Timing is Everything: An Interview with Leif Elggren
Linkoping-born Leif Elggren is a contemporary artist, active for nearly 25 years. His work runs the gamut of conceptual art, making Elggren something of a Swedish Marcel Duchamp. He thrives upon stark minimalism, yet there is a vivid humor and unique approach to ideological and political concerns that separates his work from that of his colleagues. Elggren became much more visible in the States through his Firework Edition label, a carefully curated distributor of print publications, records, and videos of Elggren-related endeavors. The inaugural “Experiment with Dreams” book is a collaboration between Elggren and co-conspirator Thomas Liljenberg and includes letters to dignitaries and celebrities, ranging in target from John Lee Hooker to the Government of Estonia, each uniquely provoking the recipient and often asking for money (the work is now available online at http://www.freq.se/fire/experiment.html). A letter to PJ Harvey reads:
“We are two old rocksingers from Stockholm, Sweden, with the name Shorty Cobain. We are great fans of you and your music. Our careers as rocksingers haven't been successful so we have been working for many years as toilet cleaners at the concert arena Globen in Stockholm. We have noticed your success and want to be first in line to profit on your career. Send money on Swedish postal number 15 99 80-2 Firework Edition.”
However, Elggren's most well-known work is most likely the establishment of the Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland with CM Von Hausswolff in 1992. Elgaland-Vargaland extends through the Hypnogogic State, the Escapist Territory, and the Virtual Room (for more information, visit www.krev.org). These locations, representing all states of trance, conceptual thought, unconscious, and electronic “cyber” spaces are claimed by monarchs Elggren and Hausswolff. An elaborate constitution, as well as a coat-of-arms soon followed. Elgaland-Vargaland was recently commemorated by a compilation on Ash International, Krev X, where a number of card-carrying KREV residents submit potential national anthems.
Elggren's work in music is similar in tone. Extraction is a recording Elggren made while still in his mother's womb and meant not for listener consumption, but rather to transform unoccupied furniture. A recent release Virulent Image, Virulent Sound notes an alleged correlation between viewing certain images and illness, and attempts to provoke a similar effect with sound. The listener is warned.
A year ago, I asked Swedish sound artist Leif Elggren several questions. Recently, the same questions were posed again, including instructions to revise his original responses or create new ones. Several new questions were included. Next year those questions will be re-answered, again.
Dusted: Let's start with what you've been up to lately. Last year saw both your first art exhibit in New York and several recordings of your work being released on your label, Firework Edition. Were you happy with the reception of this work? What are you currently involved in?
Elggren, 2003: You ask me about the reception of my exhibition at Pierogi Gallery in NY. Well, it was interesting and fun to set up a solo piece there, I know a lot of people in NY and have several good friends and it is always fun to come over, especially when you have something concrete to do, something to work with (I hate holidays!). Until this exhibition I had only done projects related to the Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland in NYC so this was something special. You ask me if I was happy with the reception and, well, I do not care so much, I am used to do a lot of things without any kind of reception or notice. That is not the main purpose, but of course it is a sort of gratification if you get response of what you are doing. Otherwise it is a hard labor, a job that has to be done, a map that has to be drawn, an archive that has to be completed, a building that has to be built, etc. You know. What are you currently involved in? ?Well, right now (25th of May 2003) I am preparing to go to Venice next week and set up an presentation of the Kingdoms at the Biennale. We are printing 3000 copies of Thomas Moores Utopia and will grind it down to paper pulp and make new paper out of this for the possibility to write a new Utopia upon the old one. We might need that!
E, 2004: Recently I have been occupied with a project called “Virulent Images - Virulent Sound”, a project that was partly released as a CD with the same name. Fear are always present. To quote from the cover of the CD: “According to new but classified reports from scientists inside the NASA Medical Research Laboratories, they have found evidence that viral diseases like Cancer, AIDS, Ebola, etc. are being transmitted through visual aspects and methods. The viruses carry their infection capacity in their shape. To see a virus runs the same risk of infection as physical contact with a virus. Even a glance at a photograph, for example, of an Ebola virus is sufficient to cause danger of infection. The visual structure of the virus system strikes the eye and transforms its information in the human brain back to a substantial living virus that will attack certain parts of your body. It is a dematerialization-materialization process where the photographs are being used by the viruses as a very patient but effective vehicle to be disseminated and to have the possibility of exploiting new ways of taking over the world. – Don’t look at the image!”
