Two times Kuylenstierna
A while ago, we proudly launched artist-cum-filmmaker Lode Kulylenstierna's latest cinematic project, The Sane Society, on the site. Now meet the man (men) behind it.
Lode & Dag Kuylenstierna / Photo: Björn Bengtsson
C-P: We recently had the pleasure of launching your latest film project on our website and are just about to unveil the second chapter. For those who have yet to see it, can you tell us a little about the idea behind the project and how it came about?
L.K: 'The Sane Society' sprung up from the desire to dig into the horrors of individuality in our present-day society. It didn't come to me as a single idea though. It’s rather an accumulation of thoughts and observations I've been carrying around for a while now.
The starting point – to be more specific - was one day when I, funny enough, found myself searching for a psychological motivation to get myself to the gym. A few months before that, I’d bought myself a very expensive one-year gym subscription, but had only managed to go once. So I set out looking for ways to actually enjoy that kind of exercise (I never went to the gym). Instead, I stumbled upon a rather depressing and comical self-help method called "self-talk". What intrigued me was how its structure clearly communicated a person’s deepest aspiration for an "ideal self", while simultaneously revealing everything but the ideal. And in one brush stroke, it painted a picture of a universe where success and failures in our society rest on the shoulders of the individual. ”Self talk” is supposed to be a way to reprogram the self into the person you want to be – to rid yourself of your inner negative monologue – by listening to and repeating positive affirmations.
At the time I was immersed in the writing of a feature film script that had me in the mood of collecting impressions and narratives that were passing me by in my everyday life. Part of that was also the practice of taking note of spaces and locations with potential for suspense and a narrative. It was a joyful and inspiring process, but essentially with no means to an end. But then, these self-talking characters started to emerge, as narratives inside the locations I had put aside in my mind. They were juxtaposed between the positive, self-affirming dialogue and an image of a great tragedy. This very tension between opposites – deepest desires mixed with the biggest flaws – felt magnetic, like an in-depth portrait of people; or in this case, my characters.
C-P: Among other things, we both have a significant thing in common. We are both twins and have a keen interest in the notion of twinhood. While I actively work with mine, many on your previous projects have also been brought forth in collaboration with your fictional identical twin brother Dag Kuylenstierna. What prompted you to invent Dag and keep having him around?
L.K: Dag has become the most important element of my art practice. He’s like a paradox, who lives inside me and allows me to freely navigate complex questions, without having to chose sides. Twinhood is also something that I constantly fight to be free off, in the ultimate endeavor for autonomy (free will). However, through this discourse with “the other self”, eventually ends up generating a much deeper meaning, in whatever I make or do.
Actually, scientific research and anthropological studies, often make use of the study of twins to get to the bottom of how various forces form and influence a human being. In that sense, I basically use a similar approach when I create.
I also find that something unique occurs when art takes on the nature of twinhood. When the object/artwork is repeated, copied or duplicated, it suddenly has its own sense of meaning. It’s not just a single, random thing, trying to communicate with the viewer, but rather something that has it’s own specific and individual agenda. The artwork/artworks become autonomous and have their own value/meaning. In a way, it could even be independent or free from an audience. This very nature becomes extra interesting, in the abstract realm. It almost dissolves the abstract and brings the non-figurative to the figurative.
C-P: I recently saw your feature length film 'Homo Sacer' (2016) and was very impressed by the level of ambition. Revolving around a character who the subject of public abuse and contempt in the midst of the London riots in 2011, I found it very thought-provoking about the notion of hearsay and the lack of source criticism oftentimes applied to news flourishing in the realm of social media.
L.K: It’s the biggest tragedy of our time, and I'm really appalled by the middle-aged shaming mobs, created by social media that believe they are advocates for ”the good”. When I began working on 'Homo Sacer', the political landscape was different than today. We suddenly lived in a world where countries could go bankrupt from the financial crisis, where social media could take down governments (Arabic spring) or set cities on fire (England Riots 2011).
