The current exhibition at Reykjavík Art Museum – Hafnarhús, ‘Power has a Fragrance’, is by the New York and Tokyo based Norwegian-born artist, Gardar Eide Einarsson. Through paintings, sculptures, flags and photographs, using a predominantly black and white palette, the artist applies inherent punk and skateboarding aesthetics to an examination of art and cultural power structures. The layered work intends to raise questions rather than conclude empty statements. He has been one of the most celebrated young Nordic artists, and participated in the Whitney Biennial in 2008. I had the pleasure to sit down with him and engage in an insightful conversation about his enigmatic work, the art world and his love for Tokyo.
The title of your exhibition at Hafnarhús, ‘Power has a Fragrance’, fits the work well, suggesting an intangible trace of authority.
That’s what I like about it. It says that power isn’t necessarily something that you experience head on. It’s about having this trace of power around. Fragrance is not a smell it’s more of a hint. It’s a title from the band Death in June. I have used some of their titles before.
What is your connection to the punk and skateboarding scene? Was there one you were a part of in Norway?
Yes. When I was growing up, all I did was skateboard. It was also tied to other parts of west coast cultures with music, and so on. That was the foundational aesthetic for me. That was how I started having a real relation to aesthetics; through those types of aesthetics. And interestingly, I think it works with appropriation, which I do with my work. At that time, I also worked with a limited colour palette because work was photocopied, it was pre-internet…When I was growing up in Norway, skateboarding was actually illegal there. I think it was one of the only countries in the world where skateboarding was illegal. So you would have to smuggle boards in from other countries and if the cops caught you skateboarding, they would confiscate your skateboard. Norway is crazy.
How else did growing up in Norway influence your work?
There was a certain element of shock of moving from Norway to New York, and also moving to New York on September 10, 2001, which is when I moved there. It was a very specific time, that decade from then to now. I think that kind of discord between the Norwegian experience and the experience in New York has been important to me.
It seems that a primary component of your work is combining a political message, regarding the individual’s relationship or conflict in society, with appropriation and institutional critique…
Institutional critique is originally a historical event; it’s an art historical genre. I think as such, it’s not possible to be doing that. It is a bit dead but it’s still important for my work. That genre became a natural part of art making today. My work has the traditional institutional critique baked into it. Hopefully it’s subtler and more humorous than how I find traditional institutional critique, even though I love that work.
Your work contains some irony…
There’s an element of humour. There are jokes in the work, either formal visual jokes or puns and that’s where some of this institutional critique lies, when I evoke institutional critique. It is hopefully in a little bit of a humorous way. The work’s definitely the relationship between institutional critique and the political critique. I am trying to set up a parallel between these two power structures, thereby saying that this work is also a victim to power structure, which exists within a certain framework. If my work didn’t do that it would be annoying.
There are many layers involved in the work. The more time you spend with it, the more layers are unveiled, for instance, learning about the ‘NYPD Badge’ and ‘Jesus Saves’….
I hope it works like that. I sometimes set up a misunderstood meaning. This is also a part of this critique of power, without sounding too pompous. I want people to question their own readings with it. You could see a piece or a show and misunderstand it, and then when you happen to see more pieces and shows, you perhaps realise that the initial reading was a faulty one.
How much do you want the viewer to pick up on these references, such as ‘Jesus Saves’ coming from Clint Eastwood’s ‘Dirty Harry’?
I give some clues but not a lot of information, so I want to leave it open for how much people want to get from it. And I want part of it to come from the storytelling around it somehow. It’s something you wouldn’t know when you see the show. You can hear about it from someone else or read about it… I want the process of understanding the work to evolve over time. I definitely do not want all the references to be visible. I don’t want it to be this game of finding the references while you are looking at the painting. I want there to be a feeling that there’s still information that could be dug up.
The installation is specific with some pieces standing on the floor.
One of the reasons why I do that is to take focus away from the individual work. I want to give this hint that something is a little bit in progress; something could be moving around or its not completely finished. When a painting is hung it follows that this is art. And now everyone knows that this is a painting. It’s supposed to be seen only within its formed borders. So it’s an attempt at making the work point to other works more and be a little less “the piece”.
When you came to the states you had a fascination with the myths of the West, “the American Dream”. I think it’s intriguing, particularly with Norwegians having this interest. My father, who’s from Norway, had an infatuation with the “Wild West”.
That is the founding myth of America. Somehow that’s still the myth that Norwegians have of the US, this moving west, carving out your own, the American dream. It’s funny because that’s all the time equally present and non-present in the US. People believe and don’t believe in that. It really is this state of being both those things. You can’t really say that that’s not there because it really is there for everyone. For the whole discourse for everything in the US, those myths are there. Yet a lot of people know from their lived experience that it’s not possible. For instance, if you live in an impoverished area in like, Detroit, and you are six years old, it’s really not going to get better. But you would not be able to find people in that situation and call it a bluff on the American dream.
How do you like living in New York?
I like it to different degrees. I like New York but I don’t love New York.
Really? I have always thought it’s a love/hate city.
I’m going to make a t-shirt that says “I kind of like NY” (laughs)… I recently have been getting a little bored by being there. It is not a super exciting place anymore. It was less regulated before I moved there. Moving to Tokyo and spending more time there has been cool and made me appreciate New York more. It is also necessary for me to not be in New York the whole time. When I’m in Tokyo now, I have the feeling that I had when I was in New York nine years ago, walking down the street and feeling like it is awesome to be here. It is an awesome town.
How has living in Tokyo influenced your work? It seems that has added another dimension since you used to do a lot of work centred on America.