If images can be virulent, can sound be virulent too? – Don’t listen to the music!
I am also preparing a new CD that has the title The Cobblestone is the Weapon of the Proletariat. The basic sound material for the 10 songs on this CD is from one recording made while throwing a cobblestone (once!) on the street outside Firework Edition in Stockholm June 15, 2001. The title refers to a bronze sculpture by the Russian artist Ivan Shadr (1887-1941) called The Cobblestone Is The Weapon Of The Proletariat (1927).
D: The three Firework Edition releases from last year that you appeared on each seemed to show a different side of your work. DEG with Mats Gustaffson and Kevin Drumm was a live collaboration, the Sons of God release was an archival release with sound from a performance piece involving a “prosaic household environment”, and Extraction was a recording made from inside of your biological mother's uterus, using your still-soft teeth as a recording device (and perhaps disproving the idea from your work, Latrine, that excrement is the first creative act in a human life). How does your work vary in these different settings? When you work with other artists, how do you divide the labor of the work? How does work with other artists affect your own art?
E, 2003: Concerning the record releases you mention I must say I see them very much like singular projects that are really intimately related to each other, like the trilogy Flown over by an old king, Talking to a dead queen and Pluralis majestatis and the fourth one, the Latrine CD, that relates to the trilogy in the same way the missing leg relates to a three legged dog. I started doing books long time ago cause I had an old letterpress and a lot of lead types, you know, it was easy and cheap, I could print myself, I only had to buy paper and ink and do the job myself, both print and bind the books, small editions. I started releasing records as a sort of continuation of that, it was easy, I started a record label together with Kent Tankred and we are still there, working frequently. Together with Kent I also ran the performance group The Sons of God (www.thesonsofgod.com). We do a lot together. I have always been collaborating with people, with friends, it is always based on a friendship, otherwise it will be difficult. I have three continuously ongoing projects: The Sons of God with Kent, Firework together with Thomas Liljenberg and The Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland together with CM von Hausswolff. This is great and fun and interesting. I learn a lot and every project is sort of related to the other. This create an immense structure that also involves several artists, like we use to talk about the Kingdoms, it is actually a very open work of art; anyone that are interested can go in and influence the work, the ongoing process.
E, 2004: And, as we use to say: “The Sons of God work in the borderland between performance, installation and music; everything contributes to the whole and provides the basic structure for that inquisitive and expansive spirit which is apparent in the Sons of God's working method. Sound objects, pre-recorded compositions, physically demanding movements, the voice, the staged meetings and conditions, the objects: all of this constitutes the foundation for an attempt to gain access to those rare moments when daily life merges with the heroic nature of the inner self.”
Concerning the Extraction CD I must say it was a relief to release it. And definitely, as you say: Extraction disprove the idea that excrement is the first creative act in human life. You can always go further back. There is always something that is behind what you have in front of you at the present. As human beings we really want to influence what we call our mutual reality, that is of course a responsibility (and a longing) to be part of the total construction, to work together, as we always have been doing.
As it is said on the cover of the Extraction CD: You do not necessarily have to listen to this CD, the sound material should be considered more as a tool, a tool with a special purpose, favorable but dangerous. For best results: load this CD in your CD player, confirm that sound is coming out through the speakers, and then just leave the room. When you come back everything will be totally changed.
D: You talk about the intimate relationship between your works, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on a couple of these things. Firstly, I was hoping you could discuss the role that furniture plays in your work. It seems that you are often trying to provoke the world of commonplace items into something metaphysical, and I was hoping that you would elaborate on this process. Secondly, I wanted to get a clearer idea about the relationship between your work and the role of the artist, as you see it. “Only fools and small children dwell in their castles, autocratic and alone”, you say in the notes to Pluralis Majestatis. Alongside your earlier comments about collaboration and the development of Elgaland-Vargaland, I'm curious about the social ramifications you see in being an artist, the responsibilities you feel.
