Colophon > Related Texts > She in Four Acts. Text by Sara Arrhenius 

She in Four Acts. Sara Arrhenius
Text by Sara Arrhenius, published in “She, an Introduction” 
Published by Silvana Editoriale & Bonniers Kosnthall, 2015.


                                                                           Drottningholm Palace Theatre, 12 March 2014.

Outside, it is one of the first days of spring. Inside Drottningholm Palace Theatre, a completely preserved 18th-century theatre now closed for the winter, it is still cold and raw, despite the sun finding its way in through the high windows in the space outside the auditorium. There are a dozen or so of us in the auditorium, all in our outdoor clothes. Two photographers, staff from the theatre, and those of us who are working on Ylva Ogland’s exhibition, which is shortly to open at Bonniers Konsthall. On the stage some technicians are setting up four paintings in order of decreasing size. They all have the same subject, a draped pink cloth with a round mirror in the middle of the paint- ing’s lower section. In the darkness of the mirror we can just make out a woman’s sexual organs at the moment of giving birth.
A short while later, everything has fallen into place, three beats and the curtain is lowered and raised. The artist is sitting on the stage in front of the first painting with a theatrical mask over her face and a scalpel in her hand. Slowly and carefully she begins to cut a hole around the edges of the female sex. The sound of the knife cutting through the cloth fills the silent theatre. After a while, the round piece of cloth falls outwards like a tongue, the artist steps through the hole and sits in front of the next cloth and starts cutting a new hole. The descending scale of the paintings and the sizes of the cut-out holes create a strange perspectival effect that picks up on the way the proscenium stage plays with stage depth and scenery so as to create an illusion. When the artist stands on the stage between the paintings, yet another image is created in a theatre set that in itself is several layers of images, with the blue stormy sea of the background at the bottom and the green forest of the scen- ery flats at the sides of the stage.
As in many of Ylva Ogland’s works, at Drottningholm Palace Theatre she creates a situation that is hard to define, and which shifts irreverently between a number of different genres. It is like a mix- ture of ritual, theatre performance, studio setting, and photography session. We who are there are audience and participants, actors and assistants. The uncertainty about how to define this situation powerfully reinforces the feeling of being involved in something unique that is occurring solely at this moment. When what is happening cannot be encoded, this generates an intense presence and experience right here and now, a presence and experience that are not rooted in previous situations.
The event at Drottningholm Palace Theatre is a prologue to She in Four Acts, Ylva Ogland’s exhibi- tion at Bonniers Konsthall, in which theatre, and its play with illusion, representation and role play, is specifically one of many interconnected themes. One of the starting points for this is the theatre’s ritual origins in the tent—the Skene—which, during Antiquity, was used for switching roles, and then as the stage backdrop, the site of the play. Also of significance to Ogland is the Drottningholm Palace Theatre in its own time, before the theatre petrified into cultural history. It was here that the traveling theatre groups of the day lived and worked. Life and art were interwoven in a manner that is also intrinsic to Ogland’s own way of working in close proximity to her family and friends. For her, everyday life and the creation of art are not two distinct realms, but live side by side and each is predicated on the existence of the other. Another major reference is Bergman’s staging of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, in which the illusion of the Drottningholm Palace Theatre was created in a film studio. In his interpretation of the special atmosphere of the theatre, Bergman plays with the different levels of reality of theatre and film, as being both typical of his time and anachronistic. The curtain at Drottningholm Palace Theatre has also dictated the proportions for the four paintings that, having been cut to pieces on the stage, will act as curtains dividing the four sections of the exhibition at Bonniers Konsthall. Here, the holes, which exhibition visitors can step into or look through, will serve as a passageway between different scenarios in works that stage various worlds, atmospheres and situations. The female sex delineated a peephole, with several of Ogland’s works containing a passageway to look and move through, just like the mirror. Another reference, also in the title of the exhibition, is to Niki de Saint Phalle’s She: A Cathedral at Moderna Museet in 1966, in which visitors could walk inside a giant sculpted woman. Here at the theatre the holes in the paintings are also linked to the peepholes left in the curtain for looking out at the audience, like a conduit between the different spaces and realities of the stage and the auditorium.
The first time Ylva Ogland and I worked together was on the Scene Shifts, a group exhibition which was shown at Bonniers Konsthall in 2011, when she created Snöfrid and the Seeing Place. This, like all of Ogland’s works, is in every sense a complex, ambiguous and very wide-ranging work, its motifs and parts rooted in earlier works, which later ramify and recur in future ones. If we start with the materially concrete aspects, then the work incorporates most of contemporary art’s guises: painting, sculpture, objects, film and performance. One of the work’s several power centers is a life- size marionette, made using a traditional Japanese doll technique. The doll is a doppelganger for the artist’s self, an alter ego that goes by her other name, Snöfrid. In the personal mythology that the artist builds into her works, Snöfrid is a creature who exists in a grey shadow world that mirrors the real world, and which represent an alternative reality. Snöfrid is just one of the mythological or real people, objects and images that recur in work after work, creating an intricate, wide-ranging mesh of references. In a manner typical of the artist, Snöfrid also comes in numerous manifestations. She exists as words, as liquid, as images or, like here, as a doll. Her transformations into and shifts between different states are given expression in various performances that have a ritual character. Part of the artwork in Scene Shifts was an appearance at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre, which was filmed and then shown in a model of the theatre. Here again, we have a reference to Ingmar Bergman and a model he had made of the theatre.
Bergman is an important interlocutor here, and certain of his motifs, such as the doppelganger theme in Persona, recur in several of Ogland’s works. Other important influences are Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Stanley Kubrick. She switches nimbly and casually between epochs, genres and sub- jects acquiring influences that combine to form tight-knit layers of meanings.
Snöfrid was also to make an appearance at Bonniers Konsthall during Scene Shifts. Ogland was very explicit about the framework for the event. She wanted to sweep away everything that we as an institution had imposed on her work, such as the exhibition attendants, wall texts and exhibition posters. The Konsthall was to be switched off, and only weakly lit with living light, with visitors being shown in one by one to see Snöfrid, who did a dance, manipulated by two puppeteers, and offered them a special pastry made expressly for the occasion. What happened between Snöfrid and the visitor happened only in that moment, and was experienced only by those who were there. Refining and artistically controlling a situation in this way is characteristic of Ogland. While we as an institution, with the best intentions of communicating, explaining and simplifying, build a high fence around art, Ogland resolutely tears down the institutional framework, and instead builds her own world that spans the entire art space. I see this expansion of the work to take in the entire exhibition situation as a way of creating for viewers a more direct and immediate encounter with the work, without expectations or explanations standing in the way. When we began working on She in Four Acts at Bonniers Konsthall, the institutional framework immediately came up in our dis- cussion. Did the exhibition attendants have to be there? Could we totally omit the wall texts? Did we have to have a reception desk? Questions that put the institutional context up against the wall and made visible how much we embed into the encounter with a work. Calling into question the institution’s methods and frameworks can be tied in with Ogland’s own actions as a curator, which, precisely like her own work, have been about creating different situations for experiencing art. Or,

more precisely, they create entire situations that are artworks. These situations are frequently about giving the space itself a more equivocal identity, about annulling the definitions and demarcation lines that we set up around various parts of our lives. She rarely creates her art in a proper studio, but uses her home or her husband’s gallery as a workplace. Or then she carries on working in the exhibition space, so that the artwork and the exhibition are in constant transformation. She works with her children in the exhibition, breaking down the divisions between the role of mother and the role of artist. In our conversations about the exhibition one driving force has been creating a place where such mutability is possible, and where artist, curator, institution and viewer participate in a dynamic event, in which the works and the spaces are transformed over time. As the working process has gone on, a lot has also been changed in the choice of works, and in the concept and construction of the exhibition. Changing ourselves and daring to follow the artist has also opened us up to a process in which the work effort does not end when the exhibition opens. Just like life, the artwork is dynamic and in transformation.
She in Four Acts has borrowed the form of theatre by being divided into several acts, something that emphasizes that the exhibition is a happening, a narrative, that gradually reveals itself to the visitor. Each section is bounded by one of the four curtain paintings with the holes cut out. Each curtain has a corresponding stage set that Ogland has based on Leonardo da Vinci’s La Vergine delle Rocce [The Vergin of the Rocks] (1495–1508), which is reduced to a stylized and strangely phallic landscape that is given different colorings in the different rooms. Ever since she was a child, Ogland has been fascinated by the version of this painting in the National Gallery in London. Especially the angel to the right of Mary, who she has drawn and painted repeatedly as a kind of guide between different worlds and states. Recreating and returning to certain works and images is a significant part of the world that Ogland creates. Certain objects recur, such as the candle, the poppy, the hero- in syringe and the mirror. People and life events, such as her father’s death and her daughter’s birth, become building blocks of her artistic language. This is a language that has taken shape over a long period, and which emerges as a part of her life, as her way of being in the world. Here, the very act of executing a painting or a ritual also becomes a way of articulating the world. The work of the hand and the presence and movement of the body when she is painting certain images, the gestures and words that constitute a performance, become a grammar that creates the world, making it tangible and filling it with meaning.
The exhibition’s first act is the space of becoming—the artist’s studio. Here, Ogland will work on various paintings during the course of the exhibition. Here, she will paint a variant on the curtain paintings in grey tones. Once they are completed, they will be transported to Drottningholm Palace Theatre, where Ogland will cut a hole in each of them in a reprise of the exhibition’s prologue. In Ogland’s art the ritual becomes a path to knowledge and a way of conceiving of the world. Ritual events and animated, fetishistically charged objects have a vital function in her art. In her fasci- nation with ritual, I see a link with her desire to create art that draws the viewer into a powerful experience that can be communicated and shared through participation. We can see this as a way of returning art to the cultic role it had in the time before the art system of secularized modernity.
In the first act Ogland will also be making a totally new painting that has been inspired by Gus- tave Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre [The Painter’s Studio] (1855). This is an allegory for the artist’s life in which he brings together people who have been important to him—critics, philosophers, collectors—but also takes the opportunity to offer his critique of the academic art tradition and the politics of his day. Like Courbet, Ogland has people from her life populate her works. For exam- ple, the series of portraits in the exhibition that are not commissioned works in the conventional
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sense, but which were made on the artist’s own initiative. Just like Courbet’s painting, they become a depiction of the relationships that are spun around her artisthood, her family, friends, collec- tors, curators and critics. The citation of Courbet’s painting also incorporates an allusion to Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas [The Maids of Honor] (1656), which has long fascinated Ogland with its multiple layers of space and complex systems of gazes.
The performative, ritual aspect of Ylva Ogland’s working process also derives from her choice of painting as her mode of expression. Several of her motifs were established early on, just like objects, people and interiors from childhood recur. She paints rapidly and skilfully, never making sketches in advance. The style, the color palette, the manipulations are already evident at a young age. Quo- tations and influences from art history are numerous. But painting as a tradition, a mode of expres- sion or a form of technical virtuosity is never an end in itself. Painting becomes her most immediate and most intimate form of expression, it is the language that she uses, and which is constantly close to hand. When I ask her why she paints, she is oddly uninterested in replying. Her technique feels so familiar to her that it is like asking someone why they speak. But after many conversations, she says, in passing and more so as to say a least something in reply, how she values the way that figura- tive painting so self-evidently engages most people. It becomes a language that can be understood by the many, and thereby makes personal experience into something mutual that can be shared.
Act two is the room of death. Here, there are pictures of her dead father under a sheet on a stretcher. The painting is clad in the bright red shades that Ogland also used in the series of thirty small still lifes that she is showing along with the painting of her dead father. The paintings contain objects that remind her of her father and his heroin abuse – the poppy, the hypodermic needle and the spoon. The still-life paintings hang against a background of red paintings whose reverse sides face onto the street and are visible from the outside. Together they form a red wall.
Throughout the exhibition it will be the works, rather than a conventional exhibition architec- ture, that constitute the space. Again, an expression of Ogland’s reduction of the institutional im- positions and of the striving to let the works create a total installation. The reversed paintings are recurring through the show, making visible the painting as a material object as well as an illusionis- tic image. Following on from the still-life paintings come thirty paintings that are variations on her dead father’s face. In her works Ogland frequently uses reiteration and variation of a single motif. This repetition becomes a ritual gesture, like a chant that is said over and over again, and which ultimately becomes an integral part of you. Here, the variations on the same motif, specifically in thirty paintings, will also embody a reference to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which were intended to alleviate the patron’s insomnia. Repetitions in music and paintings contain a link with the forced repetition of dependency, but also with the desire to achieve other states of consciousness, to get away from the space of wakefulness and reality. Repetition also functions as a kind of incantation. By remaking the motif with slight shifts and changes the artist opens up a temporal space, a narra- tive that is unfolded for the viewer and draws attention to time, change and difference, even in dead things and bodies. Through repetition, Ogland paints the powerful memories of childhood and the primordial loss that dwells in a father’s dead body. Image is placed after image and the father is transposed from the factual, physical inexorability of death into a symbolic space in which times and memories can be conjured up, relived, reformulated and shared via the representative power of art.
The red shade found in the room of death follows us to the next act, which is the place of birth. The large space at the Konsthall is showing thirty paintings that are variations on the same motif: the moment after the birth of Ogland’s second daughter, with the artist naked on her knees in a pool
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of blood, the umbilical cord still attached, and her child in her arms. Placed on easels and arranged in four rows forming a square, with their reverse sides turned outwards, they form a closed space. On the floor of the room is a red painting, in which pictograms indicate the positioning of the pictures. As viewers we cannot go into the space, but can only see the frontal surfaces of the paintings through gaps between the paintings. This way of arranging the paintings embodies a particular attitude to seeing and the gaze. Ogland portrays the most intimate and personal things, but she keeps the view- er at a distance and leaves us outside the center of the work, thereby making us aware that we can never get a complete overview and total visibility. We see and understand the world only in glimpses and excerpts. Through the way that we cannot get into the space, Ogland creates an integrity around the moment of giving birth, keeping some of the experience to herself. There is still a secrecy and an intimacy here that is not pornographic. But the distance between viewer and work also propels the paintings from the individual to a greater, universally human relevance. It is the artist who is giving birth to her child in the paintings, and it is the manner of depicting and showing this deeply person- al event that makes the work extremely touching. But, when Ogland paints not just one, but thirty paintings of the same moment, something else also happens. Precisely like the paintings of the dead father’s face, the repetition and variation of the motif creates a kind of incantation and reworking of a profoundly personal event. This reworking gives the singular a universal language, which causes the paintings to take on a powerful existential relevance for all of us.
For Ogland, the use of the intimate and familiar is an approach in which both her own family his- tory and intimate experiences become art. Her work with these motifs involves an underlying prob- lematization and staging of the gaze and of seeing, which go together with the way she casts doubt on definitions, experiences and space. She makes us wonder who it is that is seeing and portraying a father’s death, a daughter’s body, a birth, and a face in a mirror. In Ogland’s work this is never self-evident. In the gazes that run through her works, from adult to child, from viewer to viewed, from desire to its object, roles, states of affairs, and power relations are intersected and reversed.
In the last part of the exhibition, the center point is a cupboard that Ogland had made in imitation of a cupboard in her childhood home. The cupboard is locked but the visitor can ask the gallery host for the key. The host will fetch it from one of the exhibited portraits, which hangs at the entrance of the show, and open the door for the visitor. The cupboard has already been present in some earlier paintings, in which Ogland used objects from childhood to stage scenarios that contain all the complex layers of what actually occurred and what is imagined in childhood memory. Here, a newly built replica of the cupboard in twice scale size will end the play with the creation of illusions and with various spaces of fiction that had its beginnings in the Drottningholm Palace Theatre. The width of the curtain was the beginning of a play with perspective and scale in the curtain paintings and stage sets that structure the exhibition. The cupboard’s dimensions become the ending through the way that its height relates to the heights of the paintings in an ascending scale. In the cupboard the artist has placed copies of all the works in the exhibition reduced to a tenth of their size. It also contains some personal affectionate objects and the masks that Ylva Ogland made for one of the rituals that she stages, and which she uses when she is in the exhibition and working on the paint- ings. Just like theatre, the enlarged cupboard and the shrunken artworks play with the dynamism of fiction and the possibility of imagining all worlds. When we stand in front of the cupboard of childhood, it is exactly as big as we remember it from when we were little and, just as then, it is capable of containing everything that we can imagine.
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