The Swedish artist Charlotte Gyllenhammar started as a painter but soon transitioned into a maker of photography, film and installations, through which she opens up surfaces, appearances and identities. The Forumist meets her to talk about her work, her growth as an artist and how she found her voice.
Charlotte Gyllenhammar was fifteen when she discovered she had what some call artistic flair: “I was doing this Saturday course where I had to paint naked men in oils. My teacher kept saying, ‘You’ve done this before haven’t you?’, and I just knew I had to keep going.” Unsurprising beginnings for an artist who is now known worldwide, who has multiple studios and a team of assistants. “I can’t do everything by myself,” she says, smiling. “My latest piece weighs one ton!” The heavy piece she is referring to is a bronze giant titled Untold, which she inaugurated in Stockholm’s Kungliga Djurgården in May 2023. “I enjoy collaborating with people,” she elaborates, “especially experts who specialise in manual labour and use specific materials. They often have concrete and constructive ways of thinking, which I love, as they know the possibilities [of the material] but also the limits. When I work with new material, I use my lack of knowledge as a way to approach it and its tradition. My ideas are sometimes laughed at, but they also challenge and surprise people.”
Gyllenhammar began her career as a painter. As her work progressed, however, she began to feel limited by the traditional medium of paint on canvas and became more versatile in a number of other media such as film and installations. ‘Limits’ is a word that often comes up in our conversation and they were very much experienced during her time at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, which she entered aged just nineteen. “We had enormous resources, a big workshop, a wonderful library,” she recalls. “But there were limits to what you could do and everything needed to be… consequent. There always had to be a reason, a function, a form to everything. I’ve always protested instinctively against this idea of being ‘consequent’, as it’s limiting. Even from an early age, I took [art] very seriously and was instinctively critical. Once, one of my professors – who had been shredding my painting into pieces – asked me afterward, ‘Do you understand?’ And I just looked at him and replied, ‘Yes, I do. But I don’t agree with you.’ He left the room and we didn’t speak for a week.”
It would seem that traditional ways of teaching art were never quite going to cut it for Gyllenhammar. This restlessness propelled her in 1991 to go to London where she worked and studied at the Royal Academy of Art. During this time, Gyllenhammar became familiar with established British sculptors such as Helen Chadwick, Bill Woodrow, and Anish Kapoor as well as younger artists. “They helped me understand myself and my background. They weren’t monumental or minimal or macho, which I was used to seeing back home.” She was also deeply affected by living in a city which at the time was under threat: “It was a violent year when I was studying [in London]. The IRA was still active, Saddam Hussein was talked about as a direct threat… I was both terrified and fascinated. It influenced me greatly.” This influence is seen in her 1991 installation Bursting, depicting the aftermath of an explosion, or “mental explosion” as she puts it. The work gained widespread attention and was to be life-changing for the artist. “After that,” she explains, “I came into my own and started to find my voice.”
Following this debut, Gyllenhammar broke into the Swedish art scene in 1993 with arguably one of her most famous pieces, Die for You, a 120-year-old oak tree suspended upside down over Drottninggatan, the main street in the center of Stockholm. In the autumn of 2023, thirty years after it was first shown, the work, which made many people experience conceptual art in an entirely new way, will be reinstalled. Described by the artist as a “bolt of lightning from the sky, an hourglass or the eternal number 8”, Die for You was the starting point for her method of reversing the perspectives and using a sense of disorientation to suggest alternative states.
Themes such as suspension, inversion, and falling began to recur in her work and were further explored in her Fall video/photographic series (1999), which consists of still and moving images of an upside-down woman with her skirt billowing around her. The idea had come to her early on but took her years to format accurately: “I did four or five versions of this hanging woman and through years of experimentation with other works, and playing around with mirrors, I finally chose to present her from below. As a result, you see her face, her identity. I used to be impatient as a young artist, but it’s important how you choose to make and present your work. The solution was about getting the perspective right.”
Many of Gyllenhammar’s works have a transitive element to them. What does the word ‘transitive’ mean to her? “I see it as space. Like the space in-between, or negative space. You see it with Bursting, there are traces of an identity… a physical impression of a woman in these big blocks due to the pressure of the explosion. That negative space is important.”
Another critical, albeit unsettling, work which plays with space and inversion is her permanent installation Vertigo (2002), where she blasted a chamber deep below the ground and recreated an upside-down version of her studio. She remembers working on Vertigo late at night and, alone, feeling somewhat scared of her own work. Where does this darkness come from? “I had these visions when I was younger that were at times violent, painful, conflicted. I would ask myself: what’s going on? Why do I have these ideas? What should I do with them? It was like a movement inside me.” Movement and stillness, life and death, freedom and captivity (or limits), and darkness and light, are dualities she explores in her work.
In November 2022, after the world had been put on hold due to the pandemic, Gyllenhammar had a retrospective as well as a major new installation (both with the same title, ‘Croiser/Korsa’) at the Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde in Stockholm. Looking back at the pandemic which affected so many, she recalls having “a heavy nostalgia, especially at night. But as artists, we are always on our toes, prepared for the unexpected. For me personally, it instilled a sense of calm and perspective.”
There is no doubt that it changed the world, and the art world, forever. But, if anything, as with the re-installation of Die for You, it made us realise that there is a cyclical nature to life and art, a transitive quality even, by which you come out better, wiser and stronger in the face of adversity.
Talent: Charlotte Gyllenhammer
Photography by John Scarisbrick
Words by Roxanne Nielsen
Styling by Natalie Olenheim
Makeup by Pari Damani
2) Montage 3 (2019)
3) Rubin (2017)
5) Montage 2 (2019)
6) Night Ascend (2014)
7) Privat Idiot (2004)
8) Night Descend (2014)
10) Disobedience (1997)
11) Montage 1 (2019)
12) Night (2014)