E, 2004 Yes, furniture is important for the everyday life in development and history of the so called civilized world. What should we do without furniture? Such help for the human body. The most basic property among humans. I started early to make two dimensional images, scenes with human and/or animal figures and objects in a certain room, related to each other in different ways. After a while I wanted to use the three dimensional space, I mean expand the room. I used my two dimensional images as a sort of score for experiments in the room where I was living my ordinary life. A stage-design in what we call reality. I dressed up like my earlier drawn characters and was acting among certain objects that also emanated from my images (drawings and engravings), sometimes in front of an audience, sometimes in front of a camera, sometimes just for it had to be done. Sometimes I just make the objects myself, sometimes I just have to find the right ones in a second hand shop or whatever. Furniture’s among the human artifacts of course mirroring the social hierarchic system as well as clothes and other objects/attributes. And that could be very useful if you want to say something about the circumstances we are living under in this world. It’s a privilege to work with art, maybe the most decent profession among humans. The only discipline where you can use all the parameters that are available in this incomprehensible life. A powerful (and dangerous) tool to be used between birth and death, and even beyond. And as an artist you don’t have any loyalties, but you have responsibility (and don’t forget; you should be a pain in the ass of the power).
Yes, the quotation you mention from Pluralis majestatis are maybe a statement from the generalized other, something that we hate but envy because it seems to be a blessed state of mind in this horrifying and incomprehensible experience we call life. And by tradition artists has always been related to the categories “fools” and “children.” It is actually horrifying to be alive, but it is even more horrifying to get close to death so we remain in our fear and struggle on with compromising our lives.
When we started the Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland we really wanted to dwell in our castles, but dwell together with our friends and other like-minded people and maybe even have a chance to create something together that was bigger than our selves, something that was totally open and could encourage all of us that was involved to go beyond ourselves and do things that we did not believe we could, that we did not dare to do alone. To create a new Kingdom are really a work of art, a work of art that is totally open and possible to use for to change the world, the life. Nothing to admire or worship, but something to use like tools or food or any basic nourishment. Kingdoms in the so called real world has always been created by people who wanted to take power over a majority of humans who had to be controlled for to secure the possibility for the few to become immortal. The people of power have always seeked immortality. Immortality is the goal of the pursuit.
D: I was hoping you could discuss your formative years a little bit for Western audiences. Your work often deals with location, many of the pieces are created in specific places because of their historic relevance (Latrine) or because of need for a new location (KREV). Maybe you could talk a little bit about growing up in Sweden, your strongest memories, good or bad, the elements of your life that led to your current interests.
E, 2004: Well, yes, I did grow up in a small city in the more South of Sweden, a sort of bourgeoisie traditional small town. My mother was too young to take care of me and my father was absent. I was adopted by two nice elderly people and grew up like their one and only son. They never told me about this background, but as you know, all small kids are extremely sensitive and I did of course knew about these facts from very early age by just intuition. It was horrible. You know, born to this existence without being welcomed. It was so much shame and guilt involved, but I had to survive and I really and strongly believe that art saved my life. I mean: very early I started to make drawings, I discovered a language that I was good at and a language that gave me a sort of comfort, I could create my own sort of little world that gave me a sort of protection, where I could dwell. As a teenager I discovered the books and found out that there was so much to take in about this incomprehensible life from other peoples experiences. I spent my teenage summers at the library in that little town reading and discovered a new world that was possible to inhabit. When I was sixteen and finished high school I wanted to study at an art school in Stockholm, but my parents did not allowed me, they wanted me to study something that could lead to a job that could make my living. I spent four years studying to become an engineer. Such a waste of time! After that I continued studying sociology at the university. I never graduated, it was only a way to spend my days in a legal way, it looked good, but my real practice were somewhere else. When I was in the beginning of my twenties I moved to Stockholm and started my studies at the art school I had been longing for so long. That was good, but not good enough, my base, my starting point was totally disturbed and I always have had a totally overwhelming feeling of being inevitably lost. Yes, as you mention, location is of great importance, I am searching but still no sight of “home”. “It’s not a home, it’s a house”, as the poet says. I did a song called “Fear (the scuffle of angels)” for Source Research Recordings CD-release Emre (dark matter) that sort of deals with this. And this is something that I have to deal with all the time, live with. We all have our stories. I remember: When I was five years old I got lost in Røros, Norway. I went missing from my parents and my relatives. But pretty quickly I was found and reunited with the group. But the damage was done. Ever since then I have been thinking a lot about whether it was really me that was found, that came back. Imagine if it was somebody else. – Imagine if I was swapped for somebody else. Imagine if I am somebody totally different while the one that was me is living somewhere else, maybe in Røros.\
By Matt Wellins