The internationally-acclaimed video artist Kaia Hugin has devoted her career to explore the human body’s interaction with its surroundings. Her art involves placing herself in a natural or man-made environment and submitting her body to external stimuli that lead the body to perform either voluntary or involuntary actions. The natural landscape has been crucial in her video work since her debut in 2006 with Hannava as a search for her family’s roots amongst the indigenous population in the forests of Norway. Since then, she has produced the eight part series entitled Motholic Mobbles in which her contact with nature leads to unexpected results.
This Norwegian artist born in 1975, studied contemporary dance and art history before graduating with a MFA from the Bergen National Academy of the Arts in 2011. Hugin’s work has been exhibited in both solo and group exhibitions all over Europe, India, Australia, the United States, and Cuba, amongst others. The quality of her work has earned her grants for traveling and working in Spain, France, Italy, as well as in Norway.
– Why did you start making videos in which nature plays such a crucial role?
In advance it was not a deliberate choice that nature should have an important position in many of my works. My way of working is not choosing a theme and then creating a piece based on that theme. In some way or other the idea has to ‘enter my mind’, you could say it grows from a sort of need within me. On the other hand, nature has always been important to me and has a central position in my life. In Norway nature is easily accessible to everyone, and during my childhood my family went on lots of excursions: in the woods, to the sea, in the mountains. In nature we are all equal in a way, and facing nature human experiences are put in another perspective. Nature is basic—life, death, eat and be eaten—all the same, everything is utterly complex. Think about all the little creatures finding their own niche and a way to survive! I am thrilled by David Attenborough´s enthusiasm for nature and his communication skills! In art’s historic perspective there is a long tradition of reflecting human experiences and feelings in nature. This way of perceiving nature is incorporated into our collective memory, and consequently an easy available instrument in the production of art.
– Your first videowork, Hannava, is your trip to the Northern landscape in which you are going to search for your Sami roots. This landscape constitutes for you a repository for romantic ideas about alternative ways to connect with nature. You state on your website, however, that you have no connection to the Sami people and that you made this video in order “to try another identity [and to] search for nature and a strangeness to the same.” Why did you need the Sami element as a way in to your exploration of the Northern landscape and how foundational is this fictional “Sami” experience for your later videowork?
The fictional Sami family relation is an important premise for the video. I wanted to examine the romantic wish of a modern human to live in harmony with nature. The theme is brought to a point by presenting an awkward city-girl entering the forest on a sort of survival trip. She has little knowledge of basic outdoor-life, and the distance between her and nature is depicted in an occasionally humorous way. For instance, when she tries to raise the lavvu [tent]. The main character imagines her Sami blood will give her an intuitive understanding and connection to nature. She uses this heritage as a strong element in the creation of her identity. The fact that the story about the Sami great-grandmother is just fiction, gives the film a vulnerable touch—what is left for the main character then? How do we create ourselves, and what elements do we use to make our existence meaningful? Authenticity is a central theme in the video. It was recorded in the forest close to where I am living in the South-Eastern part of Norway, miles away from the Northern landscape which was claimed to be explored.
– In Hannava, nature manifests in diverse intensities and modalities: it liberates a strong wind in the spot where you were planning to build your tent, it releases all kinds of sounds and images during the night and it becomes a placid landscape through which you ride back home. If the first two modalities show a hostile landscape, the third and last modality invites you to express your sense of freedom when being in nature. How shall we interpret your varying experiences and perceptions of the landscape in this first work?
In Hannava, I link the changes in nature to the main character´s emotions, and I overemphasize this to appeal to the spectator´s feelings. I play with a bit cliché-like way to illustrate the character’s experience – the wind represents unrest and uncertainty, dark fragmented night pictures illustrate the fears of the character, and the driving scene towards the sunset is a classic ending of a cowboy movie. At the same time I try to personify nature—it is hospitable, threatening, mild, etc. In a way, you can read nature as the main character´s interlocutor.
– In his study of Land Art, Ben Tufnell describes the generation of land artists active since the early 1980s as that which “chose to enter the landscape itself, to use its materials and work with its salient features. They were not depicting the landscape, but engaging it; their art was not simply of the landscape, but in it as well.” Discussing one of the multiple strands of land artworks, he observes that some artists prefer “a lighter touch, opting for ephemeral projects with a meditative, ritualistic character.” (Tufnell, 2006, 7). How comfortable are you with this presentation of land art?
Related to a couple of my works – Motholic Mobble Part III and The Treehugger: Motholic Mobble Part VI; this presentation of land art is representative. In these works I engage nature almost as a partner, at the same time I practice an explicit intervention in the landscape. I leave distinct traces—a big hole in the ground and a fallen pine tree witness the interaction that has taken place. These works can also be read as meditative actions, as I steadfastly perform the same movements again and again during a period of time. You can raise a question related to what part of this action is art? “Where is the art?” Is it the result, the action, or the conceptual idea?
– The direct involvement of the artist’s body with the landscape produced in the early stages of land art works as poetic as Keith Arnatt’s Self-Burial (1969), and as Charles Simond’s film Birth (1970). In these works, the artist either fades into the earth or rises from the surface. According to John Beardsley, “such images of burial and birth reflect[ed] the paradoxical combination of anxiety, pessimism and idealism embodied by the period” (Beardsley, 1998, 52). How do you agree or disagree with this statement in relation to your videowork Motholic Mobble Part III in which you spin into the ground to progressively make a whole, and eventually bury yourself in the landscape?
