Interview with Constance Tenvik

by Amber J. Esseiva

Constance and I first worked together in a professional capacity in the Summer of 2016 when I invited her to take part in a performance series at Kristen Dodge’s SEPTEMBER Gallery in Hudson, NY. In the end The Arcade Bloc Performance Series turned out to be a one-time event titled PSYCHO DAISIES in which Constance performed alongside Annie Bielski and FLUCT. In a way, I love the idea that four women were the start and end of a series, both the genesis and destruction of a moment.

 

Amber Esseiva: The colors and forms that you employ in your work are incredibly feminine to me– they take me back to formative coming-of-age moments from girlhood to adolescence– can you talk a bit about how feminine gendered forms of play (e.g. the color pink, glitter, food products, plush and fur etc.) influences the way you think creatively?

Constance Tenvik: The adolescent part, yes. I’m interested in transitions and the drama of being in between child and adult. Maybe that stage is prolonged for artists? Endless pubertal stages. I’ve made work with braces and locker doors and hanging limbs. In drawings, I exaggerate a lot of the characters into teenagers simply because they can be more emotional and awkward and unfiltered–hearts on their sleeves and anxiety sweating out of their palms.

The gender tunnel, hmm… don’t know if I wish to ride down that one, like associations could also be: glitter – Kerry James Marshall; play – Joan Miro; glamour – David Bowie; plush – Bjarne Melgaard; food – Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes; and sassy outfits – Max Ernst.D

AE: You’re making an interesting distinction here when you bring up your interests in transitory stages of life as inspiration for producing work that bring up the very structure of coming-of-age narratives.

Within the coming-of-age narrative the subject usually begins as a child or adolescent whose growth is centered on an internal monologue which narrates the subjects’ psychological and moral growth. Within the genre, the subject’s internalized monologue takes precedence over action in real life.

Your work to me seems to be presenting your internal monologue through objects, sound, gesture and composition. It’s almost as if you are transforming an internal monologue into scenes belonging to one elaborate tableaux vivant.

AE: As to your response about gendered forms of play, that’s valid. I respect that you rather not enter this tunnel and acknowledge the very use of the word tunnel to describe how our psychological development can be hindered by prescribed, gendered forms of play and that 

the artists you bring up are examples of how artists are able to breakout of those prescription.

AE: There are moments in your work, for instance in Sunny Side Up (2014), and Locker Room (2016) that seem to be exploring the construct of self-confinement and the exploration of self within those spaces (e.g. the childhood bedroom, the teenage locker, etc.) can you get into that a bit more?

CT: I am interested in contained spaces designated for play such as the stage or the Polly Pocket. Penelope Curtis did a lecture on the contained where she went through interactions with objects from urns to jewelry boxes. Then there’s a more baroque tendency of surrounding myself with pleasurable materials in the studio – scraps of silver colored leather, sequins, silk, you name it. Usually it needs to stick around for a while, get thrown over different surfaces, land on a potato chip bag and be pulled out again before it finds its place into the work.

AE: Ha, I love that you mention Polly Pocket and baroque tendencies in the same paragraph- that’s rich…and cheap!

 


The Locker Room, Green Gallery, New Haven, CT, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

AE: I would really like to know- what is the hardest thing to translate when turning internal moments into external physical objects? That is, what aspects get lost or are the hardest to retain?

CT: It’s always good to avoid a Disney On Ice situation where things slide here and there for no particular reason.

AE: From a classical perspective play was thought of as a way to reach happiness and pure well-being. Eudaimonia (“eu” good and “daimon” spirit) comes from the Greek words that translate to happiness/welfare and human flourishing. However, this idea (play as the ultimate form for human happiness) can be critiqued as a privileged position–one that requires free time, mental space and energy — can you speak about your relationship to play and how you carve out space for it in your practice?

CT: The process of walking around in my own space while thinking and tossing things about like Xavier de Maistre in “Journey Around My Room” (1794) requires studio space, time, materials, etc., and sometimes precarity takes  over and all of that can disappear very quickly. And whenever I get to work with proper

institutions it can all of a sudden feel as if everything is possible. I am undoubtedly privileged, but I’d go for being a voluptuous artist over being a starving artist any day of the week. A lot is required just in order to keep one’s head over water, and art making requires energy that goes way beyond the maintenance of staying alive.

AE: Beautifully said and acknowledged, Constance. Xavier de Maistre is an interesting example to bring up – this dude, an aristocratic French philosopher/young soldier who wrote a parody about being “imprisoned” in one’s own room for six weeks.

You mention the difference between sustaining life on a very basic human level and animating being as an artistic exploration. Would you say that there are two dichotomies at play here – the maintenance of staying alive vs. what it takes to convey being alive?

CT: The mode of making new projects and things is an addiction I want to keep for life. There are some great side effects like being in cross generational and cross historical dialogue and striving for being forever curious and in the mode of discovery. Some carving methods I have, for instance, are to involve other people

in projects, in order to create a dialogue between peers—both deceased and living.

AE: I am really interested in the idea of artmaking as an addiction in a time of capitalism and consumption. I also am intrigued at your desire to be so generous with your method by including others in your dialogue. That seems to me like a really tender spot to reach between maker and viewer- it’s an endless Rapunzel braid…

AE: Theory is complicated. And so is life. Your MindMap’s are funny, smart and interesting examples of how you process dense information and tangled ideas. A lot of nuance and even contradiction is able to live on a single page – how do these MindMaps start? How do they undulate? And when do they stop?

CT: The MindMaps are traces of a wrenched sponge brain. Silvia Federici once said that she liked to see her lecture being visualized as waves. By now it’s getting compulsive. Years and years of circular notes. They begin in the center of the page and end in the periphery. They usually refer to things outside of myself while also allowing my inner world to emerge. I have stacks of them and all my diaries and notebooks become MindMaps too.

Federici MindMap, 2014, Ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

CT: Sometimes I make more exhibition friendly ones where I think more about how a viewer might enter the space – like the one that was painted on the floor of the gallery Salt (NO) in the exhibition The Edgar Poe Institute for Advanced Aesthetic Investigations. Or the one that is a portrait of Simone Weil and that got into the collection of The National Gallery in Norway through a poker performance (Collection as Allocated Objects, Tidenes Krav 2013). A friend of mine is a visual facilitator and makes professional business mind maps with sharpies on white boards. Mine are far away from that. I am not educational with these things. I am searching for poetry.

AE: The wave is a good metaphor to bring up especially in relation to Federici. A wave by very definition is a constantly oscillating force of energy that runs through a medium – it brings up ideas of “hysteria” and of outside forces shaking one’s very foundation. It also speaks to trends within society: e.g. waves of feminism, and so on.

AE: Your MindMaps and their distribution on a page made me think of confinement again, and the possibility of exploring thought in confined spaces or self-contained ecosystems. I see this playing out in Sunny Side Up, you created a stage set from your childhood memories. Can you talk about the extent

for which memories remain contained for you? That is, how much do past memories seep into your your day-to-day work?

CT: Yes, it’s interesting how important framing and containment can be – the edges of the page, the walls in a space, the beginning and end of a performance. For Sunny Side Up I built a stage that was divided in four equal parts where each compartment was designated for a character – in this case the adolescent, the confused, the philosopher and the entertainer.

The stage functioned as a grid. My childhood bed had a drawer with a mattress for guests, pillows and curtains patterned with stars, moons and suns, a reading light, and over top cabinets filled with Easter eggs, Halloween costumes, wigs and Santa Claus’s beard – all connected to festive rituals. One could say that a lot of my interests could be distilled in that space.

I later found out that the carpenter that built the bed worked mainly with theater production. I am very interested in memories and how the memories we return to get the most distorted. The little details that get unveiled in memories can slow down time in a really beautiful way, like that moment with the bedtime read in In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust when the dance of shadows take over.

AE: Your work is multi-faceted, incorporating: drawing, painting, sculpture, video, and performance. I am interested in the ways in which objects are represented and become alive throughout these mediums. Even in drawing, your objects and subjects have so much movement but sometimes are completely still in sculpture, only to be made alive again in video – can you talk about those multiple resurrections?

CT: I’m into multiform. Right now, I am working on a production where the same character is manifested in a costume, a life-sized doll, a small doll, a shadow puppet, a drawing. This multiplying and shifting of scale occurs. Perhaps it is connected to our mental states, how we can be small in one moment and big in the next, sometimes flat and sometimes rich, I’m into this kind of back and forth. In sculpture, I love the shifting between dead and alive, animate and inanimate. Our own bodies go through this, too. At the most dramatic we go from being very much alive to decomposing.

AE: Growing up in a non-English household I remember something specific about the ways in which non-English speaking tongues spoke English–almost as if their English-speaking voices were livelier, sillier and overly annunciated. In your video, Preludes (2016), you have this provocative way of annunciating sound, that brings me back to my own memory. 

Preludes, video still (06:34), 2016., Kristiansand Kunsthall, Photo: Tor S Ulstein (documentation), and Raza Kazmi (video). Courtesy of the artist


Tableau Vivant Action, 2016, Livorno (ITA). Photo: LINC/Federico Cammarata, Dario Tarabella and Diego Sartorio. Courtesy of the artist

CT: Verbal language can be so elusive and come with so many problems. Instead of trying to press into the mold of a native tongue, why not have fun with some tongue twisters? I like the language play that occurs in say the poetry of Karl Holmquist. I like to work with sound without verbal language, so that my gibberish utterances sync with movement. I build up a space where I can work with everything from classical sounding tones to a trumpet effect through my keyboard in garage band. I hope the way these elements all come together can create an atmosphere that makes it desirable to stay in the space I’ve built up for my audience as well.  

AE: I would say that you are evoking that desire very effectively through your work.

AE: What is the role of the operatic and theater for you, in a time of extreme irreverence and indifference?

CT: Human beings are filled with contradictions. I love how the complexities can be broken down into characters and played out on stage so we can understand ourselves and our relationships to others and our

surroundings better. Besides I’m interested in total art. When it comes to theatre in Ancient Greece or in the Middle Ages we are left with so few traces and I love to imagine what, say, a Satyr Play could be like. Some months ago, I went to see Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera. In the break, I ran into a friend and when we talked it was as though we had seen completely different productions. I listened to the music and moved my bird watching binoculars from one musician to the other in the orchestra and over to the mouths and expressions of the singers, while my friend had been reading German and English simultaneously and occasionally commented on the plot with a nearby opera enthusiast. One could go back several times and discover an entirely different performance every time. But yes, as an antidote to indifference, I love how these theatrical forms deal with the big mysteries of life, death, love, war, and how one may be left with increased empathy.

AE: Yes! One who strives to understand complexities always leads to greater understanding and empathy – I completely agree with that and am intrigued with the idea

that plays and the operatic continue to be perfect satire for human complexities.

CT: The format of the Tableau Vivant (December 2016) is interesting because it pushes the green room to the forefront. It allows for the participants to dress up and become someone else for a little while. The wigs, heavy makeup, costumes and strange shoes, backdrops, poses and placements become a spectacle. In December LINC invited me to Tuscany where I staged myself and seven others at The Old Fortress in Livorno, descending from the Middle Ages and which was once commissioned by Countess Matilde di Conossa who descended from the Medici-family. There was some music going on, but mainly stillness. We became an ensemble of breathing sculptures.

AE: This makes me think of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, and the history of animated sculptures that some thought would menstruate and cry like humans.

AE: What are some of the main tenets of theatricality that you are most attracted to? What are you exploring when working in these classical forms?

