With romanticism at the heart of his practice, Swedish artist Tommy Krek Sveningsson is endlessly searching for a sense of magic. Through meticulous pencil drawings, sculptures, and installations, he portrays the transforming power of nature and the melancholy isolation of youth. Waste sceneries of naked trees, striking monuments, and lonesome characters are juxtaposed with symbols of urban society and popular culture. A baseball bat thrust down into a stone, some teenagers standing beside a monument spattered with graffiti tags, a lighter carved in shining jade stone. Together they tell a story spanning the eternal enigmas of time, beauty, and decay, as well as the mundane quandaries of being a teenager.
As a young boy growing up in Jönköping in the south of Sweden, Tommy Krek Sveningsson found his strength and self-esteem in drawing and painting. He never planned to become an artist, but step-by-step and year-by-year, that was where life would bring him – from the Jönköping graffiti scene via studies at Valand Art College and Trondheim Academy of Fine Art to the studio in Gothenburg district Majorna, where we meet with him on an early spring Saturday.
Small but tidy, the studio offers a view of bare trees against a dark, overcast sky, not unlike Tommy’s own drawings. A sculpture made of made of driftwood is standing on the windowsill and a nearly finished drawing of a dramatic monument standing somewhere in the wilds of former Yugoslavia, is hanging on one of the walls, part of a larger body of work centred on the monuments and memorial sites of his mother’s native land. A swirling white tag drawn on a graphic print bears witness to his graffiti background, while the jade light lying on his desk illustrated his interest in symbols of urban society and popular culture.
How come you got into graffiti?
– I think it was when I realised that being part of a moped gang didn’t satisfy me. I liked to draw and to do graffiti was considered something tough, so it felt natural to make for that scene. It was a part of searching for an identity, I guess.
Did you leave the graffiti behind when you moved to Gothenburg?
– No, I’m still painting, from time to time. Not often, though, maybe once a year. I think it was during my third year at Valand, the last year of my Bachelor’s degree, that I decided I needed to put greater focus on my art. I realised that there would be a time after school, and that I didn’t want to devote it to graffiti. I was more interested in developing my art and my drawing.
What else did school give you?
– It gave me a context, and a sense of community. A space where I could experiment and act out. It was a rather free and easy place, and you had lots of time to do whatever you wanted. Most of all you had time to develop. I think everyone made use of that time in their own way. It was up to you to decide how much you wanted to be in contact with the professors and guest teachers, having studio talks and such.
So how did you make use of your time there?
– When it came to those things, I dodged it as much as I could. There is sensitivity in exposing yourself like that. I felt vulnerable. Today, I might have taken more advantage of that, but back then I was more susceptible to criticism. My work is so closely connected to my personal longings and emotions. The more distance you have to your own practice, the easier I think it is to talk about it. You can always try to work out a framework for how to approach your art, but for me everything has sort of melted together, which has both its good and bad points.
Is making art still an introvert process to you?
– I would say that it’s a very introvert process. Of course I can show my work to some of my closest friends, but most times I’m rather secretive about what it is that I’m doing. I think it’s because I still find it hard to talk about, even if it becomes easier the older and more self-confident I get.
What does your creative process look like? Where do you start?
– I try to find something that gets me going, a trigger of sorts. I scroll through images and save the ones that trigger me in some way, intuitively. Then I try to figure out what it is with these images that interests me. That’s usually what my source of inspiration looks like.
Where do you find these images?
– Mostly on the Internet, even if it happens that I also look through books and magazines. I try to stay up to date on things, both in the world and in the art scene, both in Sweden and abroad. So in that sense, my process is not that introvert.
Are you doing a lot of research?
– Absolutely. I need a framework to my projects, something that I can look into. Mostly because I want to generate a genuine interest in the subject I’m currently working on. I think that’s important. There’s greater tension in the process if I’m working with something that I find substantial. Even if I’m just experimenting with something, I need to motivate why I’m doing it.
Is it vital that the work feels significant to you?
– Yes, it is. I don’t know if it might have to do with my working class background. Besides music, the cultural assets in my childhood were very limited.
Do you feel a need to justify making art?
– Somehow, I see art as a means to mediate something that I find important. It’s a way to leave an imprint of myself as a person. It leaves me in a delicate and vulnerable position, but that’s just the way it is. I can motivate my work, and make the most of it, when I feel personally connected to it.
– Right now I’m working on a project around monuments from former Yugoslavia. My mum is Yugoslavian, so I remember these monuments from when I was little. When I rediscovered them now, I felt that they were very close to my artistic expression, as well as to me as a person. I’ve been studying them a bit closer, and I’m planning to go there this summer to see what’s left of these memorial monuments. Usually, they are placed somewhere in the wilds, where there have been either a battle or a concentration camp during the Second World War. They were erected by Tito during the sixties and seventies, to mark the beginning of a new era. Since the fall of Yugoslavia in the nineties, these monuments have been either demolished or just left to decay. That transformation… I find it so exciting. How they turn into ghosts from the past. At the same time, most of these monuments have a certain modernistic style that makes you think of the future. Like a Stargate spaceship or something from Star Wars. They have a very similar aesthetics, characterised by the artists and architects prominent in Yugoslavia at the time.
