Text by Per Hüttner, August 2006
Published in: Guy Pieters Gallery, Nathalia Edenmont, 2007, exhibition catalogue.
Nathalia Edenmont is an artist; open about her personal life, she tells us about what she goes through with honesty and with great generosity. Whatever she decides to focus on in her life she does with a commitment that verges on the obsessive and with a sometimes pathological zeal. That does mean, however, that she is extremely good at whatever she does. Her life story is complex and needs to be told to understand her work.
She lost both of her parents when in her early teens. She moved from Crimea to Kiev and back again. She got married and divorced. She left the Soviet Union for Sweden to become a cleaner at an airport. She turned 20 and stopped being an artist, in spite of the solid artistic training to which she had been devoted since the age of eight. She got married again. She stopped being a poor housewife and moved to China to become a rich housewife. She moved back to Sweden only to drop the idea of being a housewife and decide to become an illustrator. Yet nobody saw the commercial potential in her work. The most prominent names in Swedish advertising stole her concepts and told her that what she made was art and could never be used for what she intended it to be. By this time she had been married five times – and divorced just as many. In her early 30s she made the last career change of her life. She took on the role of being an artist and with her rock-solid conviction and conceptual rigour she became an overnight sensation. In relative terms she seems for the first time to have found peace in her life and work, although saying “peaceful” and Nathalia’s name in the same sentence remains deeply bizarre.
Goethe once wrote, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” It would seem that from a young age, Nathalia took this to heart and each time she changes her life – or life changes her – she grows tougher. She decided early on that change is painful, but that it can be turned into an advantage. You just have to look at in the right way.
There is, however, one event in her life with which she still seems unable to deal in any way other than her art: in her early teens she was top of her class in every topic and a model citizen in Soviet society. She wore her red scarf and excelled as a prominent “Pioneer” ready for a high-flying career in the Communist party. In fact, she studied history with such intensity that it became impossible for her overlook discrepancies in the written history of a post-Stalinist USSR. She enthusiastically asked her history teacher about these contradictions, assuming he could explain them. The teacher had a more pragmatic outlook on life, however, and felt that Nathalia was ready for a dose of reality: he replied that as a matter of fact almost everything written in Soviet schoolbooks was a lie.
This young girl who had already lost her parents could not deal with another profound blow to her reality and she lost all interest in her schoolwork and Communist activities. It appears almost as if she lost faith in humanity; she was convinced that everything was a lie and everybody lied and nobody could be trusted. Not the ideal situation, perhaps, when you are living alone in a dictatorship with no family to care for you. But as I said, Nathalia has always been one to turn problems into advantages and almost 20 years later she would use this experience to lay the foundation for her artwork. By then she had another important experience to deepen her understanding of how hypocrisy and double standards operate, because she had lived long enough in Sweden and the capitalist, Protestant West to see how they find expression there. She saw advantages in both cultures, but belonged to neither. Each country’s inhabitants lie to themselves in a different way, and the more cultures with which you are intimate, the clearer this becomes.
Death is Edenmont’s main tool in her midwifery of hypocrisy: not a representation of death, but death itself. Practically all her art is made up of carcasses that either look frighteningly alive and/or are breathtakingly beautiful. She started her career by making a series of images that might be inappropriately called “portraits” of rabbits. They aren’t cute or pitiful or hard-to-look-at portraits, though. Instead, each animal looks human, almost royal and full of self-assuredness and pride. Their titles – Charles, Tamara and Richard – further underline their human qualities. In order to make these images she decapitated rabbits, gave them elaborate and baroque-looking collars and then stuck their heads in expensive designer vases. Each of these cute, proud animals could just as easily have ended up on your or my plate for dinner (unless you are a vegetarian), yet this is also the genius and beauty of the work. Nathalia gives these animals more respect and dignity than they would ever get had if they had not been models in her photographs, but to do so they had to meet an early death. They look so much more alive precisely because they have just been killed.
In her new work we are faced with images that in many ways are even more violent and more beautiful than the rabbits. At first glance, Snakes and Insects appear to be formalist, modernist paintings – Nathalia’s own version of Swedish renegade Constructivists (say, Lennart Rohde) or pretty much any of the American abstract expressionists. But a third image, Tomb, proves that nothing could be further from the truth. What we are seeing is in fact a solid wall of death. Each picture is made up of hundreds of butterfly wings, but, because the images are aesthetically pleasing and made of insects, they appear far less threatening than those made with mammals. This is also where Nathalia Edenmont’s work gains its power. It forces us to face some of the most difficult questions that have haunted humanity since it gained consciousness: how do we relate to the inherent violence of nature? How do we respond to the idea of kill or be killed? On what grounds do we have the right to domesticate, milk and kill the animals that share the planet with us so that we can eat and clothe ourselves?
