[from the book “LAUGHTER – graphite, eraser, paper” published in spring 2018]
Alexandra Hedberg reflects about her artistic work process and laughter
as a theme within her art, in conversation with fellow-artist Angelica Olsson.
– By now you have been working for years with laughter, a human expression having a variety of meanings. Do you remember the first time laughter appeared in your art and your approach back then?
The human body has always been central in my art, especially faces. I’ve never been interested in portraying a specific person, but instead what it is to be human. Thus I’ve been examining how we relate to each other, our human weaknesses, how we use stereotypes and poses – and what is hidden underneath these masks.
Laughter made its first appearance in my art 12-13 years ago when I was working on a series of prints called “Two”. This series was portraying different kinds of twosomes; friends, lovers, husband and wife, brother and sister, parent and child. Two little girls, best friends, made up the laughing pair. They were laughing together with their arms around each other – united laughing at others, without empathy. At the time their laughter was no more important to me than the other expressions defining the different relationships in this series – for example anxiety, indifference or affinity. Even though laughter subsequently kept reappearing now and then in my art, it would take several years before it became my central theme.
– In earlier conversations you’ve described your existential outlook on life, which could in some way give a context and background to your depictions of laughter. Could you tell us more about this?
My art is an exploration, an attempt to understand what it is to be human, and my contemplation over our existence. Here laughter for me has become emblematic to ‘the human condition’. I often see laughter as symbolising how we choose not to act or to take the easy road. Anxiety is also a part of laughter, as when we try to conceal it – and then make laughter cover it up.
From my existential view laughter has many meanings; the absurd, the meaningless and the fact that there is no divine justice. Laughter is also the embodiment of the ephemeral to me as it only exists in the moment and therefore is something we can not hold on to.
All this is something I don’t want to be over explicit with, though. Instead I hope to convey it more on an emotional level, to open up for the cognitive level of reflection.
– You work in many different techniques, both two and three dimensional, for example printmaking, drawing, painting, objects and recently also photography. Laughter is a reoccurring theme though. Could you describe how the different techniques effect the process and expression?
As I try not only to depict laughter, but to embody it, I am much aware of the context of laughter, its components, elements or emotional qualities. The specific possibilities in a certain material and the process of a certain technique are therefore crucial vehicles in this quest and research. Most of the time I start out from an aspect, from a certain perspective that I want to work with – and therefore look for a material and technique that will support this, or lend me further possibilities. It may be a concept – like fragmentation and repetition – or an expression – like lightness. The possibilities in the process of a certain technique – like the erasing in a pencil drawing – might also be the reason why I choose this specific technique. Sometimes a possibility within the process might be something I discover along the way and make the most of – if it suits my intentions. Like the daub from the eraser piling up on the floor, not only showing the process but also creating its own spatiality – and furthermore making the clean versus the dirty become more evident.
The fragility of a certain material might for example make me turn to a more ephemeral focus in a certain series, and when exploring those aspects, the material will make me draw further conclusions in the given content. But the idea, the concept – the content – what I am trying to express, this is always what’s most important to me and what drives me on.
– Can you describe how you initiate a process leading to a new work of art?
My art pieces are either a continuation on, or a direct reaction against, what I have been working on earlier on. I start the process by asking myself “how can I conceive this better?” or “is there another way around?”. It could be a feeling or an observation that I want to mediate, a certain aspect that I wish to focus on. Then I usually decide on a framework – the rules of the game – like size, quantity, colour scheme or other limitations. The process normally continues during several pieces of works where I evolve and try different variations of the concept chosen or the solution trying to reach. Partly, I explore the content itself and partly I examine how material and technique can be used to mediate it.
– Could you give an example of a specific process?
My series of big format pencil drawings, where erasing and the process of sketching are important parts of the figuration, is a good example of a process. In this case they started out as a reactive response to a series of work I did using post it-notes and the technique of screen printing. The screen prints were based on rough ink drawings of laughing faces in close up. The sparse and evident depictions made the laughters schematic, like masks, and opened up for me to play with certain aspects of laughter – like the harsh, the loud and the general.
Eventually, I felt that I wanted to move on with gesture in laughter instead and work with the force and the light coming from within. I also wanted to find out if I could – in one and the same piece of art – depict laughter as a process with its own course of duration. As I then needed a rest from the boisterous I decided pencil drawing might be a more subtle and precise technique for this.
Wanting to embody the process of laughter in one single drawing – and to depict a sort of disintegration/dissolution revealing the light from within – I concluded that erasing might both allow for showing traces of what had been and for making several drawings in one. After producing some drawings I felt I achieved the light and the force from within, but was still not able to mould the to and fro of laughter present in the process itself. The complexity was also missing – the glimpses of darkness and the different faces of laughter. But then I asked myself if the final drawing really needed to become a piece of art? Might not this laughter being drawn – the process of it – become a series of photos, an animation, a projection?
So I decided to draw five different laughters on five pieces of paper, each measuring 130 x 100 cm during five weeks while at the same time documenting the drawing process photographically. Every Monday I started on a new laughter and then I drew and erased, drew and erased, drew and erased, drew and erased for a week – and on Fridays I stopped. Each drawing process resulted in roughly a hundred photos in shifting daylight. The fifth and last drawing turned out as totally uninteresting during its whole process and eventually I finished by covering it up with white paint – to me it didn’t do as a work of art in any way. The four series of photographs became “Days of laughter I – IV” and all exist in the form of projections, animations and also as four unique artist books.
– A single image is perceived very differently when grouped together with other images, for example the art pieces in an exhibition context or in a publication. In what ways do the different contexts where your art is showcased have an influence on your work process and expression?
The majority of my work is made in series, meant to complement and/or strengthen each other when grouped together, in relation to each other. Since the 20th century artists mostly produce a larger coherent body of work for an exhibition in a gallery or a museum, but this might slowly become different in the future. I always keep in mind under what circumstances I’ll showcase my art; probably at an exhibition. Even when my work is two-dimensional I work with spatiality. Further, my working process often has traits of performance and takes the form of installations within my studio. This helps me getting into the feeling I want to mediate, and to enter the laughters. While working on my art I constantly move back and forth between the roles of maker and of spectator. Here, size is also an important aspect in my work. For example; an art piece depicting a human being slightly bigger than natural size, makes you as a spectator meet that person in a similar way as in reality – it’s an encounter – however, the enlarged size augments your experience of presence. If, on the other hand, you make the same piece of art several times bigger, totally different aspects will be experienced in the physical encounter with the depiction. This is also something I work with other times.
However, most people will never see my art in real life, instead they will know it in its reproduced form; digitally published or maybe as printed material. In those contexts materiality is hard to mediate and size cannot be experienced physically – even though one might try to depict size by putting the art piece in relation to something else.
Publications are actually a form of expression with its own creative possibility, not only a means of offering a documentation of art pieces. Therefore they make up a context you should keep more in mind. Do you want to create specifically for this context or should you rather concentrate on publishing certain aspects of your work that will do better in this form and in these circumstances? Or should you just disregard the figurative and conceptual possibilities of publications?