Phantom Limbs

A conversation between the curator, Helena Scragg, and Lovisa Ringborg. The Studio at Bagarmossen, Stockholm, December 2018. 

Scragg: “Perhaps we’re drawn to everything that holds a secret,” writes the author Tua Forsström in one of her poetry collections. For me, this nicely captures why I’m drawn to your world. The images are distinctly clear, yet dream-like, intangible. What role do dreams play for you and how do they affect your art? 

Ringborg: I often remember what I dream but rarely create pictures after dreaming. I can’t really do that. But I write them down as often as possible, because they also become memo- ries. It’s different from waking life in that I don’t have to deal with the consequences of what’s happened and I’m completely alone in the experience. I can’t pick up the thread again, it‘s like little isolated islands of occurrence, but the feeling still remains after a night of dreaming. The idea that a world of experience exists behind the waking one, a parallel world with a completely different logic, is important to me. The system of rules we follow in the awake state are com- pletely reversed. In a dream, a moment can be endless and a whole life can unfold in a few seconds. A person can be an animal and you can be involved in multiple events simultaneously. The laws of physics are dismantled and nothing’s predictable anymore. For me, the dream opens another way of witnessing the world, like a peephole into the subconscious. 

S: Phantom Limbs is the title of this book. To perceive pain from an amputated body part is both frightening and fascinating. What does the expression mean to you? 

R: It comprises a large part of my work over the years. Something invisible but perceptible, the parallel or inner world of experience in relation to the outer. The body can remember a part it has lost. It can itch or ache, even though the part is no longer there. I’m also thinking of everything that disappears over time, but continues to have an impact: a lost friend, a dream, a place you remember and long for. An event or trauma that occurred a long time ago can affect a family for generations to come. All that can be dif cult to frame and de ne, but it’s present all the same. 

S: The idea of inner and outer experiences is interesting. Basically, it’s how human conscious- ness actually works. The neurobiologist Bernard Baars has likened consciousness to a theatrical stage. The subconscious goes on behind the scenes, while the conscious takes place on stage. It makes me think of your piece The Mirage, which is also the cover image for this book, where the stage is the focal point. 

R: Yes, the stage and the forest are metaphorical. On the stage, a selection is made about which stories get to take place, but the underlying trees and bushes slowly work their way in. I’m drawn to the deterioration of the stage. It’s slowly being eaten by the greenery, and it be- comes dif cult to distinguish nature from the constructed scene. Ultimately, it will be the same 

with most human constructs, both physical and conceptual, I think. They eventually decay and are forgotten. Nature wins. The stage is a limited space where you can freely project and act out both utopias and dystopias. The Island is another such isolated place. I read somewhere that Paradise might be an island, but so is Hell. 

S: When I read what’s been written about your art, there are references to Renaissance and Baroque painting, as well as surrealistic strategies and psychodynamic perspectives on man. But where does the inspiration for your work come from? 

R: It’s woven from so many different things. Memories, dreams, a texture or color, lm, art, books, everyday life, nature programs and much more that I can’t separate or explain. Presumably some kind of reference library was formed in my subconscious quite early, and I’m not giving it much thought. I try to work as intuitively as possible and therefore sometimes understand only much later why I’ve created a picture. I immerse myself in a variety of subjects. For a while, it was the diagnosis of hysteria, Professor Charcot and the spectacle that followed. During another period, I read about séances and psychics at the end of the 19th century. But I often forget about my references afterwards and only the image endures. It’s this mobility in the work of art that I’m drawn to. Not always knowing. Something that has a particular meaning at one point in time can have a completely different meaning after a couple of years. At the same time… when I look at my work from a certain period, I can usually remember what I felt just then, so the pictures are still a kind of chronicle for me. 

S: Two of your latest works are called Ghost and The Washing. Fabrics ll the image areas in different ways. In The Washing, which is a triptych, we can imagine people through the hands and feet visible in the picture, but we don’t know who they are. 

R: I notice that faces are disappearing more and more from my pictures. You can read so much into a face and I was more interested in the ritual itself; the washing, the colors and the folds under the water. I thought of it as a mechanical movement or machinery that just keeps on going, something that’s in a way fundamental for a society to function; we wash the children, the sick and the dead. It’s casual and magni cent at the same time. Everything deteriorates if no one takes care of it. I can remember hands that have taken care of me in different situations and how they felt, but the faces belonging to them are completely erased. 

S: Something that’s always existed in parallel with washing is the need to dress ourselves. It seems the art of draping our bodies with pieces of cloth has been around since the Mesopotamian times. The absence of people in the images makes me, as a viewer, more aware of the intricate draping. 

R: When I was working on Ghost, I thought of a dress-up costume I had as a kid, maybe ve years old. My mom made a ghost out of sheets for me that I loved. It had nicely hemmed eyes and a big greenish-blue pompom on the head. I’ve always enjoyed looking at drapings of all kinds, from draped bodies in ancient times to extravagant pastel-colored 18th century dresses and weird cur- tain arrangements. The fabrics, in some way, become organic and eshy and begin to take on lives of their own. 


S: The Washing reminds me, to some extent, of the diptych Nesting and Dancing Wall. In Nesting we see hands and feet, but the people are entwined and wrapped in quilts. Dancing Wall could be described as a close-up of a granite slab where the rock is made visible and emphasized. 

R: For a while, I began to take an interest in mountains and rocks, and especially liked the combi- nation of pink-gray granite with light green lichen growing over it. I used the same color combinations in Nesting, with the blankets and larva-like human limbs in the lower part of the dip- tych. The color of the skin and the blankets is there in the rock and the lichens, a meeting between soft and hard, life and death. I thought a lot about time perspective; bodies and blankets deteriorate before lichen can even grow a few centimeters on a rock. I thought about how it can look when you lift up a stone, how it can suddenly be crawling with life in the form of beetles and worms. This was also like a hibernation den with all of the blankets. A safe place to take shelter in. 

S: It reminds me of something you shared about your childhood, how you made a nest of blankets in a closet. You grew up with ve siblings. How was that? 

R: Chaotic. While the apartment was always full of playmates, there was also a lot of ghting and competition; we were a nightmare for our neighbors. But we were also very free, took great care of each other, discovered a lot together, and that part has probably been very important for me. But I also felt a strong need to be left alone, which was virtually impossible. For a while I had one of the apartment’s closets as a refuge, where I constructed a cocoon with a mattress and the blankets stored in there. So even if someone opened the door, I couldn’t be seen. That situation is probably repre- sented in several pictures, the need to strip away impressions and isolate oneself. Apart from coffee breaks with my studio mates, I work entirely alone in my studio every day and enjoy it. The studio has maybe become my cocoon now. 

S: I want to pick up the thread surrounding the cycle of life. The group of sculptures, The Sleepers, con- sists of ve recumbent gures in an unde ned state; I don’t know if they’re unborn or dead, but they arouse strong feelings. 

R: I think they’re in a process of transformation. The gures are present in the room physically, but they don’t communicate as they’re enclosed within themselves. The world before any impressions are made interests me. How it would look if you only lived in the inner reality and completely stripped away the external. If a person is kept isolated for too many days, it’s said that they’ll begin to hallucinate. The brain eventually creates its own images in the absence of others. You categorize and map your surroundings gradually and learn to value the impressions they make, but I wonder how it looks if you’re frozen in a state before the senses are fed any information. 

S: There’s something disquieting about The Sleepers. It’s reminiscent of one of your earlier works, the sculpture Astronaut, which depicts a larva in magni ed scale. What is it about these transformation processes that fascinates you? 

R: Among other things, I’m probably drawn to the fact that animals and humans are so alike in the early stages of in utero development and then become so different. It’s this state I’m after, beyond 

any impressions. That you don’t yet know what they’ll become, the uncertainty of it. Only with Astronaut, I also looked at a lot of images of the “water bear,” a tiny aquatic organism that resembles a caterpillar. It can endure extreme conditions and is the only animal that can survive radiation in space. I was amused by the idea that it would be this little insigni cant animal that could carry life to other planetary systems. Also, astronauts in their padded white suits remind me of larvae. 

S: Metamorphosis is also represented in the work Shapeshifter, but here we’re approaching the relation- ship between animal and human instead. 

R: Yes, or rather the animal in the human, I think, the integration between them. We constantly dis- tinguish ourselves from animals. To feel in control, I guess, and put ourselves above nature. But we consist largely of instincts and impulses, not just thought and rationality. The mapping of human nature is continually in process and change, and that interests me very much. How do you distin- guish human from animal? What’s the difference between being healthy and sick? A woman I met at a party a while ago told me that when her father went through a depression, he was suddenly convinced that hair had started growing from his hands and that he was turning into an ape. He kept trying to hide his imaginary fur from his family. That story really struck me. The shame and panic he felt about his transformation. To become an animal would mean, in every way, to distance yourself from and say goodbye to the world you know, that which we call civilization. Hybrids between ani- mals and people can be seen throughout the ages in myths, religions and fairy tales. In lm, as were- wolves and vampires, to name a few. There’s probably just a universal and timeless fascination with the idea of transforming into an animal. To lose control and follow your instincts. 

S: The concept of “control” seems to be a common thread running through several of your works. In Mud, a person appears half-submerged in a bog. Some articles of clothing hang from a branch. I believe that most people would shy away from exposing themselves to such a position of surrender. But might there also be a temptation to give up control? 

R: The quest for control and the desire to give it up is represented in several of the pictures. It’s an ambivalent feeling. For me, the very creation of art is a way to temporarily feel some control and manage the chaos, both within and in the outside world. At the same time, it’s a way of giving over to a kind of uncertainty in each new project. With me, those contradictory feelings are ever-present; it shifts between order and chaos all the time and I believe it shines through in my work. There’s probably a desire to be that person in the bog. It looks peaceful, I think.