Interested in themes of perception, interpretation, the nature of reality, mental and public spaces, and the political system, Swedish artist Erik Sigerud creates paintings, audio works, performances, videos and installations. Based in Stockholm, Erik was born in Borlänge in 1977. He obtained an MFA from the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris. He also studied at the Berlin University of the Arts, UDK for half a year.
Erik’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in galleries, exhibition spaces and museums throughout Sweden and abroad, including Nordin Gallery, Tyresö art gallery, Gocart Gallery, Galleri Box, Museum Of Artistic Process and Public Art and Galleri Pictura. It is part of several private and public collections, including those of Tom Böttiger, the Uppsala Art Museum and Artitude. He has been honoured by the Swedish Art Grant Committee, the Swedish Institute and awarded the Paul-Louis Weiller prize in France.
Here Erik discusses the complexity of his paintings, the political situation in Europe and a few other things…
On your site, you have a diagram that illustrates what the act of painting means to you. It has some really complicated terms: “biomorphic public sphere”, “asemic writing identity theory”, “mapping democracy”. How would you explain this complex network of relationships in simpler words?
In the process of developing my work, I have experimented with mind maps and diagrams as a tool to create new ideas. For me, this diagram wasn’t meant to explain my work. It was meant to be part of my creation process and to generate new questions. I have got the concepts from experimenting with a website called the Local Wikipedia Map (lwmap.uni-koeln.de). Every point in the diagram combines a visual language with a theoretical approach. In the painting “Reality Without Origin”, the red writing on the painting is asemic writing. “Biomorphic public sphere” is a combination of a shape of a living organism with a notion of a public sphere. I look at this diagram sometimes when I sketch and think about what I want to do.
The mind maps and diagrams help me transcend mental limitations and create new ideas.
I developed the diagram you refer from the semiotic square. This is a tool for analysing relationships through the opposition of concepts. Some time back I thought about Rosalind Krauss’ use of the semiotic square when analysing sculptural concepts. My idea was to use this tool to develop contrasting ideas that I could combine into one and the same painting.
The idea of the encounter has been present in my work for many years. It has meant different things to me and taken different forms over time. I have tried to make paintings that create a presence and a feeling of an encounter with the viewer. For the last ten years or so it has been important to me to create encounters between subject matters and visual styles in the paintings.
I am making an attempt to connect themes of thoughts to specific motives and ways of painting these motives. Also, I try to combine these ideas and motives to create something beyond my control.
“Reality Without Origin” seems like a multi-layered piece. It says a lot at philosophical and cultural levels. There are scenes of disorder and confusion here, along with maps of Europe and the entire world, and some scribbling in red that makes no immediate sense. There’s clearly a lot going on here and I’d love to know what’s in your mind. Has this something to do with postmodernism?
Just as you have understood it, this painting contains a lot. I don’t really think about postmodernism, but there is a will to break up the image in this painting. In 2010, I did a course that was meant to prepare me for research studies. As a project for this course I did a painting called Monkey Mind. This was the first painting where I experimented with a connection between mental and public spaces.
Monkey Mind also contained a few things that I no longer work with. For example, I did an investigation of whether there are biological, non-social aspects of being human. Monkey Mind was five meters wide and it depicted myself jumping around Sergels Torg (or Plattan), a famous public square in Stockholm.
The term “monkey mind” comes from Buddhism and is the opposite of mindfulness. In the background one could imagine a Rorschach test-like silhouette.
I did an exhibition this spring about linguistic and physical borders between people. I cut the Monkey Mind painting in three parts. I then inserted two slimmer canvasses between the three other. I wanted the painting to make a link to the concept of democracy. One of the two paintings depicts a map of Europe’s separatist movements. The other map is a democracy index map for 2017.
Related to the previous one: what are your thoughts on the state of contemporary Europe? Where do you think it is going? What do you like about it? What would you like to change?
The thing that frightens me the most is the growth of the populist right wing movements and fascist parties in Europe. Also, I think that our democratic systems could evolve to be more democratic, to be more about a dialectical exchange than rhetorical debate. Furthermore, I think that our view on subjects like pedagogy, the environment and economic growth are still somewhat attuned to the Age of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. We also have this growing problem with fact resistance and filter bubbles. I don’t know how I could change these things. I don’t have enough knowledge about how the political system works. If I could change something it would be to influence someone to think more critically about categorisations of people and events.
You mention that your paintings often depict “mental” as well as “public” spheres. I think these two are very well represented in your Francis Bacon-type works in which you show figures seated inside rectangles surrounded by news stories and photographs from the outside world. It somehow speaks of modern loneliness to me, how in the middle of noise and colour and activity, we continue to remain isolated, devoid of meaningful associations. What did you set out to explore in these works?
All those things that you suggested are true, that we are all isolated in a big world. I hope that this is not interpreted as a critique against globalism. The collective and the exchange of ideas that comes with globalism are good things. It’s not a critique of anything. Rather, it’s a reflection on perception as well as the contrast and connection between the private and the public.
I did these paintings a few years back, when I first started to think about how one’s perception of the world is constructed of a mixture of personal experiences, encounters with other people and public information. I try to avoid doing illustrations of concrete ideas. Rather the paintings are images of how I sort of feel about a subject, like in this case the here and now. The reason I did these paintings the way I did was that I liked the contrast between the graphic elements, the figurative painting and the photographs.
I think a lot about how my work can be political without painting images of people in a vulnerable position. By gluing news photographs on the canvas I avoided this problem. Also, this work was about the framing and subjective perspective on world events. The documentary presentation is a construction and an indication of which story about the world is norm.
