An interview with
By Hasse Persson
Published in: Nathalia Edenmont, Eternity, Borås Konstmuseum, exhibition catalogue 2011.
HASSE PERSSON: Nathalia, if you close your eyes and think back to your earliest visual memory, what do you see?
NATHALIA EDENMONT: There is no need to close my eyes because I recall, at a very early age, making drawings of plants from imagination. These were incredibly colourful. I think I was drawing at home, so presumably it was before I started going to school.
HP: At home, was there art on the walls?
NE: No, there wasn’t even wallpaper. My mother had painted the walls herself. The living room was patchy pink. The hall and kitchen were yellow. Later in life, I am aware of using these exact colours in my art. Wallpaper was often an unobtainable luxury for the middle classes in Yalta where I grew up.
HP: Your father died when you were 12 and your mother when you were 14. Were there brothers and sisters or relatives who could take care of you?
NE: No, I was completely alone. But I inherited some money from my parents, although there was neither food nor clothes to be bought, so I often went to bed hungry. My options were either going to an orphanage or being put up for adoption. In the end, a female janitor at an art school took pity on me. However, she also commandeered everything I had: money, the apartment and my few worldly possessions.
HP: But art was part of your life at an early stage, wasn’t it?
NE: Art schools in the former Soviet Union had very high standards. Already at the age of eight, I went to the art museum with my mother and saw what I thought were gigantic paintings by Ivan Ajvazovskij (1817–1900). I was 10 years old when, as an art student, I became aware of the Russian artist Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910). Masters like Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt and Da Vinci had already been covered in earlier studies. Repin too.
HP: It’s evident that you had distinct references to art history. At the same time, most of your work arises from personal experience. One of your most personal pieces is Family, where Carolina poses, your young model. She wears a black dress and the skirt spreads out over two white chairs. Can you elaborate on the meaning of this work?
NE: The dress is a visualisation of my tremendous grief in becoming an orphan at the age of 14. My parents should be sitting on the chairs. Family is my family portrait. The chairs are empty, but stand on my dress, meaning I still am not free from my childhood experiences and my parents. Ironically enough, Carolina is actually 14 in the picture; the same age that I was orphaned.
HP: Self-Portrait (Deathbed) is another work that dramatically reveals the passing of your mother. Is this based on real circumstances too?
NE: That’s me lying there, the same way my mother did. In reality, she was in an open coffin at the gate of our apartment block, which allowed a large number of people to pay their last respects. Carolina has taken my place and holds mother’s ice-cold hand. It was a physically demanding shoot, because I was lying there in make-up for 10 hours without moving. But Carolina held my hand. It would have been hard to finish the shoot without that human contact.
HP: Both these works are extremely personal. How did they come about? Do you make sketches or are they motivated by clear, inner imagery?
NE: I never sketch my subject matter; they are already complete and sharp within me. They are based almost exclusively on my own experiences or from my thoughts, which I process by turning into art.
HP: Currently you have produced almost 300 artworks with technical perfection in terms of lighting, composition and focus. How sharp are your inner visual memories?
NE: They are terrifically clear to me, which places enormous technical demands on the execution. It means a shoot can take up to 10 hours before I am satisfied. I know intuitively when the picture is done.
HP: Considering the context, it may sound like a trivial question, but do you work in digital or analogue?
NE: Everything I have done, and do now, is analogue. There is no computer manipulation at all. On the contrary, I use a classic Sinar large-format camera and many lenses and 8x10 inch sheet film, which I import from the US. I use Portra VC and NC depending on the nature of the subject matter. I always work with flash, which gives me the required depth of field from F16 to F64 depending on the subject matter.
HP: How many people are needed during a shoot?
NE: It usually varies. On average, between eight to twelve people. Besides the model or models, there are also parents accompanying any under-age models. Then I always have two camera assistants, even if I am the one whose finger is on the trigger. Additionally, I usually have a hairstylist, a dressmaker and a designer on site. And not least, a cook to prepare meals, because a shoot can take up to 10 hours.
HP: For most photographers and photo-based artists, chance is a welcome element in the creative process. What role does it play for you?
NE: Chance is not usually part of my creativity. My inner picture is too clear to leave anything to chance at all. However, there have been times when something unexpected has happened during the shoot that had a positive influence on the end result.
HP: I would just say it is inevitable that things can happen even during the most controlled shoot. How do you communicate with the model, for example, during the shoot?
NE: I talk to the model all the time, hoping he or she will enter my energy field. This communication is absolutely crucial.
HP: Undeniably, your pictures rouse strong emotions in viewers and give room for a variety of interpretations. One such enigmatic picture is Carolina, where the young Carolina smiles at the camera as a snake wraps itself about her throat. What’s your reading of her mysterious smile?
NE: My opinion is that she does not fully comprehend what is taking place. Children often smile, purely as a defence mechanism. Actually, the snake was white, but took on this skin-coloured tone after death, which makes the subject matter even stronger. There’s one example where chance aided our work.
HP: Another work that has received a lot of attention is Morning, where a young Lolita in a short nightgown studies herself in a mirror. The viewer does not spy what he or she hopes to see, do they?
NE: The photograph is based on viewers thinking they will see something, which is not shown in the mirror. What is actually seen from the model’s perspective remains a well-kept secret.
HP: Carolina has been your favourite model for a long time. Is she your childhood’s alter ego?
