7 mars, 2018

Interview: Unn Sønju

Interview: Unn Sønju


Two very different works by Norwegian artist Unn Sønju are presented in our group exhibition Ode to a dishrag, hymn to a tiger, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Association of Norwegian Textile Artists (NTK). Below, Sønju answers our questions about her beginnings as an artist, her decision to pursue tapestry as her chosen medium, and the inspiration and evolution behind her artwork.

Can you tell us about your background and how you came to work with textile, and specifically tapestry, as an artistic medium?

Upon leaving school I only knew that I wanted to do art. So in 1957 I applied to the College of Art in Leeds, England and was accepted. I didn't know anything about Leeds but my brother was studying dentistry there - hence the choice. This turned out to be blind luck! In 1955-56 the college had begun an art education project, led by Harry Thubron, that revolutionized art education in Britain. Thubron's 'Basic Course'  introduced students to the' anatomy of art 'through a series of exercises that analysed color, form and space. My drawings were met with a lot of interest. It was magic. Art had depth and the possibility to experiment. Alongside this work I learnt about fabric printing. After 2 years I applied and was accepted at Kølnische Werkschule in Cologne, Germany, to study printed textiles. Once there I was placed in the tapestry department as the printed textile department had not been rebuilt since the war! I was horrified by the terrible tapestries they were making - clusters of grapes and leaves- so I spent my time in the zoo drawing. Surprisingly these drawings were much appreciated and exhibited in the entrance of the school. After 3 weeks I returned to Oslo where I started my own textile printing workshop. My Cologne drawings arrived back in Norway a year later. 

My workshop at the time produced practical goods, tablecloths, napkins, etc. These I sold to various art & craft shops. The most popular items meant that I had to produce them again and again. It proved boring and repetitious. However one day over the radio I heard a strange and commanding voice of a woman telling about her famous 'piss' blue!. It was of course Hannah Ryggen, someone I had never heard of. It was her musical voice, strange dialect and absolute thrill in attaining the precise indigo blue dye she required that absorbed me. In a way it was the radio that turned me on to tapestry, not, as many think, Hannah Ryggen's actual tapestries. It would take another 20 years before I ever saw her tapestries, in real life, having married and moved back to England. However in 1960 I started studying tapestry at Den Kvinnelige Industriskole in Oslo where I learnt basic tapestry techniques, spinning and dyeing. The two latter I quickly left behind, but finding tapestry such a diverse and expressive medium I was hooked - it was my chosen way!

I was taught that ideas are more important than technique, but ideas cannot be resolved without technique.

— Unn Sønju

Can you describe the process that goes into creating one of your pieces? Is the design carefully planned beforehand or do you work intuitively? And how much time does making a tapestry generally take you from beginning to end? 

As intimated, drawing is very central to all my work. I was taught that ideas are more important than technique, but ideas cannot be resolved without technique. Drawing in the loom is not quite the same as drawing on paper. All my work begins with drawing. The idea is drawn again and again to help me discover what is so specifically interesting. I have to get acquainted with my idea. It has been known that I can make well over 100 drawings before the idea becomes form. 

 Once the overall form is decided I move to making life-size sketches on thin fabric. This cements the total idea with all its details, colour and proportions. I do my best to be fully aware of all aspects of the idea and technicalities. I aim to know my idea so well that the weaving flows naturally and that I am open to improvisation. In this way the weaving is enjoyable, a celebration of the idea and a work that invites invention. The time spent on an individual piece is dictated by its size, the technique, and complexities dictated by the idea. Some complex works can take a year, while others with a different technical approach can be realised in a matter of weeks.

Much of your artwork is politically charged and makes strong social statements. Can you talk about the inspiration for your work? Has it changed over the decades that you have been working? 

I consider all my work as political. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003 my anger and distress could only be vented satisfactory through my art. The global situation has not improved and all my work for the last 15 years has been involved in expressing my disgust of man’s inhumanity and the suffering of millions. The anti-war tapestries will continue, and perhaps do but in another guises. My latest work Mare Mostrum is a tribute to the desperate plight of the thousands of refugees who survive or drown crossing the Mediterranean Sea. 

