"It’s important to try to
find a common language – this
is why I have often used the
image of the home”
In her atelier in the attic of a block of flats on Kungsholmen, Meta Isæus-Berlin is busy putting the finishing touches to her coming exhibition. Leaning against the walls are gigantic canvases filled with her very distinctive painting, with its sensually organic forms. However, it wasn’t her painting but her installation art that made Meta Isæus-Berlin one of Sweden’s hottest names in the art world of the 90s.
But after ten years of hectic exhibitions, she chose not to continue with her installations but instead to exhibit her paintings. Today, her work on installations has resumed, and the freedom to be able to do both rather appeals to her. The switch from sculpture to painting is one of many dramatic courses of action Meta Isæus-Berlin has chosen in her life – for her this choice was non-negotiable. Working where the energy is a must, and in life she often finds herself in the position of her adversaries. Convenience just doesn’t suit her. And anger, she says, is an undervalued driving force.
“The undergrowth is making itself apparent” is the title of your coming exhibition. The largest painting, on a canvas measuring more than 2 x 2 metres, you have named “The Return of the Primal Scream”. Why?
»People need to get their primal scream back. When I was little, the primal scream was always around the next corner, waiting there as a last resort. If you went out into the forest and screamed, you would be freed from anxiety and rage. And you were expected to speak loudly and clearly – and to laugh loudly. There’d be a lot of noise; you could give vent to your feelings. Everything had to be let out all the time.
»People are too quiet nowadays. I would like them to try and wriggle free. In all social spaces everything is so extremely well controlled. If someone oversteps the mark, it is never forgiven. I would
like the primal scream to come back so that people could stand in the forest screaming like hell. Really! Do it! If I did it, it would do me good and I wouldn’t want to be thought of as peculiar.«
Do you feel that there is something that has changed?
»Yes, a lot has changed. There was a certain amount of freedom before – to experiment – without needing to have a plan from the start of what was going to happen in the end. We used to think “let’s start like this, and we’ll see how it’ll end”. During this process, lots of interesting things could happen. But today everything has to end as a product. And this doesn’t only apply to art, but to life in general. Today, you can’t take any chances.«
Are you speaking from your own experience?
»Well, yes and no. I love to listen, to talk and to hear. My art is created from all these conversations. It’s not always about me, but about where I am in relation to other people’s stories. They are given plenty of room inside me and I never forget them. I have a huge archive of stories to draw on. I am attentive all the time and all the emotions get stuck, I can’t let them slide by. I feel so much that I just have to take notice of them. My actions are quite simply controlled by emotions.«
Talking about being controlled by emotions: When we met the first time, you went through your works and the origin of the different works. It was often the case that you were angry, and that your sense of anger resulted in a work of art or change in some way. Is this a driving force that you have found useful?
»Yes, I am often in opposition – I find myself in these situations. I often see a pattern or some injustice, which may be either about how I treat others or about how others treat me.«
»Whether they might be big things or small things, they are always based on a profound feeling of my own. This feeling gives me a jolt – it is the basis of all my art. Sometimes I talk about it as a form of rage, sometimes as something that upsets me, forcing me to see things in another way. It always hurts. Especially when other people are left in this pattern and don’t realize it. This is when I get angry. People may sometimes think that anger is a bad thing, but I would like to defend anger as a driving force. I am critical and upset – and I think this is a good thing.«
But aren’t your works then created when you are in a state of emotional stress?
»No, certainly not. The installations have always come from a feeling inside me – I know exactly what has to be done and I just create them. The analysis comes later. What is this? Why does it hurt? How can we discuss it? This analysis stage is extremely important. Many of my installations were about a sense of absence. About being abandoned or about coming into being, about coming home or going away, about being on your way somewhere. About being separated from something and having come home – all those motions. There is always a sense of anxiety – so it is probably this feeling that has urged them on.«
»The reason why all installations are ”true”, so to speak, is because they are not arranged or analysed – they are not products from the drawing board, but they come straight from the heart.«
This must apply to your paintings, too?
»Yes, absolutely – choosing to paint or to work with installations is just about a choice of materials – the driving forces are the same. It’s when the works of art reach their public and others can recognize themselves in me. You can have an awful lot of discussion, but art itself is a form of direct communication from one body to another. There is a significant difference between the brain and the body. Art isn’t any good until it speaks to you past mere words.«
»It’s important to try to find a common language – this is why I have often used the image of the home, both in installations and in paintings. If I were to talk about islands in the South Seas, there’d be a risk that we’d be speaking at cross purposes (laughs). We have such different pictures of them. But if I talk about a bed, then we both sort of know more or less that we share a similar experience.«
What you were saying about anger or being in opposition also seems to have meant a lot for the choices you have made in your life. For example, you left
upper-secondary school after just one year.
»I was very interested in animals, so actually I wanted to be an elephant researcher and chose the natural science programme at Norra Latin in Stockholm. But I really wasn’t happy there. I detested school. So I used to go and draw in the art room – the door to that room was always open. But I was always in a bad mood and complained about everything and everyone. Finally someone said to me: “But you don’t have to continue here, you know, it isn’t compulsory”. Suddenly I realized “it’s voluntary, it’s voluntary”. I’d never thought of that before. It was in the canteen that I said to myself: “all this is my own free will, I’m eating this food of my own free will – I refuse to eat this food of my own free will”. And then I just left. I went out through the main entrance and first I went to my old school Södra Latin, to the director of studies. I said that I wanted to follow their aesthetic programme. But she thought that I would be “understimulated” there. I was just so amazed that I wouldn’t be allowed to begin there! So I called my father from a telephone box and he told me that there were schools where you could just paint. I didn’t know that. Great, so that’s what I started doing.«
Then came many years of study at the Stockholm Art School, the Pernby School of Painting, the School of the Association of Friends of Textile Art, the textile programme at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design (Konstfack), and then at the Royal Institute of Art – first the graphic design programme, then painting and finally sculpture. Were you sure all this time that you wanted to be an artist?
»Absolutely. I suppose that I’ve always thought that I am an artist, not that I want to be an artist. My studies have been a way of working with the things that I know I can do. I have always put my role as an artist in first place. I have been an artist who has had children, an artist who is a woman. I have never seen myself from a woman’s perspective, for example, I’ve never thought that I have been selected for exhibitions because I am a woman, but because I am an artist more than anything else.«
This must be a kind of self-confidence. Where does it come from do you think?
»I want to express the world to the world around me through my filter. This has always been obvious to me. When I was little, I liked to express myself. Once, I saw a deer from a bus. I became so exalted that I went around the whole bus asking everyone if they had seen the deer. Did you see the deer? Did you see the deer? This is what lies at the core; having the will to tell someone something. And the thought never crosses your mind that somebody else perhaps isn’t interested in hearing what I have to say (laughs). Call it a lack of self-perception!«
After all these years of study, your career was given a real boost when one of your first installations found its way into the collections at Moderna museet.
"The choice of materials is what decides the sculpture. At that time, it wasn’t as common as it is today to work with unfamiliar materials and I found this exciting. But it’s the synergy effect you get when you use all the materials in the right way that creates the right feeling."
»Towards the end of my studies, I had become so tired of being taught things in areas where people didn’t know any more than me. When it came to painting, people had very definite ideas about how painting should be, about what was right and wrong. I had met so many teachers who all had their own definite opinions on how a picture should be constructed. So it was really nice to be able to formulate one’s own world through sculpture. No one had made so much out of fur – a fur fountain, for example – so I was able to work on my own. It was the same with silicon. And water; my own material. I made my first water
sculpture back in 1987, but during my last year at Mejan I worked almost exclusively with water and by the time I finished I had worked so much that I was able to create what I had planned.«
»The installation that ended up at Moderna museet consists of 2,000 vinyl gloves, lightly powdered inside, from small to large in size, mounted on the wall as if on humps. They are filled with water that is
dyed in a range of colours from white to light yellow – in this way you can paint with the gloves. It’s a really sensual experience to see 10,000 fingers bearing down on you. In front of them is a tub as big as a bed with a thin, thin, thin silicon film lying on it. Below it there are two strong pumps pumping around 800 litres of water – so under the silicon film an enormous power is vibrating.«
It must have given your career a flying start that it ended up at Moderna museet?
»Yes, this meant a lot to me. I was invited to many international exhibitions – biennials in Johannesburg and Istanbul, for example.«
And the exhibition la Hora del Norte in Madrid, where your work Return was exhibited, a 10-meter-long wedge-shaped room with 2-meter walls covered in jelly bean mass.
»I was sponsored by Aroma! It smelt so incredibly nice and was really beautiful.«
Sometimes your works have very clear titles, and as an observer you understand that you want to convey a theme, but when you build a room out of jelly bean mass, can it simply be all about wanting to create something with a nice smell?
»No, no (laughs). It’s never only a question of it smelling nice – that’s a bonus. The choice of materials is what decides the sculpture. At that time, it wasn’t as common as it is today to work with unfamiliar materials and I found this exciting. But it’s the synergy effect you get when you use all the materials in the right way that creates the right feeling.«
The choice of materials has always been of secondary importance – expression and energy have always been a priority. In connection with a major mid-career exhibition at Liljevalchs in the middle of the 00s, Meta Isæus-Berlin chose to exhibit her paintings for the first time. Soon after, she went on to concentrate exclusively on painting. A bold step in a conservative art world that prefers to place all artists into a suitable category.
»The reason why I took up painting was the death of my father. It was a way of being in contact with him. And once I had started, I found that I had so much to convey; it just surged out of me – I could hardly sleep because I was working so much.«
The exhibition that Meta Isæus-Berlin is now preparing is her eighth gallery exhibition with her paintings from 2005 onwards. She is careful to point out that next to the large Primal Scream painting she is thinking of exhibiting an equally large painting with the rather uplifting title The Anxiety Hole that Drains You of Energy Every Morning. The two works of art work together; the Primal Scream is the flow outwards, what you get your power from; the Anxiety Hole is the one that sucks in power into itself – the two together function like the process of inhaling and exhaling.
This exhibition will consist of just paintings, but in many contexts today Meta Isæus-Berlin mixes installations and sculptures; thesis and antithesis has become synthesis.
You’ve been doing this now for thirty years. How have you changed?
»I am more secure as a person, and this makes me feel freer. I choose my battles and there are many battles today that I don’t get involved in because I don’t find them interesting. I get on with my business. I feel just as much, but I see things in a rather bigger perspective. The younger you are, the blinder you are. You are completely involved in your own things and are filled with enthusiasm for these things and are busy creating. But then, you find yourself more and more taking in the dilemmas, worries and stories of others. And this I think is positive.«
How do you look upon your own success? Have you thought much about your career – that as many people as possible should see your art?
»No, I’ve always thought “how strange that I’m not world-famous” (laughs). I think that all artists think like that. It’s almost expected. Seriously, if I lived on a desert island and no one ever saw what I did, I would still continue. I think it’s a lot of fun working with this – I know of nothing I enjoy more. Of course, I love getting a response, but that’s not what drives me. I believe that I have something important to say, both today and to people in the future.«
This interview was conducted in anticipation of Meta Isæus-Berlin’s exhibition held in Stockholm earlier this year. She is now being represented at Avesta Art (23 May-14 September, 2015).