Ilja Karilampi

The small suburban area of Studiegången is shrouded in mist when we arrive with the bus from Gothenburg, and the dark sky forms a sharp contrast to the burnt orange shade of the buildings lining up along a wooded hillside. Meeting us at the bus stop, Ilja Karilampi guides us to the neighbourhood that used to be his home for nearly two decades. Situated just east of Gothenburg, the area was built as a student housing project in 1972, but the dozen three and four storey houses that constitute the Studiegången community would soon be home to both students and families. Currently residing in Berlin, Ilja is back in Sweden to partake in Biotop, a group exhibition at the Biological Museum in Stockholm, taking the chance to stop by his old hometown.

– I like to come back here, especially when I’ve been exhibiting. I can just put on a pair of sweatpants and walk down to the supermarket and meet all of my old neighbours, Ilja says while taking us on a tour through the meandering passages and galleries connecting the Studiegången houses, pointing out the spots that made the setting of his youth; the windows to his mum’s apartment through which he used to sneak out at night, the stone wall that his mum made sure to turn into a legal graffiti wall, the gym where he used to work out, and his teenage hideout – the common art room.

– We paid 60 crowns as a deposit for the key and then we just kept it. I used to paint a lot back then, so it was great to have access to it. I was really into action painting, and it happened that the neighbours put up notes asking what the fuck had happened in there. To me it was like a haven of refuge.

– Here we had our graffiti wall, Ilja says pointing to a low stonewall below one of the buildings. My mum was one of its spokespersons, who made sure that we got it. It was Gothenburg’s biggest legal graffiti wall back then. Eventually they had problems with people painting on other walls and throwing cans around, so they decided to shut it down. I used to hang around there all the time.

Even today, traces of his graffiti background can be found in Ilja Karilampi’s boundless artistic universe. Through his intricate multimedia installations, he reflects and comments upon our time, while exploring social issues and pop cultural phenomena. In sculptures, wall pieces, and videos, Ilja juxtaposes everything from brand logo stickers and excerpts from pop songs to teenage home videos and transient expressions of identity and selfhood. Moving between the representational and the self reflective, he takes the spectator through a maelstrom of symbols and signs, where every element suggests a deeper underlying story. Holding a Master’s degree in Fine Arts from Städelschule in Frankfurt, Ilja’s work has been extensively exhibited across the world, including Stockholm, Berlin, London, New York, Tel Aviv, and Torino.

When did you become interested in art?
– I had a lot of artsy people in the family. My aunt was a kind of crazy artist, and we used to make pastel drawings together. I especially remember making a drawing of a rooster that we managed to sell to a friend of hers. I couldn’t help but buying it back straight afterwards. My parents were very esoteric, so it was all good.

– I started doing a lot of graffiti when I was in my early teens, sneaking out at night, bombing trains. My mum was fine with that. She knew that we were sneaking out of the window, but she just told us not to get caught. When I reached upper secondary school I stopped with the bombing, while my friends went the other way. When I graduated I worked at the Secretary of Culture for a while, doing web design and such. The future seemed pretty much settled then, but eventually I realised that I didn’t want to work in an office for the rest of my life. I felt trapped in Gothenburg and I couldn’t stand the thought of walking around the same streets for five more years. That’s why I decided to go to Frankfurt; it just felt like the best place in the world.

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What were you interested in back then?
– I applied to Städelschule with a boxing performance. I was really into Thai boxing back then, and spent a lot of my time practicing. When school started I didn’t really have time to practice as much as I used to, so it became less sports and more vernissages. At school I worked with a lot of experimental sculptures and videos, but it wasn’t until a few years in that I started working with things that I felt truly passionate about, aesthetically, and stopped trying to adapt myself. I think The Chief Architect of Gangsta Rap became a starting point of sorts, both aesthetically and thematically.

What else did your studies give you?
– I think the best thing about education is that which you learn unconsciously. Things that can help you a lot, also when it comes to self-censorship. At Städelschule, you were encouraged to rethink what art was, to do the opposite, the unconventional. It was very far from art in the traditional sense.

