Jan Svenungsson

Interview with Marie-Louise Ekman, in: marie-louise ekman, Carlsson Bokförlag, Stockholm 1998

Marie–Louise and I both arrived at the Art Academy in the fall of 1984, she as a professor and me as a student. The following conversation took place in Marie-Louise's studio in Stockholm on two different occasions at the end of 1996.


Jan: Once at the Art Academy when I was going to be interviewed and asked you for advice... you said unhesitatingly "Don't ask to read through it! I never do that!"

Marie-Louise: No...the more mistakes in the interview, the better.

J: Why?

M-L: It doesn't get any better... it doesn't provide a more complete picture – there isn't anyone who will find out more about you because they read exactly what school you attended or who you were married to, or that kind of thing, you don't find out more that way...

J: Then, when I prepared myself for this interview... I remembered what you said, and I got worried because I wanted it to go well... if there are going to be mistakes then they should be the right mistakes.

M-L: If I were going to write about a person I would present as an ultimatum that the person would not be allowed to have anything to do with it, I wouldn't want to be overly eager to please in a way that could disturb my process... I want to be responsible for my own experience of the other person – and I hope each time that someone interviews me they take it seriously enough that they'll completely and fully take responsibility for their own experiences.

J: Agreed. You will not be allowed to read through this interview before it's published.


J: How do you see your communication with the world around you, with your different means of expression: films, writings, pictures? Is there a risk of being misunderstood?

M-L: I am not worried that no one will understand. I would even go so far as to say that I don't think art making has anything to do with communication at all. You don't do things because you are planning down the line... when I am in the thick of work I try to find a very strong grounding in the here and now, I try to come close to a life essence, I try to get at a bunch of unknown things that don't exist as narratives, either in expression or in interactions with others – and in that case you can't really say that I'm doing this or that because I want to exhibit at the Moderna Museet...

J: But how does it happen that when you throw yourself into the unknown this way there are so many recurring elements on a purely formal level?

M-L: That's something I am happily unaware of, I'd have to say. It's a very lucky thing for me. The question is what you want to get at when you involve yourself in a new work, and for me it's important to touch on something that I haven't touched on before. And so maybe once I've died someone will write that she only did work about two subjects, or that she only wrote about a specific issue; it's very possible that someone will find that I've just been hung up on one theme – but that is completely hidden from me, I don't see it. What I try to nurture every day, every hour, are my desires, my own energy – and I don't get that by analyzing myself. Maybe that means that I end up falling into a lot of traps that other people see – but on the other hand, I get a lot of really fun things done.

J: But when you started teaching at the Art Academy, it turned out that you had a talent for analyzing others, don't you think?

M-L: Yes, that's true. I think I'm well-equipped that way, I think I have something like a Geiger counter that gives me an immediate reading – I feel very strongly if something is right or not, when it's headed in the right direction or going astray, and then I also think it's incredibly fun to analyze other people with work in progress, but I don't want to do it with myself – it's unthinkable for me to go into analysis. I think if I went into analysis then I would stop pursuing any kind of art making, I think I would become deeply depressed and paralyzed if I started focusing too much on my conscious self – I think that my conscious self is a depressed self, and that my unconscious self is the exciting self to be with.

J: Do you write down your dreams?

M-L: I hate my dreams, I can't stand them, I would be the first to get rid of dreams if it was possible. I think dreams mess everything up and remind you of all the disorder that you try to...

J: "I hate my dreams" – that's a very strong statement!

M-L: Yes, I do, I'm really sure about that. I like my unconscious self in its conscious forms, so to speak – that is what takes place in the work room – that is what you could in other words call the artistic process.

J: But how can you eliminate dreams from that?

M-L: Dreams are... if I compare dreams with sitting in my studio, where there is a process that builds on what pours out of me, from the inside to the outside, so to speak... there I am in fact operating under very orderly conditions while I let it pour out; I can decide to come here to the studio at 7 o'clock in the morning and stay straight until 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and that I can then go meet someone who I like seeing, and I can set up my life in such a way that I can stack up entertaining moments, or I can try to build up entertaining events on one another. I think that when things are working well in the studio, then you get unconscious things out from yourself in their conscious forms – but in dreams, there you just pull out the stopper from something and fall... and then you experience a lot of anxiety, or pleasurable things, you're thrown in and out of different environments and you often think, or at least I often think, that it's reality instead of a dream... often in dreams I think "Imagine if this was just a dream so that it wasn't real, but it IS real." Being sucked into something which is uncontrollable in every way is something that I find deeply unenjoyable.

J: What is your view on gender? Are you a feminist?


M-L: I have never called myself a feminist, I am my own underground liberation movement. It's like painting... I think that it's just as likely that I will paint mushrooms, or whatever it is that you go out into nature to paint... I think that everything around you is equally paintable in order to talk about the things you want to talk about, I think that there are certain basic facts of existence no matter what you say, or where you turn... The fact that I am female, and that it lies in my best interest to demand my rights to many things, of course that's a given. I sometimes even think I should be compensated more than others because I am who I am...

J: But that is a perspective completely oriented around the individual...

M-L: Yes, but... for an artist perspective IS individual. I cannot imagine that I would paint some kind of pamphlets or party agenda; I am not the kind of person who could work that way – and as for my judgments – my basic assumption is that they show in what I do. If I was in favor of apartheid, then you would see that in what I do, I am completely convinced of that. I think it seems like overkill to have to state certain things.

J: At school you involved your students in your own work, like by being extras in films. And then you used us as models for the TV series "The Painting School".

