"There’s something profane in the human notion that there is anyone who is sacred.” An Interview with Helena Sokol

An examination of the profane in the sacred in Helena Sokol's first solo show I C U Smiling.

Published: September 17, 2018Words: Helena Sokol & Macon HoltInstagram: @hunter_sokol

Exhibition Details: September 1 - 22Exhibition Information: I C U SmilingPhotographs: Carsten Nordholt & J.Scott Stratton

It used to be that to declare oneself a vegetarian was an act of deviance. But for Helena Sokol, growing up in a household where vegetarianism was the norm, meat became the locus of taboo. Something to desire, something of a body, something to be consumed, but also something of death. So, with this intense intersection of all that is dark and inexpressible about human psychology thrust upon something as quotidian as the meat section of the supermarket, it is easy to see why Sokol gravitated towards surrealism throughout her art education. And it is also easy to see why her works include the more familiar pop sensibilities of cartoons and horror fiction. There is something revealing about this collision of desire, horror, and banality in her work, and it’s less about Sokol herself, but instead, more about all of us and what we choose to keep quiet about.

For a time, Sokol had considered giving up her artistic practice. Between her job at a Copenhagen art gallery, where the professional art scene seemed to serve as a disincentive to pursue this vocation, and beginning her studies at the business school, the time and the drive seemed to disappear. But following the tragic death of a friend who had always supported her art in the San Francisco Ghost Ship fire of 2016, these obstacles no longer seemed so big.  She returned to her practice, both to help her process her grief but also to honor his memory.

I C U Smiling is Sokol’s first solo show. It is hosted by the Lurendrejeren art collective in Copenhagen’s Nordvest district, a far cry from Ritz and regalia of the state and private galleries in the city’s center. Situated amongst some former, and some still operating, industrial buildings and apartments, entering this art space feel as if you’re entering somewhere incredibly intimate. Of course, it is to be expected that an opening, particularly for the first solo show, would be populated by friends of the artist, but the atmosphere here was beyond that. It felt like a very real community. And space itself, felt as if some generous soul had donated their own apartment to be the venue at the expense of its livability. But the curation was utterly professional; paintings delicately affixed to the wall, spaced with precision and care, replicas of t-bone steaks and strings of sausages, carefully molded and painted, hung from the ceiling, and, at the makeshift bar, negronis were on the menu.

The opening night also featured a performance, featuring Sokol herself with her collaborators Alba Liv and Audience Member Fouroseven, which transfixed the audience. Dressed in transparent black body stockings, complimented with clown makeup and a nun’s coif, the performers writhed over Sokol, but in the controlled manner of contemporary dance practice, contact improvisation. The silence that had followed their ritualistic entrance to techno music was punctuated, then, only by the intensity of the performers’ breaths as they wrap Sokol in bandages, securing hunks of raw meat to her body. Sokol herself wore an expression of ecstasy on her face that was also, intriguingly, so proximate to horror. This seemed to be an utterly intensive concentration of everything that was going on on the pieces of paper surrounding her. During this performance, it became very clear that Helena Sokol is up to something very different from anything else I have seen in this city before. And with the wry humor that permeates her artworks, it is hard to think she is not a little bit aware of it and excited by this fact.

The exhibition is on at Lurendrejeren for the rest of the month (until September 30th) and access can be arranged by appointment. I caught up with Helena after the opening to gain some insight into her complex work.

Serendipitous Soulmates, above My Future Shines Brighter Than a Thousand Suns

I think we can’t really beat around the bush. There are a lot of nuns and klansmen in your work. On a really simple level, what is going on there?

The nuns have been part of my work for a long time. I have often been asked if I have ever had some kind of experience with religious, but my family was not, and neither was I. My family in America, where I was also an exchange student, was though and I think that environment, even as a 15 years old, made a very big impression on me. Mind you, my time in the US as a student was not with Catholic nuns, but with Evangelists—very different, and there were certainly no nuns about (unfortunately! That would have been much more interesting!). I think that atmosphere left a big impression, the endless commitment, the loyalty, the purity and how it fitted with the American Dream, their attitudes and their aesthetics. Although I might not have been able to express these thoughts as a 15-year old, I think it comes up in my works now.