– Every other Friday we had a philosophy class with Daniel Birnbaum. He was very jovial, teaching us that philosophy can be for everyone. I remember bringing a book to class once, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Wittgenstein. I guess I wanted to show the class that I had found some kind of trail. Then it turns out that I been sitting with the book up side down the whole time, without even noticing.

What was your first step after your graduation?
– I spent some time in Berlin, but I didn’t really feel at home there so I decided to move back to my mum for a while. I stayed on her couch for a month and that was the best thing I could’ve done. That was when I started working with Hoodumentary. I walked around here a lot back then, taking the same tour that we are taking now. Then I got a month’s studio grant from Stedelijk and went to shoot in Bijlmer in Amsterdam. On some level it’s a video about ghetto romanticism, even if it takes the shape of a TV-show of sorts.

– After that I went to New York for six months to work on an installation. That lead to this book that I wrote, Hunter in the Armchair, which was later turned into a play. I also came back here from time to time. So somehow it all started to blur, breaking into various meta levels.

You talked about The Chief Architect of Gangsta Rap being a turning point. Could you elaborate on that?
– I was interested in the role of the producer. Not the musicians on stage, but the ones standing behind it. I think the role of the producer, in general, is similar to the role of the artist. Or, to be honest, I think being an artist is more like being a policeman, and to me, that’s a much more important ideal than the traditional artist’s role.

How do you mean?
– There are so many common denominators. Take these wacko investigators that you see in crime TV series for example. Firstly, they have this fixation with solving things, seeing patterns that no one else can see; secondly, they have irregular working hours; thirdly, they never give up. It’s also a profession on the fringe of society. I grew up with action movies and in later years I’ve been watching a lot of CIA-series and The Bourne Identity and such, studying their working methods. I think that’s interesting. In some way it’s like… not a subculture like hippies, but a more modern one.

Can you identify with these action heroes?
– Maybe not ideologically, but methodically.

What does your method look like?
– That’s a good question. I often start with words and titles. Sometimes I have a few images as well, but the titles are the most important part, together with the concepts. The last few years I’ve also put a lot of focus on the production. The movies that I’ve made have all taken about a year each to make, and they’ve often worked as an engine for other pieces. It’s hard to say what’s what, though, since everything is connected. I’m constantly working, basically.

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Do you feel comfortable being an artist?
– Yes. Absolutely.

Has that always been the case?
– I think so. I’ve been able to incorporate everything I want to do into art.

Do you need to actively seek inspiration?
– I don’t know. I often have the feeling of walking down a track so beaten it kind of works by itself. I’ve never had writer’s cramp, like some artists have from time to time. You have to try to channel it.

Do you feel like all your works are connected?
– That’s the intention. And I hope that’s visible from the outside. You should be able to read and understand the work by just looking at them. Take these mirrors, for instance, that I’ve been working with at lot during the last six months. I can tell that people get a lot out of them, just from watching them. That’s perfect; that means so much more than the initial intention. People have asked me what they mean, but I think it goes without saying.

How come you started working on these mirrors?
– I made the first one last autumn. I was working on this piece called The Hendrix Incident, about the time Jimi Hendrix was stuck in Gothenburg for a week. It was a rather grey movie, wintry. It was interspersed with these home movies that I had recorded here when I was like 15, where we ran around in ninja costumes to the sound of a Hendrix song. When I was to exhibit the movie at Frieze I wanted to make an installation resembling a smashed VIP-room or hotel room. I wanted to include a bathroom mirror and decided to use a plexi mirror. There were a lot of Drake OVOXO motives in there as well, and fake splinters and fake trash and such. That was the first one I did. Then I just kept going. The motives I use are very rewarding to work with.

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Many of your pieces include written words and expressions. Is writing important to your creative process?
– Kind of. I mean, it’s not like a doctor’s thesis or rocket science, so the demands aren’t that high. I think I would like to write another book as well, eventually. It would probably be about philosophy. I had a talk about philosophy in Oslo recently, based on loose notes. Things like why you have the right to wear sunglasses or why airport security checks are an encroachment on humans. I’m not en expert, but everyone has their own thoughts.

