20/06/24 • Interview : Heather Jones

The Forbidden Forest: A Conversation with Andreas Siqueland

20/06/24 • Interview : Heather Jones

The Forbidden Forest: A Conversation with Andreas Siqueland

In 2023, Norwegian artist Andreas Siqueland was invited to create an exhibition of new work in dialogue with artworks from Stavanger Kunstmuseum's Halvdan Hafsten collection. Titled The Forbidden Forest, the exhibition took as its starting point the semi-fictional character of the collector, and explored shifting exterior and psychological interior landscapes. In the below conversation, Siqueland reflects on the project and describes his process and intentions.

Heather Jones: I want to begin by asking about the framework of the exhibition The Forbidden Forest. It is a solo exhibition of your work, but it also highlights the Halvdan Hafsten collection at Stavanger Art Museum, correct?

Andreas Siqueland: Yes, I was invited to interact with the collection. That was the premise of the exhibition. Hanne Beate Ueland, the director of the museum, asked me if I would be interested in doing a show where I selected works from the collection and showed these works together with my own. Exactly how I would do that was up to me. I’m glad that the museum took the chance and approached the project with daring openness. We live in a society where we are increasingly scared of taking risks. That is something I believe we as artists need to work against. The collection has a precarious feel to it. These works which were collected just before, during and right after the second world war suddenly have a more contemporary feel to them. 

HJ: Why do you think they’re more important now?

AS: War and the threat of war, climate change, migrations, the risk of new digital technology getting out of control are all things contributing to this feeling. Suddenly paintings which were painted in another reality, reflect more of our contemporary reality. The show was an attempt to reflect upon this condition. 

HJ: It felt as though you didn’t simply interact with the collection, you integrated it to create a cohesive whole. Did you choose the specific works from the collection to include and if so, how did you approach that process?

AS: It seems to me that it was important for Hafsten to pay equal respect and admiration to each of his artists. It was important for me to do the same and to represent each artist well. Each artist has their own distinct style and interests. To make this work as a whole, I needed some kind of common denominator. I wanted to create different environments for each artist’s works which could at the same time relate to the rest of the collection. The solution became to paint large wall pieces and to display work from the collection on top of these works. In this way, the installation could feel like a continuum with zones and shifts. It also allowed me to play with the architecture in the space and to make the show feel open but at the same time intimate and capsule-like. 

HJ: It was eight artists, is that correct?

AS: Yes eight male painters, all important icons of Norwegian Modernism: Reidar Aulie, Harald Dal, Arne Ekeland, Kai Fjell, Thobjørn Lie-Jørgensen, Ragnar Kraugerud and Aleksander Schultz. Halvdan Halfsten collected only these eight artists from the 1930s to the early 80s, when he donated the collection to Stavanger Kunstmuseum. All the artists lived in the Oslo area and they were all approximately the same age as himself. Hafsten does not himself say much about his own intentions for collecting and comes across as a somewhat reserved man. The democratic principle in collecting, as I mentioned before, is present in the way he envisaged how the works were to be shown at the museum. An entire wing of the museum was built specifically for the Hafsten collection. He dictated the architecture during his lifetime, and the layout was very democratic. Imagine you have a birthday cake and you divide it into slices and you give each artist a slice. That was his vision. The collection feels open and at the same time somehow closed, which I think is what makes it interesting.

HJ: In what ways?

AS: In the collection we see the life of Hafsten. The collection of the paintings represents a series of choices that he made through his life. Most of these choices are invisible to us today, but some are evident: Like the choice to collect only male artists for instance, or the great appreciation he took in being invited into the homes of the artists, which we know from some of his writing. Hafsten lived alone and never married. The fact that he downplayed his role as a collector and knowledge about art and art collecting makes him come across as a shy and timid man. It seems to me that the artists gave him a sense of community, family and belonging that I doubt he would have experienced otherwise. He does not give much information about why he was a patron of these specific artists or why he collected these specific works. It all feels a bit mysterious. At the same time, he plays the key role in how the collection came about and how it was to be presented.

Trust between the collector and the artists was built over time. It seems to me that Hafsten was given the first choice by the artists in selecting works. Hafsten was very obliging when it came to lending out works and the collection traveled extensively nationally but also internationally. 