M-L: It was so inviting! There is something archetypal in each group you wind up in... I am struck by how much in the world around us is archetypal – exactly like you say cadmium red, zinc white, or something like that, there is in some way a counterpart in personal relations, I think it's interesting to use that thought model when you wind up in a new group... for example, the co-op board in this building...

J: Are you active in that group?

M-L: Vice president!

J: I can imagine you sitting there with sparkling eyes...

M-L: I think it's so interesting! When I am with these people in the building... you feel such a warmth for people, you get to know people as they are; you can find a place where you don't have to judge them but see them as they are, and when you do that and come to what's archetypal in a group, then you can leave behind all the quarreling and wanting to change people, finding faults and saying you have not done this or that, and you can see other ways to function; how people relate to each other, and how they try to protect themselves; you can see it from these many different angles – and it almost always works, it's really quite funny. And it really hit me when I was at the Art Academy; in "The Painting School" I could cover any complex of problems using just four or five students, a teacher, a model and a cleaning person – that was the school in a nutshell.

J: What you are describing here is the starting point for your films and plays – your dramatic work. Is it the same with the paintings?

M-L: I think it's really hard to answer that – but I think painting and writing are two very different activities, far apart, that don't have anything to do with one another. I think completely different rules apply for these two activities. I think writing requires a completely different kind of fresh energy. If I'm working on a manuscript, then it's incredibly important that I start at the exact same time every day, and that I start before I do anything else. I can hardly drink a cup of coffee before that, almost nothing can happen if I am going to get to the energy in my head and get it out on paper. But when I paint I don't have to protect that kind of energy, that's not the issue, there I have to have some other way of pulling it in, of reaching a concentrated state, from some other direction, I don't think that just because I am the same person who writes and paints that they necessarily have...

J: ...such strong ties?

M-L: No, I don't think so. I can't explain why I write and paint...

J: Do you think creativity is interesting in itself?

M-L: Yes, I really think so!

J: Is that in fact the thing that is most interesting?

M-L: It's so close to religion... I would even go so far as to say that sometime far back in the beginnings of time creativity was confused with religiousness – that actually, the whole story of creation with a God at the center of it is a description of the creative process.

J: So in other words, we have invented God to give the creative process a shape?

M-L: Yes, and then something went wrong and we began incorrectly affirming something that lies outside a person, when instead we should affirm something that is inside, because I think artistic creation is something that lies inside a person, while religion... Christian religion, anyway... with its hierarchies, where a person is supposed to be subordinate to something huge that lies outside – I think that is exactly opposite the way you could describe the creative artistic process, but they have strong connections, and I think that with a few simple strokes of the pen you'd arrive at the same thing: that instead of bowing before something powerful outside of you, you should stand up in front of that which is powerful inside yourself, and affirm it. I'm someone who tries to affirm myself as much as possible, and to believe that powerful things are hidden within me, so far within that I can't get to it... but I can try.

J: Then of course we have the public role: we make these things, and we let out the results to the public, and we often wind up in all kinds of discussions about why, what does it mean to be an artist, etc... So then I wonder: can what you just described work as a model for others? Can someone else use you?... Well, I've probably already done that, when I was your student...

M-L: The question is who has used who the most...

J: Of course I hope you used me, too. You were so good in school because I experienced the feeling that I could also contribute something, perhaps not always the thing I wanted to come forward with, but...

M-L: I called it quits when I couldn't get anything more out of it! The question was if someone can use me... the answer is that no one is happier than me if I'm used; I think that people should use each other in a conscious way, I don't think that's ugly. What's ugly is using each other in an unknown way...

J: In an insensitive...?

M-L: In an unknown way. That is to say, that if a person is used against their will or without knowing it, it's a crime of sorts. There are lots of ways to use a person. I think one should create a situation where all the using is friendly. You can control that yourself... I can't imagine that someone could use me in a way that I wouldn't like. I don't have any such fantasies. Everyone that uses me makes me very happy – I don't understand how it could happen in such a way that I wouldn't like or wouldn't have any use for.

J: But this starts with the assumption that what's being used is something that you have consciously let out into the world...?

M-L: I don't really know what you mean – I don't even really know what that could be – it's not a problem. You could say this: most people's fate in life is that they aren't used in any way. Most people aren't seen.

J: So the artist functions as a kind of model being for how things could be?

M-L: I see the artist as a joker in a card game who can move in all possible directions in a way that most people can't, and you can put together information and experimentation...there aren't any clear rules in artistic creation like there are in other professions, and that means that you can do anything you want as an artist, and it means that you become a kind of oasis for other people. When they dream about doing something else they dream of being engaged in artistic work, or when they think about something fulfilling in an unfulfilling existence... That's why in a way it's like a dream come true to do something that no one has ever done before, those things other people don't get at so easily in their reality – and in that there is a responsibility, too.

J: Many artists today have chosen to make art about the art world...

M-L: That's just about the most boring thing there is! Young art, a lot of what is seen as vital today seems very guarded to me... artists tend to hide behind a surface. I think that one of the main things about being an artist is showing whether you're an idiot or not, simply being brave enough to show your limits – so that through this other people can see their own limits or frames...


M-L: My father said "Eliminate... those things that you don't like..." He was speaking of his last wife, who was manic depressive and went in and out of clinics, and was in analysis. He said "I would damn well think she feels bad: they just dig around in all that goddamned shit all the time: there is just one thing to do, and that is to eliminate."

Jan Svenungsson
Translation: Nina Katchadourian