Life is a shock

Some spooky reflections show up in Thyra Hilden's new photographs. In this interview she tells about her childhood as a misfit and outsider. In response to her discontent she chose to construct a parallel, image-based reality. This has led to a comprehensive body of work whose primary thematic concerns are isolation and existential fright. She is currently taking part in exhibitions in Berlin, Costa Rica, and here in Copenhagen.

Interview: Lisbeth Bonde. Published in 2003.
Photos: Laura Stamer and Thyra Hilden.
Translation: Christophe Brunski. caught up with Thyra Hilden in Galleri Gustav Grimm on Njalsgade, where she is participating in the group exhibition "It's Photographic" until June 12th. Her photos here revolve around the umheimlich, - the no-access zones of consciousness that we cannot really bear to come face to face with. Hilden excels in a language that crosses the wires of both 19th century romantic painting- with its love for nature and solitude - and staged photography, with its characteristic leaning towards cultural critique. By the time Thyra Hilden graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Art in 2002, she was already a known figure on the young contemporary art scene. She is among those young artists who are increasingly invited to exhibit abroad, while the Danish exhibition scene has sought her out much less; she, along with many of her colleagues, asserts that this is because the Danish arts scene is asleep on its feet. Hilden has just participated in the exhibition "Imposture" in Galerie Console in Paris, as well as having opened in the exhibition "Betrug" in Berlin's Loop Gallery. She has also contributed to the exhibition "In-Tangible" at MADC (Museo de Arte y Dise-o) in Costa Rica.

What was it that eventually brought you into the art world?
I am affected by my past to a high degree. I grew up under some rather extreme conditions. I lived in a large hippy collective, which for ideological reasons was also a home to neurotics, mental handicaps, vagabonds, war refugees, recovering drug addicts, and people with acute mental illness. It was there that a mass of absurd images of reality became an essential part of my everyday. That is why I felt myself to be marginalized both at home and in public schools, where I was viewed as a rather unusual individual. I therefore built up a parallel world that I could move into. I drew and expressed myself though pictures that I could identify with. I have always had an idea that I wanted to explore and expand my reality through pictures, and that is what I have continued trying to do.

And so you applied to the Academy?

Yes, because I thought that I would be able to find kindred spirits. But I was mistaken. Instead I found something much different. I had anticipated that there would be a dialog around ethics and norms, and that there would be a highly visionary attitude towards the meaning of art. But there was a lot of apathy at the Academy, and culture was mimed more than it was held up to any critical lens. Apathy was actually part of the style, as a response to the rhetoric of the 1980s. But for me it was a bit of an indolent and complacent reaction. Institutions take up a lot of space and all in all they play a disproportionately important roll in the relations between people. I myself am trying to connect with people who have something of an unspoken understanding of the conditions surrounding the institution. I am trying for my part to uphold a critical attitude that I think can bring about important values: tolerance, openness, community, and the like.

You say that you are a misfit, and yet you still have the ability to use the institution's channels to promote your own art?

Yes, the Academy conveyed a great deal to me in this respect. Most notably under Claus Carstenen I learned that if you are going to reach out with your visions then you have to learn to function according to the premises of reality. And to this end I have the advantage of being an extrovert. I am willing to go a great distance to be able to say what it is I want to say.

And now you're exhibiting outside Denmark and reaching out with your visions and values to people from other cultures?

Yes, and for that I especially have to thank the Danish Contemporary Art Foundation. Curators from outside Denmark have been able to look up my work without realizing that I was unknown in the centre's register, and this has brought about positive results. Furthermore, the centre has paid for a good deal of my travel expenses in connection to my exhibitions. Photography is constantly in a difficult position here in Denmark, and it has to be said that there is a very traditional way of thinking here. To a large degree galleries are only able to sell painting and other related works that carry a weighty signature on them. This indirectly influences the Danish art scene. It's a paradox that we're falling behind while believing ourselves to have such a highly developed culture. Danish art is aiming at a dialog with entertainment culture. There is a high degree of apathy when it comes to changing values. It ends up that we make a virtue out of powerlessness and take pleasure in making this known. Pathos and anything on the serious side are wholly condemned in Danish culture. There is a cultural preference for the antihero, staged "conclusions" and postulated naivety, so that one can always get around the serious through humour.

It is evident that your works revolve around the unheimlich, around an ill that is lying in wait, around some unpleasant events.
Yes, my videos and photos are rife with uneasiness, a crime-scene feeling. That's due in part to the fact that I take pictures at night with a flash. I try to work in the same way consciousness works. I throw a light out into the darkness, and just let reality occur there. The rest is all a dark void. It's not an account of a criminal act, but rather an account of how our consciousness functions.

