Oslo, Norway, Nov. 2013: I first met Ingri Haraldsen on an autumnal Saturday morning in Oslo, the day after the opening of the infamous Høstutstillingen 2013, Norway’s historic annual exhibition, which included a large-scale work of Haraldsen’s, Circular Story. I hadn’t yet met the artist then, and was blown away by the breathtaking depth and mastery of her work with pencil on paper, among the most impressive I’ve seen anywhere.
I was visiting the Norwegian capital as part of NABROAD’s Studio Visits programme, an initiative bringing international curators and writers to meet with emerging artists in the country and explore their work further. The scheme is helping Norway to cultivate and export its indigenous scene.
So it was in this way that I came across Haraldsen’s work; having expressed an interest in ‘illustration’ Haraldsen’s website came in a long list of suggested artists – all very diverse and brilliant – but when I recount the story to Ingri she is a little taken aback that her work had been categorized in this way. “I don’t see myself as an illustrator… that’s so funny.” But for most people, the way Haraldsen draws is technically similar to illustration, though having talked to the artist more, it is clear her approach is more conceptual; sublimating the idea of ‘illustration’ as pencil drawing on paper, just as important are the raw materials, the presentation of the works on different scales. Haraldsen is a fascinating artist with endless ideas and a true craftsman – anything but a one-trick pony, and its now clear to see why she might refute illustration as a narrow prism through which to view her work.
Ingri was scintillating with an infectious energy, an instant antidote to a pernicious hangover (she was fresh, no drinking the previous night since she’s expecting her first child).
Ingri Haraldsen, Easy is the decent into Avernus, pencil on paper with wood and glass, 61 x 43 x 9,2 cm, 2013; Courtesy of the artist.
Charlotte Jansen: What was your childhood like?
Ingri Haraldsen: I grew up with six sisters and one brother, living in three houses, no more than fifteen meters apart from each other – my father in one, my mother in another, and my grandparents in the third house. I divided much of my time between them, especially enjoying being with my grandparents. Not only were we lots of kids, but we also had lots of animals. So my childhood was great, filled with good stories and a lot of affection.
CJ: What were your earliest memories?
IH: One of my earliest memories is waking up at four o'clock in the morning or so, going down the stairs while the whole house was still asleep. Putting on some random boots, walking out in the middle of winter, going up to my grandparents’ house and knocking on the glass veranda door. My grandfather was awake in these early hours, but he was half deaf, so he didn’t hear me knocking. After a while out in the cold Mommo (my grandma) was the one letting me in. I often sat there, at the kitchen table, with my grandfather. He made me bread with cheese and butter; you couldn’t see the difference between the butter and the cheese because he cut them both with a cheese grater. Sometimes I just sat with him; sometimes none of us were talking, other times he told me stories from when he was a kid. It wasn’t until I got older that I realised bears couldn’t really talk and that forming a triangle of the ears on a horse and looking through the gap wouldn’t really reveal goblins and trolls. When I was little he endorsed me into his beautifully elaborated stories that mixed fantasy, fiction and reality.
CJ: When did you start to draw, and how has your practice developed over time?
IH: I can’t remember when I started, but since I used to wake up before the rest of the family, they just put out some papers and something to draw with and I used to draw until they woke up. My practice has developed quite naturally I think, but it wasn’t until I was twenty-four, when a teacher challenged me to really push myself in drawing, that I felt I was going somewhere else than just being good at drawing. I started to put in some real effort, exploring the different media and techniques, as well as applying interesting stories to the work.
CJ: What’s your working method?
IH: I usually collect different materials, old books, photos from the internet, photos from family albums, still images from movies, documentaries, etc. And I always have a notebook with me, so I can write down things I find interesting, like bits from daily life situations that happen around me or fragments from books I read, documentaries I see, artists, etc. Normally one or a number of these bits and pieces forms the base of new works.
I have a photographic memory, so when I have gone through the old books I have at my studio (most of them only with images) I can remember one image that I want to use in a work and I have to find it again.
CJ: What first inspired you?
IH: I think it had to be my childhood, my grandparents and the place my grandfather grew up, in Tysfjord in the north of Norway. We used to spend all our summers there. It’s far from any city, with almost no houses, or humans. Nothing but nature, so my parents weren’t afraid of us running around doing whatever kids do. We had lots of adventures, and had to invent stories or things to occupy ourselves. So the core of my inspiration has since been what’s to be found in nature, the inhabitants, and the way it changes over time and the traces that are left behind.
CJ: Describe your studio.
IH: My studio is sixteen square meters. There are two walls where I work on different drawings simultaneously, thanks to a wire system for rearrangement when the space gets a little too small. I’ve got one drawing table and a normal desk that is always overfilled with things. It’s always nice to have something that is alive around you, so I have some nice plants in the windowsill. One corner of the studio is filled with different materials that I have collected: drift wood, burnt wood, objects and found materials that could suddenly be incorporated into something. Two shelves, filled with old books, mostly with lots of images, or some good ones, with short stories to inspire me when I’m stuck on something, and huge pile of old National Geographic magazines that I got from my grandpa. Outside my window there’s a huge construction area, lots of concrete, heavy traffic, small humans in orange clothes, but also a view down to the city center, so I can see when the rain is coming in over Oslo.
CJ: How do you feel about Norway at the moment – have you noticed any changes since the election?
IH: For two days after the election I just had to shut the world out because I was so disappointed about the result of the voting, and of Norwegians in general. The new government budget has just been presented, and as predicted they are cutting heavily in the culture section to finance tax cuts for Norway’s wealthiest people. I hope they won’t be able to destroy things we are unable to build up again. I’m afraid of extensive privatizing and selling out properties, etc., that can’t be replaced. Our new government seems to believe everything that doesn’t have the ability to finance its own existence doesn’t have any value per se. This way of thinking is dangerous for development in any field, as it often excludes progressive thinking.
