Article by Elvia Pyburn-Wilk, Photos by Chloe Richard
Magni Borgehed is a painter originally from Sweden who currently lives and works in Berlin. He has studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Umeå, Sweden, and at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Städelschule in Frankfurt. Borgehed’s work has been described as “a vortex of color, a Bermuda Triangle in the endless sea of pictorial meaning.” We met at his Pankow studio in February to talk about his current work – plus chickens, phenomenology, and some other things.
Elvia Pyburn-Wilk: You have a lot of extra clothes in your studio. Do you change into different outfits to work on different paintings?
Magni Borgehed: Ha! No, but I’ve heard that some use that as a trick. Right now, I’m half living in my studio. I don’t like having two different places for living and working — the best things often happen when I’m not trying to do something good. Going to the studio to make art for an hour or two and then going home just wouldn’t work.
Have you always been a painter? Where was your first studio?
I have tried out different mediums, but painting always came back as a very direct and challenging way of expressing something. I think my first “studio” was in the second floor in my parents’ house in Sweden. Then a bit later I cleaned out the old chicken coop and turned it into a studio.
You had chickens? Where exactly did you grow up?
My mom grew up on a small farm in southern Sweden about 50 kilometers south of the town Växjö, and when she was little they had some chickens. When I was 12 or something I bought some dwarf chickens on my own and fixed up a little place for them…every year there were more and more. They where walking around totally free until unfortunately the fox killed them all in the end. I remember it as a very happy time though.
What did you want to be when you were little, living on the farm?
I don’t dare to tell you… but when I was very little, I wanted to be an archaeologist… as everybody does.
My mom is an archaeologist, so I never really wanted to be one…
It’s very exiting and mystical, like being in Indiana Jones.
I think a lot of your work is very mystical, actually. But your most recent painting, which is still (maybe?) unfinished, is different, and it’s very refreshing to me. Most of your work has a certain lightness or wit, but this one is actually funny – it made me laugh when I looked at for the first time. It almost seems like you were having a silly conversation with yourself when you were making it. Is humor something you aim for?
Yes, it’s very important. A piece of art without humor would be like a person without humor — horrible. I guess the humor might be a bit “hidden” in some of my older pieces, but I’m trying to uncover that hidden funniness now. The humor shows a distance from certain things; it comments on itself, but hopefully in a very open way, so you are given an easier way into the work.
You and I have spoken in the past about how contemporary painting is burdened with a certain responsibility to justify itself, to be more than just a painting, but to actually advance the idea of painting in history. Your work is so much about the surface – so much so that you have even tried cutting the canvas off the stretcher to be flatter and have more immediate contact with the wall – does this need for flatness have to do with a reaction against painting as an idea as opposed to a material reality?
In fact, what I’m trying to do is to erase those two concepts, or merge them in to a new being – to make life into practice. The flatness of the canvasses is about retaining the notion of the paintings as images and not objects, which has to do with the painting as an idea. I like how you can build up a canvas with gesso until it becomes something of its own as a material, which you then can fill with color. Painting on a board, for example, would make it more of an object, and when you do that it often feels like, “Hello, here I’ve been painting on a board!” A two-dimensional image, with all its different perceptual possibilities and its history, is the ultimate way to combine idea and material reality for me. If I were only interested in the experience of the material, I would drive very fast on the highway (as Michel Fried said), or stand around in a river in the middle of nowhere, fly fishing.
Maybe you are a bit mystical…you and I have talked before about phenomenology, about the mystery of perception and experience. Whether or not the mystical stuff is explicitly part of your work, there is a real sense of material immediacy in what you do, and you do occasionally use words like power and presence when talking about your paintings. How do you think about the psychological and physical reactions you want to provoke in your viewer? How do you get us to stay present?
I don’t think so much about the viewer, I think that if I stay present, surprised and wondering – mostly laughing – I believe that other people also might. When that happens it might seem mystical or magical, but I guess it’s pretty logical in the end. If I start to think about the viewer, I end up in a universal language or on the highway again, or thinking about something very narrow and local – a process which comes too much out of linguistics.
