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On Letters

This interview, or rather, this conversation was never meant to take a year to complete. Yet somehow, and as with most things it seems, life and work got in the way, or rather led the way towards what came to unfold during the past year. In the beginning of 2022, I reached out to Jon Ek, an MA graduate in Fine Arts from Konstfack, inquiring the title of a work he had posted on his stories feed on Instagram. A steel tube, its shape much resembling a letter of the alphabet, with synthetic strands of hair flowing out of its edges. It exuded an almost erotic energy. Ek responded that the work was unfinished and was thus untitled. He mentioned that he had been reading Anne Carson’s Eros the bittersweet (1986) – a book which had partly informed the works he was currently working on. This instantly resonated with me as I had for some time studied Carson’s essays, infatuated by her distinct take on inter alia her exploration of the concept of romantic love, "eros". I was intrigued and wanted to know more about how Carson’s ideas found their way into his practice. As the year progressed, Ek finalized the works in question and went on to complete a residency at the Nars Foundation in New York. We kept in touch with the intention to document our conversation.

C-P: I never got around to asking you about your residency at the Nars Foundation. I would love to hear about that experience and what it has meant for your work.

J.E: My stay in New York was fantastic and I think that it is always fruitful for one's artistic practice with a change of scenery. Being dragged out of your comfortable position and working in a different environment among new people and the challenges that come with it. But I have to say that what probably left the strongest impression on me were all the meetings with gallerists and curators during my residency. The Nars Foundation residency program was well-organized and there were at least two studio meetings booked every week with people involved in one way or another in the New York art scene. It gave a good insight into how they find artists they want to work with, and what strategies they use. However, I felt a slight culture clash when I had to present my work. That feeling of trying to sell a used car and convincing the other person that it is the best buy in the world was pervasive in almost all meetings. I'm not naive, I understand the importance of being able to talk about one's own work and make it interesting for someone else, as well as how important it is to make contacts, but to focus first and foremost on having a sales pitch instead of having an interesting and fruitful conversation turned me off quite a bit. But having said that, I still think it was a good residency and recommend anyone who is interested to apply there.

As we were wrapping up this interview ahead of publication, I went over Anne Carson's essay "Alphabetic Edge" in Eros the bittersweet. I revisited Carson's meditations on the significance of the alphabet and the evolution of the act of writing. During this past year I had been carrying my copy all over town, pulling it out of my pocket at bus stops, during subway commutes or in the evenings when everything around the house stood still. Leafing through it once again I found traces of my own meditations on the text - underlined phrases, asterisks marking passages I was particularly fond of, notes on margins. I revisited the passages where Carson draws an analogy between “the nature of eros” (p. 55) and the alphabet in that essay. In true Carson-esque style, she manages to connect the dots between concepts that otherwise seem to rotate around different axes. Furthermore, Carson taps into and verbalises an experience which anyone working, struggling with words has invariably experienced. In letters and in the edges of letters in particular Carson finds “memorable, emotional places” (p. 57). I then recalled the image of Ek’s work with the eroticism of the hair strands flowing out of the edges of his “letters”.

C-P: Early on in our conversation you cited this essay as a source of inspiration. In this essay Carson speaks about the "delightful discomfort of learning" to write, the aesthetic pressure accompanying the activity of spelling out words onto paper. In what way would you say these ideas inform your latest works?

J.E: When Carson writes about man's first slightly confused reaction to the alphabet, words, and sentences, I can relate to that feeling even though the scenario in Carson's book takes place over 2000 years ago. In the beginning, one didn't really know how to relate to the letters. They were seen as something magical; dance choreographies were dedicated to letters, and sentences were written in the same pattern as an ox ploughed a field. Somehow, I could relate this to my own complex relationship with the written word. I liken my relationship to writing to a dysfunctional relationship. I love and want to be together with the word/written word, but because we are constantly at odds and have different ideas of what a relationship should look like, everything turns into a power struggle that drives me completely crazy! But there are brief moments when we are together when everything is incredibly beautiful and wonderful. It is in those moments that the word and I can sit down and talk to each other, without misunderstandings, without outbursts; and those moments have started to occur more frequently. Maybe it has to do with acceptance. Like when you start to understand how things work in a relationship, when you realize that the other person's advantages outweigh their disadvantages after all. That's when you decide to create a work together. If it goes as planned, you probably want to create a couple more works; and suddenly you realize that a strong bond has developed and the thought of ever leaving each other becomes more and more alien. That is the path we are currently on. Jeez... I feel that my relationship to the written word seems very dualistic, that the written word and I are in some way two entirely separate entities, but if that is the case at the moment then so be it.

C-P: Carson goes on to talk about the "edges of letters" and the transition from an audio-visual to a textual mode of communication via the use of the alphabet and exemplifies the power that alphabetic imagery possesses by citing a passage from Euripides Theseus in which an illiterate man looking out at sea attempts to spell the name of the ship by describing the letters. Furthermore, it is interesting to reflect on how a set of pictorial tools, the letters of the alphabet, function as channels of communication, conveying meaning. I would love to know more about your thoughts on this.

J.E: As I mentioned before, I have a complex relationship to words, and I am relatively new to exploring the textual world so there was something about the illiterate person’s way of describing the letters that resonated with me. He understands that what he sees is something important but cannot interpret it. The will to understand makes him still try to describe the word THESEUS, or rather, what each individual letter looks like - like a compass, like curly hair and like two lines with a common foot. For me, he manages to add a new layer of content to the word and even a physicality. The word’s relation to movement is of particular interest to me. I am currently working on a text about this which refers to Chinese water calligraphy, when you write with water on the ground with large brooms, to the C-walk and B-walk that gangs in Los Angeles use to letter their antagonists' names, and to the Dadaist collage technique and phonetic poem. Even neuroscientific theories about the internal movements will sneak into this work because the parts of the brain used for language are also used for our fine motor body movements. All these phenomena are about text and are at the same time strongly linked to some form of physical movement. So, this is the focus of my work right now and something I will most likely continue to dig and delve into.

C-P: As with your past work, you continue to explore different materials, this time using steel pipes and synthetic hair among others. Could you elaborate on the process of selecting these materials for the works and what that signifies?

J.E: The work you mention has its roots in a certain category of ASMR. This has become a huge YouTube phenomenon and I have used ASMR for relaxation for many years. There are thousands of different "techniques" within ASMR and a recurring tool within the category I'm interested in is the make-up brush which often brushes an arm or a spine. The make-up brushes are often made of some type of shiny metal, hence the reference with the polished metal tubes. Even hair is often a recurring element in the ASMR world, e.g., brushing or gently running your fingers through someone's hair. And the very shape and angles of the tubes are meant to resemble fragments or parts of letters. While performing these actions with the makeup brush, or running one’s fingers through hair, the ASMR artist often speaks in a distinct, low voice. Many people either love, hate or are a little puzzled by this kind of vocal tone, but for someone who, like me, is receptive to this kind of stimulation, the experience becomes special when you combine the vocal with the tactile. I am very fascinated by this neurological phenomenon, when the boundaries between what is said and what is seen intertwine, when the hierarchies of the senses transform into heterarchies. Generally, when it comes to the choice of materials, my wife probably has a better explanation as to how I go about it. She has said several times that I seem to have a very unsentimental, or unbridled, relationship with material. According to her, many artists still tend to have a fairly strong relationship with a certain material and that it is often a significant part of the work process. Therefore, she has often been surprised that I don't seem to "care about" material, meaning that the only important thing for me when it comes to this is that it should be the right material for the right piece, that the material is connected to the idea. I don't have a stronger feeling for either textiles, video, concrete, or canvas. So, her observation of me is nothing short of crystal clear on this.

C-P: Which book is currently on your nightstand?

J.E: At the moment I am in between two books, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and Meeting the Universe H

alfway by Karen Barad. I really like how Nelson combines an accessible vocabulary with weighty theoretical reasoning. And Barad's feminist approach to quantum physics phenomena and methods really brings out the geek in me. I am an incredible sucker for various quantum and neurophilosophical theories and she has many interesting thoughts on this.

C-P: Lastly, what might be in the pipeline for you in 2023?

J.E: In the spring, I will exhibit together with my wife, Timja Femling in Teckamatorps Kulturhus and make a research trip to the island of Lesbos. Thanks to Anne Carson's book Eros the Bittersweet, I opened my eyes to the poet Sappho and the surviving fragments of her poetry. I also discovered how many people have tried to interpret and/or have been inspired by her texts, which in turn led me to the idea of making my own artistic interpretation. I will 3D scan objects and parts of the environments she moved in, and then transform them into physical form via 3D printing. The aim is to combine Sappho's texts with her living environment and see if in this way a new interpretation can be made of the void that arose in her texts over time.

Jon Ek interviewed by Corina Wahlin, January 2023.

Image credits:

Portrait: Timja Femling

Images from the studio (1-4): Jon Ek

Installation image from Nars Foundation: Anne Büscher

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