A Conversation With Gardar Eide Einarsson

Gardar Eide Einarsson. Photo courtesy of APCFC

Tokyo-based Norwegian artist Gardar Eide Einarsson is drawn to the cracks in societies, somewhere in between where the establishment ends and the individual’s impulse to question authorities prevails. In his visual poetics of recontextualisation, Einarsson uses found imagery to explore the power structures in society and the negotiation between the individual and the state. He captures the extremes of the zeitgeist by observing how the world is constantly negotiated between those in control and those being repressed, yet this never goes at the expense of humour. We had the pleasure of speaking with Gardar Eide Einarsson on the occasion of the opening of his fifth solo exhibition “TOTAL CONTROL ZONE” at Nils Stærk in Copenhagen. 

“TOTAL CONTROL ZONE” marks your fifth exhibition at Nils Stærk. In a series of works, you explore the notion of control and the balance of power between state and individual. What are your thoughts behind the exhibition?
A lot of my work circles around the same types of issues, and I guess that many of them have become more visible the last couple of years. “TOTAL CONTROL ZONE” is a show about a kind of violence that I feel exists in all societies – it’s more pronounced in some than in others, where, in Scandinavia for example, it exists a bit more below the surface. The works deal with that sort of institutional violence and how you as an individual relate to the society around you – how that society tries to control you, and how you, at times, want to be controlled. 

Let’s dive into some of the works in the exhibition. The series of works titled “Common Errors” are based on illustrations of common errors when firing handguns. The visible bullet holes in the human silhouette shooting target confront the viewer in a quite direct way, manifesting an antidote to the aspect of authority and control – that of vulnerability and failure. Can you talk a bit about these works?
“Common Errors” are among my more painterly works and painting is in many ways based on error, so they were also supposed to relate to painting and the errors you make in painting. The title comes from a police and military training manual in the 1960s, and I kind of see these works as being caught between the source material – the history of police brutality and repression – and painting as a form of expression that is very separate from the textual context.

Gardar Eide Einarsson, TOTAL CONTROL ZONE, 2018, Installation view, Nils Stærk. Photo: Malle Madsen
Gardar Eide Einarsson Common Errors; Two Shot Group (yellow), 2018 Acrylic on wood 110,5 x 56 x 3 cm (43,5 x 22,05 x 1,18 in). Photo courtesy of Nils Stærk
Gardar Eide Einarsson, Common Errors; Two Shot Group (pink), 2018, Acrylic on wood, 110,5 x 56 x 3 cm (43,5 x 22,05 x 1,18 in). Photo courtesy of Nils Stærk

Then there’s the work “I HAVE A DREAM OF LAW AND ORDER”. The title plays on Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream”, but the words “Law and Order” adds a completely different aspect to it, bringing the concept of state control into focus. Can you tell us more about this work?
The work is based on a bumper sticker – I don’t know for sure what the background story is, but I assume it’s not a very pleasant one. I thought it was interesting to explore the desire for control and the subject of the state desiring to control. I guess it’s a common dream, but it’s also a quite bizarre dream, which is obviously in opposition to the philosophy behind Martin Luther King’s speech. I wanted to use the phrase, but also wanted to mark my own distaste towards it, so cutting it into pieces was a way for me to perform some sort of violence on that image.

Gardar Eide Einarsson, I HAVE A DREAM OF LAW AND ORDER, 2018, Silkscreen on hand painted paper, 108 x 400 cm (42,52 x 157,48 in), Four panels, each 108 x 100 cm (42,52 x 39,37), Edition #2/2. Photo courtesy of Nils Stærk

In an interview you did with Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2016, you said that “I’ve lost the youthful naivety that leads me to think authorities should be torn down. I see it as an on-going negotiation”. In this exhibition, you explore the concept of authority in a very extreme sense. The title “Total Control Zone” comes from the term for the strictest security level within North Korean concentration camps. Can you elaborate a bit on the element of negotiation in this exhibition?
In a way, that’s what the state wants – a total control zone – and I think that some societies are getting quite close to it, for example in China with its high level of cyber surveillance and artificial intelligence. As an individual you want some sort of control in the state where you live, but probably not total control, so it’s a negotiation of where you put yourself on that scale of control and how, if there is a total control zone, you find a way of existing inside of that.