Each known religion and culture offers a set of answers to these questions. Even children know that Muslims and Jews do not eat pork and that traditionally Hindus are vegetarians and see cows as holy animals. It is these rules and values that constitute the very foundation for culture and cultural difference. “You are what you eat” is not only a slogan aimed at making you think about your diet, but it could also be one for your cultural identity. What you put on your plate is as significant as to which gods you pray.
What makes the work even more uncomfortable is that there are no answers to the moral questions posed by killing and eating animals. Meat-eating, leather-wearing people can only really justify their actions by saying that it is “natural.” By doing so we accept that humans and nature alike are violent and ruthless in their very essence and that humans somehow stand above their fellow species due to their consciousness.
Looking at Nathalia's work we are faced with these unanswered and unanswerable questions. This can be a very frustrating and violent experience; it can force us to feel our own powerlessness in the world, which, of course, is both painful and demeaning. In the light of this it is hardly surprising that many visitors react violently towards the work, but could this violence only be a revolt against the visitor’s inability to be introspective? Could the many moralizing outbursts in front of the work be a misdirected anger at being reminded of questions that society has long swept under the carpet to retain its calm and order?
It is not, though, only death's presence in the photographs that makes the images uncomfortable. Let us look at some of the recurring motifs in Edenmont’s images: the flower, the bride, the egg yoke, the snake, the rabbit, the girl who has lost her innocence. Everything lead us back to sex in these pictures and the flowers offer a key how to decipher this obsessive repetition.
The flower is stripped down to its most basic function in Edenmont's photographs. It is the reproductive organ of the plant. In Dragon and Pink Family we see eyes centrally placed in the vagina-like openings of the petals. In Mask it is even more obvious as the eyes peer out of the folds of an orchid’s red and flesh-like blooming beauty. The artist spells it out: our eyes are blind; we see reality with our genitalia. This message can only be conveyed through art – which isn’t a particularly light and positive outlook on life. But it gets even darker when we look at Nathalia’s two self-portraits. They depict a solitary, wilting stalk, with a lonely, broken butterfly wing replacing a withering autumn leaf. We can deduce that love is no saviour in Edenmont’s world. In fact, it is not even a possibility; only loneliness exists.
The gloom continues. In Darling a bride has been abandoned by her groom or has perhaps jilted him. The woman stands alone in a landscape of almost monochrome, white innocence; the husband then returns in the form of a giant snake that has been hiding under the wedding cake. He is poised and ready for the kill. In Edenmont’s world sex is the opposite of a romantic and generous eroticism based on love, dialogue and exchange. We are faced with cold coitus as brutal marketplace, in which sex is exchanged for protection and economic stability.
Beauty is fake and has no value of its own in Nathalia’s world. It is created by make-up and expensive clothes. Everything is two-dimensional, an empty facade that, like everything else, is a lie. Good looks have become a currency to get what you want. The camera is the ultimate tool to freeze the fleeting moment of beauty before death, decay and decomposition sets in. We are faced with a reality where everything has a price and whose only interest is in amassing as much wealth as possible. At least that way people can be comfortable in their ugliness. It is a world in which cynicism rules supreme, love is dead and only death awaits you, in which men and women can only engage in war against one another and dialogue is impossible.
Where does all this cynicism lead? Why bother to paint the world black through elaborate art when you could paint it red by slitting your throat? Yet, behind the appearance of cynicism, there is a message of hope in Edenmont’s art. It offers a key for us to look at our own double standards, and through that understand each other and the world around us – how and why we are weak and why we lie. As contradictory as it might sound the images speak of a world where communication is impossible, but at the same time they force us to start a dialogue with people around us in order to understand what we see. Or at least try to come to terms with why we are upset or provoked. It is as if Nathalia Edenmont sees in art a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe, despite the war zone that is her life, it is through images and through the acceptance of pain that some sort of inter-human dialogue is made possible. In her work beauty plays a role that is free from lies and deceit. It is the vehicle in which a possible dialogue travels. Art is not a saviour from hypocrisy and lies, but it offers a slither of hope that behind the filth of sexual services and economic greed we will be able to talk to one another in honesty and to discuss the painful changes that make up our lives. But in order to do so we have to overcome our fears. Through her art Nathalia Edenmont invites us to be as fearless and courageous as she is. But to join her we have to pass the acid test of her deeply cynical worldview. The choice is yours: are you willing to sacrifice all hope to gain a more truthful dialogue and so see beyond the lies?
Per Hüttner is a Swedish artist who lives and works in Paris, France. The text was written in Paris, Bucharest and Stockholm, August 2006.