by Morgan Childs
Born in Sweden, trained in Denmark, living in Norway, Ewa Jacobsson creates site-specific installations that synthesize raw field recordings, digital audio manipulations, and her own classic soprano voice with original photography, painting, sculpture, and live performance. As an artist-in-residence at the Agosto Foundation and in preparation for Aching Table, her performance at Prague’s Školská 28 Gallery, Jacobsson has collected trash and everyday objects from the streets of the Czech capital and swaddled them into colored marzipan packages, putting the bundles into conversation with street recordings and pre-processed sounds.
Aching Table continues to probe the themes that have percolated through Jacobsson’s career since the early 1980s: decay and dejection, desire and its lack, waste and want. “We, especially in the urban life, do not keep objects and/or food, don’t care about them, we overdose us with sweetness, with extras, hygiene, with whiteness,” Jacobsson writes in an artist’s statement. “This makes our culture detached from necessity and the use of one’s will not to take what we can take in every situation.”
Jacobsson is incisive about the communicative role of her work, thorough and thoughtful in describing its many component parts, and also quick to bestow credit on the collaborators and supporters who have played a part in her creative development. Warm, self-deprecating, and possessing of a winning sense of humor, she greets me with a hug when we first meet at a café on Prague’s Palacký Square to speak about her work over coffee and cookies. “Sweet” is too reductive a word to describe Jacobsson the artist, but sweetness itself is the element to which she continually returns, a feature of her sound and aesthetic that she has yoked and maneuvered to disquieting ends.
Morgan Childs: Perhaps we could start by talking a little bit about your background and how you came to be doing the sort of work you’re doing.
Ewa Jacobsson: I was educated as a visual artist, but I have a musical way of thinking from my background in classical and folk music, so it was natural for me to begin to include that kind of thinking in my work. When I came to the academy in Copenhagen, I started nearly immediately to work with sound and photography and also began using my voice in my work.
It was a very interesting period in Copenhagen, and the academy was in a very dynamic phase. I came into contact very early with experimental music, improvisation, jazz, and sound art in Copenhagen. We were told to begin work immediately, and we did. Since then, I haven’t stopped making combinations of sound, visuals, and performance, working closely with the space. I began to do it in my first exhibition, when I was still studying. The processes I worked with then were the same.
When I say that I’m a visual artist and composer, it’s really because the two components are equally heavy. It’s one process—it’s never, never separated. I walk from the one to the other to the one. I walk from the material over to the sound that destructs and erupts, and I go back to the thing. Sound travels in space: that’s why it’s so fantastic to work with when you’re a visual artist.
Given that you’ve been employing the same processes since the beginning of your career, how has your art evolved over the last thirty years?
I go very deeply into processes of material. I moved to Norway after ten, eleven years in Copenhagen, but I couldn’t get into the visual artist milieu there at all. I found out that I had to insert myself into the composer milieu, so I organized myself with classical composers, but using my background in sound installations and in performance. A few years I only painted. I dive deeply into different areas.
Now I can say that I know where I’m heading when I begin a process.[Laughs.)
That wasn’t the case when you were starting out?
No, no, no…
Looking back, what were the major influences on your work when you were shaping the structure it would take?
When I went to the art school in Stockholm for two years, there were some fellow students that really worked experimentally with concept art and installations. We had a peer group where we discussed what we were going to do, where we made a lot of experiments. I always liked that way of working. Then I really wanted to get away from Sweden, and Copenhagen was, as I said, really dynamic at that period. Joseph Beuys had pupils from the Copenhagen Academy, and Fluxus is a part of the Copenhagen milieu, and Albert Mertz was a professor there. They were throwing out the old guards. They said, Okay, if you want to paint, do it, but you’re sleeping—don’t sleep! [Laughs.]
I liked it very much. It was very questioning. One questioned everything about classical art, and how you made things, and so on. And then of course I met fellow students there who were as interested in working as I was, not in doing classic pieces, just in investigating. That was very inspiring. And also the professors we had there—we had lectures from all different kinds of thinking.
I imagine it would be so difficult to leave an environment like that and go out and make work on your own.
No, not at all. Because the whole thing was that you were going to work. After you left, you were actually working. I gave performances after finishing, in Copenhagen, on the street and so on. The first project I did that was important for me was with two fellow students: we made this four- or five-kilometer-long strip in colored cotton that was laid down in the center of Copenhagen—some kind of action or something. Our professors of course told me, Just do it, you should do it, that’s good, do it!
It’s not easy to just give one answer to your question.
No, this is great.
I suppose that’s also a kind of picture of my processes. I don’t strangle ideas that come. I let them come. I know they will come into a kind of form and they will have a meaning.
I just want to mention one thing: a workshop we had that was very important for me as a female and for my voice. Because you know, I have this voice that I really can use. I don’t use it so much any longer, now that I’m older, but I have done it. It was when Ulay and Marina Abramović came and had a week’s workshop with us, some of the pupils, and we were outside Copenhagen in a kind of intimate situation over the course of a week. They gave me the courage to really use what is one of my finest instruments in art, in performance and installation.
You hadn’t been using it before then?
No, not so much, because I thought it was too lyrical, or too beautiful, or too weak, vulnerable. These have been very important themes for me.
Can you talk a little bit about Aching Table and the work you’ve been doing in Prague?
I have not made that many sound recordings here. Only a few, very simple, ordinary sounds of daily life: on the street, on the way I walk to Školská, in the room where I stay. The sounds that I brought with me are very prepared, very processed. It’s a contrast to what I have collected here.
And this is how I often work: I take things with me, and then I collect other things that are not prepared or anything. The materials are nearly all from here, from Praha. Some of them are just collected from the streets, and others are materials that I observe as being perhaps part of daily life. So I collect both sound and objects that come from the actual place. I collected trash from Praha, and some of them I have packed in sweetness, the marzipan...
I wanted to ask you about marzipan. Why marzipan?
It actually goes back to what I told you about being encouraged to use my vulnerability and the beauty in my voice—the sweetness. My Swedish language, when other people don’t know it, sounds in a way sweet and beautiful.
Marzipan, we make cakes out of it, and we color it and we make figures. It is a material that is not high-tech—it’s not steel, and it’s not oil and canvas, for painting. It’s a kitchen material. And I love working with it. It contrasts with actual trash—which I have prepared beautifully, I don’t just throw it together. I sew and I make packets. Perhaps I try to put materials on an even level.
It seems like the physical object in this installation is more conventionally beautiful than that of many of your other projects. Is that fair to say?
I don’t know. Sometimes they turn out beautiful and sometimes they don’t. I don’t try to choose one or the other. It also has to do with what kind of place I’m doing it in, what comes out of the process when I’m working here. With the project I did in August, the packages are actually rotting.
Oh, are they?
Oh yes they are! From the beginning, they’re really beautiful. But the thing is that inside there are things that decay, and so they rot. After two or three weeks, the room really begins to smell badly and the flies come, and it rots and decays, and then it goes over to the drying phase, and there’s no smell, and it comes to the finishing phase. [Laughs.)
I imagine those packages are hard to travel with.
Yes. No, I can’t bring them with me. That’s a project we have to do when I have three or four weeks in one space. It was a pre-experiment for a piece called “Rotting Piece.” I want to connect sound to them. Only two things are going to rot here. [Laughs.]
Is smell going to be an element of your Prague installation?
No, because it has only been a few days. If Miloš [Vojtěchovský) and Dana [Recmanová) and Michal [Kindernay, all of Školská 28 Gallery) keep them, they’re going to smell.
Perhaps it’s always like that. It’s actually not as easy as you think when you see it first. Something is actually moving in the work. Time itself is included.
I’m interested by what you said about being encouraged to use the element of sweetness of your voice, and I wonder if you were always more attracted to the themes of decay and dilapidation than of sweetness.
I’ve always been interested in those themes in two ways. We are in a period now where people are truly smart, unless you’re poor and you can’t afford it and you can’t be. And I think it’s quite dangerous. Parts of us are excluded. It’s about the kind of “trash” in people that we do not appreciate: I think that’s a source of a lot of good things in people, a lot of thoughts, a lot of ideas.
You can look at it in a bigger, a broader sense: if we don’t see our fellow partners and how the actual landscape is inside of us, and we don’t see the landscape outside, and we don’t care, the brutal part of this goes both ways.
Those are big words for a little female artist to say, but that’s what I think I’m doing, what I’m working with, what themes I’m working with. I can’t say this as a female artist. If you’re a male artist, you can have big themes, big thoughts. I’m still—from the beginning of art history—I’m still held back.
I sense that there are a number of female artists who approach their work with the understanding that they can’t say everything that they’d like to say, being women. I wonder if you think anger or resentment are expressed in your work as a result.
I think you probably hear it in my way of working with sound. It’s not always nice. And those beautiful objects, they rot. It’s an aggression that I don’t want to punch out, because then I would be answering in the same language. And I don’t think that’s the way to go at all.
I try to contribute in a positive way more than with aggression. I’d rather use a lot of positive energy rather than aggressiveness in working. This is not weakness. It can easily be a young male scene—in studios, in programming, and so on—and young women often don’t come there. Why don’t they? I put the questions there.
Do you learn from your audiences’ reactions to your work?
It’s very important how they respond because I can see how they step into a work or don’t step into a work. It can be a kind of opening. I’ve had a lot of reactions through the years, some of them very warm, very strong.
Of course: this is communication. Perhaps that’s why I work more and more with site-specific things. It’s communication with real life, now. It’s not a vernissage, where you drink your wine and actually go past what you went there for.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Ewa Jacobsson’s performance Aching Table takes place at Školská 28 Gallery at 19:00 on 22 February 2016. More information is available on the Školská 28 Gallery website.
Morgan Childs is an American writer and the Agosto Foundation’s Editor & Communications Manager.