So, in a way this ongoing negotiation stems from a state of questioning authorities while being attracted to them at the same time?
You need to live in a society with other people, right? And I guess the older you get the more you feel a sense of belonging to a community, but at the same time you want to be able to have some sense of individual freedom. I think that’s why I’ve worked a lot with American culture, because the idea of the individual is quite pronounced here. It exists in a different way than in Japan, where there’s a strong ongoing conversation about the relationship between individual expression versus collective identity and the desire to be like everyone else.

Speaking of different cultures. You grew up in Norway and later moved to New York, where you lived for 12 years before moving to Tokyo, where you are currently based. What is your experience of being a citizen in three different places at different times in history with different ways of wielding control within society?
When I lived in New York, it was a very particular time in the history of the city, because I moved there the day after 9/11, and was based there for a decade after that, when the shared sorrow and anger following the attack was reflected in the culture. Now, with Trump and everything going on there, it’s obviously very extreme, but a lot of those issues were still there and got very visible right after 9/11, where there was a really strong sense of “America”. That kind of nationalism was present and became part of my work, so I find it interesting to think about at what times you live in different places and how you relate to where you live as a citizen. I was not a citizen in the US and I’m not a citizen in Japan, so it makes you exist in a different way. You have less protection – if something goes wrong you can be thrown out just like that. I also think that’s quite an important element in how I see these governments, because I don’t see them as having my interests in mind, which is something I continuously have to evade. Of course, I have much better protection than a lot of people, because I’m a citizen of Norway and I’m there legally, but, at least for me, I’m always aware that I’m not fully a citizen. I don’t belong in the same sense that other citizens belong, and I think that’s quite noticeable in the US. In the places I’ve lived for the past 20 years, I can’t vote for example, not that I’m complaining, but I think that it’s interesting in relation to my work.

Gardar Eide Einarsson. Photo courtesy of APCFC

Would it be fair to say that there exists a tension in your works, a sort of oscillation between the need for individual liberty and the sense of belonging and having a social existence at the same time?
A lot of my work is about that – how people form smaller subcultures or groups, which could be in any form really. For example, I have a friend from the US who’s in Denmark, and he recently joined a group for mushroom pickers. I’ve always been interested in how people group together and establish some sort of group identity, the flipside of that being that there’s always an established “outside” at the same time. I guess it’s necessary for groups to do that, but it can potentially be done in a quite negative way. My work “Flagwaste”, which is exhibited at Team Gallery in New York at the moment, explores this matter. I asked an American flag factory specialized in only making American flags to give me all their textile garbage for a period of three months, and the whole installation is a pile of leftovers with the cutoffs from the finished flags. That was a way for me to talk about the things that need to be cut off and left out in order to establish this identity of a nation. 

Gardar Eide Einarsson, Flagwaste. Photo courtesy of Team Gallery.

In your creative process, you spend a lot of time on the internet looking for images to use in your work and put into an art context. As a consequence of this, a lot of data about you as a person is collected by various sources, be it Google or the State. What does it mean for you as a citizen and as a contemporary artist to be the subject of surveillance and state control?
For me, it doesn’t really matter, because I don’t have anything to hide. Where I live, the extent of surveillance doesn’t really affect my life, but I think there are places where it would have been a problem, for example if I was living in China. Of course, it could become like that in the US or in Japan, where I live, but at the moment I don’t think about it much. I probably thought about it more when I lived in New York, also because I was going over that border a lot, and that just makes you nervous – now they’re even allowed to ask you to unlock your cellphone and read everything on it. I keep coming back to China, but here they recently introduced a social points system. It’s not established all over China, but in large parts of the country, you have a credit score, a sort of social credit, which is affected by all your actions. There are super high-tech cameras everywhere, and if you jaywalk for example, it recognizes your face and you get points deducted from your credit score. If I lived in this kind of context, I think it would be different. In a perhaps more benign way, yet still creepy, is how you have lately begun getting targeted ads on for example Instagram that are based on what you type on your phone. I recently texted someone about going to Seoul, discussing where we should stay etcetera, and then right after I get ads about hotels in Seoul.

Now that we’re at the subject of texting, your works contain many allusions and references, almost serving as coded messages. Can you talk a bit about your use of language in your art?
Language is very important to my work. Some work has language in it and is obviously text-based, but even for the work that doesn’t, the textual background is really important. The titles of the works and the shows are always important to me, and I think of them in relation to each other. I basically always use English in my work – it has this kind of advertising quality to it, this kind of fake quality, and since it’s the language of advertising, you’re always suspicious towards it. So a lot of the text that I use is being used in a way that is not a literal interpretation and is not supposed to be taken literally, and it’s certainly not supposed to be taken as my conviction. So, I try to play with how language is used, not to convey me, but rather to complicate meaning or to mislead.

Gardar Eide Einarsson. Photo: APCFC

Then there’s color – or the lack of it – in your works, which is something that you get asked about a lot. I can’t resist to do the same, because your use of color in this exhibition is far from the monochrome palette that you often use. Can you give some insights into your work with color in this exhibition?
When I started, I didn’t use much color, because I wanted it to be clear that the images weren’t depictions of nature. It wasn’t so much black and white, it was actually just black, and I was painting on a pre-grounded white canvas to create the feeling of some sort of outline or photocopy. I felt that people became a bit too hung up on the fact that it was just black and white, so I started to use a bit of color sometimes to sort of sabotage that. I used specific colors, like bright pink for example, which was a little bit of a joke on how people said I never used color, and at the same time it’s a color that people use in construction work to highlight dangers. Eventually I’ve started to use color a bit more, but I want it to be used in a very specific way, which I believe is the case in this exhibition. For example, the flag (ed. “Brute Force (Financial Times)”) is pink, because it originates from a cutout from The Financial Times, reflecting this specific “Financial Times pink”. The red painting (ed. “The Riotmakers”) obviously refers to the color of blood, and the color of the bumper sticker (ed. “I HAVE A DREAM OF LAW AND ORDER”) has this weird warning-like quality to it, so I use the colors in more symbolic ways and then sometimes a bit more comedic. Like the pink I sometimes use, which undermines the machoness of the themes somehow.

The use of color in your work leads me to my next question. You’ve said that there’s always an element of humor in your works – an oblique kind of humor. Humor is perceived differently within different cultures and having lived three very different places, you’ve experienced humor in various forms. What is humor to you and can you give a hint of where to look for it in your current exhibition?
I think this exhibition has a lot of humor, like the pipe work for example (ed. “Japanese Pipe Boobytrap (With Charge, Detonator and Spring-Loaded Striker)”). It deals with a violent subject matter, but the use of color is kind of humorous. The brown color is appropriate for a pipe somehow and is of course a reference to Magritte’s pipe (ed. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”). Humor is just a way to be able to talk about something serious, a way to smuggle in the seriousness somehow. The danger with humor is that there’s a risk it dissipates energy instead of dealing with it, but I think that when it’s successful it enables people to talk about serious things in a way that they maybe otherwise couldn’t. You have to kind of laugh about it anyway, so it tricks the audience into dealing with it. In the US right now, there’s “The Onion”, a sort of joke newspaper, which for me is one of the most on point critiques of the whole Trump regime. It basically looks like a regular newspaper and is presented in a very deadpan fashion with news, stories, articles etcetera. It’s all a joke, but it’s so close to reality that it’s sometimes impossible to tell which is which. For example, whenever there’s a mass shooing in the US, they run the same article every time, which is now really often, saying: “No way to prevent this, says the only nation where this regularly happens”. So, humor can be a very effective way to encounter repression and things that are not functioning in society.

