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Interview: Maja Malmcrona's Phenomenology

Interview: Maja Malmcrona's Phenomenology

Lives and works in Zürich, Switzerland

Tell us about yourself, how did you become an artist?

The path that led me to where I am today is a rather crooked one. I have created art since I was a child and have dabbed into many different media over the years — including drawing, photography, writing, film, design, poetry, architecture, sculpture, and painting — and I went to university studying first architecture, then philosophy. I became a professional artist after these studies, my work being essentially a synthesis of architecture and philosophy.

No. 97. Charcoal, tea, ink, spray paint, newsprint, quartz sand, acrylic, plaster, paper, glue, canvas. 30 x 40 x 4,5 cm. 2021.

What is your background? and how did it inform the focus of your creative exploration or the medium you're currently working with?

During my architecture degree I was interested in phenomenology — that is our immediate, subjective, and conscious experience of space, and how manipulation of various spatial element works to alter this experience. This culminated in an exploration of the threshold which in architecture refers to a sort of boundary — between architecture and non—architecture, between architectural elements, or between differing sensations of space. These thresholds may be physical or mental, and I am interested in what happens to your experience when you diffuse or otherwise manipulate them.

In my philosophy degree I was primarily interested in the aesthetic experience, meaning one’s immediate emotional response to a work of art and its subsequent influence upon our reason. I was interested in how the aesthetic experiences correlate with the religious experience, and what conclusion we may draw from this correlation. I looked closely at the work of Rothko, Newman, and Reinhardt at this time, as well as Malevich, Kandinsky, and others. My work is still very much informed by these explorations today.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. 1947.

What ideas interested you in the beginning of your practice, which ideas have you continued to explore, and where have they led you?

Besides the ideas mentioned before, I am interested in subconscious processes and what may emerge when you let go of the need for control — surrendering, to some extent, to the work itself, allowing it to express itself freely (similar to the surrealists’ automatism). This question relates to the deeper one of the artist’s role itself — are we actual creators, or are we merely vehicles to allow the art to speak freely for itself?

"No. 68". Ink, acrylic, paper, and plaster on canvas. 60 x 60 x 4,5 cm.

In line with this I am also interested in the idea of submission. If you look within a work of art you will invariably see various conflicts played out — either between the ideas conveyed or between the visual elements themselves. Inevitably, some of these ideas or elements have to surrender to others. Does this battle also extend to the relationship between the artist and the artwork? We would like to think of the artist as the author of their work, but I think the work itself somehow has more agency thank what we’d often like to admit. This raises the question of who is actually in charge in the creation of a work of art — is it the artist or the artwork? If submission is indeed inevitable — who is actually submitting to whom?

Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Luciferian Towers. Studio album. 2017.

I’m also (perhaps unsurprisingly) interested in abstraction. The minimalists’ quest for essence is very interesting to me, but I disagree with their search for purity. I do understand the quest for something like a higher plane of experience through the removal of superficial externals, but an absolute abstraction completely abolishes the human experience. Though that is an interesting thought experiment, it is an impossibility. There is great potential in abstraction, but this abstraction must reside fundamentally in the real world — however gritty, paradoxical, and contradictory that real world is.

"No. 97". Tea, charcoal, ink, spray paint, newsprint, quartz sand, acrylic, plaster, paper, and glue on canvas. 30 x 40 x 4,5 cm.

Who were and are the biggest sources of your inspiration?

The short answer to that question is, anything. Cities, nature, books, ideas, and perhaps most importantly — human encounters. I do look at art all the time, be it on the in museums and galleries or on the internet, but I think the artist’s primary source of inspiration should be life itself, not the art world or other artworks. I read an interview with Sarah Sze a while back where she said of her work that it became interesting first when it stopped relating to art per se, and more to experiences completely unrelated to art. I think that’s true.

Rothko, Mark. No. 16 (Red, White and Brown). Oil on canvas. 252.2 x 207 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. 1957.

Where do you find inspiration?

I read a lot, and the ideas and emotions evoked through reading is definitely one of my main sources of inspiration. Huxley, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Camus, and Jung are some of my favourite authors, and they never cease to fill me with new ideas. Music is another source of inspiration, I prefer melodic over vocal, post—rock and contemporary classical being some of my favourite genres. Art—wise I often look to the abstract expressionists (like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman) not just for their art, but their writings. One of my favourite contemporary artists is Sarah Sze (whom I mentioned before). She too has a background in architecture and seems to be exploring many of the themes I am interested in — perhaps that explains why I’m so intrigued by her work. I’m also very drawn to the twisted, deformed reality of Jesse Draxler’s collage portraits.  I often (unsurprisingly, given my background) look to architecture as well, and I’m quite interested in the potential of paper architecture — that is, architectural works that only exist on paper, often rather idealistic and utopian (or dystopian) in nature. Alexander Brodsky’s etchings of unbuildable, labyrinth—like palaces are examples of this, or Tadao Ando’s (though initially conceived as a real—life project) Urban Egg.  Beyond this I would say most of my inspiration comes from simply being in the world — interacting with it, beating yourself up against it, and allowing yourself to really feel all of its inherent discrepancies and contradictions. Perhaps this is especially true of large cities, but I am deeply influenced by nature too. I grew up by the ocean in Sweden and now live in Switzerland with all its vast mountain ranges. It’s an interesting comparison actually — the ocean and the mountains. I understand the ocean in a way I do not at all understand the mountains.You can sink into the former, dwell in it, dissolve into it — but the mountains are somehow always unreachable, completely immobile and yet ever—changing, always escaping your gaze, and transforming right in front of your eyes. The ocean, to me, has a predictability to it that the mountains don’t (however contradictory that may seem). 

