A Studio Conversation with

Hilde Retzlaff

Hilde Rezlaff’s studio reflects an almost parental care for discarded materials. On the walls of the studio, where we sit down to talk, she has carefully hung zip bags with neatly written labels explaining the content, other objects have been sorted into a filing cabinet-like piece of furniture, equally orderly. With this in mind our conversation dived into questions of interpretation, manipulation, material and metaphysics. Why so much of a concern for what most people would consider trash?

The first time I saw your work was in a small exhibition called “This Horizoned World” at Konstfack.
I started working on abstraction or rather abstracting, subtracting figuration. The result was not my focal point but rather the process of abstracting something that was not abstract to begin with, in this case oil paintings that I found. But few people seemed to understand what I was doing and at that time this felt like a failure. I was naive in not realizing how loaded the paintings were. People even thought that I had painted them myself which was kind of insulting as most of them were quite poorly made. Not that I can paint. Furthermore I avoid working with narratives, so when people seemed more eager to discuss what the image represented, it became problematic.

"This Horizoned World" 2013 Installation view of solo exhibition at Konstfack

”Untitled” 2013
Installation view of solo exhibition at Konstfack

Do you find it conflicting – manipulating an already existing work?
Some of my work can be perceived as quite violent as you may think that I like to destroy things. But this is not what I’m trying to do. When I find a material, the intriguing element often is that it hasn’t quite yet reached its full potential. In a way I try to make them even more what they already are, like trying to make a stone stonier. This idea you also find in the basics of alchemy.

Do you feel like you’re elevating the material?
Yes, but it can be quite treacherous. When you find an object that excites you it can be difficult to determine whether you can add something to it or if its perfect as it is. Some things are already in their natural habitat and I constantly have to keep that in mind. The process is intuitive in itself though I work a lot with setting up rules for the process. I think I need to write a manifesto for myself because the rules are getting so sacred to me.

You seem to return to the act of revealing and concealing, would you agree with that?
I am drawn to semi-transparent materials that can be used very efficiently in that way. It is also a very simple way of highlighting what you find compelling and trying to intensify that. I have been interested in veiling and the use of veils in sacral art.

"Untitled Sculpture" 2013 various objects in resin and slag stone on concrete cylinder 16 x 18 cm

”Untitled Sculpture” 2013
various objects in resin and slag stone on concrete cylinder
16 x 18 cm

You were brought up in a Catholic environment, is that reflected in your work?
I think so but I’m not sure in what way. I’m not really into Catholicism right now but I have not come so far on my spiritual journey and I hope it leads home. Catholicism is more of a cultural thing than a belief to me at the moment. Right now I’m mostly interested in religion on a metaphysical and phenomenological level, which I then incorporate into my work; what exists, what is matter and so on. In our corner of the world I don’t think a lot of people are aware that the science of today is derived from Christian theological questions. The scholastics started to investigate what happened in material terms when God became flesh. The mystery of Christ has lead to an obsession with understanding matter in our culture that is the foundation of Western natural science and philosophy. In theology you use different concepts for when God is close or distant. In a monotheistic system of belief God’s power is of course much greater than in a polytheistic system, which also makes these gods more present and ordinary. If you experience God as very distant which I think is quite common today it seems quite natural that we populate our world with smaller gods. Myself and other contemporary artists who work with animating objects in some way can of course be seen in relation to this phenomenon.

Can you tell me about the collages where you used sandpaper as your material?
That series became very educational. I was trying to create a type of alphabet for different shapes. The first ones I created in my head, like an exercise in thinking in shapes. The others I created using the leftovers, the negative shapes. The result was quite clean due to all the basic repetitions. My idea was that I could use them as a tool when making future works. Using everyday items like sandpaper is an effective way to affect people. If I can make them to look at ordinary objects in a different light I feel like I have accomplished something.

"Faux Suede Painting 5" 2013 faux suede on mdf 130 x 78 cm

”Faux Suede Painting 5″ 2013
faux suede on mdf
130 x 78 cm

How do you reach the level where the viewer embraces it as something more than an everyday object?
I think we sometimes tend to underestimate people’s need for escapism, much as we tend to underestimate people in general when we think that art and culture has to say something about their daily lives. Obviously, it’s a complicated subject and occasionally I have a hard time integrating my art with my personal ideological foundation.


In what way?
When it comes to working class homes for example, there seems to be a greater appreciation of beautiful things. Art theory doesn’t seem to be able to accept that. It is taboo to try to reach that audience through decorative art.

Do you ever think about taste?
Not anymore but I used to. I don’t know if I have arrived at something but it’s more like I’ve gotten over it. Right now I’m doing something similar to what I did with the collages, trying to create a kind of alphabet for shapes and now I’ve reached a point where I feel like I can explore it further to the point where it’s more broken down materially. I feel that I am on my way to creating my own mythology in which things start to reoccur. It’s a very exciting phase and on my way there I will try to dissolve my own conceptions a bit in order to avoid the very distinct material hierarchies related to taste. I’ve challenged myself by working with materials that I normally have a hard time with like for example trying to elevate Styrofoam into an artifact. Taste is something that I keep in mind but it’s almost like it has become more substantial than that. Some people might interpret something that I find as fascinating; like a stain on a napkin – as something trivial, but for me it’s less important that they like my art than that the experience of seeing it makes them look differently at the next napkin they see, perhaps as less ugly.

