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Interview with Christine Ödlund by Sarah Victoria Turner

In this interview, originally published in Abraxas Journal #4, the artist Christine Ödlund discusses her multi-media practice and the inspirations behind it. Ranging from Theosophy, Synaesthesia and Ecological Chemistry the concepts that inform Ödlund’s work are as interesting and varied as her portfolio where watercolour paintings and pencil drawings sit alongside installations and musical compositions.

Christine Ödlund is a contemporary artist who lives and works in Sweden. Her work has been exhibited globally including in a group exhibition, Art & Music – Search for New Synesthesia at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. At the end of 2012, she participated in Swedish Energies: A Festival for Experimental, Improvisational and Visionary Music & Performance Art in New York. The combination of these three terms – experimental, improvisational, visionary – evocatively describes Ödlund’s work, which connects the material and immaterial, the visible and non-visible in ways that refuse neat categorisation. This border-crossing is a hallmark of her work. She is a visual artist and a composer; she works with sound and film installation; she produces exquisite drawings and uses watercolours in ways that can be both delicate and bold; she creates imposing sculptural interventions. Ödlund works across scales: the small, the imposing, the immeasurable. Combining her interests and research across the fields of ecological chemistry, the occult, synaesthetic response, sensory experience, metaphysics and environmental systems, her works are sensitive, thoughtful and provocative. They ask us to think about the world we live in, the future world that we want to inhabit and the worlds of our imagination. Ödlund is an active researcher and collaborator, working with scientists at the Ecological Chemistry department of KTH in Stockholm. Her research is also historically mediated and she has explored Theosophical texts and thought in many of her works, drawn in particular to the radical and activist streak of its early women leaders Helena P. Blavatsky and Annie Besant. To witness Ödlund’s work is never solely a visual experience. We are often asked to look, to hear, to smell – and also to dream, to imagine, to think. Our senses are heightened and new experiences are opened up.

Sarah Victoria Turner is Assistant Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre and was previously a lecturer in the Department of History of Art at the University of York. She is Principal Investigator of an international network funded by the Leverhulme Trust, Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy, Modernism and the Arts, c. 1875–1960. The network brings together art historians, musicologists, historians and literature specialists to explore what the visual, material and performing arts can tell us about the relationships between Theosophy, modernity and mysticism from c.1875 to 1960. The research carried out by the network’s partners will examine where and how artists, writers and performers came into contact with Theosophy and other mystical practices, and how Theosophical ideas, especially those of key figures in the Society in this period, such as Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were given material, visual and audible form.

SVT: Your work was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, in an exhibition entitled Art & Music – Search for New Synesthesia. This exhibition seems to be just one example of a growing interest in breaching the boundaries between the visual and non-visual and in mapping the relations between different art forms, such as the visual arts and music. Could you talk about your participation in this exhibition and your relationship to the larger themes the show explores?

CÖ: I was very glad when I got the invitation to participate in the exhibition. I can relate to these thoughts about art, music and synaesthesia since I’m both a visual artist and a composer. I have been working methodically with sound and image since I studied electro-acoustic music ten years ago. During this time, at the studio EMS in Stockholm, I was introduced to the notation used in this type of music, which describes sound like matter, texture and composition and the relation to the three-dimensional space. Intuitively I started to work with a method that is best described as simulated synaesthesia. I was interested in this neurological phenomenon, where the senses cross-connect, for example music generating the perception of colours. Synaesthesia as a source for artistic creativity was something I found everywhere once I’d put my finger on it. The exhibition at MOT in Tokyo shows many historical examples of this by artists like John Cage, Kandinsky and Paul Klee but also contemporary artists such as Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai among many more. I’m showing a sound piece together with drawings based on ecological chemistry research at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, where I have been able to work on deciphering the highly sophisticated chemical language of plants. In experiments with stinging nettles under attack by butterfly larvae feeding on the leaves, the plants signal stress by releasing chemical compounds. I have analysed the chemical data and transposed it into sound and notation for the musical score, which describes the time span and the amplitude of the chemical reaction. The surrounding nettles respond to the stress call by redirecting all their energy to the root system until the alarm is over.