Gardar Eide Einarsson, TOTAL CONTROL ZONE, 2018, Installation view, Nils Stærk. Photo: Malle Madsen
Gardar Eide Einarsson, Japanese Pipe Boobytrap (With Charge, Detonator and Spring-Loaded Striker), 2018, Silkscreen print on handpainted canvas 45 x 60 cm (17,72 x 23,62 in). Photo courtesy of Nils Stærk
Gardar Eide Einarsson, The Riotmakers, 2017, Acrylic, gesso and graphite on canvas, 220 x 180 cm (86,61 x 70,87 in). Photo courtesy of Nils Stærk

You are indeed a keen observer of current events in society, often exploring unease with authority in your works. What are your thoughts on art as having a critical function? Is art inherently political in your eyes?
I think people choose to become artists for a reason. I don’t think that many people choose to become artists because they just want to depict the world in a neutral way. People choose to become artists because they want to express something they see missing, and I think it’s a political act to observe society and then do something to actively change it or to comment on it. I feel my work is like that, and I think that most work is like that. In a way, the act of being an artist is somehow political – an act of taking yourself outside and looking at what’s going on and then commenting on it. I’m not so naive that I think that having a show at a contemporary gallery or museum has a direct effect, but I do think it has an accumulative effect and makes an impact on some people. 

"People choose to become artists because they want to express something they see missing, and I think it’s a political act to observe society and then do something to actively change it or to comment on it"

The point of view from where you observe society has changed. Today, you live in Tokyo, but US culture remains a crucial subject of exploration in your work. How do you think it has affected your creative process to be away from the center of the commercial art world?
Tokyo and New York are very different in terms of how art is present in your everyday life. To live in Tokyo as an artist is really different from New York, and this has definitely changed my work. I also think my practice is different now, because my life is different, I have a kid and there aren’t really a lot of art events to attend, so I spend much more time in my studio by myself, and I think this set up is working really well for me. Maybe when you’re in your early 20’s that wouldn’t have worked so well, but now where I’ve been working for quite some time and know what I want to work with, I find it really helpful to have the time to focus. As an artist, you want your career to be very long, because making art is a life project. In order to be able to do that, it helps to have a little bit of distance to the commercial art world, because they’re not thinking of your career in the long term. As an artist, you have to defend the fact that you want to make art for fifty years perhaps, depending on how old you get, but I want to make art for the rest of my life and then I think it’s important to have just a little bit of space to focus and to really develop your work. Really, I’m not interested in just rehashing the same work for decades. 

Gardar Eide Einarsson. Photo: APCFC

The odds for a lifelong project seem promising. Your solo exhibition at STANDARD in Oslo just ended and you’re exhibiting the installation “Flagwaste” at Team Gallery in New York. Can you tell about the process of working simultaneously with several exhibitions? Are there any layers of intertextuality between the works in the exhibitions?
These shows are all very different. They deal with the same moment in time, but in very different ways. I knew about them in advance, so I had a lot of time to plan, so it doesn’t make such a big difference for me if they’re at the same time or not. When I do shows, it’s not only to show objects that I want to sell. I think of each show as a specific installation, so it’s important that these shows add something to each other. It’s not just “oh, here are some paintings and here are some more of them at a different place”. I try to think very carefully about how those elements talk to each other and I believe it should be possible to get something different from each of those shows… that also makes it more interesting for me [laughs].

Lastly, to round off where we started – in total control zone – if you were in control and had the political power, what would you change in today’s society?
I think that one thing I see as extreme – more or less objectively negative – is a loss of liberal values. If you look at the US, it’s kind of turning back the clock on certain things such as gay rights and women’s rights. At the same time, there’s interesting work made to defend it, but I think that some of those rights are threatened now in a way you would never have thought they would be. But then again, where I live in Japan, it’s also different and there are different issues. Japan is great, but also has a bit of a problem with accepting difference and could get better about making it easier for women to participate, work and things like that. But I don’t really think about it from the perspective “if I were in charge” – I see my position as so specifically not being in charge and not really wanting to be in charge. That being said, I think the move away from liberal values that I think we, the people, fought for, is pretty worrying. 

Click on the image below to see the exhibition “TOTAL CONTROL ZONE” in 3D.

10 November – 21 December 2018
Nils Stærk, Copenhagen

Interview: Anne-Lill Bøndergaard Brok
Photos: APCFC