June 28, 2020
about dying – an Interview with the artist Yngvild Sæter
" To die was one of the strongest and most striking experiences in my life (...) I felt aware that the death experience was only temporary and that I would come back."
I feel like I want to start from the beginning by asking you a bit about your background. How did you grow up?
I guess my background is a bit special. I was raised in a small village with 40 inhabitants in the middle of Norway. It was a very idyllic childhood – I had two horses and was surrounded by fjords and mountains. When I was 11 years old, I was scouted as a model and by the time I was 13 I had an agency both in Paris and New York – which meant I was traveling a lot. I believe that the contrast of spending my weekdays in this small little village and my weekends in these big cities has had a big affect on me. I was traveling a lot with my mom at that age, and we were both like hillbillies placed in a world we didn’t know at all. As I got older, I did more of my traveling alone, but as a young girl from the countryside I felt very insecure moving around alone in the big cities and the world of modeling.
How did you cope with that?
At that time, I got really into punk which became both a refuge and comfort for me wherever I went. It was like a family that was around anywhere in the world. I could always go on MySpace to find people that wanted to meet up or go to a concert. When you are a part of a subculture in that way, there are always people that can take care of you. This was also during the straight edge wave so there wasn’t the pressure of drugs, sex, or alcohol, but instead a focus on creating community. The fashion industry is very brutal, and in many ways punk saved me.
I know you have a background in anthropology and academia. What were you doing the years before you went into art?
I was quite old when I started working with art and had done six years at the University in Oslo studying close to 34 different subjects before I started art school. I had this urge to learn and was especially drawn to understand evil in different forms, since it was something I had been confronted with in different ways growing up. I had family on both sides who’d been in the concentration camps because of being members of the resistance in Holland and Norway, and when I was 15, a childhood friend of mine was murdered. My studies became a way for me to make sense of this heritage and of that experience as well as just trying to escape the anxiety I had of dying. I tried to understand what evil was and how it came about that there exists so much of it in the world. My studies focused a lot on subjects that in some way related to genocide, with the aim of understanding how one could change the path of a society going down the road of brutality. In many ways it was also a way to understand life and death.
How do you reflect on evil today?
I am the youngest in my family, so when I moved out my parents decided to go to Ethiopia for two years to collect information about female genital mutilation. I would identify that practice as pure evil, and them moving there was also a big reason I started moving into the arts. I visited them down there and realized I couldn’t be that close to evil, and also didn’t want to become one of these white saviors trying to solve problems that, I believe, rather should be solved by people from that culture or people speaking that language. I instead applied to art school and got accepted to Valand. If I hadn’t gotten accepted at the first try, I most likely would have been doing something completely different today.
How did your art look back then?
I almost only did video before. When I tried to move more into sculpture, my professors reacted quite negatively. I think the school had an approach that was very “stick with what you know,” and had the idea that my art should be political or academic because of my long background at university. I think I didn’t really live up to their expectations.
Today you have a very distinct aesthetic and I am very curious about how that developed. For me, your work connotes old shields one could find in a fairytale, medieval castle or something in that vein, but mixed together with a punk and contemporary aesthetic. Now that we have been talking for a bit, I also feel like your aesthetic reflects you and your background a lot. Can you tell me about how your current way of working and style came about?
My work changed profoundly when I was diagnosed with a rare brain disease called Arnold Chiari Malfromation Type 1. It meant that scull was too small, leading to my cerebellum being partially pushed out of it and blocking blood and fluids from reaching my brain. A common consequence is to be paralyzed and some people get what they call a “sudden death” – meaning that you unexpectedly just die. In all cases it results in these terrible headaches, from which I had suffered since my early teens. The disease has no cure and only through surgery can the consequences be delayed or the symptoms alleviated. It was very scary. When I got the diagnosis, I felt like I had to prove to myself that I was still strong, and wanted to present myself as being strong and able. Therefore, I bought myself one of those old greasy-cars (“raggarbil”), rented an old excavator and tore and crushed the car to pieces. It became the first real sculptural project I made, and was also the beginning of a way of working that I’m still practicing today. I just had this need to show that I was still strong enough to rip a car apart, even though I am sick. To remain in power was very important to me.
I can understand that. How did life go on for you after that?
I spent a long time being very sick, and in and out of hospitals and recovery. When I had my first surgery they accidentally cut an artery in the brain, which resulted in me being technically dead for a couple of minutes. I lost 3,5 liters of blood. To die was one of the strongest and most striking experiences in my life, and just as when I got this car and tore it up, I had this kind of rage inside of me. I felt aware that the death experience was only temporary and that I would come back. Having been on the other side I believe that dying is one of the most beautiful moments in a human being’s life. I’ve never felt so complete, so secure, so happy as I did then. I touched on feelings I didn’t know existed inside of me. I later tried to understand what happened to me from a more biological or physiological point of view with some kind of logical explanation of the phenomena, because I don’t see myself as a spiritual person.
" My whole life has been so much about trying to understand death in relation to evil. I always had a great fear of and anxiety of death before this moment, but it made me reinterpret the concept of dying."
What did you see in that state of in-between, or on the other side?
All my art now is revolving around this death experience and trying to recreate the artifacts that I saw in that moment. It’s a lot about working in accordance with my intuition, like trying to retell and recreate a dream. I know that I saw these fragments of motorbikes, for instance. The day before the operation I had seen “The Matrix,” and I think the fierce image of Trinity on a motorcycle kind of stuck and reappeared in the moment of death as some kind of symbol for strength. It is funny how the brain works really. Many of my works also draw from a feeling and idea of some kind of armor or angels, where I try to reconstruct the emotion of the objects protecting and shielding me. I’m very influenced by artists as Hilma af Klint or Frida Kahlo. Both of their work somehow is derived from their inner world. Kahlo’s strength and suffering has been a real inspiration to me.
What did you take with you from this intense experience?
I think it was really the greatest gift ever given to me. It made me perceive the deaths of my loved ones in another light. I can now think about my friend who got murdered not only through sorrow and the pain she must have went through, but also knowing that the moment of death for her must have been a gift as well. It has totally changed how I see and reflect on death, something I’ve always struggled coming to piece with. My whole life has been so much about trying to understand death in relation to evil. I always had a great fear of and anxiety of death before this moment, but it made me reinterpret the concept of dying. I think it was just one of these magical experiences that redefines your life, and coming out on the other side it has changed me profoundly.
Read the full interview in Nudas latest book magazine Mother