in opposition

We’re happy to present two prints by Meta Isæus-Berlin, one of Sweden’s most prominent artists since har breakthrough in the early nineties. On this occasion, we publish an interview with Meta Isæus-Berlin, made by ed. art founder Elisabeth Blennow Calälv, in 2015.

Immediately after graduating from the Royal Institute of Fine Arts in Stockholm in the early nineties, Meta Isæus-Berlin had her breakthrough. Her large-scale installations toured biennales and exhibitions around the world. The motive was often the home; full-scale bathrooms filled with water, a whole drawing room side by side with its exact copy made from the finest organza; places well-known to most of us, charged with a sense of abandonment or deception or isolation.

After ten years of hectic exhibition-making, she chose to completely stop making installations and instead to show her paintings, but today she works in parallel with installation and painting. The change from sculpture to painting is one of many dramatic choices in Meta Isæus-Berlin's life. Working where the energy is, is non-negotiable. In life, she often finds herself in the position of the adversary. Convenience just doesn’t suit her. And anger, she says, is an undervalued driving force. People are too quiet and well-behaved nowadays.

– Everything is so incredibly controlled in all social contexts today. When I was little, it was important to speak loud and clear, and to laugh out loud. You were supposed to make a lot of noise; to give vent to your feelings. In addition, there was the primal scream, like a last resort. You could go out in the woods and shout to be freed of your anxiety and anger. 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.

The painting The Return of the Primal Scream, 2015, in the artist's studio

Do you feel that something has changed?

– Yes, a lot. 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. In that process, a lot 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. 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.

Speaking of being emotionally driven: When we first met, you went through your oeuvre and the origins of different works. It was often about you being angry, and that anger led to up to you making an artwork or a change in your life. Is it a driving force that has been useful to you?

– 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. They may be big or small things, but 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.

One of Meta Isæus-Berlin's early installations, from 1993, consisting of 2,000 vinyl gloves filled with water

So, are your works 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 analytical 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– 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 my works of art 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. You can have an awful lot of discussion, but art itself is a form of direct communication from one body to another. 

– It’s important to try to find a common language – this is why I have often used the image of the home a lot. 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. Then my dad told me that there were schools where you just paint. I did not know that! So that’s what I started doing. 

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 printmaking programme, then painting and finally sculpture. Were you always sure 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.

This must be a kind of self-confidence. Where does it come from do you think?

– I want to express what I see around me to the world, through my filter. 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.

– 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. 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 pf 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 – biennales in Johannesburg and Istanbul, for example. 

The installation Return, 1994, made from jelly heart mass

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 heart mass. 

– I was sponsored by Aroma! It smelt so incredibly nice and was really, 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.

In many contexts, Meta Isæus-Berlin today mixes installation and sculpture; thesis and antithesis have 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 feel just as much, but I see things in a bigger perspective. The younger you are, the blinder you are. You are completely involved in your own things, 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 I think that's good.

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.