Tokyo has its own different way of understanding community, relations between people. Individualism is quite frowned upon in Japan. It’s an interesting place to be for my work. Apart from that I like it for personal reasons, as a city, it’s amazing. Now I live between Tokyo and New York. I spend half my time in each place.
And Oslo, right?
No, actually not Oslo. Not for twelve years.
What is it that you like so much about Tokyo?
One thing is that it’s substantially bigger than New York, actual Tokyo is 13 million and that does not include the cities that directly connect to it. Yokohama is like 4 million, which is not included in that Tokyo number, so it is huge. There is more weird stuff going on. In New York, every bar closes at 4 and maybe you can stay for another hour if you know the owners of the bar. In Tokyo, they don’t have to close at all. If you are there at 12 in the afternoon after you spent the whole night there, they are fine with it and you can stay. It feels bigger and more dynamic. There’s more potential in Tokyo and more undiscovered parts. The quality of life is really good, even though that is more boring stuff. The food is amazing. It’s a short way to the beach and to the mountains. I have a nice house there. It is a very pleasant city to live in. And it’s nice to be somewhere where people are always very polite. Especially coming from New York where people play this farce of being a New Yorker, where they’re like “fuck you” just because they think that’s what they should say in New York.
Speaking of being influenced by Tokyo, can you talk about ‘The Suicide Mirror’ piece in this exhibition?
That is actually from one specific subway station in Tokyo where there is a high suicide rate. As a prevention measure, they’ve installed these mirrors. The theory is that if people see their bodies as kind of a unit and see it in relation to other bodies, they would be less likely to commit suicide. I don’t know if it worked.
That history is interesting to combine it with the appropriated use of the mirror with regards to Larry Bell and other modernist artists.
Yeah, and that of course are the two classic functions of painting, is that it’s either a mirror or a window.
Can you explain your other references to architecture? Did you study architecture?
I went to art school at an art academy in Norway and then in Germany. And then I did this post-graduate program in the US called the Whitney Program. So I did that first as an artist and then for a little while they were doing this shared program called Architecture and Urban Studies which was a shared program between the Whitney Program and Cooper Union. I did that for one year. But its logical that making sculptures and dealing with power structures would be about architecture because that’s how power takes concrete form in your environment.
Which artists are inspiring you now?
It varies. It could be more about their life than about their art. I’ve been interested in Gerhard Richter recently. He’s been doing a lot of work deconstructing painting but also his life is interesting. He somehow failed to be a part of any of those German scenes. He was this outsider. He was part of the capitalist realism movement in the ‘60s, but that was a little forced onto him. He became this loner artist who seemed too conservative and too weird, and through that managed to build fervour. What I like with artists is that there is a certain weirdness to them; there is something that doesn’t add up. Franz West, for example, is someone I like for that reason. For me though what fuels my own production are other parts of culture, like literature.
Can you talk about sourcing images and symbols from literature?
Yeah. I collect material that I feel is interesting. Some of it I don’t use and some of it just ends up lying around for a long time. Lets say 80% of my labour goes into collecting that kind of material. That is the real work and also part of the fun work, apart from painting which is really fun. I like the process a lot, just being in the studio.
It is something that I think is just in itself is painting.
Yeah, exactly. You don’t have to involve other people. It is so basic and that is awesome. I do some work that requires more involvement with other people and organising, and I don’t enjoy that as much.
You appropriate images and other elements from literature and art, and re-contextualize it into your art in a museum or art space, how important is the original context or is it not important?
It’s not really important at all unless I want to specifically use that as part of creating meaning. It’s a tool for me. All this imagery is out there and I feel like it’s my right to take that and totally take it out of context. Maybe that’s why people get mad sometimes. I think as long as it’s used in order to create something distinctly different and intend to do something else than I think that’s fair game.
Have you had any interesting reactions to your work?
I try not to be present for that. I have gotten complaints about my work. Sometimes people have a problem with appropriation art. I’ve had some comic book people mad at me for using comic book imagery in my work, saying its plagiarism and blah blah blah. They were also very mad at Lichtenstein.
Have you collaborated with other artists?
Yes, with a lot of artists. I’ve worked with the Norwegian artist, Mathias Faldbalken. We are doing a collaborative piece again in November in Portugal. I’ve done a lot of work with him. Oscar Tuazon, I’ve worked with him. It’s a way to be able to do projects that maybe would feel a little out of place in your own production, so sometimes I call someone and say, look, I have this idea and don’t feel like it would work so easily in my own work but should we do it together, and they would do the same. It’s nice to not take all the heat for it yourself. Its a way to have a little light touch about something and it also allows you to travel somewhere with one of your friends rather than alone.
There are musical references in your work. What kind of music do you listen to in your studio?
It’s up and down. Sometimes if it’s just me, I listen to older metal and hardcore but if I have assistants there, I sometimes play classical music because it’s mellower for everyone. And recently I’ve been listening to podcasts. There’s this BBC podcast I like called ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’. It’s where they pick objects and they talk about world history through these 100 objects. It’s awesome.
Do you have any shows coming up that you would like to share?
I have shows in Europe soon. I’m doing a show with a friend in Tokyo in December, which I’m excited about. I want to do as much as possible in Japan because I feel like there isn’t a real contemporary art scene there and I want there to be one.
Where else is ‘Power has a Fragrance’ showing?
It started in Norway, and then it came here and then it’s going to Stockholm and then to Kassel, Germany, so I will be travelling around with this show for a while…
Power has a Fragrance will be showing at Reykjavík Art Museum until January 9, 2011.