process (The Idea of Northern Biomorphic II)
Anniken Amundsen’s otherworldly biomorphic textural forms have been one of the hits of the ongoing Through the Surface touring exhibition. Here she speaks about the personal journey which brought her to creating these forms, and how the exhibition’s mentoring exchange visit to Japan, has opened up a new relation to the world of nature.
by Oliver Lowenstein.
Anniken Amundsen is a young Norwegian textile artist who has lived in Britain since studying at Winchester School of Art in the mid-1990s. By that time Amundsen had been through a monumental life experience of being treated for - Hodgkins Disease – a form of lymph cancer – which resulted in her being drawn to exploring cancer and other forms of ‘abnormal cell growth’ as a subject of her art research. The research has taken her to hospitals, pathology labs and museums in her pursuit of uncovering various aspects of illness of cancer. ‘I have been especially interested’, she says, ‘in how this illness affects anyone who has been touched by it either directly, or indirectly as a relative or friend. Everyone has some sort of experience with this illness, and I think most of us have a deep fear of it. It felt like an important issue to raise and talk about.’
Amundsen was first drawn to textiles as a therapeutic activity, ‘to make the days go by’ while being treated for lymph cancer. She immediately enjoyed working with a loom and weaving, though soon wanted to take what she was doing several steps further, experimenting with all sorts of non-traditional new materials. These included pipe cleaners, rubber, cellophane, various elastics, metal chains, fluorescent plastic tubes, and electrical wires. Recently she has been working with more durable rubber materials such as silicone tubes and oil based rubbers like Nitrile. This has, she says, “a more abstract relationship to the body compared to natural rubber, but enforces the references to science and medical associations as well as creating a more other-worldly atmosphere to the pieces. Originally I wanted to cross some boundaries, using everything that could create an exciting meeting between the old arts and crafts tradition and myself as a young person, and was fascinated to follow the result that I got during the process.’
It was, however, only after embarking on the Winchester course, six years after being treated for cancer, that she felt emotionally ready and able to dig deeply into the difficult area of cancer, without it becoming either too personally autobiographical or a form of art therapy.
The first sculptural results of embarking on this journey were crystallised during a project at Winchester School of Art in 1997, run by the artist Caroline Broadhead, called ‘Re-thinking the Body’. Her artistic exploration of illness and cancererous and abnormal growth continued from that point on. In the first quarter of 2002, it led to a large solo show called Invaders in Maidstone Library Gallery. In Invaders much of Amundsen’s approach became evident. Using contemporary everyday materials – mainly metal, plastic and fishing line – to make unworldly sculptural shapes, which relate to her particular uncovering of seams from the underside of life: cancer and its expanding colonisation through the body. Indeed by making visible something of the darkness and invisibility of a virus expanding within a host body, Amundsen seeked to disarm the invader, ‘by making the invisible enemy visible and leading an active psychological counterattack on the many wounds and scars of cancers.’
She points out that the word cancer means crab, and how much of illness relates to the underwater world. Amundsen also notes how many diseases such as cancer, TB and AIDS have been mythologised, such as cancer and cancerous growth being described as an alien, alienated cells, a demon with its own will, mutants and parasites, attacking the body from outside.
In 2003, Amundsen’s journey into the night-time of living, ill-health, took a new turn; when she participated in Through the Surface. In this British-Japanese project she worked in collaboration with the Japanese artist and professor Machiko Agano. In the touring exhibition, Agano and Amundsen are showing one monumental collaborative piece as well as one individual piece each. The Japanese visit seems to have brought on a whole new chapter to this journey, one where the drama of nature was almost overwhelming.
She prepared herself thorougly for the difference of living in Japan for three months. But it was still, even with 5 months Japanese evening classes before the visit, a sea change. ‘My senses had to be on full alert to avoid getting lost.’ She became reliant on other means of information than text, labels, and road signs, noticing ‘other details such as painted symbols on the train platforms, pictograms, buildings, bridges, rivers, mountains, which served as my essential means of orientation. I had to learn how to trust my sense of direction, intuition, memory, smells and sounds. I don’t think I have ever felt so awake. My capacity felt larger than normal and I wonder if that partly was due to my senses being in so much higher activity than usual.’
During this visit the Japanese environment and Amundsen’s experiences brought about a shift away from her focus on cancerous growth. Arriving in Japan in springtime April, surrounded by a hyperactive nature affected Amundsen dramatically, particularly the spectacular speed of change; with trees and flowers in full bloom one week, ‘creating unbelievable beauty and mixtures of colours and smells’ and decaying and standing in fragile nakedness the next. Almost as counterbalance to the drama of nature, SARS was at its peak, virtually present across the media. Amundsen started ‘reflecting on how things spread and develop in nature and organic and human life, through wind, saliva and contact/touch. Each can carry life, beauty and joy as well as bacteria and viruses causing illness. Pollen, flower and plant seeds are constructed with spikes, hooks or tentacles to be able to stick to means of transportation such as animal fur and feathers.’ They were not ‘unlike the images of virus, bacteria and cells if examined through microscope.’
Certainly the sensibility of alien forms feels very present in the standout Through the Surface textile sculpture, ‘Transition’. Made out of fishing wire, it echoes a ghostly translucent red and white deep sea jelly creature, just as the organicism of its form also makes visible the previously unseen - a vastly enlarged detail of some invasive cell organism.
What is uncannily interesting is the relationship between the medical and natural metaphor, between medical and natural organicism. Working with Agano, one of Japan’s most renowned textile practitioners, the two came to understand that they were both ‘raising issues of invisible forces – a term that became the working title for our collaboration.’ It is this common concern, of looking through the surface to what lies further in, which may connect the relative abstraction of Agano’s whispy organic interior spaces, with those of Amundsen’s, with or without the intense subject agenda.
When Amundsen returned, travelling straight to Stavanger for her solo show there in August 2003, things had changed. This exhibition, at Hå Gamle Prestegård near Stavanger was an expanded version of her 2002 exhibition Invaders. ‘Looking back, I feel I approached the exhibition differently, after my journey to Japan, in terms of hanging, considering and working more actively with the space, incorporating the interior surroundings as well as the outside atmosphere of the gallery. I wanted to make best use of the special qualities of this specific gallery and part of Norway.’ The special light in this area, on the south-west coast of Norway, is known for its strong presence, and ever-changing quality.
Amundsen points to similarities between Norwegians’ deep love and respect for the beauty and forces of nature and that of the Japanese’ relationship with nature. And even if in Amundsen’s work the influence of nature is indirect, the experience in Japan was powerful enough to to have a strong effect.
‘The Hå Gamle Prestegård is an old vicarage, with large stables and barns converted into galleries, and is situated right by the North Sea. Thinking of how close Japanese feel to nature and how much respect they have for its mixed forces of creating overwhelming beauty as well as catastrophies, which is very often a red thread through Japanese artist’s fantastic work, I felt this gallery was the most perfect place for me to exhibit and work straight after my return from Japan.’
work can be seen at - http://kunst.no/amundsen
further information and details about all Through the Surface artists
including their exchange diaries see - www.throughthesurface.surrart.ac.uk