Landfill Utopias

Interview with Leif Holmstrand

By José Luis Rico

I met Leif Holmstrand in Mexico City, the day of his reading alongside Jenny Tunedal at the Casa del Poeta Ramón López Velarde, the house of literature in Roma, Mexico City, in October 2018. I managed to get one of the last copies of Album 2018, a selection of Leif’s poems translated into Spanish by Petronella Zetterlund for book art project Palacio de la Fatalidad. After the reading, a large group went to have dinner and I happened to sit next to Leif. We talked about Swedish poetry, namely Gunnar Ekelöf’s and Arthur Lundkvist’s work, among other subjects. Recently, Leif was in Helsinki to participate in “Writing Gender in Nordic Literature”, where he gave part of his reading wearing an uncanny leather mask with metal spikes. Sitting at the bar of Rytmi Café, we will discuss his prolific performance work, of which some examples are Nonsense Translation (Vladivostok, 2018), Fake Bones (Malmö, 2015), and Wearing the Territorial (Down) (Helsinki, 2010).


JR: My first question has to do with the material aspect of your art. Both in the performances and in the poems, there’s a certain quality to the materials you used. Most come from the world of mass-produced commodities, but they’re also salvaged, recycled, used. They look like trash. What do you find in obsolescence, in trash, that you don’t find in new objects? Why are you concentrating on that moment of production?

LH: It’s a process of reading the material, regarding the material as a cultural product. Waste and garbage are in many ways the ultimate cultural project, not only of our time but all times. At archaeological sites, garbage tells us the story of humanity and there’s also something in the brokenness that tells stories about things that have happened and people who have worn garments. Using, tearing. There is always a moment of physical action attached to the objects that have been disregarded as waste.

JR: In Fake Bones and some other of your performances, like the one at Konstföreningen Aura in Lund in 2016 – and even in the poems –, trash isn’t the only thing present. People are doing things with trash, and I feel there’s a religious or at least ritual quality to what you or the performers are doing on stage. 

LH: For that piece, I stuffed the basement with cut and destroyed vintage strollers. They were partly cooked as if they were food items. I had already presented that piece of work, defying the shape of large rooms, but in Aura Krognoshuset I just filled the very medieval cellar basement of the house with these broken prams and strollers like a Celtic field of scattered… body parts almost.

JR: Yes, I remember that image. The one I’m referring to is one where there’s a host that introduces you in Swedish in a very jolly manner. Then there’s silence, and you come in, dressed in black, wearing sort of a robe made of rags, and your head is covered in what looks like a black basket. 

LH: Oh, that one… That was not one of my greatest moments. I didn’t really like the framework of that performance. It was supposed to be one art happening per day for a month, and there was this frame of surrounding glass panels, which I wasn’t prepared for. The piece I was invited to do was kind of dark. It was also based on the particular songs that I’d been using throughout my career, both in literature and in art, mostly picked from the film Cabaretwith Liza Minnelli, especially the phrase “going like Elsie”, which has stuck in my mind and in my art. So I was filling these garbage bags with air and squeezing and ripping them, tearing down the scenography, which was full with these bags from the beginning. I was making a lot of sounds as I was squeezing them. And the audience was outside this glass wall, and the sound was enhanced and also hearable out in the street. 

JR: I wanted to comment that piece because I very much liked what you did with the choice of music. You sang the Liza Minnelli song, the one with the lyrics that go: “Everybody loves a winner, / so nobody loves me. / Lady Peaceful, Lady Happy …”

LH: “Lady Peaceful, Lady Happy …” Yes. It’s a brilliant song. 

JR: It’s brilliant in that the song is anticipating a defeat.

LH: Yes, it does. “Maybe this time, maybe next time, I’ll win”, is the conclusion. 

JR: In this piece you see this figure in a shroud that looks otherworldly, who all of a sudden comes up with a song from the time of our mothers or grandmothers. That was a very stark contrast. Let’s move now into “sound” in your performance art. Do you compose music? 

LH: I do. I’ll be releasing twenty songs quite shortly, on a small Norwegian label called AntiPlayboy, in a series called “Antipositive Thinking.” It’ll be released in March 2019. 

JR: Does that music have anything to do with the soundscapes that you produce for your performance pieces?

LH: It does, it does. But these are smaller compositions. When I made the three-hour piece for the Zarya Center for Contemporary Art in Vladivostok, it was with the same principles of composing, but more complicated and large-scale. These will be more like candy-pieces. 

