“The borders between nature and culture, presence and unawareness, are starting points for my work, and I try to create ambivalent images shifting between these contradictions. My work consists of sculpture, drawings and found objects. The subject matters of my work are often gathered from medicine, zoology and botany. Baroque anatomical theatres and the ways bodies were depicted during this period have influenced my images. Focus lay on the vulnerable human and what is taking place in her body. Branches, leaves, leafage, flowers, birds and insects grow out from, or move around the bodies and transcend the surfaces of the images. I imagine this nature growing in and out of the works is like the inner life that we can’t always monitor. An inherit force that can be both life giving and destroying.” Vanna Bowles, born 1974 in Gothenburg lives and works in Oslo. She works with drawing, sculpture, photography and installation. Bowles operates a figurative and surreal idiom, often using optical effects and reliefs that destabilize the dividing line between the surface of the image and the spectator’s surrounding space. Bowles obtained training at the th eArrt Academy in Oslo and her work has previously been exhibited in, among other institutions; Lars Bohman Gallery in Stockholm, Skövde Kulturhus, Malmö Art Museum and the Stenersen Museum in Oslo. Her work is part of several collections such as Malmö Art Museum, Gothenburg City Council, The Swedish Art Council, Statoil Art Collection and Lillehammer Art Museum.
Hello Vanna and welcome to NotRandomArt. The current issue is revolving around the problem of identity. Is there any particular way you would describe your identity as an artist but also as a human being in dynamically changing, unstable times? In particular, does your cultural substratum/identity form your aesthetics?
I believe that my identity and role as an artist is very much formed by the society in which I operate. But my standpoint is often in a critical position. I think being an artist, in many ways, is political. Not that the artist need to have a political message in her/his work, but that the way in which the artist operates is radically different from the emphasis of the capitalistic neoliberalistic society. I see that the need to work “slowly” over longer periods of time gets stronger as the society around me goes faster. I also appreciate when my work offers me resistance, and I find that in times when I have struggled with the work, and have experienced it as difficult, it has often evolved to a new level, or moved in an unexpected direction. I believe this means that struggles, difficulties, resistance and time is essentially for development, and therefore qualities we should embrace, and not just get rid of, as is often encouraged in a society where the aim is blissful, painless and smooth happiness.
Would you like to tell us something about your background? Could you talk a little about experiences that have influenced the way you currently relate yourself to your artworks?
I am born and brought up in an average size city in Sweden. My parents had quite ordinary professions and jobs, but they were not conformists. They were part of the 68-movement and lived an alternative lifestyle, in which I grew up. So even though there was no one in my family that was doing art, and could inspire me to become an artist, I think my upbringing and the way we lived when I was little, has had a great impact on me choosing art. To be an outsider, and to look critically on the world and society around you, there are things I learned at an early age, and characteristics essentially for making art, I think.
When it comes to experiences that have influenced my work, I think these have been more of inner kind of experiences and changes over time, than actual happenings or concrete events. I do see though, that my work changes and evolves, as I change. Things like becoming a parent or growing older has had impact on my work. New (to me) knowledge, both on an intellectual and on an emotional/psychological level also forms my work. I want my art to communicate both on an intellectual, emotional and perhaps on a spiritual level, so I try to develop these sides in me, as an ongoing process.
Could you identify a specific artwork that has influenced your artistic practice or has impacted the way you think about race and ethnic identity in visual culture?
An artist that I come back to again and again is the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. She creates sculptures that reveal the human body and human life in all its frailty. I think her installations of equine and human bodies evoke feelings of love and consolation, but also of terror and violence. I find her work very unsettling, how she combines the beauty and horror of the body, in such a careful and conscientious way. Her sculptures of the body, whether human or equine, often stand on a plinth or inside a cabinet, as if posing for the viewer. This emphasises their monumentalised objecthood and the tension between what these objects represent and what they actually are. I see this theme of representation and objectification, close to questions concerning colonialism, racism and hierarchical structures.
While studying your artworks I couldn’t help but think about Virginia Woolf and her novels. In “To the Lighthouse ” she wrote:
“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
When one is looking at, experiencing your works, one is being confronted with the mosaic nature of life: fragments, pieces, body parts, separated, examined, zoomed in, co-existing in a symbiosis with unrestrained nature, life that paves the way through weakness and emptiness. Could you share your thoughts on such interpretation of your works?
I appreciate this interpretation, and think it is close to my own thoughts about my work. I very much believe in the dynamics of oppositions, and I think for example, that to find strength, one has to meet the weakest point. Or to experience wholeness, one has to see the fragments, the details and find the smallest part.
By creating parts of nature, human anatomy, and other fragments, I hope that the viewer, by combing the parts in her own way, can make her own story and find her own sense of coherence.
It is impossible to avoid the topic of body consciousness, embodied emotions and the image of body that we see on your drawings, which stays in real opposition to the images presented in mass media. What are the bodies appearing in your artworks – fragmented, languorous, lethargic…? What inspires you to such representations of the human body?
I guess part of my answer here lays in my answer of the first question. I often try to picture that which is more or less neglected by society and media, and this is true for my imagery of the human body. I am interested in our fear of sickness, weakness, decay and death, and I want to see if I can find and create representations of the human body that nuance our way of looking at these more fragile sides of life. The reason my imagery of the body has become more and more fragmented, is that I find it interesting how we, when looking at only a fraction of a body, fill out the rest with our imagination. A very small part of a body can be represented, and we still fill it with soul and identify with it.
How much do you consider the immersive nature of the viewing experience? How important is the feedback from the receivers of your artworks?
The receiver of my work is very important, as making art is about communication. But saying that, I also have to emphasize the need to stay true to myself, and not get lost in what I may think others find interesting. It is important not to seek confirmation at first hand, but to seek complexity.
Before taking leave from this interesting conversation, we would like to ask if, in your opinion, art can change the future for racial and ethnic identity? How can art help to make sense of these complex histories?
This question is difficult, I honestly do not know. Intuitively, I would say that art in a broader concept, including literature, music, theatre etc., can change our way of relating to each other, and ourselves. But these processes have to work alongside political strategies, and the will of positions of power, to make concrete changes.
Thanks a lot for your time and for sharing your thoughts, Vanna. Finally, would you like to tell us readers something about your future projects? How do you see your work evolving?
At the moment I am working towards two separate shows in Oslo, which will take place in September this year and January 2017. When it comes to the evolvement of my work, I hope I do not know how it will develop. I hope it will surprise me, and make me stay sharp, focused and excited about life.