– I’ve always been fascinated by the romantic thought of nature recapturing its place in the world. Take Chernobyl for example, where nature took over and transformed the environment in a whole new way. That’s an old train of thought, art historically, but I still find it exciting.
The power of nature, that’s indeed a very romantic thought.
– Exactly. I’m deeply rooted in romanticism. Naturally, I try to express it in a new way, but I feel at home there. It’s something that I really identify with.
Many of your works also include references to popular culture. Why is that?
– When I was little, I often experienced a sense of magic and excitement when watching certain films; especially these eighties adventure films. I was raised in a relatively religious home, and I don’t know if that’s why, but I developed this longing for something else. Now that I’ve grown up, I want to know what it was that engendered that feeling. When I first started studying, I bought and watched all of those eighties films, to find out what it was that had been so magical with them, just to discover that most of the magic had disappeared with time. I couldn’t relate to them in the same way. Maybe it was a feeling that I only have access to as a child. What I could take in when re-watching them was the environments, which triggered me in the same way that a certain image triggers me. So I tried to approach the films as images instead.
– I’m still interested in that feeling, though, the wistful sense of longing for something magic. I see art as a way to try and depict those feelings. Take these monuments that I’m working on now, they carry the same feeling, but they are much easier to conceive as a project. They have a more solid framework.
What other themes would you say there are that trigger you?
– Sometimes I try to depict a kind of isolation, the feeling of being left outside. This narrative element has been a part of my practice for quite some time now. Even if I’m making an object, it has a kind of narrative thread. I keep coming back to depicting teenagers, since it’s easier to describe this sense of isolation through youths. When working with these monuments, I imagine how a teenager might use them as a meeting place or a hideout. Maybe it is the place where you get drunk for the first time. A place outside society. There’s a tension there that I find exciting, a suggestive mode that I feel I can relate to. That’s the mode I try to enter when working.
You have a rather hybrid practice, spanning with drawings, sculptures, and installations. How did you find the expressions that you’re working with today?
– I’ve been experimenting a lot with various mediums and expressions, especially during my preparatory year at Dômen, where I went before I applied to Valand. But with time, I became more and more interested in the simplicity of pencil drawings. I wanted to refine that skill, that craft. I’m still working on that. Even if my work includes a number of other mediums, as well, I’m still interested in refining that technique.
What is it with perfecting this technique that fascinates you?
– I would say that I’m fascinated by it to a certain limit. Regardless of what medium you’re using, there’s a craft behind it that I find intriguing. It’s not the level of skilfulness that determines whether a work of art is good or not, though. There need to be more elements to it in order to form an interesting piece.
Many of your pieces are presented as installations. Do you see the installations as one entity or as a compilation of individual works? How much do they depend on each other?
– If it’s a series, the works depend entirely on each other, but only then. Sometimes there is a connection between the projects, other times I turn the page between them completely. When I have an idea in my head, I try to realise it as close to that vision as I possibly can. Then I simply turn the page. Sometimes there is an element from the last spread slipping over onto the next one, other times the new spread is completely blank. It depends on how the previous project developed.
Housed in Tommy’s previous studio, a short walk away from his current space, is gallery Vita Rosen. Run by Tommy and six of his best friends and artist colleagues, Vita Rosen is a breath of fresh air in the Gothenburg art scene, showing young, contemporary art, and hosting events, workshops, and parties.
– A friend and I used it as a studio for about two years, but we had troubles with the insulation. It turned out to be too cold to use the space as a studio during the winter. We used to host small events and exhibitions there, just because it was fun. So when we realised that we couldn’t work there during winter we decided to try and run a gallery for a while. That was in 2013.
Were you looking to start a gallery?
– No, and I still don’t feel like someone who runs a gallery. It just happened. We had a space and felt like hosting some exhibitions. It’s a collective project, even if it was my space from the start. The gallery is run by an urge to contribute to the Gothenburg art scene. We wanted to create what we felt was missing here.
Is the collective thought important to you?
– In one way I think it is. It’s important to feel affinity with others. The people that I co-run Vita Rosen with are all my best friends. That can be a problem, since it’s hard to be professional, but we’re all driven by lust. And mutual respect.
Tommy Krek Sveningsson is currently teaching graffiti workshops at Gothenburg art space Röda Sten, as well as preparing a solo show set to open at Galleri Thomassen in March next year. His work can also be found at Gallery Steninsland Berliner in Stockholm.
See more of Tommy Krek Sveningsson’s work here.
Photography by Fredrik Andersson Andersson.