Walking along the Landwehrkanal in Berlin district Kreuzberg the other night I stumbled upon an old mattress leaning against a tree next to the water. Instinctively, it made me think of Anna Åstrand. Meeting her in her studio a few months earlier, she mentioned exactly that as a spontaneous example of something that might inspire her. Spotting the mattress there by the water, I could see why. Slightly bent, it bore traces of negligent treatment, with dark stains and illegible scribbling in sharp contrast to the soft white surface. Still, there was a certain dignity and poise to it, emanating from its unexpected sculpturality, visual directness, and hidden stories. The same could be said of the work of Anna Åstrand.
Mainly working with sculptures and installations, Anna is interested in the translation between materials and emotions or states of mind. Mixing materials such as stone, wood, plaster, and metal with the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life, she creates poetic pieces that speak about the discrepancy between surface and substance and our troublesome relationship to time and nature. Treating her works as instruments in an orchestra, she creates compositions that echo far beyond the confined space of the gallery, leaving a lingering note of mysteries unsolved and meanings unspoken.
Raised in the wooded province of Hälsingland in the north of Sweden, Anna got her education from Royal College of Art in Stockholm, graduating in 2012. After trips to Japanese stone masonries and to the mythical, crystal studded desert of Joshua Tree, California, she is now settled in a former tattoo parlour in Stockholm suburb Bredäng, where we met with her on a clear spring day. Surrounded by pieces of wood and metal, jars of paint and plaster, tools, and colour samples, we talk about spirituality, her Hälsingland childhood, and her fascination for the Californian desert.
– I had been looking around for quite some time before I found this, Anna says while showing us into her studio, located in the basement of a typically suburban block of flats. I was kind of looking for a place in Bredäng. I live in the city, but I’m really drawn to this area. I like the centre here, and that it’s so close to the water. Now I’ve had this studio since November and I think it’s perfect. I need a lot of water sources, which this place has. I also like that there aren’t that many windows in here, I don’t need daylight. I like to have a lot of walls that I can make use of and work against. It’s a bit like a white cube gallery.
What was the first thing you did when you moved in?
– I tried not to bring too much stuff here. I had to start by taking care of the premises. It was pretty worn down. It used to be a tattoo studio, and the walls were covered with this tattoo-ish graffiti with skylines and flying birds, so I began by repainting the whole thing. Also there had been some kind of insect living in the walls, so I had to dig out these big holes and then fill them up. So I spent time with the studio you could say.
– After that I started to bring my things here. I thought that I for once should have it neat and clean in here, but I still brought way to much stuff. I have a lot of stuff.
Isn’t it easier to be creative when you allow yourself to be messy?
– Absolutely. I also think that I’m as most productive while cleaning. Ever since I was little I’ve found that to be one of the best ways to get started. Even when I used to paint, I began by messing up the painting and then trying to arrange it and sort it through. So I’m spending a lot of time just cleaning and sorting things out. I collect things that lie scattered around the studio and try to put them together. How does this thing work together with that thing or that?
Other than with cleaning, how can your process start?
– That depends. It can start with a text, a poem or a TV series that brings me into a certain state of mind. I think a lot about how to translate a feeling into something material. I like it when you can see that things have happened with the material, that it has been transformed in some way. So it’s both about trying to express emotions and states of mind, and to make the best use of the material. What qualities and weaknesses does this particular material have? How can I make use of that in the translation? Take plaster, for instance, I’ve been working a lot with that. I think it’s fantastic, since it embodies the whole process from original to final form.
Why is it that you’re drawn to materials that allow traces of the process to be seen in the final shape?
– I think those are the best materials. But I try to not get stuck there, and only work on manipulating the materials in various ways. Then it’s all about the material and the shape of the surface, which I think is a bit too shallow. I think it’s interesting to examine the differences between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional; how wide something needs to be to be considered three-dimensional, or how much you need to bend something in order for it to stand by itself. But if the work doesn’t go deeper than that, it tends to turn out a bit insipid.
Does there need to be some kind of concept behind it?
– Yes, or some kind of narrative. I wouldn’t say that I’m working with concepts. I like it when things just happen to come into existence. Like heaps of rubbish or construction sites where things are just lying around, waiting to be transferred somewhere. Flotsam and jetsam. Random things that just happen to work together because they have been brought together by their surroundings. Things that are somewhere in between being usable and useless.
Is that how you usually find your subjects, moving around in society or nature?
– Well, I rarely go somewhere just because. I like to travel, but usually I don’t have to go that far. Often, it’s the random and unexpected things in combination with the most expected that interest me the most. It could be a mattress that someone has thrown in the street, maybe it’s leaning against something in a weird way and has a dinosaur print on it. Things like that.
Do you need to actively seek inspiration?
– I’ve never sought inspiration actively. I think I’m lucky in that sense, I always know what I want to do. As soon as I surround myself with things and materials, I know that something will happen. I know that I can rely on that. If I had to put too much effort into finding out what I want to do, I don’t think that I would be doing this.
Tell me more about your Hälsingland childhood.