Hafsten followed the career of each of the artists very closely and made notes of all their exhibitions. If one of “his” artists participated in a show, then he would take the text from a magazine or newspaper, transcribe it by typewriter, and save it in an archive for each artist. There are rarely any spelling mistakes, so this must have been very time consuming. He was quite obsessive about it. If an artist was in a show with other artists that were not in his collection, he would edit that part out. He even went so far as cutting out the works of other artists from documentary photos of group exhibitions. Downplaying the historic role of other contemporary artists’ influence is a bit strange, as one normally thinks that this could only boost the reputation of the collection. It only shows how protective he was. He probably felt that being a caretaker of the works also meant being the caretaker of history and reception. 

Note: You can read more about this in the digital publication that the museum has made available online here.

Photo: Erik Sæter Jørgensen. Image courtesy of Stavanger Kunstmuseum.

HJ: The discourse around the exhibition was largely about patronage, the treatments of collections, and the interaction between art and architecture. However the feeling inside of the exhibition was deeply psychological. Was that your intent?

AS: I think many of the critiques missed out on this very essential part of the exhibition. Maybe because it is difficult to talk about in a short text in a newspaper or magazine without becoming superficial? Many of these artists came out of the surrealist movement and were interested in exploring how psychological spaces could be represented visually. Early Norwegian modernists such as Ekeland, Aulie and Fjell openly explore this theme in their works. In many of their works one gets a sense of a rupture between inside and outside, as if there is an incoherent translation between people’s sentiments and state of mind and the way they live. The child asks her traumatized mother to come out in the sun, the bartender hangs himself when the party is over. Strong young women hold up appearances while death looms behind curtains. There are these overlapping spaces where different rooms can exist within a single room present in the painting and I wanted to bring it out into the physical rooms that we move through as viewers. To open up the picture space and to discuss the figure and ground relationship was a way to make these issues become spatial in a way, making the paintings connect with each other in new ways.

Photo: Erik Sæter Jørgensen. Image courtesy of Stavanger Kunstmuseum.

HJ: Yes. As a viewer, it feels like you’re inside someone else’s interior landscape.

AS: Glad you feel this way. That is very much the idea – an interior landscape or a sort of dreamscape. A dream is a state of mind and a painted landscape is a great way to enter into it. There is something to be said about landscapes as vehicles for our thoughts. In a dream there is no sense of direction, it is an open space, where anything can happen. Tarkovsky or Lynch movies are good examples. Thoughts seem to wander aimlessly around without a plot or direction until some kind of intrusion suddenly changes everything. In that way a landscape can then become like a picture of someone’s mind. A fictional space with a basis in reality. A conglomeration of images similar to a collection. I wanted to create an impression or sense of bewilderment, like getting lost in a forest or entering spaces where everything seems fine, but at the same time you get this sensation you are in a place where you would normally not walk or somehow were forbidden to go. 

The psyche is still this hidden place. I was curious about Hafsten himself, why he collected these works, how it was for him to live with them and what kind of personal attachment he made to specific works. The collection follows so many different conceptual and thematic veins so it is hard to tell. Besides the artworks themselves and a few historical details we know about his life, there was very little to go on. The more I read, the more I got the sensation that I was dealing with a fictional character, a figment of my own imagination. To get in touch with Hafsten, I needed for us as viewers to take his place.

Along with the paintings, Hafsten donated his chair and desk. I thought that if the painting represents the artists, the furniture must represent the collector. These objects became an important way for me to understand the psychological space of Hafsten himself, not only as a collector, but an overseer, someone all-present but at the same time totally invisible. 

Hafsten was the hub, so I realized that the show must somehow revolve around him – not him per se, but him as a character. I began to imagine a scenario where the collector sleepwalks at night in his own home. He sees the walls transformed and experiences a sudden estrangement from the paintings that he has lived with over so many years. I say the collector, but in the show it is us as museum visitors who play this role. We are the collectors of images in our own right. Ghost-like figures when the show is documented, when it is no longer on display. In literature you have ghost writers, people who write texts for others. While working with the collection, it felt a bit to me like Hafsten collected to tell a deeper more personal story about himself, that the collection is also a kind of story. To me, the donation of the chair and desk was a way to say exactly this.

HJ: Can you discuss how you approached working with the museum’s very specific architecture?

