The room was lit up with daylight. I was sitting on a table inside the restaurant Olympen, the room felt massive – but it might just have been the lack of people. Etta James was my sole company while waiting for Anja to arrive. I was eating white bread with some kind of buttercream, while ingoring my gluten allergy. All the people who could be sitting here, inside this great restaurant with bitter coffee, were rather passing the window with surprising speed. It might have been the sudden November cold, or maybe they were late heading back to work after their lunch break? My watch said 12.55, it was Monday. The reason was probably lunch.
I waited through “At Last”, and found myself in the middle of “I’d Rather Go Blind”, when suddenly there she was – lighting up the room, which wasnt easy. Long red coloured hair, heavy bangs and big eyes. Right on time.
Anja came off as shy, which was a contrast to her looks, but then again, maybe I was the one who suddenly turned meek as a result of her immersive presence.
– Hi, Ann Cathrin.
We both smiled. She sat down on the chair in front of me. I stumbled back to my seat and leaned into the wall behind me before leaning forward, closer.
I excused my plate of food that now looked like somewhat of a crime scene, she kept on smiling, as if she excused herself for making me feel like I should explain. I asked if she wanted coffee, she did. I felt impolite for not pouring her cup first.
I didn’t know what to ask, so I started off as I had known her forever.
– So, what have you been up to?
– I just got back from London and Lofoten. I’m doing a solo exhibition at The Agency Gallery in London next year, where I also did a show last year. And in Lofoten, I’ve been teaching film-students at the local college.
Her voice was low but clear, her dialect undeniable. I was talking to someone from Bergen.
– Wow, those are very different places, what huge contrasts. Like Oslo.
– Yeah, I know. I just walked from Frogner to Grønland, and you can really feel the diversity in a 30-minute walk.
The quiet restaurant is just a couple of minutes stroll from Anja’s gallery, pink cube. The name says it all; it’s a pink cube. This is where she was heading after our conversation, to continue work on her upcoming solo-exhibition at the Skåne Art Association in Malmö. But as she made clear with the utmost humbleness, more than twice – there was no rush. After all, the exhibition is not until February.
Anja opened her gallery in 2011, straight off the back of finishing her seven-year art education with an MA. The following year, pink cube won the Oslo-prize for “Best Art of the Year.” Although she is first and foremost an artist, Anja has also found her beat as a curator and gallery owner.
– That’s a long education; I don’t think I know any artists with that many years of higher education.
– It felt really good to be done; it was a little too much school. That’s why I couldn’t wait to start my own little institution I guess. At the same time I wanted to continue the discussions of the academy; to invite other artists to exhibit in my space to share ideas. During my years at the academies I had the chance to test a lot of different expressions and methods, before finding my own. It’s strange because I keep moving backwards in a way, back to my early childhood. My works follow a dream-like logic. Performance is my starting point; actions, there are no set limits between time and space, bodies and objects, humans and animals, fantasy and reality.
She had the same smile; big and warm, making you want to smile too. I love talking to people who smile as much as me, no matter what they are talking about.
We’re in Bergen. It’s 1988. Anja, a toddler, only three years old, has gotten hold of a huge roll of paper. She spreads it around the whole living room floor, so she can draw.
– The roll was bigger than me I think!
I tried to picture it, heavy layers of paper all over the floor, Anja sitting in the middle of it – drawing. But also her parents, what this gesture says about them. I pictured her childhood as romantic and different. A good childhood, I think, only based on that one thing. That always seems to touch me. Not as a matter of envy, but rather as an appreciation of peoples worth. It is something everybody deserves.
– Were they artists too?
– My parents? No, they were students. My father is a psychologist and my mother works with refugees, but she studied art history, among other things, and they are both interested in art.
Maybe that explains their acceptive nature.
Anja spent her first years living in a student collective, her parents were students at the time, and Anja’s little brother was on the way. They were several people living together.
– I was surrounded by academics. I always had all these people around me. A lot of caregivers.
