A Studio Conversation with

Johan Bergström Hyldahl

Months have passed since I met Johan Bergström Hyldahl at his studio located in the corridors of Iaspis. Even though the studio is small, his imagination and ambition is enormous, however it is his curiosity and excitement for exploration that strikes me the most. During my visit we talk about interpretation, humor and the potential of intuition.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Straight after high school I enrolled at Stockholm School of Business. At the time I guess it was not a very thought-through decision, I was mostly interested in mathematics. Thinking back however, it was sort of my preparatory art school, and in some regards I think that it shaped me more than art school did. Without that, I’m not even sure I would work artistically. During that time I also started consuming more art through travelling. I especially remember when I saw a photograph from the series “Piccadilly Circus, Bunker Basement” by Paul McCarthy. It really struck a chord in me, and after that I had a period when I started looking into the Viennese Actionism. After business school I started doing projects mainly for myself, and they resulted in the works that I applied to art school with. It was safe zone for me to work with projects centered on institutional economics, not having the same background as many of my fellow students had, to work with ideas that I had a sense of control over.

Was video the obvious medium for you to work with?
It might be the megalomaniac in me, the empire builder! I have always strived to create bigger productions; there is no artistic value in that per se, but rather one of personal development. I had never worked with video before going to art school. I liked watching movies, but it didn’t go any deeper than for other people in their 20’s. The way I related to art in the beginning was quite positivistic. I had a strong idea about having an authority of interpretation, and that different elements in an artwork had a clear and universal function, that each artwork had a very distinct core. Video opened up a bigger complexity for the narrative. I created a very strict framework for myself, but within that I had a freedom to create images, maintaining the idea that there was something very specific that was communicated. In the beginning people used to compare my work to that of Matthew Barney. He has managed to have a control over the interpretation of his works. I went to a lecture of his two years ago in New York where he described and dissected a work very thoroughly. As a result of that, anything that had any potential for poetry was destroyed. When you receive that kind of an explanation of a work it almost kills something. To a point I agreed with his idea of a right to control the reading, but I feel that since “Dear Jesus, Do Something!” I have managed to let that go. It is the first time that I’ve done something that I don’t fully understand, and that in itself has been a success for me.

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Thinking especially of “Dear Jesus, Do Something!”, you seem to merge a lot of different aesthetics.
Many of the images are quite flat and the renderings of the 3D environments are somewhat naive. For me it was an interesting way to work with the suspension of disbelief. Due to the almost blunt pride of the element of fabrication you’re constantly reminded of its construction. There is one segment where you follow a man who walks the streets of a rainy city. All of the sudden, as he sits down, the background fades to black and another background appears – we are now in his laboratory together with him. In-between those settings there’s a second where everything turns black, similar to a scene change in the theatre where the audience becomes aware of the fact they’re observing and participating in something fictional. Then there is a kitschy quality to it, a way to try to create something humorous but not necessarily beautiful.

I also thought about the power relationships between different characters.
I would describe that as a simple hierarchical game where on one hand you have the unsuspecting, happy-go-lucky astronaut – who for some reason is sent on a space mission, when there already seems to be a sufficient amount of issues for us to face on earth. And on the other hand there’s the scientist that invents something that could be the solution for these issues but who is faced with a hierarchical bureaucracy, that exists solely for the purpose of bureaucracy it self.  When working with imagery it’s impossible to do something that’s not reflexive, or something isolated from the art canon. You can’t filter experience away. Even though you might think that you are doing something from carte blanche, you will always reference things from before. But to answer your question, I was not consciously working on the theme of hierarchy.

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I also found it to be filled with humor, especially in the music choices and the exaggerations.
At that time I read a lot of contemporary Russian satire – such as Tatyana Tolstaya and Victor Pelevin. They both have a brutal and dark sense of humor that goes hand in hand with something very beautiful, and the balance act between those two creates a harsh type of humor that has an introspective quality. To be able to work in that manner I almost stopped thinking about my work as art, and thought of it more in terms of what its own logic demandee work more in terms of what itäspecific that was communicated. s that I had a sense of control over´s logic demanded, where humor was a central aspect. I worked with some of the images until they produced laughter in me, and that was a sign that they were finished. The atmosphere of “Dear Jesus, Do Something!”, is quite cinematic and many of the music choices, such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Wagner and Handel also teeter on the brink of what can become too kitschy.