AS: At home Hafsten had white museum-like walls. The pictures I saw of his living room were taken at the end of his life, but if he had it like this for a long time, that must have felt very different from most people’s home at the time when the popular trend was to use color. The use of the white color of course leads us back to the museum and the white cube. But what is this space and how does it function? What are the conditions for showing art today and are they optimal? Why are we inheriting modes of presentation without them being questioned? These kinds of questions which related to the architecture of the museum and to exhibition practice became a conceptual starting point for me to think about what I wanted to make.  

When I was thinking about the dream state it was therefore natural to think about how I could transform the rooms back to a more intimate space. The museum is totally oversized in comparison to most peoples living environments, but in a dream scenario maybe not. The paintings in the collection are themselves generally small in size and are probably made to be viewed in someone’s home. They are usually shown in the space that Hafsten* built for them and not in the larger gallery spaces. So in order for them to function in these larger exhibition spaces, I felt a transformation was needed. 

The rooms at the Stavanger Kunstmuseum have this both classic and sci-fi like quality to them. First of all you have this glass dome you walk through when entering the museum and already there you feel that you are in some kind of space station. The effect is quite marvelous because it makes the sky very present, like being in some kind of great l’orangerie without plants. Then there are white marble floors, which despite their material presence also have an unnatural artificial feel to them. We enter the exhibition space through a long white corridor, like an oversized hallway in a home, which leads us into the exhibition space. It opens up to the larger rooms and ends in this semicircular space. This small nook creates an end without an end, a kind of neverending space. The hallway is lit up behind glass in the ceiling. It used to be natural light, which makes more sense as you would then feel more connected to the outside, but all light is blocked out also on the side windows, which makes the rooms feel insular although they are quite big. So the architecture of the museum becomes this interior capsule where one finds that time and space seem to float. I tried to pick up on this in the installation and put it into the context of the home. If you think about these galleries as living spaces, they become somehow surreal and eerie which fits in well with the dreamstate situation that I wanted to create.

The long hallway reminds me of the Parisian arcades where they had glass windows on top. The arcades were the precursor of the shopping mall where the flaneur could stroll without getting wet. Then there is this marble staircase with columns on each side, now built into the walls, which seem to reference ancient Greek temples. The staircase is rounded so you get an impression that it is larger than it really is.

The room looks down on the main exhibition space which is a very large open room with walls that have strange angles. The room feels totally oversized and at times awkward because of transformations made to it over time. At some point a new wall was built in the entrance area leaving the room on the other side with a very tight corner. I made a room divider with this work with wooden panels in this room, like a window frame.

And there are these strange lamps that come down from the ceiling that look like tentacles from a spaceship as if alien lifeforms are waiting to beam you up…

* Editor’s note: Hafsten collaborated with the architect Per Faltinsen on the design of the pavilion for his collection.

“The architecture of the museum becomes an interior capsule where one finds that time and space seem to float.”

HJ: In terms of the architecture, I’m surprised to hear you say that Hafsten’s living environment was white. The way that you engage with a painting in a living space is very different from the way that you look at a painting in a museum setting. Did he live with these paintings when they were not on view elsewhere? 

AS: Yes he did. And some of them, like Vårbilde by Arne Ekeland, are quite big, so imagine how it would look in someone’s home. 

HJ: Right. We are back to the psychology of the collector. 

AS: We don’t know much about his motivations, but we can see what he collected and the way he meticulously took care of all of the work. And the generosity he had lending it all out. Every time someone asked for an artwork he would lend it out more or less. He did not restrict that. All the works have traveled extensively in Norway and abroad. He didn’t have a wife or children and he lived with his mother for a long time in Oslo. And then took over that house after her death and housed the artworks he collected there.

A lot of the works come out of the Surrealist movement and an interest in psychology – and how different rooms can exist within a single room. You are thinking about something in a physical space and that space can then shift as you begin thinking about something else. That comes across in the paintings. Taking these kinds of shifts back into the physical space, I began to envisage a scenario where the collector wakes up in the middle of the night or maybe early morning, half asleep, half awake. As he sleepwalks around in his house he sees his home transformed. Everything has changed, the walls have grown into a forest.