I smiled, affected by the obvious gratitude she felt towards these people. Her smile was still there, even bigger now. She was leaning into her hands on the table, looking straight at me.
There’s something special about having multiple grown-ups to learn from, to model after. I had the same privilege. It molds you in a way, it might make you comfortable with being more than one person, or to at least accept change. That you can change during a day.
– How did it affect you, living like this?
– Well, I remember writing a lot. I was allowed to be creative. My mum had this computer I used to borrow, it had a green screen and black letters.
– You wrote that early?
– Yeah, at least from I was five years old. I guess I wanted to be like them. I could see them writing all the time. I actually wrote a book before I started school. It had 13 chapters and it was about magic.
– So you’ve been an artist since before you can remember?
I felt myself being blown away. Usually you hear stories of people who have to discover something else, before they turn to art. Not only did Anja have the opportunity to think outside the box, she was encouraged to keep going since the age of three.
– I’ve always expressed myself that way. I was lucky to be able to unfold myself creatively. At age 13 I did my first photography exhibition.
– So, it was a good childhood?
I realise I’m saying this with my softest smile, as if I were a part of it. I remembered wishing for a unicorn as a kid, and noticed that Anja’s sweater had unicorns all over it.
– Yes, it was a good and stable childhood.
Childhood is one thing. What about adulthood? I find that a lot more scary and less approachable.
– Are you where you want to be?
– Oh, that’s a big question. I like where I am. Right now for instance, talking to you about all the big questions.
– I feel privileged to be able to work with art fulltime in different places, I meet a lot of devoted people. Also, I like to work
– So I guess I am where I want to be.
– Also, I like the everyday best. Maybe because I don’t have a normal, routinebased schedule. It’s never the same. The fact that I can take half the day off sometimes you know…
Then again. She can work 24/7 when need be, an artist life is not one of excessive leisure.
It might be provoking to some, to separate “this” way of life from a “normal” way. And we agreed that we have a lot of respect for people who show up to work, and do their thing for the money. But in the end, it’s about deciding what kind of economy you want. We know that we both desire another kind.
– We live in a capitalistic society, and it’s hard to understand that there’s another type of economy that is not based on money.
We’re talking about values, how we limit ourselves by choosing to live on a minimum, and by choosing experiences and uncertainty above money, while others might limit themselves by choosing to show up at work at a specific time every day.
– I have everything I need, I just can’t have shopping as a hobby. But I don’t want that either.
Anja stresses the paradox that we talk about money because we don’t have any, while people who have money talk about art. Then they buy ikea-posters. Norwegians are weird that way.
– Something has had to change though, during our upbringing. Things always change, but can you point to something that has shaped the way you do art today, or maybe even who you are?
Anja is thinking. Still smiling. It looks like she knows what to say, but that she’s considering how to say it.
– It’s many things. Sad experiences, or the opposite. Riding horses on a beach without a saddle. I used to have this very long hair, almost grotesque, like My Little Pony. During my first year at art school one of the teachers said to me that I couldn’t have long hair if I wanted to be an artist. It was unpractical. I think she provoked me to start working with my hair in performances. I tied myself to the walls with my hair, expressing claustrophobia, for instance. But what really shaped the idea was discovering how maledominated the gallery world is, I wanted to create an alternative. The change of roles, being both an artist and a gallery owner gives me a lot. It allows me to be more than one thing. Building big, macho installations with princess hair.
She introduced me to the concept of “slash generation”. Being part of the “slash generation” means that your career involves being a hyphenate, as in “writer/director/actor” – that sort of thing.
We decided that it’s easier to be several things at once, than to be locked into one category – which we both have been at some point.
– In school I was good at everything, sort of. I also did ballet and I used to be really good at drawing. I guess I got tired of being so… diligent. That’s why I quit drawing when I attended art school.
– All of a sudden being good at things defines you. I can relate. I experienced the same thing, although I could never draw. But I always had the best grades, and the most beautiful hair. I had to loose the label at some point. It became meaningful to not wear a bra without necessarily being a feminist, and to cut my hair.
– How funny, you did what my teacher wanted me to do, but you did it on your own initiative. I guess we both wanted to be judged by our own actions, not depending on looks, gender or traditions. The basics of growing up.
– It was my unsatisfactory way, and still is, of saying “look, I’m not pretty anymore”.
She nodded, and laughed. We both did. Confirmation.
Anja was the kind of person who doesn’t take up much space in a room, but still somehow does. Without knowing it. I like those people. She reminded me of someone great.
The room was more crowded now, some couples were eating a late lunch or perhaps an early dinner. I realised I was singing along to the music, Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You”. I poured some more coffee into our cups, hers first this time.
– I used to play the piano, but I had to quit – too many rules. Same with ballet, I changed genre to lyrical jazz after a while. Less rules, more improvisation.
– I am not good at improvising.
– You’re improvising right now aren’t you?
– I guess I am…
– You’re a person that likes to question things.
And just like that, our roles had changed. I liked it.
– Yes, I’m a big doubter. But I think you are too… or?
– Absolutely, it drives me. Although it can be tiring sometimes. That’s when you have to make something. To turn off the brain.
I’ve always thought that in order to “turn off” the brain, you need change. Change in environment, subject, thought, or in life. Maybe making something, whatever, is exactly what you need.
– I think we have too much input, and too little output today. And that leads us to not creating enough. We do too little. There’s an unbalance, and that’s why I’m an artist, I think.
It makes sense.
– I wish I could leave art alone without messing it up with my thoughts though… I always try to understand something, and sometimes there’s nothing to understand. I’m trying to understand that I can’t understand.
– Well, everybody have to find their own language. I work with visual language, you write… it’s a different language. Maybe that’s why you are looking for something that’s not necessarily there. And why you’re listening to the lyrics in a song, and not the melody.
– Every language takes some time to learn. Understanding art might just be about experiencing and trusting what you take in.
I’m taking it in. Thinking. Agreeing. Drinking lukewarm coffee. Smiling back. We just have different languages. I like this change of roles.
– I have time. I’m comfortable sitting here talking to you about all of this, all these vast themes.
I hadn’t said anything, maybe she had read my thoughts. I was, in this moment, thinking that maybe I enjoyed myself so much that I took up too much of her time. She used the word “comfortable” as if she rarely was.
– Is there something you would have changed in your life?
– Well, I only do things because I am who I am. In order to do something differently I would have to be someone else.
She would have to be someone else. I can’t see my smile get any bigger than after hearing her say those words.
– For instance, I could not be afraid of everything.
– What are you afraid of?
– Most things. Actually fear is probably the one thing, apart from doubt, that drives me the most. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was a kid and meat was the scariest material to work with, so I had to use it. And one of the other scariest things I could think of was to perform in front of an audience, so I started with performance. And I’ve always been scared of travelling, which I do more and more.
We’re silent. I’m trying to contemplate what it means to be afraid of so many things, and thinking that it must be inhibiting. I’m not afraid. Then I remembered my best friend asking me, when I was seeking her advise; “if you had no fear, what would you do?” My answer was; “something else”. I guess I’m more scared than I like to think.
– But you said earlier that one of your values, economies, was experiencing – isn’t that what you’re doing now?
– Well, yes. It’s life, you know. It’s about experience and adventure. It’s this cliché that adversity leads to creativity. I guess my concept with the art-battles at pink cube touches upon this too. But the intention is to escape the limitations that follow from having a specific theme at group exhibitions.
I responded that clichés are underestimated.
– What’s the most important thing?
– That it’s fun, isn’t it?
I agree, but a lot of people don’t. I find that strange.
As we are rounding off, I feel myself getting exited about Anja’s upcoming exhibition, opening November 27th. She can’t make a promise about what it is going to be, but you can expect something sculptural, connected to childhood, sci-fi and threads.
She looks so happy. I think she’s been smiling the whole time. Smiling people are beautiful. Although, it doesn’t mean that they’re content.
– Are you happy?
– Some days, she says, still smiling.