I was going to ask you about linguistics and language, but I think first I want to ask about risk and play. Your paintings maintain this difficult tension between randomness and control, between deliberate mark-making and unintentional occurrence. Is that aspect a necessary mechanism to keep yourself guessing? Do you use accidents as a tool to stay mindless enough? How do you manage to get out of your own way and keep risking new things?
Yes, it’s a kind of an anti-method, to try to consistently reach something both new and something very well-known, but dressed in a new shape or in a new context. Accidents are everywhere, but the very fluid and uncontrolled parts serve both as a point of departure for a conversational process, aesthetical symbols and material, visual strikers.
Your second question is a paradox, but a very interesting one. On one hand it’s easy to end up in empty conceptual reactions if you start to think too much, and on the other hand if you’re not thinking you might end up in stupid painterly, decorative effects. That’s why a process of stepping in and out of these two stages is so hard, important and interesting, and there is no good or simple answer to making such a process successful. I think it’s important not to care so much about what you are doing, but that takes a long time to be able to do and it requires a lot of crafty skills which must go automatic somehow – otherwise everything will end up like a big brown slush. I’m trying to be both a very good painter and a very bad one. Or maybe I’m just a good painter trying to be a bad one. Or something…
I think that the random event and the deliberate act have their meeting point in the gesture. Your work relies upon the idiosyncrasy of your hand and a certain amount of “authentic” physical gesture. Personally, I usually think of gesture as related to handwriting – and therefore to semiotics and signs – but for you, it’s almost as if it’s more related to dance. How do you think about gesture?
Some years ago, I was terrified of gestures and effects. I was really disgusted with all these clichés, and everything seemed to imitate reality in a very expressive and masochistic stylized way. I was afraid of color, brush strokes, drippings, and the actual mixing of the paint, at the same time that this is what has always fascinated me. After some time of avoiding all this, I realized that it’s necessary to dare to deal with these things if you want to say something about them, twist them in your own way of doing things (wherever that own thing has it’s origin) and use the power of these expressions. You’re right that the gesture becomes the meeting point; the hand becomes a medium for bringing the irrational and rational together as material construction. On one hand, the marks will relate to signs or symbols (as everything can do), and on the other it might just trigger you into a physical process, like a dance in any other form.
Did you ever see the John Cage / Merce Cunningham collaborative made-for-TV dance piece called Points In Space?
No, but I would like to.
I think you might like it. What is the most influential thing you have seen in the last six weeks or so?
“The Comic Strip Presents: Summer School” or the works by and with Charline von Heyl…can’t decide.
You go back to Sweden during summers – which are also the best times to be in Berlin. What keeps you in Berlin, even in the winter?
The city life in general freaks me out after some time, and when I’ve been in the countryside for a certain time I also get freaked out. I guess I have to keep changing places. Berlin keeps me pushing my painting as much as possible; just being in this not-very-fixed, not-very-secure environment keeps me nervous, and so far it seems to be good for my work.
You said that you are hoping to live and work in the same space soon. A lot of people find that too stressful. How do you organize and balance life and work? Do you even think about that?
I think it’s much more stressful not to live and work at the same place, as I mentioned earlier. I don’t see my practice as a work. Other things in my life are mostly adapted to the current situation according to my practice, as long as I have money.
I keep asking you to make some drawings, and you don’t want to. I have this feeling that your drawings would be awesome. What would it take to make you draw me a picture?
Somehow, I can actually see myself getting closer and closer to making drawings again, especially with my latest work in mind, which is not that heavily-labored – but still, you’d have to give me a very good reason. For now, I really like the fine gesso-primed canvas, which is almost like paper but better in all ways – I think that these “small” details can make huge differences. I don’t think I would be able to draw with the paint as I do now on any other kind of primed canvas, or on a paper or a board – it is just the perfect surface for what I’m doing right now…even though it get a bit complicated in big formats. I might have to change to aluminum if I want to do larger works.
You are really attached to that canvas, huh?
It’s my baby.
– EPW, February 2011, in Berlin.
UPCOMING SHOWS IN 2012: