By Robert Such. Published in Sculpture Magazine.
Dreams, memories, politics, history and religion inform the artworks of Kent Karlsson. The Swedish artist works everyday objects and iconic images into sculptures created through an exploration and refining of his own poetic visual language.
Karlsson works out of his hometown studio in Gothenburg, on the west coast of Sweden. Over the years, he has created public and privately commissioned works in urban and landscape contexts, and shown his work at gallery exhibitions at home and abroad.
During the Nineties, he lectured as Professor of Fine Arts at the Valand Academy of Fine Arts, the academy at which he had studied ten years before, and as a guest professor at Japan’s Tokai University.
Among the artist’s notable public sculptures is the Temple of Doubt and Hope near Gothenburg’s ferry port. Commissioned by the municipal developer of the Lindholmen Science Park, a university and business development area, and a nearby residential district, the metal church-like sculpture floats in an inlet in the city’s former Lindholmen shipyard.
The title for the artwork, Temple of Doubt and Hope, comes partly from the ”good,” says the artist, “and bad actions” committed by all religions.
Like a ship at anchor, the perforated stainless steel structure drifts in circles, pushed around by the wind. As solid-looking as nearby buildings one moment, appearing translucent moments later, the sculpture pirouettes slowly against the surrounding backdrop of ships, buildings and natural landscape.
Robert Such: You started out as an abstract painter. What made you turn to sculpture?
Kent Karlsson: Originally I started drawing, everything as long it was simple enough. When I started abstract painting it was because I realized I didn’t understand anything about color. Thus I started to paint only one color, for example red, until I got the red which satisfied me. Later, more colors were added and different phenomena came up. For example, two surfaces, one red and one green, producing a vibrating boundary.
After a while these exercises become boring, although valuable, showing that through color you could build an imaginary room. A room where you didn’t have to show windows or doors to explain, just openings made by colors. From the work with color, ideas come up which I didn’t know how to carry out. For example, New Moon, which looks like an ordinary kayak, apart from that it is made of perforated sheet metal. I do not have the ability to depict such an object with a painterly medium. I do not know how I could paint this in a credible way, except by working in three dimensions, and that’s why I started with objects, and if you like, sculptures. It had a relieving effect on me to use different objects, already there, to mix them to become something else.
RS: What were the other key turning points in your career?
KK: I don’t feel there are any particular turning points. It is an on-going process and there is not much of a difference between drawing and sculpture. Maybe a turning will come if I could make a sculpture of cream, fog or shaving foam. I don’t know. I must say in this context that I never have imagined being an artist is constant, and I would not be surprised if one day I am not able to continue this activity. I cannot take for granted that for all time I will be an artist. Maybe one day there is nothing more to say, and that day I suppose it is time to start driving a taxi or some similar honorable work. I have always imagined this point as a future, and definitely separated from the arts.
RS: The church motif occurs again and again in your work. How many have you sculpted?
KK: I have done four bigger permanent public ones, three in Sweden and one in Norway, and some smaller studio works for exhibitions in museums and galleries.
RS: Why did you choose the form of the church?
KK: It originated during my time in Japan, when the act of terror in the tube by a religious sect [the Aum Shinrikyo sect] using Sarin gas raised a lot of questions. How come that so many young, well educated people were engaged in this extreme organization, whose only purpose seemed to be to kill? Their existence was somehow sheltered by laws about religious freedom.
Then back in Sweden I was invited to a project called “The Art Road”, where several towns together planned to make one installation each, along a distance of around three hundred kilometers [two hundred miles]. I started by reading about the district, and found out about the “Korpela movement”, a religious sect from the 1920s. The sect members were waiting for the Silver Ark, which was supposed to come and take them, and nobody else, to the new Jerusalem. They stood there, naked in the snow, assured that they were the chosen ones and everybody else should die.