I imagined him waking up in this condition where he doesn’t really know where he is, feeling displaced from his home, but at the same time recognizing he is in it. Seeing his beloved somehow paintings in a new context and coming to grasp with that. I wanted to shift the viewer from the normal viewpoint of the white cube situation to a new context that could engage with these works in a different way. Historically, these paintings are all very defined for the viewer, especially the visitors in Stavanger. They have been on display in the same space for many years and the regular visitors are quite familiar with them. I wanted viewers to see them as if for the first time. 

“As he sleepwalks around in his house he sees his home transformed. Everything has changed, the walls have grown into a forest.”

Photo: Erik Sæter Jørgensen. Image courtesy of Stavanger Kunstmuseum.

HJ: You spoke extensively about how you created a new container, a new context, for these works. But your own artwork is also present. In addition to the setting you have made for collection, you also have your own individual paintings interspersed throughout, like Shame and Sleeper’s Hands. 

AS: I made a series of paintings to hang besides the work in the collection, many of them are sleepwalkers – a fragile state between sleep and wakefulness. Sleeper’s Hands is also about that – touching plants with sleepy fingers. I use the sleepwalkers as chapter breaks or pauses, a kind of Brechtian visual device. The exhibition opens with a painting of a sleepwalker in a void juxtaposed against a nighttime forest scene. It’s a reminder to the public of a state of mind. Maybe it’s a bit about how we look at art in museums – like sleepwalkers. I at least sometimes feel like that, like I’m walking in a daze. A bit like the flâneur in the hallway. In that state you are open to impressions and it can spark new thoughts that lets me get into the space of the artworks.

So in one sense these paintings are markers of a situation or a frame of mind, but some of them are also there to establish a background and foreground relationship. The larger paintings I made for the walls are quite flat, so when you put other paintings on top you create a physical distance. Layering the paintings opens up a whole new way of reading the figure-ground relationship. The paintings on top also become actors in a landscape. In this way, the viewers also become more aware that they, like the paintings, are also protagonists in a space. The exhibition becomes an interactive space where you are not only watching the art work but watching other people watching the work. 

HJ: You could have just stopped there, with these giant wall paintings that highlight the collection and your own paintings. But you’ve included rugs, furniture, curtains, video, sound, and I have to say I laughed out loud when I noticed that the wires around some of the more sculptural elements are held up by whittled sticks. You paid precise attention to every detail. Why and how?

AS: I wanted to make a public space feel like an interior space, more like a home, and to display the collection in a setting that was closer to the kind of space I imagine they were made for or displayed in when they were in Hafsten’s home. To do that I needed to make these very large gallery spaces feel intimate and warm. Shifting the public’s attention and ways of seeing away from the idea of the public space back to a private setting where we have a more one on one relationship with the paintings. I thought that a good way of doing that would be to include furniture and other things that remind us of what kind of room we would be in in a homely sphere. 

So you have the desk, which is sort of the starting point, that is his office. It needed space around it. I was watching a lot of old films from the 30s and 40s with these fantastic staircases and living rooms upstairs, and people would come up and down these dramatic stairs. There is an echo of this in the marble stairs in the museum. The staircase made me think of the stairway scene in the Powell and Pressbruger film A Matter of Life and Death in which a person dies and is sent to heaven on a giant escalator but decides to run back down to earth. I was thinking about this movie during the installation. The space on top of the stairs feels like it’s in another realm than the rest of the rooms – like in most homes where the bedrooms are usually on the second floor. It made sense to put Kai Fjell’s paintings here and make it into a bedroom scene. I had this old bed that I acquired some years ago and I decided that it would be a strong addition to paint some panels on that as well. In different rooms there are these different clocks running at different times and chiming at different intervals. In the bedroom there is a grandfather clock, which of course with the bed is a reference to Munch, which is also a big reference in the paintings. 

The room with the Ekeland paintings started with Vårbilde, which is the icon of the collection in my view. There are these white naked figures in a utopian landscape where everything is peaceful. Whereas his other paintings have a very psychological inward drama… you almost feel post-traumatic stress just looking at these paintings, but Vårbilde is different. The question was then, in what room could you house such different emotions? I decided on the bathroom. The bathroom is a place of transformation. The drama continues around you in the paintings on the walls that move from one catastrophe to another. There are depictions of floods on one side of the wall and then it shifts into fires on the other side. Many places around the world have experienced this in big ways. In Norway we had this flood in the middle of the summer and a drought at the beginning of the summer. 

Photo: Erik Sæter Jørgensen. Image courtesy of Stavanger Kunstmuseum.

HJ: So you’re saying that this bathtub is a moment of peace in the middle of these catastrophes?

AS: The bathtub becomes this floating island where you are sort of protected but at the same time vulnerable. I wanted the carpet for that room to resemble a neural pathway. You are calm and stressed at the same time.

HJ: I know you have worked with landscape and nature in various ways for a really long time. How and why did you decide to engage with landscape painting?

AS: I most often work with landscapes. Outdoor painting is a way for me to connect to a place. Through observation I get a strong connection to the place I am in. Working on landscapes from memory allows for a more cerebral connection with the paintings, a kind of game with form and color. You do something to the canvas and then the canvas tells you what you have done and you have to decide on the next step. You also have that working outdoors, but it’s different, your attention gets easily drawn towards the changes that occur outside the canvas. When I work outside, it is usually in a small format, but inside I can have larger canvases. For me, these two ways of working out a painting has taught me a great deal about my own position as a painter and the importance of the body when working out a new painting. For many years painting landscapes felt like a faux pas. Landscapes communicate feelings in another way than a portrait or the painting of an object can. It’s a slower mover, but maybe stronger because it puts you in a more direct communication with the universe.

HJ: What about beauty? This is an incredibly beautiful, aesthetically rich exhibition. Yes, the themes are conceptual but the exhibition impacted me viscerally before I engaged with the intellectual elements. Did you intentionally use beauty as a method to draw people into the exhibition?

AS: I do not work with beauty as a tool or a method, but more as a way of seeing.  Beauty comes about when I least expect it. It is in the eyes of the beholder as they say. One can take a photo not to forget a sunset. One can paint a landscape to hold onto its beauty. I am more concerned about being honest to myself or to an idea or an impulse – following a thought through. Beauty may be something that allows me to do that. But I think the beautiful is powerful in the sense that you mention. It is quite political, but it also says something about truth or reality. For example, we had a summer without rain in 2018, and then the next year we had these fantastic flowers everywhere. Beauty became a picture of how nature is pushing itself to the limit. So when you have lots of beauty, it’s almost like a symbol that something is about to fall apart. 

HJ: So there’s a sadness to it as well?

AS: Yes, there’s a double-sidedness to it all. Working with inside-outside relationships for instance, bringing nature in is a way to open these closed rooms to the outside. It says something about the state of the museum but also about its surroundings.

HJ: Were you trying to make it feel as if the walls are permeable?

AS: Yes the walls have been taken down in a sense, and we are exposed to the outside more. And by being exposed to that environment, we feel the tension that is in it. I think that in many ways we protect ourselves from the outside. We don’t really understand what’s going on out there although we constantly get messages that it is on the brink of collapse. Maybe we would have understood it better if we spent more time outside. 

Photo: Erik Sæter Jørgensen. Image courtesy of Stavanger Kunstmuseum.

HJ: One of the exhibition texts referring to your practice says, “In particular he has been concerned with the relationship between the paintings and geographical location and investigated how the relationship with the surroundings affect the artistic process.” Is that what you’re referring to?

AS: I did an artistic research program, and I realized through the research on my own practice that I would create different types of paintings depending on the physical location I was in. I realized that paintings are a reflection of their surroundings and therefore have an element of place built into them. Easel paintings especially have this quality. When they are shown in one space they refer back to another space.

HJ: What happens when this exhibition, or any of your exhibitions come down? Are they able to be shown somewhere else if they are so specific to a location?

AS: I think so. Of course it would be very, very different. And if I were to construct it again I would bring in new elements and build on it and change it. So it wouldn’t be the same. My work is always situation-specific. I think this point about place is important to emphasize. One has to realize that a lot of these paintings in the collection are from the Oslo area. The landscape you’re seeing is the landscape around Oslo. When you think about this, the way you view the paintings can change, especially if you have a relation to the landscape that is being depicted. For me that is important, because it puts the collection in relation to the place where I’m living and where many of my own paintings have been produced.

“Maybe you could also look at this exhibition as an attempt to make the paintings feel at home.”

HJ: That’s a really interesting through line.

AS: Although I was also thinking about the landscape outside of the museum when working at home. In this way you have different spaces that are merging together and it is this quality of place-shifter that paintings are so good at and what makes old paintings interesting to look at even today. 

HJ: That’s fascinating. As someone from a different country, that is something I feel as well. Your internal landscape is one place that often looks, feels and sounds completely different, but your body is physically living in another landscape and those two things are either merging or in conflict or both at the same time.

AS: That’s a good way of looking at it. I think I also feel like that a bit because I have moved a lot in my life and I lived in the States when I grew up and I have studied abroad, so you feel a bit torn between places. There’s a slight feeling of homelessness. I think if you look into the feeling of being displaced as a painting, if you look at a painting as a person that is, it’s always being displaced and shown in different contexts and not feeling at home. Maybe you could also look at this exhibition as an attempt to make the paintings feel at home.

HJ: That’s beautiful! 

AS: It’s always problematic when you infringe upon the solitary position of an artwork. The independence of an artwork. Where does that independence end? What I wanted to do is to make landscapes that connect the works in the exhibition. These painters are actually quite different. The landscapes are a way to make them operate together where they are read as a walker moving through a landscape. The paintings and the landscape change because we displace ourselves.  

HJ: Which is evident in the color shifts as you walk through the space. The landscape remains consistent but the colors vary. 

AS: Yes, you have this winter scene when you enter, and then it changes to a summer situation and then a more nature-on-acid situation. There are huge shifts between sections in the types of forests you enter. In one area, the forest has itself become a set design so I play around with different ways of seeing.

HJ: One of the things I felt challenged by in this exhibition is what we surround ourselves with. Why are our galleries always white, why are our houses always neutral? And how, then, do we interact with artwork in our own spaces?

AS: I think a lot of times we live in situations where we adapt to some kind of established normality. We surround ourselves with color when we go out in nature, but maybe people paint their houses white because they need a more sterile space in contrast to all the visual input they get elsewhere. Most of all, it’s a fashion thing I guess. We see more colors returning to interiors today. White creates a very strong contrast to other colors and makes it difficult for us to see nuances. I think a lot of people feel calmer when they go out in nature where the relationship between colors is more subtle.  

HJ: The title The Forbidden Forest is quite ominous though. Where does that title come from?

AS: There are different archetypal forests, you have sacred forests for instance, the forbidden forest may be another. For me a lot of the paintings in the collection deal with the dark spaces in ourselves that we have to deal with somehow. I wanted to tap into that space. Like places that you are drawn to but at the same time feel psychologically estranged from or that you are scared of opening up. The forest becomes a state of this mind, a reflection on reality in someone’s head. It can be a scary place. 

Photo: Erik Sæter Jørgensen. Image courtesy of Stavanger Kunstmuseum.

HJ: You’ve talked about what you were thinking as the artist, the mind of the quasi-fictional collector, but were you thinking about the viewer and what you wanted them to take away?

AS: I thought a lot about the viewer. Normally when you’re looking at a painting, it’s an object on a wall. When you shift the painting from being an object on the wall to an object in space, as integrated, it displaces your position as a viewer as well. So the painting shifts from being a controllable object to an object that’s out of control. And also you as the viewer become a character in space, in a sense we become the collector and the sleepwalker. It shifts your perspective on how you view yourself in relation to the painting, but also in relation to the other viewers in the exhibition space. 

HJ: So they’re inside the artwork?

AS: You are inside an artwork. You see the other people also as being inside the artwork. You see them as part of the painting, part of the surroundings. You don’t think about it the same way if you see a white wall. 

HJ: When you leave the exhibition, that idea that you’re inside of an artwork stays with you as you look around.

AS: That’s great! I think that’s the best feeling when you walk outside the space and you carry the artwork with you mentally. When you see objects or situations around you that remind you of what you just saw. I think that is where art functions the best and can shift your perspective of how you look. That’s very powerful. I want to make spaces that transform and open up our possibility of seeing. 

HJ: That’s a lofty goal. 

AS: I think you have to have lofty goals or there’s not much point in doing it – or is there?

Andreas Siqueland (b. 1973) is an artist living and working in Oslo, Norway. His exhibition The Forbidden Forest – Andreas Siqueland and the Halvdan Hafsten Collection was on view at Stavanger Kunstmuseum from 11. November, 2023 – 20. May, 2024.