I was completely taken aback a couple years ago when I read The Wounded Diva, by author and professor Karin Johannisson. In her book she investigates how great artists who were admitted to the psychiatric hospital Beckomberga, took advantage of their diagnoses to make room for creative activities. Agnes von Krusenstjerna and Nelly Sachs wrote ground-breaking literary texts. Sacks was later awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, which she went to claim arm in arm with her psychiatrist. Sigrid Hjertén renewed modernistic imagery in painting, then died following complications from a labotomy. Even in the midst of misery they did not let themselves be completely broken, but remained true to who they are or wanted to be.
Today, the situation for creative women is not as harsh. Being a woman and doing creative work is no longer a provocation. As long as it doesn’t entail prioritising creative endeavours over family life and children. Something men have historically always done and continue to do. This is something the author Jenny Offill touches on in her attention-grabbing Dept. of Speculation, that came out a couple of years ago. The book revolves around the main character, an unnamed 20-year-old woman (referred to simply as “the wife”) who longs to become an “art monster”. But the dream collides with reality. The child rearing years become an obstacle. The baby is colicky, the husband is unfaithful, the apartment has lice.
The protagonist feels alone and alienated from the outside world. ”My plan was never to get married. I wanted to become an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters are preoccupied only with art, and never with worldly things. Nabokov never even closed his own umbrella. Vera even licked his
stamps for him,” she ponders, and continues to ponder for 15 years.
Once the narrator changes perspective and begins to view herself from the perspective of an outsider, does she gain some distance and realises that she is the victim of adultery. Only then can her dream of becoming an “art monster” finally begin to take shape.
But turning into an “art monster” is not about chasing happiness and success, as was the case for a wounded diva, nor is it about being a strong, or for that matter, a weak woman. It is about artistic freedom and female liberation (or emancipation). About being oneself, yet constantly changing and transforming. To live is to create, to create is to live.
As far as the monster is concerned, it has historically always been regarded as “The Other”. It began with the Gothic tale about Mary Shelley and has continued to the horror films of today. Judith Halberstam finds the monster impossible to define. According to her, every attempt to define the monster will always leave certain aspects
incomprehensible. That is what comes to mind as I look at the works that are part of Misschiefs, a collected production of 13 distinctive women's distinctive works.
The Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann claimed that everything that can be said about a work is weaker than the work itself. It is a difficult task to describe a work without having the feeling of diminishing it. In the same way, it is a difficult task to select a few works of art to write about in this preface. Especially considering how all of the works are equally interesting in their own way. Each one individually, but also together as a whole. It is with difficulty, but for reasons of limited space, I have been forced to select some of the works.
When looking for a common motif, there is a classic and recurring theme for this exhibition, namely the cycle of life and death. So how is this portrayed in Misschiefs?
In the universe, the non-land created by Farvash, there is an express link between micro and macro cosmos. Paradox Tale of Logic Gate is an installation, a live performance that is a ritual, and a prayer mat accompanied by a mask. This control room contains the movements of the character or non-character. Someone who doesn’t belong, yet is controlled anyway. No one belongs but are still conspiratorially controlled and silenced. Only Farvash knows the true origin of the camouflage and she chooses to keep that a secret. But she can confirm that it was used in combat.
It was embroidered and beautified by her. A beautification that examines the contemporary consumption of war. The original design of the camouflage is symbolic. The color red stands for courage and martyrdom, green is for Islam, white stands for peace. The meaning of the color black can only be understood by the designer of the camouflage and possibly by the one who wore it. Here, too, we see the contrast between the hand that embroidered beauty and the hand ready to embark in battle after prayer. Farvash's re-creation of the prayer mat can be seen as a study of spirituality that delves backwards in history and looks ahead to the future through technology and science fiction.
In contrast to Farvash’s work, where the significant of the color black is unknown and a part of the other colors, it completely drips and dominates in Yngvild Sæter's The Spirit Realm. Black and heavy metals. A near-death experience was the trigger for Sæter’s work with heavy materials, as a way to gain control over life and death. Some would say that she works with traditionally male materials. But by tearing up a motorcycle and remaking it into a chandelier, she challenges the view of strength and weakness and of male and female. In Sæter's way
of working with the materials, the concept of gender is destabilized as is the view of what it means to be an authentic human being.
The birth of man begins with the mother. Motherhood is also a reoccurring theme for both Märta Mattsson and Åsa Jungnelius. Mattsson has created the Maggie & Cate lamps in the actual size of human babies. Mattsson describes these creatures as a way for her to anthropomorphize the complex and complicated issues of motherhood. There is a belief that a woman should give birth. Almost like a compulsion. But giving birth to art instead of giving birth to children should be just as good and she considers herself to be a proud mother, just not of a human child.
Since the beginning of her work as an artist, Åsa Jungnelius has played with the beautiful material glass, by making it dirty and subjected it to forms and shapes that are not associated with modernist art: order, tidiness and how things should be placed neatly in given places. Unlike Märta Mattsson, Jungnelius has created something for Misschiefs that celebrates motherhood: the dining table Lena, dedicated to her mother. But it's not just about motherhood, Jungnelius also wants to defend friendship and collective pluralism.
The authentic person does not exist, writes Karin Johannisson. I think about how all Misschiefs both create and recreate, stretch and challenge our conception, regarding how we are supposed to act, not only as a woman but also as a human being. Works are added to works like passion is added to passion. Form to form as energy is added to energy. Materials to materials like examination to examination. To be An Injured Diva is to be an “art monster” is to be a Misschief – a passionate, contradictory and interchangeable, straight and skewed, clear and enigmatic.
Sara Abdollahi is a literary critic at Expressen Kultur and essayist
Original text in Swedish
English translation by Fern Scott Olsson and Nathan Hamelberg