Monumental Playfulness: Siri Aurdal

Hans Ulrich Obrist traces the career of Siri Aurdal, one of the protagonists of Mirrored, a group show presented at the Nordic Pavilion during the latest edition of the Venice Biennale.  An innovator known for her sculptures made of common industrial materials, Aurdal creates environments conceived for both contemplation and social engagement in public space.


Hans Ulrich Obrist: Siri, you wanted to become an architect originally. How did that happen? Did you have an epiphany or an encounter with architecture?

Siri Aurdal: I had a lot of friends who were architects. For instance, the father of my best friend was an architect for the winter 1952 Olympic Games in Oslo, Frode Rinnan.

HUO: And he was an inspiration? He was a modernist?

SA: Yes. He built the ski jump and the swimming pools. Really inspired work. And my grandmother and mother and stepfather and father were artists.

HUO: Well-known artists?

SA: My grandmother, yes, and my mother was a very important textile artist in Norway. She represented Norway in 1982 at the Venice Biennale. For a long time I had to work for her and not for myself.

HUO: What did you learn from her?

SA: Composition. To make it simple.

HUO: Rinnan was part of the generation who preceded Sverre Fehn, whom I knew really well.

SA: I did, too. I did walk around in Oslo with him in 1962, at the same time as he built the Venice Pavilion.

HUO: What inspired you about him? I met him when I first came to Norway in 1995 researching for the Nuit Blanche exhibition. I went to interview him. He was in his seventies and still very sharp.

SA: A fine person and really interesting.

HUO: How did you meet him?

SA: I was a student in the academy, and I got lucky. It just

HUO: Well, when one is interested in architecture, one befriends architects. What did you learn from Sverre Fehn? From your mother you learned how to make it simple, and you learned composition.

SA: It’s hard to put into words, but something about materials.

HUO: I understand that at some point you stopped going to museums so much and started going to commercial trade shows to look for new technologies, new materials.

SA: Also building techniques.

HUO: Share with me some of your memories of Sverre Fehn in 1962 in Oslo. I wish I could have been there.

SA: I remember this underground thing. Both literally and metaphorically, it was sort of a secret because we went underground. We would descend through these huge holes to see electric installations, concrete foundations. We took the lift down, it was very—the doors were just like any other doors so that you couldn’t know there was something very big down there.

HUO: That must have been very inspiring sculpturally.

SA: Absolutely tremendous, yes.

HUO: When I spoke to Sverre Fehn, I was under the impression that he was using concrete in a human way, as opposed to what many call brutalism.

SA: The human aspect was very important for him.

HUO: So, to recap: you are at the academy, doing figurative work, and at the same time you are friends with these architects. Where would you say your catalogue raisonné starts? The first work that no longer felt like student work?

SA: I would like to show you this, titled February 67. I made it in February 1967, which was a political period. It’s in the national art museum now. A Styrofoam ring, Styrofoam pipes. I bought it in a plumbing shop. It’s a found object from a plumbing shop.

HUO: It looks like it is also inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

SA: It’s bombs. Bombs falling. It’s about what was going on in Vietnam.

HUO: Then what was your second work?

SA: Probably Interview. It’s multicolored Plexiglas suspended from the ceiling.

HUO: Interview feels very contemporary. What was the epiphany that led to it?

SA: A meeting in a bakery shop with a little group of artists who gave me that opportunity to make an exhibition. I had studied mathematics and physics in order to become an architect, but I was also inspired by Albert Einstein’s theories, which I very much enjoyed thinking about.

HUO: Do you mean the theory of relativity? How does Interview connect to Einstein?

SA: It’s the theory of waves being two different things, material or light.

HUO: Why Plexiglas?

SA: Well, it takes light very well. I wanted also to make something you could go in between and reflect. You can see yourself and others reflected, in green or orange.

HUO: And what about the shapes?

SA: It goes back to my very early years, age three, when my father showed me how to make a circle on the floor with a nail and a string tied to it.

HUO: So it’s a childhood memory. You also mentioned that the piece was equally about the spaces between the pieces of Plexiglas. It was about the social space, which was entering your work for the first time here.

SA: Participation. That’s why I called it Interview. You can even interview yourself in it. You can make it in green, or in red, or—

HUO: How did you come to this idea of participation, of bringing the viewer in? I suppose architecture is immersive, so maybe it came from that?

SA: Yes, architecture truly. Also my father when I was three, four, or five years old. He died soon after that.

HUO: Your father died young?

SA: Yes.

HUO: Was he an artist also?

SA: Yes, a painter. He studied in Paris.

