Martin Skauen

  • Posted 98 months Ago

Norwegian artist Martin Skauen was once a roller-skating ballet fairy. But that was before he rebelled against all things na?ve and started portraying reality in its most ghastly state. I?ve been following his work ever since I first laid eyes on a haunting drawing of his, screaming of birth, oppression and resistance, depicting three women piled on top of each other ? their heads in each others? vaginas ? in what looked like an intricate Hindu praying position, or a bug, or something.

Hi Martin, how are you?
Good. You?

Good. Stockholm is so sunny this time of year that the sun hardly sets. It?s pretty confusing. How's Berlin?
Summer is fine but 39°C is a bit too hot, I just feel like falling asleep. But I guess a slow brain is better than no brain. My studio is in a basement, so it?s not too bad actually.

Do you still live in that art collective?
No! No more art collectives for me. These are quiet times.

Did you finally get fed up with people on drugs with "great ideas"?
Well, it wasn?t a reason to move out, but yeah, I did complain about that last time we spoke. It was just what I felt in general, at least at that point.

Maybe I'm having prejudices here, but Berlin seems extreme in that aspect. I remember overhearing a conversation at a café last time I went. This loud girl was going on about making a cat porn video for her next installation, and her friend ? who had tape over her eyebrows ? responded, "Brilliant! Darling, you're a geeenius!" Are you exposed to that a lot?
[Laughs] They are everywhere! Being ?wild? and creative in Berlin is common, I guess. It?s both annoying and kind of sweet to see people living out their creative sides in public. However, I prefer people with looks that deceive, straight-looking with twisted minds.

You mean that you prefer people who are genuinely twisted, rather than chemically?
Exactly. Twisted could be misunderstood, though. People who have original thoughts might be a better use of words.

Those people are rare.
Luckily, I know a few.

Tell me about one of those terrible ideas you've overheard.
Hmm. It?s not so easy to think fast?

You think while I go grab a snack.

I?m having trouble going through all the stuff I?ve suppressed in order to stay positive?

No worries. Are any of your violent gore drawings inspired by your need to sublimate this frustration?
Yes, in many ways. It's all subdued. The poet Ted Berrigan worded his frustration well: "Rivers of annoyance undermine the arrangements." He certainly had issues getting along with society. I find his poems comforting. Annoyance is definitely an inspiration.

I guess getting your frustration out can be a driving force when making art. Some people go running, some fight and some draw.
Yes, it can. But I think it?s important to consider how that frustration comes out and balance your expression. If it comes out too aggressive or defensive, it?ll just be boring. To make good stuff you need to have the ability to turn your annoyance and what you want to say into something that isn?t direct criticism. When it?s balanced?it?s talent, to be blunt.

You have to be smart about it and able to see beyond yourself, see the bigger picture.
Yes. You should look at your own work objectively. I do believe in provocation as a driving force, just not as the only one. Mainly, I want to make the work I miss seeing elsewhere.

Do you remember the first thing you ever drew?
Not exactly, I started drawing very early. All I did during school was draw in my workbooks; mostly jokes I thought were hilarious. I didn?t enjoy school that much. However, I do remember a school friend being impressed by my ideas and drawings, so I guess I was yearning for attention.

So you were one of those kids, constantly with a pen in your hand. What did your teachers have to say about that?
I remember taking a drawing class in seventh grade, instead of German class. The teacher gave me a very low grade, justifying it by saying I had done nothing but drawing devils for two years. I also drew retarded people and chopped up Santa?s, but it all was considered devilish in his eyes. Thinking about it, I kind of still do those kinds of drawings.

Ingmar Bergman used to draw devils all the time too. There were little devils all over his house, even on the wallpaper and in the fridge.
Really? I didn?t know.

He came from a very religious family and?according to a well-respected Bergman expert?feeling unable to live up to their expectations, drawing devils was a sort of release for him, something he related to.
You hit the nail on the head there. I have to admit my father was a priest. When you have a religious upbringing, it takes an effort to realise that other people?s truths don?t necessarily have to be your own. But once you?ve realised that, rebelling comes naturally. However, before coming to that conclusion I had some pretty weird experiences. When I was 14 I joined a bus-traveling Gypsy-Christian group, mainly consisting of former drug addicts and suppressed gays. Their main program was putting together this cabaret-like roller skate show based on a story from the bible.

Oh god, that?s quite a mental picture you painted me there.
I will never forget rehearsing pirouettes wearing a purple tricot with angel wings on my back!

Are you religious?
Not in any way.

It's funny how people ? religious people in particular ? tend to extract evil from the human figure into demons and devils, as if it wasn't a part of human nature.
True. How it?s avoided is freaky.

And then you have these terrible things happening, like catholic priests molesting children.
It?s so obvious!! That?s the main problem with religion; it always finds a way to justify mistakes.

Hopefully this disclosure will teach bystanders a lesson about keeping their blinkers on, excusing their ignorance for goodness. You once said you like to use patterns to depict how things are forced to rely on each other. Could that be something you strive to show in your work, how evil cannot prevail without "good" people accepting its existence?
Absolutely! It?s about existentialism, but also about how one copes with the absurdities and struggles of being human. How people are able to invent struggle to make some kind of sense of it all, because to be in a battle always gives meaning.

True. Most people will choose delusion before disillusion. I'm usually easily grossed out, but never by your work, I find it almost amusing. Maybe because it's so far out that it becomes absurd, and still, your drawings seem almost physically possible. It's an interesting balance.
Absolutely. I?ve never gone ?fantasy,? it should be physically possible. Reality contains more than enough absurdity, cruelty and unbelievable stuff to keep me going for a good while. I like to look at most of my work as a kind of documentation of actual events, or at least in the metaphor. To me, fantasy is escapism, but not necessarily in a negative way. I guess it all comes down to the eye of the beholder.

I guess the sardonic aspect of your work lies in its realism. Sardonic is my new favorite word by the way; supposedly it originates from a Sardinian plant that, if you eat it, will make you laugh till you die.
That?s a good word. I like the metaphor of laughing yourself to death. I was happy with a review in the L.A. Times recently. They wrote that it was not the gore, but the poetry in my work that came out strongest, or something like that.

Do you see your drawings as visual poetry?
Yes. They are stories, for me they sometimes feel like a novel.

Like the Times series you did, with all the fictional covers?
Yes, that?s a very clear example.

What happened to those? Will they be published in a book or something?
I?ve shown them a couple of times as large-scale posters, which serves them well. I think next time I will show the whole series as originals will be in December, at my L.A. gallery.

We were talking about you taking up drawing from an early age and finding your themes, even if unconsciously, pretty early on. What was your path into the art world and becoming an artist?
Well, both my grandfather and father did a bit of painting and drawing, so that must have been the first influence. But I can?t brag about coming from a home full of vital contemporary art. However, I do remember an abstract landscape painting by a local artist that was hanging in our home that I was very taken by. I admired him so much I once went to see him to get feedback on my own paintings. Seeing his studio, a garage cluttered with empty wine bottles and oil paint, made a huge impression on me.

Did he give you any good advice?
I can?t really remember what he said, probably something about my stuff being fine for the early stage I was in and to keep doing it, but I do remember him having an impressive beard. I think I was around 15 when I took up painting, and it was a good compensation for not having an interest in sports or computers. I spent most of my time copying other people?s artworks and making splatter movies with my brothers. I liked to provoke and push the limit for what was acceptable, and knew already then that I was good at it. I guess what lead me down the artist path was wanting to "be different" and do "something special," combined with an urge to express myself.

Did you apply to art school right after high school?
More or less. But I didn?t start drawing the way I do now until two years after graduating from the National Academy of Fine Arts, in Oslo, Norway. Before that I experimented a lot with painting, video and installation. Then I found that drawing was the best way of merging all those ideas.

I guess using a pencil allows you to be more precise and in control.
Yes, and instead of making all those impossible sculptures, for example, I could draw them. However, I still take photos and make sculptures to combine with my drawings. I sometimes try to transfer some of my drawing ideas into composed photographs, to bring them closer to reality. Maybe just to make my own production more interesting to myself.

Now, I don?t see how that?s physically possible without using corpses or hurting people?do you have anything I can see?
I can send you an image, but I still haven?t found the right title for it.

Please do. What else are you working on at the moment?
I just did the finishing touches to a new drawing-video that I made last year, called Kukanka. It?s a 10-minute video showing a world that seems almost real, but the sceneries all show young kids doing eerie ritualistic stuff that kids wouldn?t do. It has a dark shamanistic soundtrack and I filmed the drawing with a flashlight, to enhance the feeling of looking at some secret documents, or something that feels like you shouldn?t be looking at.

Like our secret history, or maybe the history we wish to close our eyes to.
Yeah. The backdrop of reality.

Is "dark" your preferred aesthetic, or do you like cute things too?
I like cute things, but again, they have to have some underlying creepiness to them.

Like they need to have a "twist," otherwise they?re pointless?
Indeed. I?ll send you a cute little drawing if you want.

I'd love a cute-creepy drawing. Do you have a favorite animal?
I like turtles. I had one as a child, but I don?t keep animals anymore.

Why turtles?
Those with the turtle as their animal totem can relate to the "sure and steady" message this creature brings to our lives. It is also a powerful totem for protection, as withdrawing into its shell is an amazing self-defense mechanism. The turtle has few predators, which gives it an innocent energy. This also increases its lifespan, and so holds the symbolic meaning for longevity in many cultures.

You're selling turtles to me here!
I got it off Google. No, but I like turtles because they?re mysterious? slow, wise and can get very old. Also, turtles have less commercial dependency than other animals. I hate deer, for example, their symbol has been destroyed by artists. And by Disney too?on the ice.

But what about the Ninja Turtles?
But they?re cool!

I see. So are you drawing any turtles then?
Yes! I draw a lot of turtles. In my latest drawing-video I have a corpse-casket full of them. And I just sent you a turtle drawing I found in my files.

Let me look. Pretty! A girl with a turtle shrine.
Yep. It?s a weird looking, naked, under-age girl ripping the protective shell off a turtle to expose her treasures. Hopefully the play with symbols and clichés makes the image ambivalent enough to provoke new ideas and meaning.

Do you have any favorite artists?
Difficult question, I like many. I guess mainly contemporary artists and artists around me and that I have ongoing discussions with, like my friend Simon Evans, he?s a big inspiration. It?s also worth mentioning Norwegian artist Ole J?rgen Ness. He is unique in his use of nine different identities, all doing different types of art using different mediums, concepts and approaches.

I?ll have to check him out. Have you heard of a painter called Ged Quinn?
No, who is that?

A British painter whose paintings are big as walls and insanely detailed and surreal, his sense of detail and symbolism reminds me a bit of you actually.
I just looked him up, looks amazing!

It blows my mind how you guys manage to produce such quantities of large-scale, meticulously detailed work.
Well, it?s also tiring. I?ve been stopping half way through some new large works lately. It?s a difficult process, because I spend a lot of time on each piece and constantly have to push myself to continue. If I lose interest in envisioning the piece finalised, it's over.

I guess you need to have an obsession, either with the piece itself or whatever is your theme.
Definitely. I don?t find drawing in itself particularly interesting, it?s mainly a medium I use to express and carry out what I envision. I?ve never been obsessed with being technically good, that?s not interesting. However, it serves a purpose when penning my ideas.

I thinks that's where many people fail, focusing too much on the execution and forgetting the importance of that balanced, intricate, twisted, thought-out message that makes the piece.
True. Technique can easily take over and in some aspect also say something about talent, but to me that means nothing.

It's like an empty gift with a pretty wrapping. Do you ever struggle with finding themes for your work?
Sometimes it feels like I have an endless idea-box to pick from, and sometimes it?s empty. That?s the process, you make something and then you have to fill up the box again, and again. I find that there?s mostly a lot to take from, but it has to do with how you sculpt it and make it your own.

Do you still Google random stuff, looking for images that captivate you?
Hmm?not that much. If you Google without a reason, it?s probably a desperate situation. Most of my ideas come from having conversations and personal experiences. I also get a lot of inspiration from reading.

What are you reading at the moment?
The early works of Nietzsche, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity by Slavoj Zizek, The Gift of Death by Jacques Derrida, Paul Auster?s latest novel, Invisible?I love that guy! Oh, and the poems of Ted Berrigan, of course. And other related stuff I find online. I take in a lot at the same time, from here and there, and I generally consume great amounts of movies.

What does the future hold for you?
I?m planning on making a new video, a kind of sequel to Kukanka, about elderly people and their behaviors when the only transitional ritual is death. Oh, and I?m putting out some of my drawings in 3D.

Artwork images courtesy of Laura Bartlett Gallery