In the catalogue questions are asked about breaching the boundaries between visual and non-visual art but also, with the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident as a dark shadow in mind, whether we can develop a different relationship with nature and if contemporary art can take part in this reconnection with a synaesthetic, meaning a more sensible and holistic, approach.

Christine Ödlund, Audiography, 2013. Watercolour, water-soluble pencil and pencil on paper, 137 x 91 cm.

SVT: The transhistorical approach taken in the exhibition, bringing together artists who have explored synaesthesia in their work across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is really interesting and seems to reflect a current interest in researching the longer histories of synaesthesia and related phenomena. Has seeing your work alongside historical examples produced stimulating or surprising results for you?

In this experimental and historical context I realised that the area of contact was expanding in directions that I wasn’t expecting. What I first thought of as a somewhat isolated neurological phenomenon has more and more turned into an unexplored artistic and metaphysical movement with clear traces back to Newton and Aristotle.


CÖ:Talking of breaching boundaries between different artistic practices, your work involves sound, painting, drawing, animation, video and material constructions. Of course, many contemporary artists work across media, but we often still struggle to find a language to describe this border-crossing. How do you describe your practice as an artist?

Well, I also struggle when trying to explain my artistic practice in one comprehensive sentence but I usually start by describing my interests and then my methods. As long as I am able to express myself, the particular media I use are less important to me. Also, I need to keep it open since the method allows transformations, for example a sound that can transform into colour, form or motion.

SVT:Is ‘synaesthesia’ an important or useful term for your practice as an artist?

CÖ: Yes, very! If you use the neuropsychological distinction between strong and weak synaesthesia I would belong to the latter category since I’m not a ‘natural’ synaesthete. Instead the practice shares some of the ideas of the Bauhaus professor Gertrud Grunow, who from 1919 to 1924 held classes in Harmonisierungslehre (harmonisation theory), where she developed a form of musical teaching that activated synaesthesia by integrating all the various senses. For me it is a level of enhanced sensibility and awareness during a state of deep concentration where any modality can develop and travel freely through the sensory system in unusual ways.


SVT: The connection to the Bauhaus is fascinating. Does it inform your work or working practice in any other way?

CÖ: The work of Gunta Stölzl, Kandinsky and Klee among other Bauhäusler is very inspiring, especially for the way I work visually with the notation of musical scores.


SVT: Your use of colour, and particularly the sensory properties of different colours, is a striking feature of your work. Can you describe the importance of colour in what you do?

CÖ: The metaphysical significance of colours and their correspondences to music are interesting. In the work Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle the colours were decided first by smelling each chemical compound that the nettle emits under stress (kept in bottles in concentrated form); the olfactory perception then gave the colour that gave the sound.

Christine Ödlund, Frequency Magenta, 2011. Watercolour and pencil on paper, 48 x 48cm.

SVT: This leads me on to thinking about your relationship to Annie Besant’s and Charles Leadbeater’s work on colour in their ground-breaking text Thought-Forms (1901). How did you come across Theosophy and Thought-Forms in particular?

CÖ: Many years ago when I found the book, the part with paintings of musical thought-forms caught my attention. The description of clairvoyant observations of music that materialises into colour, shape and motion was something I could relate to in my own artistic practice, even if Besant talked about clairvoyance and clairaudience where I would say synaesthesia or extra-sensory perception. I started to read Blavatsky and Besant and found Theosophy, as many artists before me, very inspiring. I appreciate it for the elegant synthesis of philosophy, religion and science but also for the charismatic women behind it, Blavatsky and Besant as feminist revolutionaries.


SVT: Yes, I agree Blavatsky and Besant are both fascinating women and the story of their lives is quite incredible and beginning to receive more attention from various quarters. We seem to be at a moment of revision and reconsideration of the relationship between the arts and mysticism in the modern world – something that my own project Enchanted Modernities is pursuing. The upcoming exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (February–March 2013) also promises to be an important reassessment of Hilma af Klint’s abstract painting. Do you see yourself as part of a wider network of artists, musicians and writers who are exploring occult and mystical themes?

CÖ: I see a lot of interest in these matters right now. Not long ago, art dealing with these subjects would have been dismissed or considered New Age with very low status. Now museums and well-established private galleries are showing interest in art with this type of content. It’s a trend right now, but one should keep in mind that the art world is very volatile.

