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The world of


Åsa Norberg

& Jennie Sundén


by

Maria Lind

 

Don’t be surprised if there’s something familiar about the artworks of Åsa Norberg and Jennie Sundén. They often, and eagerly, borrow motifs and forms from their predecessors–they even enter into dialogue with other artists, who may not even be aware of it. These older artists become their collaborators in a way, even though they might be long dead and buried. The duo themselves refer to the resulting artworks as “reflections of a role model,” but these reflections also involve them making new interpretations that are entirely their own.

For example, take Blanket (acrylic and collage on denim) from 2018: it was produced in dialogue with Sonia Delaunay-Terk (1885–1979) and her legendary, proto-cubist quilt, which she sewed in 1911 for her newborn son Charles. Sonia Delaunay-Terk is one of the pioneers of abstract art, and her work was highly influential within the 20th century European avant garde. Inspired by Russian folk art and modern life, she wanted to insert art into the everyday experience through painting, textiles, furniture, fashion, mosaics, film, and theatre. The quilt was immediately influenced by textiles that she’d seen in farmers’ homes when she grew up in a poor Jewish family in a small village outside of Odessa, and the pattern recurs in several of her later works. In Norberg and Sundén’s work, her baby blanket co-exists with leather handles from Renate Müller’s therapeutic toys and a large, milky-coloured drop made of terry cloth, which is positioned in the lower region of the picture. The drop represents Mjölkdroppen (“The Milk Drop”), the predecessor of the Swedish Barnavårdscentralen network of clinics for young children.

Other “collaborators” include giants of art history like the Russian constructivist Varvara Stepanova (1894–1958), Bauhaus pioneers Anni (1899–1994) and Josef Albers (1888–1976), the Bloomsbury Group’s Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) and Karin Larsson (1859–1928), who created Carl Larsson-gården in Sundborn, and modelled for many of her husband’s pictures. All of these artists’ works have appeared more frequently on clothing or everyday textiles than in the collections of museums. Just like their predecessors, Norberg and Sundén get their hands involved in some rather intense work. Always executed with great precision, their works consist of all kinds of expected and unexpected materials. There are oils and linen canvases, but also denims, corduroys, terry cloth, felt, cotton ribbons, wood, and granite. One series of pictures consists exclusively of materials from cleaning supplies, and a series of low, sculptural platforms is made only using items you can purchase in a hobby store. Apart from painting, drawing, and making collages, these artists also embroider, and they don’t mind doing some carpentry or sewing appliques, either.

Norberg and Sundén aren’t the only artists to highlight crafts and manual work–in this, they represent a significant movement in contemporary art. If the art of the 2000s was characterised by the presence of moving pictures, the 2010s are characterised by an interest in materials, technical execution, and physical knowledge. Artists are increasingly turning to old techniques taken from handicrafts, as a way of reinterpreting traditions and conventions, as well as utilising resources efficiently. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a reaction to the dominance of digital culture today, as well as an expression of a desire to acknowledge phenomena and people who have been forgotten. This attitude echoes that of the British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, which was itself a reaction to the mechanisation of manual labour that had been introduced by the industrial revolution. Another important tenet of theirs was their refusal to accept that some artistic expressions, such as painting, ought to be regarded as more significant or valuable than others, such as ceramics or textile. To them, all art was “combined arts”, and furthermore, it ought to belong to everybody.

The act of combining several different things, a plurality of thought and action, plays a major role in the creation of Norberg and Sundén’s art. Instead of dividing the work between them, they each take over where the other stops, like a relay race–a method that ensures they will both be fully involved in everything they do. Everything is filtered and processed by both of them. They’ve developed this method over the years, ever since they first began working together in 2005. In the past, they’ve described it as a way to establish a special zone for “shared thinking”, a zone that remains separate from their individual efforts. I’ve followed them since the very beginning, when they were students at the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, and I saw them work on a collaborative drawing project. Their geometric images of building fronts were a highlight of the graduation exhibition. One thing that has always set this duo apart is the way they manage to base their work on associations while also keeping it so incredibly structured. Their research and their presentation are always highly complementary–you could even say that their scholarly pursuits are the driving force in their work.