A lot of oppression can be executed if you can get people to believe that they are selected. I was fascinated by the human faith, that people can believe in something so strong, and I saw them standing there, naked and freezing and then they had to go home, and go on with their life. I thought I had to give them something—but a Silver Ark? Too difficult. Then I met a man telling me a story about a mirage. He saw the church in another place in the village. Suddenly it became obvious for me—a country church. Silver wasn’t possible, so I had to find something else, and discovered mirror glass, as close in material as possible. The mirror glass reflects, and the surface makes the object change constantly, which is wrong, as it is the environment that changes.
Sculptures that look like churches are about my fascination with people’s urge and ability to believe in something—football, God, poetry or whatever they want to believe in. I doubt many things, and most of all myself. Strange as it may seem, doubt becomes fuel for exploration and the possibility to understand something.
RS: Your wire mesh and laminated glass works play with translucency and opacity. How do you choose your materials? And what do you try to convey through the materiality of the work?
KK: When I worked with mirror glass I became interested in the opposite, transparency, like in the wire mesh. During my work I often reflect upon the opposite of my work or the material I use. I believe the choice of material comes from how and what I want the object to express, or become explicit, and still keep poetry.
RS: Could you clarify what you mean by becoming interested in the opposite? Do you mean you start thinking about the next work?
KK: What I meant is that if I look into a mirror, which reflected my gaze back to me, the reverse is to be able to see through what I am looking at. Or if I worked with hard materials such as steel, how would it be to use textiles or rubber? Sometimes this leads to the next work, but not always.
RS: What aspects of the interaction between material, like the mesh of the floating Temple of Doubt and Hope, and light do you appreciate most?
KK: The elements, the wind, light, water movement, and its ability to reflect light, together with the material, mesh, combined with something that looks like a church in the ‘wrong’ place. But I think it’s light and water movement, which are the most important elements in the changing expression.
RS: Does the church’s architectural form refer to any particular building?
KK: No, it is just an archetype of a church, as simple and as clear as possible. I like the idea of a room, which you can walk into without paying any fee, taking off your shoes, presenting an identity card or pushing a code, an open room for everyone just to stay in for a while when you need. And you don’t have to declare if you are religious or not.
RS: Are you creating a little utopia there?
KK: It is quite okay for me if the church place appears to be a mini-utopia. Anyway I like your idea of a ‘utopia church’.
RS: You can’t go inside the floating church sculpture. Can you enter the Silver Ark sculpture?
KK: You can crawl into the bottom, but it is not particularly interesting and the place is a swamp with plenty of mosquitoes during the summer months, and in winter there is a lot of snow and ice.
RS: It was vandalized. Were you surprised? How do you feel about that?
KK: I am not sure that it was vandals, perhaps it is moose and reindeer that have protested against the construction in their area. No, I am not surprised or upset. I guess a certain frustration can occur both in humans and animals on a design like this in the desert, which only reflects the surroundings. A single budgie in a cage often sits and talks, pecking at their reflection if there is a mirror.
RS: The Swedish are known for their strong affinity for nature and natural things. Is yours strong?
KK: Not so very strong I believe, but I share my time between city and countryside. My studio is in the suburbs of Gothenburg, and my home sixty kilometers [thirty seven miles] away in a rural area. I like both places.
RS: How important is the location of your outdoor artworks in the landscape? Do you prefer them to be seen from a distance, or discovered as you arrive closer?
KK: Both, it depends, but they have to work both ways in a landscape. The object itself constrains its range.
RS: Are your works on paper a prelude to your sculptures or vice versa?
KK: No, the graphics are only reminiscences of dreams, which are possible to make something out of.
RS: High-heel shoes, church, sunglasses, hare [rabbit-like animal], and other objects and animals reoccur in your artworks. What is their significance?
KK: They are all everyday objects, except the animals, which are mythical in most cultures. I thought that the design of spectacles was fascinating—two pieces of glass on your head for those who do not have perfect vision. Why I did this object I did not know. Afterwards, I read some of the history behind glasses, goggles or spectacles. History is more fascinating than my objects.
RS: There are many dual combinations of everyday objects, animals, symbols and images in your work. What messages are you trying to convey?
KK: These objects are a part of what I am interested in. For me it is enough that I am interested in them. How come that somebody chooses to wear high-heels? Or why do you choose to smoke? I have no message, only my own interest in objects and symbols carrying some kind of general messages over a long time. It makes me start wondering why and how it works.
RS: But you are inferring connections between them.
KK: Maybe, but I am not sure if there are any relations, except that most of these works are everyday objects, but the uncertainty is attractive.
RS: Mirrors that reflect the observer also reoccur in your work. Are you asking the observer to be self-critical, triggering their imagination, or something else?
KK: I don’t ask the observer. I am just asking myself.
RS: The swastika and Osama Bin Laden appear in your work. What’s the message? Is it about terror?
KK: I’m interested in the kind of signs that have become logos, like the swastika, which was stolen by the Nazis, or the pilgrims’ scallop shell used by Shell, originally a bed and breakfast sign for the pilgrims. Both these symbols are now impossible for others to use. Osama bin Laden’s punishment is to stay in an American female shoe.
RS: Is humor an important ingredient in your drawings, paintings or sculptures?
KK: If you find it so, yes.
RS: So it’s not intentionally humorous?
KK: No, and to me it seems that many of my works have a sad tone. But tragedy and comedy are like the two sides of the same coin I suppose.
RS: How do you see your work fitting into contemporary Swedish art?
KK: I don’t reflect on that, it is up to others to judge.
RS: Are you happy to be called a surrealist?
KK: You may call or define my work however you like. I guess my work sometimes can become surrealistic, sometimes political, but what I wish to do is to produce visual poetry.
RS: When giving titles to your work, and translating them into English, how much is lost in translation?
KK: Sometimes, it is impossible to translate in a proper way. For example “Ättestupan”, the title on one of my drawings, the one with the house with characters in the windows, is the name of the street where I grew up.
Ättestupan is, or rather was, a street that was the last street before the big shipyard, which also does not exist any longer. The same area as the location for the Temple of Doubt and Hope. The street was located in an old suburb of Gothenburg, and was a so-called working class area.
Ättestupan is also a myth about a cliff in the Nordic mythology, where the old and sick were said to be thrown to die. I am not sure anyone understands this in Swedish either. It’s a personal memory. Titles just come up and sometimes I change them. There could be two titles for the same object. However I don’t like to have “without title” on my work.
RS: Giving the title is giving information, telling the viewer about your intentions, your contribution. How is that important?
KK: You are right, to give the title is to provide information, maybe I should stop that and use “without title”, or simply create numbered works. For me it has been a way to remember what I reflect on at the time when I worked with the object. But it has happened, though not often, that I forgot or changed the title and used a new one.
RS: What are you working on now?
KK: At the moment I am working on a public commission about the holocaust. It’s a commission from the Gothenburg Arts Board. The initiative comes from the local Jewish Association, Mosaiska föreningen, and the money comes from a donation, which is responsible for promoting “the city’s embellishment”. It was preceded by a competition between three invited artists including my proposal that won the contest.
In my studio I am working with a grand piano and a door. These works are separate from the work of the public commission about the holocaust. The sketch for the holocaust includes a curved rail [from a train track], children’s shoes, and a lamplight. The materials are bronze, iron and glass.
RS: You have also proposed a new bridge for Gothenburg.
KK: It is not a bridge, it’s a building which in some cases also works as a bridge. An old idea which we have seen in Florence, Ponte Veccio and in Bath [in England].
RS: Will it be built?
KK: No, not a chance, and if so, it would really surprise me. I reacted just to political nonsense talk, and a lack of will from both architects and the local urban office. My sketch was just a way to show if you want to build a so-called “iconic building”, we must think of other paths than a new skyscraper building.