Open water has always captivated Bermuda-based Norwegian artist Andrea Sundt. Her 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork Sometimes I Was A Woman explores the complexities of what it means to be a woman today.
A triptych of a sweeping wave elegantly carved into paper and mounted on reflective mylar, it encourages the viewer to step in closely, revealing their own reflection and creating an intimate experience with the work. In contrast, her 2016 Bermuda Biennial artwork Obligation, Constraint was a large-scale paper installation of a wave crashing over the stairs of the Young Gallery, which dominated both the gallery space and the viewer within it.
We caught up with Andrea on International Women’s Day to discuss dichotomies of scale, the feminist ideals that inform her work and the ways in which “the cyclical nature of the ocean and its ebb and flow mirrors life – the female cycle in particular” and why, despite progress, female artists continue to be underrepresented.
BNG: You originally trained in costume design at Esmod in Paris and created costumes for both theatre and film before completing an BFA at Parsons in New York. Does your work with textiles inform your fine art practice? In what ways?
AS: Textiles absolutely inform my practice. I find the tactile nature of fabrics very inspiring. Storytelling is the common denominator when it comes to my art practice vs my work in costume design. I enjoy designing costumes as they are part of the larger production yet still integral to telling the story.
When it comes to storytelling, the devil is in the details; how do I best tell the story through my art? What am I trying to convey, is it clear? Whether a piece of art is about a brief moment in time, something very personal or commenting on a political or social movement, in one way or another, I think of artists as storytellers.
BNG: Your 2020 Bermuda Biennial is part of a series called Sometimes I Was A Woman. How long have you been working on this series? How has it evolved?
AS: I started working on this series in 2013. Originally it was part of a chapbook with text and printed pictures. It has evolved into informing large parts of my work in recent years as my practice has developed.
Even though much of my exhibited work has been a part of my Wave series, large-scale paper installations, my small-scale work and writing has always been a part of my practice.
I don’t have a specific goal for it to be complete. I imagine it will continue to evolve along with other areas of interest that I’m focusing on.
BNG: You say in your artist statement that this work explores “the notions of what it means to be a woman in 2020”. What do you mean by this?
AS: With the origin of the Me Too movement, space was created for new discourse and there is now a contemporary platform on which to voice our (women’s) experiences in a patriarchal society. The power structure has shifted, and with any such newly obtained power there also lies responsibilities: to promote equality and help where you can. As a person and a woman I continue to evolve my own understanding of who I am and who I want to be. As a new mother, my hope is to be a good example to my son and to reflect and instilL, as best I can the feminist ideals that inform my work.
BNG: Do you consider yourself to be a feminist? What does feminism mean to you?
AS: Yes, I am a feminist. I recognise that due to my gender, I have been treated differently and that it has impacted my personal and professional life in some cases leading to loss of opportunity, though as a heterosexual white woman, I also recognise that there are communities, particularly women of colour and the LGBTQ community who face far greater prejudice.
If asked, I would say that I relate to intersectional feminism. Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw who describes it as such: “It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.” She speaks of how we can’t compartmentalize inequality between genders from other types of discrimination, due to factors such as race, sexuality or religious beliefs. It’s all connected.
For me, being a feminist also means recognizing my privilege and what I can do to make a difference in whatever way great or small. For example, I made the decision that with my series of work in the last biennial (What We Share, 2018) that a percentage of any pieces sold would be donated to a women’s resource center here in Bermuda.
BNG: In what ways is the fourth wave of feminism, and the reach that it has garnered by being digitally driven, changing the expectations of what it means to be a woman today?
AS: The use of social media has made it easier to reach a broader audience. The enormous accessibility of nearly everything makes any form of political or social movement that much easier to engage with, understand and, if needed, to confront. I don’t know if the expectations of what it means to be a woman have changed for me, however I do feel like my options have.
