A little Cabin in the Woods

Art works move well oiled in the realm of objects. Some are deemed so special that they are collected and hoarded like money or traded like horses. Others because of their rarity are copied, forged or photographed for greater dissemination. Artists like Petter Hellsing who choose not to work directly with the manufacture of things alone, run afoul a triple headed beast at the gates of Acheron. The Institution, The Market and The Scene.
The institutions of art, from schools to museums whilst applauding cross-disciplinarity still need the handy pigeonholing of departments and media. The market never happy in selling a moving target prefers stability and object bound consistency to process and change. The art scene with its hunger for fashion and thirst for styling is uncomfortable with work that refuses ready appropriation. Hellsing works, if not against, then at least askance, to all three.

There is nothing deliberately antagonistic in his work, he is not engaged in some avant-gardist crusade, his work and way of working just don’t fit in with many of the mainstream demands of the art world. For over five years,
he has dedicated himself to a collection of works that places an emphasis on the process as well as on than the results of that process. The objects that he makes or are made by others in the workshops he conducts can be seen as many things, documentation, side effect, aggregate, and outcome. They are not in themselves intended simply as autonomous art works that can be viewed independently of the social process that lies behind them.
At the same time Hellsing is a product of, and player within, the same context that his art challenges.
It is a tricky balancing act that he would be the first to acknowledge cannot be one hundred percent successful.
His work is political, and intentionally so, but it is a politics born from the celebration of difference and inclusiveness rather than any anti establishment ideology.

Simply described Hellsing has travelled around Sweden from tiny remote towns such as Kangos in the north of Sweden to industrial centres like Borås in the south. He invites local groups and individuals to participate in a ‘workshop’ where he introduces the use of an industrial embroidery sewing machine that is controlled by a computer. The participants can use this device or any other method of their choosing to produce works that are then shown collectively in local venues. Following each presentation Hellsing then has examples to show at the next site making the work both accumulative and a constantly documented work in progress. At each showing Hellsing adds his own works drawn from an inventory of pieces that he has made over a number of years.
The presentations become intimate dialogues between artist and his collaborators. This is not to say that Hellsing pretends any unmitigated democracy in this process. He is aware that his own works, the product of years of study, experimentation and dedication, have a different temper than those produced in the workshops.
But rather than seeing this as a point of potential conflict Hellsing regards this as what makes the exhibitions interesting. The questions that these meetings invite are not simply answered.  Issues of quality, knowledge, power, manipulation, misappropriation are all present but rather than being covered over or avoided Hellsing leaves them bare and lets the viewer decide how to deal with them. The positive reaction that he has received from all the participants in his collaborative projects is testament to the openness of this approach.

Many of the participants in these projects have been from groups that could be described as marginalized, or come from ‘non-Swedish’ backgrounds. Hellsing however does not want what he does to be understood as simply allowing groups of people to speak who for the most part are silent. This would be to over-determine the context of expression. It would lead to a singular reading and a sort of multi-cultural exoticism framed within the rigid homogeneity of Swedish society. Again, he treads a tightrope of enunciation here.
From his home in the ethnically diverse suburb of Flemingsberg outside of Stockholm, Hellsing because of his direct engagement with the local community has been working for many years with issues of alterneity and cultural difference. He has told his neighbours’ stories or helped them tell their own. But he is also aware that his own standpoint is based within the hegemony of white middle class Swedish privilege.

A sculptor by training, Hellsing grew up in Sweden’s cultural elite, attending the right schools, reading the right books, watching the right films. He can no more remove this from his own identity as he can claim a personal diaspora. Hellsing attempts to confront this head on. He presents his own engagement for what it is and makes his audience aware of the inherent distance and similarities between the artist and his collaborators.
This in part explains his choice of media. He uses embroidery, cloth, household surfaces like pillows, dish towels, table cloths and seat covers. His own reasoning for this choice is both somewhat coy and revealing.
He claims that textiles, sewing, needlework come from a cultural background totally alien to his own.
He’s not being snobbish, textile arts, handcrafts just were not part of the world he grew up in.
He is not rediscovering a means of expression from his own family history but instead investigating for himself a radical and alternative way of making. Positioning his work therefore within the context of contemporary fiber art would be to miss part of his point. Whilst his work shares many of the characteristics of recent textile arts, an interest in issues of domesticity, decoration, the history of cloth, etc, it is not this that is his focus.
He has suggested that he could have chosen another set of tools but that it was his own personal relation to the methodologies of embroidery rather than a shared social history that was his point of departure.

At the same time his choice of materials is anything but casual. He carefully selects the surfaces he embroiders upon, a particular generic chair from the 70’s, a linen dishtowel the standard of many Swedish homes, a nylon covered cushion. The motivation for each choice is dependent on the story he is telling, the quality that these second-hand finds evoke, the echo of the rooms they once inhabited.  

There is something deliberate and disturbing about Petter Hellsing’s work. Everything seems to be on an edge between opposed forces. It hovers in a no-man’s-land. Even as an established artist in Sweden he is also somewhat of a maverick. He crosses accepted boundaries, treads on toes and breaks taboos.
He moves a little too much as a free spirit for some and with this he has accepted a certain degree of isolation and challenges us to follow him. Exactly where we are going is unsure. At the edge of the wood, near the high-rises of Flemingsberg, somewhere in between Happaranda and Malmö, off the map altogether, or at the gates of Acheron.

William Easton mars 2004