You play upon motifs resulting in an iconography that resembles a Rorschach test.
Yes, I offset the known a degree by playing with nature. Therein the everyday becomes foreign, unreal, or absurd. This play represents the inner picture of reality. I attempt to assemble the inner and the outer in one. Each piece on its own is realistic, but when they are set together a sense of absurdity occurs. In the line of symmetry a force field comes forth, which makes the picture ritualistic. ItÕs an intentional means of setting the inner and outer side by side. All creatures- with the exception of the flatfish -are symmetrical, and this is one of the reasons for which there is an immediate sense of identification when the viewer meets the image. There is a perspective shift in the meeting of the image's reflection. We are drawn into the central axis, it becomes the meeting point between the imaginary and the symbolic. Yes, it expands the picture in just this way. ItÕs a type of synchronous expansion, which is also the background for the expansion of our consciousness. Seen with only one eye, for example, reality appears somewhat flat. But when seen with both eyes it acquires depth and begins to unfold. I want to stress that there are many dimensions that can unfold reality still further, and this gives reality a telescopic dimension. For every person there exists an inner and an outer, a mental, an emotional, and a physical dimension. All these dimensions expand our consciousness. In my works I am attempting to expand the space in which consciousness arises.

In your latest photos you set the observer on the outside in a very concrete way!

Yes, this happens especially clearly in the somewhat newer series Preview where a little girl stands looking away, and a very hard flash shadow is cast into the landscape so that reality comes to resemble a flat screen. Reality is represented quite bluntly as an illusion in these pictures. And I explicitly expose a synchronism. We are made witness to someone that stands apart, and as observers we also find ourselves standing apart from this reality.

"Preview" Den Frie, Copenhagen 2003

You're still creating a parallel world in your works?

Yes, as our material, western, positivistic culture focuses only on the outer, on the ego, and individual identity. Ego, manifestation and reproduction occur everywhere as our most basic drives. I am trying, on the contrary, to show the drive towards community. All of my pictures are concerned with isolation and community. This can be in relation to nature or in relation to social contexts between people. It is not about a concrete sequence of events or a specific "crime", but rather about standing outside reality. The longing for integrity and community is what I want to illustrate as being at least as much of an essential drive as our ego.

In your new photos you show nature as being sacrificed- where we see masses of branches that have been cut off their trunks -and the more or less original, wild nature. It's a collision between the man-made and the natural. Culture vs. nature. And in the reflection's central axis some kind of structures occur that we associate with victimhood or something ritual. What is it you're aiming for here?

In the pictures in Synchronicity I find that a force field emerges in the reflection. It could be a demonic spirit that's occurring in the reflection split or a female genital symbol or something entirely different, like a spidery figure. New forms occur in the line of symmetry, there where the reflections in the photography meet. It is this meeting that creates the dynamic, both in the picture itself and between work and viewer.

We sit outside in the backyard of Njalsgade and take in the sun on a concrete ramp. (It was only a few weeks ago that a large part of the art scene was balanced here on one of them, beer and wine glasses in hand, toasting their most recent vernissage.)

You excel not only in manipulated photos or re-worked photos, in which you paint on photo prints- you also work with video. Can you tell a little about this aspect of your work?

I have made a number of video installations. This was a result of the fact that for some time I was deeply involved in art theory and it made me a little claustrophobic. I needed blood, nerves, and life. I also make music, so I wanted to get more flow and more direct expression into my work. Life's a shock. Just to exist is brutality against something exquisite in us. I want this intensity to be part of my expression. That is why I have made these rather expressive videos. They are more one-dimensional than my photographs, more direct. Which I see as a positive attribute, as I regard a lot of art as being too distant from the human, too cold, too composed and too intellectual.

IsnÕt there the inherent danger that your videos in which a ÒcrimeÓ is committed are bound to resemble all the films we are filled with every night on TV?

Yes, absolutely. But I try with my videos to open up a discussion of the just those images that we are filled with every day, so that it becomes a cultural critique. I aggrandize and deepen some of the effects that we see in film, whereby an extra angle of reflection occurs. There are 25 images a second in the films we watch, and in my still-images I stop time and demonstrate that each of these 25 images is a strong expression imparting powerful psychological influence. My still images thus interact with my videos. This way there is a food chain of expressions, so to speak, that influence each other and work to pronounce specific themes in each other.

