An interview with Eva Stenram
curated by Daniela Veneri
“I’m really interested in how we look at images, what is this process of looking and viewing, the observation and exchange between the work and the viewer. I am interested in our consumption of images - the viewer taking in what they see in front of them. What happens at that moment, how is the image digested and what comes out at the other end?"
- Eva Stenram
Eva, what are you currently working on?
At the moment I am in between projects. I just finished a virtual exhibition that I did together with curator Clémentine Deliss and Galerie Barbara Thumm. I am starting to think about how to put together the next exhibition that I need to be working on (an exhibition of my work happening in Copenhagen next year). It will include some past work as well as some recent work and hopefully also some future work.
One of the themes that I have been thinking about is ‘dwelling’. The situation with the lockdown has partly commanded that, but at the same time, in my work I have often explored related ideas of the domestic. As we emerge from the pandemic, I would like to think not just about the space we call home, but how it relates to isolation, geography, civic procedure and migration.
What drives you in your work?
This is a very hard question to answer. I don't feel like there is something external that drives me to make the work, like a cause or a goal. I'm trying to make meaning through the process of making the work. Producing visual meaning is very different from producing verbal discourse.
The origin of the work is often quite intuitive, and you could say that the artworks are almost like a set of symptoms that revolves around something that perhaps cannot give a clear answer. It is ambiguous. I see making artwork as a way to question or play with the world, but the work doesn't necessarily explain it or make complete sense. I also know by now that if I don't make artwork I don't feel content; making work makes life meaningful. So there is a wish to produce work, a need that is different from other things in life.
What are your most important objectives as an artist?
For me the time after the production of the work is incredibly rewarding – to display the work, show it to other people and to engage with this further dialogue with the world through the pieces of art that have been made.
What do you appreciate most of the interaction that emerges between your artworks and the viewers?
I can't imagine making work for myself in my studio or home and never showing it. Exhibiting the work is crucial. The artwork is itself exhibitionistic – it wants to be shown. It needs to have this moment of exchange, not just with the audience. It also excites me to think about the work being in dialogue with other artworks – putting it into dialogue with other works within art history or within contemporary culture. This dialogue is foregrounded in my work by the use of found, or third-party, images to make the works themselves. It’s a very direct way for me to set up a conversation or interrogation of photographic culture. I alter the world’s photographic material and make it anew into something else. In this way, photography is something that is in flux, that is unstable and that is essentially an exchange.
What role has the sensorial experience in your creative process?
It is definitely a part of it. I think it is important to not just have virtual experiences, but more material experiences too. The actual content of my work often deals with an idea of the sensory. I have been using vintage erotic photographs a lot in my work, and one reason why I am really interested in those pictures is because they are partly about a fantasy of touch.
There is a sense that the photograph breaks down the barriers between the imaginative and the actual. This is highlighted and emphasised within erotic photography. That is something that has interested me.
Photographic materiality is addressed very directly in my works from the series ‘Offcut’, where I pick out fabric details from found erotic photographs and then re-create those fabrics. There is, for example, a work that I made which is called “Split”. It started with a found photograph, a pin-up picture depicting a woman on a bed. I then made a new version of the flowery pattern on the bed, printed it as a cotton fabric and used it to reupholster an actual chair, which is then placed in front of the photograph. In a sense the photograph comes out into the real world. The viewer is invited to sit on the chair, so in this way the viewer becomes enveloped by or touches the photograph itself. These are things that I am very much interested in.
Who are your most important partners or interlocutors in the unfolding of your own creative process?
I think this probably changes from project to project, but my stable interlocutor would be my husband. He's always the first to have to have a look at my new work. He does a lot of initial feedback that can be very useful. Because my studio is at home, that domestic setup is almost always the first point of exchange.
The exchange also happens with my daughters, as they are also the first to see my new work. Their reactions are also very interesting.
In your personal experience, what do you notice about how the arts and culture field relates to the expanded social field? What do you feel needs some attention or change?
This is hard for me to answer, as it is just not how I think about my life or about making work. I am not a cultural worker within an institution and I don't spend time thinking about what I would like to change - it is just not part of my agenda. I am interested in investigating, questioning and responding to society and its various issues through making work. For some other artists I think that the idea of effecting change is stronger.
I think art can draw attention to societal issues in different ways. Some artists interact directly with communities and expand beyond the more traditional space of the gallery. Other artists’ work is more intimate in the way that it interacts with society through the process of looking or viewing. I have always identified more with this more private experience that happens more quietly from person to person.
What kind of contribution would you like your work to have?
Ultimately I would like my artwork to have some kind of impact on my viewers, that it resonates with them, that it manages to make a little ripple in their world.
Is there any blind spot that you would like to bring to the attention of the beholder through your artworks?
I am interested in blind spots. Sometimes these blind spots tease out the viewers’ imagination and sometimes the blind spots point to a sense of dread or fear. An absence can be terrifying.
The tension between absence and presence is something that's really at the core of all kinds of photographic practices, it's a fundamental element of photography. There's a photograph of something that once was there but is no longer there... and then I draw attention to that, expose it.
