Anja Olofgörs

For the latest instalment in my ongoing series of interviews I spoke to Stockholm based artist Anja Olofgörs. Olofgörs’ works navigate through gestures, representations and myths – and deals with historical documents, revealing concealed socio-political nuances. An important part of Olofgörs’ work is the interdisciplinary discourse that is generated through collaboration between artistic expressions and scientific disciplines, including dance, architecture, and photography. Her projects alternate between books, videos, printed matter, collaborative performances, readings and installations.

You completed a BFA in Fine Art Photography at the Valand Academy, University of Gothenburg and continued your studies at the Slade School of Fine Art in 2015. How would you say your work has developed over the years?

I applied to the School of Photography, however during my time there they reorganised the structure of the programme and decided to merge with the Valand Academy. I had applied to a photography school but graduated from an art school, which was really quite interesting. Many new opportunities became available to me; the division between practices all of a sudden didn’t really exist. When I first arrived my practice was very photographic but decided I wanted to develop my photographic eye and thinking, rather then my photographic practice. As part of my undergraduate course I began to read on a regular basis. Classic texts by Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin, Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock opened up new perspectives. Writers and written works became, and still are, a big inspiration for me. As part of the development of my practice I looked at criticising or deconstructing the conventions of photography. I didn’t want to look at the medium as a window or a mirror; I wanted to look at photography as an object in itself.

I have also always been interested in the minimalists with regards to how they considered the relationship between objects, spaces and the viewer. I was interested in how the viewer creates meaning when engaging with art rather than the art leading or prescribing the meaning.

 Would you say areas of your practice still reference the aesthetics of photographic thinking?

Quite recently, my partner and I were speaking about this particular Swedish word, himmelen, meaning the sky in English. In the English language we have separate words for sky and heaven, place and space, and also for picture and image. We have a phrase, which articulates the abstracts. In Swedish, however, we don’t separate these words, for example image and picture share the same word, bild. I find this fascinating. As a practitioner with a photographic background, I tend to work with imagery and images. I write with a photographic gaze, I perceive artwork with a photographic mind; I think in bild. This allows me to think differently in different languages. My practice is influenced by that thinking and separation, if you like. 

I have recently started to participate in a photography forum at the Photographers’ Gallery in London where we are examining the role of photography in society both historically and presently, and discussing how artists and photographers are using the medium today. Going back to your previous question, if you compare my practice now to how it was in the beginning of my studies, I was in a position where I couldn’t develop work outside of the photographic medium. Nowadays, elements of photography are still present within my work as a reference or research material but not as a medium or material of its own.

I’ve had the privileged of hearing you talk about a new piece of work, Notes in Motion – a work inspired by Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida? Would you mind talking to me about this?

Notes on Motion is a sound installation that consists of three audio speakers, mounted on metal stands, and placed across the gallery floor. From the speakers you hear my voice, freely and broadly associate around one photograph of a Swedish dancer. The text fragments are arranged neither chronologically nor thematically, but according to a poetic logic of their own. And much like Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, my work is a deeply personal discussion of a lasting emotional effect to this particular photograph.

How did you approach or start to think about Notes on Motion? As with your work Kristina, which I would like to ask you about later, maybe you could talk quite pragmatically about your process? Do you sit down for a week, where do you go in your mind when your start to write?

It starts with me finding an object, an image or a text. For Kristina, I stumbled across a portrait of the 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden (whose life my work takes inspiration from) in the UCL Art Museum archive. Her life-story is, and has always been, surrounded with myths of gender ambiguity. She was raised to be a man and a king, and behaved according to masculine norms – and therefore the world thought she was born as a boy. Of course it caught my attention. What was her portrait doing in this collection? How had it ended up there? What was its story? This raised questions that I wanted to explore further.

With my latest work Notes on Motion, I was searching through the online archive of an architecture museum in Stockholm. I was continuing my research on gender and space and just stumbled upon photographs of a pioneering Swedish dancer who in the 50s and 60s wanted to explore the body’s possibilities and limitations. I became curious about knowing if her background in dance and interest in spatiality had deeper connections to architecture. The photographs of this dancing body, captured in a frozen moment, awoke questions and interests. The photographs were beautiful and had that aura that can’t be explained – I fell in love. Finding those images is what started the process. At the same time I was re-reading Camera Lucida where Barthes writes about his feelings for an old photograph of his dead mother – a picture that is never presented to the reader. It is a story about love, death and life. I wanted to create a written dialogue using one of the photographs I had found in the archive. I kept exploring how multiple disciplines and feelings could come about in a text that has no chronological structure.

I attempt to find particular objects and relate them to some kind of historical context. These are starting points for a story. From there I start to make notes, and play with words. My free writing is my drawing process. Notes on Motion started as scattered notes and quickly became a fluent, written word-piece, develop during a residency in France where I was writing intently for three weeks. It recently appeared in the latest edition of Art Licks magazine.

I am particularly interested in your piece, Social Constructs, 2015: a sculptural piece, which through performance, text and installation, explores the impact of gender and space on our bodies. Speaking more broadly, how does performance intersect with other aspects of your practice? Is there a relationship between the live/performative work and the fixed objects—do they inform one another?

This was the first time I used performance within my practice. During the development of Social Constructs, I had an opportunity to read the text at a Queer club night at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The host introduced the night by talking about the RVT as a physical place with a history of allowing people to come and explore identities beyond their own normative framework. I played with the relationship between performance and performativity in relationship to gender identity. I started to understand how the act of doing, as a distinction from making and thinking, could play a conceptual part in my practice. The role of the viewer, its physical body and movement in the gallery, played an important part in the final installation of Social Constructs. I was interested in how the viewers interacted with the objects in the room as a minimalistic thought – where I could emphasise the body as an object.

Social Constructs, 2015

I noticed you are part of a number of forums, collectives and working groups. Does this collaborative approach form part of your practice?

Yes absolutely, I develop my thinking process through conversations with others, that’s when I start to see and understand my practice, my actions, and myself. Having said that, the groups I am part of are therefore incredibly important to me – it gives me a context. The group at the Photographers’ Gallery has helped to explore a particular question of language related to photography. Another, Practice in Dialogue, is a group of artists thinking critically about ongoing feminist activities in contemporary art. We show and criticise each other’s work, and then we come together to exhibit and perform. We are having an exhibition at Beaconsfield Gallery in London this summer, opening 3rd of July – and I will be presenting Notes on Motion. I have another forum where we meet up in a private space: a safe space rather than a public space. As you can see, the different groups give me different things, and I absolutely need that diversity. For me, these working groups are fundamental to my on-going development. 

We’ve touched on the role of text in your work; I would like to ask you about your publication Untitled, 2015, which forms part of the work Social Constructs. As an introduction to the book you say ‘…I do not read or write without hearing the voices of Suzanne Asp, Henri Lefebvre and Virginia Woolf in my head’.  Henri Lefebvre a philosopher and sociologist, best known for The Production of Space; Virginia Woolf, a pioneering feminist writer and Suzanne Asp – I’m not familiar with Suzanne, please could you talk me through the influence these people have or have had on your practice?

 I am influenced by text, not necessarily artwork. I am interested how written words operate and the different expressions of concept, structure, form, voice, rhythm, theme, and translation. I am curious about how written works create imagery using myths in metaphor.

For Social Constructs I make aesthetic references to Bauhaus and Functionalism and wanted to explore our different relationships to space. In Production of Space, Lefebvre writes about the idea we’re surrounded by spatial illusion, which conceals the fact that social space is a social product. No space is transparent. Between you and me, even though we are in a virtual space over Skype, there is no transparent path; there will always be social, political and cultural influences between us. Space is filled with invisible boundaries, with norms. Lefebvre explains space is not just materiality, it is not just something that is built with bricks and wood but is also filled with all these other illusions and elements. To think about architecture in that way, that was translatable for me, especially with regards to feminism and the female body. With my own feelings, I can personally relate to different spaces: nightclubs, streets, classrooms etc.

Then through Virginia Woolf, I found Walks in Virginia Woolf’s London written by Lisbeth Larsson. This book uses theoretical tools from literary geography to explore Woolf’s writing and how she constructs her fictional characters to be affected by the city and the city’s limitations. She plays with her characters as if London is some kind of playground. She situates her characters in different places and allows them to walk the streets, allowing them to become confronted with the world. The purpose is to get lost but at the same time to find themselves. The streets are loaded with promises, developments and visions of a future. The city is limited depending on time. These women cannot walk into particular spaces after a certain hour. Woolf uses the city’s architecture to talk about these questions – the physical placement of the woman.

Woolf’s and Lefebvre’s writings were important during the research for Social Constructs. With Suzanne Asp, I was influenced by the expression her written work takes – she combines concert poetry, diary notes, academic writing and poetic prose.

The voices of these three people were part of me and by body during the development of the project. When I read and write, I look for fictional or non-fiction writing and find a way I can interlink them together. I want them to go in and out of each other, and become a mix of these elements, when fiction and “reality” become disorientating. 

Kristina, 2015

That leads on quite nicely as I would like to ask you about your work, Kristina. How is this work structured, is it a fictional piece based on fact?

I have photography on the mind from our earlier conversation, it’s now hard not to relate this question to indexicality: that photography always refers to an indexical trace. It is hard to look at photography without relating it so something real. For Kristina, I read history books and biographies; I read her diary and different theatre scripts based on her story. Yeah, I read everything I came across. Kristina is part of the mythologisation of this historical figure.

You play on these ambiguous narratives in the work, referencing Feminism, Queer theory, and Swedish ideological history. Having read the piece, being brought into this fictional and mythical world and the honesty it portrays, I actually feel quite connected to the work. You describe Kristina’s torment as having to question who they are, exploring powerful narratives around this intersexed human (neither man nor woman). It’s a powerful piece of work which I’m sure would resonate with many people. As you say near the end of the work, nowadays Kristina is a trendy character, a prototype of a modern-day transperson. Can you talk me through the experience of performing this work, or using an actor (Clare Almond) to perform this piece? The work highlights discrimination, although in a historical context, you are re-writing this story for a 21st century audience. In many aspects of your work you touch on quite political topics. Do you feel artists, like yourself have a responsibility to question and expose topics like discrimination? 

I think as artists we reflect on the world around us, and work with questions that are important to us. From my early teenage years I have been interested in women’s rights. My family influences me, and in particular, my mom who works with and constantly questions gender equality. My grandfather was an outspoken feminist, so you know, these questions has always surrounded me. 

Now that I have returned from London to Sweden, I’ve taken the time to look through my old books. I came across a book called Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art from 2007. I remember thinking when first coming across this publication during art school, how can I produce work influenced by these artists and theorists? Works produced in the late 60s to early 90s made strong reference to the fleshy body or a body made of flesh. How could I find my own voice and expression within this tradition without using old ideas and approaches? The process of working with texts became a preferred method for me. And as you said, this is particularly evident in my work Kristina, a work that focuses on a historical character: a protagonist whom I have used to generate a conversation about what gender is, how we go about perceiving gender and how we would use gender. The work Kristina became a way of thinking about socio-political topics. I think everything we do can be seen as political. The private is political. Is it even possible to not be political?

I believe you do this quite successfully. Kristina, as a character, is used as a tool to highlight important political and current issues. 

I have come to enjoy that, especially through one particular narrative, to talk about larger stories: the standardisation of chairs in Social Constructs can reference how we view the body; a portrait of a queen can say something about how we perceive identities; a photograph of a dancer can say us something about how remember history.

You’ve spoken about the influence of feminism in your work and life; I would like to explore this further. Your practice to date focuses on issues that surround the representation and objectification of women both today and historically. Please could talk me through how you came to address some of these themes in your work? What are your thoughts on the representation of women artists nowadays? And, if this is something you have thought about, what the arts sector needs to do to represent women fairly?  

This is a huge question. Quite recently, my photography group raised some questions related to being a woman with children in the art world, and how parents get treated. The experience from the group was not positive. Maybe this is the reason why I moved back home, because honestly here in Sweden I don’t have to choose between being a parent or an artist, I can be both. Of course Sweden doesn’t exist outside of the patriarchal world. I remember when KRO (the Swedish Art Association) in 2009 carried out an investigation into how the art world works in Sweden, specifically linked to gender issues. They found that even though the application process to study art at university is anonymous, it is easier for men to be accepted. With the school I went to, 65% of applications to the photography programme were women, but only 53% got accepted. Seemingly neutral processes strengthen the representation of white men. Something seams to be built into the concept of artistic quality that makes art schools accept fewer students with diverse backgrounds. Once graduated, men tend to produce bigger work, which means they get paid and as a result have a bigger studio, which makes it possible to continue to make big works that they get paid more to do. Basically my point being, before we can even have a conversation about the lack of female representation in institutional collections, the whole structure of the industry needs changing – more women in art, and more women in higher, senior positions. 

Can you tell me about the trajectory of your geography over the years – Sweden and the UK? Can you tell me about what the differences between the art scenes in Sweden versus London are in your experience? 

I grew up in Stockholm, studied in Gothenburg with an exchange to London, then graduated and returned to London to study and work for six years. This year, I’ve returned to Stockholm after ten years. The trajectory between the two countries has of course affected both my practice and myself – and my relationship to art. I very much feel that it was London that made me an artist. The Swedish art scene is of course smaller but I have the feeling that it is starting to open up and become fairly international. 

As an extension of my previous question, across areas of your practice you seem to be very interested in language and the differences (or similarities) between Swedish and English. I was wondering whether that’s for accessibility reasons or an interest in the structure? 

It’s to do with both, access and structure. A number of my text-based works have English on one side and Swedish on the other. So when the audience is small I can hand out the book to each of them whilst reading in Swedish. Everyone can follow along. I am interested in seeing how close these languages come together and at what points they share rhythm and pronunciations. I’m interested in the process of translation and what translation means; what gets lost or what’s remaining. I wish I could speak more languages to understand this kind of experience further. It’s interesting what happens when you can develop certain thoughts in one language much quicker than you can in the other.

Applying for money and being able to fund your practice is a full time job. I would like to ask whether you find it easy living as an artist? 

I have heard about an artwork where an artist was invited to exhibit at a renowned gallery. The artist couldn’t afford to produce the work so instead exhibited a sound installation where one could here the artist crying. I don’t know if it’s a myth, but it could be true. To answer your question: yes, to apply for money is a lot of work.

I recently met with a family friend here in Stockholm who also is artist. She recommended that I imagine I have £40,000 in my bank account. She told me to just pretend that this kind of money existed. She said, that way the worrying will stop and you won’t lose your creativity.


Image credits in slideshow: Kristina, 2015 Do/Doing/Done, video still 2017; Social Constructs, 2015; Queen Kristina of Sweden, 2016, Reading by Clare Almond, at Oral Rinse #2, Waterloo Action Centre; Le Corbusier creates curved shapes after renewed contact with women, 2016; Royal Vauxhall Tavern, performance 2015.

– Laura Hensser, 2018