The 26th issue is the Vietnamese-American designer’s most intimate project to date, inviting readers to explore the idea of home and understand the internal narratives of the shy designer.
David Zwirner Paris
Mamma Andersson: Adieu Maria Magdalena
Words by Albert Shyong
The monographic exhibition Adieu Maria Magdalena at David Zwirner Paris is an invitation by the Swedish artist Mamma Andersson to enter her dreamlike state, in which she ponders heartbreak and nostalgia whilst blurring the textures of reality. In each brushstroke, the self-proclaimed surrealist imparts a sense of familiarity coupled with ambiguity, stark in message yet vivid in colour. The sensory mechanisms of memory are dissected and reassembled on canvas with mystical motifs, reminding us that we are firmly in the labyrinth of her own imagination.
On the eve of the finissage of Adieu Maria Magdalena, the artist generously shares her anecdotes and contemplations behind a few select paintings, but she is also quick to apprise that context is neither absolute nor required. Rather, Andersson posits that the emotion imbued in each painting is what renders the interconnectedness of the human experience.
Mamma Andersson: This painting is a sort of self-portrait in this show because I felt like the hare. For more than a year after my separation, the painting of the hare was hanging in our old bedroom. Every night as I went to bed, I saw the dead hare on the wall. One night, I thought, “I’m never going to sleep if I don’t take the hare away from the bedroom.” So I had to. I climbed up a ladder, took down the painting, and put it in the living room. I had already started working on this painting, but at that point there was the oriental rug on the floor. I was absolutely sure I had to add the hare there. At the same time, the wooden wall behind also came into the painting. I have been very interested in materials almost my whole life, trying to paint them. However, I don’t want to paint them super realistically, like photography or something — just an undeniable feeling that what you see cannot be anything else other than wood.
The original painting by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl is about 400 years old. It’s a really old one, and it’s very dark in reality because of pollution. People have placed them in different locations, like in the fireplace. Of course, I could clean the painting, but I don’t want to do that. I like to feel that many decades have passed and many people have owned it in different places. I like the idea that paintings go from hand to hand. Hopefully, even my paintings go from hand to hand.
Albert Shyong: This was the first painting you began from a black canvas.
MA: Yes, it was a new experience to work with a black background. I got this idea from the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani. In the grooves of the wood, for example, I’ve left part of the canvas to show between the lines. Most of the paintings I have in this exhibition are rooms. It’s inside, a sort of interior. But I think it’s also a psychological interior, what you have in your head, because I was quite claustrophobic in my mind. I couldn’t be free and escape.
MA: Maria Magdalena is the name of the church and the neighborhood around where I live in Stockholm. Our apartment is an old one, about 150 years old. I had a lot of weariness about what happens when we split everything. I wondered, was my husband going to take half of the interiors and can I stay here? It’s a quite big apartment, and I would be very alone in this room. So what happens? As a viewer, you don’t need this context. You can have your own story. Maybe it reminds you of your grandmother’s house. Everybody can have their own stories. Sometimes it’s bad to explain too much because you also destroy the details and the essence.
AS: The screens really imply this idea of separation.
MA: It’s also about communication, when you misunderstand everything. I mean, I had been together with my ex-husband for 35 years, and there were so many misunderstandings. I didn’t understand how it turned out like that. We always understood each other before, suddenly it was like we were talking in tongues. I wanted to say and explain things, but I couldn’t. It’s the same with the screens in this painting, like there’s something hiding behind…each one you see has a backside to it.
AS: I’m curious about these grey hands.
MA: I was born in the absolute north of Sweden, close to the polar circle. My parents built a summer house there in the fifties, where my sister and I spend every summer. I was searching for something from my childhood when I was last there, and I found these two mannequin hands I got when I was maybe seven. They were the hands from a normal-sized mannequin used for showing clothes in a shop. These hands were tanned by a spray to look like they had been burnt by the sun, an ugly orange color. But I took them, put them in my suitcase, and brought them home. In my studio, I thought, no, I cannot work with this ugly orange. I started trying to take away the tan by brushing them and using liquids, and finally, the color was gone. They ended up in this grey shade, with a little bit of shiny plastic.
MA: For quite a long time, I have worked with porcelain figures and dolls, but not real people. I think real people can destroy a painting; only a few painters are able to do them well. If you look at Henri Matisse, he succeeds because it’s very simply done. So for me, it has been easier to use dolls, porcelain figures, masks, and things like that. A friend called me and said, “I’m in Stockholm now and I have a gift for you.” He came to my studio and gave me this copy of Apollo in plaster. I saw it and thought it was incredible, and I knew I was going to use it.
AS: And what about the shoe?
MA: I have never done a woman’s shoe before. I think symbols can be very destructive. If you remember the Che Guevara posters, everybody had them on the walls in the seventies, and finally, nobody knew who he was. Some symbols lose their meaning when you see them too much. But others can be inserted for a special reason. In this case, I thought it was necessary to have the shoe there, as a symbol of a woman. Which woman? You don’t know.
AS: Are these hands from the same orange mannequin?
MA: No, these were really beautiful. They are wooden and with a black base, and I think they are from the twenties. I bought them maybe thirty years ago when I first got my studio, the one I still have today. There was an antique shop below me. Two young boys ran it, and they had very interesting things. I passed the window every day and saw these two hands. I desired them every time I walked past, but I remember they were quite expensive. One day, I descended the staircase into the shop and decided to purchase the hands. I brought them back to my studio, and it took almost 30 years before I started working with them.
AS: Did you physically place them around your studio?
MA: Yes, I did. Let me tell you something. First, it was a table with tarot cards in place of the hands. But it was too pathetic and I felt ashamed. A friend came over to my studio, looked at the tarot cards, and said, “Oh, you’re doing tarot.” I thought, “This is really bad…I have to cover it up.”
AS: It’s funny you say that because I feel like when someone goes to your house or takes a picture of you, you clean everything up. You put things where you want them to be placed. Paintings are very similar to that, where everything is positioned.
KA: In the studio, you’re always very naked. You have to be naked and try really embarrassing things and take crazy chances. It’s necessary if you want to come further from yourself and expand your experiences, to try different colors or experiment with whatever pops up in your head. I think it’s the same for a musician, or for any type of creative person.
AS: You’ve said that you consider yourself a surrealist. There’s certainly aspects of reality, but also such a tangible sense of fantasy in your paintings. How do you balance these two universes?
MA: When you go to the theatre, it’s the same thing. It’s very unreal. People on stage, changing clothes, all the scenography to create a fictional world. There can be an orchestra in the pit playing, but when you’re sitting there listening, you can really understand that in the moment, it’s reality. You know exactly what is captured and how to feel. So I don’t think I have to be that realistic. It’s a freedom to leave the realistic realm, because if you’re able to impart a feeling and message to yourself and to the audience, it’s good enough.
Mamma Andersson: Adieu Maria Magdalena at David Zwirner Paris runs through November 18, 2023.
All artwork courtesy the artist and David Zwirner
© Mamma Andersson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Bildupphovsrätt, Sweden
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