In the Studio with Joanne

A few weeks ago, I caught artist Joanne Grune-Yanoff in her studio busily preparing for some future projects. This is what our conversation looked like:

KH: Joanne, when we first met, you mentioned that people who have traced the evolution of your practice from the U.S. to Scandinavia have commented on a significant shift in your aesthetic. How would you characterize this shift? Is it purely aesthetic, or is there a philosophical / ideological element to it, in terms of the themes you explore in your work?


JGY: I have been told that since my move to Scandinavia my work has become more concentrated, more pristine, and more direct in its references. That could be. Living as an ex-pat allows a constant invitation to play the part of observer. It also permits an empathy that is not restricted to place, nationality or belief. It’s an insider/outsider state that I think is the norm for most artists, magnified.

As to the “aesthetic” and the “philosophical/ideological”, those are for me not easily partitioned. I explore consistent themes — hidden thoughts, secret urges, a certain interest in communication and isolation. To find my ground I engage with the world around me, and then I retreat and take in the vast forests here, the ice covered seas, long shadows and endless grey days, then bright sun and ecstatic life and blue skies through the night – contrasts that are at once restrained and abundant, controlled and unleashed. From there I go inward and through to start making things.

During the period that I worked as an Interiors photographer, I was completely dependent on natural light. I didn’t fully appreciate how different daylight could be -with respect to character & intensity- until I left Scandinavia and spent a few months working in New York where I hated the light, in spite of loving the City. In your experience as a visual artist, would you say there a special character in the light (or lack of light) in Stockholm and if so, how has this influenced your practice?

JGY: The intensity of the light here, in its plenty and in its sparseness, is a palpable force. I spend a lot of time watching the skies, which can be startling blue or hovering deep grey, oppressive or uplifting; rarely trifling. The uncompromising clarity in the extremes that inhabit the skies here is impressive, and calls for a certain stripped-down approach to getting at the work.

KH: Your practice spans across a number of different media, so, as opposed to a painter whose material starting point is pigment and some form of surface, your process begins with any number of possible material starting points. What determines which media you will use to tell your story?

JGY: I generally have a sort of craving when I begin: An idea surfaces, accompanied by a sense of urgency, along with a relatively clear image. As I work through the piece, variations emerge, again with a certain exigency. Usually, in the end, one work gives way to a series of different iterations in different media, each circling around the next.

KH: The various media & material you incorporate into your practice is often characterised by duality. Eggshells, strong, yet fragile… Paper, sharp, yet subtle… Skeletons, robust, yet easily broken and depicted as transparent… (I am thinking of the recurring x-ray images in your work). What can you say about these dualities?

JGY: I am interested in common human states that contain dichotomies (i.e. need for community/ individuality, fragility/strength, interior world/exterior presentation, etc), and I am drawn to specific materials that can act as a means for thinking through these concepts.

KH: I have understood that when you work with opposites and contrasts (like natural objects in a man-made context), you are saluting the theory of cognitive dissonance. Can you expand on this?

JGY: This idea has played a part in my work for some time, which eventually prompted me to collaborate with the scientist Konstantinos Katsikopoulos, who focuses on cognitive psychology. We created a dialogue that was woven into exhibitions of my work in Berlin at Satellite Berlin and the Max Planck Institute.

Can you explain this theory, in simple terms?

JGY: Festinger’s premise, as I understand it, is that when we experience two things at the same time, which are in conflict with each other, that creates a state called cognitive dissonance. We feel this dissonance acutely, like hunger or thirst, and want to change that in an effort to create a state of harmony.

KH: Would you say that presenting your audience with this kind of discord is a way of involving them in your work and even an invitation to complete the work, by trying to find harmony?

JGY: I think that the works, like the audience, contain discordance as well as harmony. I hope that they offer an invitation to participate in acts of creative rebellion. To imagine that an inappropriate action might bring about transformation seems like good fun and might bring about a moment’s balm. Within such a moment, maybe the actor can find a strength that, in time, can create an internal shift after all.

KH: Your Art commonly explores themes that I would characterise as very human – They are easy to relate to, as they touch on everyday experiences and behaviours that your audiences are likely to have encountered elsewhere. Does your process ever detour away from being human-centred, and into unknown territory – like perhaps the super-natural? I guess I am thinking that maybe Nordic culture, which is strongly influenced by mythology, may have crept into your practice somewhere….

JGY: I like that part of our humanness contains the urge to create myths, to believe in the incantations that we are impelled to create, to weave our desires into the stories of ourselves. My work often is sparked by a yearning to transform. I make props that are meant to serve as a means to transport their user into a different state. These works serve as talismans and incantations, to conjure a desired state.

As usual, you currently have several projects on the go. I know that you recently collaborated with the Stockholm Symphony…. Can you tell me about this?

JGY: Some time ago, Stockholm Syndrome Ensemble asked me to create a video to accompany their performance of Piano Quartet by the composer Peteris Vasks. That was a galvanizing experience for me. They are a tremendously talented group of musicians, and it was exciting to open my very private practice and collaborate with them. Since then, I have woven many collaborations into my work (including the aforementioned with Konstantinos Katsikopoulos), and each one has been inspiring.

I know that music plays a strong role in your family life – Has it overlapped with your artistic practice several times, or was this project unique?

JGY: Most recently I created set design for Kurtåg’s Kafka Fragmente at Dramaten here in Stockholm, which was a collaboration on many levels — the music of Kurtag, the texts of Kafka, the direction of Lizzie Scheja, the musicians Elin Rombo & Anders Kjellberg Nilsson, the lighting of Tomas Franck, the crew at Dramaten … It was a tremendous experience to work amongst all that energizing talent, and one that certainly impacted my work.

KH: It sounds like you have your hands full. I almost hesitate to ask… Do you have anything else in the pipeline at the moment?

JGY: I am currently working on a large-scale solo installation for Alma Löv Museum, as well as an installation there with TN10, which is an on-going collaborative project I have with the NYC based artist Warren King. Following that, a solo exhibition at Edsvik Konsthall.

Lastly, dream project for the future?

JGY: Plenty that are outcome oriented, but the overarching dream project is one that involves many steps, is continually engaging, and lasts another 50 or so years.

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