Art editor Kristin LaFollette recently had this exchange with Issue #47 featured artist Malin Abrahamsson. Here’s what Malin had to say about the inspiration for her spaceholder series, the joy and challenge of living in New York City, what she’s working on now, and more.
I was drawn in by your Spaceholders series from the moment I saw your submission. In your initial submission note, your artist statement talked a bit about the “purpose of the vessel” and the “notion of holding space.” Can you talk about this and your inspiration for this series more?
The Spaceholders project was something I cooked up on a whim when I was invited to do a summer-long ceramics residency in 2018. I had fairly recently returned to working with clay and felt that it would be good to limit my experimentation to fit within a specific assignment. The vessel has a central place in the world and history of ceramics and although I had no intention of making functional ware, I was curious about the idea of making objects as containers. But I was also longing to make work that could suggest or embrace meaning that resides beyond formalism. Clay has an inherent tendency to evoke visceral responses in people and I was interested in exploring this more deeply in my own work. Initially, the idea of the Spaceholders was very lighthearted and not something I intended to pursue beyond the duration of the residency – but over a year and a half later, I still haven’t been able to let it go. With time, I’ve come to understand how closely related the Spaceholders are to my practice of kōan meditation: Both practices are intuitive expressions of creativity that draw on the many mysterious and unquantifiable experiences that define our lives and yet so often get dismissed or brushed aside. By making Spaceholders for defeat or big dreams, for example, I’m trying to make room, i.e. to hold space for the awareness of these sensations. Not as an intellectual exercise, but as an instinctive reminder of what it feels like to be alive, in this moment.
You mentioned that you’re an interdisciplinary artist interested in “material and existential transformation.” Can you expand on this?
In nature, transformation is a given: within a few short months, leaves sprout into lush vegetation only to whittle, fall to the ground and turn into compose; eggs hatch; larvae turn into butterflies; and so on. Clay too goes through a complete transformation when it is fired. Human lives are no different: Not only do our physical bodies change with diet, environment, illness, and age, but our lived experiences transform us as well. We literally become new, different versions of ourselves by being alive and going through everything that comes our way. I am equally fascinated by this process in nature as I am in my own and other people’s lives. There are moments when we know that we find ourselves in the middle of a life changing event. At other times, it doesn’t hit us until long after what a transformative impact something had. Either way, these are irreversible experiences that will both change and stay with us forever.
You also noted in your submission that “clay’s transformative qualities make it an equal collaborator rather than a medium I aspire to bend to my will.” What do you mean by this, and how do you see this coming through in your work?
A big part of why I find ceramics so seductive is that this medium never fails to include an element of surprise. The most dramatic parts of the process take place in a blazing kiln but there are also distinct temperaments, capacities, and tempos of different types of clay which will change depending on its environment and use. I find these variables phenomenally intriguing and rather than strive for total control, I encourage them to come through in my work. By this I mean that I try to listen to the clay as I work and let it have its say about how it wants to be handled, whether that is to be pinched, pulled, sculpted, or carved. And if a piece cracks, for example, or a glaze behaves unexpectedly, I consider that an expression of the materials themselves as opposed to a mistake or failure.
I am intrigued by the unique mix of materials present in these ceramic pieces, and the eclectic blend of materials made me think of the work of early collage artists in the Dada and Surrealist art movements. How do you decide what materials to use in your work? Where do you find/collect the materials you use in your work?
I have an intuitive approach to what and how materials get incorporated and I have used stuff like dryer lint, latex, wool, theraputty, and saran wrap in my work. There’s often a color or texture that gets me excited at first, or it may be that a piece that I am working on clearly is calling for a particular material or thing. At other times I’ll literally stumble on something in the street and know right away how I want to use it. I love to wander through big hardware and specialty medical stores to just look at stuff, but I’ve also spent countless hours googling weird stuff as I try to hone in on some vague inkling.
Spaceholder for Defeat feels different than the other pieces in this series. For one, the dripping liquid extending from the piece gives the sense that it takes up more physical space, and the shelf itself adds to this sense and makes the piece seem more significant or powerful somehow. Why approach this piece differently than the others?
Spaceholder for Defeat is the latest piece of the lot included here. It was made for a show last spring where it was presented on a perforated shelf to allow the slimy yellow theraputty drip and splash to the floor. Some of the other pieces, such as Spaceholder for Volcano Lovers and Failure, were also in the same show and had their own specific shelves. I think it’s important to give each piece its own custom-made presentation. By considering placement – on a shelf, pedestal or the position/installation within a space – part of a specific piece, I am able to provide a bigger context for the work to be seen and experienced in.
I saw on your website that you have participated in many public projects and do digital animations. Can you talk more about these projects and their place in your local community? How do you decide what form a creative project will take?
Periodically my studio practice has been interrupted by larger commissions of different kinds and that has been both exciting and challenging to take on. Each project has come about in its own way but essentially I’ve been invited to propose work for predetermined locations, such as a commuter train station, a public school, and a big billboard on Times Square, etc. I love working in the public realm for several reasons: large-scale projects always involve interaction with people that are experts in areas that I may know nothing or very little about and I love working within a group that has one common goal. Public art is also very different from studio work in that it often has a predefined audience to take into account. I really thrive with the challenges that come with making work for someone else, to be installed in a specific environment and context.