NW: We are quite similar looking: the eyes, hair and build. We met by chance at the Gröna Lund amusement park here in Stockholm. She was just nine years old the first time we met. I felt there was an immediate contact. As I gradually got to know her and her parents, so the thought evolved that she would be a formidable model for my art. We have worked together for many years and in the exhibitions you clearly see her getting older between the various photography sessions. She is strong, persistent and an outstanding model. But since then, I have used a series of different models for natural reasons.
HP: You have also started to photograph boys and young men, for example the work Gustav, where the model poses à la Manet’s Olympia. What have been the reactions to these new motifs?
NE: I did not think of Manet in particular; on the other hand, it is a pose commonly used when men portray women. Women love the motif, while most men are offended. I don’t know why!
HP: Butterflies, or more precisely, the wings of butterflies, has also been a successful motif. With the patience of a saint, you have used thousands of butterfly wings to create a new subject that approaches abstract art. How did these works come about?
NE: I collaborated with researchers from Japan and Russia who supplied me with butterfly wings. Butterflies are strongly associated with my childhood, as I tried to catch them in the open air. Snakes are another memory from my early years. I was always afraid of snakes; a fear I have worked with in many of my pictures.
HP: Reading what critics write about you, there is sometimes a comparison with American artist Sally Mann; that you are similar to Sally Mann in her Immediate Family manifestly working with childhood. In your opinion, is there a connection as such?
NE: No, I have neither the time nor the inclination to look at other people’s work. I want to be free from their influences. I seldom read what critics write about my work, even if I do amuse myself regarding the artists they associate me with. It may be that a critic alludes to Old Masters that I saw in my youth, but have since forgotten. Studies that remain in my subconscious. However, I do like to listen to classical music when I think. If I can choose between going to an opening or working, then I would always choose to work. I feel like a foreigner in the art world.
HP: Talking about which, why did you move to Sweden?
NE: As a child, I wanted to study law and saw myself having a career as a lawyer. When my parents passed away, my dreams for the future were in ruins. The idea of moving abroad grew stronger as I realised there was no future for me in the disintegrating Soviet empire. Choosing Sweden was quite coincidental. It was a country that was easy to get a visa to. My idea was that Sweden would be the gateway to England, Germany or Poland, which I had visited once when I was 18. While waiting for a Swedish passport, I had to get married and worked as a cleaner in Stockholm. I was 21 and already had a couple of marriages behind me. My aim was to have kids and get through the day. There were some quite meaningless years, at least until I decided to start studying. I applied successfully to Forsbergs School of Graphic Design. My dream was to get a permanent job as a graphic designer and have regular employment to go to each day. I had no thoughts at all about becoming an artist!
HP: However fate proved otherwise, didn’t it?
NE: At the design school, I was in contact with artist and photographer Per Hüttner, who apparently saw a topic that was worth developing. Per encouraged me to try to visualise my inner pictures. He offered to help and tried to illustrate them with his camera. Hüttner became my mentor and it is thanks to him that I have become who I am today.
HP: So when and where did you debut with your premiere exhibition?
NE: My debut took place at Mors Mössa in Gothenburg, November 2003. I showed six photographs, including dead rabbits. All the works sold out at the opening. I remember the prices were around 15,000 – 27,000 Swedish kronor. I could not comprehend how anyone could pay so much for my photographs. A few weeks later, I exhibited at Wetterlings in Stockholm. This is where my mass-media breakthrough occurred, although in a completely unexpected way. Just before the exhibition closed in January 2004, four masked neo-Nazis stormed the gallery with baseball bats, attacking a poor visitor and smashing four works. Reuters carried the news around the globe. There were animal rights demonstrations in Germany and Russia. Ironically, I could see in the pictures from Russia that many demonstrators wore rabbit-fur hats in the winter cold. It was a shocking time for me personally, and since then I have lived with a protected identity.
HP: While your reputation spread around the world, many galleries and institutions were too afraid to exhibit your pictures, as there was a major security risk in showing your pictures of dead rabbits, cats and mice. Borås Konstmuseum was one of the first museums, for example, that started buying work several years later, including Ballet. I guess many people felt a certain indignation that you killed animals in order to create art. Can you understand this point of view?
NE: The first rabbit I killed was a fully grown one that nobody wanted and would have become snake food. Killing it was no easy task. At the same time, I knew that literally millions of mice are used in excruciating scientific experiments and as food for snakes in zoos all over the world. My victims have been treated much more mercifully.
HP: Speaking about merciful treatment, or rather the absence of such, brings us to what strikes viewers in perhaps your most important work to date. I’m talking about the photograph titled Enemy, where you play the main role yourself. The subject matter, a suicide, will doubtless go down in photography and art history as one of the most merciless self-portraits ever witnessed. How did you manage to do it?
NE: I believe Enemy will be a work that encapsulates my art. Here is everything including slayed mice, cats and rabbits. Here I have brought matters about life and death to a head. The very subject is itself difficult. How do you set about killing yourself with a rope? At the same time, the subject is only one part of who I am. Strictly speaking, I just want to lie on the sofa and take things easy. However, my ideas hunt me down and force me to continue working. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. And I don’t use drugs. So there is no other escape, only my work!
HP: One way would be to photograph meditative landscapes. A new direction!?
NE: I know I am not being politically correct when I say that landscape pictures are for amateurs. I want absolute control over everything I do, which is contrary to the chaos that governs nature.