I can relate to the ideology associated with these works from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Motholic Mobble Part III incorporates both the anxious and the poetic in existence. At the same time I experience this video as optimistic because the action, in fact, causes a result. The character does not stand still, but moves, however down into the ground. Whatever a human does, marks will show. Whatever we do is of importance, and this fact we can interpret as optimistic.
– There is an interesting ambiguity in the action of your body in Motholic Mobble Part III. You spin forward but after a while, the perception of the viewer shows the opposite, that you spin backwards. Also, your digging into the ground suggests that you are burying yourself and hence, walking towards death, yet the womb-like position you progressively adopt while spinning advances the idea of birth. With this, you get once more the diverting forward and backward directionalities. Are you trying to disrupt nature’s logics with your regressive directionality in this work? What can you say about the constant rhythm you take in your digging activity in connection with nature’s rhythm?
It is quite interesting that you see the work in that way. I did not know it could be perceived as I was physically moving backwards… But yes, the womb-like position also connotes birth. Birth and death are closely connected. I had no deliberate idea to “disturb the rhythm of nature” when I made this work. However, I appreciate your perception of the movement pointing towards birth as well as death. In a way, this is no deviation from nature´s rhythm—in every sprout there is a certainty of the plant´s disintegration. In general, I perceive all movements as played out between forward and backward. It is like our history grasps our legs at the same time as we stretch our arms ahead.
– There is an element of animality in Motholic Mobble Part III where the human being plays an animal’s role and integrates in nature through the action of the body. Is this a way to comment on and even disrupt the binary of nature and culture? This binary is remarkably missing in the projection of nature in your videos.
I agree there is an element of animality in Motholic Mobble Part III. And so there is one in human beings, even if these elements have been cultivated through ages. Especially after becoming a mother I have experienced that my instincts resonate in the world of animals. I can smell when somebody else has touched my baby, and I can feel when it is time for feeding. I have little knowledge of binary oppositions in critical theory and how this term is used related to nature and culture. But personally, I do not think I experience nature and culture as diametrical contradictions, and this can be a reason why this binary is not projected explicitly in my works.
– The land artist Ana Mendieta approached nature from the mythic presupposition that there was a close affinity between nature and the female. This led her to identify and mix with the landscape in a very ritualistic physical way. You do mix with the landscape in an active and physical fashion as well. In the aforementioned work, you create an imprint on the ground with your body as Mendieta did with her silhouettes. Yet, your attitude towards nature seems contrary to Mendieta’s reverential stance, especially in the tree-hugging action recorded in The Treehugger: Motholic Mobble Part VI. Could you elaborate on how your conception of nature and your work depart from that of Mendieta’s?
My immediate thought is that the works The Treehugger: Motholic Mobble Part VI, and Motholic Mobble Part III contain an element of malicious damage which is not present in Mendieta´s productions. Ana Mendieta´s Silueta Series displays beautiful and fragile prints after a human interaction in the landscape, and in a way she ‘becomes’ nature. While in my productions, the contact with the landscape is more clumsy and brutal; combined with an element of humor. After the production of The Treehugger a fallen pine tree is left on the ground, and after Motholic Mobble Part III a hole in the ground is left behind. In Mendieta’s work, there is no doubt a human being has been acting, but my tracks might have been done by an animal. When we finished The Treehugger, a couple passed on the path, stopped and looked at the trunk where the bark was peeled off. What has happened, they wondered. Has a beaver been visiting?
– Why are trees so important in your production? You hug one during one day and a half in The Treehugger: Motholic Mobble Part VI, you hang from a horizontal tree in a photographic work, and you display and animate the polished surface of the trunk’s cortex in both an installation and in a video work Shadows, Twists and Endings: Motholic Mobble Part VII.
Some of these works were made for en exhibition in 2013 where the tree functioned as a material premise through the exhibition. A tree is a strong symbol in religion, mythology, as well as popular culture. It can be interpreted in so many different ways, and I explore different elements in the various works. In Shadows, Twists and Endings: Motholic Mobble Part VII, the walls in the room are covered by pine boarding. In the architecture—the physical room appears as a threatening strength in the same way as in Roman Polanski’s Repultion (year). In the photographic work The Pine-Tree and in The Treehugger, one can suggest the tree acts as a fragile rock in the existence of the protagonist.
– In The Treehugger you revolve around a tree, tightly hugging its trunk until it falls down. Your movement is slow, your body surrounds the tree in a seeming act of love. There is clearly sensuous appeal in your actions: yet, you end up killing the tree. Would you explain this paradoxical action combining love to the point of death as a reflection on the binary of irreconcilable attitudes of exploitation and preservation of nature?
In my works, I aim at a possibility of reading them in different ways, and I appreciate that the spectators are making their own stories while watching. I can see that the paradoxical action in The Treehugger can be explained psychologically related to the individual´s need as well as a point to our extreme exploitation of nature.
Beardsley, John. Earthworks and beyond: contemporary art in the landscape. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998.
Tufnell, Ben. Land art. London: Tate, 2006.
Artist: Kaia Hugin
Interviewer: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign PhD student Alba Campo Rosillo
This is the New Terrains Blog, part of the research cluster funded by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH).
Contact: Noelia / firstname.lastname@example.org