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19.09.2013 INTERVIEW

Miriam Bäckström: Smile as if we have already won, 2012, 290 x 1175 cm, Tapestry made of cotton, wool, silk. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Characters of a mirror lady - an interview with Miriam Bäckström

Swedish artist Miriam Bäckström emerged as a conceptual photographer in the 1990’s, best known for her images of empty interiors which tell a story in the absence of the individual. Bäckström’s more recent works explore the documentary and the fictional, interweaving narratives that create new and uncertain realities and identities.

She works with fictive characters as both form and material. The title piece for her current show at Nils Stærk Smile As If We Have Already Won depicts an endlessly reflective mirror landscape in which three female figures pose covered in mirror fragments.

The figures become visible as they reflect each other and mirror the space within the tapestry. Every character can only exist in relation to others but as reflections of each other, they start to show us their inner logic: their language, their truth and drives.

Miriam Bäckström (born 1967) lives and works in Stockholm. Selected exhibitions include: The Opposite of Me is I, Lunds Konsthall, Lund (2012), Mirrors, Nils Stærk, Copenhagen (2012), Mirrors, Gallery Niklas Belenius, Stockholm (2009), Betraktaren/The Viewer, Nils Stærk, Copenhagen (2006) and Allusive Moments, Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco (2007). In 2005 she represented Sweden at the Venice Biennale and collaborated with artist Carsten Höller.

AF Louise Steiwer

Please explain the title of the exhibition?
Smile as if we have already won means pretending that everything will be fine.
The three mirror figures which are the motif in the tapestry, are connected to another character which is - quite brutally - called The Motherfucker. I just completed a film about The Motherfucker, which is based on a performance that I did one year ago. This was at the same time, I made the tapestry and I realized that they in some way belonged together. In combination with The Motherfucker is very often The Victim, which is another character. These three mirror ladies represent another way of trying to deal with a relation with The Motherfucker.

The film is about a female director, who is probably a mirror woman, and she is inviting a male actor to perform The Motherfucker because she needs to meet him. The more mean and aggressive he is towards her, the happier she gets, because she stays in the role as the director, instead of becoming The Victim. And so he tries to trick her by saying that she has to join the play. She cannot stay in her comfort zone, because he will not be able to act, if she doesn't become his partner in the play. She then joins the play and she realize, that instead of becoming the sad person, that he is trying to turn her into, she starts to act like him, only thinking about her own benefit of every possible situation. In the end of the play she is just repeating everything he says in order to protect herself. So the title of the tapestry is basically her using his words. Like a mirror, one could say.

The role of The Director seems very similar to the way you work as an artist?
When I make a work I do it because I need to see the characters manifest themselves in front of me. I needed to see the mirror ladies, and therefore I did the tapestry in order to get further. So yes, it is very similar to The Director, that needs to have someone act out The Motherfucker in order to feel relief and let go of the character. That is a way for her to survive.

How come you decided to let the mirror ladies manifest themselves in a tapestry? To me it seems, that the texture of a tapetry is almost quite opposite to a mirror...
I have done one tapestry before and the reason why I started was because I wanted to do something in a big scale in order for the viewer to get lost. In a photograph you can often see most of the image at the same time, while in a cinematic situation, we become very involved in the image through time. I was thinking, that if I go up in scale within photography I would probably lose some of the details, that you can work with in a tapestry. You get close to see the details, but then you lose the overview, so you step back and lose the details. So it's a different image depending on where you stand.

Also, because photography has no surface, we tend to just fall into the image. We never discuss the surface. Of course you can say, it's glossy, but we tend not to. The surface of a textile is for me a real surface. I started by visiting this company, that uses huge weaving machines to manifacture a tapestry based on a computer image. They mostly do reproductions of old tapestries for churches and such, and when you combine that technic with older images it becomes kitsch, because we know, what a handwoven tapestry looks like - it's more like a painting, it's alive in another way. So I thought that these must be the perfect medias to combine, tapestry and photography, because photography is also not analogue anymore.

So I got into working with the graphic designer to find the points, where tapestry and photography could meet. It's interesting that when we stand in front of it, something happens, at least to me. I see the surface of the tapestry and I see the image at the same time. The images is bringing me into it's own reality. It becomes difficult for my brain to decide, what I'm looking at. It's like flickering; you go in and out of the images own reality because of the material.

How does the tapestry connect with the smaller works in the next room?
It's basically the same thing I've been working on with these works. I'm combining the negative and the positive sides of an image in a way, so that I use both components. It's not purely negative or positive. I've been playing with the components in a computer to find interesting points in the image, which can be positive. That is a similar interest to the one in the tapestry: To have two realities at the same time. In that way it becomes difficult for the brain to decide which one is the truth.

Does the motives of the original images matter at all?
Not as much in these particular works. They are more like playful sketches of something I'm trying out. I've done similar works before, but those were always portraits of different characters. This time I decided to use different group shots, that I've taken quite a long time ago. The group photograph is one of the most common situations for taking a picture, so for me it represents a return to the basic need for photography. But of course the motives are not completely random. Most of the pictures were taking in Rio during the carnival and show people dressed up like different characters, maybe acting out their own character or maybe in some cases the opposite; they are them selves for ones.

I year ago you had another show called Mirrors also at Nils Staerk, with some quite similar works, although those were all portraits. Are those works in some way connected to the mirror ladies from the tapestry?
Yes, I have been working with characters as a medium for a while and I started presenting the characters by doing mirrors. Whenever I got curious about a character, that I was writing about in order to try to understand it, I did an image of the character. The mirrors are like a fictional diary of my characters.