Since you work a lot with found material your work often has a timeworn quality that easily can be read as kitsch. How does that affect you?
That’s a big issue. A friend of mine recently said that one of my works had too much of a Game of Thrones-vibe for his taste and I got what he said. I think many of my works are teetering on the brink of kitsch but I would never try to make anything look older than what it really is. There is also something very sentimental with what I do even though I think it’s less and less noticeable. I reduce and discharge the material so that only the shell remains. When working with older materials, that is what you need to do to get rid of the nostalgia, I think.

"Untitled Decollage" 2013 advertising posters, eyelets, nylon rope  3 x 2 m

”Untitled Decollage” 2013
advertising posters, eyelets, nylon rope
3 x 2 m

You have also started making monochromes, at first using suede. Do you find the monochrome historically charged in any way?
Sometimes I pretend that I live in a bubble, which I actually don’t. I have this idea that you can have an experience that is direct even through the filters of time and context, but I’m not sure. At the moment I am working with oil monochromes but it’s not as much about painting as the concept of the colour that I use. With the suede monochromes it was about the tactility of the material. Using only one colour emphasizes the structure and the materiality, whereas colours can interfere with that. A couple of years ago when I was working with the found paintings I mentioned earlier, I covered two of them in white wall paint to have the viewer appreciate only the brushstrokes.

So one could say you start with the material and then explore the possibilities?
Yes, that is what I do. But with the oil monochromes that I’m planning to do it all started with this Cosmic Latte-thing, that the colour of all lights in the universe added up to this peachy beige colour. That notion made me want to work with colour in a more conceptual and scientific way and that has led to other ideas about using colours that we can reach using scientific methods. I’m also planning to make paper out of a mink coat and other objects so they will also turn out as monochromes. But we will have to see if it’s even doable, my teacher says no but I’ll try to prove him wrong.


Do you find craftsmanship important?
I’m very drawn to people who are skilled craftsmen but I’m not sure if I have it in me. My patience is rather limited and sometimes I start to question whether I should make art like that at all. You and your work are two components that should cohere so you need to either change the art or yourself until the process feels completely honest. I feel like making art is like tuning in to your own signal.

Last year you executed a very ambitious exhibition in Vita Havet at Konstfack. What gave you the courage to do that?
The whole exhibition came to me during one night and because of that it’s difficult to describe. I’ve had psychotic tendencies in the past so you could read it as part of that but for me it’s something far more difficult to express. My most satisfying work mode is very similar to a trance like state, which I find relatively easy to reach. When you’re in that flow you can be more truthful to the material that you have in front of you and your ego or personal agenda evaporates from the process. The works that came to me that night were important to me and the others that I made for the exhibition acted more as a backdrop to them. In retrospect I think I underestimated my own capability and the potential of my work. I thought that the works deserved a sacred framing that I was unsure if I could convey. The centrepieces were the large decollages made of posters, eyelets and nylon rope and those works are still the most meaningful works I’ve done so far. The struggle was combining them with works that had a different significance. I don’t have any difficulties working with the ornamental. Working basic shapes in very formal imagery for a long period of time seemed to have opened me up to that level where I could lose control. Those large decollages were truly the result of everything I had done up to that point. Sometimes I get sad and worried that the moment has passed and that I will never have another experience like that. I’m content that those works won’t be exhibited again because they are so important to me that I don’t want to overexpose them. They gave me the same experience as in sci-fi movies when they insert information straight into your brain.

Looking around your studio it almost feels like you nurse your material.
I think I have motherly feelings towards them. When I’m at my very best and when I’m manic with my work I truly feel like this big creator in a universe that is mine but obviously very small. It feels a bit like I’m adopting these objects that I then populate my universe with. I think I was brought up that way. I come from of family of hoarders and collectors. I liked growing up in this chaos that was organized according to personal systems. My mother and grandmother would never have a problem finding something but they had complete control over their belongings, as I understood it. I try to be very organized in my studio. The reason that I’m creating this inventory of found objects is that sometimes when finding a material, ideas come instantly and at other times they have to mature very slowly. Still, it can be problematic when you don’t know whether or not you’re committing an encroachment when finding something in the street or in a store and then start to manipulate it or place it in a different context.

The conversation between Hilde Retzlaff and Ulrika Pilo took place in Stockholm on October 18, 2014.

Text: Ulrika Pilo
Photo: Hilde Retzlaff, Ulrika Pilo

Name: Hilde Retzlaff
Born: 1990 in Lund, SWE
Based: Stockholm, SWE
Education: 2014 – ongoing, Royal Institute of Art and 2012 – 2014, Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, both in Stockholm, SWE
Info: Exhibiting with Belenius/Nordenhake at Artissima Art Fair in November
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