Living through that turbulent climate, what interested me, first of all was the hysteria on social media. But most importantly, I was fascinated by what I was actually looking at. How my mind was filling the gaps with fiction. Stumbling upon a viral story where a stranger was robbing an injured kid, in a neighboring country, I began working on the film. The goal was to look beyond the prejudiced narrative of my own mind and how it explains reality.
I couldn't put it in to words then but I had this uncanny feeling about social media. Eventually most social media revolutions turned out to be tragedies. The Arab spring, for instance, was full of optimism. The world believed and felt inspired. Being able to take down an oppressing government was powerful. But then as we all know, it was temporary - a swarm that from one day to another deteriorated into nothing - leaving complete countries in decay.
Same with the revolution in Ukraine that followed soon after, a country that’s now stuck in a silent war that no one talks about. In a sense, I feel that the social media universe is the Middle Ages of our time. It’s the opposite of the future we imagined it would be. I loved the beginning of the Internet era. We were all nomads wandering, collecting, trading in a digital landscape without any laws. It was a new world. An anarchy. Today it's full of swarms conducting variations of public shaming methods, not to mention it being a platform for extravagant displays of our so-called ideal, "decorated" selves, which couldn’t be further removed from reality.
Homo Sacer trailers:
C-P: Having worked in films for year, also commercially, and with a MFA from the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, how do you see the dual artistic roles of filmmaker and artist?
L.K: I’m a daydreamer. At any time I can suddenly leave the present with a distant gaze into infinity. I see narratives in everything and especially in the materials I use in my art. The narratives unfolds in the material, textures, shapes, colors etc. ending up in compositions that, well mostly just me, experience asmulti-layered clashes, that bring my mind into new territories and further possible narratives I couldn't think of. When I don't have that experience I often end up doing something else.
I have always felt the need to transcend that day-dreaming gaze and as a child I tended to turn to video or painting. So to me it’s all the same, throughout my entire body of my work, be it film, sculpture, painting or text etc. It’s fairly obvious that I’m unable to hold them separate on a conceptual and thematic level.
But in dialogue with people within the different disciplines, I have found that I need to sometimes keep them apart, in order to maintain ‘focus’ and accuracy. If I don't keep them apart, they become extremely difficult to talk about, because my works essentially are multi-layered. This has lead me to perceive the different disciplines, as if existing in separate rooms, connected with doors – that I wonder in an out of – at times leaving the doors open.
Before I went to the Royal Institute of Art, I worked in a commercial film industry that I felt had a negative influence on me, at the time. I had to take a step back. Then at RIA my focus shifted entirely into my art practice. Today I'm in an opposite position in regards to the film industry. I find that my artistic practice has a positive influence on my commercial work and it's great to be able to do both. The best part is that I get to combine the lonely quiet and focused time in my art studio, with the rich social life of film productions. There I’m part of a team of interesting, creative and professional people. This combination of working in solitude to then being immersed into a tight community is where I thrive the most. Basically, I need them both.
C-P: I remember stumbling across your body of work some years ago which then seemed to revolve mostly around painting but at the MFA spring degree exhibition on 2017, you exhibited a large-scale sculptural installation which really commanded the daunting and vast space in which it was presented (the former post terminal of Tomteboda). How did you find your time at the RIA?
L-K: At the very beginning of the RIA journey, I essentially had to throw everything out of the window. To be able to start fresh. To find what was important to me. I just felt an urgent need to do that, in order to make art that had a value in itself and not just something that existed in relation to myself. The act of doing so, then gave me real perspective, plus the realization that I’m not necessarily bound to a specific discipline. That’s also when Dag took his place as an important element in my work, eventually settling into the heart of everything.
A general feeling I had about RIA was constant state of turbulence that continued through my entire degree. The year before I was admitted, the school had just gone through the two years of adapting to the new European educational framework - the Bologna process (three-year Bachelor and two-year Master separated). That was a system that goes completely against what I believe to be one RIA’s philosophy of giving five years of uninterrupted time to find and develop your own art practice. What your art practice becomes is nothing that can be taught. It’s something that demands time and focus. So I was really annoyed about the Bologna process, when I started. Yet during the first day, in the opening speech of the then current vice-chancellor Måns Wrange, it was announced that he and RIA's lawyers had found a loop hole in the system. It would now be possible to go back to the traditional five-year program.
The turbulent times during my five years started in the transition between vice-chancellors. It turned out to be a radical leap going from Måns Wrange's horizontal leadership with administrational meetings in everything, to Marta Kuzma's vertical leadership with big student meetings and new visions on how to expand the school. A big internal conflict blew up, if I remember it correctly, between Marta Kuzma and the teachers and administration.
Shortly after the school was caught in a conflict with The Royal Academy of Art. I don't really want to get into details, because both sides were working in the best interest of the students and most things that were said were rumours and speculations. At times the conflict felt like two parents arguing about how to raise their children, and as a result, students and adults started to behave very infantile-like and paranoid. Sadly Marta Kuzma was pushed out, or rather she seized the opportunity to become the dean at Yale University School of Art. Suddenly there was a poster in the school entrance with a picture of Marta behind prison bars and the text: Marta goes to Yale. It was spot on!
Apart from the conflicts, I found that the most exciting time was when Marta Kuzma started as Vice-chancellor. She was a force of nature. She had such a progressive way of paving new ground for the school and she was also very keen on having an open and direct dialogue with the students. From being a school that was fighting to stay on the island and was every year slicing off pieces in order to match the higher market rents, Marta started a dialogue directly with the Ministry of education, and presented a plan where she would expand the school to become a big campus on the Island - Skeppsholmen. She basically explained to the Ministry of Education how and what RIA needs rather than the other way around. She also had an international vision for the school with an expanded field of art theory based on the Frankfurt School theorists. A wind of social theory and critical philosophy swept over the school.
It was around the same time, when I switched professors to Ann-Sofie Sidén. She was also incredibly inspiring. When I started in her professor’s group, things started to make sense. I also liked my former professor, Sophie Tottie, but I felt we were too similar in temperament. I’m often very careful and tend to take a step back to observe and reflect before I do anything. Ann-Sofie is the opposite. She has a sharp eye and the gift of immediately reacting, plus expressing her first impression with great accuracy. It was a truly valuable quality for me in terms of understanding of my own work.
So how did I find my time at school? I really loved it. It was a privilege to be amongst so many inspiring professors, teachers and fellow students. I was surrounded by wonderful people and professional artists. We had great fun together. I can really miss that companionship.
C-P: Things took off for you pretty quickly with a solo show in the studio space of Galerie Forsblom just a couple of months after graduation. What was that experience like for you?
L.K: The only thing that matters to me is the autonomous value of the work. If I don't find meaning in the work, I lose all sense of purpose and the only thing occupying my mind is different forms of shame. I think that's why I'm mostly focusing on larger projects that can take years to do, because they must have that autonomous quality in order to maintain an interest that long. I Initially wanted to say no to the exhibition that Galerie Forsblom offered me. They gave me such a short time frame and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to produce anything of value. My MFA work 'Homo Digitalis' was to be exhibited at Sven Harrys Art Museum at the same time. I didn't want to reproduce my self. I wanted - as with my previous projects - present work that had a high level of autonomy. But as soon as I started the dialogue with Sara Berner Bengtsson and Ilkka Tikkanen at Forsblom, I felt very comfortable to explore new ideas for the space at hand. It became a great installation that really brought the process to its edge resulting in 'Life Support' which is one of the best and most important works I have done. It was the perfect next step in my practice.
C-P: Lastly, what projects might you have in the pipeline this year?
Well, 'The Sane Society' is an ongoing project that will take up a lot of my time this year with a new release on this site every month. I also have two exhibitions to look forward to. A group show at Gallery Blå Kulan in Mörbylånga, Öland, in April and a solo show at Konsthallen S:ta Anna in Trosa in July. Alongside my feature project '”Rikets Sal' that is still in development, I have an intermediate project between painting and sculpture which I'm really excited about. It’s on the subject of submission, or maybe it's more accurate to say; subjection of oneself to someone or something other. I believe it to be a necessary human condition for control and sense of purpose in life.