CJ: Is being an artist in a conservative country such as Norway still seen as quite radical?
IH: Radical in the way that you choose a lifestyle/job that does not necessarily aim to make you rich. Norway is probably one of the safest countries for artists, since we have a lot of financial support opportunities, but since we are so newly rich on the oil there is also a lot of focus on earning money, and especially with the new government this will be more apparent.
CJ: Can you explain more about the use of nature in your work, and the interest in using specific materials?
IH: Nature has always played a big part in my life. My grandpa and my dad always used nature and talked about nature and animals with such a big admiration and respect that it influenced me in a huge way. Last summer I brought a friend with me home and I took her to one of the mountaintops of the Seven Sisters, which is a chain of seven peaks on the island I’m from. Whilst eating lunch between two of the peaks and looking out on the landscape around me, I was just blown away by the majestic feeling it gave, how small we are compared to everything (as clichéd as it might sound), and after that I started exploring ice and rock structures. I especially like the freedom the structures give me to morph them into something else and the high level of detail you can find in a small piece of ice or rock. I have recently started exploring a more sculptural way of working, and it’s natural for me to use elements from nature like wood or rock as materials. I love when something has been changed over time without human interaction. Like water or bugs eating into wood, or flames that have almost evaporated the wood and made it into something less solid and more fragile.
Ingri Haraldsen, Kataklysmeg Quarts crystal; Courtesy of the artist.
CJ: What projects are you working on at the moment?
IH: At the moment I have just finished the exhibition and launch of the book Kataklysmeg together with Lisa Cranner. I presented thirty-one drawings, and made sculptures out of the actual book where I had worked with different materials like burnt wood, petrified wood, Quartz crystal or just simply water. The next project is a commissioned work to be produced in December, and then in 2014 I’m having a duo exhibition together with Petter Buhagen and a solo in Copenhagen. So I feel I have my hands full, but also looking forward to start working on these two projects.
CJ: How do you feel about the way your work has been received?
IH: I get a lot of good feedback and think people find it interesting. I think it’s a good combination to have the technical skill in drawing and then the opportunity to take it further, exploring different themes and fields of interest.
CJ: What things most interest you in your work?
IH: When there’s a nerve in the image, a seamless combination, an uneasy feeling of something disrupting the beauty that lies underneath the surface waiting.
CJ: You said your work had changed a lot since meeting the artist Petter Buhagen. How so?
IH: It can’t be said enough how important it is to have someone to discuss your work with, while you are doing it, thinking of it or after it’s finished. Someone you know can criticize you but in a constructive way. For me, I wouldn’t [be] working the way I do if it hadn’t been for Petter. When we started working together our work was completely different, now our work has started to merge in a way; sometimes, though, the techniques are so different, it can be hard to separate them at first. Our ways of working are still way apart; he can work with something thematically for half a year and then make a series of work in a few days. I normally just go hands on and let the work develop during the process. Our collaborations have taken my work into a more sculptural, abstract and open direction.
Ingri Haraldsen, These word are whiped out drawings, drawing and erasing in book mounted in wood,37,7 x 24,5 x 20 cm.; Courtesy of the artist.
CJ: You’re about to become a mother – how do you feel? What lessons are you ready to impart?
IH: In everything else, I can normally decide how fast or slow I want something to go, but when it comes to being pregnant, there’s no pause button. She is growing and letting me know that our everyday life is going to change radically. In a way I feel I have to finish different projects before she arrives, so that’s why 2013 is packed with projects and 2014 has “only” two! It is great to have a new life developing inside you, magical and then at the same time almost too big; there’s nothing to compare it with. I want her to have respect for the world we are living in, to be curious, ask questions and appreciate everyday life. And of course I will put sheets of paper and pencils on the floor early so maybe I can influence her to become a creative person.
Slavoj Zizek talks about ideology – I’ve just seen his ‘Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’ and the flawed idea of escape, that we need to change our dreams – that we try to invent ways to escape reality that just end up being endless replications of what we already are. He says that truly escaping this ideology we share is a very painful experience.
CJ: You talked about the influence of fantasy on your work, and the idea of creating pathways within these worlds you create, for the viewer to escape to – like your piece ‘Cave Limited’, or in ‘Do I Feel Endless Nights’ where there is a concealed point of entry and exit and a tiny figure lost somewhere inside.
IH: There’s a huge aspect of escaping into fantasy in my images, but I also feel there are aspects of contemporary life or society present in them. The nostalgia can to a certain degree be integrated in today’s life; it’s just not you at that time in the image, but it could be you. Science fiction for me is just a reminder of how we often are afraid of ending up. Like in 1984 by George Orwell or Shinichi Hoshi’s Automatic existence, or even the animated film Wall-E, where humans are these fat retarded people waiting for the earth to be growing so they can inhabit it again. The robots are doing what the humans normally did and humans are becoming more like robots. Interaction between humans is limited and everything is systematized into non-human relationships; feeling is non-existing. In my work, nature is always present in one way or another, and in science fiction or fantasy there’s always someone looking for a place to just “be themselves” and in most of the stories I have read, it’s nature that provides this genuine, special place. I’m currently reading The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, a beautiful, insightful but hard book to read. The future looks frightening, but there’s also hope; in the traces of our destruction the world is trying to rebuild itself in different ways.
ArtSlant would like to thank NABROAD, and Ingri Haraldsen for her assistance in making this interview possible.