again, I believe, a way of creating a space as set for art works to perform or function as images. 

Thank you, Anna, for the interview.

Pictures by Ilya Lipkin