"I hope it forces some to reflect on the impossible situation of the  dark times we live in." An Interview with Eva Kragh Petersen

Stopping to consider the intimacy of pain in a world beyond our control

Published: November 10, 2018Words: Eva Kragh Petersen & Macon HoltInstagram: @eva_kragh

If you have walked around the different neighborhoods of Copenhagen in the last year or so, you have probably seen the work of Eva Kragh Petersen (along with that of Maria Teilgård) plastered on the disused doorways and street utilities juxtaposed with quotes from poems by the radical Danish poet, Inger Christiansen. The poem’s express the sadness and pain of living in a world that cannot seem to quash the compulsion to perpetuate suffering, and the intensive forms of Kragh Petersen’s becoming deformed figures underscores these thoughts and elevates their sensuousness to a point that is almost unbearable.

Kragh is an artist, illustrator for Eftertryk and Respons Community and activist based in Copenhagen. The project described above is one example of the latter activity Kragh is willing to divulge to me, which makes sense as it has already caught the attention of the BBC. As a self-taught artist, Kragh Petersen spent many years drawing inspiration from many other creative and scholastic endeavors before she decided that drawing and painting were her means of expressing these things. To that end, she’s as likely to draw inspiration from the icons of the Russian Orthodox Church, radical philosophy she is the hard sultry rock of Queens of the Stone Age and her own glimpses into the lives of others as she is the artworks of her artistic influences like Raimond Staprans, Benjamin Björklund, Nicolas Uribe and Elly Smallwood.

When I first came across her work, staring at the infinite scroll of Instagram, the first reference the struck me was Francis Bacon. But whereas his figures in oils were deformed by their historical position coming after two world wars and continuing social repression of desire, which smeared them almost into the fabric of their word, Kragh Petersen’s subjects are clearly of a different time. A time in which anxiety and pain have turned inward as the notion of history, such as it was has vanished from their lives. Bodies, here, are now being refracted back to themselves through the mirrors of ubiquitous mediation, networks of human capital, the urge to impress that come from precarity and the nagging sensation that in a few years the world as we know it may come to an end. The outlines are in place now and are only to be exceeded at your own peril.

Despite the alienation of her subjects, Kragh Petersen clearly feels a deep connection to them. Whatever it is that has put them under such distress, Kragh Petersen’s depictions of them are intended to share their burden not add to it. Her work reveals an artist who is perhaps dangerously able to empathize with the suffering she sees around her. The particularity and the intensity of her line work, clearly show that as much as she is able to capture the experience of others this process of transferring it to paper implicates her in this sensation as well. She is less an observer than she is a comrade right there with you. I caught up with Eva Kragh Petersen to ask about her process and practice, how she understands her work and what role she thinks it plays in the struggles being lived through right now.

Most of your work is based on figures; particularly exaggerations of the human form. What is that fascinates you about bodies and what are you trying to draw out from them in your work?

The thing about creating human forms is that it is a highly emotional process. I never know how it’s going to look before I start, so when the body emerges and takes form, I have to make a lot of decisions that are informed by emotions. A quiet figure, a numb body can be the expression of so many things, which is why we see it everywhere. I think my job in contributing to this specific cultural behaviour has to do with exposing the human body as weak, lonely and desperate—I think of it not so much in an existentialist fashion, but more as means of exposing the fascist and liberal ideal of the strong, independent and autonomous individual.

With a few notable exceptions, much of your work is composed of line in ink with maybe a little shading and often in one color. Despite that material simplicity, they really capture a sense of spontaneity and sensual intensity. What is it that you’re exploring with this technique?

I’ve sort of developed my own technique where I use the linseed oil as paint on a brush of its own and by doing that I can create some really subtle shading. Because the effects of the brushstrokes are so subtle it allows me to really get in there and see what happens. It’s important to me to be physical with my paintings, I don’t like only using brushes so I use all kinds of stuff to apply paint including my hands. I do it because I think it looks better but also because I love getting dirty. It lets me explore and lose some control, which I think is really important for the kind of image I’m looking for. If you fuck it up, you can just put some more on—I guess I use this technique to be able to work in this way. I don’t like the sort of steady and careful techniques, I feel like I’m steady and careful in most other aspects of life, at least since becoming a parent.

Your work has been used by both activist groups and media publications, but to me, your work more resembles the work of Francis Bacon than it does something one finds in most magazines. Could you explain why you like to work in this way and what you think juxtaposing such striking and arresting images with texts can do?

Well, what I’m hoping it does is leave some space for reflection for the reader. Fast scroll-through apocalyptic news has become a part of everyday life and it is expected that we should somehow rationally read, stay calm and go on with our day but, at least for me, this has become impossible. I remember sitting on my couch breastfeeding my then two-month-old son watching Trump getting elected president. That shit changes you. I want to show the readers that they are not alone in their feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and despair. After all, having this reaction and staying with it is necessary for dealing with it. However, the image is open for interpretation and it might not be your own despair you find but others—but I hope it forces some to reflect on the impossible situation of the cut-off autonomous individual when it comes to facing the stuff that makes the news in the dark times we live in.

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You previously studied the history and sociology of religion for many years and you have said elsewhere that you are, in particular, fascinated by the iconography of the Russian Orthodox church. What is it about these figures that you find so intriguing and how do you think it has influenced the way you construct your own work?

First of all, it has to be said that though I love the iconography I do not sympathize with the institution of the church at all. Neither do I consider myself a Christian or anything like that. But I like history and I like weird stories, and iconography has all of that contained within the art of portraiture. I don’t think I would have given portraiture a second thought if it wasn’t for the icons. I use the idea of how it is more important for a portrait to show someone trying to tell you something through a glimpse of a story, rather than it being about realistically resembling someone great. Icons invite you to reflect on stories and I find this a very useful way to think about portraiture and perhaps my work is, in some way, coming up with new saints, however, mine are not martyrs or heroes, they are tender and dissolving into some form that is other than human. They are not strong in their faith, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s like something’s happened to them and they have no control anymore. But there is also another aspect to the icons that I really like which is that they also function as amulets with magical abilities with a potential of animating reality. This magical ability doesn’t go away even if it is not an original painting—it is just as present in a plastic keychain you buy from the local market. I guess when my paintings are featured in magazines, I sort of use this. Like the icons, my images are out to animate reality and challenge the strong hegemony surrounding the myth of the independent individual and like the icons, this ability isn’t lost if you just see it on your smartphone screen.

 

Where are you hoping to take your work in the future? How do you see both the themes you engage with and your practice developing?

I really want to improve my craftsmanship when it comes to colour. I would love to get to a point where I feel as comfortable with exploring and experimenting with many colours as I am with drawing and monochromatic painting. Also, I want to make larger and more spatial works in the future. When it comes to themes, I always have a million ideas but what seems to really define what I actually end up working and engaging with depends on whatever direction my surroundings (activist communities, political changes and so on) lead me to. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m the one who’s in charge when it comes to that, all I can do is trust and improve my craftsmanship and apply my abilities to engage with whatever may come.