Faceless Artist № 1
Artist Jan Hakon Erichsen was interviewed in his studio in August, 2015.
FA: Can you tell me a little bit about your Obvious Art Works project?
JHE: It was published online as a video blog. The project was about getting rid of filters in my thinking process. It was works I would not normally make because, in my thinking, they where somehow wrong to make. I would instead try to make all of them without any censorship. All the obvious ideas which I have a sort of mental checklist not to do. The ideas would be produced fast and then published online. A single piece of work would be produced during one day and published that same day.
Is it more about opening up your perspective to get a better flow in your thinking when you are working?
It’s liberating and a way to increase production. It´s not good when you stop yourself because you start thinking that it needs to be shown in a good exhibition space. All ideas have some value. Even if you think, this is so obvious and it has been done before. It can be good even if it looks bad when you first start out.
Would you say that this project was more about drawing attention to that value or was it more about finding a better way of working with your main body of work? Or was it just some added positive effect of the project?
It was to get me to work quicker, more effective on one level, but I also consciously chose themes that I normally would not work with. For example love as a theme or 9/11. Topics that were controversial and difficult.
Or political, which I usually would not touch in any way. Because of the cliches attached to it or that it is problematic in other ways. So I try not to be afraid of the cliches or the political. It is about the removal of fear from my creative process.
It sounds like taking away fear as an obstacle was much of your motivation for this project.
I also have to point out that is was a very fun project to do and it felt good to get the joy back into the art production. You get really satisfied at the end of the day, after you just published a new artwork online. You can move on to new work immediately.
That project seem to give you back, some of that childish enthusiasm you had, back in art academy days.
I guess it was an effort to get back that enthusiasm that really was present at the academy. There I could just go out and buy a material and think, I will be making something with this. And then it ended up being a piece of art during that day or in a couple of days. So it was definitely a longing to get back there.
It can be a serious problem when you’ve been working in the studio for years and stardom and financial success has evaded you. It is really important to get joy out of the work and that again fuels your motivation for future art projects. If you don’t even get joy out of making art then why do it at all!
I make art for myself, so if I´m not enjoying it then it´s totally pointless. But Obvious Art Works was a long time ago, so I´m hoping that I’ve taken some of that even further now.
That project deserves a bigger audience. I think you might have buried it a bit to early.
How do you feel about being an artist now opposed to being an art student back in 2000 to 2004.
It’s more focused work being done. The subject matter is more narrow. You know to a greater degree what you are doing. Before I was more experimental and searching. I was also naive about how the art world works to get art exhibited. I was happy in my ignorance and made art without worrying about which venue it might be shown in.
It wasn’t any real need to think about then either was it?
What was liberating with Obvious Art Works was, that is was only meant to be published on the vlog that I made for it. It wasn’t meant for any video art festivals. The exhibition platform was the vlog.
What was really good about it was your ability to isolate Obvious Art Works from main projects. That way it doesn’t pollute, what you would consider more serious work. It´s natural to be worried about that I guess.
That was some of the problem with Obvious Art Works that people didn’t separate between the two.
See the difference between them?
Yes, they did not see that they came from two different places.
That has to do with knowledge, they have or do not have, in relation to your work. It is always a problem in the art scene. How many seconds will the visitors in the gallery give you? 15 seconds? If they give you 15 seconds you should be happy about that. If you are a video artist, you might not get that.
That’s why it is good to show video online! The audience you get online are more used to video taking time.
What do you think about having a homepage and publishing art online versus exhibitions?
I used to believe online was a way to get my work out there and I did that for awhile. But the response wasn’t that good, so over time, I went back to more traditional ways like galleries and festivals. I still believe it can work online for me and I see other people doing it successfully.
Has that something to do with understanding the way the web works and being good at getting the different social media platforms working together? Some people are really good at using those platforms to push their own work.
It works for some artist, but I was not that interested in putting so much time and effort in to promoting internet content. I don’t have that drive to do it anymore.
You have to decide what your days should look like and what you feel is important. I guess that’s one of the advantages by not being controlled by financial incentives. But it can be really hard to take control of your own freedom and make it into something productive.
I still have a homepage of course. I also have a blog that have no connection to my art. It is a art and vegan blog where I publish other peoples art and vegan propaganda. It is something different altogether.
Let us talk about your main body of work and not just your side project for awhile. In your sculptures and video’s you often see elements that are violent and funny at the same time. Can you say something about why or how you use this type of expression?
There is an element of black humor in most of my work. That is because I like it myself. It gives me inspiration to do the projects! The artworks often start with a frustration in my day to day life which I work out of my system during the project. It can be a DIY project or things that does not work. I get it out of my system through the making of the art. My art has a lot of DIY esthetics in it. The art has even started to be about DIY.
And less violence?
No, still equal amounts of violence. I like to make household objects into weapons. It’s about observing the things we surround ourselves with, in a new light. My last exhibition in Gallery Tringatan 5…
Where is that?
