Living Material 

by Sara Rossling

Exhibition text for the exhibition States of Becoming which was on view at Gustavsbergs konsthall, outside Stockholm May-July 2021

To us humans, living means to meet and practice vulnerability in a common space that places us in a relational space. In her work, Åsa Cederqvist explores emotional experiences through embodied, interpersonal, and material transactions. Unrestrained, she is sharing processes and experiments through which she approaches the issue of what it means to be alive. To many of us, it is a privilege. Simultaneously, life calls for accountability as our existence does not pass by without affecting others, like our family or through being the human species on the earth.

By examining the body’s material aspects, Cederqvist studies how we are connected with our physical environment. The human body is not a solid container; it leaks and absorbs. We are a part of a larger system, in which, for instance, the earth’s water flows through our bodies. Astrida Neimanis reminds us that earth’s water runs into the body and out of it — into other bodies and back to the planet again.3 Such a notion of interconnectedness suddenly makes something distant and remote feel more up close and intimate.

Are we then all linked with each other? In Mama Dada Gaga (2019), this question is reflected through the roleplay of the relationships between the artist, her daughter and her mother. Through time and space in a joint choreography, the three generations dance, crawl and talk about life and death. The film and its spatial installation, designed specifically for the room at Gustavsbergs Konsthall, is an extensive body of work embracing grand emotions. It is built on trust and presence and has been created in dialogue with the artist’s closest family members over several years. The film’s nonlinear narrative playfully unfolds through everyday conversations, existential matters and magic realism in various intimate milieus. In a kitchen, we encounter the female trio baking a pink sticky dough they later jump into, literally. In another scene, in an empty office space with sacral lighting and dreamy scenography, they theatrically reenact the birth of the artist’s daughter, who is acting her mother in childbirth — and thus entering a new state of becoming.

With a background in filmmaking, in her art Cederqvist subversively uses dramaturgical tools to deconstruct normative narratives to build up alternative stories around female protagonists. Similar to association chains, synonymous with contemporary art, narration may take us to new places. And in comparison to a theme, usually confirming something already established, narration can resist hegemonic ways of thinking and living by making an event or object, unexpectedly, lead to another. Thus, a story depends on how it is narrated, and Donna Haraway points out: ”It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” 4

Occasionally in Mama Dada Gaga, creative costumes and carnivalesque makeup are replaced with bad wigs and paper manuscripts. In a releasing way, the children’s play merges with the psychoanalysis and simultaneously, the props emphasizes the film’s construction. Following a feministic manner, the women act as both subjects and objects by directing themselves. Their actual bodies make up the material, and their characters and personal stories contribute to the content of the work. Sometimes the daughter opposes the mother’s suggested direction of the film, and the artist’s mother acts beyond the script. While the artist intends to interrupt apredictable narrative between the three, her roles blur as a mother, film director, teacher, and artist when the daughter asks with a touching voice: Will you always be my mother?

Dressed in slim pale earthworm-like bodysuits, the three women slowly crawl in symbiosis in and out of a soft, smooth sculptural hole. Essential in the ecosystem, earthworms oxygenate and drain the ground through their hole-shaped aisles. Capable of breaking down both plant parts and animal material such as bacterial mats, fungal hyphae, and feathers, they stimulate the planet, compared to us humans. It is tempting to think of how the earth would look if humans’ state of being would meet our capacity to digest and compost our waste, and thus ensuring the planet’s well-being.

In Cederqvist’s body of work, the hole is a symbol for change of perspective that alludes to various creative processes. As mouth and vagina, the hole refers to the body’s metabolism and creation process. As a cave and portal, it leads to the unknown or unconscious. The gap may symbolize a fear preventing us from seeing ourselves. And that is why we sometimes must leap into the void. In Mama Dada Gaga, the crawling through the fabric-covered hole can be seen as an attempt for the artist, her daughter and mother to overthrow such fears and open up for new states of becoming.

A closer look at the textile-covered hole in the film, a printed surface that lends its appearance from the pink-coloured dough appears. It is a material that is encouraging us to mobility and play. And playing makes us grow as humans. Central for the artist’s performative, feminist and relational practice is a bodily urge to understand one’s position in a web of relations. To become with the surrounding environment or material at work, in the sense that the artistic processes are open for the material to shape back. By affirming the characteristics of the soft dough and the elastic textile, forming the basis of her many sculptures, the artist allures our bodies to squeeze against the stretchable surface and penetrate the fingers through the dough.

In the large exhibition hall at Gustavsbergs Konsthall, totemic sculptures rise toward the roof — pipe-like pillars with sediment of leftover and decaying materials such as hair and old clothes. A recurring subject matter in Cederqvist’s recent works is ways of dealing with and thinking about the waste generated by consumption and our bodies. At times this is explored in the acts of collecting, transforming, processing and recycling material to create sanitary products, such as soap made from fat from restaurants. In other works, these matters are embodied in a more associative manner, drawing from social systems and archaeology.

Gustavsbergs Konsthall is an important venue for contemporary craft and art since 2007, located in the former utility office of Gustavsberg’s porcelain factory. During the building’s prominent era as a household and sanitary porcelain manufacturer in the 1800s, the large hall served as a church room for the town’s citizens. Art and religion, in many ways, interconnected through the reciprocity between image-making and meaning. Spatially the church and the art museum share attributes that evoke an eternity beyond the here and now. The large exhibition hall is still called the church room, though Gustavsbergs Konsthall faces adistinct end and, unfortunately, closes its business with this exhibition as the last one. So with its title, States of Becoming, the exhibition seems to ask: What state of becoming is the future building facing?

The swing in the exhibition acts as a bridge between the two rooms. In company with the interactive massage-like bench and sand heap on the floor, these invite us to an embodied experience and to explore the art from an unconventional perspective. In an intricate way interlinked by its different works, the exhibition is an analogy for a system. Here a purifying residual system that challenges the dominance of a static and individualized subject. Surrounded by the pipe-like pillars in the exhibition is a looped work in Augmented Reality as a suspension of the physical artworks in the exhibition. It shows a body crawling on the ground. Suddenly it rises and falls back to the ground on its knees with a gesture of praying as if it tries to get in touch with something bigger than itself. To fall is a state, as opposed to being grounded, in which we are outside the comfort zone of gravity. The fall can happen accidentally or be triggered by a jump. Throwing oneself out and falling into the unpredictable, bottomless, is a risk-taking through which the human being makes a momentous life decision with great uncertainty. Will there be an end to the falling? The artist drag us down her hole to meet the complexity of the lived state — wonderfully or troublingly surreal, vulnerable.

Sara Rossling is an independent curator and writer based between Stockholm and Malmö.


3 Neimanis, Astrida, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (Environmental Cultures), London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

2 Haraway, Donna J., Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2016, p.12