Bella Rune’s exhibition this summer at the Carl Eldh studio museum, was a marriage made in heaven. Her suspended silk mohair sculptures provided a delicate, ethereal feel amidst the solid classical sculptures of one of Sweden’s most celebrated sculptors of the early 20th century. Educated at both Chelsea College of Arts in London and Beckmans in Stockholm, Bella Rune works with sculptures using different materials and techniques. Her silk mohair sculptures are dyed with Kool-Aid flavours, highlighter pens and spices. With the use of augmented reality in her projects, Bella explores the interface between physical reality and the virtual world. Bella has shown internationally, does commissions and large installations and her work is in the collection of the Modern Art Museum in Stockholm. She is also a professor of Fine Arts, Textiles at Konstfack College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, inspiring a whole new generation of Swedish textile artists.
Portrait of artist by Magnus Karlsson.
What did you first study at Beckman’s School of Design and what led up to that choice?
My interests as a young person included many aspects of being human, including how politics and aesthetic ideals shaped the built world. I had a neighbour who was an architect and because I was in love with his amazing Newfoundland dog Cora, I spent a lot of time in his house. He would talk to me about art and architecture, he was a wonderful teacher of sorts. So initially I felt that architecture was tailor made for my passions. I then worked as an architect’s assistant with the rebuilding of the Royal Library, a very interesting project, but one which had taken 18 years to finish. That being my age at the time, I realised I did not have those long time spans it required in me. I was also disappointed that my youthful ideals were not met in how office spaces were formulated not being inclusive of all kinds of people. A friend suggested that I should apply to the newly started 3-dimensional design education, Form at Beckmans School of Design. I thought objects could be like inside-out architecture and perhaps working on 3-dimensional design would be equally interesting, smaller and shorter in scale and time.
After Beckmans you studied at the Chelsea College of Art, why choose London?
When I left Beckmans I moved to Paris, to study french, no sorry, to dive into museums, life, bars and clubs! When I was looking to go into education again I wanted to choose an environment which would give me resistance, critique and help me grow. My French was at a stage where humour was impossible and my English was far better. I wasn’t aware of the whole YBA (Young British Artists) until I started my education, but it was amazing to have had the opportunity to be an art student in London at the time.
Looking at your silk mohair sculptures, one would think you are an artist who is also a mathematician. Could you explain the process and what do they mean to you?
Different human attempts at understanding that which is hard to grasp, to reach for something beyond intrigues me. Mathematics as a strange language where clarity and mysticism coincide inspire my practice. There is a sense of order, but also of chaos, not a secure place, but that of elastic thinking at the edge, or beyond what is possible for me to understand. Again there was a childhood meeting which helped ignite this flame. A friend of the family, a Polish mathematician, made small toys in wood for me, toys designed to develop my mathematical thinking, carefully handcrafted and painted. In my art practice I dip my fingers in many traditions and think of yarn as a technology more than a material and try to be sensitive to all traditions attached as well as using the associations and imagery the sculptures evoke.
You have used augmented reality in your exhibitions, the latest being a sculpture in the garden at Carl Eldh museum through Bella Rune’s Portal. Why have you chosen to include augmented reality in your work and what is the process there?
The constant presence of smart phones in art spaces definitely triggered me to try to move the poetry into the device itself, to disable distance to art by using the phone as a shield. My thinking of textile as a surface of negotiation also inevitably led me to include screens in my practice. In my sculptural investigations I try to explore how the physical and the digital bodies share and exchange experience and make knowledge. I am not interested in immersive escapism, but am drawn to the banal, and sometimes, annoying everyday, and the smart phone ticks these boxes perfectly. During my exhibitions where I have included this technology, I have had different starting points and intentions. Ranging from my first exhibition using AR, where I let excel documents and magical elements of gaming leak out in a recreational forest in Uppsala, to thinking through Soviet propaganda patterns and what role we play in spreading and working for digital giants. In the Stockholm School of Economics in Stockholm I have made a permanent installation where the smart phone works more as a feminist Harry Pottteresque scanner revealing added reality in the painted portraits of men hanging in the School’s Board Room. In my latest public work for Västerås I wanted to blur the lines between public and private in our smart phone-saturated lives, by making digital models of materials from the private streets of Västerås and using it to mimic strategies of public abstract sculpture.
Why did you choose the title Skendöd, which translates to both Apparent Death and Suspended Animation for your latest exhibition?