It is in Goteborg, Sweden. There I had put together a piece called Destroyer. It was collection of already dangerous objects like knives, baseball bats and a airgun. I made the objects even more intimidating. By making machines, it enhanced that potential and increased the destructive force in the objects. All of the pieces where really well made from a carpenters perspective. More complex then they really needed to be. It would have been easier to use the objects as they were, but they way I made them gave them a greater potential to frighten the observers.
Is it the pleasure in building things and finding a good expression of your frustration? And at the same time create something beautiful?
It is interesting to think about that when I first started making things, the art itself was more about my inability to make the object accurately and looking good. But over the years my skills have improved greatly so it no longer is about that. I’m a proper maker now. In new works I try to push myself. Like this home projector that I’m making.
Tell me more about that?
The plan is to make a projector by taking apart an LCD screen and light a plate from inside the LCD screen with a very strong light with the help of different lenses. At the same time I’m making a How to video about the process that will be published on You Tube. Then I’m building the projector into a drawer from Ikea and then the video will be shown on a wall using the projector.
Let me go over this.
- You are building a projector from scratch.
2. You are making a How to video about the process and posting it on You Tube.
3. Then you build the projector into a Ikea drawer.
4. Then the projector will show the How to video on a wall from inside the drawer in a gallery.
I guess there will be some technical challenges in this build. Since you do not have an education as an electrical engineer or electrician.
The learning curve will be very steep indeed. It is my most complex build to date.
Very steep I would think and much time.
True. I spent a great deal of time on You Tube watching videos an reading recipes on how to do it.
We spend a bit of time doing that outside of researching art, watching How to on You Tube.
I developed this fascination for low-tech videos. In my production there has always been a sort of anti-esthetics. I have always been fascinated by the type of video where they just put up a camera on a tripod and just film something. Without any focus on the the esthetics.
Everything is completely deadpan.
No effects, very honest!
Liberating in a way.
At the same time you see a lot of the video artists where the camera is present almost by accident. And what they get on the recording will end up being the finished work. Like in the works of Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman.
I saw this video a couple of days ago with this guy. He was wearing little clothes and had no tools, somewhere in the jungle.
1. Then got a hold of a stone which he somehow made sharp with another stone.
2. He then used that rock to cut down trees to build a hut.
3. He then made a fire from using sticks.
4. He then used mud to make bowls which he burned hard under a the fire he made.
5. He then took water with the bowl and mixed that with mud and made the hut into a mud hut.
6. With more mud he then creates a fireplace and a chimney.
Everything made with a rock and couple of sticks!
He then went on to build a roof of leaves with a special weaving technique which made him able to put it on the roof like tiles. In addition he put bark on top of that as a layer number two. Plus he made a bed, also with sticks!
Can you tell me something about your inspiration from black metal in your earlier works? Directly or indirectly.
That was a long time ago.
Is it 8 years now?
It feels like there has been a lot of black metal art since then.
It sort of started in the Norwegian art scene with Bjarne Melgaard. But black metal is a legit part of the music scene in Norway. So it is not strange that Norwegian artist have been inspired by it.
It was the Norwegian music scene greatest export for a while. So it was interesting get into it for that reason alone. One of my projects from that time was a room installation I made at Kunstbanken in Hamar. I made a torture chamber up there, in the attic. It included weapons I made from household items. All covered in black tape and painted black. Pretty gloomy up there.
Can you explain how the room was set up?
Along all the walls where weapons. At the end wall a deer head was covered in black tape and surrounded by a circle of sharp kitchen knives.
This was in the attic with no windows?
A completely sealed room.
And with a slanted ceiling.
There was ornaments on the floor so it looked like a sacrificial circle.
An occult ritual?
Yes. Much of the reason I was into the black metal thing was to get in the zone to create the most aggressive evil inventions. That’s the reason I listened to it and other aggressive music. Everyday at the studio I had to get into very angry state.
It took a lot of angry music to get to the most aggressive ideas or the most aggressive objects.
Perhaps it mirrored frustration in your day to day activities. It was obvious that you were quite taken with it for a long time. I remember coming into your studio. You had take care to have a free passage to the door. In case the door closed and you found yourself taped to the wall and tortured.
The attic was a very fitting place to have the installation. The feeling of being in the crazy mans hobby project.
It was like a torture room from the olden days. Mixed with religious overtones.
The true inspiration to the work came from an American series about lawyers. Where the accused was held accountable for planning a murder of his wife. She had gone into his hobby room and there found detailed plans on how to kill her and get away with it. In his defense he said that he never had real intentions of killing her and that he was just using the planning as a way of venting his frustrations about the relationship. To be able to create the possibility of the perfect murder. Part of the plan was a baseball bat he made with a sharp corner at the top with the same materials as the kitchen counter.
So he could have hit her on the head and got away with it. His defense argument was that he in no way intended to kill her and that he was really sorry about the whole thing. It was his way of dealing with a lot of frustration.
Over their relationship and life in general I guess.
And that inspired me to make that room.
Have you ever had people in your studio that got nervous over what they saw there? Or is it mostly artist coming in here?
At Oslo Open where we open up studios to the public there has been different people passing through here.
Is it made harmless in an art context?
To a certain degree I guess it does when people expect to see strange things. And then almost no one gets truly afraid. But there has been situations in exhibitions where I have had to adjust my work because it has been to dangerous. At least in the eyes of the gallery owner or museum director. One work in particular. It was my diploma exhibit at the Stenersen Museum. They had gotten some complaints and after opening hours had to go through the entire installation with someone from the museum.
Your diploma exhibit was very fire hazardous with a large number of kitchen appliances resting on a huge bed of electrical cords.
And accidents waiting to happen that could potentially go wrong.
There was also a bunch of lamps and machines that were on.
And fans with no protection cover. Someone had called the museum and said that they had been unable to sleep because of how dangerous they thought it were for the children and so on. So the next day I had go through it to show it wasn’t dangerous.
And look for dead children.
I had to demonstrate that it wasn’t dangerous by putting my hand into the fans.
It has a lot to do with the Norwegians protective culture has it not? Overprotecting your children is far to common in Norway. I feel sometimes that mothers take a little to much of the control in that arena. I guess that is some of the reason you get that type of reaction to your work.
I have experienced getting artwork back from exhibitions where the most problematic elements of the work was missing. Probably censored without me knowing or my consent.
Dangerous parts of the installation?
And sculptures which probably have been put in the back room and intended to send them back. But after the exhibition was over forgot to send me those parts.
Separated and unable find their way back.
Yes. Because it’s the most dangerous parts that’s missing I think that is the most likely scenario. They censored it without telling me.
It is interesting to think about what type of climate; social, political or cultural, exits in a gallery space when you exhibit there. In relation to writers for instance. Do you remember we talked about the sculpture Valknutr I made which is about white supremacy groups stealing our cultural heritage. They use those symbols in tattoos an so on. But if I hang this large stone symbol in a gallery which is the same as their tattoos I’m not really afraid to be misinterpreted. The reason for this is that most of the art scene is left-wing and anti-racist. But if you are a writer you have to be more careful. You can easily be branded fascist even if you don’t deserve it. Of course there has been some fascist writers.
You have some examples like German artist Jonathan Meese. Who has been charged with Nazism and taken to court.
But he really worked for it, didn’t he?
He used the Nazi salute.
I know who you mean. He is this super-energetic strange fellow. He’s into painting and performance.
I don’t know.
I recently saw this documentary about him.
What do you think about the gallery as a place to show art. Do you feel sometimes that it does not benefit your work? Or do you feel comfortable in that setting?
I like the gallery space. It is the place I like to show my work.
It is something liberating about it. I have less fear to be misinterpreted in a gallery than elsewhere.
On You Tube I had some comments from people that didn’t quite get the context of my work and took it all too seriously.
It’s a different culture online.
It was interesting in some way.
Age plays a part in this and the fact that they belong to a different part of the culture.
You are always looking for a big audience, but for me it is most important that people that are actually interested in art see it.
It can be hard to get people that are not interested in art to appreciate a demanding piece of work. The viewer must come to the art and not the other way around.
I always try to have an element of immediacy in my work.
Something visually captivating?
Yes, something to bring you into the work. I often feel that children who see my stuff, don’t have the same mental barriers as grown ups do and they catch on really fast.
Children have that enthusiasm .
They just stand there and are really fascinated by my art. There is a greater degree of interaction. They don’t have to go through art history to appreciate it. There has to be an element of immediacy and then something more to ponder on later.
It can sometimes be a problem in the art scene. That the people at openings aren’t really interested, like they’ve seen it all before. Even if they haven’t. I guess it can be a way to be selective. What they choose to take inn. It’s like when you go around in a museum. You pass a lot of pictures before you stop in front of one. You can’t take inn the whole museum.
In some of my works I’ve used a sensor that triggers the work when you come close to it. That is partly about that. If you pass my work it loudly wakes up. Scares you, so you have to acknowledge it’s presence.
To people who do not know your work it might be good to know that they are often connected to something electric, that moves and often makes noise.
Among the artworks I showed in Tromsø. It was a badger who was tied to a …
A stuffed badger?
That was mounted on cardboard box full of electric tools and appliances that made a lot of noise.
There was a spotlight also, was it not?
The work was completely silent until you went in closer to look at the badger. That triggered the sensor that initiated loud noises, movement and bright light.
Have you ever observed people coming up to the work that reacted strongly?
Yes, lots of people. But it was only interesting when the room was empty of other people, because then everyone sees someone else triggering it.
It needs to be in an isolated room.
I’ve seen it at an opening with few people. And they got very surprised!
Link to Jan Hakon Erichsen’s hompage and instagram: