Interview by Semra Sevin, Berlin Contributor
Per Christian Brown (b. Stavanger, Norway, 1976) lives and works in Berlin, Germany and Oslo, Norway. He graduated from The Academy of Fine Art, Oslo in 2002. His works include photography, film, video, and installations dwelling on various aspects concerning nature, biology, identity, sexuality, and poetic reverie in visual imagery. Selected solo exhibitions include: Kunstnerforbundet, Oslo (2018); Ram Gallery, Oslo (2015); Stavanger Art Museum, Stavanger (2014); and Prinz-Georg // Raum für Kunst, Berlin (2013). Selected group exhibitions: Passengers of a Kaleidoscopic Journey, Berlin (2018); Guildhall Art Gallery, UK (2017); Bohusläns Museum, Sweden (2016); Stenersen Museum, Oslo (2014); Momentum 7, Nordic Biennial for Contemporary Art, Moss (2013). His works are included in various public and private art collections in Europe.
Semra Sevin: Your use of light and color saturates your work, especially in Wonders of the Volcano. How do you think color affects the emotions?
Per Christian Brown: Color and light are important aspects in all my projects, because it is essential to how we experience and perceive the world. It is common knowledge that different colors influence us in various ways and can provoke a wide spectrum of mental, but also physical, reactions. I believe every artist has their own inner palette of colors that they use as a tool when creating their art. Light plays an important role in both my staged work and my more documentary photos. The thing that interests me the most is the symbolic and mental dichotomy of light and shadow, these opposites that are inextricably linked.
Semra: When you had your residency in Iceland in summer 2016, what was your impression of the volcanic world, especially in terms of man’s co-existence with such a powerful force of nature?
Per: I had done quite a lot of research in advance before I went to Iceland. I knew the importance of volcanic forces in Icelandic folklore, and how people are directly affected by this subterranean burning fire just under their feet. My impression was that the Icelanders’ behavior and personality are somehow shaped by this lurking threat of a massive eruption, which could come at any moment. Perhaps this threat makes people live more in the moment than people in more geologically stable locations.
Semra: Earth and Reveries of Repose—Reveries of Material Interiority (2015) looks at the essence of nature, whether in man or the surrounding natural world. In what way do you see yourself as an alchemist through your visual narrative of film?
Per: If we think of alchemy in the sense that it has to do with transformation, I would say that the combination of images, voiceover, sound, and sometimes music in my films has the power to transform ideas into impressions that move the viewer and resonate with him or her. If I as an artist manage to do it right, I think that I am able to express and impart new perspectives on what we think of as ordinary phenomena, or merge what seems to be absolute opposites. I see my filmmaking as a precarious and highly sensitive activity; there are so many ways for it to fail. If the narrative and the images are constantly competing, everything collapses and is lost, and there is no mystery left to unfold for the viewer. But if the merging of all elements—in this case, images, text and sound—succeeds, fantastic things can happen.
Semra: Your interest in man’s relationship with the natural world manifests, for example, in your series Everlasting Material Pain (2012). The tree in folklore is often a symbol of life, death, and rebirth. How important is the forest in your imagination, and what does it symbolise for you?
Per: Trees and the forest have always been key elements in my works that are deeply rooted in my personal history. The tree is a universal symbol of life, death, and rebirth. But it also represents a connection between the elements earth and air; with roots deeply grounded in earth and a treetop high up in the sky. This double life, being bound to earth while having a free aerial life in the treetop, taps into psychological aspects in our mind, not to mention the symbolic values these two opposites represent.
I wonder if most people actually fully understand the life of a tree? Recent scientific studies have shown us that “this towering creature that never had a face,” to quote D. H. Lawrence, is a complex being with a very intricate survival instinct. Trees often live their lives close to their family, other trees that they spring off from, and they all communicate and protect each other through their root systems. Perhaps they actually have a soul and are individuals like me and you?
Semra: When did you discover the epistemologist, Gaston Bachelard, and who, if anyone, introduced you to his work?
Per: I was introduced to Gaston Bachelard the first year I attended the Oslo Academy of Fine Art in 1995, and I think the context was that my professor wanted us to make projects based on Bachelard’s most famous essays of the four elements. I remember I read a lot of Bachelard back then. His writings have had a great impact on me and widened my horizon in the understanding of the material identity attributed to each of the four basic elements. Discovering Bachelard was a revelation, because I feel that his thoughts on the natural world feed my imagination and reverberate in me, and produce an urge to dig deeper into the link between man and nature. Bachelard's writings come across as deeply personal, and his exemplifications to explain certain complexes are based on his own experiences, not just philosophical theories. I also like the fact that his epistemological point of departure is based on literature and poetry. He exalts the poet as someone that has an unpolluted view and understanding of the relationship between man and nature.
Semra: What drove you to become an artist?
Per: From very early on in my childhood, I had an urge to create. Drawing, painting, sculpting; this interest just kept growing stronger, and since it gave me so much pleasure, I decided at the age of seventeen to start my art education at an art school. After two years of experimenting with all types of media, ranging from video to print making, I applied for a place at the Academy of Fine Art in Oslo, and luckily I was admitted. I don’t come from an artistic family, so when I reflect upon this now, I think that my devotion to drawing and painting from early on was a way to escape reality and to get to know myself.
Semra: Recently, you took part in the exhibition I curated, Passengers of a Kaleidoscopic Journey. How important do you think this theme of identity is at the moment?
Per: Identity has become more and more important. One reason is perhaps the expansion of the internet and associated creation of our virtual identities, where the boundary between the real and the imaginary is being wiped out. The exposure to an increasing media flow and globalization also plays an important role in the sense that we feel a need to be aware of—or at least try to discover—our own identity, as some kind of shelter and refuge from all the external chaos and noise surrounding us.
This feeling of taking refuge also has a downside: to make us skeptical about the unknown—for example, the increasing skepticism we see in so many countries in Europe at the moment about refugees and asylum seekers. Identity as a notion is often exploited by today's politicians, to express what is ours and what others (the foreigners) will never take part in. They claim that certain values in our society and certain idiosyncrasies are something we are born to understand, thereby excluding all others.
My personal belief is that identity is something we carry inside, and it lays such a foundation in our lives that it will never be threatened or lost. The current political climate in Europe is something that worries me. I think that the time has come for everyone to stand up steadfast against the rising populism, which, as I see it, has only one goal: to destroy our democratic values and spark agitation between people.
Semra: What is the pleasure of working with analog photography, especially in comparison to digital?
Per: I think the main reason why I still prefer to work with analog media has to do with the material qualities of film itself, and the fact that since it has become quite pricey, you have to be very concentrated when you work. This means that I have to work very differently from someone who has unlimited exposures. There is still this magic feeling, not knowing exactly what the films will look like when I collect them from the lab. Even though it requires a lot of patience and hard work to achieve exactly what I want, I think it’s worth it.
I also like the idea of producing an object, a negative, something that really exists, and not just a digital file. Working with analog media seems to be gaining in popularity. This is very good, since the companies that produce the films and chemistry will not discontinue their product ranges.
Semra: You have been exploring the idea of the four elements over several years. Do you plan to continue to develop your work along these lines? If so, what are you planning at the moment?
Per: Working on projects that involve a wider understanding of the elements is something that I will continue to pursue, and there are endless themes and phenomena to explore. After working on film and photo projects about air, fire, and earth, my next film project will be a continued exploration of the expanded ideas of the element earth as a protective force. I am specifically focusing on the house; the house of our birth and the house of our dreams, and the symbolic values of each different floor in the house, from the cellar to the attic. The piece is also based on Bachelard and a chapter in his essay “Earth and Reveries of Repose.” Hopefully I will be able to finish this by the end of this year, if I manage to find all the suitable locations to shoot, and the editing goes as planned.
Semra: What is your best personal quality and what is your worst personal quality?
Per: I think my best and my worst personal quality is that I am a perfectionist. My art prospers from this manic drive to achieve absolute perfection, but I can completely exhaust myself in the process. On a personal level, I think I can be too strict sometimes and demand too much from both people and experiences, be it an art exhibition or going to the opera.
Semra: What are you working on at the moment and what are your current projects?
Per: In 2018, I was offered a two-month residency at the Nordic Artists´ Centre in Dale, Norway, where I produced a series of black-and-white self-portraits exploring the idea of transformation of Man and Nature. The title of the series is I Can’t Leave These Trees, They Have Taken Some of My Soul, a quote from D. H. Lawrence´s 1922 essay “Fantasia of the Unconscious.”
These images are highly personal; some of them almost disturbing. The technique used was double-exposure of negatives, combining images of my naked body with tree roots and plants. This merging with organic material, myself being visually devoured by nature, can be seen as a continuation of my 2012 project Everlasting Material Pain, but in their intimacy and darkness they present a more crude and brutal transformation.
At the moment, I am preparing an installation piece for an exhibition in a 17th-century military fortress in Kongsvinger, Norway, to open in August 2019. The project is curated by the Norwegian curator Helga-Marie Nordby, and will be a group show, where each artist will transform his/her designated part of the former living quarters of the soldiers according to his/her own artistic interpretation of military life in these dingy, humid, almost ghostly spaces.
My personal inspiration was the tragic fate of so many of the (conscripted) soldiers that served there in the 17th and 18th centuries. Mortality rates were very high, not from partaking in actual military action, but due to starvation, disease, and horrific living conditions. Thinking of the lives of all these young men who died in vain fills me with utter sadness. My basic idea is to construct a tableau vivant consisting of compostable materials, like vegetables, flowers, and fruits, that will turn into compost over the duration of the exhibition, generating almost unendurable smells of rotting. A video piece will be one of the main elements of this installation, showing photographs of soldiers from the period 1850–1945. The photos are slowly deteriorating in chlorine baths until they vanish completely, accompanied by a sound track of whispering male voices reading out actual letters that soldiers wrote to their loved ones while they were in service.
Then All Flesh Is as Grass is the working title of my project, taken from Johannes Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem).
Feature Portrait of Per Christian Brown by Jens Jürgen, 2017