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Astrid Svangren

'Amongst all sorts of colours, venus hair, and a day of thirst, a sleeping jellyfish, it is the memory place'

Tranen 2016

Sensibility season

Curator Charlotte Sprogøe 

Photo Malle Madsen 

The solo exhibition by Swedish artist Astrid Svangren marked the opening of the Sensibility Season February till August 2016. It is a world of transitions, transparency and texture that unfolds here with bodily works, sensual objects, made of glass, scents and hair covered with fabric and foils. The sea is central to the installation: Conch shells, sea blink and a contemporary version of the ancient myth of the foam-born Venus is center stage. The sea is a symbol of the lifegiving, sub-conscious, and the bodily sensation of the world in Svangren’s exhibition. She examines ' Liminal States' conditions where human beings, as in rituals and dreams, pass on from one state of being to another. The works are like extended paintings that move into space, open and full of the artist's presence. 



A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea. - Susan Sontag 


Tranens  programme Sensibility Sensual / Emotional/ Minimal looked into the sensual realization of the world and artists with a keen sense of the sensual, emotional or aesthetic as an approach to their subjects. Sensibility is a cultivated sensation – and a refined sensibility to something:  a mindset not easily formulated.  With the Sensibility season,  the question is posed: what does a culture appear as when seen and formed from an aesthetic and sensual perspective and how can we approach the notion of ’Sensibility’ today? 

Chris Fite-Wassilak 'Frothing at the Mouth'

The sea, it is said, lives inside the shells. You put your young ears to its lips and there, in miniature, is the peculiar whooshing of waves, the insistent comings and goings of the water lapping at the shore. How did the sea get inside there, your young voice asks. The sea, you are simply told, lives inside the shells. It’s where they are from, the sea is part of them, they keep it held within. As if that’s an explanation. You wonder how the water ingrains itself in the hard, porcelain textures of the shell, how it carries the water with it without spilling. You wonder how it translates the wetness into sound, into echoes of its home.

Colour spills out of some of the shells that dot Astrid Svangren’s installation. They are trickling with gold and drooling red, overflowing with yellow. It is as if the liquid element that was locked within has found another way out, translating instead to bright shocks of paint. The sea, impatient with just its sound being carried, has found other ways out. The room is as if the sea is trying to make itself known through other eruptions: pools of cellophane run down the wall and around the floor, swirling around sponges, corals and baubles glimpsed beneath the fractured surface.

The Greek goddess Aphrodite, the fickle proprietor of matters of the heart and other carnal concerns, has often been depicted emerging out of a scallop shell. Her birth, as one version of it goes, came about when the severed genitals of the sky deity Ouranos were discarded into the ‘restless, white-capped sea.’ She emerged out of the ‘white foam’ that formed around the cast out organ, taking one of her names from the froth, ‘aphros’. From this origin she was known as the goddess of ‘mixis’ – the mingling of bodies, both sexual and violent – as well as the goddess of ‘anodos’, rising up out of the sea into the air.

One of the most well-known tributes to the goddess was written by a well-known poet about whom we know very little. I’d heard the name of Sappho as a popular figure, a poetess of love. Perhaps the first time I encountered her poetry was accidentally, as a bit of writing on a fictional bathroom mirror: a line of hers providing the title for JD Salinger’s short story ‘Raise high the roof beams, Carpenters’ (The poet referred to ironically within the story as a ‘contract writer for Elysium Studios Ltd.’, a literary joke I didn’t get as a seventeen year-old). The expansive reach of her influence is remarkable: of Sappho’s entire work, a scant two hundred lines of it are what still remain, ‘their original order lost’, as one researcher wrote, ‘in a little-known ancient dialect of a dead language.’ When I first finally read her directly, what strikes most about Sappho’s current manifestation of her poetry is the gaps, the overwhelming absences – one fragment consisting of simply the floating line, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m in two minds.' The next thing that seemed most remarkable from the remnants that did remain was their directness, their simplicity. Words that shone their desire to communicate. Her hymn to Aphrodite is perhaps the longest, most coherent piece of her poetry that remains.

It is in the room with Svangren’s overflowing bursts of pink and white cloth and nets tangled with bolts of blue that many of these murmuring contradictions come close to being audible. This is sea water that longs to exist as cloth and paint, painting that longs to speak like sculpture. Here, with the transparent cellophane and rainbow crinkles on the surfaces, the silence is made all the more apparent by the words of Svangren’s title-poem: ‘a day of thirst/ a sleeping jellyfish.’ The longing, mixing and rising of the love-goddess are here in the curves and crevices of the installation. But also, too, are the missing words and urge of transmission of the goddess’s devotee-poet. Svangren’s works shush and sputter; there is constant feeling that they are shaped from a desire for enunciation, that they are trying to speak.

What this asserts is a set of quick, synesthetic metaphors: the feeling of the room creates a sort of liquid equation where water, speech and sculpture are equivalent forces, trading between each other, all with desire to transform, to outpour. Formed from that desire, Svangren’s installation is some times honest and forthright, at other times coy, even duplicitous. It moves from overly melodramatic – dried rosebuds tumbling down to a knotted cloth heavily stained with pink tears – to just plain secretive, with bunches of red and who knows what indeterminate materials hidden wrapped within translucent layers of plastic. Svangren’s transformations waver, uncertain of themselves: the use of corals, of shells, of dried lavender are the stuff of other places, things picked up and re-inserted here. They speak of an outside world. But her splashes of incandescent yellow pigment, daubs of dark red, torn strips of linen, these speak a more abstract, obscure language. They speak of interiority, of things that might be felt but not articulated. Running between them all is a sense of gushing, breathless excitement, a frenzied desire to transmute and piece together the world. It is the wavering of this desire that we witness, at times flowing forth fully, shared and overt; at others shy, secretive, reserved. 

Perhaps when you were older, you later understood the sound of the sea in the shell. You understood it as a trick of physics, you stripped it of its transitional magic, turning it just into ambient sound and wind compressed by the shape of the conch. It becomes a dull hiss – only an act of imitation, of ventriloquism. But, perhaps later still, that understanding might again change: to know that the nature of the sea is actually embedded, integral, and part of the very grain of the shell. That ventriloquism is itself telling, its pale echo a sign of its essence and its urges to speak of those essences. It is those whispered desires that tell you that the shell does actually carry the sea within it. Svangren’s ‘memory place’, her room flowing with the stopping and starting of those mutating desires to transform, translate and speak our essences, asks us to remember to listen. Here, she creates a place where we might hear; and where we might imagine our own sea from which words might spill secretly forth.

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