An Interview with Josef: Digging where you stand

An Interview with Josef: “Digging where you stand”

by Luo Fei

December 12, 2012 10:00 a.m.
TCG Nordica Gallery, Kunming

Swedish artist Josef Mellergård has come and resided in TCG Nordica for four months since September 2012. Upon finishing his series of works on performance art and prophets, he is to have a solo exhibition “Sacred Fools” from January 5, 2013. Just before our interview, I took out my recorder, to which Josef said jokingly, ‘it is the devil’.

Josef Mellergård's work(detail)

Josef Mellergård’s work(detail)

Could you please say a few words about yourself?

My name is Josef Mellergård, and I was born in 1985, in a small town called Arlöv, outside of Malmö, Sweden. My parents moved to Arlöv. One year whilst we were living there the middle school in Arlöv was ranked as the worst school in Sweden. To me and my siblings however, we didn’t have it all that bad, we escaped some of the more trying times when I was 12 and the whole family moved to Saudi Arabia, for me it was great, I played tennis and could go swimming in the pool every day but I think it was a tough time for my parents.

And then in 1998 we moved to Kunming, China, and stayed here until 2002. While in China, although I was young, I got chances to meet many artists that have had a big impact on me. I especially remember one opening of an exhibition at T Café Gallery. I was 15 years old at the time. It was an exhibition by Ning Zhi with objects and small sculptures. The objects where frozen in ice, and as the evening progressed and the ice melted the objects were revealed. I think that was my first hands on encounter with contemporary art.

I have another vivid memory of a meeting with contemporary art from before we moved to China, but Ning Zhi was the first time I was really “there”, really present. On a trip organized by my school we went to Louisiana Museum. I remember I was really fascinated by some huge metal plates that had been fired upon with a shotgun, leaving interesting punctures and shapes in the metal. “Could this really be art?” I remember thinking.

Upon returning to Sweden I finished high school and studied art for three years. My way into the art field has gone through painting but in recent years there has been a shift of focus towards more conceptual works. For example, I have some anarchistic sympathies and have a hard time with feelings of nationalism and patriotism. As such I have never been a big fan of Sweden’s national anthem. So I readapted the song, eliminating parts of the lyrics, and creating a song I would feel comfortable to sing along with and then posted the lyrics around the city on the Swedish national day. The song ends with the rather glum line “I want to live and die”.

Josef is working

Josef is working

Last summer when we met in Sweden, we conversed on the topic of performance art and prophets like out of blue, but have you been thinking about this topic for a long time. What made you want to link the two together?

It’s a long story. When I was in art school, I was just doodling one day without any clear goal in mind. Before I knew it I had made a picture of a super-strong, blindfolded, longhaired, man who was tied between two pillars. To me it was obvious that it was Samson [1], a figure from the Old Testament, but as it turned out none of my classmates thought this was clear at all. Indeed, after asking none of them even knew who this character was. I went to ask different people, and not until after the 15th person, an older woman, was I told ‘its Samson!’ I was very surprised by this. I thought this was a general reference that most people had a relation with. I thought it was a part of our cultural heritage so to speak. I was especially surprised because in Sweden, as with the rest of the world, we are so influenced by American pop-culture where there is an abundance of references to stories and characters from the new and Old Testament… For example at that time there was a really popular song, regularly played on the radio, which was even called “Samson”! It’s a sad song which brilliance lies in the reference to a man named Samson who cuts his long hair and in doing so kind of writes himself out of the picture. But this whole cleverness and added depth is lost if the reference is lost!
Its like the Swedish literary critic Jonas Thente who makes “enemies” not just because of his intellectual and often von oben style, but also because of his use of biblical references in his texts. As soon as he uses that kind of reference he is accused of being religious, which he, in fact, is defiantly not! People get so anxious as soon as there is a religious reference that they fail understand the point of the reference.

Would you say that the Swedish general public keeps their distance away from religions? Even deliberately.

I think so. When it comes to the relationship between performance art and prophets, in fact, I was inspired by our conversation last year in Sweden. You had mentioned how this Beijing artist made a performance of beating himself on a sensitive day at the Tiananmen Square [2]. There are some topics that are very difficult to talk about. Sometimes the mainstream culture is too theatrical to be viewed as real, while performance art can, if it’s good, be more genuine, naked and inclusive. The prophets in the Old Testament acted strangely, sometimes even crazy. However this might have been the only way to express their message. Performance art can also be incomprehensible, and to the general public the actions of performance art can even be felt to be immoral! The general feeling, I think, is that the artist should be painting beautiful images like Rembrandt, not act crazy! But they fail to understand that art is more than that. I think art and religion are viewed with similar skepticism in Sweden.

Is it because people are not willing to face the reality?

There are two quotes by Henri Matisse that I think about sometimes; “the biggest problem with the audience is that they are generally lazy” and “there are always flowers for those who want to see them”.

performance instruction by Josef Mellergård

performance instruction by Josef Mellergård

In Sweden, we can see wonderful public order and high quality of life, and it is also known as one of the happiest countries in the world. Many people believe that is what religion has left behind to the society as a legacy.

Well I think that this could be true in some ways. And I think that’s quite interesting because in Sweden the humanists have woken up again and quite aggressively criticized religious ideas in media. And to me this is quite funny because it could very well be argued that the humanist movement is directly sprung from Christian tradition. And I think that human rights and thoughts about personal freedom can also be argued to be offspring of a Christian thought world. But I don’t think that too many people want to acknowledge this and try to maintain a distance towards religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Recently, China is rising, and various social issues emerging too. In light of that people’s longing for faith is becoming increasingly prominent, and there is an intensified sense of emptiness and anxiety. Two recently released films “Back To 1942” and “Life of Pi” have sparked discussion about faith and suffering. People’s inner heart is more like that of the Pi’s, there are an openness for spiritual pursuit and reverence for the mysteries of God. But in fact there is no real Confession. There are some who look up into the starry sky in awe and others who are really serious about their faith. There is an intrinsic difference between tourists and pilgrims , and people are more willing to be the former today.

It is difficult for me to analyze the spirituality of Swedish society. On the one hand, people are quite open to spirituality, but on the other hand, they are uncomfortable with God as a person. People may often talk about spirituality and faith but generally in a quite unspecific way. This is also related to the New Age Movement, which is more about a personal mysterious spiritual experience, and not to bother others. It is a curse of post-modern culture, I think, with more and more personal truths, while denying the idea of a common truth. I think this spills over on a political level also. Some time ago the Occupy Wall Street movement made itself quite a big deal. It did in fact spread to Sweden as well, but it consisted only of 50 persons who pitched their tents and lay out their sleeping bags. But when the automatic sprinkling system started in the evening all of them quickly gave up and went home. The path of least resistance is the one most likely to be chosen. Quite entertaining. It is an individuality blown out of proportion.

Icon of St. Basil the Blessed

Icon of St. Basil the Blessed (Bas relief, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow)

You name the solo exhibition “Sacred Fool”. This is very unique phenomenon, and particularly prominent in Russian folk culture. There are even Sacred Fool[3] worshiping, for example you mentioned Basil the Blessed. There are similar characters in Oriental tradition, such as Ikkyū[4], Ji Gong[5],among others. How do you yourself understand this Sacred Fool?

The way I think about the world is that society as a whole has its mainstream cultural circle; in Sweden ideas such as of the autonomy of the individual and freedom of expression would be prominent ideas within this circle. But the truth is that the circle is not suitable for everyone to stay in. There will be a number of small groups wandering about on the outside of the circle. For example, the Sacred Fool has his/her own circle, or cluster of ideas, that’s not within the mainstream. But there are a few intersections. The moment their critics against the mainstream culture works, they will have an impact on mainstream groups.

Basil the Blessed, who had one foot within the Christian mainstream culture and one foot outside was able to see problems at a distance, and gave his critics without risking too much… because he didn’t have too much to loose. In many cultures to act as a Sacred Fool can be an effective strategy, perhaps especially effective in a totalitarian society. Like those intellectuals you told me about who would protest by taking drugs and playing the fool.

Sweden is not a totalitarian society, nor is there any censorship to talk about, but we have other chains. There is an idea that we have to work 8 hours a day, our days are well planed, being late is not tolerated if you want to be viewed as a productive member of society. In fact there are other options, you don’t have to work 40-hour a week, you can work 20 hours, and do gardening or other things you like for the rest of your time.
The artists perhaps play the roles of characters like Ji Gong, the Sacred Fools and the prophets today. Or in other words, there is always need for figures like these to bring something unexpected to people.

You started with the interests of the identity of the prophet. In the Old Testament, there were clear definition of the identity and mission of the prophets. They were to declare the message from God, to proclaim the judgment and salvation, to call on the Israelites repenting, turning back to God, and obeying the laws and decrees, to expose social injustice, to uphold social justice and to prophesy the forthcoming Messiah, the Savior of the world. In the New Testament, the prophets declared the victory that Christ has over the universe and God’s ruling on earth finally. Whether they were preaching, or acting it out exaggeratedly, they were to get the above idea across explicitly. The reason why we compare performance artists and prophets, to a large extent, is due to the fact that there are comparability between some strange behaviors from part of the prophets and the performance art. What are the similarities and differences between performance artists and the prophets?

There are a lot of different methods and concepts in performance art, some are weird, others more routine. This is true for the prophets as well. It would be difficult to say there is only one concept of performance art. My understanding is that performance art can provide a clear direction, such as Ai Weiwei smashed an antique pot, a very valuable thing, which is in fact something that is happening on a daily basis in China.

Both artists and the prophets attract attentions from others. When Jeremiah broke his bottle (Jeremiah 19:10 – 11), the act is very similar to that of Ai Wei Wei’s, but the context creates a different meaning. On the one hand the aim of the artist is not the same as those of the prophet, on the other hand, they do employ similar methods. Many of their actions are about crying for social justice, for example, how Marina Abramović did with Balkan Baroque on the La Biennale di Venezia. With bare cow bones, she called on people not to forget the humanitarian disasters. While in another works of hers, “The Artist Is Present”, she was just staring at the audiences, saying “I am present, come and sit with me for a while”. An act directed at the individual where the prophet of the Old Testament usually speaks to society as a whole.

Although the messages of the prophets were exact, there were also false prophets; there were even controversies among the prophets. Such as the prophet Hananiah broke the wooden yoke from the neck of Jeremiah, saying the power of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon would collapse. But Jeremiah later forged an iron one that was unbreakable to refute Hananiah’s prophecy being wrong, proving he was a false prophet (Jeremiah 28:1-17). Performance art is the same; there is good and bad performance art. And it can be just as unclear today as it was in the Old Testament who the true prophet is.

Another similarity, and difference, would be the question of blessing and mandate. The prophets had Gods blessing and acted on Gods behalf, they were a channel, if you will, to the will of God. The artist on the other hand also needs a blessing and a mandate from the art community. If the art community does not accept an artists actions or works then it is almost impossible to continue ones work and to make any impact what so ever. There are, of course, artists who say they don’t care about that community, but it is a symbiotic relationship that can not completely be undone. The prophets were interested in telling the Words of God, while the artists could be said to be interested in telling the words of art. I think the prophets messages are gloomy but there is always present the idea of salvation if there is redemption, the artist of course does not have this kind of hope and I would say are generally more pessimistic when there is a political message…

Marina Abramović,Balkan Baroque

Marina Abramović,Balkan Baroque

If we look at the Old Testament prophets, three of the Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, all of them were in the times of when their nation was about to be destroyed. There were swords without, and plague, famine and cannibalism within. Sadly, the people even upon hearing what the prophets proclaimed yet remained unbelieving. They were stubborn, and were not willing to turn to God. The book Ezekiel says these people “have eyes to see, but see not, who have ears to hear, but hear not”; while observing the actions of the prophet, “perhaps they will understand” (Ezekiel 12:3). To a certain level, this is the character of performance art. When people come to embrace the pretentious reality, instead of the reality itself, the artist would employ some dramatic methods so that perhaps they would understand.

Yes, this is very interesting. The Swedish artist Anna Odell had a psychological break down at the age of 20, she became so desperate that she attempted to commit suicide by jumping of a bridge. She was stopped by police by force and admitted into psychiatric hospital against her will. She was later recovered and became an artist. When she was 30-year-old, she repeated that experience by acting. Again, she climbed the bridge to commit suicide, again the police treated her with same kind of brutality and interrogation before sending her to the hospital, and injected her with medication. Her friends recorded the whole process along the way. The next day, this friend of hers went to the hospital with a contract signed by the artist, explaining that it was only a performance. This caused a big debate within Swedish society, how are we to make use of public resources, and how to treat mentally challenged patients, and so on. Sometimes art can start a discussion on issues that are right under our noses that would otherwise be ignored. These kinds of works are often ethically controversial and are sometimes so dramatic that people forget or fail to see the point. The Chinese artist who ate human fetuses is a case in point. I’m not sure whether that’s the problem of the artists or the audience.

Performance art has with it more self-sufficiency than others in terms of body language expression. According to the logic of art itself, it is a way of experiencing. However, prophets didn’t do anything just for the sake of experiences; they meant to use it to strengthen the message preached.

Can the public understand message if a prophet only performed the act without any teaching? I do not think so. For an artist, words are not necessarily needed, but a context is required, or the art won’t be understood. Perhaps artists are not interested in having one standard answer. For the prophets, clearer explanation was needed to understand what they did and their message were pretty much under certain degree of control. If the audience did not understand at the time, the prophets would reveal the precise meaning later. However, the messages of the artists are up to the audiences to understand, open for them to interpret.

There is one more idea about the prophets in the Old Testament – they were the watchmen for the people (Ezekiel 33:2, 33:7); they were the viewer who brought hope to the community; they were the ones who revealed what they had seen to the world. Are artists also in a sense the watchmen?

I think so. However, the prophets would often tell the people what they should do in order to be saved. Artists won’t. They tend to merely point out the problem. If you have that problem solved, you might still have hope. But compared to that of the prophets’, that hope remains uncertain.

There are many artists associate themselves with identities of other fields, such as Andy Warhol with the business, and Joseph Beuys with the Shamanism. Shaman, Sacred Fool, and prophet, which one do you prefer to relate artists with, or it is enough to be an artist by itself?

This is a very good question, and it is important to have certain roles put together. I think artist should dig wherever he/she is standing, finding the root for his/her roles. Beuys found his identity in Shamanism.
I am more inclined to look at myself as “just” a visual artist. But there is a degree of foolishness in that. I am an artist from a community of sacred fools. Who else but an artist would spend months cutting invisible lines on an acrylic glass with little hope of selling those pieces or even bringing those pieces back to Sweden!? A process that has even led to physical pain in my wrists and hands! The Swedish Prime Minster would certainly call me a fool for not taking a regular job so I can make money and pay taxes! Of course, this is a matter of choice. I chose this path for myself.

Josef Mellergård in studio

Josef Mellergård in studio

How about say something about your works in this “Sacred Fool” solo exhibition.

For this exhibition, I have thought and prepared for a very long time. For example, the idea of the pixel map of light boxes dated back to 2007 for which I have finally found a good context. I have also tried some new technologies. The topic is very close to my heart, and this exhibition is not a study project. The idea is not to compare and analyze the artists and the prophets. I just present them by following my intuition.

Your works involved many elements of contemporary popular culture, such as LED lights, computer programs, pixel maps, instructions, and so on.

Yes, this is what I am talking about, digging deeper wherever you are. I enjoy the process very much. For example, I use the look of the instruction manuals of IKEA as a way of presenting performance art. Sweden is an ordered society and we like things that are efficient and don’t mind putting things together by ourselves. A store-concept like IKEA could probably not come from any other part of the world. IKEA is basically LEGO for adults (which comes from Denmark). For a Swede there is no greater frustration than a faulty set of instructions! I like to engage this kind of culture in my arts, combining performance art, acts of prophets and IKEA style instructional diagrams. It’s very interesting.
Another group of works are the acrylic glass boards, the only works that were not planned before coming to China. I like the idea of working with local cultural elements for a residence project so I created them with wood carving techniques and instruments from Yunnan. The LED lights are, of course, inspired by Kunming at night and the final look of the works have a ghost like quality which I think fits in with the general theme of the exhibition and says something interesting about the relationship between art and religion. I think they mutually support and fight against each other…

Josef Mellergård in studio

Josef Mellergård in studio

And there are prophecies of the picture of the world in exhibition.

Yes, It took me a very long time to understand the role of the prophet in the Old Testament. The main task of the prophet is to identify current problems, not to make predictions about the future. The prophet is interested in the future but does not act as a fortune-teller mapping out events to come.
The pixel picture works are done by software. It randomly generates images, each picture is made up of 100 X 75 pixels. Within those constraints there are an impossible number of potential images, images of historical and future events, images of nuclear bombs, portraits of leaders, spaceships, etc. The program goes through 24 pixel-images every second but stops every 20 to allow the viewer to interpret the image and maybe the future? Of course, we do not know the future, so I just delegated that task to a computer program.

Translated by Xiao Diming
Proofread by the artist


[1] Samson is the third-to-last of the Judges of the ancient Israelites mentioned in the Tanakh(Book of Judges chapters 13 to 16).

[2] Xue Yong’s performance

[3] Basil the Blessed (known also as Basil, fool for Christ; Basil) is a Russian Orthodox saint of the type known as “holy fool for Christ”.

[4] Ikkyū (1394–1481) was an eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet. He had a great impact on the infusion of Japanese art and literature with Zen attitudes and ideals.

[5] Daoji  (1130–1207), commonly known as Ji Gong was a Chán Buddhist monk of the Southern Song Dynasty in China.

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