JR: In Fake Bones, one of the performers was using a pan and a spatula to create sound …

LH: That was me, actually. I use objects to make sounds. I’d been cutting, you know, with the device to cut metal. Pieces of vintage prams… I only chose prams and strollers that were old enough that the people who used them first would be grown-ups by now. I cut off pieces of prams and strollers and I cooked them in boiling oil with a lot of salt and spices, some wheat, different ingredients. The plastic and metal mixed together into non-edible food. So the soundscape was mixed with the smellscape. Touch microphones were attached to the underside of the table, and there were microphones standing above it, picking up the sounds. Tore Inoue, one of my Japanese colleagues, was live-mixing this material as it was happening. So he was re-composing what I was live-composing. 

JR: There’s another piece that you made, “Adjusted Babies”, for the Party Condolences exhibition. These dolls… they were not even dolls, rather chunks of what looks like yarn in tar…

LH: Actually it’s a long process to make these pieces. It started off with a series of cuddly stuffed animals, which were then harshly embroidered with variously-colored yarn until they started losing their shape. Then I took photographs of them, then I printed the photographs on large sheets of acid-free paper and made drawings on the photographs. I took the actual objects, the teddy bears and the small donkeys and whatever, dipped them in black paint and let them dry. They became small black-colored mummies almost. 

JR: What I find very interesting about those pieces is that they are almost… they’re about to become meaningless. They are so shapeless, so deformed. And the textures are so unlike what we’re used to. But then you see them in a museum, in a gallery, and you have space to observe them. They tell something… I felt they were talking to me, in a very unpleasant way. 

LH: They are unpleasant, I think so too. But there is some kind of ideal of secular magic in imposing these constant restraints on objects, which almost change into something else. All this adding of yarn that transforms these bodies and the paint that takes away their individuality. There’s a quality of mind-game magic. But it also refers to the borders of your own body as a spectator. 

JR: One of the operations that I can see happening is an allegory of the human body, in what was happening to the objects surrounding this body.

LH: And of course, it’s also interconnected with ideas of the little child that hasn’t yet developed contours for the perception of its own self, or its body-self or body-image. So that there are no certain borders for a small child, for where the self begins, bodily and psychologically speaking. 

JR: In a way, you are representing babies as they might see themselves: shapeless. 

LH: Yes, that’s one of the ideas. And I think this kind of near-psychosis experience is still eminent inside of us, both as a possibility and a terror. I mean, a lot of what shapes our individuality is a set of illusions that we keep telling ourselves all the time. We act our shape, we do not have it. 

JR: Let’s talk about one motif that you used a couple of times in a very suggestive way: “rats.” You have one piece called Sally Rattenmann.

LH: Oh, yes. That was actually a lot of pieces. Sally Rattenmann was a performance alter ego I used for many years. Or rather, it was a set of clothing that I used. It was a costume, a sculpture and props at the same time, used in many performances and in different ways. Sally Rattenmann is a combination of Sally Bowls, from Christopher Isherwood’s novel Farewell to Berlin, which is also the part that Liza Minnelli plays in Cabaret. And it also refers to Sigmund Freud’s study of this compulsive, neurotic “rat man.” I don’t know if you’ve read this case study.

JR: Yes. Ernst Lanzer (1878-1914) was one of Freud’s patients. He had this fantasy that had developed after hearing about a Chinese torture method involving using a pan or something stuck against the victim’s buttocks. The torturer would make a rat eat its way into the victim’s ass. And it’s diagnosed, at least by Freud in the case of Lanzer, as an unconscious fantasy to have intercourse with the father.

LH: It always comes back to the father in Freud’s universe, but when you read Freud’s study of the compulsive, it’s like a mystery within a mystery. Such a complex story of obsessions and compulsive behavior he struggles with every day of his life. I mean, everything has to do with his hatred for his father, which he can’t acknowledge. When he sees a stone in the middle of the road, he has this strong feeling of “oh, I have to remove this stone, or otherwise my father might come driving in his car and this little stone could somehow cause a disaster to happen to my father.” So he has to run into the traffic and remove the stone. These compulsive behaviors became more and more frequent and after a while he couldn’t do the simplest tasks of everyday life anymore.

JR: That takes me to another aspect, which is the subject, the human subject portrayed in your art. Both in the performances and in some of your poems, there’s a sense of dissolution of the subject’s cognitive capabilities, a resignation, a spiritual defeat of sorts, a self-defeat. There’s a sense of dissolution, as if this world of commodities, of mass media, did something to your subject, turning it into Sally Rattenmann.

LH: Yes, maybe. There’s also an element of transcendence and ritual when I use the Sally Rattenmann character, especially in the productions of the clothes and the sculpture. The hood is hand-crocheted, very, very small … It’s not stitched, I don’t know what the word in English is…A  very time-consuming method, snare by snare, until you have a very complex structure. So just letting something take an enormous amount of time, as kind of a ritual, to give some sort of shape to a person that doesn’t really exist, has an element of transcendence. Even though the defeat, as you said, is built into the project, transcendence is also there, at the same time. 

JR: I do feel there’s a kind of transcendence, or hope, or escape, maybe. These categories are also to some extent present in some of your other pieces. In Fake Bones, for example, these creatures are living in what looks like a landfill, but they are doing stuff, they seem to have a set of beliefs, a religion. They build things. They make something that’s either a ship or a see-saw. They’re cooking. Even if the piece is about uncanny strollers and babies, it’s also about fertility, and reproduction. 

LH: Reproduction is very important in my work and also in OLTA’s work, the Japanese collective I collaborated with. And they also have an interest in modernizing and using shamanistic ideas of older times, but doing the contemporary, “fake” or secular, version of magic. But not “meaningless” in any sense of the word, even though you can’t pinpoint the meaning. It’s constantly dealing with other concepts of nurturing or reproduction than you normally would describe in our culture. There’s a monstrosity to all of these aspects of our work, but nevertheless they’re constructive because of the set of biological rules set on the material to put it into motion, that keeps it alive, in some way. Even if it’s very hard to understand what’s going on in this piece, everyone is doing something meaningful that is contributing to a complicated process of building.

JR: When you see the pieces, whether they’re physical action or objects, there’s a sense of completion, but without a direct utilitarian purpose. In this sense, is it about a reflection on consumerism, capitalism, instrumental thinking? Is this what’s on the table when you’re working? 

LH: It is, since it’s the working ground we all have to start from because we’re living in it, and through it, and by it. But it’s not, per se, the subject matter of my work. I can’t turn a blind eye to it. It’s part of the material and it has to be considered. 

JR: Is there’s something else you would like to add?

LH: Maybe that I don’t find monstrosity to be negative in our culture. Monstrosity seen as alternative to what are constraints is something I would like to celebrate, and I do in my art. 

JR: In German, the word “Ungeheuer” means “enormous”, but also “monster”, something of monster-like proportions. It means excess, or abundance, in a way. Or transcendence, again. 

LH: Einstürzende Neubauten uses this word in one of its songs: “Und Ungeheuer, / Ungeheuer, viel / viel Energie wird frei.”

JR: Just to relate this interview with the subject of the reading you gave today at Nordic Culture Point: There’s a phrase that caught my attention, as moderator Anne Ketola referred to your work as “gender disintegration” or “gender dissolution”.

LH: Yes. It has to do with my idea of fantasizing about different reproductive systems, different ways of digesting and growing as organisms and psyches. And I want to adapt those fantasies on the rigid ideas of gender as well. I guess that comes very much from my youth experiences, when I was sex-working as a cross-dresser. That was twenty-five years ago, now. 

JR: I feel many of the characters that you enact are related to Sally Rattenmann. 

LH: Yes, they are. 

JR: They feel as if they were troubled by contemporary sexual issues and drives, but they don’t seem gendered, nor seem to have genitals. 

LH: If they have genitals, they function in a very different way than any earthly genitals. That’s why I’m interested in some of the weirder life-forms on this planet, like slime molds. You know, there are animals, plants, mushrooms, and then there are slime molds, which are a totally different order of life in their own right. They are single-cell organisms, but can aggregate to encompass tens of thousands of nuclei, becoming gigantic blobs. They can move a couple of meters each day. They are not animals, plants, nor mushrooms. They’re something else and have a very strange, special reproduction process: they grow fruiting bodies (sporangia) which release spores, and the spores have different sexes – sometimes three or four – and when they mix, a new amoeba plasmodium is formed. This amoeba plasmodium goes around until it finds enough nourishment. Then it starts to change into a new slime mold. It’s like an alien life-form on Earth. 

JR: Which is foreign, or alien, to us, but has many things to teach us. 

LH: For one, not to regard the dualities of our own biological and cultural programing as definitive. 

JR: Exactly.

An overview of Leif Holmstrand’s performance work is available on http://www.leifholmstrand.se/