HUO: Your mother taught you how to keep it simple. What did your father teach you?

SA: Well, he would extrapolate from simple things to explain the world. For instance after this circle we made on the floor, I got a little ball and a little lamp. He showed me how to imagine that we’re living on this little ball, and which is going around the lamp in an ellipse. That was an initiation to understanding time, daylight, years, seasons.

HUO: Were you aware of what was happening in contemporary art, minimal art, in America? Or did your work come more out of the local context here, and your connection to the architects?

SA: It was here mostly. I did know one Italian architect who lived here in Oslo, Ivo Pannaggi. He came to Norway just before the war.

HUO: He was connected to the Bauhaus in Germany.

SA: And I traveled a lot in Scandinavia. I made connections with many artists, we did shows together in the late 1960s. For instance the Nordic Biennial in Helsinki in 1968.

HUO: What did you show there?

SA: Four works.

HUO: What is this piece? [pointing to book]

SA: It’s a book I wrote with the poet Jan Erik Vold; our intent was to take the book to a sculptor. The poem is called Revolving Door.

HUO: It’s interesting to me, because it reminds me of the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, with whom I was acquainted. He always made small sculptures in order to write his books, and this is kind of a pop-up book. The pages of the book are on these stands, and it’s very multi-dimensional.

SA: It’s possible to close it as a book, and it’s a ring. I’m not sure how to describe it. The first time was in glass, and then after that in acrylic, so it was less likely to break.

HUO: You mentioned getting to know artists in Scandinavia in the late 1960s. What were some of their names?

SA: For instance Sidsel Paaske. She was my best friend. She was married to Jan Erik Vold. We met in art school in Oslo in 1957, then in 1961, spent a year together in Paris.

HUO: Can you share some of your memories of Paris at that time? What was important for you in the couple of years you spent there studying?

SA: First and foremost I was realizing how big the world was. The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Every day I passed by Concorde, at Trocadero. Jean Rouch had his office there and we went there a lot. Also Sainte-Chapelle, the Gothic church from the thirteenth century. To see it as a student, it was magical. In fact, I had it in mind when I made Interview. The glass, the colors, the reflection of the light.

HUO: How interesting! I would never have realized that Interview connects to Sainte-Chapelle.

SA: It connects interestingly. I found some notes I made at the time about discotheque, about Plexiglas and light and music and rhythm.

HUO: Hm, so, Sainte-Chapelle and discotheque. What was the best discotheque in Oslo in 1968?

SA: Chasse et Pêche. Countess and fishes, or the Count who fishes.

HUO: That, of course, brings us to 1969, and your landmark piece Surroundings.

SA: I would call it Environment rather than Surroundings. I don’t know what you think about that.

HUO: You wouldn’t call it Surroundings anymore?

SA: You may call it Surroundings, but I use Environment.

HUO: What’s the word in Norwegian?

SA: Omgivelser.

HUO: Do you remember the epiphany for Environment? I understand it has been reassembled in the Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo. Environment incorporates people. I found an interview where you say people were invited to incorporate it into their daily lives. It gives the work a social and political aspect. You also had the idea that people would not only occupy it, but actually write on it. What about that?

SA: People could write graffiti. This was the period of the wall writing, news on the walls. I thought, why not make room not only for my expressions, but also responses to my expressions?

HUO: What prompted you to do these modules? Because they are capped in the same method, so they are interchangeable. Where did you find the oil pipes?

SA: At a trade fair. It was in the beginning of petroleum production in Norway. It was in 1968 I saw that for the first time, I remember it very well.

HUO: And you had already been working at a model scale with tubular forms. You had made sketches for pieces, and you were looking for the right material to make full-scale versions in. The idea was to do a kind of monument with fragments from oil pipes?

SA: Yes. The original impetus was a competition for a children’s schoolyard installation. So I was looking for a material that was inexpensive and that children could play on without bruising the art. And if something broke we could just get a new piece. It would demand maintenance, sure. I also loved having such a big space to think about, to play with children in. And there was the physical challenge because they could climb on it. I had to anticipate as many as a hundred children on the sculpture at once.

HUO: You could build a city in this way. I keep thinking of how thousands of your modules could become a city for children. Can you say more about how you settled on the shape? It was inspired by the oil pipes, I understand, but it also seems to be a kind of wave.

SA: It’s a simple principle. You cut the tube on the same degree as the polar circle cuts from the equator, or the center of the Earth. It’s 23,7 degrees. When you flatten it out, it makes this type of a pattern. So, it’s always this doubling of the wave pattern from Interview. This was sort of applied onto the tubes, and then flattened, and then there it is. They confirm, in my mind, the doubling system of the waves, the sound of rhythm and waves.