I have been writing a lot since 2004 in an attempt to develope these characters. I've been collecting situations and lines for each one of them and sometimes I've been writing an act to present them for me and acted it out in my studio to see how they'd function. The characters can be as simple as The Mother, which is someone we have all experienced and is a very functional character. I've noticed how a lot of women go into this character with great enthusiasm and then get lost in some way. They don't know how to get out of it, so when the kids leave their working character has disappeared. That is probably a situation, where you have to do something quite drastic, maybe divorce, in order to find yourself again.

At the moment I'm interested in The Child, because I have recently experienced some situations where I realized that a lot of the grown ups I'm working with are actually children. When I identify them as children it becomes much easier for me to handle the situations. So for me that is a new character, I'm going to work with. Of course The Child as a character has nothing to do with age…

What is the nature of these characters? Are they to be understood as stereotypical persons or as psychological terms...?
I see the characters mainly as images, that we take upon ourselves and use, develope, change and leave again. They are probably a language in themselves. If I present myself as The Artist then we speak in one way, but if I present myself as The Mother we speak in another way. So depending on what we want in the situation we go into a character. I think most of us have several characters that we shift between. Instead of looking at people as one whole person, it's interesting to look at what characters they contain. And of course I think that every character, that I'm interested in is probably a part of me in some way. For instance I've realized, that my name is one character, that I can go into and represent.

So you can kind of get trapped in the way you portrait yourself as a character?
Absolutely. The thing is that if you don't have a self or an I, the characters can become a bit dangerous, or the person can become dangerous, because they are following the drive of the character and not the drives of their personality and the danger is, that they don't even understand why they are doing it.

I have of course been studying myself and one of my main characters is The Surviver, because that is probably who my parents asked me to do - just survive, so that they didn't have to deal with it. And so this has been following me, so even today I've realized, that I still feel like I need something to fight against all the time, and that this could be a quite destructive behavior. I think, that if I identify this need to survive all the time, then I would be able to choose my battles much better.

I think, that if you are a free spirit, you don't need the characters. You can be yourself - or maybe that is just an illusion, I'm not sure. When you are not trapped in the character, that's when you can start playing with it. If you can go in and out of different roles according to the situations you get into, you can feel safe. But if you get trapped in it then you become this character and you have almost no other option than to act this out. Sometimes people continue to be this character even when they are in situations where it doesn't fit. For instance, I continue to be The Surviver, even when there's no threat around.

I've never studied psychology, but in some way I work within the same field. But I think that instead of going into an existing personality it can make sense to go into a character and deal with that. I hope in the end, that it will be possible for the viewer to get something out of the work, that they didn't understand before.

What kind of understanding would that be?
With The Motherfucker as an example, the reason why he's behaving the way he is, is to keep the honor of his mother. I think, that The Motherfucker is always looking for a strong woman to destroy and to turn into his mother, the victim, because if this strong woman stays strong and is able to deal with him, without turning into his mother, then his whole life and especially his childhood would be a lie. Then there would have been no real victim, because his mother always had another opportunity.

Would he still be a motherfucker if he met some woman, that he could not turn into a victim? What do you think would happen?
My experience is that he cannot change. He's so into protecting this lie of his mother being a victim, so if he meet a woman who's not a victim he would either kill her or he would die himself. The character would die.

What I think usually happens then is that he would take the role of his mother and become The Victim. Most characters people have is actually two characters in one, because they also always holds it's opposite. You need to have a part of its opposite in order to be able to identify a character. It makes no sense being The Victim if there's no perpetrators around.

I made a project where I invited another artist to do an exhibition for me. Over a period of a year I was documenting her trying to deal with the feeling that she was either using me or at least taking advantage of the situation. I had told her, that she could do whatever she wanted and that I would support it all both financial and with my works, contacts and name. During this one year she went from being The Artist, my colleague in a way, but after making a film where I was the director, she decided to go into the role of The Trainee. At the end of the project she defined herself as The Victim and me as The Perpetrator. I found it to be so interesting, that if someone defines himself as The Victim we immidiately start to look for The Perpetrator and even if there's no one or it's just a construction, we will find it because someone has to take this role. There's always two opposite characters in a situation and all the sudden they can swop. The Motherfucker can become The Victim if he looses the fight.

Thank you.  

Miriam Bäckström: Smile as if we have already won, 2012, 290 x 1175 cm, Tapestry mae of cotton, wool, silk. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Smile as if we have already won, 2012, 290 x 1175 cm, Tapestry made of cotton, wool, silk. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Smile as if we have already won, 2012, 290 x 1175 cm, Tapestry made of cotton, wool, silk. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Smile as if we have already won, 2012, 290 x 1175 cm, Tapestry made of cotton, wool, silk. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Smile As If We Have Already Won (installation view), 2013. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Smile As If We Have Already Won (installation view), 2013. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Smile As If We Have Already Won (installation view), 2013. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Smile As If We Have Already Won (installation view), 2013. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Smile As If We Have Already Won (installation view), 2013. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Negatives, 2013, 75 x 75 cm. Edition 1/1, Round C-print, silicon mounted on round optiwhite glass. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Negatives, 2013, 75 x 75 cm. Edition 1/1, Round C-print, silicon mounted on round optiwhite glass. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Negatives, 2013, 55 x 55 cm. Edition 1/1, Round C-print, silicon mounted on round optiwhite glass. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

Miriam Bäckström: Negatives, 2013, 80 x 80 cm. Edition 1/1, Round C-print, silicon mounted on round optiwhite glass. Foto: Erling Lykke Jeppesen.

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