Ninna Berger defiantly escapes definitions and her work might as well do the same. An education combining art and textiles lent solid grounding to Berger’s longstanding interest in fashion, which led to Restructional Clothing, a pivotal project in her career. Currently on a hiatus from fashion, the Swedish artist took on a residency at London’s The White Building, where she set out to resume her investigation of materials, albeit through sculpture. Instinctive and seldom unsettling, Berger’s works analyse the poetics of layering the urban experience through unexpected, yet never apparent, combinations of street-found materials.
By Berger’s own admittance, the four-month residency grew into one powerful cathartic journey through the study of failure, supported by an ever-unbending resolution to make art. Leaving the viewer with an impelling urge for tactile participation, the show beautifully tells the evolution of the artist within her own artistic practice. On the occasion of Berger’s first solo show in the UK, titled Love Every Mouthful, we sat down with the artist to discuss her work and creative process.
Tell us something about your training and your influences.
I graduated in 2007 with an MA in Art and Textiles. My early work was influenced by the late 1980s Belgian art scene, from the Antwerp Six back to Juergen Teller. It was a very significant moment for the arts, but it is hard to describe it or compare it to anything that is happening right now. It was an age that took away the glamour of fashion and introduced a realist element by showing and documenting everyday life. The Antwerp scene brought about a whole new way of approaching fashion, focusing on materials and construction rather than glamour.
You have previously defined yourself as a textile artist. What is most challenging about being one?
I feel it was important for me to specify that at the time, since I engaged with the fashion scene to some extent. I am not a trained fashion designer and never set out to become one and my earlier project Restructional Clothing had a completely different agenda and values in comparison with a fashion collection. Defining myself as a ‘textile artist’ would spark people’s interest and start a deeper reflection about what my work actually meant. I might need to take away ‘textile’ at this point, since I have been mainly producing sculpture recently. At the same time, this clarification may be irrelevant because working with clothing is just another way of moulding materials. I would want to allow myself to be as free as possible nonetheless.
Could you tell us about Restructional Clothing and elaborate on the term Restructional?
I have always had an interest in fashion and believe it is an amazing means of communication. It is interesting on so many different levels and we are all affected by it. However, I have been increasingly concerned about the consequences of fashion’s pace resulting in huge amounts of waste. So, while working on my MA final project, I had the idea of creating new products from old ‘fashion’. I intended to develop a system that would acquire discarded materials and make newly shaped clothing. I had been working with fashion waste for a long time and Restructional Clothing further experimented with the idea of fashion being a tool to generate something other than itself. I believe the work had to stand on its own so I had to create a concept that wasn’t directly related to my own persona. I also wanted to feel free to collaborate with other people. I looked for a name that reflected the deconstruction and the reconstruction and I kept playing with words that mirrored my practice within the project, such as decomposition and resurrection. It felt important for the project to have its own name, as it was to outline the idea of ‘clothing’, since it deeply differs from fashion. Clothing is something we all own in various forms and wear all year round, while fashion is another organism that follows different rules.
Would you be interested in designing more clothing and continue with Restructional Clothing?
Somewhere along the way Restructional Clothing became ‘fashion’. There was also a catwalk involved, which makes it very hard to communicate things as the clothes would simply be looked at as ‘new fashion’. The whole project involved investigation and experiment: studying fashion and trying out different channels of communication. I held a lecture in LA last summer and had a long presentation about my method and the materials I used. At the end, all questions revolved around production and the economic side of it. All the poetics had been brutally erased. Again, I was in America and one has to consider that they hold a different perspective on things. They would ask about how I would be able to produce ten of one item, but the point is that it’s not made to be mass-produced. So I feel the project has fulfilled its potential. I could do more, but personally I have such a strong need to invent new things and would rather move on. This is the reason why I am grateful that Restructional Clothing has its own life and I am really proud of it.
Restructional clothing received a fair amount of press, even though strictly fashion related. How do you feel about that?
Sometimes I felt there was a rush into labelling and putting the project into a box. I was praised for my work with sustainability. As much as I do stand for ethic values, for me it has always been about the poetics behind the work: by reusing marks from bodies and materials that have been worn. To be a sustainable designer wasn’t really my goal.