HUO: I understand in the 1960s you were part of a quite political group of silkscreen makers.

SA: It was a silkscreen workshop. A political workshop as much as an artistic one.

HUO: What did you do? You made posters?

SA: Yes. I made some posters there.

HUO: Some of the people in the group ended up very famous, but at the time, it was a much larger communal project. So, what was the next piece after Environment?

SA: In 1972, I received a commission for a playground at an elementary school.

HUO: It left the exhibition field and entered reality.

SA: Yes. It was at a public school.

HUO: For you, this was a fulfillment to actually have it out among the children.

SA: Yes, it was my dream. It came to Beeldentuin Biennale, or Middelheim Museum Biennale, in 1979.

HUO: Another wave. There were three pieces, it’s like repetition and difference. Can you tell us about the difference, because it’s on these stilts?

SA: It’s three pieces that together make a whole, yes. It’s only one pattern for the whole group of three. It has a certain likeness to the one in the schoolyard. It was nice to try an outdoor scenario, then come to a serious museum.

HUO: You went outside the museum, then you ran it back to the museum. What happened next?

SA: Then the work from 1980.

HUO: What happened in between?

SA: Well, I broke. I was teaching in the 1970s in Trondheim for five years. Then I was completely—I broke my back, and I had to get repaired. For three years I couldn’t walk. And Sidsel Paaske died.

HUO: They told you, “Don’t get back on your feet for a very long time.” Then by the time you did that, your mother was very elderly.

SA: She needed me very much. I became my mother’s helper. She was very famous and important. She died in 2000.

HUO: And it was only then that you came back to your own artwork?

SA: I was contacted by a woman named Eline Mugaas, who was researching for a show on women’s rights in arctic Norway. She saw my name in an old exhibition catalogue and started calling people in the phone book to try to find me. At first I said, “No, no, I don’t want to talk to you, and I don’t want to have anything to do with the art world.” But then we continued on the phone for hours and hours.

HUO: Now you’re doing work again! Can we see the new work?

SA: Here are some photos of new work at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo.

HUO: I saw your recent work in Venice, too. It was beautiful!

SA: I have started working on a huge installation for Malmö Konsthall.

HUO: I have a few more questions. I wanted to ask you if you have any unrealized projects. I’m always very interested in those. Architects like Sverre Fehn publish all their unrealized projects, but we generally know nothing about them.

SA: Well, that’s simple in a way, because I’m imagining work to present next year in Malmö at Malmö Konsthall. Have you been there?

HUO: Certainly, it’s a beautiful, extremely big space. But I was thinking more in terms of big dreams. After all, you wanted to be an architect. Did you perhaps have any dreams to do a building? Or some kind of utopia?

SA: Well, I wish I could make things for—actually I don’t know if I dare to say it. When I see these horrible refugee camps, I wish I could make something nice for such places. I know that that’s beyond my capacity, but it’s a dream.

HUO: To build shelters.

SA: Yes. I’m thinking about places in Africa where women build the houses. If I had another next life, I would like to work on that.

HUO: But you could start to make drawings about it. That is also what Yona Friedman is doing. He’s designing refugee architecture now. All right, one more question. What would be your advice to a young artist? You may be familiar with Rainer Maria Rilke’s lovely little book of advice to a young poet. What would be your advice in 2017 to a young artist?

SA: I think that’s too big. Isn’t that too big of a question?

HUO: But just some advice. For instance, you got some advice from your mother.

SA: All right. Well. To be aware of what society we’re living in. And to keep art close to your real life.

HUO: Beautiful!

SA: And movement. It’s something I’ve been thinking about. We have all those expensive crazy sports in the television and media, and I’m thinking one could move in a much more rational way.

HUO: That’s a wonderful answer. All right, just one more. Do you have a definition of art? Gerhard Richter says, “Art is the highest form of hope.” What would be your definition of art?

SA: I would agree, yes. It’s good; I underline that.

HUO: Thank you so much for the wonderful interview.



A special thank to Eline Mugaas and Katya Garcia.



Siri Aurdal (1937) lives and works in Oslo. She received her art education from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. As a painter, graphic artist, and sculptor, Aurdal is an innovative figure in contemporary Norwegian art history because of her experimental use of industrial materials, organic forms, and monumental installations in which the audience has played an active and cooperative role. In her work, Aurdal emphasizes art’s social and political potential, and she was prominently featured in the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2017.

Hans Ulrich Obrist (1968, Zurich, Switzerland) is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than 300 shows.


Originally published on Mousse 62

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