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Whispering from Before

Paula Urbano’s recent solo Viskningar från förr (Whispering from before) c/o FOLK i Skärholmen presents as a universally relatable exploration and revisit of a specific time and place connected to one’s upbringing and formative years, led forward by fragmented bits and pieces of memory embodying various form. Yes, universally relatable in so far how for instance childhood candy and its iconography, or probing the sight and site of a strip mall (and how it represents adulthood and through materialism a larger world beyond the limited scope and bubble of childhood), might prompt to the surface who we were then, for many of us alike. However, relatability here comes on a scale and is calibrated differently depending on if you like Paula or me grew up remembering putting letters in red and blue striped ”by airmail” envelopes or as adults now wrestle with thoughts about the weight of your multicultural identity in relation to parenthood; or in my case the prospect of future parenthood.

Paula Urbano. Photo: Sanna Argus Tirén

C-P: Even though the exhibition presents as a very personal exploration of your memories of Skärholmen (ed.note: a city district of Stockholm) and its impact on you, the underlying process in parts directly makes use of a collective approach to remembering and materializing. There's on the one hand your actually involving a larger group of former classmates, and on the other there is your collaborating with fellow artist Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena while making works; an artist I remembering your telling me you did not know prior in time but had appeared connected to based on common denominators in background and experiences. Could you elaborate on some of the relationships this exhibition bring forward?

P.U: Yes, I think the exhibition is an exploration of the meaning of friend relationships but also lost or broken friendship relationships. Loss in this case as a consequence of the diasporic experience (like the case with my best friend in the work Pakten who returned to the homeland) and the diasporic experience in itself as loss (of language, relations, community etc). The pandemic has given me more time to think about my life, my upbringing and the place where I grew up and its impact of me. Probably this has been in combination with my also turning 40 and the fact that I recently made an artwork, about my father's torture during Chile's dictatorship, titled Estadio Chile 1974. This is a fact I have known as long as I can remember, but that I have never talked about and that I knew very little about during my upbringing. Yet this fact is the reason why I was born in Sweden, so my whole life story is a consequence of a particular political history.

After exhibiting Estadio Chile 1974 at Tegen 2 in Stockholm I felt that people regarded me differently and some acquaintances even told me that they could not at all relate to that experience. I can understand that, as the same time as the need to talk with someone who shares that experience became urgent to me.

Paula Urbano, Annorstädesminnen in Viskningar från förr, 2021, Ateljé SKHLM, Folk i Skärkholmen, Stockholm. Photo: Paula Urbano

C-P: And that's how Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena came into the picture then?

P.U: Yes. There are two videos in the exhibitions, Pakten (The Pact) and Annorstädesminnen (Memories from Elsewhere). Annorstädesminnen is about the Chilean heritage and Pakten is a memory from my life in Skärholmen. They are presented on each side of a wall in the exhibition. I worked with Juan-Pedro as the photographer in both of them. I did not know him from before, but knew his name and had seen a set of his photographs in the exhibition Svenska Hjärtan already back at Moderna Museet in 2004. When he was doing a residency at IASPIS the period right after me, I contacted him to do a studio visit in early 2021. I wanted to bring up Estadio Chile 1974. When talking to him I became aware of the fact that I had never actually talked to a person who share so many fundamental aspects of my identity. He had even made a work about his mother's time in prison!

After that studio visit with Juan-Pedro I decided I wanted to work with an all-Latin American team so I contacted America Vera Zavala to direct me and Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena to photograph and booked a location to film. In dialogue with them the video Annorstädesminnen was developed in 2021. The first part of the script consists of the research material from an older video; Her Life (from 2006-2008) and a poem called Emigración de pajaros by Gabriela Mistral (ed. note: Nobel Prize laureate in Literature in 1945). I wanted to work with my Chilean cultural heritage and the feeling of loss or lack thereof. I also wanted to deal with the query of how and what of this (hollow) heritage I should (or should not) pass on to my children. And America suggested we could work with her son whom she has worked professionally with several times for example at the Lejonkulan stage of The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm (Dramaten).

The poem by Gabriela Mistral is spot-on written as a dialogue between the author and her son as they are looking at pelicans. The boy full of curiosity and admiration towards both his mother and the birds. The author as a teacher/mother explaining the wonders of nature with an equal share of admiration as the child. It feels as though she at once refers to other changing and shifting phenomenon in nature and life.

Paula Urbano, installation view Viskningar från förr, 2021, Ateljé SKHLM, Folk i Skärkholmen, Stockholm. Photo: Paula Urbano

The second part of the script are the memories from the upbringing of women from my generation growing up in Chile. Both the individual and collective memories are written in short notes of 2-3 words each. In Annorstädesminnen I read the notes of the memories to the boy who could be my own son. After filming that I also asked Juan-Pedro to do the photography for another video I was making for the Stockholm County Museum and we then for it filmed a walk from my former home address to Kungens Kurva (ed.note: another city part of Stockolm). Short after that, Juan-Pedro had to return to Berlin so there ended our collaboration. When I needed to make complementary photo shoots I contracted Jann Lipka who is a photographer based in Stockholm. It was great to work with photographers. In previous work I have carried out everything myself; editing, directing, script. I think I will continue to work with a team. It is more fun and the result I think is better.

Paula Urbano, Tungtricket in Viskningar från förr, 2021, Ateljé SKHLM, Folk i Skärkholmen, Stockholm. Photo: Paula Urbano

C-P: When looking at the sculptural work Tungtricket (The Tongue Trick) together, we got into a conversation about the various considerations that come with the turf of raising children multilingually and bestowing upon them or not one's mother's tongue that is foreign in their present society. I found the work as you already know, to be a thought-provoking visualization of an inherent dilemma at hand.

P.U: Thank you. Up until now I have made many vocal video works. On that note, next week, on December 21, 6 video works of mine will be screened at FOLK as a part of Kortfilmsdagen 2021 (Short Film Day). With Tungtricket, I instead wanted to challenge myself to make a visualization of my feelings regarding this topic instead of verbalizing them.

I started the process when at a residency in Madrid back in Octember-November. To be able to fully immerse in the Spanish language, my relation to it and also in so far figuring out whether to bestow the language upon my children or not, I wanted to be in a Spanish-speaking country. I had this idea of making a two-edged tongue in a knot but still forming "the tongue trick" (the formation of "a flower" to put it delicately or as we said in Skärholmen back then; to make a ”fuck you finger” but with the tongue). Only a small percentage of society can do this formation with the tongue and I happen to belong to that group.

When I made the knot with the tongue I saw that it also resembles a scarf which made me think of the act of care from a parent to child, in order to pass on a language. To pass on a mother's tongue you see is also an act of care. When I was at the residency I asked the staff where I could buy clay and was told the nearest shop was one where everything was imported from China and sold very cheap. I went there and found clay that said ”terracotta” on the package. I thought of the reddish brown colour of terracotta. But when I opened the clay it had this pink-reddish flesh-like colour insterad which was perfect for the cause at hand. I want to continue to do a series of sculptures with the tongue in different formations and the residency in Madrid was a start for this process.

Paula Urbano, Time Capsule in Viskningar från förr, 2021, Ateljé SKHLM, Folk i Skärkholmen, Stockholm. Photo: Paula Urbano

C-P: One sculpture found in the exhibition to bring to light is your mini curiosity cabinet housing memory within. The chosen form feels very apt in an exhibition like this. What can be said about the work?

P.U: The whole idea with the exhibition came about when I was moving to the house where I live now. When emptying the cellar in a box, I found a shoebox filled with notes, calendars, concert tickets, school photos and other saved small items. I thought they had a certain value today as almost archeological artefacts about a certain time-lapse in the end of the 80s/beginning of the 90s in a suburb to Stockholm. When I was asked by FOLK i Skärholmen if I wanted to make a solo exhibition in the gallery, I suggested to make an artwork with the small notes I had found in this box. They liked the idea and approximately 1,5 years later was the opening of the exhibition, titled Viskningar från förr (Whispering from before).

All the small items in the box are interesting in different ways but that they are fragile and delicate make things challenging. How to work with this material as an archive of memories in the exhibition without the risk of getting them damaged was something to consider. I came to think of a curiosity cabinet while in dialogue with my friend and artist Anna Kinbom. While searching for a real curiosity cabinet I found this sweet little box in glass and brass online that even as the measurements were specified on the webpage, I did not quite understand exactly how small it was going to be until I had it delivered by post. It is a glass box dated back to the early 1900's to store a pocket watch. Instead of a pocket watch I hung a mini notebook in a keychain that was one of the items in the box of memories.

Making an exhibition is to put together a lot of disparate thoughts in your head. But when I put the little notebook in the keychain in this hundred years old pocket watch rack, I realized that the whole idea of the exhibition was represented in this little piece of less than 5 inches of height; Time Capsule. It in turn became a visualization of the time aspect in the work Viskningar (Whisperings). Among all the small items I found 37 pieces of written pieces, tucked together and which had been passed around between me and my classmates around our school desks. They are filled with secrets, internal jokes and references between best friends. Today they are almost impossible to understand entirely, but nevertheless they constitute authentic dialogues from a time before mobile phones and the Internet.

Viskningar formally results in 20 glass plates in the size of 8x10 inches, sticking out from the wall. By presenting them in that way, I at least relate to photography; to the glass plate of the large-format camera. In the exhibition it is as though the spectator is looking through the viewfinder of a large-format camera just before pushing the button that lets the light expose the negative. I consequently come to think of Alfredo Jaar's famous quote that reads ” You don’t take a photograph. You make it”. This work is like exhibiting the act of photographing. I mean it is impossible to photograph the past so this is the closest I can come to capturing fragments of the quotidian life of a handful of girls from yesteryear aged 11-14-something.

Ashik Zaman

Paula Urbano, Viskningar från förr is on view through Dec 18 at Ateljé SKHLM, Folk i Skärholmen.


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