 

Where does the combination of destruction and humor come from?
If you continue the argumentation that this film in parts is based on, visualized in the images from the machine that the scientist is creating, you find the pitch-black, rather lofty idea that leads to the conclusion of a pointless life. The dark humor is a tool to manage that sense of futility, but in my mind there is also hopefulness in the film. Humor is an important part of what I do, but creating this video was also very much a way for me to explore different ways of operating. Creating layers in an almost painterly fashion was an investigation in how far I could go intuitively – I’m still not sure where some of the imagery came from, and making them felt very different and stimulating. Going back to the idea of an authority of interpretation, where rationality is essential, this was a process of realizing that the intuitive is more intelligent than the rational. That is also one of the reasons why I prefer working with the video format. The complexity of the time-based medium forces you to let go and accept mistakes and chance events, that in the end often turns out to be useful.

Aesthetically there is simultaneously a playful and a very well produced characteristic to what you do.
Combining playfulness and an attention to detail evoke the surrealistic tone in what I do. My graduation exhibition “There is Plenty of Misery for Everyone” ended up appearing quite mean and cold containing both the elements of humor and destruction. The structure of that sentence suggests something more positive like “there is plenty of cake for everyone” and with that slight manipulation, the title transforms into an uncomfortable joke.

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Your work seems to carry many references to earlier works of art and films.
Many images I have made can be traced back to other images. There is this one scene in an anti-Germany propaganda movie, a Walt Disney production from the 1930’s, where a group of Nazi soldiers are marching towards a burning sky. That became the scene with the dancing soldiers in front of the moon in “Dear Jesus, Do Something!”. Then there is this train crash which was inspired by a constructivist painting that I saw in a museum in New York. Other references are synchronized swimming, and Art-Deco architecture. Some of them are definitely more obvious, like the paraphrase the astronaut close-ups in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I don’t view those references as important to the interpretation; I want the work to be self-sustained. I feel it’s important that it stands on its own without being dependent on background information.

During your MFA you spent a year in New York, attending Hunter College. What was your experience?
They had a totally different doctrine that might be problematic for people who aren’t very self-motivated. It was more structured than what I had experienced before. They wanted the students to show what they were working on quite often, which meant that those who didn’t have a clear vision of what they were striving towards, made hasty projects that they reworked according to the professor’s feedback. This doctrine does not give people much time to contemplate what it is they are actually doing. I zoomed out of that situation quite fast and met people outside of the school that I started working with.

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What are you working on right now?
I have been working on a new video project for quite some time now. A Korean actor contacted me after seeing my previous video at my Master Degree Show. That felt like a good framework and limitation – thinking about what I could do together with him. I got this idea that I think I will continue to develop, whether or not it will be connected to him. This idea is moving towards a more conventional drama, about the battle between workers and management at a steel mill in a small village during the 1940’s, where a terror balance is building up as a result of industrialization, unions and the shift in the supply and demand of steel. In regards to stories about class struggle this is a story many times told, but what I find interesting is that this story avoids dividing the groups into heroes and villains. This is a much darker and more nuanced perspective.

Have you ever though about directing a feature film?
Yes. I would love doing that sometime in the future. The only limiting factor would be the constraints that come with a bigger budget. Initially you would have to compromise a lot more than what I’ve done so far.

You seem to have big ambitions – do you ever take a break?
People have often given me the advice to take a break once in a while and maybe do smaller projects where I’m allowed to experiment more. But many of my ideas come from just stepping out of the studio, travelling and getting exposed to new things.

The conversation between Johan Bergström Hyldahl and Ulrika Pilo took place in Stockholm in December 2014.

Text: Ulrika Pilo
Photo: Johan Bergström Hyldahl, Ulrika Pilo

Name: Johan Bergström Hyldahl
Born: 1984 in Stockholm, SWE
Based: Stockholm, SWE
Education: MSc Finance 2008 Stockholm School of Economics, MFA 2014 Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm, SWE and an exchange year at Hunter College, New York, USA
Info: “Dear Jesus, Do Something!” at Åbo Konstmuseum until May 17th and an upcoming exhibition at Cecilia Hillström Gallery in Stockholm
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