How do you move from idea to shaping when it comes to presenting your work? Do you start with the concepts or the materials?
– Both, I think. It’s kind of a mix. I want it to be tight, though. I like working with small spaces better than big ones. Maybe it is because I work a lot from my apartment in Berlin, which is rather small. Somehow I think of it as a gyroscope, that we all have our own perceptions of three-dimensional spaces depending on how we experience them, with angles and placements and so on. Maybe it has to do with the size of the apartment where you grew up. I’m also thinking about the Homeland series, have you seen that?

No, I haven’t.

– It’s really good, so well-written. They work a lot out in the field and, this might sound a bit embarrassing, but there’s a character in that series whose apartment is essentially empty and who always has a bag packed, ready to leave in five minutes. Always on duty. That’s how I can feel sometimes, on duty. At best.

Do you work from a studio?
– From time to time I do, mostly when I need to work on sculptures. I also hit the gym quite often. Not that I’m working there, but it’s a kind of break where things tend to pop up. I’m rather incognito at the gym, keeping to myself. Usually, I bring nothing but today’s paper with me. I like following the same routine, both there and in other situations.

What does the place where you work mean to you?
– I wouldn’t be able to work in the countryside or on some desert island. I need to be able to go down the street to a supermarket to buy something. A big city. There are these kinds of residencies where artists can live in some castle, but I would find that a bore. I guess some people like that, to be by themselves and paint for six months, but it’s not for me.

Do you like to keep a high working pace?
– Absolutely. I’m not a dandy that sits and drinks coffee all day, watching the trees. You have to stay active.

Do you go to a lot of exhibitions yourself?
– Yes, but I only go to the best ones. I can be rather choosy. Snobbish. I often find the place to be shit or the art to be shit.

Would you say that you are driven by a desire to comment upon our times?
– Absolutely. That’s the higher purpose. I want it to be one step ahead, to really be in the present, or slightly ahead.

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Can you identify any other driving forces in your practice?
– Well, what can you say? You want to do something that pops. Something that feels next level.

What’s next level to you?
– It doesn’t necessarily have to be something new, but rather something that’s made with force and originality. That blows you away. A thrill. It doesn’t mean that the art has to be sensational or monumental, it can be something small as well. But it should be in the forefront. That’s important, that it’s something that pushes forward. That it isn’t static or just follows one form.

There are a lot of autobiographic elements in your works, especially in your videos. How much do you draw from yourself?
– I think that all individuals have the potential to bring out a bigger picture. That’s what you have to go on, your experiences of a bigger spectrum. It shouldn’t turn into navel-gazing, though. Primarily, it’s not about me, but something else, something bigger.

– What you, or someone else, see, and the things that I get back from the viewer, that’s what determines most of it, really. The reaction or interaction. That’s the meaning of it. 

In many of your pieces you borrow symbols and elements from popular culture, such as logos or sentences. Would you place your practice in a postmodern tradition?
– Ah. The most important thing is not to borrow, but to make something of it. Otherwise you’re just a parrot. It’s the composition of it or the meaning behind it that makes it something more that just a loan.

What is it with these elements that attract you?
– I see them as very clear rebuses. They are next level. It should always be next level. Sometimes I can work with Chinese signs just because I can’t understand them, which makes it mystical. It’s like writing a book in a language that you don’t speak. It’s impossible, but that’s also what makes it exciting.

Do you like to include elements that you don’t know the meaning of?
– Absolutely. Mostly for my own sake, to keep it interesting. I don’t think that you should be able to explain everything.

I feel that you often move between a micro perspective and a macro perspective in your works, between the small incidences and society at large. Would you agree?
– I think so. As I said before, you can look at a small incident and still see a reflection of the world at large, or at least a layer of it. I think I’m just going to say yes to that question.

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This month, Ilja Karilampi will present Rauhassa Hund, a solo show at Helsinki art space SIC, on view October 11 through November 2. He will also partake in a group show at The Moving Museum, Istanbul, as part of a residency programme, opening on October 27.

See more of Ilja Karilampi’s works here.

Photography by Fredrik Andersson Andersson