Joanne Grüne-Yanoff latest show “Happy Thoughts!” has just opened at Detroit Stockholm* in Stockholm, an opportunity to continue a conversation we have kept alive for several years now.
Art Hot Spots: Joanne, in each consecutive show, you display increased virtuosity in the use of your own vocabulary. Both your last Berlin show “Instructions for Flight”, and your current Stockholm exhibition, ”Happy Thoughts!” demonstrate formidable and increasing strength.
Is the title “Happy Thoughts!” linked to the happiness from our daily little gestures as the choice of a house with rooms and some furniture pieces might suggest, or are you referring to our human condition as portrayed today, an imperative to be happy, no matter what.
Joanne Grüne-Yanoff: There is a sound piece in this show called “Happy Thoughts” which contains a series of overlapping voices. One voice asks: “Are you okay?” Another assures repeatedly that they are fine, and a third urges in increasingly insistent whispers “Think happy thoughts! Happy thoughts!” There is a clear disparity between what is being claimed and what is being hidden. I am interested in that space – between what we say and what we feel, between what we aspire to project, and be, and what we hold secretly inside that might conflict with that ideal. In this exhibition Happy Thoughts, I examine these small, conflicting gestures, both physical and verbal, as survival strategies that we utilize in order to traverse the space between our aspirations and our realities.
AHS: You have developed over the years a personal artistic language, a voice recognizable among all others. I would imagine that establishing that voice is a matter of continuity, persistence and probably a very unconscious process…
JGY: Probably also some willingness to get conscious about that process; to sift through and select the most resonant moments; to strap that unconscious, organic process on to a deliberate structure.
AHS: I find it fascinating how you embrace the use of new media to enhance the sensory experience that your exhibitions often are. In Helsinki, four years ago, you used suspensions made of PVC, since then we’ve seen video works in your Berlin and Luxembourg exhibitions, the amazing Polaroid series from the last Berlin show (http://www.pinterest.com/pin/207024914094374980/ ), and now, in this Stockholm exhibition, you incorporate sound installations, video installations, sculpture, and also a return to more traditional techniques such as figurative images on paper. With all of this, you continue to pursue the same themes, with the same “graphemes” (threads, butterflies, spines, hands, feathers etc.) and their sensory translation. How do you perceive the evolution of your own language?
JGY: My work concentrates on small gestures. They express transient emotional states that circle back repeatedly until they inscribe themselves in our personal grammar — in our small gestures. I isolate specific body parts, and voiced phrases, to explore these recurring unconscious actions that embed our gestures to communicate through time.
Once captured, these gestures are layered with actions of a different speed: paper is torn, balled up and thrown
against walls, un-creased and stroked, sewn up, and cut into, images are accompanied by the sound of cracking eggshells, slow-falling feathers, groans of effort, urging voices, the slowness of handwork, the quiet rhythm of breathing, the shock of violence.
I am always circling back to the same ideas. To understand those ideas better, I am consistently drawn to specific figurations that resonate with me symbolically, with which I layer materials that contain particular meanings to me. Over the years, this visual grammar has been continually called upon, and so it has become more robust.
AHS: The challenge at Detroit Stockholm, it seems to me, was the one of occupying the space and creating a sensory experience.
JGY: I met a terrific curator at Detroit Stockholm, Sheena Malone, who has been working with me to put “Happy Thoughts!” together. She came up with the idea of putting the “Happy Thoughts!” sound piece in the bathroom, which I thought was a fantastic idea. With that at its core, Sheena started creating small rooms in which to allow these secret stories that make up the show, to unfold. For instance, she cleared out a hallway broom closet in which now hangs a collection of spines. There’s a strap-on spine for courage, another to feel airborne, a spine for creating connections, one to find strength, and so on. Beneath, projected on to a corner of the closet floor, a small film of a naked woman’s back is projected, as she wraps and unwraps herself in one of the spines.
Sheena looked into my work, saw its conceptual core, and created an exhibition that physically embodies the internal narrative of the work. I feel very lucky to have such a sharp co-conspirator, and to get to create a show in such an experimental space.
AHS: I find the video “Fly!” very humorous. The shoes have an open mouth like beasts talking as the voices in the video drive the jumper “you can do it!” In theory, these mouthed shoes should help you fly. Why is it so difficult? What prevents us from flying?
JGY: Maybe our need resides more in the trying than the flying itself.
AHS: The jump, then, is another gesture. In your last Berlin exhibition you focused on hand gestures, which continues now in your current exhibition at Detroit Stockholm. In Dürer’s work and all the Renaissance and classical painters, hands had their own vocabulary beyond their pure representation. Hands can be a symbol of our creative ability, and also the spiritual dimension. Nowadays, hands keep their creativity status, but what about the spirituality dimension – with your work it seems more present then ever (“what goes beyond us”)?
JGY: Research on gesture has shown how people use their hands to help manage the burden of thinking and communicating. Studies show that people unconsciously use verbal gestures as well. Although they typically happen with little intention on the part of the actor, all these gestures expand communication, providing an additional channel of expression that can be understood by an audience.
These fleeting moments express their depths in the ways we laugh, steal a
sideways glance, bite our nails, modulate our voices, rub our hands together, tap our feet, talk too much, or not at all.
Such passing signals pile up to form some part of who we are and how we navigate through. They are secret stories that we carry within.
For the Berlin show you mention, I researched specific hands through history to develop a catalogue of gestures that I find powerful and to which I referred. The Dürer image of the hands that you refer to is, of course, one of the sources for the piece Just Do It. For the current exhibition at Detroit Stockholm, that work continues in a piece of layered papers containing many different hand gestures.
AHS: And the spiritual connection?
JGY: I ran into this question recently, as I have been collaborating with the classical music ensemble Stockholm Syndrome. In a few weeks, Stockholm Syndrome Ensemble will perform Piano Quartet by the composer Peteris Vasks. For this performance I have created a video to premier while they play, which is partially informed by a quote of Vasks: Most people today no longer possess beliefs, love and ideals. The spiritual dimension has been lost. My intention is to provide food for the soul and this is what I preach in my works.
The piece I made to accompany the Vasks is a pair of hands on either side of a table covered in a pile of threads. At different points the hands are exploring the threads, tying knots, creating connection.
Maybe part of what goes beyond us gets created in our enduring search for connections.
11th April – 5th May 2014
12-4 daily and by appointment
23rd April 2014 at 19:00; Artist talk with Joanne Grüne-Yanoff and Stockholm Syndrome Ensemble’s Simon Crawford Phillips around 20:15 before the Act II of the concert.
To know more about the artist’s body of work: