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Reports and Interviews From: Sweden

Annica Karlsson Rixon interviews Ulrika Stahre

Annica Karlsson Rixon: What is your relationship to art criticism that has come before you?

Ulrika Stahre: Sometimes I feel that I am terribly close to imitating that kind of “art walk” common several decades ago. Then I tell myself to quit. And sometimes the slightly introspective criticism of the ’90s dwells somewhere in the back of my head, demanding attention. If I was to talk about my inspiration, it’s not primarily from art criticism, but other types of texts—literary, essayistic. So the relationship is, in short, evasive.

One of the new private art galleries in Sweden is Artipelag, located a half hour drive from Stockholm. A view from the current exhibition, where the ideas of being close to nature is being fully revealed. A recent work by Annica Karlsson Rixon—who is the interviewing artist—is visible on the walls. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Beranger (license Creative Commons).

Rixon: Is there a gender and/or class perspective behind your choice of career? Have there been role models in your immediate surroundings?

Stahre: No, I have slipped from the “want to write” to “art history seems pretty exciting,” and from there to freelance writing because of benevolent contacts. Obviously it also had to do with growing up with a father who was a potter, and painter in his spare time. So art and image-making have always been a part of my life. But I do not belong to the solidly-educated middle class. It took me a while to get things together.

Rixon: What is your process for collecting material and turning it into text?

Stahre: I take notes, and if I am lucky there is something I find useful, but mostly it’s just a backup due to anxiety. I make sure to prepare beforehand if necessary, and to get all the facts such as titles and materials. But I don’t think I can describe the process as such. It’s very common for art critics to photograph and create their own archives and recollections. I am not in the mainstream though; I am completely in the backwater. Maybe because I know I would drown if I collected all those materials.

Rixon: What does the ability to publish your art criticism mean to you?

Stahre: In the beginning it was a huge ego-trip, of course. It was fantastic to write for a newspaper and to be read. But after a few years it became just a job like any other, besides the fact that one’s bad days are obvious to a lot is challenging also. It is a public work, and it can get pretty schizophrenic to have views on art criticism at large when you are writing. So the opportunity to publish brings freedom and influence while it is limiting in other ways, socially because of various loyalties to other critics—esprit de corps you might call it.

Rixon: Sometimes it seems that a feminist approach can be used to get attention, or at least is an easy way to establish a position. Is there any relevance in this claim?

 Stahre: Of course it can be a way to establish a position, the world craves people who are able to come up with distinctive analyses. But that it would be an easy way, no, never. A feminist is too often and incorrectly regarded as limited. Feminism is actually one of several ways of looking at the world—it is part of an intersectional analysis. An informed feminist is often more educated—we have to have the mainstream knowledge also—but it is often regarded as the opposite.

Rixon: What is art criticism’s main task?

Stahre: Such a question requires a single word as an answer, right? Then I would say “art-interest-provoking.”

Rixon: What is the relationship between art critic, artist, art criticism, and art?

Stahre: Difficult. The relationship between the critic and the artist is remarkable. No contact, and yet perhaps impertinent texts, interpretations. The critic relates most often not to the artist but to the work, but this is not so easily distinguished for the artist and the reader. Between art criticism and art there is perhaps a more equal relationship. One actually cannot exist without the other. Because of my profession, of course, I have great difficulties accepting the accusation that criticism is a parasite on the arts. Criticism is a necessary part of the chain—but from a perspective of power, criticism somehow has abdicated, and is no longer in charge.

Rixon: Would it be relevant if there existed a criticism of art criticism? And if so, in what format could it be performed?

Stahre: That would be welcome. It’s very vacuum-like not getting any particular response. Though I find it hard to think of a sensible format, except that we really ought to organize more seminars dealing with text, of how we write and why.

Rixon: It’s not uncommon for writers or poets to write about literature in the press, but for the visual arts to write about it, this is much more unusual. What consequences might this lack present for art criticism?

Stahre: Surely you mean that the equivalent would be the artists who write about art? At Aftonbladet there is one art critic who is a poet as well as a trained artist, a truly unique background I think. And we’ve had some art texts by poets over the years. It’s incredibly valuable to see their skill and audacity. At Omkonst artists are writing on art, but I do not think their texts differ from other criticism, which is surprising as one might expect a different and more experienced way of looking. On the other hand, so far the written language is the main thing. Perhaps art colleges should also train in art-critical writing? Then the art world could be a completely closed system!

Rixon: At several art institutions at the universities in Sweden, there is now the opportunity to get a Ph.D. in art. Artists accomplish practice-based research and formulate their work in an academic context. How do you imagine that this will affect art criticism? Will it change it?

Stahre: I think that art criticism is still fumbling for ways to relate to artistic research. On the one hand, criticism as a bridge between artist and audience could be redundant, which might trigger a more “critical critique,” but on the other hand there is usually more to say about the work even after the artist produces his or her analysis. But clearly the academic artists will change the whole field of art. It will be very interesting to see the development when there are even more artists completing doctorate degrees and artistic research is common.

From Annica Karlsson Rixon:
This interview is built on five slightly reworked questions from interviews and conversations during the years 1993 – 2008 which are all based on my position as an artist. Questions that artists are often asked are now redirected to an art critic.


Ulrika Stahre

ULRIKA STAHRE (b. 1964) received her Ph.D. in art history with her dissertation Admired Barbarian: the Amazon in Western European Visual Culture 1789 - 1918 (2004) and has written art criticism in daily newpapers since 1996. Since 2001, she has been working as a cultural editor and art critic at Aftonbladet.

Annica Karlsson Rixon

Annica Karlsson Rixon (1962), is an artist and photographer and holds an M.F.A. from California Institute of Arts. She has been an influential artist since the 1990s and for a period she was a professor at the School of Photography at The Göteborg University. In recent years she has been working on the project State of Mind as part of her doctorate at Valand Academy of Arts at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.


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