While working on the exhibition at Carl Eldhs studio museum I thought about sculpture as a condition rather than objects. A state of energy and not something alive captured in dead material, but a position with a certain potential. In my thinking through making sculptures I used static elements and strings in tension and different means to create leakage between the physical and digital. Suspended animation captured in language was something I aimed for in the exhibition. It also gives its name to the installation in the small room, where my starting point was a 3D scanning of an arm from Carl Eldh’s study for the sculpture of August Strindberg called The Titan. I let the digitalised disembodied arm reach into different realms and tried to put collective shades on the romanticised view of the artist’s work.
You are a professor of textile art at Konstfack college of arts, crafts and design. How do you manage to balance this world of academia and being an artist?
I always fought to be able to work as an artist in different contexts, or economies, and I feel privileged to have been able to do this, but sometimes it leaves me feeling like a bigamist. I see the professor position as part of my art practice and sometimes my activities outside the institution are more clearly part of my research, like when I worked with Helena Selder on Textile Subtexts, looking at how textile traditions, technology and materials have affected art, which became an exhibition at Marabouparkens konsthall and Malmö konstmuseum. I really love pedagogy and have been involved in some way in education through out my artistic practice. These days I am more disciplined with my hours and try to stay away from the constant reading and replying to emails, which is the dark side of institutional work.
What differences do you see in your students and in the world of textile art compared to when you were a student yourself?
Textiles have been popular since the dawn of humanity, and lately Art History has understood this too. My textile students are fantastic and stretch over almost the full textile spectrum, with the shared goal to materially and mentally transform burning questions of the world through textiles. Some things are similar to when I was an art student at Chelsea College of Art, like a keen sense of wanting to address inequality in the world with a wish to listen to that which has not been heard. They don’t seem to party as much and their standard of living is higher, they are looking more for confirmation rather than opposition and they spend less time in the library and more on Google.
Can you tell me a little about the exhibition where you collaborated with your husband, designer Jonas Nobel exploring the relationship between the physical and the digital world?
The relationship between digital and physical is a shared interest, sometimes as translations and more often lately the connections and this was our starting point together with Katrin Ingelstedt. The exhibition did not treat the digital and the corporeal as two isolated experiences, but rather investigated how these different tactilities affect the things we do and think. Together with the technology-driven city of Västerås, the miracle of electricity and the massive amounts of cables and matter currently serving the internet, inspired the sculptures where crafted and digitally produced material content met.
You had a joint exhibition with the artist Astrid Sylwan this summer, could you tell me a little more about that?
My spring and summer has sure been in the spirit of the duet, Jonas Nobel and I, Carl Eldh (in spirit) and I and at Falsterbo with the painter Astrid Sylwan. Astrid and I participated in a group show called The great longing – The act of painting in Uddevalla konsthall last summer and even though we have met before this is where we started a dialogue through art. I was very happy that Astrid wanted to continue that dialogue when she invited me to show together with her at Falsterbo Konsthall. To create an exhibition together with another artist is such a privilege, it is like cooking together when everything is prepped, marinated and cut and you can just dive into a poetic, playful conversation though art. I loved our similarities in thinking through colour bound in matter and how we grasp after a certain state of mind and space. I also really enjoyed our differences in which sticks we use to feed our artistic fires.
It’s been a tough year for most people, what is it like being an artist during a pandemic?
As many artists have stated, things have not been that different for me either and as for many people the pandemic has meant both positive things such as feelings of shared pensive withdrawal, but also the merciless highlighting of social injustice in the world. Many of my days are normally spent alone in the studio, and this year the only difference was sharing this space with my husband and the constant Zoom window, which was the pedagogic tool at hand. The exhibition in Västerås was with social distancing in mind and was luckily extended, so more people could visit and Jonas, Katrin and I could reflect and discuss the exhibition in public. I really missed going to see exhibitions and meeting fellow artists.
There’s more diversity in Sweden today compared to 30 years ago, why do you think this is not reflected in the arts and design fields here?
It is easy, or convenient, to be thankful for the little changes in equality and inclusion, but this spring has ignited a fire in me and in many others to not be complacent with slow changes, but demand change and to not think of things as impossibly static. We need to let go of the security blanket of mirroring ourselves in what we embrace around us and build curiosity and trust in experimental attitudes to shaping the world, whether it is design, clothes, architecture, craft or art. Through education, and other systems where generations meet, we need to create places where there are possibilities and not gates for people to dare to dive in and make a mark.
What is next, are you working on anything new?
Next week I am installing an up-cycled bench at Magasin III. This fall I will work together with my students getting them to think through creating with political banners in mind for an exhibition curated by Michele Masucci at Mint. Currently I am working towards a Triennial at the Munch museum in 2021 and public work for Gävle stadshus and a school in Örebro together with Jonas Nobel.