Is there any particular artist that you are working in direct dialog with?

Yes, for example I am very taken with the Finnish artist Aija-Liisa Ahtila, whose videos touch upon the psychotic and pose questions regarding reality/non-reality. Sophie Calle is another, because she mixes the extremely personal with more conceptual questions about absence. Otherwise I am interested in the intensity that can be seen in Bruce NaumanÕs videos. As a female artist I wish to emphasize that both genders have many facets. Women like men can be extremely aggressive. Both genders contain everything within themselves, but they each articulate themselves differently. Overall both genders are exposed to brutality. That which is fragile, penetrable, is under constant threat. Cynicism on the one hand with humility and vulnerability on the other are the characteristics I most want to highlight. In my still images I do it softly, in my videos I yell it out.

How many videos have you done to date?

I have made four videos, but the two newest- "Mute" and "Material End" have not yet been shown. After having begun to make videos I have to say that video has much more appeal than photography. Photography has a tendency to appear quite static and sterile. That is why as a rule I usually blend it with other media such as light, sound, video, or painting. I hope that way to engage the observer from several different angles simultaneously.

How are you keeping afloat now that you have graduated from the Academy?
Claus Carstensen says that it gets cold as hell once the institution takes your diapers and pacifier away. Does it feel cold to you? I can't think of anyone who would want to go around for several years in the same diaper anyway! No, I have been lucky in getting a very good start to my existence as a graphic artist. And then I have the luxury of receiving additional funding, because I became certified to teach through the program I followed in the Academy. What did you study in you program at the Academy? We studied Duchamp, Kant, and modern art history. It was highly interesting to read of a time when artists believed in art. The professors at the Academy don't really believe in art, so it was really uplifting. Favorably speaking, what can your works accomplish? How do you think art can make a difference? As said, I myself have had the experience of standing outside reality and feeling a remote relation with it. My wish it that others can recognize this condition, and that there occurs a type of recognition of a reality outside the general, pop, superficial, egotistical, short-sighted, and commercial consumer culture. That is my vision.

So youÕre something as rare as an idealist and utopian on artÕs behalf?

Yes, and most of all I cannot understand why people don't buy more art. An art piece is an essence of a worldview, and you can enter into a dialog with it every day, if you either seek it out or have it around you. Art expresses a complex reality. If I could say what was on my mind simply and directly then I would be a politician or a social activist. In art the viewer alone has to take responsibility for the experience, in other words for what art means. It always makes me really happy when people like my work. Not so much for the sake of my own recognition, but as a confirmation of the universe in which I move. That it exists.

So the work is a bonding agent or a kit that binds disparate worlds together?
Yes, art is an invitation to transcend the isolation between people. Many of your colleagues are ironic and donÕt believe that art is capable of transcending anything at all, right? Well, let's just say they seem thoroughly apathetic about it. Very few artists dare to insist that art can make an impact on the general image of the world. The majority are content to mime culture as a means of escaping criticism. Cultural development is most often regarded as a condition we just have to learn to accept.

How do you relate to the matter-of-fact claim that art- as indifferent as it is transcendent -becomes swallowed up by the art institution and always ends according to the consensus in the halls of power- does it ultimately exist in relation to capital?

You are right, but I remain convinced that the responsibility resides in the public. There is quite a lot of challenging art. There are so many artists who are engaged politically, existentially, poetically, humoristically. And yet the public is so dull! They are ignorant. We live in a culture of growing compromise that works to smooth out all differences. Any enthusiasm or marked position is seen as some deviation of naivety or one-dimensionality. Any provocation is just taken in stride as if nothing more than amusement, and all discussion wanes all too quickly. From the springboard of my childhood experiences among marginalized people, I go on fighting on all the time against the provincialism and small mindedness that disown the right to be different and for the absurd and unknown. That experience colors my view of the world. By drawing a distinction between the serious, the less serious, and fear, I shake up the small-minded fear for the unknown. That is why there's no concrete trace of any sequence of events or felony in my pictures; they rather point to the larger existential drama, where humility and fear go hand in hand. By choosing nature and the suburbs as the backdrop in my photos I depersonalize the fear. In my videos, on the other hand, I am more concrete and subjective.

The tape runs out, and we go back into the hard cement spiral staircase leading up to Gustaf Grimm's raw interior, which closes around us with its coolness. Back inside, I stand in front of Hilden's literally chilly photos of snow, loneliness, night, and absence. Photos that point out isolation and marginality, photos that constitute a parallel reality, born by a cool beauty.

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interview in Danish