How did the transition from fashion to sculpture happen?
The relationship between fashion and sculpture is becoming more and more interesting to me. When I started this residency I promised myself that I would start from scratch, invent new things and new working methods. My first rule was to erase the physical body and create other types of bodies.
I really love the name of the show. Could you tell us the story behind it?
It is from a Tesco bag. I was working with paper and threw all cuttings into that plastic bag – that’s how it came about. The whole concept is connected to the works’ titles, as they are all taken out of context. I got them from fashion magazines I used to make one of the works. I recently moved to London and I feel a bit out of context, so there you go. I think it is very healthy to step out of context every now and then and since I arrived I forbade myself to set expectations about my work. I had time and space and no daily routine. Rachel, the curator, has been very supportive throughout my residency and has encouraged me to explore my artistic potential. I have been very focused on my work and wanted to create something that felt liberating. Then I started finding things and composed myself a mantra: remove the whole idea of body and be open to the idea of failure. Failure has become key, because as soon as you decide that it is alright to fail, things start to get interesting, and failure itself can be very creative. I felt I had rules with Restructional Clothing from which I had to escape. Certain boundaries I had built while working on Restructional Clothing were holding me back once I arrived in London.
You must have been quite disciplined to physically and creatively isolate yourself from both your past and present.
I felt it was very much needed to almost step out of time. I did not make any connections here and, since you are not expected to turn up to places and meet people, time flows differently. I have been careful not to keep in touch with that many people. I had never done it before, but now it was the time. I had so much energy when I first arrived, since I had been in a limbo in the previous months and had accumulated a lot of frustration. I started collecting glasses from the bar and smashed them on the floor. It was very liberating and allowed me to work in a completely different way.
Has your artistic process changed ever since you took on the residency?
I would not say it has changed because I feel my methods are quite the same. The way I work with materials is very similar to my operational routine with Restructional Clothing. I only rely on limited resources, which are usually things I find on the street or that have been discarded; then I introduce them in a cycle and see what can happen. I think it is only the outcome that looks different.
I cannot seem to stop thinking about the shopping bag and the exhibition’s name.
(Laughs) That is also what happens when you are coming from the outside and step into an unknown environment. I do not really have a relationship with that particular store and I have never shopped there before. My first visit was overwhelming, as it is completely different from a Swedish grocery store. I have also noticed that there is a set of colours which are quite common and used in the most unexpected ways.
To introduce your current work, may I say that after focusing on the conceptualization of the body as a structure to dress, you are now more involved in exploring objecthood and new materiality?
That’s a really good question. I am still very interested in exploring the body, but one that is pure matter rather than something that needs to be dressed by materials. To me, material has so much potential, so by taking the focus away from the model – however brutal that may sound – it allows the final product to be anything really, since I can invent what to dress. I think that is the main difference.
How important are tactile and visual sensations in your current work?
Consuming fashion or art happens a lot through images and I think I have educated myself so much through pictures and imagining materials. Obviously, the visual experience covers a quintessential role within my show. However, I have been very much careful in considering both visual and tactile sensations. For obvious reasons, viewers will not be able to touch the works, but by displaying some of the pieces in a certain way, I have allowed an all-round experience of that specific work.
One could still see the layering of colours and materials, which may be partially lost by looking at a photo of the artwork instead.
For me it has become more and more important to experience things in real time. I feel that the image is something that I am definitely concerned with, but in my work I put a lot of effort in collecting, choosing and assembling something that is meant to be seen in person.
In terms of colours and materials, do they express an immediate meaning beyond cultural limits?
I collected materials from the street by chance, but it slowly unfolded into a pattern. I used a coat that I found hanging in a corridor at my flat to smash glasses. At the same time I found some lining at a local shop, which happens to be very different in terms of both colour and function compared to what we have in Sweden. Materials used for decoration and renovation are different here. So it has been very organic and I have opened myself to the possibility of growing so. I meant for it to happen that way.
Do you listen to music while working?
Yes! Since the studio is next door to a bar, the first few weeks were quite tiring because of the leaking noises. So I started wearing my headphones while working and I have been playing almost the same record the whole time. It is an epic journey, the one told by Nils Frahm in ‘Spaces’. Do you want to listen to it? (Hands over headphones)