The last public project I completed was a Percent for Art commission for Public Art for Public Schools in New York City in 2017. It was nearly derailed at one point, got very delayed, and almost gave me an ulcer before it was done, but today I think it’s my most successful project. It includes a large, colorful sculpture of a 3D interpretation of a soundwave, which is based on the actual recording of ocean waves, that is suspended from the tall ceiling of the atrium in a public school. Below it, just four feet above the floor, is an interactive sound piece with a small computer and speakers installed inside the wall. Kids (and adults) can push a glowing blue button and lean in close to hear 18 seconds of soothing ocean wave sounds at a low volume.
To build upon the previous question, how has living and working in Brooklyn, N.Y, impacted how you approach your work?
I have lived in this city for 25 years and it’s a very different city today compared to what it was when I moved here in 1995. But I too am different now and there’s no way I could have become the artist and person I am without leaving the small town in northern Sweden where I grew up. I went to art school in New York before hyper-gentrification really kicked in fifth gear and the city felt more disorganized and chaotically creative. My friends and I would dumpster dive for furniture and art supplies, explore massive abandoned factory buildings, and throw loft parties that turned into 24 hour adventures. It was a time of exploration that seeped into everything we did and for me, I think it really cemented the idea that there can be no separation between art and life: to create is to be alive and what you make is who you are.
A lot of my friends still remain in the city but like many other places it has become prohibitively expensive to live here now. Most people I know are juggling an increasingly difficult equation of time, space, and work and it can become a vicious, downward spiral very quickly. I feel lucky to be part of an extended community centered around Sculpture Space NYC, a ceramic studio and art center in Long Island City. Over the past several years, they have been able to build up a fantastic creative network and it’s really invaluable to have a connection to such a great studio and smart, kind people with extensive technical knowledge. To have easy access to all that this city has to offer in terms of art and culture will always make it an unbeatable place to be as well: my job is walking distance from the MET, The Frick, and Guggenheim, for example, and I often spend my lunch hour looking at art.
I see you’ve also contributed chapters to two edited collections: Media Art and the Urban Environment and The Routledge Companion to Media Education, Copyright, and Fair Use. How did these writing projects come about, and how do you see your role as an artist, writer, and scholar intersecting?
Like most artists, I wear many different hats and writing is something I really enjoy and want to do more of. One thing I think artists generally understand really well is the importance of being a self-starter: if I really want to do what I love, it’s all up to me to make that happen. By continuously initiating projects and pursuing interests and new opportunities, I make sure that I do work that I find meaningful and which hopefully can benefit both myself and others.
The first chapter came about as an invitation after a symposium presentation I did at PACE University, in New York City, in 2013, titled Digital Art in the Urban Environment. I was asked to write a chapter about Solar Cycle 24, a temporary outdoor public installation I had co-produced with the New York-based arts organization chashama. A slow-moving animation, the project was a colorful, digital representation of Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, which was timed to coincide with the peak of a naturally occurring astrological phenomenon by the same name. It was installed in an abandoned storefront on a small city street in Harlem where, opposite a pawn shop and a fast food take out joint, it would quietly fade in at dusk and fade out at dawn for 15 consecutive days.
The second chapter, which was published in 2018, was co-authored with Stephanie Margolin, a colleague at Hunter College where I work in the library. Essentially an in-progress report on our ideas for how to effectively teach copyright and fair use to college students and faculty, it includes examples of what we think worked well, with whom, and why. The two of us did a lot of work leading up to the actual writing and the entire process was a lot of fun and very creative. The fact that I was able to draw upon my two decades as an artists made the project particularly interesting to me. The opportunity to write about it was sort of unexpected and it has been encouraging to discover how much interest there is for this kind of inventive scholarship in the academic community.
The paintings you showcase on your website remind me so much of the ceramic pieces in the Spaceholders series because of the vivid colors, the interesting experimentation with shape, and a sense of clean/crisp lines and backgrounds. How do your creative approaches come through in your ceramics and your paintings (and your other work)?
For me, art-making is the project of a lifetime and as I am able to look back at more than 20 years as an active, exhibiting artist, I can detect trends and patterns in how I work. What I’ve learned over the years is to trust my instincts and my own aesthetic language: some things simply can’t be forced. I often make interrelated series, and if there was more time in each day, I would probably keep multiple series in a variety of mediums going at the same time. As it is, they seem to evolve one at a time. Right after art school, I primarily painted. Then around 2009, I became interested in animation and started exploring painting as a digital, time-based medium. At this point, my main focus is on ceramics and sculpture. As you mentioned, one recurring theme is the treatment and importance of color in my work. Another is the cleanness of form: crisp lines that create sharp contrasts between different areas or sections. Although the separate series may initially seem unrelated, it all comes from the same two hands.
What creative projects are you currently working on?
Right now I’m in the middle of working on a new series of ceramic and mixed media sculptures for a show that will go up at Amos Eno Gallery, in Brooklyn, in early February. It’s titled “The Longest Distance” after a quote from Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie: “I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further – for time is the longest distance between places.” We are three artists that make work which deal with time in some form and I think it will be an interesting mix. The pieces I’m hoping to include inhabit the space between freestanding sculptures and installation art, and combine new ceramic forms with materials I’ve been wanting to use for quite some time. It’s still too soon to tell where this will all lead, but I feel very much on my way somewhere new. It’s an exciting place to be!