A lot of the time in my work, I remove things, cover things up or in other ways make a part of the photograph no longer visible. It is a kind of muting the photograph, perhaps distilling it into its essence. Sometimes, this invites the viewer to look at new aspects of the image, allowing a shift of the viewer’s attention.
What is the relationship between past, present and future in your artistic practice in general? Is it something you intentionally think of when making artworks and, in that case, what is behind that intention?
I utilise photographic material from the past to say things about the present. It is a very direct way to conceptually interrogate imagery from the past.
I’m really interested in how we look at images, what is this process of looking and viewing, the observation and exchange between the work and the viewer. I am interested in our consumption of images - the viewer taking in what they see in front of them. What happens at that moment, how is the image digested and what comes out at the other end?
Where do you sense the presence of seeds of future?
In some ways, making work is always a kind of proposal for the future, it involves setting new ideas in motion.
A lot of people ask me about nostalgia in relation to my work. I always find this hard to answer, because I don't necessarily think about the material that I use as overly nostalgic. Rather, all photography is nostalgic to some extent. Even if you are on your smartphone and you take a picture, ten minutes later or in the evening, when you look back at the pictures that happened previously in the day, we already have nostalgia. We don't have to look at pictures from the 60s to have this feeling through photography.
What is your experience of the pandemic since 2020? Do you feel that anything is going to change in our ways of producing, sharing and experiencing art? What impact did it have on you?
It's really hard to say if anything will change. I think possibly everything will go back to normal very quickly and we will forget the whole pandemic.
In terms of the wider network, maybe institutions will think more about how to have a meaningful digital presence. I think that's great and I think that also artists will perhaps re-think the digital component to their production. This is something that was already changing, but is perhaps now accelerating. If you do an exhibition in real life, you ask yourself if there are smarter ways of presenting the work online or otherwise for a wider audience that can't get to the gallery space. These are interesting things to think about.
I was working on an exhibition recently (‘Feral Eyes’ at Galerie Barbara Thumm) that was a virtual/online exhibition only, with no real-life component. It was fascinating because I made artworks that I maybe wouldn't have made in a real life exhibition, and could thus play around with ideas in a different way. I will think more about how to expand that in the future. However, sometimes these kinds of digital outputs during the pandemic have been quite disappointing (and a lot more could have been done). One aspect of the pandemic that I really appreciated was that I've been able to attend so many more talks than normal, and attend talks from all over the world. As a mother, I'm often at home around 6 or 7 o'clock cooking dinner for my kids. This is a classic time when talks in galleries and museums happen, and often I am unable to attend because my kids are just back from school and I want to see them for dinner. But if I can listen to a talk online while cooking, I can participate, even though I am at home. This is amazing and I hope that this continues; that even if talks happen in real life (because we all want this too), you can also access them online.
Conversely, the pandemic has also made me really crave the physical and to see actual art in galleries, museums and other spaces. The physical encounter with objects is very particular and special.
What do you feel needs attention now, also considering this moment in time when everything has been reopening after periods of lockdown? What do you feel are the most relevant emerging questions in the field?
I don't know. I'm not sure what needs attention. I think I'm still trying to work that one out.
Where do you sense opportunities, where do you sense challenges or things that you feel should be left behind?
There should be greater transparency in the way that the art world is run. There is clearly a problem with artists working for free or for very little money a lot of the time. Unfortunately this means that often more wealthy or privileged artists get more access to the contemporary art world. I hope that will change.
Institutions want to be diverse and inclusive, but it doesn’t go deep enough. I think more artists are talking about it and it becomes dispiriting to do exhibitions in big institutions if everyone else, from the curator to the cleaner, is being paid, but not the artist. In the end, artists love to make work but also need to eat. In some countries it works better than in others.
Would you like to do anything differently on a personal level, thinking of your artistic practice? Is there anything that you would like to change?
Yes, plenty of things. There are many things that I should change and need to change in the way that I work. There is always desire for improvement.
What are three keywords that resonate with you right now, at the end of this conversation?
I wrote three down because I was thinking about this one work that I want to expand right now - so it's very specific to this moment in time: petrification, emancipation and euphoria.
Maybe it’s also partly an answer to that question, the one I couldn't answer. What was it? Something about this moment and where do we go?
Eva Stenram studied in London at the Slade School of Art and Royal College of Art. She recently exhibited in Die Biennale für Aktuelle Fotografie, Germany, The Riga Photography Biennale, as part of the internationally touring exhibition A Handful of Dust, and at the Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. Her work is in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Gallery London, and Moderna Museet in Stockholm. She was selected as one of the 100 Heroines of contemporary global photography by The Royal Photographic Society (GB) in 2019, first prize winner of The Cord Prize for Photography (GB), finalist of the Aperture Portfolio Prize (US) and the Hyères International Photography Competition (FR) in 2013 and was also a finalist of Le Prix Découverte des Rencontres d’Arles (FR) in 2012. Originally from Sweden, she currently lives and works in Berlin.