FROM MMA TO MFA
Having followed him for years, ever since his very first solo exhibition at the former ANNAELLEGALLERY (now Anna Bohman Gallery), we finally meet up with Swedish Yale MFA graduate Olof Inger in the studio.
Olof's resumé is notably slightly different than your average artist's. Once a professional MMA fighter,
Olof candidly talks about the hardships of being in the sport way before it became mainstream, about transitioning to the fine arts and eventually Yale, and about working in the midst of chaos in the studio.
C-P: Hello Olof. This is an interview we've been meaning to do for a long time. There's a lot I'd like to ask you but would like us to rewind a little bit before touching base with the present.
We first saw your work at ANNAELLEGALLERY (now Anna Bohman Gallery) back in 2013 while you were still enrolled in the MFA program at Yale I believe. Although it's been a while now, I'm curious to know how you found your time at the school. It's commonly known to be among the best art schools in the world, if not the best, with a very prominent faculty.
O.I: It was a great experience in many ways. Both attending Yale but also moving to the U.S. I lived there for almost three years and I met some fantastic people and I was introduced to a new culture.
Yale is a fascinating place. It’s a huge institution with some very sharp brains working there. As an art student, you can take part in all classes, even the ones outside the art program. This was a great thing. I went to the School of Architecture and studied Russian Constructivism and also took a class in Archeoastronomy. Yale was a place that made me feel like anything is possible.
C-P: As far as I know, few Swedish students transition to Yale for their MFAs. Possibly Royal College of Art in London or Städelschuhle in Frankfurt, but not really Yale. What would you say was the biggest difference between Yale and Mejan (Royal Institute of the Art, Stockholm) where you had studied prior?
O.I: Yale was a very different experience from KKH. At KKH you would have a lot of time to think and there’s not a lot of pressure on you as a student to perform. Yale on the other hand was all about pressure. If you don’t perform, you’re out. And there where students being expelled around you all the time. That kind of stress works differently on people. For me, the stress was good. I took my work to levels I didn’t think I could and it opened up my studio practice a lot.
But I do think it’s important to also have space and time to think and be able to do nothing. A great art school should have both I think. Both high pressure and times of nothingness. A big difference was also the amount of faculty. At Yale there was more faculty than students. I think it’s very important with a big faculty. As an art student, to get inputs from several people as opposed to just one or two main professors.
C.P: I know you met your South Korean-born wife Jinhee Kang, also an artist, while at Yale. Did you consider staying in the U.S or moving somewhere else?
O.I: When I got to the U.S, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after Yale. In the beginning I was thinking about moving to New York, but as I was spending some time in the city, I realized it was not the city for me. I guess I’m not really a big city person.
After my wife and I graduated from Yale, we went on a three week long road trip around the U.S. I got to visit some different parts of the country. We started thinking of maybe moving to the more rural parts, but there was not enough time. Our visas were running out and we had to leave the country.
C-P: On the topic of art school, I know you teach at Idun Lovén, one of the leading preparatory art schools in Sweden. How do you find the role of a teacher?
O.I: The way I do it, is very much based on conversation and studio visits. I talk to the students about their work. I tell the student what I see in the work and we talk about how that resonates with the student's vision for the work. I really enjoy teaching. It's a great job. It keeps your senses fresh and I get a chance to gain some perspective on my own work as well. Also, it's great exercise to constantly being forced to verbalise about art.
C-P: I don't know how keen you are to talk about it but as somebody who appreciates combat sports, I'm very curious and inclined to ask. What prompted you to leave MMA for the arts? Reading up on you, it's evident that you emerged in the early days of the sport in Sweden and were predicted to have a bright future.
O.I.: Yes, I was quite good. I was a Scandinavian champion for a while. But things were very different back then. There was nobody sponsoring fighters. It wasn’t like nowadays, you couldn’t watch it on TV. The sport was totally underground. We didn’t even call it MMA, there was nothing called MMA back then. The name MMA came later as the sport became bigger and more organized.
When there is nobody paying you, it’s very tough to sustain something that physical. I had other jobs; nightshift jobs and trained during day time. I often slept in the gym. There were no sponsors in the sport. When you are working that hard with your body, it’s super important to sleep and eat well. I did neither. Because of the night shifts, I didn’t sleep very well and I often had to resort to bad eating habits due to pressured financial situation. I could do it for three-four years and then I burned out. I needed a plan B.
In primary school I was good in sports but I was also good at arts. I had always enjoyed drawing, ever since I started looking in my big brother’s drawing books and reading his comic books. It was an activity that let me escape to a different place. A place where you could build your own reality. Art school was my plan B.
C-P: Aside from the very obvious; the hard work, discipline and gazillion hours, as a practitioner of both – can you see any other similarities?
O.I: Both are forms of expression. You’re competing against yourself in both cases. Trying to get better and keep evolving.
C-P: Bridging back to the present, when I think of your work, elements of both abstraction and figuration, energy, force, movement, bodies and ultimately the realm of physics come to mind. How would you put it in your own words?
OI: I think that you summarized it very well. But it’s a personal take on it. My own truth isn’t necessarily true for you. It’s all based on my own experience. I’m interested in the body. The forces of the body, the properties of the body and my relation to other bodies.
C-P: Let’s talk about working in the studio a little. The studio which you share with your wife is quite impressive in terms of size. It's really great fun to visit with things really scattered all over the place and works in various states of completion. Your practice notably encompasses painting, sculpture and collage in various media. Can you elaborate a little on your process of working?
O.I: I like using different mediums. They all feed off each other. They give each other energy. And some of them have to die so others can live. My studio is chaotic. I like to start in chaos. There are piles of materials, tools all mixed with notes and references. As I work through it, things start to take shape. Different work stations are organically created in the studio. I move in-between these. At the moment, I'm fortunate to have a big studio space. It allows me to have a lot of stuff going on at the same time. Oftentimes, I have to start a couple of projects that I will fail and abandon but along the way a third thought is born and that’s the one I'll pursue in the end. It’s very hard to talk about one kind of process, each time is always different for me. But it almost always starts with a drawing or a piece of material.
C-P: Generally very fond of collage, I have to say that I really loved your recent works in your last show at the gallery for which you had used found material at the gym. How did that idea come about?
O.I: My source for my work is the body so it felt natural to use materials that I use to discover my own body. Materials I already have a personal history with.
C-P: What might be some of the artists who have inspired your own practice?
O.I: Oh, there are so many who inspired me throughout the years. Different artists for different times in my life.
C-P: Needless to say the Covid-19 virus is stalling everything at the moment, but is there anything coming up later in the year that you can share with us?
O.I: We’re having a baby in May. I’ll take it from there. With this virus situation, it’s really hard to say. However, I’ll definitely keep working in the studio.
Installation images courtesy of Anna Bohman Gallery.
Studio images shot by our Corina Wahlin.