AN OLD WOMAN in a hospital bed leaks crystal tears.
Behind the windows of stalwart Stockholm houses we spot glimpses of chaos, fragments of high emotion pitching back and forth.
A woman is intently at work, seen only from the shoulders-up, her hair flying, and after a time her head distorts. What is she doing? Playing piano? Maybe. But we worry that she is falling apart or exploding.
“Everything I make is connected with the fibre of my life,” says Swedish-Canadian video artist, Gunilla Josephson. “But I point towards other artists. I’m interested in family– and death, more and more as time goes on.”
After receiving a degree in Sociology, Josephson attended the Stockholm College of Art and Design back in the 1970’s. She recalls a fine arts department dominated by modernist painters and when she declared an interest in experimenting with the then-clunky video equipment, her instructors were appalled: “What do you think you are – American?”
Josephson calls her work “anti-film.” For starters, she rarely uses dialogue. “I hate dialogue, even in books.” We laugh, bearing in mind that her spouse is the novelist, Lewis de Soto. “Dialogue is almost always banal,’ she goes on, being a bit take-no-prisoners in this regard. I flinch, mentally counting up dialogue sections in my own work. ‘Reading is very intense for me,” Josephson says. “I read books that you put down because they are so intense. Lewis in an ex-tensive reader and I’m in-tensive. Very different.”
I’m curious about how they live as artists together. Lewis paints as well as writes and he’s written a biography of painter, Emily Carr. “We talk about film, art and books all the time,” Gunilla says. “And grandchildren.”
Does she offer feedback on her husband’s work in progress?
“Not so much now,” she says, and adds, “to his detriment, if you want to know. I can be a little harsh at times.”
Josephson’s videos evoke feelings of fragility and tenderness in the viewer, yet also, at times, show a playful spirit. One feels an ongoing investigation of inside/outside;private/public;seen/unseen.
The old woman leaking crystal tears is oblivious to her inside self falling from her eyes. We want to protect her, yet at the same time the viewer might think – “What is there to hide, ever?”
In Josephson’s world, the artist peels back layers to expose what may be alarming or cryptic, or even funny. Can emotions ever be fully contained, or is there always leakage, and if so, why are we so drawn to these moments?
Ann Ireland (AI): Can you tell us something about your background and education?
Gunilla Josephson (GJ): I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, except some high school time in Caracas, Venezuela where my father, taught at the university. My mother and grandmother were both Red Cross nurses who when they married, in both generations had to stop practicing their profession. When I understood this fully I took on their indignation which made me a budding feminist.
My dad was a civil engineer/ researcher and also taught at Stockholm University. He worked hard at two jobs, yet when he was with the family he was caring and kind, and never shunned a chore. One day he suddenly quit both his jobs, landed employment at UNESCO and took my mom, my sister and me into the world. We lived in Caracas, Venezuela, but hanging out with ‘radical’ art students after school scared my parents, probably for good reasons, and I was sent back to Sweden to finish High School. Directly after High School followed a year of studying printing techniques at Aquinas University in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where my dad worked at that time. I returned to Stockholm to complete a BA in Social Sciences at Stockholm University. After a few years raising my three children in England in my first marriage and continuing with art studies, we moved back to Sweden and I completed my education with an MFA at [Konstfackskolan] Stockholm College of Art and Design.
AI: Early influences?
GJ: I have an early memory of a yellowed booklet tied with a red ribbon on my Jewish grandfather’s ‘smoking table. It smelled of cigar smoke like everything else in that little room, but I didn’t mind. I opened the booklet and in it were colour prints of paintings, faces, that all seemed alike but and yet different. It said Rembrandts självporträtt. Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Under it I read a dedication Vi tu äro ett [We two are one] written in my grandmother Esther’s beautiful handwriting in blue ink. It touched me deeply and in my young mind my grandparents and Rembrandt van Rijn became one to me that day. I still connect with my paternal grand-parents when I look through the leaflet, now in my book shelf, or when I see one of Rembrandt’s self portraits in a museum.
As a teenager I developed a fascination with Surrealism (not uncommon for teenagers). Perhaps simply because Salvador Dali’s Enigma of Wilhelm Tell and Meret Oppenheim’s Fur tea cup and spoon were in the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and thus were accessible to me. There were no reproductions of art in my family. Art was ‘real’, still held a mystery as the original. If you wanted to see art or know about it you visited museums. Like wine, art must aged to be ‘real art’. Hopelessly Eurocentric, and eccentric.
Later came early feminist artists, Judy Chicago’s iconic The Dinner Table, and Eva Hesse’s skin-like ‘transparencies’. I admired and loved Swedish artists Hilma af Klint and Vera Nilsson, both brave women and pioneers in painting who shaped their own destinies against the consensus of ‘woman as well behaved’ in the mid 20th century.
I took an early interest in films but never dared take the leap, not even in my mind, to apply to Film School. Bunuel and Dali’s Surrealist film Un chien andalou was probably the first art film I saw. It was the tail end of French Nouvelle Vague, and I went to see the films of seminal Belgian auteur Agnes Varda. In1967 Jean Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise hit the cinemas, at least in Northern Europe. It hit me right in the solar plexus and I came out from the cinema a new self, a budding Maoist and completely in love with the film and the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. I acquired Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and started ‘my real life’.
It was impossible to avoid Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, whose looming presence made it almost impossible to get support to make a film in Sweden between 1950 – 1990. I was an extra at SF [Swedish Film Industry], hoping I would either be discovered as a new Bergman actress (I was 15) or somehow become involved in movie making. All in vain.
In 2001 I made a video, HELLO INGMAR, a short 7 minute cultural patricide in which I rearranged certain Bergman films and inserted myself as a character.
It got the Festival Prize at Oberhausen Short Film Festival. Up until Bergman died in 2009 I was hoping the film would catch his attention, at least enough to irritate him, particularly when it showed in a program at Moderna Museet in Stockholm – but this never happened.
AI: What makes video such a compelling medium?
GJ: There are several aspects to why video can be captivating and gripping, both for artists and viewers.I fell in love with my first Digital video camera  and slept with it beside me. I found the tool compelling, generous in its clarity and crispness of image.
I had not wanted to use video as an artistic tool until then, finding the cameras heavy and the striped image dull. Maybe it worked for the political, but not for the aesthetic and poetic aspects of art. It was in the late 1990s when the light-weight and more affordable digital minicams (handycams) appeared on the market. They prompted a new wave of video art, and to my mind there is a ‘before and after’ in the history of video art. This user friendly yet highly developed tool eliminated the need for heavy equipment. The means of production were now in the hands of the artists, significant for female artists who no longer depended on muscular strength. The MiniDV camera became an explorative instrument; ‘it could roam around, shift focus very quickly and go very close to an object and focus in less than a second. Artists could edit at home on their own computer systems.
AI: Do you see yourself as having an overall project that pulls together individual art projects?
GJ: The overall project is to investigate my encounter with the world. All my work is produced under the umbrella of my production company AHEDDA Films. What holds my productions together are the people I have worked with for many years. Most important to me is Swedish artist/painter, friend and comrade-in-arms Anna-Lena Johansson, who runs a farm with her husband in Normandie, and exhibits her paintings regularly at Gallery Hera in Stockholm. She is a frequent solo performer in my productions since 1999. Canadian, Berlin-based artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay performed in several works with Anna-Lena e.g. The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke and ART THIEVES.
For sound in my videos I have collaborated with Toronto musician Eve Egoyan since 2003 . She was the performer in E.V.E Absolute Matrix, a 48-minute Floor-to-Ceiling Projection that premiered at Trinity Square Video for The Toronto International Images Festival in 2009. (Read about it in the Globe and Mail here.)
I have also worked with Canadian visual artist and editor Aleesa Cohene since 2002 and with Toronto – based sound editor Konrad Skreta at Charles Street Video.
Last but not least, my life partner, writer Lewis DeSoto, has worked with me in many different ways: script writing, cameraman, computer wizard and as an excellent cook.
AI: You said to me that you are interested in exploring how NOT to be a well behaved woman. What does this mean to you?
GJ: In hindsight that was a general statement that needs to be developed: Today we are able to deal with feminist subject matter with a more analytical eye. Rebellion as a theme throughout any feminist discourse is an intrinsic part of my work. From the actions of the characters (or performers) to my own use of the video camera and later in the editing process I disrupt the norms, constructing resistances to the tyranny of orthodoxy, or, as in Twinning series
commenting on them. When shooting video and later in the editing process, I work in a way that exploits unbridled emotion and marries it to abstraction. I challenge the accepted conventions of art as an entertainment that is well behaved.
AI: Is there a Swedish sensibility that you share? What might it be?
GJ: There is an intrinsic sensibility that is connected to that land of intense polarities between the extreme summer light and the winter darkness that I share. It manifests as a worship of nature in the warm season and as the cult of the lit candle in the dark and cold season. Swedes celebrate the solstices intensely. There are many pagan rituals in Swedish culture and seasonal shifts are ritualized since Prehistoric time in that forbidding place. This is just a nostalgia for the infinite. The Swedish model is long dead. Sweden is now a European country politically divided by the rise of a small but ultra conservative party whose priority is to stop immigration. The pagan rituals have been usurped by the Neo-Nazis.
I would also say that ingenuity/inventiveness is a Scandinavian trait. Perhaps a people so long in isolation develops ways of surviving which become methods, then inventions. Hundreds if not thousands of hours huddling by the fireplace seem to be conducive to inventiveness. I would also say that Swedes have a social conscience extending far beyond one’s neighbour.
AI: Do you see yourself as fitting into any school or niche in the Canadian or North American art scene?
GJ: I might not be aware of the niches but what struck me soon after my arrival in 1986 was the powerful position of female artists, and writers, in Canada. I experienced a huge artistic thaw shortly after I left the North European tyranny of Modernism. I soon found the world of moving image art and felt at home and welcome there. That might be my niche..
AI: Which video artists do you pay attention to and why?
GJ: The art market and the art star system bore me, but I pay attention to my contemporaries with whom I move through the world. Probably the most important image of profound humanity and intensity in expression is Mother and Son, a film portrait of a dying mother and her son by Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.
Finnish artist Eila-Liisa Ahtila is known for her psychological videos. Her work is highly intellectual and at the same time has a certain stark beauty. Abel Gance’s film Napoléon from 1927 was intended for more than one screen, which was unheard of at that time, and it ran for more than twice the standard feature length. I think of it as the first Art video. That kind of product was relegated to a category called the Third Cinema and was often feared in Sweden as a possible Communist propaganda tool. My films belong to that category too.
I pay attention to Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, in particular a work called The Sandman where the mise en scene is a German allotment on a partitioned sound stage rotating in two directions. The title comes from a found letter about two children and the Sandman. This is a kind of art piece that can only be experienced and is too complex and mysterious to fully remember. Very interesting and inspiring to me.
AI: Video artists don’t have ‘objects’, exactly, to exhibit. How do you go about installing your work in a gallery or museum setting?
GJ: I work in two veins. I make a moving image that is placed on the wall, playing on a monitor like a sort of painting, as in Nothing is True, a video diptych exhibited at Ryerson Image Center in Toronto, from January 21 to April 5, 2015.
Or, I envelop the viewer in a totality of images and sounds, usually a more epic video, large format video projection, video installation. Occasionally I exhibit film props from the production in the gallery to animate the space.
AI: In the past you made sculptural objects and paintings. How did the transition to video come about?
GJ: It was a love affair between a first generation digital video camera and me. We met at Vistek in Toronto in 1989. Love at first sight. I shot my first video and I edited it using two VCR players. I was invited to participate in a couple of independent Toronto group shows in 1998-99 and simply showed my video playing on a stripped airplane TV monitor with a large pillar balancing on top. I joined Vtape, an excellent international distributor of art videos in Toronto learned computer editing at Charles Street Video and haven’t stopped since. I have changed camera a couple of times as they develop but I’ll never forget the first love, the Panasonic Digital Mini Camcorder.
AI: How much do you map out a video?
GJ: Most of the mapping out happens in my head during a lengthy gestation period. I make a simple drawing for an idea, a concept, and pin it up on the wall. Occasionally I draw a storyboard, I research. I trust my intellect and my life experience to steer me. We scout for places and spaces as shooting locations. A mise en scène gradually comes to life, working with the same people. I am not interested in control. I don’t have a Director’s chair. I do guerrilla filming. I want to destroy the One Man’s perspective dominating the history of film. For instance if you take the camera into the Catacombs in Paris along with your character in WW2 Resistante costume, you cannot be sure what will happen. The story line/narrative is created, in part, depending upon the material we come away with, but always following the loose narrative, even for my ongoing series of video portraits. There is always some kind of story told. I then go home and write the next scene, often together with my husband, Lewis de Soto. He thinks linearly, which can be useful when you assemble a video for a rough cut. Later you can destroy it. A good example is The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke produced during a four months Canada Council Residency at Cité International des Arts in Paris in 2003.
JD is an anti-narrative feature -length video about a Quebecoise nun who thinks she works as a courier for the Resistance in WW2 Paris, roaming in tourist spots like the Louvre, Père Lachaise Cemetery, the Catacombes, Notre Dame Cathedral, les Quais, etc. The cast were Adrienne Le Coutour as J.Darke, Anna-Lena Johansson as Evil Gestapo Nun and Berlin based Canadian artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay as Jean Malreux – Resistant.
We collaborated and improvised, discussed, wrote and shot. In the end we did not make a movie, which was my concept, but a strange meandering document where the camera had its own will, sabotaging the story and ultimately turning into itself. It is the story of a video that refuses to become a movie. With this film I am commenting on and parodying the clichés and tropes of the WW2 Resistance Movie genre while consistently pointing to paintings, music, books, and all kinds of histories, as the more important, and fun task. In the last scene when Johanna is in jail I use the text of the last two pages of Albert Camus’ L’étranger. I have always wanted to press those lines into art.
AI: Some of your work is narrative in structure, other pieces focus solely on image and sound. These are two distinct ways of working. Care to comment?
GJ: Every image suggests a narrative, even a still. As much as I would hate to confuse anyone I don’t really see a distinction between a narrative and a slowly moving portrait. The only difference is that the narrative in the portrait is that of the viewer.
AI: There is always an element of mystery in your work, something hidden or half-hidden, or seeking to be exposed. Comment?
GJ: I am seeking. Truths are always hidden or suppressed in our society. A mystery revealed loses its allure. Questions are more interesting than answers.
AI: Role of sound?
GJ: It is good to start with the proposition that sound tracks are the enemy of the moving image. Soundscapes are the antidote to an illustrative sound track. I use sound as a psychological dimension that operates in parallel with the image. Sound in an art video is the opposite of multiple sound tracks in commercial movies. Sound does not illustrate, it comments on and makes a work more intimate, more accessible. Often I create a kind of silence. Silence is quietly noisy. Complete silence hurts the ear. Sound should nor be heard but felt.
AI: The work often evokes a feeling of tenderness in the viewer, a desire to protect the fragility of what is being looked-at, whether it be a person or an object. Why are these feelings/sensations interesting to explore?
GJ: These feelings are yours. Humanity evokes tenderness.. Both happiness and suffering evokes tenderness. I love life, its cruelty, fragility and beauty.
AI: You said to me, “Everything I make is connected to the fibre of my life.” Can you expand?
GJ: I don’t see a separation between art and life. The art work is the manifestation and the residue of living. It is not interesting to produce art for the sake of producing art.
AI: What are you working on these days? And what shows/exhibitions do you have coming up in the next year or two?
GJ: Dinner in my new kitchen which I will be exhibiting to all my friends. You can come too.
Ok seriously, I have a work in an exhibition at Ryerson Image Centre ANTI GLAMOUR, running until the end of April. I am currently working toward “Ways of Something”; a commission for a one minute video interpreting a segment from John Berger’s 1972 BBC Television series “Ways of Seeing”, curated by Toronto artist and curator Lorna Mills. Simultaneously I am producing a commissioned short film with Canadian writer Russell Smith. As well, a lot of thought and research goes toward a solo exhibition in September 2016 at Rodman Hall Art Centre, St. Catharines, Ontario, curated by Stuart Reid.
In process and closest to my heart is a film Pieta, of my mother’s last hours. A difficult but ultimately beautiful process.
—Gunilla Josephson & Ann Ireland
Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.