Another common theme that runs through their entire oeuvre is the history of the women’s movement, something that is evident, for instance, in their studies of certain historical contexts that were dominated by women, such as Svensk Hemslöjd (Swedish Handicraft) and the Nya Idun women’s association. They also take an interest in popular education and non-profit associations, particularly in the context of the worker’s movement. Since 2007, they have been the co-directors of Hit, an exhibition space in Majorna in Gothenburg where artists like Falke Pisano, Agnieszka Polska and Laure Prouvost were first introduced to a Swedish audience. In 2017, when Norberg and Sundén were invited to do a solo exhibition at Göteborgs Konsthall, they immediately defied the boundaries of the format by inviting some of the artists they had shown at Hit. This way, their solo exhibition was transformed into a dynamic group show, without denying the audience the opportunity to experience several of the duo’s works, as well as the process that produced them.


The duo themselves refer to the resulting artworks as “reflections of a role model,” but these reflections also involve them making new interpretations that are entirely their own.

In many of Norberg and Sundén’s works, everyday materials appear in distinct, abstract shapes which are often produced in dialogue with past bodies of work. Abstract shapes of this kind might seem inexpressive, but according to the artists, they actually say a great deal about society and its values. Similarly, everyday aesthetics, which is always rooted in the material environment, will per definition always reflect a specific time, along with its particular ideology and politics. The boundary between art objects and functional objects is also of particular interest to the duo, although they don’t necessarily accept it. Is The Flax, which consists of collage and painting on corduroy, a textile work or a painting? It’s both! Incorporating depictions of two bookrests that once belonged to Valfrid Palmgren, who founded Stockholm’s library for children and young adults in 1911, painted ribbons from a photograph taken on a festival held at the pedagogically progressive Viggbyholmsskolan school (1928–1972), an abstract painting of an open fire, and an image of school children and their headmaster inspired the illustration that artist Bart Van der Leck made for Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Flax in 1941, and a broken square taken from the writings of pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzis (1746–1827), the work pays homage to the “combined arts” and to progressive pedagogy throughout history.

In later works, Norberg and Sundén have chosen conversation partners such as handicrafts enthusiast Lilli Zickerman (1858–1949), reform pedagogues like Friederich Fröbel (1782–1852), who founded the very first Kindergarten, Maria Montessori (1870–1952) and her radical ideas about the learning abilities of children in well-organised environments, and John Dewey (1859–1952), who founded the ground-breaking Laboratory School at Chicago University where all teaching was connected with everyday life outside of school, and where school itself was intended to be a source of close, familiar relationships. The duo is far from alone in this– since the 1990s, we’ve seen mounting evidence of an increasing interest in radical pedagogy in art. Apart from a number of art projects that have been executed as schools, academies, and universities, such as The School of Missing Studies, A.C.A.D.E.M.Y., and The Silent University, we’ve also seen works that have involved learning, education, and knowledge production in various ways. These art projects and works are so numerous that they have necessitated the adoption of a new term: “the educational turn”. Both artists and curators have initiated these “educational projects”, but they’ve all taken an interest in radical pedagogy, the way knowledge is produced, and the ways in which it can be shared.

This “educational turn” has occurred at a time when formal education in Europe has been undergoing a series of dramatic changes: old-fashioned teaching methods have returned to prominence, art education has been streamlined, and reports from universities suggest that the professor-student relation is becoming more similar to that between salespeople and their customers. In many countries, we’ve also seen education undergo privatisation and becoming subject to fees–knowledge has entered the economy in a very literal way.

Whenever mainstream society heads in one direction, art tends to point in another, as Norberg and Sundén themselves put it–and as this exhibition demonstrates.

Norberg & Sundén   Blanket , 2018 Acrylic and collage on denim 180 x 125 cm

Norberg & Sundén
Blanket, 2018
Acrylic and collage on denim 180 x 125 cm

Norberg & Sundén   Tha Flax , 2018 Acrylic and collage on corduroy 180 x 125 cm

Norberg & Sundén
Tha Flax, 2018
Acrylic and collage on corduroy 180 x 125 cm