Words by Vilde Valerie Bjerke Torset
Photography by Hideaki Hamada
With a fascination for anti-establishment subcultures and the poetics of discontent, the work of Norwegian artist Gardar Eide Einarsson is provocative, dark, usually political, often rude, and has always a dash of humour. Embracing the exhausted language of rebellion, he scavenges cultural ephemera and repurposes them in multi-disciplinary oeuvres of cunning banalities. He aims for complexity and critical self-awareness, refusing to provide straightforward answers or impose closure on the spectator. Nevertheless, the man of the hour is zen in human form.
It’s 5 PM in the mega-metropolis of Tokyo, the city of neon-lit skyscrapers, sardine box railways, cycling grannies and 24/7 karaoke. In his atelier in the fashionable Aoyama district, Gardar pauses to think before speaking. Many-coloured ink crawls down both arms and up his neck in a devil-may-care manner, contrasting with the serenity with which he weighs his words. A similar juxtaposition of intention is found in his art, where the layers of meaning are revealed only upon deeper investigation. Part of his last exhibit, the letters TEOTWAWKI on a bungalow’s wall say little until you know it’s an acronym used by doomsday preppers, and stands for 'The End Of The World As We Know It'. But the fact that first-time spectators sometimes overlook his attention to detail doesn’t really bother him.
"I don’t mind giving room for a misunderstanding or of people thinking it’s less thought through than it actually is. Part of what I work with is propaganda and the way truth is used by those in power, so it’s natural that the work itself plays with those tropes. I don’t want to be pedantically explaining everything, and in a way I’ve been conscious of not rectifying those misunderstandings. It’s not necessary for art to be blatant, and my personal opinion doesn’t have to be so spelled out. Art can live on a different time scale than that."
He grows silent, the last sentence hanging in the air. His work ethos is marked by critical distance, giving his work the space to be experienced and interpreted in all its complexity. An essential part of this is his practice of appropriating existing cultural imagery in order to rearrange their iconic symbolism using his trademark monochromatic palette.
"I want my work to be about how the world is represented—I’m not so much here to describe the world that I see personally. I’m trying to work with how images are used to construct narratives by using images that somebody has already put out there to serve a certain function. I’m taking them and separating them from that function by forcing them to serve a different one for me. Doing it in black and white was a way of making clear that it’s a facsimile of another image and not an attempt at portraying the world."
Gardar’s artistic practice is also defined by his use of humour, which in addition to serving as an effective way of communicating frustration, adds a dimension of self-aware commentary on the role of the artist himself.
"Everything I make has an element of humour to it. I think it’s a way to subvert power, to subvert your own position. It’s something that helps problematise the artist as mediator of whatever. A lot of the themes I work with are about these failed macho characters and the traditional idea of the artist is definitely a character like that."
Not one to shy away from a debate, Gardar sees no limits to the use of mockery. As far as he’s concerned, the subject matter is not the issue; it all depends on the context of the speaker. Someone whose use of humour he deems particularly successful is the late Canadian artist Philip Guston.
"Humour around certain taboo subjects can express more than what is shown at face value, and reveal sympathy with whoever is being wronged. It’s potentially a strong weapon to address unfairness. Of course it can be used in other ways, but then it’s not funny either."
He takes a breath, words trailing off. Somewhere outside his studio the infamous Japanese rush hour is taking over. Despite the faded name of his home country inked on his hand, he hasn’t lived in Norway since 2001. Growing up in the 80s in Ås, a village just outside the capital, he immersed himself in skating and hard beats, teenage interests which would later make their way into his art. Fast forward 41 years and this art has been showcased all over the world, from LA to Copenhagen to Tokyo, even making its way to the prestigious Whitney Biennal in New York. In the meantime, the creative peripatetic has let his heart and his curiosity lead him to Japan.
"I had lived in New York for a long time; the city changed and I changed. I was always really enthusiastic about Tokyo. It’s an enormous city with a lot of depth, but it’s a city that’s hard to move to. You don’t have to live long in New York to be considered a New Yorker, but twenty years from now I’ll still be an outsider here. People in restaurants will still be vaguely amused that I know how to use chopsticks. Still, that feeling of outsiderness is interesting in relation to my work, and my temperament fits in here."
After the extensive commentary of U.S. culture in his work, at times to the point of resembling a case study, his transition to the East introduced a different approach to life than the one taught in The Big Apple.
"The thing that struck me is that even though Tokyo is a city of comparable levels of development to any other city of the world, there’s something that’s fundamentally different. There’s certainly the presence of capitalist consumption, but there’s shared understanding that there is more to life than climbing the middle-class ladder. Something that feels strange. And not so many places feel strange anymore."
Besides the recurring theme of the outsider, concepts like power struggles and destructive resistance have permeated much of his work. He addresses in turn the institutionalisation of violence, the relationship between popular culture and political positions, and the iconography of social triggers.
"I’m interested in what discontent with modern society can lead to in extreme cases."
Most of the figures that I’ve worked with have been figures with this anti-society drive, but that drive has been related to a misunderstood desire for more freedom, which leads to terrible places.
Throughout history figures of violence and rebellion have been romanticised and mythicised, and the idea of the anti-authoritarian has been closely linked to cultural progress. Nevertheless, recent developments in the West serve to show that is not always the case.
"On some level, a lot of people fantasise about breaking out of the life they’re currently in because in an advanced industrialised society your role becomes narrowed down after a while. Everybody has this question of what would happen if I just said fuck it to everything. I think that’s a lot of what’s behind much of the recent development in the West. It’s driven by people going 'fuck it, this is not working for me and I don’t like where I’m made to be in this system so why not just break it and see where it leads us'. But of course, that’s not a particularly constructive path to go down."
In addition to his now wide-ranging expertise in subcultures, a lot of his work stems simply from an ongoing intellectual observation of the world, from conversations and contemplations.
"The work is driven by current events or the way that I see people making the world. At a certain point the work becomes self-powering, it keeps propelling itself somehow. That’s not to say that it doesn’t take influences from elsewhere, but I think a lot of my work comes out of previous work that I want to do better, or differently."
Even though he mostly looks to other artists for answers to technical problems, he mentions American sculptor and installation artist, Cady Noland, as a source of inspiration. The other name that comes up is American novelist Raymond Chandler, who, Gardar points out, made his intelligence present in the work without ever trying to win an argument.
"I don’t feel like telling people how the world should be seen. I try to present the possibility of a worldview, of a possible way of thinking. The reason for making art is because you want to communicate something about how you see the world. But at the same time the way I see the world is never black and white. I want there to be a bit of vagueness in the work—not in what I put into it, but I want there to be different levels in thereading of it."
First published in Volume Eleven