We met Anna Rún Tryggvadottir at her studio in Berlin, to find out more about her practice ahead of her group show at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Her work gravitates around nature as a ‘push and pull force’ that we feel irresistibly drawn to, but the anthropocene puts our innate longing for nature to the test. Anna Rún’s kinetic sculptures and installations reconfigures these mechanisms and intersections between ourselves and nature.
Rugged, at times barren lands, the earth’s surface moving: Iceland’s geology speaks of time and gravity. The sheer scale of it all shifts our perspective entirely, from the millions of years imbedded in rocks to the energy of a waterfall or the awe of mountains still being born. I met Anna Rún in her studio in Berlin earlier this month to discuss what inspires her, through this lens of nature. Her work taps into something primal and mineral.
The mixed structures she creates tease us to come closer to nature, the heart and spark of who we are and what we consume.
Seeing these sculptures’ surfaces, can you tell us more about their textures, their materiality?
I built these structures to give agency to the materials themselves, to take a look at what these do on their own. It’s about stepping away from and re-entering nature. I explore how artificial and raw mate-rials are in conversation with one another, how they play out stories at a given moment. In Reykjavik you always see the outskirts of the city, there is a horizon for you to look out to nature.
This space governs society, and our pretence to govern nature the other way around is something I struggle with but it also inspires me as an artist.
You invite us to see nature from multiple angles then -within, we observe your work up close, and beyond your art, we step outside ourselves. How do you experiment with scale in your work?
When you look at nature through a microscope it somehow becomes a testament to the macro. It is like a map, a blueprint where all things correlate and connect. This interdependency interests me as a symbol, a metaphor for the greater context of how the natural world operates.
The material processes I recreate in my work are like all nature processes, they have a force of their own.
Growth for example, visible just outside your house when the irrigation system is corroding. Scale is a way for me to reach out to the viewers: different sizes and dimensions have varying effects on our bodies, individually.
I also like to work in close proximity to the space I am in, taking advantage of my surroundings, reading into the space, listening to what it is, so that the work becomes in tune with it.
Whether I choose large or small scale depends on how I think it will affect the viewer. I am aware that scale manifests itself through the viewer at a given place.
Matter in Motion 2016, Hverfisgallery, Iceland, photo credit: the artist
The Art that is Nature
Speaking of location and how your art is displayed, is there a particular space or venue that comes to mind?
For my sculptural installation ‘Thingvellir Turning 2018′ it was nature itself, the national park ‘Thingvellir’ in Iceland. In this kinetic intervention, I mechanically activated a clip section of the land so that it could move and blend in with the grass like a camouflage.
The other way around appeals to me too: for the exhibition ’Garden’ at Reykjavik’s Art Museum, I brought nature indoors, inside the white cube space of the gallery. The white walls and confined space were the starting point for this installation. the municipality of Reykjavik had gathered rocks to build a barrier between land and sea, like protecting walls for the city. I borrowed fourteen of these, fitted their shapes and sculpted them in white to be at one with the space. The rocks formed a grid that was spread across the floor, including a missing rock substituted by one of the two columns.
It is quite tempting to toy with the idea of an indoor ‘slice’ of nature, immersive, but what I am actually most drawn to is this thin membrane, the fine line we tread between the natural world that exists independently of us, and the concrete jungle of the cities we live in. At this junction there is a kind of disconnect from nature, especially as we keep carving out our planet’s resources.
When I bring nature into an art space, does that at some point stop being nature?
We are constantly gathering materials, everything we have, everything we use comes in some shape or form from the Earth, from the materials of the Earth. Does this stuff ever stop being nature? If we return it to where it was initially, does it become nature again? This is a field I am interested in.
Your works also translate these ties we have with nature, and those we have broken. Do you notice these links between the viewers and your artworks?
It depends. I’ve witnessed people touching the work which I can absolutely understand and I have nothing against that. Some surfaces can be hypersensitive though, but I sometimes touch artworks regardless! I think the interactive element is constant, maybe not in the usual participatory sense, but wherever we go we are a bit like sponges, always absorbing information from our environment. Not only do we process it cognitively, we also operate differently with each situation.
Taking in nature triggers our senses, physical reactions, gut feelings.
I think for example that experiencing an art work outside in nature, brings a much wider context to the work itself, beyond and unlike the construct of exhibition spaces.
Into the forest and man-made matter
In terms of this ‘openness’, which scenery inspires you most? Sea, Mountains, Forest?
The forest is new to me, since Iceland has none. I am now getting used to forest walks as I had never come close to one until recently. When I went to the Rocky Mountains in Canada a few years ago at first I didn’t dare venture into the forest -it has a language I don’t know, wild animals I am unsure how to react to. Now in Berlin I go to forests more often -just last week we saw a herd of wild pigs and deers. To encounter wildlife in this way is quite special for me.
Since being in a forest, has wood itself informed your practice? What do trees evoke for you?
I actually just read this article about forests. They have striking effects depending on the types of forests. The older the forest, the more powerful it is in releasing all sorts of chemicals that are incredibly healthy for us to be in.
The Japanese tradition to bathe in a forest, in its atmosphere, is fascinating.
I love standing in front of the North Atlantic Ocean and feeling the scent of the ocean, the salt, the oxygen. So powerful and invigorating. Also, the ecology of these elements, of rocks, but also wood, has an age span that is difficult for us to grasp. I like to experiment with them to express how we experience and define time. This rock piece in my studio for example, rotating there, is probably several millions of years old.
Reflecting this idea of ‘matter’ that constitutes things and ourselves, which of the elements -earth, fire, water, air do you feel closest to?
Yes, perhaps artworks can be described as air, or fire, instead of an emotion. Could this be a universal translation? I would have to think of this in relation to mythology in general. Today it seems that algo-rithms and media overflow have infiltrated our myths and stories, our utopias and ideas beyond the material here and now.
Cultures around the world tackle myth and origins, reaching out to nature in varying degrees. Japanese zen, shamanism, Chinese traditional medicine among others have all caught my attention.
But I actually focus on something fundamental like prehistoric phenomena, the geology of a rock to perceive what they do and how they react on their own.
Stepping away from texts and other mind constructs allows me to consider things more from within, in and of themselves -not as elements of earth, fire, water or air.
You mentioned the importance of noticing one’s breath. By extension, this reminds us of language, sound, silence -do acoustics or music inspire you?
For me breath has a lot to do with silence, because I need silence to notice my breath. I truly admire various fields of sound, acoustics, and music but I rarely incorporate these into my work.
I once built an amplification piece though.
‘Render and React’ was a large installation made of dripping liquids. I amplified their sound until they became a loud blurb, which launched the performance.
Ensnare, 2017 disko arts festival, work in the making. Photo credit: Jonas Ersland
Silence of Findlings
The silence you refer to recalls the echo one can sense in the mountains -absolute stillness, a sort of ‘mineral’ silence. Is there an ‘elemental’ side to your current project at Bethanien?
Yes. Respectively, the tree breathes oxygen, the rocks are from the crust of the earth, and the sea sponges breathe oxygen in the ocean. These are not related to one another in a straight line, but they are natural, vital phenomena that exist.
These rocks I am working with for this show at Bethanien are called Findlinge. They have been around for millions of years and in the last Ice Age, the glacier relocated them from Scandinavia to Germany, across thousands of kilometres.
The trees are an element we rely on as potential saviours for our carbon emissions and our wellbeing. Sponges are huge oxygenators, they clean the oceans through and through: sifting through micro bacteria, breathing out oxygen.
They appeared over 440 million years ago, after the first mass extinction, and have outlived all extinctions since.
They grew all over the oceans and oxygenated these enough for life to be sprung, for vertebrates to develop.
I juxtapose these elements with mechanically devised structures (the rotating device for the rock, the synthetic sponge) to reflect on our fraught relationship with nature.
work in progress 2013, Concordia University MFA Gallery, Photo credit: Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir
Fusing the organic with something artificial (a motor, synthetic fibres), enables these little sculptures to enact their own ‘show’, they per-form according to their natural way of being: whenever the sponges are in water for example, they open themselves up completely, they breathe in the water. Through this gesture I fix, ’freeze’ these sponges in that state. I fossilise them. The synthetic sponge becomes part of the future fossils of our carbon footprint, among the geological strata of the earth.
This notion of fossils also recalls the passing of time. Besides sculpture, are there other techniques you use to express this idea?
I have used watercolour as a structural framework. Paper itself unfolds its own narrative: a visual rec-ord of the processes between the watercolour and the paper at one point in time. Pigments move at various speeds, their trace on the paper outlines the degree to which they are being absorbed, how the paper’s fibres react in contact to the liquid. These intricacies are unpredictable, they create random subtleties of colour and depth.
In light of the stories within your works, to what extent does literature or poetry inspire you? Your watercolours here in the studio remind me of calligraphy too…
While I do read poetry and love listening to music, I like to investigate the materials themselves more in depth.
Literature for me is a backdrop, a source to play with freely and adapt to the contexts of my artworks.
As much as music, poetry, dance are enhancing, I feel that the visual arts can also be an investigation in and of itself, without a direct link to these other art forms.
These disciplines echo each other, cross paths, but in my practice I see them as an archaeology of sorts, part enquiry part enigma.
work in progress 2013, Concordia, MFA Gallery, Photo Credit: Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir
Do you consider yourself spiritual and how do you explore this in your work?
I am a spiritual person, in the sense that life’s mysteries beg for us to question things.
To keep a finger on the pulse of nature, to be alert and inquisitive, that is what matters.
Our breath is the core of it all. Being mindful of it, is to be present, self-aware.
This is a spiritual gesture: simply, to treat ourselves and our environment with care and attention.
An Ode – poriferal phases
OPENING & OPEN STUDIOS: January 16th, 7pm
EXHIBITION: January 17th – February 9th, 2020
Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Showroom Kottbusser Damm 10, Berlin
Author: Alexandrea Etienne