Hanna Ljungh

With a fascination for history, time, and nature, Swedish artist Hanna Ljungh uses video, photography, and sculptures to question set values and examine our never-ending search for meaning. We went to her studio in Stockholm suburb Årsta to talk about life and death and everything in between.

Spread out on two floors in an anonymous building in Stockholm suburb Årsta, artist collective Wip:sthlm houses around eighty studios, as well as several workshops, offices, and art spaces. Since three years, one of those studios belongs to artist Hanna Ljungh. Bits of styrofoam, insulation, and wood lies scattered in the otherwise neat studio, together with tools, protective gloves, and spray cans. The remains of the installations that Hanna built for her Vivisections and Foundations photography series, where recycled building material, spray paint, and personal belongings are layered to mimic geological excavations, Hanna now uses for a new series of sculptures. Pinned to the walls are photos from the two series, surrounded by sketches and scribblings.

Born in Washington and based in Stockholm, Hanna holds a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts with focus on Photography from Parsons School of Design in New York, as well as a Fine Art’s Master from Konstfack in Stockholm. Working mostly with video, photography, and sculptures, Hanna is interested in examining our relation to history, time and nature, using set values such as science and geology as sounding boards.

When we meet with Hanna in her Wip:sthlm studio, there is a life drawing session taking place just outside her door.

– It’s really important that places like this exists, Hanna says. In addition to the studio, you also have access to workshops for wood and metal. Then there is this big room, where they hold the life drawing class now, that can be used for exhibitions and projects.

– I like it here. Some of the people working here are friends of mine, people that I’ve invited because I want them close. It’s nice to have people around that you can discuss things with. You get so cooped up in your own world when working in the studio, that you have to alternate with some social intercourse. So this place is perfect, since I can do both.

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Is this your first studio?
– I had a studio at Skeppsholmen for a short while, just after I had graduated from Konstfack. It was more of an office space, which didn’t suit me very well. You think it will work out, but it doesn’t. Back then, I was working on a publication, which you can do from an office space, of course, but it was frustrating not having the possibility to do other things as well.

How do you maintain your relationship with the studio?
– I rearrange the furniture. It’s something I need to do now and then. It helps me avoid getting stuck or repeating myself. I grow tired of my surroundings from time to time, so I like to rearrange things and move them around.

– When I’ve shot for the Vivisections and Foundations series, though, I’ve built everything in here, which means I don’t really have room for anything else.

We see and use nature as
a space where we feel things
that can’t be felt anywhere else

Have you saved the installations afterwards?
– No, I haven’t. I wanted to make them as images, and make use of the evidential strength inherent in the photographic medium. Right now I’m working on an extension of the series, a sort of sculptures of boreholes, or rather, the core that could’ve come out of a borehole.

Hanna points towards a couple of unfinished sculptures standing on the studio floor. Round poles of layered materials, they look like they could have been the core of a borehole made in the imaginary ground of her Vivisections and Foundations series.

– It’s nice to approach this work from another perspective, and show the material in a more physical way.

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Looking back at your earlier works, many of your pieces feel like an extension of the preceding ones.
– The pieces often hook on to each other, and I often return to the same thoughts. Many times when I set out to make something completely new, I still find myself moving within the same territory. I often keep a log where I write notes about my work, and I can go back several years and realise that I’ve been writing about the same things that I’m interested in today. Maybe I’m formulating myself differently, but I still circle around the same topics.

Which topics?
– I’ve been really into history writing. Archives of sorts. I’m interested in taking these fixed values that we have in society, like geology, and make them into something else. I want to rework them, question them. Then I keep coming back to… Nature is such an extensive term, so I find it hard to use, but it’s one of the things I keep coming back to. I think about nature as ‘the other’, as something that we can’t really make sense of, but still shows us who we are. Nature becomes a kind of mirror. There are so many ways to approach nature, and I’ve been working a lot with it, also in videos and performances.

Do you need to actively seek inspiration?
– Yes and no. Usually, I have periods when I do it more, when I read a lot or watch movies. As soon as I have got into something, I also feel that everything refers to that specific subject. That’s often the effect, that suddenly everything you stumble upon has something to do with the subject you’re working on.

– I’ve also done a couple of collaborations that sort of pushed me in certain directions. Like the project I’m currently working on, together with artist Ulrika Sparre. It’s called What Are You Working On, and deals with the concept of time and how we relate to it, not least within the art world. Both Ulrika and I are interested in how you are affected by what you could call consumer culture. It’s hard to think long-term in your work, since everything you do is divided into units of time. There’s always this idea about projects. For example, all the grants that you apply for are divided into projects of maybe two years. That’s how most things work in society, but I still think it’s important to reflect on it, on how we produce, and why we always need to produce something new.

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– What I like about this project is that it works on so many levels. This question, ‘what are you working on?’ can be taken either seriously or casually. It’s a question everyone is asking each other in artists’ circles, and you always feel a need to have all these things going on. We made short interviews with people where we asked them this question, and the answers we got were extremely varied. We did the same things in Athens as well, where the situation for artists is very different from here.

– The project is made up of several parts. Among other things, we made an exhibition in Husby, where we collaborated with Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen, who is a writer and philosopher, and invited a Polish artist called Zuzanna Janin. Right now we’re working on a publication, which will feature both theoretic writings and prose.

– It’s been a lot of fun, this project, and I feel that we still have a lot to dig out of it. 

With the What Are You Working On project you have a rather theoretical approach. Do you often work like that?
– I think I do, even if it’s not always expressed in the actual works. I’m rather hands-on when I’m working, but I think the process becomes much more interesting if I have some kind of theoretical starting point, and actually reflect on what it is that I want to look into.

– I’ve always used science as a sounding board for my work. I think it’s interesting, our fixation with science. That’s what we build our knowledge on, but also, and maybe even more so, our beliefs.

We live in a culture where
death doesn’t really exist

Just like nature, science is also a kind of mirror for us to reflect ourselves in.
– Absolutely. But at the same time, nature can also be spiritual. The spiritual relationship that we have with nature is something we hardly discuss, but it’s still there. We see and use nature as a space where we feel things that can’t be felt anywhere else. In nature, there’s this clash between the scientific and the spiritual, which I find super interesting. That’s also evident in the way we talk about nature, either through values and measurements, or as an experience.

We also use nature as a boundless resource, something that we can use in whatever way we please. It becomes part of the consumer culture that you talked about earlier.
– Sure. That’s also a big part of it. At the same time, that collides with the thought of nature as something sublime and untouched, something that should just exist. That’s a real dilemma of ours.

Do you have any artists or movements that you find inspiring?
– Absolutely. Someone that I keep returning to is Robert Smithson. Partly because he’s something of a rock star, but mostly because of his writings and works. He actually wrote a lot about geology and time, especially about geological time in relation to human time. He called it Crystalline structure of time, which is, in short, the physical embodiment of time, eternal time, without a centre or origin. I discovered him when I lived in the US.

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Have you been working with land art yourself?
– No, not in that scale, she smiles. I haven’t. I can feel that the photography and sculpture series that I’m working on is a kind of land art, though, since I drag in a whole lot of stones and dirt and stuff to the studio. But I haven’t been that attracted to traditional land art. I find it more interesting doing it the other way around, bringing the land into the studio.

What does time as a concept mean to you?
– I find time exciting. The Vivisections and Foundations series deals with the present in relation to history, which is what I wanted to illustrate with this cut. I’m interested in how and by whom history is built, and how that history might change. What Are You Working On also deals a lot with time, and our inability to think long-term. I don’t think that we are made to think that long ahead, like biologically. People have always been acting short-sightedly, destroying and exploiting things. Simply consuming too much. If you are to think far ahead, you also have to think about your own death, and that’s not something people tend to do. I find it hard to think long-term as well.

Are you afraid of death?
– No, not really. I’ve been thinking a lot about death, maybe even more than others. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we live in a culture where death doesn’t really exist. Death isn’t present in our Western society, except when there’s a war or a disaster going on somewhere in the world, which kind of disturbs this order.

Who do you honour and
what do you exorcise?

Is art a way to stop time and keep death away?
– Hmm. No. That’s often how you look upon art, that it should be something that will exist forever. But I don’t really see it that way. Everything you’ve done is part of your own history, but I think it’s somewhat cynical to think about art as a way to direct that history. That’s not what’s driving me. I think I rather try to, maybe not find answers, but at least ask questions.

It’s been said about your work that it’s dealing with our never-ending search for meaning. Is that what drives you, to search for meaning?
– I think most people are searching for meaning, even if it’s not something they reflect on. People are always looking for answers, trying to find meaning in things that might be meaningless. I’m interested in why people search for meaning, and how they do it.

On the wall behind the chair where Hanna is sitting, the expression ‘Who do you honour and what do you exorcise?’ is scribbled in capitals with a black marker.

– That’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot when it comes to time and history. It’s a quote by Patti Smith, and even if she was talking about something else completely, it stuck with me. It’s interesting to think about what you bring with you and what you leave out. I can see historical writing as a voodoo rite of sorts. There’s something shameful and disturbing in not letting go of the past, to look back and say that you’re still upset about things that happened. You’re always to look forward.

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April 4-6, Hanna Ljungh will exhibit together with AnnaElleGallery at Stockholm art fair Market.

Photography by Fredrik Andersson Andersson.