– I was raised in the countryside. My grandparents were farmers, but my dad went away to study and travel. Then he met my mum and they moved back together. I’m still raised in this peasant spirit of doing things on your own. My grandmother taught me so much, and I was always busy working on something, building this or that. If I knew that you could become an artist, that’s what I would have wanted to be. I didn’t really know that such a thing existed until I began secondary school and got this amazing art teacher, but even then I didn’t really consider it an option. Mentally, I think I’ve always known that I wanted to work with art, but to see it as a profession, that took some time to take in.
Do you feel that you’ve grown into the role of the artist now?
– Well, I think that’s something you’re never done with. I’m still not sure that I know what it means to be an artist. I don’t know if I find it that relevant, either. To call myself an artist is always subordinate to what I want to do. The reason I wanted to work with art was because there were so many things that I was interested in doing, and art was a way to unite them. If you don’t want to work specifically with fashion or music, but want to study a glass plate getting dirty, then art is a good place to be in.
You’ve also spent some time in California and Los Angeles. Why were you drawn there?
– The first time I went to Los Angeles I hated it. Truly hated it. But somehow I felt that I needed to go back, that I wanted to conquer it. I also wanted to experience the desert. I had only been through there by bus, so I wanted to see more. The desert there is very varied, with clayey rock formations and white sandstone dunes. I had also been looking into land art, with Donald Judd and Nancy Holt, this kind of punky era in art. I became obsessed with it. Then I heard about an artist called Andrea Zittel, who had something called wagon stations, where you could live. So via one of my professors I got in touch with her and got an internship. I was there for five weeks, just after my graduation, working and assisting another artist. I also travelled around and did interviews with people living there.
That sounds exciting.
– It was. And scary. I was in Joshua Tree, which is a really cool place, but it also has a high percentage of paedophiles and crystal meth producers. You’ll find everything that’s illegal there.
– And art. And a lot of amaizingly weird people who are into crystals and portals and stuff; people who have chosen to lead a reclusive life outside of society.
Can you see any connection between the Californian desert and Hälsingland where you grew up?
– The place where you’re from is always less exotic. But I think Hälsingland has a lot to do with it. There are a lot of eccentric characters there as well, and the nature is beautiful. I’m from the ugly part of Hälsingland, though, on the border to Gästrikland, which used to be inhabited by robbers. It was a no man’s land where nobody wanted to live. There are a lot of myths and stories about that place, usually centred on weird trees or stones. I can appreciate that kind of interpretation of things. I think it’s similar to art, which is also about finding your own explanation to things. It’s the same with Joshua Tree. The area is full of sights that used to be sacred to the Indians, but now have been associated with new myths. I can get that. I’m definitely no sceptic. There’s a very tense atmosphere there, so it’s easy to get drawn in and be like ’yeah, I think I can feel some sort of power here’. I think that it also has to do with the barren, dramatic landscape, with enormous rocks and strokes of crystals in the ground. There are so many strange meetings and transformations taking place there, like these abandoned buildings on their way to become nature again.
Can you relate that to your own practice, this spirituality immanent in certain materials?
– Yes, especially when I’m working with sculptures, since that’s all about charging materials with certain qualities. No matter what it is that I’m working on, I’m building a narrative around it, charging it with these made up characteristics. You look at objects differently when they are placed in an artistic context, which means that totally worthless things can turn into something special if you only choose to believe in it. It’s the same thing with the myths circling around in Joshua Tree. It’s a matter of mutual conviction and a way of seeing things.
Occasionally, you’ve also worked with Internet specific mediums, for instance in Parcel, 2012, where you used YouTube and Google. What’s your relationship to the Internet?
– I think that the Internet is a lot of fun, and I use it quite a lot in my work, even if it doesn’t show. I still feel that the Internet has a lot to give. I think YouTube is just fantastic. I love it when things are made specifically for the Internet. I mean, there’s a place for everything and there’s no need to try and put it all into a gallery space.
What do you think about showcasing your art on a website compared to a physical space?
– It can never replace the physical experience. It’s something else, almost like a new piece. When you show something online, you can choose what parts to include and from which angle the work should be seen. When you look at documentations of my works you see the parts that I find most important, presented in the way I think they should be seen. It happens that I cheat a little and remove things that I find unimportant in Photoshop. I curate it, you could say.
The documentation becomes an extension of the piece, in a way.
– Exactly. I’m rather restrictive with information when I exhibit things. I don’t think that it’s super important that the viewer understands what the work is about, as long as it awakens some kind of interest. I find it more satisfying not to give too much away.
I find your work to be very poetic – fragmentary, but still evocative. Is that something you can relate to?
– My work isn’t very explicit, no. Sometimes I wish that it was more direct. I agree that it can be very fragmentary, but in one way it’s also super concrete, like, ‘yeah, this is a piece of plaster’. Somewhere I find that to be poetic in itself.
– It happens that I think about my work as composing. I think music is brilliant. You don’t have to explain to people what it is that you’re doing, you just need to touch the right chord. I can think about my pieces as various instruments in an orchestra or parts in a choir, that they need different roles. They shouldn’t all say the same thing, but still harmonise with each other.
What does the future look like?
– It looks bright, I think.
See more of Anna Åstrand’s work here.
Photography by Fredrik Andersson Andersson.