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.