In Dialogue with Anders Holen


May 18, 2021

The animatic inclination of Norwegian artist Anders Holen is plain to see in his freestanding sculptural work, which models mutation, in-betweenness, and morphism. The work—a pastiche of disparate sculptural elements ranging from polymer gypsum bodily fragments to flocked and vacuum-sealed tool boxes—assembles itself into a single still image, encapsulating the ethos/credo of anima: to appear as though baked of a single gesture, a series of stills slapped into a single frame. Thematizing binaries present in organic culture, such as non-human and human, organic and inorganic, and topology and underground, Holen weaves bodily and prosthetic vignettes into a virtuosic and phenotypic pastiche extruded from a single shell. The beauty here is in the rote possibility that construction and deconstruction are arbitrary formations in the same workflow.

In mid-April, I had the pleasure of speaking with Holen over the phone. Between Oslo and New York City, we spoke at length about trickle-down pedagogy, the auratic, accidents and indexicality, and material pragmatism, among other things. We found commonality in our investments in an uncompromising novelty. His work, which loosely tackles “aesthetics” as a primary concern, is invested in the limits of aesthetic production. There is much to learn here, and our conversation barely scratches the surface about a practice whose conscious deployment of archetypes is usurped into wholly new aesthetic and indexical territory.

Elizaveta Shneyderman (ES): I want to start us off with a discussion of “realism” (or, perhaps more accurately, some of its follies!).

To that end, there’s an ineffable quality to your work I’ll do my best to describe. The sculptures display a gamut of “realisms,” and all within the same frame: there’s a foggy, hazy realism associated with the gloppy ceramic and indexical underside of working with your fingers, and there’s a manufactured, ‘hard-edged’ realism, which eschews any imperfections, like the appropriated reptilian head in Happy (2017), or with some of the smaller ceramic bits in Doom Loop (2019). The result is a truly novel visual effect—strange, slotted hierarchies. Is that something you actively consider as you’re building these works up?

Anders Holen (AH): Well, that was a beautifully phrased question and comment. I haven’t thought about it in that way, but I would agree that it’s a dichotomy between the foggy realism, realism, and also a hyperreal-realism. It transcends the desire to illustrate or depict realism, because I use mold making, so it’s actually a cast of real things. These hybrid assemblages are all still born out of a single mold.

I realize now that the way I approach realism is a core interest of mine. It doesn’t matter if it’s foggy realism or hyperreal realism—the real realism could also be the foggy realism and vice versa. What I try to emphasize is that there is a similar value that you can see in the treatment. That one thing is always something else, too.

ES: That makes sense. So, it’s an equivocation mechanism, maybe?

AH: Right. Yeah. That’s a nice word for it.

ES: This parlays well into another question I had for you about materiality, owing to the principle of inversion. If we think of an inversion as a presentation of a material contradiction, i.e, presence/void; light/shadow; heavy/light; cast/original object, your works are like an accrual of existing inversions, like wringing out a sponge and putting both the wet damp and dry versions on display. Do you have some subconscious desire towards this strategy of inversion—of putting antagonisms on display, pairing a protagonist with its foil, inside with outside, topographic with the underground, etc.?

AH: That really resonates. And I haven’t thought about it in that way. In terms of material, this also turns a bit back to what we just spoke about: the different sets of values become what things are, in a way. Oftentimes, I get this idea that I want to include a material that’s ineffable, like heat, UV-light, or magnetism. I treat this material inclusion the same way I would with clay. One such example of this is in I, II, III (2019)—“heat” is contained within the vitrine, introduced by candlelight. I made this small machine that takes heat and reroutes it back into the core of the machine, causing it to light up. So, it’s this never-ending exchange going on, where the material is really defining of the whole work, somehow. There’s something here in terms of inversion—of wanting the material to be transformative.

I,II,I, 2019. Bronze, glass case, glass flask, lamp oil, cooling element, Peltier, LED light. Photo: Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo

ES: Much of your work does have these inbuilt classical figurations and art historical references. I noticed the Birkenstock you snuck into I, I (2019). What decisions are going into the gestures?

AH: Yes, this is quite important. It’s iconography. When you see a Henry Moore sculpture, you see a classical abstraction. You know, warping figuration into something abstract, where the thing resembles nothing but also everything. It’s a method I deploy when I make my work: using a well-known sculptural language and trying to redefine it.

ES: That makes sense. It’s especially interesting to me that you have this process where you have a single, unified cast/mold that also accounts for things like the indexical—the marks left behind from your finger and the fuzzy gestures which follow suit. The things that we come to associate with really hand-built, handmade objects and their auras are literally baked into the final work.

AH: Right!

ES: I want to discuss your museological and didactic display strategies and their pragmatic and decorative considerations. Some of your sculptures in Aid For Impending Quagmire (2014-15) were built out of cases and glass vitrines whose original function was as actual protective elements or plinths in the shipping. The works then turn into this network of connections between their intrinsic and aesthetic value, as well as the value of those things as utilities. How are you thinking about this triangulation between the aesthetic, intrinsic value of a sculpture against its abstracted, utilitarian use?

AH: That’s also a really interesting question. In Norwegian, we have a saying. It’s språkløst. It roughly translates to “language-less.” This is how I would describe my process working on these sculptures, as språkløst.

I didn’t know at the time—this was back in 2014 and basically my first solo show—but looking back and reflecting on what happened in that “languageless” process, something slowly became evident and possible to put into words. The whole starting point was to remove myself as much as possible in this process. Me, human, Anders, as the primary agent—I wanted to remove myself to give agency to the things. This was a banal idea, or perhaps a naïve idea, but nevertheless I felt the urge to emphasize the importance of non-human agency.

I set out to make pragmatic choices—to really listen to the things that I made and see where the work would take me and try to make more works out of that. I had this idea with the Statue of Regression works that was really based on primitive mold making. I read about this really, really old way of casting copper and bronze, which is basically to use a lot of mud or clay because it is a heat-resistant material. Thinking pragmatically, I needed something to help me with this endeavor, some kind of utility that could withstand the stress of digging out holes in huge heaps of clay, which would serve as the mold for the Statue of Regression works. So I made sculptures in solid aluminum to use as excavation tools. The large plaster works were made on site, in a gallery in New York, a long way away from Oslo. To ship the aluminum sculptures/utilities/tools, I made special casings for them. I figured that these also had potential so the containers ended up becoming wall-works in the installation. In order to play with their sense of intrinsic value, I vacuum-sealed tools into the containers and covered them in pulverized textiles (flocking), which gave them a velour surface, not unlike a jewelry box. In short: I used the exhibition to make the exhibition.

“The whole starting point was to remove myself as much as possible in this process. Me, human, Anders, as the primary agent—I wanted to remove myself to give agency to the things. This was a banal idea, or perhaps a naïve idea, but nevertheless I felt the urge to emphasize the importance of non-human agency.”

ES: You noted an interest in the agency of the objects. How consciously were you thinking about the relationship between an object and its reference? Do the works explicitly challenge a dominant anthropocentrism?

AH: I’m really not sure. I’m still figuring that out. If it’s this object-subject relation…what is that? My practice tends more and more towards experimentation, a process of excavation. What is a subject-object relation in that case?

ES: It’s a good question. In this mimetic age, the context of originality is constantly shifting. Am I wrong to read your works as distinct products of a novelty economy, wholly unique in their construction, referencing their own impossible irreproducibility?

AH: I see what you mean. And I think also this is maybe, again, about language. The whole casting and molding and recasting, that’s a really well-known commercial production type of thing, right? So, it has a language to it, a feel to it. That’s an idea I consciously work with. But it’s also a strategy to try to balance the object as both a novelty and as something that is always necessarily referential. The work is an attempt to digest culture and emboss what is left into the work.

ES: That makes sense. Seems to me the dominant credo is, “replicate, iterate, mutate.” That reminds me, I want to talk about your relief sculptures—or I guess, technically, “counter-relief” or intaglio sculptures (Magnetoseptic Relief 1–4, 2017). I’m interested in the pastiche happening on the surface—a variety of references ranging from Mr. Potato Head to Aladdin. How did you settle on certain motifs?

AH: The whole departure point is related to agency, somehow—the agency of these objects. I once read this poetic refrain that said, “The limbs that are farthest from the head are the gateway into the subconscious.” From there, experiments were conducted where people were forced into awkward situations. Their feet were assessed—when two people were having an awkward discussion, their feet were pointing towards the nearest exit, unbeknownst to them. This really fascinated me. This sense of agency, or lack thereof, resonated in the work: the work decides for itself where it is placed. Technically these sculptures have a front and a back, but their bases are constructed as functioning compasses, so the magnetic field is pushing the sculptures floating on top in a specific direction. Regarding the relief references you asked about, I’m again reminded of the Norwegian word språkløst. I’m not totally sure how to put it into words, but every image used—the cartoons, busts, a carving of someone sneezing—had an uncontrollable quality to it. It’s an unfiltered process, stuffing a lot of information into a surface. Magnetism as admissible material is the crux of the installation.

Agent, 2017. Cast jesmonite of hand-carved plaster, aluminium, neodymium magnets, stainless steel, plexiglass, polymer plastic, styrofoam, water. Photo: Giorgio Galotti Gallery, Torino

ES: I think it really works. I think the amalgamation of this assortment of logics and visual hierarchies embedded and embossed on top of one another produces this quasi-algorithmic poetry. It alternates between a modeling phase, a construction phase, a casting phase, and a final phase. And it’s nice to have this experience where I can look at something and have this feedback loop. It’s an iridescent, in-flux, four dimensional object.

AH: I haven’t thought about it like that. But, in order to get the final result, the sculptures are cast multiple times. I first make the relief out of clay mixed with different castings, then its cast in gypsum, and finally I hand-carve all the figurations in the gypsum and cast it again. In total, it is four or five castings. Maybe the evidence shows up.

ES: I really do think they transmute in real time.

AH: Hmm.

ES: I want to pivot and talk about your artist-run space, Tidens Krav (2011-2014). The monetary principles and the speculative investment in artists buying artwork is fascinating to me.

When I first encountered the website, I asked myself whether or not the project was operating as a parafiction. Is this a glitch in reality—a strange, durational performance? And then I really got to reading the content. Can you walk me through what led you to this speculative commercial and economic model? What were the organizing tenants behind this artist space?

AH: Tidens Krav was a project that we started right out of the academy, so it was infected by that reactionary urgency. Indeed, Tidens Krav is an old Norwegian saying which is crudely translated into “what time demands.” At the time, there were only a couple other artist-run initiatives in Oslo. We saw it as an opportunity to do something for the community. We found an inexpensive building and totally refurbished it. For many of us coming straight out of the art academy, it was our first experience witnessing how the art world functions, and the subsequent taste that leaves in the mouth.

ES: Can you explain this speculative financial model, “Newest Best Standard”?

AH: Sure. After running the space in a non-financially viable way for a couple of years, we decided to try to go really commercial, but in a way where we could participate in the market and still feel like decent human beings. We landed on the idea of trying to make our own market by exploiting the possibility of speculation. Because our community consisted primarily of artists that wanted to buy art, we saw an opportunity: artists are the ideal buyers because they tend to buy for reasons other than speculation (i.e. financial investments). They see value in other places where maybe the art market doesn’t.

So we came up with a co-op model. Standard procedure was that if a work was sold at Tidens Krav, the earnings were split 50/50 between the artist and the gallery. However, what was different about our model was that if there was any surplus money after paying for essentials (rent, heat, electricity) at the end of the year, we rerouted that surplus back to the artist-buyers so that they could reinvest. Ostensibly, this meant that the non-artist clients who purchased art with us contributed to a surplus that would eventually go back into the artist community. In other words, in addition to getting an artwork, the non-artist clients would financially support Tidens Krav, its community, and the exhibiting artist. We set out to do this as a project for a year, and luckily we had buyers on both sides. This resulted in a cash-back situation where every artist who purchased an artwork at Tidens Krav was reimbursed 117% of what they originally spent.

“At the time, there were only a couple other artist-run initiatives in Oslo. We saw it as an opportunity to do something for the community. We found an inexpensive building and totally refurbished it. For many of us coming straight out of the art academy, it was our first experience witnessing how the art world functions, and the subsequent taste that leaves in the mouth.”

ES: Fascinating. If I’m understanding correctly, it’s a model to entice the circulation of art via artists rather than collectors?

AH: Right. And it’s a way for artists who buy art to speculate, but on the premise of the collector, not the other way around. It’s like a reversion of the speculative part. The underdog is suddenly the upper dog.

ES: Ah, I see. It over-privileges the artist—which, like you said, is not usually the way that transaction works.

AH: Right.

ES: What is the “tele-application” facet of Tidens Krav?

AH: The tele-application is basically an open call (literally). We set up a phone relay system where artists could call in and leave their application as a message. This audio recording was the only data we would use to base an artist’s acceptance on. We didn’t see any visual material or Google their work—and some applicants didn’t even leave their names! It also became a way for us to see what kind of language artists used to present their work.

ES: I like the idea of making selections, or narrowing a selection process, not necessarily by “taste,” but based instead on a seemingly arbitrary mechanism. Not to mention that this kind of operation reveals/enumerates the subtext of all the systems that we unknowingly consent to.

AH: Exactly. It’s reversing and revealing something that everyone knows in a way, but doing it bluntly and in a slapstick manner. The tele-application is an open call, but it’s so slapstick it’s almost too dumb. But, inside the dumb idea was so much potential. The same goes for Newest Best Standard—it was also a bit tongue-in-cheek, yet earnest, and handled very rigorously.

Frieze, 2019. Glazed porcelain, painted glass, bronze, silver birch, pencil on paper, steel brackets. Photo: Kunstnerforbundet, Oslo

ES: Speaking of slapstick, I wanted to ask about the language framing Tidens Krav. Regarding Tidens Krav going commercial, the website reads: “Hi, mom, I’m going back to the womb” and “We’ll feature artists who are all in the warm comfort of knowing they are about to be part of the future. To read more about that future…” and “While some artists are enjoying their 117% cash back…” How are you wielding this slapstick and performative language?

AH: It was very conscious. It was a specific time for me and my collaborators. I will only speak for myself, but I found my years spent in the art academy difficult, and was very fed up with a certain way of communicating about art and dealing with artistic practice. For me, Tidens Krav was a project I’d describe as four years of unlearning, or re-learning.

ES: Maybe more just about actually your collective survival against the academy.

AH: Right.

ES: Yeah. Against what was programmatically embedded in education, if not so much as a direct stance against the academy.

AH: Exactly. It was rehab, basically.

ES: Thank you for sharing this journey with me.