Anna Uddenberg

“I see the studio also as a mental space. When I shut that door, I’m here”. We met with young artist Anna Uddenberg in her hazy Stockholm studio to talk about effortlessness, spam, and the importance of staying in the studio.

When we visit Anna Uddenberg in her studio at Stockholm corporate office Nya Kontoret, she’s just about to move out, but so far nothing is packed. Sounds from the open windows mingle with the droning noise from a fan, and an air humidifier brings a slight haze to the studio. A huge monstera plant is placed on a marble pedestal by the window, next to a couple of enormous finger sculptures, complete with long, well-manicured nails. Scattered in the studio are tools, mirrors, and shower tubes, together with plastic plants, massage instruments, and works of art. A group of half-finished reliefs made up of HVAC paraphernalia are leaning against the wall, a project Anna is working on together with interior designer and scenographer Madeleine Norling.

Working with performances, installations, video, and sculpture, Anna Uddenberg is playing with concepts of identity, sexuality, and the self, as well as social and sexual power relations. Inventing or entering into various roles and situations, she isolates and exaggerates certain events, behaviours, and stereotypes, bringing them into new light. In addition to her own artistic practice, Anna has also run the club Donna Scam together with Brandy Hanna and Zhala Zhino Rifat, and is currently collaborating with Madeleine Norling on a series of furniture and works of art under the name of NorlingUddenberg.

Born and raised in Stockholm suburb Årsta, Anna holds a Master’s degree in Fine Art from The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, a school also known as Mejan. When we meet with Anna, she’s just got back from a five-months’ stay in Los Angeles, where she assisted artist duo Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, and is now planning to move to Berlin.

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How did you find your way to art?
– I think it was by accident. When I was younger, I was constantly working on projects, starting workshops and things like that. Art, though, that was something I didn’t really know what it was. I began making clothes when I was about seventeen. We had a basement premises in our house that I turned into a studio. That was the first time I ever felt that I had total focus on something, I could sit there day and night.

– Eventually, I decided to try and sell my things to Weekday. It was back when they only had one store in Stockholm, and I went in there and spoke to that Örjan guy, asking him if they would be interested in some of my clothes. I had made these kind of balaclava hoodies, and he was like ’nice hoodies, we’ll take them’. To me, that was such an eye-opener. I realised that all I needed to do was try. It can feel so abstract to imagine being a designer or an artist when you don’t have a clue about how it works or how to get there. It was so motivating to realise that all I needed to do was to knock on a door, and it might open. So I decided I wanted to work with fashion.

– One night I had a friend staying over, and in the morning her mother called. She worked at this preparatory art school called Idun Lovén, and apparently they had some reserve spaces left for the new semester so she asked if my friend knew anyone who wanted to go there. I was just like, ’wait, I want to go there!’. So one week later I was there, doing life drawing and stuff. It was a whole lot of fun. I was still aiming at fashion, though, and after a year at Idun I applied to St. Martins’ Fashion Design programme, thinking that I finally was to study fashion. I wasn’t even called for an interview. Then I tried to apply to Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm, but was only accepted into their evening course. So I went there while I did my second year at Idun.

Art, that was something I didn’t really know what it was

– I worked so hard with all the homework we got from Beckmans, but the only response I got from my teachers was like ’smashing’. At the same time, I got such nice feedback from my teachers at Idun. I realised that I had to decide which context I thought was most worthwhile. I felt that being an artist, as a profession, was a role that I could see myself grow old with. I met all of these older artists, that were in their fifties and sixties, and I thought that they were so impressive. So I applied to some art schools instead, and was accepted to Mejan.

What did your studies give you?
– I remember telling my professor when I graduated that I thought the studies had been really tough. You had to ransack yourself before taking even the smallest step. It was a lot about trying out your ideas, looking at each other’s work, and having critical discussions. Sometimes it made me feel divided against my own work, but in the end it made me stronger. It made me think about what it was that I was doing.

Do you often have a theoretical approach to your work?
– That depends. When I start with a theoretical framework, I often feel that everything is crystal clear, and that I know exactly what to do. That was the case with my most recent video, I Smell Amateurs, where I thought I had a very clear idea, and that it would be an easy task. Instead, it became chaotic, in many ways. I think the ideal is to know what it is that you’re working on, but still allow it to grow organically.

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– I think research is a must if you want to make interesting art, but I see the work process as a sort of research, too. You learn a lot just from working and trying. Then I think it all becomes rather blurred during the actual process, where I have troubles separating the theoretical level from the practical level.

Do you feel that your pieces are connected?
– I can feel rather powerless against my ideas. If I have an idea, I just have to try it. It’s not until I’m done that I can really estimate what it is. It’s hard to say what comes first, but naturally one thing leads to another, that’s just how it works.

– When I did these fingers, Anna says and points towards her finger sculptures standing in a corner, I was working on my Girlfriend Experience performance. I was obsessed by this CV-culture, and how you market yourself through a kind of CV-language. I looked into websites offering escorts to see how they described the girls and their characteristics. The piece became a mesh of all these descriptions. I thought of the girlfriend as a user-friendly, intuitive tool.

I wanted to be at the top
from the bottom

– When working on my graduation show, I elaborated my thoughts on stereotyped roles and settings within event culture. The piece was called Truly Yours, and was exhibited at Gallery Mejan. I had these typical VIP-cords, one of my manicured hand sculptures, and a four metres long, blonde wig, flickering in the wind from a fan. Then I had cast a group of girls from an online casting agency, whom I asked to enact their notion of being ‘it’. You can’t really call them hostesses, though, since they scared half of the audience. They were so very present, so very there, which added something eerie to the whole thing.

– Since then, I’ve continued to work around the concept of CVs. I did one piece called PDF Privé at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm, where I wanted to distribute information in the same way Club Privé does when they dump flyers in the streets. It was kind of like an analogue spam, but instead of promoting a sex club I promoted myself.

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In many of your pieces, I feel that you take certain events, behaviours, and stereotypes, isolate and exaggerate them, and bring them into new light. Do you see what I mean?
– I think I do. One clear example is my performance Body Mind (Stretch & Submission), where two friends and I acted as hostesses at an event for Stockholm gallery owners. I wanted to play with the fixed roles that people assign themselves with in these rather strict social settings, and try to reverse them. I wanted to be at the top from the bottom. 

What do you think about using yourself as an artistic medium?
– It’s about trying things. If you enter the role yourself, it’s easier to understand what that role is about. You’re switching sides between subject and object. Take Girlfriend Experience, for example, which was about turning yourself into a sex object. I wanted to see what strengths you have in that position, and what conditions you’re acting under. Instead of pointing out examples from society, I wanted to enter that role as a first person shooter, which was much more of a challenge.      

You’ve worked with a great variety of mediums, such as performances, installations, video, and sculpture. How do you move between the various mediums?
– The medium is there because it has to. It’s not because of the medium that something happens, but the other way around. If it has to be a video, then it will be a video. I don’t value mediums in that sense, and I don’t see a hierarchy between them. I think of mediums as a mere necessity. 

Do you want to make a statement with your art?
– I can only emanate from myself and the things that I’m interested in and like. I can’t even imagine trying to make art from a more universal perspective. That will just make you lose yourself in empty nothingness. I think it’s better to search deeper into the matters that interest you, and try to find some kind of focal point.

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Are you interested in playing with things that other people might find tacky, ugly, or cheap?
– What people like, and want to achieve, is to seem effortless. That’s especially evident when you look at social media. It’s about trying to look like you haven’t cared about your looks. It’s sexy to seem easy and unconstrained. The same goes for the art world, where there is this level of effortless dandyism. That’s something I like to break with. As soon as you pass that level of effortlessness and drive things to the extreme, people find it tacky. The surface can be there as long as no one can see it. It needs to be transparent. So if you take that surface and push it forward, making it more visible, people will find it awkward. That’s something I like to work with.

What does the studio mean to you?
– So much. It has become my second home. My base. I couldn’t do without a studio; I just have to have it. I see the studio also as a mental space. When I shut that door, I’m here. That’s super important. So I don’t know what will happen when I move out of here. 

I see the studio also as a mental
space. When I shut that door,
I’m here

What do you do to feel at home in a studio?
– You rummage about, or at least I do. Erik Haal, a friend of mine who is a composer, said that this room looked different every time he came to visit. I think the most important thing is to be here, though. That’s the most important thing about being an artist on the whole, to be present in the studio. As long as you spend time in the studio, things will happen.

Can you be here and do nothing?
– That’s the challenge. Sometimes that happens, that I don’t know what to do or where to start. Then you have to resist the impulse to take off, and stay. Someone said that being a writer is about having your thighs against the chair and stay there until something happens on the screen. The same thing can be said about being an artist. You don’t have to think that far ahead, or try to fight all your demons; you just have to stay in the studio. That’s my experience, at least. Even if I’m here reading books or writing emails, I’m still here. Since the studio is a mental space as well, I try not to leave it.

So what do you think you will do when you leave this studio?
– Right now, I’m really carpe diem. Gosh, that sounds so cheesy. The first step is to try and move away from here, preferably abroad. Then I’ll take it from there.

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This Friday, April 25, Anna Uddenberg will exhibit her I Smell Amateurs video together with an installation titled Jealous Jasmine at Vårbergs Dansservice, a club in Vårberg outside of Stockholm. Read more about the event here.  

Photography by Fredrik Andersson Andersson