Detail of “Return to Innocence,” Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn, 2021. Photo: Paul Kuimet

Manual Dexterity Equals Freedom: A Conversation with Edith Karlson

Edith Karlson, who will represent Estonia at this year’s Venice Biennale, belongs to a generation of Estonian sculptors who, throughout the past two decades, have broken from the monumental austerity that enmeshed the medium for much of the previous century, when it was inevitably employed to propagate the ideology of the Soviet state apparatus. Karlson and her peers, including Kris Lemsalu, Jass Kaselaan, and Eike Eplik, took play to a new extreme as they proceeded to reinvent the medium—sticking it to the old guard, a fantastical world-making apparatus took center stage.

For Karlson, this entailed a childlike embrace of animals, with her early exhibitions staging re-creations of circus and dog shows. At first blush, her work appeared unserious to the point of provocation. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that Karlson’s animals are more often decoys for discussing problems in the human world: her dinosaurs, for instance, suggest that the next mass extinction might already be well underway.

Doomsday, 2017. Silicone, 160 x 160 cm. Photo: Hedi Jaansoo

When I visited her studio this past summer in a forested area of Tallinn, she was in the process of repairing her best-known and most controversial sculpture, Peeing Woman, which had been installed in a pedestrian tunnel in the city center notorious as a site for, well, men to relieve themselves. Annoyed by the stench each time she was forced to traverse this tunnel, Karlson thought to herself, “Well, why not us women, too?” The sculpture sparked a public debate, was angrily ridiculed by the uncomprehending, and was eventually taken down after being vandalized.

On the announcement of her participation in Venice, Karlson declared, “The world is a fuckup and we, humans, did it. There is no escaping from that situation. No illusions, only dramas. Nothing will ever change, and it’s both tragic and comic, serious and laughable, terrifying as hell and amusing as a circus. I think my job as an artist is to create spaces where the viewer’s fantasies are evoked because the most powerful dramas are in our heads.” That her ingenious provocations always seem to be marked, at the outset, by a sense of not-knowing gives me great hope, since this is the same quality that makes for worthwhile, lasting art.

Travis Jeppesen: I’m fascinated by your background in monumental sculpture, especially given the fact that your studio is situated in the same factory where large-scale propaganda statues were made during the Soviet era. Even though your work bears no similarity to that kind of sculpture in terms of its visual language, there is still, I suppose, the matter of historical lineage. I’m curious as to what role, if any, this has played in the development of your working practice and style?
Edith Karlson: The house was built in 1976 specifically so that artists could make monumental sculptures there. It has always been a shared space for the department of sculpture in the Academy of Arts and, in parallel, for sculptors in their individual studio spaces. I have been in this building since my studies, for more than 20 years now. This house has had a huge impact on my work. It is a dusty and decaying place, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why I feel most at home in its rawness and roughness. Because it has been the main place to carry out large-scale works, I have gotten to witness from early on how the old-school masters modeled their monumental works. This house has inspired me to use modeling in my work, and it has increased my appreciation and admiration for clay as one of the most fantastic materials. I am proud to have been one of the last to learn from masters of my field, such as Jaak Soans, Hannes Starkopf, Ekke Väli, and Mare Mikoff. The Soviet era was a terrible time, but the skills of the sculptors of that time are rarely found today, if at all.

Installation view of “Circus,” 2010. Photo: Edith Karlson

TJ: The last time we met, you were en route to Venice to scout a venue for the Biennale. You mentioned that until that was settled, it would be impossible for you to decide what to show. What can you tell us about your plans for the Estonian Pavilion?
EK: The trip was great. We found a place so unbelievably good, I still have difficulties believing that it actually exists. As soon as I entered the space, my mind was full of ideas, so the room was the perfect trigger. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, but this much I can say: the whole space will be a journey with different scenes.

Family, 2019. Concrete, metal, and mixed media, dimensions variable; approx. 120 cm. high. Photo: Hedi Jaansoo

TJ: I would say that many artists view the prospect of collaboration as an unpleasant challenge, yet in the past, you have frequently collaborated with other artists—including Sarah Lucas, Gelitin, Sigrid Savi, and Kris Lemsalu—on different projects. What’s more, these are usually artists working in different media from your own, which must bring its own challenges since our perspectives as artists are often intimately tied to the medium in which we’re working. There’s a certain fearlessness in diving into this kind of collaborative endeavor, when the outcome will inevitably be all but certain. I’m curious about how collaboration has enhanced—or perhaps hindered—the art-making process for you.
EK: I generally do most of my work alone. I really enjoy solitude, but sometimes it can become quite tiring. Constant dialogue only with oneself does not have a good effect on the brain, and it’s refreshing to be able to step out of it. Cooperation with other artists and creative people has always brought me great joy and has been like a vacation from myself. It is a great luxury for me to be able to discuss things with someone, share the responsibility. What I have always liked about collaboration, and what I believe in a lot, is trust. If you decide to work with someone, you must have the trust, and if this is there, success, at least of some sort, is already written in. All collaborations have been eye-opening, and I always remember them with great gratitude.

