Today we’d like to introduce you to Astri Swendsrud.
Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
In 2006, I moved to Los Angeles to attend the MFA Art program at CalArts. Prior to that time, I was a young artist living in Minneapolis, MN, and attempting to figure out how to have a sustainable, generative practice. When I applied to grad schools, I knew I wanted to go to school in a location that would offer more opportunities for artists than where I had come from. Since receiving my MFA in 2008, I have lived in LA, maintaining my studio practice, exhibiting work, teaching at local colleges and universities, and co-directing the artist-run gallery space, Elephant.
It is difficult now to imagine what my art practice and life would look like had I not come to Los Angeles. The conceptually-minded education I received at CalArts grounded my art-making in research and critical thought, and provided me with amazing mentors and a community of fellow artists who remain close friends and supportive colleagues today. I also met the person who eventually became my husband and artistic collaborator, Quinn Gomez-Heitzeberg, while at CalArts (although we were only studio neighbors and good friends during our time at school – it took a couple additional years to realize that we could and should be more than that!) Additionally, in 2010, I co-founded Elephant, a gallery space run out of a shared studio building in Glassell Park. Initially growing from our CalArts community, the space has continued to expand its network and participate in the larger artist-run space movement in the city.
The particular character and history of Los Angeles has also influenced my artwork itself. I’m fascinated by the legacies of seeking, the alternative spiritualties and attempts at social re-invention that characterize the region. I regularly seek out and explore sites of obscure religious movements and utopian communities. I’ve visited every pyramid mausoleum in the state of California. I’m always looking for a little-known museum, or an unexpected visionary art environment. My artistic output engages with these legacies and histories in both direct and indirect ways.
Please tell us about your art.
Most of my work investigates questions of belief and the construction of meaning. My individual studio practice includes creating drawings, sculptures, and installation environments combining symbolic and ritual forms with the images and materials of everyday party supplies, such as magicians, birthday candles and confetti. For example, in my ongoing series of drawings, Most of the Time It Started Like This, each drawing is the result of a combinatorial system of images, text, colors and patterns that recur throughout the set. The compositions exist in a state between revelation and concealment, as images of magicians, party-store supplies, and decorative patterns are brought together in a game of ever-shifting surfaces. The series is intended to culminate in an edition of a printed deck of 56 cards, so it can be performatively activated as both a game and as an abstract divination system.
Another recent series, Confetti Divinations, function as maps for interpreting the positions of tossed confetti. The drawings, which visually echo sacred geometries, historical divination charts or map orientation lines, rely on the inherently-ordering nature of geometry to imbue a sense of containment and order, while failing to provide a key to their interpretation. The star-shaped confetti sprinkled across them acts as a star-chart waiting to be read.
I became interested in working with party supplies after thinking about how they serve as a simple, do-it-yourself form of magic. They are inexpensive, often throw-away objects that temporarily allow for an experience of transformation. In researching the origins of common party supplies, like confetti and birthday candles, there are direct connections between today’s commercial objects and more ancient forms of ritual and esoteric belief. For example, my 2017 sculpture Birthday Candle Magic is composed of a custom vitrine that holds a rainbow gradient of dozens of different birthday candle designs that I collected over years of visiting party supply shops and convenience stores. Candles have historically been used in rituals of sympathetic magic – the belief that a symbolic object can manipulate a real-world effect through the principles of correspondence and imitation. I’m interested in the way that these beliefs, though esoteric in origin, also make their way into everyday behavior. The ritual of making a wish while blowing out a birthday candle demonstrates a desire to bring the unseen into being, to momentarily invest a common physical object with greater agency. I think of my sculpture as a repository for all potential birthday wishes, with the orderly vitrine display elevating the candles within it as a subject of contemplation.
Since 2012, a major part of my practice has become my collaboration with my husband, Quinn Gomez-Heitzeberg, creating multi-disciplinary performance works under the name Semi-Tropic Spiritualists. This project is based in exploring the histories of utopian and visionary communities in California, alongside ideas of belief, community, and the search for knowledge. Often this project has involved traveling to sites of historic utopian societies or alternative social and spiritual movements across California, such as the ruins of the socialist commune Llano del Rio or the abandoned compound of self-help group turned destructive cult Synanon. There, we create ritual and lecture-based performances or interactive installations, inviting audience participation in considering the desires for community and transcendence, as well as the complexities of translating idealized beliefs into physical forms.
Do you have any advice for other artists? Any lessons you wished you learned earlier?
One of the aspects of being an artist in Los Angeles that I am most grateful for and excited about is the vibrant community of artist-run spaces that exists locally. Unlike more traditional institutions, which often feel impersonal or exclusive, I’ve found that most artist-run galleries are as interested in building and fostering community as they are in exhibiting quality work. Having a studio practice can sometimes be an isolating experience, so I’m always encouraged when I see artists taking what space they have and opening it up to a shared community. Co-directing Elephant has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my artistic practice over the past 8 years. Not only have we been able to support the practices of dozens of artists from around the world through offering exhibition and event opportunities, but the space has also become a gathering point for a constantly-expanding artistic community. If I could offer any advice to those looking to make connections with other artists, I would recommend looking for and creating opportunities for generosity and collaboration.
How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
I’m excited to have several exhibitions and new projects taking place here in Los Angeles this fall. For starters, Semi-Tropic Spiritualists is happy to announce our first solo exhibition, What Can the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists Do For You, opening Friday, Sept. 7 at General Projects in Los Angeles. The show will be on view through November 4, with open hours weekly on Thursday evenings and by appointment. We are also planning some additional programming to be announced during the show’s run, so stay tuned. (https://www.insertblancpress.net/blogs/general-projects/what-can-the-semi-tropic-spiritualists-do-for-you)
In conjunction with the exhibition, we are also releasing a book, The Semi-Tropic Spiritualist Guidebook, published by Insert Blanc Press. The book brings together images, texts, excerpts of performance scripts, and printed ephemera from the Semi-Tropic Spiritualist’s previous exhibitions. The book is organized as both a record of the project’s Test Sites from 2012-2018, and as an idiosyncratic guidebook to California’s spiritual history and geography. The Semi-Tropic Spiritualist Guidebook will be available for purchase at the exhibition’s closing event and book launch, on Friday, November 2, 2018.
Additionally, Semi-Tropic Spiritualists will be part of the group exhibition Totenpass, curated by Anthony Bodlović and opening Saturday, October 27 at Visitor Welcome Center in Los Angeles.
Finally, Elephant, the gallery I co-direct, has new exhibitions on a monthly basis, and is open on Saturdays from 12-4pm. Follow our schedule and join our mailing list at:
- Website: www.astriswendsrud.com, www.semitropicspiritualists.com, www.elephantartspace.com
- Instagram: @alswendsrud, @elephant_art_space
Josh White, Joel Goodman, Bianca D’Amico