No. 87. Mixed media, tea, charcoal, spray paint, ink, newsprint, acrylic, glue, plaster, canvas. 70 x 70 x 4 cm. 2021.

Is there are a single work, project, or series that is pivotal in your current trajectory?

Each and every one of my works have taught me something important. A few do stand out more than the others — perhaps especially No. 87, No. 97, and No. 100.

No. 97. Charcoal, tea, ink, spray paint, newsprint, quartz sand, acrylic, plaster, paper, glue, canvas. 30 x 40 x 4,5 cm. 2021.

How did it begin? and how did it evolve?

No. 87 began as something completely different than how the finished piece ended up. After working on it for a couple of months I figured it was finally complete, so I hung it up on my studio wall and left it. It remained there for some three months and though I had decided it was finished I kept glancing at it. Though I couldn’t put my finger on what, something felt off, yet I was afraid I would regret making changes to it in case I would make it worse. Then one day in a spur—of—the—moment decision I took it down from the wall, shattered the plaster texture with a hammer, poured paint all over it, and began again. A few days later it came out anew, and this time it felt right immediately, as if something had at last fallen into place.

With No. 97 the story was somewhat similar — it was hanging on my wall seemingly complete, it had gotten good response from others, yet something did not feel quite right. One day I decided to get back to work on it, and immediately it all made sense. I think both of these works really helped me to understand the importance of resilience, not being afraid to make mistakes, and actually listening to yourself. If something doesn’t feel right,it usually isn’t — and these works helped me really grasp the importance of that, an understanding that has helped me immensely.

No. 100. Tea, paper, glue, acrylic, spray paint, quartz sand, canvas. 50 x 70 x 4,5 cm. 2021.

No. 100 began as an experiment. I had been working on various washes in its early stages but was really dissatisfied with the direction it was heading. I wanted to achieve a better balance between the rich texture and some strict geometry, a sort of exploration of how far disorder can be pushed without disintegrating into mere chaos. I was completely lost in how to go about the next step so I did something quite risky, and it completely failed. Something was wrong in the composition of my materials so the entire thing literally disintegrated. Yet, upon looking at it the day after, it turned out it had done exactly what I had intended it to do. It taught me yet again the importance of pushing at ideas even if they feel hopeless, and that if you are stuck — just do something, anything at all. Though it may turn out to be a mistake, you really never know what may emerge on the other side.

Photo courtesy of Maja Malmcrona

What were important lessons in the process that you’ve carried forward with you?

The most important lesson for me so far has been about consistency, and the importance of getting down to work every day, no matter what. Even if you feel completely trapped and without a clue of how to go about the next step, make a move — it doesn’t matter what it is or how it turns out. Walking backwards is preferable to standing still.

No. 100. Tea, paper, glue, acrylic, spray paint, quartz sand, canvas. 50 x 70 x 4,5 cm. 2021.

What are you working on now?

I am currently exploring what I think of as inversions — works on canvas that express a kind of negative space. I’m interested in the idea of a canvas being a sort of portal into another (mental) space, and I’m wondering about the literal embodiment of this idea. A friend of mine recently told me that one of my recent works reminded him of a deep door. “You’ve alluded to doors before — why is that?” I asked him. “I like doors”, he mused, “they are mysterious. What’s behind them?” Perhaps that inquiry really is the essence of what it is I’m trying to do.

"No. 98". Tea, charcoal, spray paint, ink, newsprint, glue, quartz sand, and acrylic on wood. 17,5 x 25 x 2 cm.

If you could go back in time to the very beginning of your art practice and give your younger self a single piece of advice what would it be?

Be patient.

"No. 82". Ink, acrylic, quartz sand, glue, newsprint, paper, and cardboard on canvas. 50 x 60 x 4,5 cm.

About the Artist

Based in Zürich, Switzerland

Maja Malmcrona is a contemporary artist born 1993 in Göteborg, Sweden. After finishing a BFA degree in architecture in Sweden, her interest in abstract ideas brought her to the United Kingdom where she earned a MSc degree in philosophy. During these studies she explored art as the meaning—giving substance of our contemporary culture, akin to that of the religious experience. This cemented her artistic practice which she has relentlessly pursued since. Maja’s work revolves primarily around textural works on canvas and is of a highly visceral nature, characterised by an open—ended process of experimentation and uncertainty. Her work is held by collectors worldwide. She currently lives and works in Zürich, Switzerland.

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