Installation view of “Return to Innocence,” Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia, Tallinn, 2021. Photo: Paul Kuimet

TJ: There is an underlying element of horror, the eerie, the fantastical, and the gothic in your work. I suppose this comes across strongest in an exhibition like “Return to Innocence” (2021) at the Eesti Kaasaegse Kunsti Muuseum (EKKM) in Tallinn. Do horror films play any kind of role here? Or, given the cinematic feel of that exhibition, what kind of films in general have inspired you or played a role in the development of your aesthetic?
EK: Actually, I haven’t watched a lot of horror movies. I’m a weakling. Recently though, I’ve had fun watching ’90s exorcism movies like The Ninth Gate. But I have been a fan of fairy tales and fantasy films since I was a child, and somehow it is an ongoing guilty pleasure. I am completely hopeless in the sense that I consume absolutely everything. Even the worst kind of films, tasteless and poorly made. If somewhere there are clanging swords and knights, princesses, witches, and fairies running around, you can be sure that if I haven’t seen it already, I will soon. But the films that I will never get out of my head are Melancholia by Lars von Trier and Border by Ali Abbas. Of course, I have seen all the episodes of Star Wars several times. I have not thought about whether all these films have influenced me creatively. Surely they have. I rather like the dramaturgical approach, with beginnings, pauses, climaxes, and endings.

Sisters, 2019. Concrete, metal, and styrox, installation view. Photo: Hedi Jaansoo

TJ: Your sculpture Peeing Woman was originally installed in a public tunnel that was frequently used—mostly by men, presumably—as a place to urinate. What was the public reaction to the sculpture? Did it stir much of a debate? How long was it up for?
EK: As far as I remember, she was not there for more than three days. I modeled it in that tunnel in the middle of winter. I remember it was cold as hell. You couldn’t touch the clay with your bare hands, so I had to wear woolen gloves and rubber gloves on top of them. It was and continues to be a very popular place [to urinate], and when I did the work, I received both praise and criticism. Some people were happy to have something new to look at in their daily routine, and some were just cursing. If I remember correctly, they called me crazy. People also called in to the radio in frustration to complain. In any case, when she was brought from there after the third day, she had been kicked in the face, and a syringe had been inserted into her chest. The clay recorded all the violent attacks on her. I was excited to see it.

Peeing Woman, 2007–11. Photo: Edith Karlson

TJ: That is one of the few representations of the human figure we see in your work. More often you depict animals. Where does the fascination with fauna come from?
EK: As in most cases with animal lovers, it comes from childhood. As long as I have lived and breathed, I have loved animals, birds, nature, and insects, but I’ve never been anthropomorphic about animals. I am interested in the animal as an animal, with the psychology and behaviors specific to its species.

TJ: Your sculptures often come with very rough, battered surfaces—almost like you are willfully resisting the smooth perfection of classical sculpture. This is perhaps most pronounced in Interspace (created for the Köler Prize in 2015), arguably your most abstract work to date, which is kind of all texture—texture as a wall. Where does this impulse come from?
EK: Partially, I guess it has to do with the space, as I mentioned earlier. I’ve spent half of my life in decaying, dusty, cold, harsh spaces, and I’m pretty sure that has played a big part in the development of my visual language.

In purely practical terms, it is quite annoying to do work in such a place on something that requires a dust-free environment. But I have to admit, I have never really been attracted by perfection. I like skills that get better and better with practice and this in turn gives me confidence to use materials in non-traditional and unexpected ways. Manual dexterity equals freedom to me.

Can’t see, 2023. Installation view at The Nordic House, Reykjavík. Photo: Petur Thomsen

TJ: In your exhibition series “Drama is in Your Head,” each iteration seems like a different “act” in an ongoing play. Do you intend to stage further episodes of this work, or is the project complete? Would you ever consider staging the entire thing as one large exhibition?
EK: At some point, I stopped this series because there were so many of them that I had trouble distinguishing one from the other; they all started to get messed up in my head. I decided that maybe it would be easier for me if each project had its own name. Though I feel that all my projects could easily be called Drama is in Your Head. I have often thought that one day all these dramas could be under one roof. That would be a proper madhouse.

Installation view of “Drama is in your head II,” Tallinn City Gallery, 2013. Photo: Alana Proosa

TJ: The ironic dimension of your work has often been remarked on by critics. Yet irony appears to be under attack. In the current political climate, it seems there is increasing pressure to be crystal clear about one’s ethical beliefs. Is there still a place for irony in today’s world?
EK: The funny thing is that I consider myself too slow and stupid to be ironic. Irony is generally a way for intelligent people to have fun. But as with any exaggeration, the thing with irony is that if there’s too much of it, it just becomes annoying. Although yes, even if I wouldn’t call myself overly ironic, a well-tempered self-irony is warmly welcomed. It would make me really sad if people lose the ability to reflect on that. A bit like the end of the world, even. Humanity would be better off if everyone knew how to make fun of themselves.

Edith Karlson’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale, “Hora lupi,” is on view April 20–November 24, 2024.