SVT: How would you describe your relationship to Besant and Leadbeater’s Thought-Forms? The fact that you have titled your own works Thought-FormsThought-Form II and Thought-Form III suggests an obvious homage.

CÖ: Absolutely it’s a homage – I’m picturing music by Gounod, Mendelssohn and Wagner, and adding motion. The animations have been projected onto two- or three-metre-high cut-out screens in various video installations.


SVT: You have also recently illustrated Edda’s re-release of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s proto-science fiction text Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. How did you go about the process of choosing what to illustrate?

CÖ: I wanted to illustrate Bulwer-Lytton’s novel because of Madame Blavatsky’s interest in the book and our shared interest in the Atlantis myth. Published in 1871, it reflects some of the big issues of that time such as Darwinism, democracy and women’s rights. The novel is full of detailed descriptions of the subterranean flora and fauna, the advanced technology and the people – their clothes, manners, language and bodily constitution with extraordinarily big thumbs. The novel is not the nail-biting sort of literature but quite dry, which makes the long and thorough descriptions of bizarre details, like the thumbs, quite humorous. I wanted to do illustrations of these strange and detailed parts of the story.


SVT: Can you say more about the relationship of your work to the Atlantis myth?

CÖ: Atlantis is fascinating and ever since Plato wrote about the island it has been generating new mythologies. In my own version of the Atlantis story global warming has made the earth uninhabitable for anything but fungus and mould. In this scenario future civilisations have been forced to seek refuge in biospheres under the sea surface. The piece consists of animated drawings in a dystopian but beautiful and strange landscape that slowly floats by.

Christine Ödlund, Thought-Forms, 2009 – 10. Video projection of animated drawings, styrofoam, wood. Channelled/Lunds konsthall, Lund, Sweden.

SVT: I’m also interested in your use of scale. Above you talk about detail and thoroughness. Your work is full of minutely observed detail and yet you also work on a scale – both conceptually and materially – that embraces the vast and the massive.

CÖ: Yes, like a person who can only see details mixed with an analytical character that only sees the larger structures – anything in between lands on the blind spot.


SVT: Your work engages powerfully with ideas about environmental change and damage. Would you describe yourself as an activist or your work as activism?

CÖ: Art is a weak and ineffective instrument for fast, radical change so my art is not political in that sense, although my thought experiments could be seen as slow-operating activism, absolutely.


SVT: Your works such as Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle (2010) seem to ask us as the viewer to empathise and communicate with a non-human world. Do you hope to provoke particular reactions or feelings for viewers of your work?

CÖ: Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle is sprung from the idea of finding a way to bridge the language barrier between plants and humans. The human-centred world-view won’t lead anywhere. There are many worlds circling the sun, so to see from another life form’s point of view can be enriching and teach us many things.


SVT: You have carried out research at the Ecological Chemistry department of KTH. The empirical world of scientific research and the world of the visionary artist do not often come together, or at least not in common perceptions of ‘science’ and ‘art’. Your work seems to question such divisions.

CÖ: Art is the perfect tool for exploring, in this case, natural science, if you don’t want to get caught in a certain structure of explanation. With art you can examine things from any perspective, walk in and out of different worlds without having to change lenses or language. I have very good experiences with the researchers at Ecological Chemistry at KTH. They are very open-minded. Our conversations are highly inspiring based on the fact that the division between science and fiction is constantly changing.

Christine Ödlund, Sound Visible & Invisible, 2011. Watercolour and pencil on paper. 137 x 91 cm. Market Galleri Riss, Stockholm, Sweden. 

SVT: Can you give us an insight into other projects that you have worked on?

CÖ: I worked on a solo show at Galleri Riis in Stockholm in September 2013 and later on in Oslo. I have composed a musical piece called Astral Bells – a homage to Madame Blavatsky – and started working on a book, a monograph with my work from the last five years.


SVT: Thank you, Christine, for this fascinating insight into your work. It’s been a real pleasure.

Christine Ödlund, Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle (musical score), 2010. Pencil and watercolour on paper, 197 x 85 cm. Photograph: Jean-Baptiste Beranger.