The nuns for me are interesting on two levels. There’s the purely expressive—their clothes, their postures, the way they organize themselves. The robes are so simple, yet so inviting, which is ironic, as they are supposed to cover and remain clean. It is as if they work against themselves. Some of them are also rather over the top, with large hats or knotwork, or jewelry. Their positions are also very strong, with hands raised or lying down, sitting and kneeling. Their faces particularly; always in either extreme bowed down or up in prayer. I always found them to be a very strong symbol for a woman, both as an independent entity and as a submissive figure to a male dominance.

The clansmen are not really klansmen as in they are in the KKK. For me, they are a male force, both terrifying and ridiculous. Some of them become almost like spirits or ghosts, symbolizing a sense of chaos. Others are lost souls, waiting to be directed, or seemingly unsure of their position in society.

All that said, there are no works where the two elements meet, which is something I have noticed myself, and I think they individually carry a narrative that I don’t want to combine. They are both trying to find themselves, but they do it alone.

The notion of combining the sacred and the profane has become something of an artistic cliché, even if it can still be shocking. But in your work, I feel like I noticed something else. For example, in “Joyous Descent” there is this Madonna/Nun figure but with a horrific smile scraped in paint where a face should be, and it looks as if this face could fall off at any moment exposing something terrifying. Below though, there is an adorable 1920s cartoon devil dancing. So, it seems to me like you want to find the profane in the sacred and vice versa rather than just juxtaposing them. Could you say something about this combination?

It is quite the cliché, yes, but I find that the two aren’t as separate as they may seem. There’s something profane in the human notion that there is anyone who is sacred, or pure. It’s a distinctly human concept that there are categories of good and evil. In my work, I explore where the two are one—that one cannot exist without the other.

There’s something very calming about realizing that the darkness within one self is not terrifying, but somehow ridiculous, just like only wanting to be happy is. That’s why many of the depictions of “evil forces” in my work are inspired by the cartoon devils from the 1920’s. These are cheeky little fuckers, and shy ones, too, sometimes. We’ve always strived to anthropomorphize the abstract concepts around us. And sometimes, it’s comforting to think that these made up “good and evil” creatures also mess up.

What a Tremendous Party!

At the opening, I mentioned to you that your work made me think about a world in which the Chapman Brothers had human emotions. What I meant by this is that you have all these layers dark irony at play but still underneath these something painful and maybe even hopeful that can’t be covered up entirely. Can you tell me how you see the relationship between sincerity and irony at play in your work?

It’s a very fine line. I mentioned that much of my early work came out as a sort of catharsis for me, a way to visualize and categorize my emotions about my world and how I see it. Lots of things have happened to me throughout my life which I haven’t been able to fully put words to, or even wrap my head around, and I think irony is a way of covering up a pain. You joke about it or become misanthropic in a way which may seem to some people kind of funny. After all, it’s not like I don’t want to spend time with people. However, the irony that covers up sincerity is dangerous. It’s something to hide behind. Therefore, I always want to give a hint of hope or let my despair shine through in the work. It can’t all be just fun and games. I want people to know they are not alone in trying to figure darkness out. But that it should not be a hidden process, and happiness is not always the end result, although you can hope for it.

So many artists hate titling their work and so we end up with a procession of “Untitled”s with a list of materials. Looking over the exhibition catalog, which features pieces called “You’re fucked little man”, “Folie á Deux: diptych”, “Little Piggy, little fatty, let me come in”, and “Entropy Reigns”, it seems you relish the titling process. How do you see your titles interacting with your artworks?

I love titling my work. It’s essential to me and to the work, I feel. For me, the title is an underlining of the atmosphere I want to communicate. I want people to look at my titles and lose hope. I want them to see the humor behind the seriousness. For me, it’s a way to direct a thought process of the viewer. That said, you should be able to look at my work without seeing the title and still feel like the story is open to interpretation. I don’t want to close the work completely, which is what some artists feel titles do. I see it as opening a door, and people can choose themselves whether to take a peek or not.

I also feel like each word has a sound which leads the thoughts somewhere—like onomatopoeia to some extent. Or maybe it’s all in my head. Who knows? It may also be that I already know the meaning of these word in the context of my work, and it strengthens itself every time I say it out loud. Either way, I feel like the titles grow into the works and become inseparable. Their interpretation merges and morphs with time.

Evil Arrives at the Motel

The piece “All the things I love about you”, which features 35 photorealistic pencil drawings of various legal drugs, is somewhat reminiscent of pieces by Damien Hirst and others who reproduce pharmaceuticals. But it seems that you are trying to mine something more uncanny and perhaps more uncomfortable, as the gap between the real object and the reproduction is made a little wider by the pencil technique and scaling up of the objects. What were you exploring when you decided to draw all these pills?

Originally, I was thinking of a conversation I had with my friend Oliver, who was telling me about this concept of “functional friendships”, in which we organize ourselves and our friends according to different needs. It may sound cold, but if I need confidence, I will surround myself with people who will support me and give me confidence. I took this further and thought about how people may organize their friendships along the lines of medicine. It seems to me that so many of the people around me have some kind of legal or illegal drug that I can call upon if needed. A friend of a friend has study drugs, another has something for anxiety, and some have MDMA etc. That’s also where the title came to me. “All the things I love about you” is a declaration of love to this fantastic network of people who all provide for each other. It’s also an ironic nod to the people whose love becomes directed more towards the things that other people can provide them materially, rather than towards the people themselves.

After researching more, the meaning extended towards a fascination with the fact that these pills had such aesthetically interesting qualities to them. The colors, the sleek shapes, the fonts and extra decoration etc.. It seemed to me, every single pill had their own personality, screaming for attention, even though many were made up of the same chemicals. They were packaged differently, and much of the success of the pill depended on the company who made them. Pfizer, Eli Lily, Pliva… some of these are known to everybody, some not. But there’s an attraction to them. The names in themselves are spellbinding. It seems many of them, to me, are feminine and enigmatic, almost as if they were made to compel you to take them.

This is also only part of it. There is an almost unstoppable force of pills in movies, particularly in the US, where desperation seems to play a big role. You have everything from people taking pills by the handful to sensually transferring pills on the tongue through kiss in a nightclub. These portrayals of pills are what interested me in them.

Left Alba Liv, center Helena Sokol, right Audience Member Fouroseven

The opening night of the exhibition also featured a performance piece by you, Alba Liv and Audience Member Fouroseven, which seemed informed by practices like contact improvisation but with eroticism and, somehow simultaneously, its repression turned up to a really high degree. Writhing quasi-naked young female bodies in clown makeup and nun accessories, combined with the look of ecstasy on your face as raw meat is bandaged to your body, seems very consistent with the themes of horror, disgust, and enjoyment found in your paintings and drawings. How do you see this connection between the performance and the fixed media works, and is this an avenue you wish to explore further?

It’s funny that this performance became very eroticized. We based many of our movements on contact-improv, which in rehearsals were more sensitive and careful than erotic. However, the opening night’s performance suddenly became very erotic, and we all just kind of rolled with it.

I wanted to create a performance that encapsulated some of the elements of my works. I took the most consistent features, the nuns, the devils and the meat, and tried to find a way to realize these things. I wanted there to be a clear transition from simply being innocent and pure to give up these illusions of categories of good and evil and become a whole person. The bondage procedure became a way of collecting myself and creating awareness of my body—something which we normally don’t really have, and sometimes don’t want. We are oversexualizing many different things in our society, and it is creating a gap as to where we see ourselves placed in it. The meat became a symbol of this too—this awareness of desire, of bodily limits and of darkness, too. To be forced to realize one’s own desire for darkness is a difficult process, but it pays off in the end. Your old self may see your new self as ugly and deformed, but the reality is that you’re not. You’re just free from society’s conceptualizations of how you should behave.

I don’t know if I will explore it further, but I am still taking in the experience and trying to find my place in performance. I still need to realize this artform’s potential in terms of what I’d like to tell, and that takes time.

What’s next?

I will be continuing to draw and create work in my own time. Although it is nice to have a deadline, I still feel like I use my art as a channel for my emotions, and that is sacred space. I don’t want to feel like I need to create art for others. It is almost coincidental in my head if I make something that people like. But I feel so much more seen, now that I’ve had an exhibition, and that is something I’d love to experience again. It feels as if people know me more than they did before.

I think I will explore sculpture more, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I particularly would like to get into porcelain and multimedia sculptures, working with wood, glass, and clay. But all in my own time. I’m not busy, and I don’t think I’ll be running out of ideas anytime soon. After all, I’ve already embraced my desire for gloom, and if there’s something this world has unlimited resources of, it’s darkness.