The wind was blowing pollen through the rays of sunlight. The Frogner Park was exceptionally beautiful this Friday in early May. I was standing still, watching people pass me by, walking in shorts, running in tights, biking in dresses.
I was here to meet Kristian Skylstad. I knew he was an artist, and that he worked with both film, text and photography. But I didn’t know who he was, just what he had done. What I really wanted to know was why he does what he does, and I was hoping that could tell me more about who this guy is.
It’s a quarter passed four, and I can still feel the heat from the sun on my skin.
Kristian walked slowly towards me, even though he was running late. Wearing washed out jeans and a tee.
(He greeted me like we were old acquaintances, I tried to mirror his tone.)
The scene for Kristians new exhibition, LYNX, a small white pavilion in the Frogner Park was shining bright in the sunlight, it was the perfect place to sit – except for the lack of chairs and benches. We decided to stroll over to the nearest café. I didn’t talk much during the first minutes of our conversation, I needed time to watch his face, without knowing what I was looking for.
–I’ve been sick for a week, so I didn’t get the chance to hang my exhibition before yesterday, the day before the opening. But I’ve had all my ideas ready for a while. The structure of LYNX, the architectural space, is not built for art. It’s intimate and personal. Many artists are trying to compete with the architecture. I’ve chosen to make an exhibition you can ignore, to make the room part of the structure. (I’m still mute, rather trying to tap into Kristian’s state of mind, without staring. His face dosen’t reveal much, it switches back and forth between a stone face and a bright smile. His working process is not at all like mine.)
–I made the image for the exhibition last night.
(I wanted to comment, but it struck me as solution-oriented, rather than impulsive, and I was nodding my head in a confirmative way. He is after all an artist. Kristian Skylstad was four years old when he first picked up his dads camera on a holiday in Italy in 1986.)
–I had watched him use it, and had learned how to adjust the focus. That’s one of my first memories, and I still remember the thrill.
(I was complimenting him on his ability to maneuver a camera at that young age. He admits he’s bragging, but it doesn’t make the story less true, or my compliment out of place. He is sitting on a stool and he’s using broad gestures when he talks. And when he doesn’t talk, maybe he’s thinking. It strikes me that the stool must be pretty uncomfortable, but he sits steady as a rock. His white t-shirt has clear signs of past works. He did start off by telling me he had worked all night. While he was gesticulating I noticed a word tattooed on his arm; Silence. I played with the idea that maybe that was why he liked working at night. Because of the silence.)
–Did it really start that early?
–It really started with a revelation. One morning when I was walking to school, probably 14 or 15 years old. I had just started smoking cigarettes. When you are smoking you get conscious about the concept of time. On one hand, you get control of time, and on the other hand, you’re giving death the middle finger. I was watching clouds rushing across the sky and I got that eureka feeling, a feeling that I recognize when I have a good idea.
–What kind of feeling?
– I wanted to stop them, the clouds. A kind of feeling I think many photographers have, the need to control time.
–So all off this evolves from your own experiences? Nobody influenced you?
–Yes! (The answer comes quick)
– I had an extra brother from New Zealand that my family took in. He came from a rocky background and his family was divided. He talked about things I started to care about, and he introduced me to a lot of music. Bob Dylan, early Radiohead … and books, he introduced me to Ian McEwan. Now it seems ordinary, but to a 15-year old … suddenly you’re sitting there reading Karamasov Brothers at 16, and it makes a difference. (I’m smiling because I recognize myself in his story, and I know he’s going to keep talking without me asking.)
–He was the origin to a lot of ideas that activate a type of creativity that there are no room for in Norwegian schools. (We sit in silence, he moves in his chair without signs of restlessness.)
–I just realized that I wasn’t going to take part in an understanding of things that are absolutely necessary to be employed somewhere. More than placing myself in a position of being an artist, I placed myself in a position of being freelance. Incapable of working for anyone. I’ve been self-driven since I was a teenager, for good or for worse.
Kristian grew up in a large family in Oslo, he describes his childhood as a good one, despite traumatic events in his teens. He doesn’t go into details.
–Was it a stable home?
–No, I have five siblings, which makes stability impossible. (During the rest of our conversation he never used the terms “mom” or “dad”, but “the family”. Maybe because it encompasses som much. And it was, if not stable, at least it was secure. Contrary to Kristians conviction about what he does for a living.)
–I worked as a fashion photographer for a while, but that turned pretty empty pretty quick. After that I got admitted into the Oslo Art Academy, and has worked on my art ever since. I’m not necessarily convinced that what I do is right, it would be nice to have a bit more certainty. (His stone face turns into a smile.)
–I’m not going to bitch about that, plenty of artists do.
We’re having a short break from words, and sip some coffee.
–I think people rarely are convinced that what they are doing is the right thing, that would surprise me, and it would be boring. Imagine all that comes from doubt.
Kristian doesn’t answer. Our cups are empty and I want more. But I dont want to break up the conversation. We’re in a strange flow where we both keep taking breaks for contemplation without it being uncomfortable. Almost rehearsed.
The artist myth
It’s always interesting to see what people do, but always more interesting to see why they do it.
–I read that you “explore peoples emotional span through staging different forms of apathy, cynicism and impotence.” What does that mean?
–I’m interested in the parts that cannot be described with language, even though I also write. On my journey through Asia, I realized that many of the backpacking tourists experience an internal prison, contrary to the myth of traveling being a liberating process. When you realize that even though you are an artist with camera and film, and that you’re working on a project, that doesn’t exclude you from the same category. You are always running from som kind of reality. This reality. The one you’re living in, and that guy sitting over there.
Kristian is pointing towards the guy on the couch next to us. I turn around and look at him, just as obvious as Kristian had pointed in his direction.
–Then you start thinking about the basis for this alienation to reality, that’s where these disparagingly, sad descriptions come into the picture, cynicism & apathy. I want to reveal the beauty of those feelings. I want to think that these feelings are liberating, even if they cause pain.
–Do you believe that?
–I believe that in the hardest times, things become crystal clear. When you loose someone you love. Maybe that’s when everything is real. And if it’s not dark, let’s make it dark. Like some kind of justification for us having it easy. We’re looking for something slightly painful to confirm that we are alive.
–Like a real hangover.
–Sure, you can provoke some sort of catharsis.To allow yourself to be depressed. In that way, giving yourself a break. (I’m mulling over the word. Break. To me, I think it’s a break from reality, but to Kristian it’s a break into reality.)
–Thats ironic, Being comfortable isn’t really stimulating for an artist, people call it the artist myth – but all myths are rooted in some truth.
–Does that make you more destructive?
–I don’t consider myself destructive. I Believe I used to be a really light and easy ring person, but I wanted to connect with reality. But now it’s the other way around. Now I am a person that looks for hope, and tries to look for the positive. But I like to differentiate, not the negative, but the seriousness in my art so that I can live a more positive life.
We’re both silent.
–The most important thing I’ve done this week is to talk with my students, it’s not making this exhibition. You see?
Hope in darkness.
–People are calling you a dark artist. But you don’t seem dark. But you’re making dark art.
–I’ve been woking in the minor key for a while now yes. I believe that an artist always cultivates their mood and state of mind – and create something that mirrors that feeling.
–But you’re not autobiographical?
–I’m not autobiographical in my work. People assume that I am because I use a personal language, but I’m not private. I have a strong melancholic side, but no more than most. It’s just that I’m not so scared of confronting my melancholy. (I agree without words and think that melancholy should be an accepted part of humans eons ago)
–But creativity in its purest form, when it’s crystal clear, it’s dark. And when it’s in that dark place, either you go into it, or you get pulled into it. That’s when you are looking for light – that’s when art starts to symbolize that light in the darkness.
–What do you prefer, Being pulled in, or walking into the darkness yourself?
–I prefer to be pulled in, thats’ when I have had nice, long periods of my life where I haven’t made art, it’s been leading me to artistic stagnation. (He’s been putting words to some of my feelings, so I’ve been smiling inappropriately)
–I had two years of stagnation in all areas, this has been the foundation for some of the darkness I’m expressing now. I’ve been working hard to get on my feet after that.
–What’s the reason for the stagnation?
–I went from an extremely productive phase where I had all the lights shining on me, suddenly the lights were … (he’s looking for words… I interrupt …) – blinding?
–Blinding. And destructive, and tiresome. I wanted to be invisible. I held exhibitions, but I only showed previous work. I scanned through all my notebooks from my productive phase and reproduced those ideas, like a robot. As an assistant for my former self. A scary process, very depressing.
–How did you get out of it?
–I moved to Cambodia for six months, when I got back home I had the same experience again, only milder this time. Then I gave it one final shot, in Poland, in the area around Auschwitz. That journey resulted in the photo series “sighs”, about looking for hope in a hopeless place. That’s when I realized that I’m not a dark person, but I’m a person who looks for light in a darkness many people find themselves in, but don’t have the language to talk about it. So if I speak for anyone, I speak for the doomed. (The respect I have for Kristian increases in sync with the activity in my tear ducts. Apparently I didn’t expect to meet an empathic man.)
–Because I’m strong enough to do it, because I’m not doomed myself. But I know, because I’ve been close to being doomed, that I can talk on behalf of many of these people. And I think that’s an important thing to do.
–Are you traveling to these places with an intent to feel?
–No, I’ve done it instinctively. I’m curious about places. But I need to evaluate when I get back after a long journey, when I’ve been to destructive places. Without living destructively, turn into a priest when I’m there. Humble and calm.
–Maybe it’s out of respect for the places?
–Waking around in Poland, where the most violent incidents occurred during the Second World War, as an artist from the richest country in the world, felt really embarrassing.
–Because we live on the surface in Norway?
–We live on the surface. And we do want to be shallow, but sometimes you fall through and see something so deep that it can be a struggle to get back up. A sort of deep-sea diving. (Deep sea diving, I underline the word twice. But I don’t know why.)
–Do you get what you want?
(The reply came quick)
–Not at all, not even close.
–What do you want?
(We smile in a silent mutual agreement.)
(We laugh, and then I see it in his face, what i’ve been looking for. A ray of light.)
*This conversation was originally published in Norwegian