Foreword to the book "Insomnia" - Joanna Sandell in conversation with Markus Åkesson

Joanna Sandell is since 2023 head of Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm. She is a journalist and art curator. She has previously been the head of Södertälje Konsthall, Kalmar Art Museum and Botkyrka Konsthall. 

Why did you become an artist?

"The greatest force was already there from the beginning in the craftsmanship, in the act of creating." When I was young I drew almost incessantly and was fascinated by how something just "appeared" on the paper. It was like magic. When I was eleven years old, I started to draw self- portraits in front of the mirror. My parents and everyone around me thought that I was remarkably talented. Art, as such, was not something that really existed in my family. So, when I was young, I didn't directly have any artistic role models. I studied mechanics in high school and thought that what was most important was to find a job. To be a professional artist was never an alternative, I didn't know any artists. Many of my friends worked with cars and so that was how I started airbrushing designs onto cars in my later teens. Most often I was doing commissions and I learned a few technical skills. I took out books at the library and taught myself to airbrush on my own. During that time you couldn't look things up on Youtube and knowledge wasn't as accessible. The same company that made the airbrushes also sold a sandblaster. I had a glass table and I tried making a picture on the table, a fantasy motif. Through the Yellow Pages, I found a company in Nybro that did glass engravings and so I went to see if I could buy blasting sand from them. But, while I was there I was offered a job on the spot and it became the beginning of a new chapter.

The glass industry is strong in Småland and it was a totally different environment than what I was used to. It was unbelievably creative. We were four engravers who sat together working on a glassware set. Soon, I started to work with commissioned portraits. When the recession came for the glass industry, we were all let go. But, I had gained an understanding for craftsmanship and design and I had met many people who worked professionally within that field. I felt like I had started to find my community. I didn't want to do commissions any more, but instead I had my own ideas that I wanted to pursue. So, I applied to Ölands Folkhögskola and was waitlisted after my third try." 

What questions interest you?

"I started to become interested in the bigger questions. I started to read philosophy and psychology on my own time. It was, naturally, not something that I studied along side of workshop mechanics in high school. I took out high school textbooks on philosophy and psychology from the library. At art school I was introduced to aesthetics through Kant and started to familiarize myself with philosophical paradoxes. Questions without final answers, that which is outside of science. I remember that I got stuck on "Schrödingers cat."1 in particular. Is the cat alive or dead as long as it is in the box? According to Edwin Schrödingers theory, the cat is theoretically both alive and dead as long as it is in the box. What does that imply if the theory is applied to questions about the existence of God? Wittgenstein was another important companion, as well as theories surrounding probability." 

During this time Markus Åkesson developed friendships that became central to his fundamental understanding of what it means to be an artist. 

One can divine an esoteric appeal in your work?

"I am not religious, I see myself as agnostic, but I think that some of the stories of the bible have interesting connotations. I have often been interested in questions about morality and free will. Many of the Old Testaments stories have their origin in older 'nature religions.' For example, 'The Garden of Eden' where God does not want man to ordain a certain type of knowledge. God is afraid that we ourselves will become Gods. This is an ancient story that says something about humanity. I believe that many of these ideas are mirrored in my artwork, the fact that the hardest questions are displayed in a type of tension, just like the people in my paintings. A close friend of mine is a priest. We got to know each other when I asked him to consult with me before an exhibition I was doing called, "The Judgement Day" at Galleri Svalan. I felt like I needed more knowledge in that area in order to depict the theme. He showed up and explained a few different thoughts about the biblical interpretations of the armageddon. That was ten years ago and the beginning of a discussion that is still going on." 

  Joanna Sandell in conversation with Markus Åkesson Foreword for the book Insomnia-Translation

Your partner, Ellen Ehk Åkesson, is also an artist. What does this mean for your own practice? Do you find yourselves working together?

"Ellen is my dearest companion and we share both life and art. We have a steadily ongoing conversation and see everything as a communal journey. That means that we are often working along the same themes and with the same questions. Up until this point it has always resulted in individual work. We have never made a piece under the same name, but we assist and help each other with everything imaginable. Ellen often works with public commissions and was recently working with a foundry in Berlin, there she built a large model for a bronze sculpture. We are both each other's critic as well as support and in that process it is necessary that we are very honest with one another."

Can you describe how you find your way to a subject for your work?

My imagery has, for myself, been a parallel reality, an underlying world. Sometimes it feels like I need to open the door and go in and look. I can have glimpses when I meet people or in certain situations. I collect curiosities that interest me and my studio, as well as our home, is swimming with them. I can see them as symbols or as actors in symbolism. They represent something that exists in other worlds or in other times.

So in that sense, I just paint what I see. It is often, at the beginning, a very intuitive process. Then it takes on more of a handicraft in order to reproduce the images. Arranging a collage of photographs that become the base on which I create a painting. A larger painting takes about a month to set up. In the painting process, I often go from a meditative place where I am working without thinking so much. I am often very mentally drained after I have worked for a long time at the easel. I work with the classic painting materials, oil and canvas. 

Something that reoccurs in your paintings is the dream space; from where do you obtain your material?

"Dream and dream interpretation have always interested me, particularly when I was reading both Freud and Jung. I am fascinated by how symbols come about and are charged. Take, for example, the owl. The owl can see in the dark, stands for wisdom and observes what is hidden. Through a simple symbol, we can access questions that deal with complex concepts like the future or parallel worlds. An interesting phenomenon is that which isn't but still is. Such as mythological creatures like the unicorn, for example. Everyone sees the same image when you hear the word "unicorn." But, a unicorn certainly does not exist, does it? So, what is the criteria for existing? Is it that something must be physically tangible, which one can not say about a dream. But, there are very few of us that would say that dreams do not exist. In the painting "The Unicorn Hunt," I have depicted part of a textile with a similar name from the 1500's. There, the unicorn is an allegory for Jesus but the story is much older than that and is a symbol for a deceived lover." 

There is a richness in detail and references to a world of symbols that associate art history with art, everything from the sacred art of the middle ages to the still life paintings from the 1600's. Is it important to understand these references? Do you think that the ability to decipher these symbols in art and culture is going to disappear in the general public in the future?

Above everything that interests me, I think that it is exciting to find symbols and underlying meaning in older works. When I go to a museum, I am often caught by the older paintings. I get sucked in and all of a sudden, I am there in the artist's world. I try to follow both how the artist was thinking, but also how the painting was made, tracing the process backwards. I have also noticed that the longer I have painted the more I see in other's paintings.

You also work with pop-culture references using material, for example, from films. Can you speak more about that?

Yes, I can use references from anywhere. One example is the series, "Psychopomp Club." There, a child has painted her face with a skull-mask. It comes from a James Bond movie, "Live and Let Die" from 1973. The mask references a villain, a Voodoo-priest who has also painted himself that way.

How much of your upbringing and your surroundings exists in your paintings?

"For those who know my story, it is not hard to see the connections to it in my work. I was raised in a rural area, in the woods. It was six kilometers to the nearest bus stop and there were very few children my age living around me. I played alone, I was always out in the woods and I drew a lot. Another great source of inspiration for my work is, of course, my children. They are with me all the time and through the years I have portrayed what is currently going on in their lives at that particular moment. In the beginning, it started that I was depicting their games and imagination. The title of the painting, The Woods (Escape from Kopetania), refers to, for example, the fantasyland in the trees on our property. In time, there have been other conditions that I have worked with. I have shifted from dreams and imagination, to more metaphysical issues."

What have Ölands Folkhögskola and Art School meant for you?

"It meant a lot. I was already 27 years old and I tried to learn as much as I could in a short amount of time. Then, during the early 2000's, painting was defunct. At Öland's art school there were still teachers who stood up for painting and greatly encouraged me but it was still the general assumption in the art world that oil-painting as a medium was no longer relevant. If an artist was going to paint, he should anyway paint conceptually. That is to say, have your starting point in modernism and then work your way towards conceptual art. It was not the easiest path to choose realistic painting then, and had I been a younger student at art school, I am doubtful that I would have continued with painting at that time. But, I had a few years of work experience behind me and I was a little more self assured. I remember reading Martin Schibli's and Lars Vilks' book, "How to be a Contemporary Artist in Three Days" and the worst thing that you could do for your career, according to them, was to "make art in the middle of nowhere," but that's exactly what I did."

Why, then, is painting still relevant in art today?

"I think that it is interesting to ask yourself, why would it be irrelevant?
Oil painting is just a facet of a medium used to portray ideas and thoughts, a technique for creating images. Realistic painting is a slow technique, which one can see today as a conceptual action in itself. Something happens when a person invests many hours in an object, it is as if the object reflects some sort of contemplation.
Every brushstroke and very centimeter of the canvas is mindfully made.

I think that Joseph Beuys thoughts are exciting. That a work can serve as a battery, charged by the artist with energy in the form of time and thoughts that in a certain context can transfer to the audience. He likes the artist to a shaman who moves people from one state of mind to another. And however rationally a person thinks, this is nothing other than a correct explanation."