The oak suspended upside down, women hanging upside down, small vulnerable children, sculptures, film projections and photographs. Now they are all gathered at Fotografiska. Like her witnesses, they appear and fill the gallery with seeing. Seeing all that which Charlotte Gyllenhammar has devoted her artistic career to express. The titles give hints: She is not here, Blind Man’s Buff, Beholder, Night, Knäveck, Disobedience, Hang, Human Load.
Natt/Night is the title of Gyllenhammar’s retrospective exhibition. Her important early works will be juxtaposed with later works and a couple of specially produced pieces for the exhibition. Created by a Swedish artist who truly possesses the ability to touch and reach her audience, in the international art world and among the general public, who have long been mesmerised by her mysterious solar system where many things are upside down and hardly anything is what it claims to be…
“I am my own planet, and I look out from inside my head with gazes like radiuses that impacts that which enters my solar system. In fact, there is a great difference between looking and really seeing. Just like there is a great difference between that which appears in the day and that which you experience at night. There is tremendous power in the act of seeing, not just perceiving optical phenomena but the seeing that is close to having an insight. Compare the English ‘I see’ with what happens in your mind when you have an insight, when you really see something, that is, understand it on deeper level,” Charlotte Gyllenhammar explains.
In the beginning there was the oak. The oak, a vision that struck root and touched a chord that has never stopped sounding. From the upside-down oak with its upturned root system, suspended between the buildings on Drottninggatan in central Stockholm in 1993, many other works have grown. Children hanging upside down, as well as women. Women who, in recent years, also have caught fire, in real time, as if they have gone out of the ashes into the fire, as if something has to burn out before something else can take over.
“Charlotte Gyllenhammar is one of the most relevant artists of our time. It is not the first time Fotografiska exhibits other techniques but with Natt/Night we take a decisive step towards including other forms of artistic expressions surrounding the photographic medium,” says Johan Vikner, exhibition coordinator.
Upside down and exposing that which is otherwise hidden under the surface are central themes in the art of Charlotte Gyllenhammar. Constantly recurring and in process, various perspectives of the same motifs are explored. Depending on the point of view of the viewer, the seductively tulle-draped, flower-like figure, seen from below, is eventually transformed into a woman with her lower body exposed hanging powerlessly with her skirts over her head. Publicly exhibited, no longer protected by the illusion that as long as you don’t see yourself as a victim no can touch you.
“The image of the woman hanging upside down with her skirt over her head came to me as a vision, parallel with the tree. Just like the oak, it hit me like a bolt from the blue and I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t approach the image; it felt too violent to expose her in that position, whether she was a person or a sculpture. But when I changed the perspective and instead filmed the hanging woman from below, I could show her and protect her at the same time. The segment of the image both conceals and reveals. It took me more than four years to understand that she was actually hanging as in the first version. The visual connection between the oak and the woman is also explicit, as they, suspended, are reminiscent of each other with head and crown, body and trunk. Like an hourglass, an image of time and gravity, as a substance of time.”
That it turned out to be an oak is appropriate in many ways; some of which were not apparent to a woman who primarily grew up in Gothenburg. An old nickname for Stockholm is “The Oak”. Also the location, Sergels torg, was decisive for the emergence of the installation. The square was designed in the 1960s as part of a city plan the aim of which was to erase the old and kick start a new era, Year Zero.
It was a conscious artistic decision to relate to the location, the old city centre that was uprooted (exactly where the oak was suspended on Drottninggatan). And this in one of the few Europeans cities that was not bombed during the Second World War. One of the few city centres that survived.
“To not forget (and to not deny) is a significant feature of my work. It is important to see and to remember. To also carry the bad things. I think of some of my works as witnesses; you can be speechless but still see. In this way, the oak may also be a witness.”
For Gyllenhammar, Die for You (the title of the oak work) represented the location and the painful 20th century history, with its attempts to wipe out people and memories in industrialised mass-murders. A slow growing tree, the oak may be regarded as a substance of time. For many centuries, only the King was allowed to fell oaks in the Kingdom of Sweden. However, one can be king in other contexts and gather a court around oneself and decide and define what should be felled or not. What should be given nourishment to grow and space to live.
That Charlotte Gyllenhammar’s father, PG Gyllenhammar, was king in the kingdom of Volvo is beyond doubt. A position that entailed many things, including that the family, at times, lived with the threat of kidnapping. An experience that Gyllenhammar has adroitly depicted in the subjective memory of the kidnapped Paul Getty III in the installation The Spectators from 2003. On the floor, a group of sculpted figures is facing a large film projection of an authentic news broadcast reporting the release of the kidnapped Paul Getty III, grandson of oil tycoon Paul Getty I, with an ear missing.
The motif of a subject that turns into an object is also present in the video work Nahsagen, Ich und Meinhof (2004), where Gyllenhammar assumes the role of the left-wing militant Ulrike Meinhof, one of the leaders of RAF, the Red Army Faction (often called the Baader-Meinhof gang), and of David Bowie’s persona Ziggy Stardust. Two 1970s icons that rotate round their own axis.
Why the exhibition title Natt/Night?
“At night you see beyond the everyday and the obvious. The night is the time of reflection and dreams, as well as, of course, nightmares. The night is both scary and full of opportunities. There is something redemptive in the darkness of the night, which descends over us, providing rest and potential. This is when the most essential things emerge, things I have longed to depict. A result of this longing is the new works that are being premiered at Fotografiska.”
And after the retrospective exhibition, the process continues: The woman, who was suspended upside down, caught fire and turned into ashes, will perhaps, like the Phoenix, obtain new life in a new shape?