Brekeke-kex-kex, 151×201 cm, acrylic on canvas courtesy of the artist

CT:  Looking at life in a more exaggerated, beautiful, fantastical, composed, outrageous space thrills me. For me working with these forms outside of the context of theatre may allow me to get sidetracked by my own fascinations rather than to stick to a plot or try to manipulate the feelings of the audience. I can be fascinated with the way a curtain opens and closes, wish to explore how a backdrop is moved by a person who is not supposed to be seen, dig into the tension of the warm up of an orchestra. I can zoom in on elements that could be irrelevant if my job was to tell a coherent story. And I am a studio based artist so a lot of the work I make is not made in collaborative environments. Sometimes it’s just me building a world in the studio and filming it. On the other hand, I want to explore my theatrical interests directly sometime in the future. I actually wish to put up a theatre play and see what it’s like. So, I am rewriting a Medieval play by Hrosvita Von Gandersheim these days. My paintings Half Real, Half Play and Brekeke-kex-kex are definitely somewhere between thinking about theatre from the past and placing my own interests in the theatrical structures

AE: How do you navigate compulsion and opulence in your work?

CT: More is more. So far, I never really got hooked to minimalism. As a viewer, sure I enjoy walking in the woods or through a light installation, but as a maker I’d rather scatter everything I have all over the floor and roll with it. The opulence is interesting. My characters are often times dandy, with their silky gloves and long limbs, but then again, they might also treat a glass marble as if it was a diamond, and a dirty mop might get decorated in pearls. It needs to tap slightly into the sphere of the grotesque to keep me going through. Fashion for example feels a little too tense to me. Eye candy in itself isn’t enough to get me up in the morning. Beneath the fabrics and the softness of pastel color there is inquiry into human behavior and in trying to deal with life.

AE: I’m not much of a minimalist myself. Minimalism doesn’t leave much room for lucidity which I find underwhelming and boring. Fashion fails a lot of time because it’s too contrived…too outward in the wearer’s obsession to be noticed and acknowledged as being part of a certain group.  

AE: Peter Sloterdijk said something really interesting about the relationship between criticism and what he calls Kynicism. He talks

about Diogenes, founder of cynic philosophy, and the ways he explored “the joyful language of radical bodily gestures to defeat philosophers.” He did this through mundane tasks like sleeping in a bathtub or by gesturing Alexander the Great out of his sunlight. To what extend do you see body language and gesture as a way of dealing with the complex absurdities of the human condition?

CT: Oh, I find it immensely important. Comedians may be better at this sort of translation, with physical comedy and all that. It’s extraordinary to manage to take something so many can relate to and communicate it through movement, and to be able to make us all laugh about situations we normally find to be really terrible. I’ve been thrown into a performance situation and onto a sports mattress that I used as a stage by a body builder, put a strainer in my mouth and sung through it, walked around in shoes made out of bread, sponges, books, entered a performance on ice skates or roller skates, rolled a piano into an elevator and played for five hours while the elevator went up and down and the doors opened and closed with people passing through, sung karaoke in a bathroom during an opening, sung requiems to a nectarine in a vegetable garden.

 

Character Study, 6,2×4,5 inch, wood, fabric, trimming, vinyl, leather, 2017 (courtesy of the artist)

I guess a lot of these situations have been slightly clumsy and self-deprecating, doing things I don’t really know that well. Somehow, they’ve all felt very urgent though. There is a tension that happens between the audience and I that make for a presence where it feels like a lot is at stake. In video, I control the movement more, because there’s also the movement of the camera and the situation is more predictable. In my next video, I want to move around in dramatic ways, which is why I chose to stage myself into all of the characters of a Wagnerian opera. I want to get at some of those big existential themes for sure.

AE: How much is your work influenced by absurdist theater and film of the 1950’s?

CT: I definitely am not over the experience of finding life to be a strange mystery and I can relate to handling it by going into a state of tragicomedy. I love Alfred Jarry’s ubu plays and the way Joan Miro was involved. There is something incredible that happens when theatre meets visual arts. Other examples can be Isamu Noguchi’s set design for Martha Graham, Paul Klee’s hand puppets, Sonia Delaunay’s costumes or Jean Cocteau’s Parade. I saw the Francis Picabia show 

when it was up at MoMa and to me the early works when he was involved in a community of Dadaists and other visionaries were the most interesting. 1950’s films, yes, a film I really love is Sunset Boulevard. Sometimes I’m like Norma Desmond myself in the way I write myself into staged situations while building up expectations in solitude, ha-ha, oh the drama. Or do you mean like Robert Breer? Maybe that has more to do with my work actually.

AE: In your Locker Room piece that was on view at Yale you explored interior and exterior modes of expressing oneself can you talk a little bit about that in relationship to our mediated social lived on digital platforms? Was a starting inquiry for you in this work?

CT: I am interested in what we expose and what we hide. A locker room encompasses both of those. The installation had these locker structures with belongings placed and hung inside of them. It could be compared to an Instagram feed where the grid is the structural element where we frame things that we find meaningful in a square. Even if I’ve tried to get rid of Instagram many times, it’s also this sort of limb that I have, or a memory palace, or a collage or something that I kind of like to have.

AE: Would you say that new media and its mass cultural effects are anti-human?

CT: Sure. The first thing we touch when we wake up in the morning and the first thing we touch before going to bed at night is our illuminated glass screen. I get scared by it sometimes. It can be so addictive to get this instant stimulation. Wouldn’t it be better to stroke our lover or to look at reflections of light hitting the ceiling?

Tune into our surroundings rather than into a tunnel of endless images and information? The way we extract minerals from the earth and exploit workers to produce these addictive devices and how the apps later can create instability in the world can be pretty grim to think about. We might find a better way to handle these things eventually, but for now we seem to still be in ‘the shock of the new’. Last summer Franco Bifo Berardi wrote a little text called The Summer of Pokémon Go – there were so many utterly brutal events going on, it was urgent to get engaged and yet people were colliding in the streets ‘waving their smartphones in an attempt to capture metaphysical insects in the open air’. And despite being sensitive to the addiction of illuminated gratification, I’m still very much a user of this stuff. Some relationships depend on it,

Scrambled Eggs, marker on A4 paper, 2014, courtesy of the artist

some people I would never have met or known about without this technology. I hope we can still regard physical meetings over virtual chats and hopefully all future exhibitions won’t require putting on an oculus rift hat. I want to be immersed in other ways.

AE: I have heard you reference a few stories about ill-fated lovers, such as Tristan and Isolde. This made me think about the ways in which Isolde’s greatness was robbed or stifled by her terrestrial burdens of love and loyalty. What are some of the terrestrial burdens you encounter with your work?

CT: Yes, you could say that. It’s also funny how she has healing powers, but that she cannot heal the insanity of falling in love. Tristan’s decision to rip off his bandages is so bonkers. In my upcoming total video installation Gesamtkunst With Myself I’m exploring the absurdities of love and war, loosely grounded in Richard Wagner’s take on the Medieval love story. The show will open at Loyal Gallery in Stockholm in April. With each new work, there’s a battle between doubt and faith.

 

AE: Can you talk about the role of transition and layering? Specifically, the ways in which you transition from your role in the production of your videos, to stage set designer, and the role of objects and materials on those settings.

CT: I have a one-man-show way of doing things gives me a lot of control and leaves room for experimentation and discovery. In a regular film production, you wouldn’t allow the director to spend several days on carving wood into shoes or to paint storyboards with gouache. I love to work both with the bigger picture and with details. Transitions are incredibly important. My friend who is an animator is so good at that.

Since a lot of my videos are meant to be shown in a loop I try to work with cyclical pacing, rather than a linear structure. A member of the audience may enter the space at any point so it should be possible to jump in and get into the work. The sound makes that smoother. I insert so much into the video pieces. What I’m reading, experimenting with in the studio, thinking about, it all finds its way in small and big ways.

 

AE: Can you describe what dignity and barbarism mean for you?

CT: Dignity is a straight backbone, an ear opening itself up to an aria, the courage to look someone straight in the eye, the attempt of speaking clearly and being honest, digging for truth, standing up, for oneself and others, being humble and curious, not compromising. When I hear the word barbarism I think of brutality, destruction, an opposition to the cultured. If we break it down to creation and destruction, both of those are important in the process of art making, and they can be in play too. In life, the process of something such as war, an activity that destroys its way into advancement, is more devastating.

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