The inspiration and ideas for my work has changed many times over the past 50+ years. My first tapestries were concerned with trying to make art rather than craft pieces. What I learnt in Leeds gave me ideas that played with simple non-figurative images in black and white. They were a meeting of åkle and modernist spacial representation. These ideas soon gave way to more personal images from what surrounded me every day, my growing family, my house and my belongings. This was in the 1960’s and I was living in Leeds with my husband and our 4 children, 2 sets of twins. 

I consider all my work as political. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003 my anger and distress could only be vented satisfactory through my art.

— Unn Sønju

Moving back to Norway in 1977 to a cottage in Numedal changed my vision considerably. Surrounded, almost drowned, by nature. The woven images were digests of time passing, the seasons, the magic of winter, the change of water to ice and back again. Amazement at the power and beauty of nature. 

My tapestries moved from the rectangle and became more spacially aware. This was due to a ‘eureka’ moment of realising that tapestry has 2 sides. The image is on both sides, One the mirror image of the other, a property particular only to tapestry amongst 2-dimensional media. This allowed me to knot, twist and fold lengths of tapestry that could be articulated differently with each different space and installation. This two-sidedness revealed numerous technical innovations. It was here that I found my mission to make the ancient art of tapestry relevant in the contemporary world.

Moving to Oslo in 1987 new images emerged. The detritus of the streets, the container finds, etc. all became ‘grist for the mill’. These ‘objet trouvé’ were woven into the tapestries with the desire of showing the visual state of the gutters of Oslo. Moving from the countryside to the depths of the city was alarming. The affluence, the huge amounts of waste. This discarded litter, tins cans, gloves, combs, plastic bags and plastic CD’s became the work attempting to highlight the filth at our feet. A kind of urban archeology. 

Back to Nature, part 2 – Concern for climate change, for life on this planet produced tapestries about the ozone layer, the green house effect etc. Currently I am making a series of 4 works about the mire that are being destroyed, causing high risk of flooding and the ruin of specialized plants and insects. 

Finally, the anti-war series contain the most overt political works, though I regard all my work as trying to draw attention to aspects of our life and times in a rapidly changing world. 

In Ode til en vaskeklut, hymne til en tiger at Kunsthall Stavanger, we have included two of your artworks, Bløtt gjerde (1985) and Blood Cannot Be Washed Out With Blood (2010). These are two very different works from different time periods. Can you describe these two works for us, and the inspiration behind them? Do you find that your older works gain new relevance to audiences as the years progress?

Regarding Bløtt gjerde, this work was initially based upon leaving my childhood home for the last time after my mother's death. Looking though a snow clad fence into a garden. A melancholy setting for time passed. I was delighted how its image has been interpreted today as a hopeful symbol for the refugee problem throughout Europe. Bløtt gjerde is like a curtain that can be drawn to and fro to close out the night or welcome the day. Its meaning then and now is one of gentleness, then very personal, today more universal. Isn't that the fate and future for much of art?

The title for Blood cannot be washed out with blood, come from an Afghan proverb. Words that fit my thoughts and intentions like a well-fitting glove. This tapestry has received attention in many exhibitions here in Norway and in Europe. Blood cannot be washed out with blood is in your face! You can't escape it. It's bloody, horrible, violent and blatant. This is the true result of war. I couldn't say it any other way.   

Unn Sønju has been working as a visual artist since 1963. With drawing as her starting point she began to explore textile printing. By chance she discovered tapestry weaving and instinctively understood that this was her medium. After fifty years of continuous work in the studio the structural puzzling and complex reasoning necessary to complete intricate tapestries is still an enjoyable challenge. Before weaving can commence ideas are explored through numerous drawings and developed further by material research and experiments with the construction of the tapestry. The revealing moment of cutting down the tapestry from the loom is a thrill. The woven image is at last seen as a whole, not merely as a fragment that disappears at each turn of the warp beam.

Sønju has exhibited extensively in Norway and internationally. She has participated in well over a hundred exhibitions, and has completed nineteen public commissions. Her work is in private and public collections, including Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum, Norsk Kulturråd, Oslo Kommunes Kunstsamlinger and Høgskolen i Oslo og Akershus.

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