“At the Border between the Official and the Excluded” and “First Level of Intentionality” – there is a certain oppressive quality to both of these. They are darkly surreal, apocalyptic, dystopian, difficult to describe. I even see hints of an environmental disaster. How do these paintings relate to our current social issues?
The title of the painting At The Border Between the Official and the Excluded is a quote from an interview where Nicolas Bourriaud discusses the link between politics and art.
The painting represents a sea with a map on the bottom. A few people in a boat, a tree in a cage and a dead moose appear under a pergola that stands in the water. A copy of Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead is seen in the distance. Floating in the air, or painted on the screen, depending on how you read it, a clam and a symmetrical stain appear. The stain is a visual personality test by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach.
I have wanted to capture a dystopian sense of absurdity and artificiality. This is a reaction to the political situation in Europe, with people who die in the Mediterranean. But, I do not believe I have the right to paint the situation of vulnerable people. Thus, the painting describes an interpretation of the privileged people in Sweden as a collective. I myself am one of these privileged people.
More than anything else the painting is about painting.
First Level Of Intentionality has a similar story. In my paintings I try to paint a psychological image of the identity of the society I live in. I use my titles as tools to build upon the artwork, to give hints about my intentions and also to influence a certain interpretation. I want the titles to generate questions more than explanations.
First Level Of Intentionality is about my frustration that people are dying in the Mediterranean Sea and that there are people in need while many Swedes are scared of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange.
I use the term “levels of intentionality” to talk about one’s consciousness—“about” or “against” something. The first level of intentionality means that you are aware of something in yourself or in the world around you. All animals with some sort of simple consciousness may have first level of intentionality. The second level means that you have an idea of the intentions of someone else. This means that you can live in another person’s psyche. The third level is that you have an idea of someone else’s idea of the intentionality of a third person.
Without illustrating an idea, my painting depicts a collection of people (and a penguin) around a table. There is also someone under the table. They are together, but alone. Outside of the window there is a boat in the water and the sky seems to be on fire. The room looks big and expensive. There is a giant mirror on the left wall. On the right wall hangs the painting The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. There is a contour of a Rorschach test on the painting. There are also three big gestural brush strokes with the primary colours. I have painted these because, again, I want the painting to be about painting. Also, they act like stains. I like the idea of constructing with destruction. Furthermore, the brushstrokes makes me think of a flag, which, in turn, make me think about how ultranationalism is part of the problems with Europe today.
A lot of your works contain geometric forms and shapes, grids, cages, pyramids, etc. in chaotic, fluid surroundings. Do they stand for anything?
In my work I have tried to find ways of combining different perspectives of the world and different ways of painting. I like the diagram and geometry because they are neither figurative, nor abstract. They are linguistic but also visual and they can take on different shapes. Sometimes they stand for something and sometimes they don’t. In the painting Czech Hedgehog Disco Tango I have painted a body under a sheet. The white drawing on top depicts a Czech hedgehog, which is an anti-tank obstacle defense made for war. Disco Tango is a sort of shrub rose that can be used on property lines. The painting is painted with only orange, blue and white.
I have used geometric forms in paintings long before I started thinking about these things. I am not sure why. I think it’s because of the tension that I feel between the sign and the concept to which it refers. If I paint or draw a circle I can’t possibly do it perfectly, but everyone will know that the circle symbolises a perfect circle. I like this contrast between ideas and life.
Who have been your most influential thinkers and creative people?
I wouldn’t describe myself as a theorist or a conceptual artist but some thinkers have influenced my work. At an early stage, writers like Kafka, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, Alfred Jarry and Albert Camus had an impact. Later on thoughts of Foucault and Judith Butler were somewhat important. For a few years now, I have been influenced by Deleuze, Hannah Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Rancière and some writers that write more specifically about painting. Some of the painters I am studying at the moment are Julie Mehretu, Kristina Jansson, Matthias Weisher and Albert Oehlen, among others.
What do you wish the viewer learns from your work? Or what do you want them to consider, reflect upon, pay attention to?
As I mentioned earlier, the encounter is important to me. I think a lot about a presumed onlooker and I make exhibitions to create a reaction in the viewer’s mental state. I don’t want them to, and I don’t believe I can control how they, react in any specific way. If I could I would like the viewer to have an artistic experience and be more open minded towards his or her surroundings after having seen my work. I plan the hanging of my exhibitions like installation works and I imagine how the viewer will move and view the work.
To what extent is your art “Swedish”?
I am not sure. I can’t see anything Swedish in it. I guess it is Swedish since I am Swedish, I live in Sweden and I react upon art, painting and society here. I lived in Paris for seven years and studied for five at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. I graduated in 2004 and during the time of my studies not many people worked with painting, especially not in Sweden. Now many Swedish artists and art students paint.
Anything else you’d like to add?
One thing that I think about a lot is the relationship between art, painting and politics. Today’s painting is left between the modern pursuit of autonomy and the contemporary conceptual heritage of Duchamp and Arthur Danto.
In several texts, Jacques Rancière has written about politics in a way that interests me as a painter. For him, politics can be the struggle over how the correct image of society should look like. A form of activism can be to position the painting in relation to normative images of politics.
When we paint how we see reality we create reality. We cannot look upon painting as an imitation of actuality. We live in a superfluity of images from media and the Internet. These images represent reality, but they are of course mediations of viewpoints. When I use these images as a reference I create something new. Rancière declares that the understanding of the real is a fiction that negotiates how images and signs, images and time, and signs and space link together.
Find Erik on his website (www.eriksigerud.com).