Against the wall: hangmenProjects
C-print meets with gallery directors Stephen McKenzie and Jenny Bergman of hangmenProjects speaking about what appears to be a unique position in the art scene of Stockholm, having notably as well presented a pair of the most interesting shows in town in the year that just passed. Later this spring the gallery is due to host artist Slobodan Zivic's new project 'Public Audio Image' curated by C-print.
C-P: You are both artists yourselves and are also running operations at hangmenProjects together. Tell me more about you guys.
S.M: I moved to Sweden in 1993 I had just completed my BA in sculpture at the Victoria College of the arts in Melbourne. Once here I applied to do my MA at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, which I completed in 1996. Whilst studying I worked part-time at Magasin III which eventually became full time. I was there for 4 years before I went freelance as an art technician,. Even though I ended up spending more time working I always made sure that I had my own studio and kept making stuff. Six years ago I met Patrik Svensson at Moderna Museet and we decided to start a company together that would produce art exhibitions and building public artworks. We also got Kelvin and Ulrika Douglas involved; they are part owners in Beyond Retro Sweden. Kelvin and I strangely enough studied sculpture together in Melbourne. That’s when Hangmen the production company started and shortly after that we moved into this space at 86 Ringvägen in Södermalm.
Even then there was an idea that the space would be used part-time as an exhibition space, but we started picking up new customers including ACNE, and all of sudden the workshop became very busy. 2 years ago we moved into a new studio, 400 m2 at KKV. We then decided to re-build Ringvägen, turning it into artists’ studios in the back and the rest into the gallery. Jenny was appointed in November 2014 and hangmenProjects opened to the public in December 2014.
J.B: I lived in Barcelona for many years in the ‘90s studying and working. Even back then I was in the museum/gallery business for a while, working as a photographer at MACBA and for half a year I was an assisting gallerist in a small photo gallery in New York while studying at ICP. I moved back to Sweden in 2000 and did my MA at the Textile department at Konstfack in Stockholm. Stephen and I go long back in time as friends and I got involved with the Hangmen production company combing my own art practice with installing art for others. Almost everyone working with the production company is an artist and we knew we could easily find interesting artists to show. We wanted to roll the dice ourselves! I think Stephen and I work well together because we both adopt a let’s-do-it mind set, we’re flexible and ready to take chances. That we both are very immediate and spontaneous has characterised the gallery as well.
C-P: Looking back at your programme this past year, you’ve both had solo shows here, and whether you will call hangmenProjects an artist-run space or not, I really find this idea of artists running a space creating opportunities for themselves to exhibit as well as their friends and peers very sympathetic. Something that is largely absent in the Stockholm art scene.
S.M: We definitely weren’t afraid of exhibiting ourselves. I hadn’t intended to exhibit so early on but we had a gap, so I thought I’d go for it. I had a body of work plus I worked directly in the space for 3 weeks, I made a new works and composed some old works into new works. I hadn’t really exhibited a lot of my work, so I guess most people didn’t know what to expect, most seemed pleasantly surprised. Elisabeth Fagerstedt galleri became interested, so one of the sculptures is now in her showroom. From my own experience I know the difficulties of finding a balance between studio time, making enough cash to pay the bills, and then getting your work exhibited. Part of hangmenProject roll is to assist in these process especially to those who are closest to us.
J.B: For me I had just finished a longer self initiated project called ‘Searching for Caj' sponsored by The Swedish Arts Grants Committee and it needed to be exhibited, so it made total sense to show it here. Why show it elsewhere? Stockholm really is a fairly hard place as an artist. There are so many norms and rules that you have to comply with and if you for whatever reason don’t feel you don’t fit within the system it gets even harder.
C-P: Södermalm is such a hub for creativity and yet contrary to what one might expect, it’s never been positioned as a part of town for gallery practice and exhibiting contemporary art. With your opening around here I feel will mark a notable change. Stockholm isn’t an easy city to being something different, anti-establishment. Over the long haul and from a point of financial longevity operating anything in a renegade fashion without conforming to a system I think proves tricky given the considerable small collector base here. What is your take on Stockholm?
S.M: I’ve always perceived Stockholm as a place where if you do something there's a great possibility it will gets noticed. It’s hard to get lost in Stockholm, in that way it’s good. You are right that there’s unbalance in the Stockholm art scene, with very concentrated areas of certain types of spaces. Södermalm and the southern suburbs the concentration is primarily artist-run-spaces, where the North it’s the commercial galleries. The artist live and create in the south but the art is sold in the north to the people living in the north.
As you said we’re not really an artist-run space either, even though we have the feel of one and we are artists running it. There is the company Hangmen backing it and paying for it, allowing it to be possible. The companies, institutions and artists that Hangmen work for are indirectly sponsoring hangmenProjects. I think it’s this that makes us different; we are in some kind of way completing a loop.
C-P: I imagine your outlook starting the gallery was different given the financial backing and yours having a strong network to benefit from, working in your company with a number of important museum institutions in Stockholm.
J.B: Yes, absolutely and that’s definitely something we are aware of and of course this is to our advantage. After months of procrastination, hangmenProjects and the first exhibition ‘The Invitation’ was totally organised and opened in a month. We used this network when we invited artists that we have worked with, and at the same time giving them an invitation to invite another artist, thus extend this network.
S.M: It’s happened that curators from the different art institutions that Hangmen work with have met each other for the first time at hangmenProjects. Since opening we have had over 40 projects prosed to us, obviously this is not possible for us to deal with. There seems a real need for spaces for artists to exhibit their work. Hopefully in the future we could some how work with in this network to help accommodate this need.
C-P: If you had to give me an elevator pitch about running hangmenProjects, what would it be?
S.M: In the beginning we really wanted to have a space where artists could work directly in the space, which is why the space looks the way it does. So the artists feel as comfortable as they would in there own studios. Both Jenny and I like materiality and like people working very directly with the space.
J.B: We don’t really have a manifesto and we’re constantly changing. The year has been a lot of fun and at the same time an intensive learning by doing process. It has given us the confidence and energy to pursue the project further. There is a tentative atmosphere at hangmenProjects that I feel is liberating and hopefully encourage both the exhibiting artists and the visitors to feel welcome and inspired. We are not driven by outside forces, which means we can do what we want and we do not follow a strict curatorial programs. We are more likely to take risks and can give unknown artists opportunities they have not been given before. Another thing that has emerged in our conversations about how to run the space is to try to show two artists at least at each time, which automatically creates dialogue. The current exhibition is a great example of that, Mari Rantanen and Axel Lieber, They are exhibiting separate works, Mari has painted directing on the existing wall, Axel is showing 6 sculptures and they have also made collaborative work. In May were are looking forward to see what Anna Nordström and Cecilia Hultman will produce.
C-P: There are number of artists whom you are working with more continuously with a particular focus in your programme among whom are a sculptor, Haidar Mahdi who I think is one to really watch for in the next few years. I remember reacting very strongly to his sculptures at your presentation at the Supermarket Art Fair.
S.M: We’re not necessarily representing them but there is indeed a focus on a few artists. There’s Haidar Mahdi whom you mention, Haidar was working at Beyond Retro and Kelvin called me saying I’ve got a guy here that’s better off work with you. Hadair was studying at Konstfack at that time; he’s since gone on to do his masters at the Royal Institute of Art. He now has a studio at the back of hangmenProjects. And we have Nacho Tatjer, Lyndal Walker, Anna Nordström and Olle Wärnbäck and a few more whom we want to keep working with regularly. It really depends on how the space develops, it would be nice to find a balance between having an opening ended exhibition space whilst representing artist in a more commercial way.
C-P: I enjoyed the texts about Haidar Mahdi in a catalogue you published where he addresses his Iraqi-Polish descent and how it’s reflected in his sculptural work and how it channels interior and home decoration tastes in his parents’ native countries; the desire to display an air of wealth and opulence. What to us in Sweden would probably appear gaudy given our tastes for the minimalist non-descript interior.
Speaking of Supermarket, I understand it was exhibiting last year that Jenny met with wonderful Syrian curator Abir Boukhari whose curated group exhibition “I will never get used to wait” was exhibited at the gallery this fall and marks for me a most important show in light of war-struck times and the impossible situation in Syria that I will remember as a favourite from this year. It gave so much perspective without being blatantly political.
J.B: We didn’t exactly know what Abir would show other than what we had seen at the fair but what I loved was how she was able to present drawings, installation and video. As we were hanging the show we knew it was going to be a great show corresponding to her vision.
Something worth noting in light of the show is that when we build exhibitions with the production company there is so much constructed and used materials that go to waste and are thrown away when the exhibitions are over and torn down. Many times we have brought back and reused materials for exhibitions we’ve done here. For Abir’s show we were allowed to borrow a big bunch of frames that to frame drawings by Muhammed Ali after a photography show at Artipelag was taken down the days before. They fit perfectly!
C-P: That’s amazing and very telling of great relationships. On a different note and last note I know you guys are planning a sculptural show for next year which will humorously be titled along the lines of “Death of Ceramics”.
S.M: I met Nacho Tatjer, who also is Jenny’s husband, at the European Ceramic Work Centre in Holland back in 1994 and that was actually my initial connection to them both. At the Royal Institute of Art I was making ceramic sculptures, which was part of my graduation show at Galleri Mejan. So we have an old ceramics background.
‘Death of Ceramic’ is planned to open in August, as you know ceramics is very prominent in the Swedish art scene at the moment. Ceramics has entered the traditional fine art gallery system. It seems to be an interesting mix of artists with very little ceramics training who are finding their own way and artist with traditional ceramics background with out the baggage of a traditional fine art education. It’s this odd mix that makes it interesting, making it difficult to define their artist practices.
We are playing with the idea and the on going discussion of ‘painting is dead’. With that I thought it was about time that we killed off Ceramics especially while it’s trending. Just like painters are still painting I expect artist will still work with ceramics long after the exhibition. We have an idea of curating shows at hangmenProject that then could bounce on to larger exhibition spaces. This would hopefully be that kind of a show. I have mentioned the show to a few of the artist who we will invite, with a positive response but nothing is finalized as yet.
C-print met with Stephen McKenzie and Jenny Bergman back in October 2015.
hangmenProjects is currently presenting Mari Rantanen and Axel Lieber: Double Dutch, January 15 – February 13.
Slobodan Zivic's Public Audio Image curated by C-print opens at hangmenProjects April 29- May 1.