BNG: Both Sometimes I Was A Woman and your 2018 Bermuda Biennial artworks Woman, Hure and It’s a New Dawn, It’s a New Day, challenge perspectives through a female lens. The art historical canon is very much male dominated; works by female artists were often, and indeed continue to be, underrepresented.
What impact is the fourth wave of feminism having upon this? Is the landscape changing in your opinion?
AS: The fourth wave of feminism’s use of social media and other internet tools continues to broaden its reach. The underrepresentation of art by female artists and specifically by women of colour has started to change and I see that galleries now more often choose to represent and exhibit these marginalized groups. This is such a positive shift although there’s still a long way to go.
BNG: In Sometimes I Was A Woman the wave is carved into paper and mounted on reflective mylar which encourages the viewer to step in closely, creating an intimate experience. By contrast, your 2016 Bermuda Biennial artwork Obligation, Constraint was a large-scale paper installation which dominated both the gallery and the viewer.
What attracts you to work with extremes of scale? How does this affect the viewer’s experience of the artwork?
AS: You’re right, with Sometimes I Was A Woman my hope was to create that intimate space between the viewer and the piece. My use of the contrasting scale of work, comes back to my fascination with theatre and storytelling. Both these pieces invite the viewer to engage with the work albeit in different ways.
Obligation, Constraint occupied such a large part of the space it existed in, confronting the viewer with its scale. With Sometimes I Was A Woman, you have to approach the work in a more intimate manner close enough that the viewer is reflected in the mylar of the piece positioning the viewer as a part of the artwork, part the story, if you will, too.
BNG: What is it about the open water that captivates you? The ocean can be read as metaphor for femininity given the influence of its rhythms on the female cycle. Do you see it that way?
AS: Both socio-politically and geopolitically, water is of course essential and also a change agent for many coastal populations. On a personal level, I have spent a lot of time by the ocean, an experience that has always made me feel connected to home. The cyclical nature of the ocean and its ebb and flow mirrors life – the female cycle in particular, and this has always intrigued and influenced my art practice.
The wave depicted in Sometimes I Was A Woman is intended to draw attention to the powerful new voice women now have, and as we find there is room for us on the podium, there’s a ripple effect of the Me Too movement that is unstoppable. I believe we are that unstoppable wave.
BNG: Obligation, Constraint was part of the Wave series, which included a site-specific installation for the Malecon in Havana during the 2019 Havana Biennial. What was this experience like?
AS: It was such an honour to have my work exhibited at the Malecon as part of the Detras del Muro (Behind the Wall) in Havana in 2019. The BNG, and the former BNG Director, Lisa Howie, were such great catalysts for enabling me, along with two other artists from the 2016 Biennial, to exhibit there.
I had a studio visit with Juanito Delgado, the curator for Detras del Muro, here in Bermuda and he invited me to be part of the exhibition. Planning out the process of bringing the art materials into Cuba was challenging as the infrastructure is very different. Everything, down to the last screw, had to be brought into the country as such items are not readily available there.
We also planned to leave everything that was brought in (tools etc.) knowing there were people who could utilise them when the project was complete. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be there in-person for the install and exhibition but going there is definitely a must.
BNG: How has exhibiting in Biennials, both in Bermuda and Havana, affected your artistic practice?
AS: They have challenged and shifted my practice in respect to scale and material. To have such a tremendous opportunity as an artist I always want to make sure I am pushing the work as far as I can and in these cases, scale particularly, was an exciting aspect to develop. Most of my Wave-series have been made with digitally printed paper. For example, as my work was primarily exhibited indoors creating a site-specific work that is exposed to the elements was a challenge and ultimately involved going back to my theater background and sourcing material typically used for set design to create the work.
BNG: What are your working on at the moment?
AS: I’m currently focused on being a new mother, although there’s always something buzzing in the back of my mind. It’s hard to consider making larger pieces at the moment while wrangling my 10 month old son, but one thing I’m always able to do is write…and bring a notebook wherever I go.
Find out more about Andrea Sundt here.