The artist as maenad


Who is Astrid Svangren? What is it that she does? And, what should we call what she does? Astrid Svangren is an artist. She works with painting in an expanded field. That is to say, painting that permeates the frame and takes on more spatial artistic forms, such as sculpture and installation art. However. Categorization of Svangren’s work as a matter of media and medium in this way does not say much, or it is rather fundamentally without value in the actual encounter with her work. Svangren’s art looks effortless. Perhaps because it’s not weighed down by concepts and descriptions? But, art that appears effortless is also the most difficult art of all. So what is it that she does? Is her art without language? Not at all. Simply listen to the title of her solo-exhibition at Gl. Holtegaard in Denmark, May 2019:

Mystery and dream / the self in constant resolution / the words and the colors / cries out who she is / deathly tired / lies ahead / explains / dismisses / elastic envelope / poetic documentation / the red paper like a knot on the wall / traces of clothing / its own orbit / open sculptures / a play / ritual / glittering and painful / a longing to understand.


The words and the colours. That is the connection we are longing to understand. Language’s connection to the physical world around us is something that can be found through Svangren’s simple aesthetic movements. A fountain of purple water in Gl. Holtegaard’s Baroque garden. That is a painting! Colour that flows in water. Why should we be content with painting’s rectangular surfaces and who said that the medium can’t be reimagined? At the same exhibition, one would also find cellophane, plastic and garlands in both long and short, broken threads. Lying on the floor or spilling out into the room from the walls and ceiling. Sculptures are strung out somewhere between mystery and dream. What these artefacts mean is difficult to decode, but basically we don't have to look for explanatory code in a work where everything has the character of being a discovery, like seaweed or driftwood you find washed up on the beach.

I can remember as a child, seeing a cinematic version of Robinson Crusoe that had been recreated with stop motion figurines. It was a fantastic experience and I was obsessed. Only the way one can be as a child. I can remember the way the ocean around the island was animated with cellophane. It looked so believable and yet so unbelievable at the same time. In the film, we follow Robinson Crusoe as he makes use of all the things that happen to be washed up on the shore by the clear cellophane waves. Seaweed, plastic, clam shells. But he is not set on rebuilding civilized life. On the contrary. It is rather to escape this island world upon which he is stranded as a result of so-called civilized life.

Svangren’s art constitutes a kind of backward journey in which we fall out of an orderly reality into some sort of chaotic primordial world of the ultra-sensory, of improvisation, gesture, ritual, flashes of memory and euphoric play. The fall is intoxicating because we enter a world in which we are linguistically powerless, but at the same time radically open to the world. Here, language itself is brought back to the beginning. Is a return to the beginning a regression? A classic example of so-called psychological regression is the child who has learned to walk, but as a result of an accidental fall returns to crawling. Svangren's exhibition is entitled: ‘repetition with remembering / repetition without remembering / the fall is always worth it. But what fall does she refer to? In the exhibition, you will find a cradle for a child, but also one for an adult. Perhaps then the regression follows a psychological theme. But her art is by no means a matter of simple infantilism. What then? Everything that Svangren does seems to be a playful revolt, insisting that a regressive movement is the way forward. Or rather, the way out! Out of the dead-ends that the narrative of progress has brought us into. There are repetitions in Svangren’s art and the word 'repetition' is even repeated twice in the exhibition’s title itself. But, what are the repetitions? There are repetitions in the form of doodles, scratches and gestures, which one might find with the artist like Cy Twombly. Roland Barthes once wrote of Twombly - No surface, wherever we consider it, is a virgin surface: everything is always, already, rough, discontinuous, unequal, set in motion by some accident: there is the texture of the paper, then the stains, the hatchings, the tracery of strokes, the diagrams, the words. Svangren’s painted surfaces are sometimes strikingly uneven, curly and anti-flat. As if they were defiantly opposed to, and reluctant to settle on a particular understanding of surface, but which one? Painting through modernity is itself subject to the narrative of development and progress. This narrative, for example, has also been put forward by American critic Clement Greenberg. Here, the desert provides the ideal archetypal image of surface: sheer indifference. Absolutely. Lifeless. Motionless. In comparison, Svangren's painting is clearly informed by a completely different geography, namely the Sea and, in the wider sense, the coast, which is neither sea nor land, but a constantly pulsating middle zone.

In contrast to the desert, the sea is never at absolute rest. The flowing, swirling and storm-like movement here is the rule, not the exception. In Danish, one would say that 'det sejler' (‘it sails’) when something seems chaotic and disorganized. We do not like it when ‘det sejler’ because everything disorganized is seen as a fundamental threat to the social order of things. I tried to organize freedom. How Scandinavian of me, Björk sings in the song Hunter. By extension, I see the art of Svangren as a revolt of freedom against a particular form of disciplined decency. In her art, ‘det sejler’ is liberating, freeing and flowing notion. Sometimes it seems that all elements of her exhibitions have been carried into the space on a wave. Not like a biblical flood that sweeps over the exhibition space, but rather a flood of light that washes over an over-civilized order which is hostile to that which grows and buds wildly; nature itself.

Svangren’s excessive use of transparent plastic also provokes thought of all the plastic that actually floats around the oceans and piles up on our shores, as a kind of continuous return of civilized displacement. But the folds of the plastic also elude to waves and ripples on a sea surface, as if they were transparent drapes. As if to wrap yourself in the sea, to dress in the ocean. One moment it is transparent and the next moment it is opaque. This continuous interplay between transparency and opacity is seen again and again in Svangren's work. An interplay between looking at something and looking through something.

The Artist as a Maenad

In the work Ever Is Over All by Pipilotti Rist, we see the artist walking down a street, smashing car windows with a peculiar looking stick. Upon closer inspection, it is seen that the stick is identical to the staves carried by the Maenads of Greek mythology. The Maenads were the female companions of the god Dionysus and the staff is called a 'thyrsus'. The word 'maniac', moreover, comes from the Maenads, which is the feminine manifestation of the sacred madness: the euphoria, the ecstasy, the dance and the drunkenness.

When I think through Astrid Svangren's painting I feel that she has done something similar to Pipilotti Rist in the work Ever is over all. But it is not just a car window Svangren has smashed in, but rather painting's narrow window of simple flatness and traditional illusionism. Svangren is happy slapping this over-civilized medium. Now the window has been smashed in and it swirls, flows and breathes something so refreshing. Revolt through play is Art’s beginning.

Ferdinand Krag

In connection to the exhibition

repetition with remembering / repetition without remembering / the fall is always worth it
by Astrid Svangren at OBRA 
October 12 – November 7


Stora Varvsgatan 12-14 · 211 19 Malmö · +46 727 206 633