With his interest in evolving technologies and societies, artist Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s latest exhibition, opening in Baku, takes its cue from adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s contentious theory that the Norse god Odin was in fact a real person, who – along with his people – migrated to Scandinavia from Azerbaijan. Sophie Breitsameter speaks to the artist about the show, Sleipnir, and how he seeks to challenge our perceptions of the everyday through immersive experiences
“Much of my work seeks to interrupt audiences’ everyday [life] as a way to produce different ways of seeing and experiencing,” says artist Pedro Gómez-Egaña. We are talking about his new exhibition at YARAT Contemporary Art Centre in Baku, as well as his penchant for multi-sensory and immersive work. “This is because I believe very strongly in using my work to engage with economies of attention.”
This week, the Colombian-born, Norway-based Gómez-Egaña will unveil his exhibition Sleipnir (referencing the eight-legged horse ridden by Norse god Odin) in Baku. The show features a major new artwork as part of his ongoing Observatory series. Built as a space within a space, with the aim to remove the audience from familiar surroundings, Sleipnir takes inspiration from both the Caspian region as well as the late Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s widely contested hypothesis, as presented in his work The Search for Odin. In it, Heyerdahl posited that Odin represents a real chieftain who, with his people, migrated from what is now modern-day Azerbaijan up to Scandinavia. “In Sleipnir, the pavilion is a space that is both private and communal, static and unstable, and it is shaped by light as much as it is shaped by the materials in its architecture,” explains the artist. “Once inside the pavilion, one hears sounds and a voice with a text that mixes several referents.” This mixing of different sources parallels – in one sense – the slippery notions of fact and fiction in Heyerdahl’s search for Odin’s true ‘origins’. Or, rather, reflects and exhibition that “deals with ideas of a world that is somehow interrelated and networked, and how this links with both the very global and the very private.”
The result is not just a specially-built pavilion within the YARAT gallery space, but performers, “percussive objects knocking at the walls” and more. Here, Gómez-Egaña explains further the concept behind the show, the effect technology has had on society and what he is working on next.
What is it about this Azerbaijani-Norse intersection that interests you?
One of Thor Heyerdahl’s last theories was precisely one that links the Caspian region with Norway. He claimed that Odin and his people supposedly fled north to settle in Scandinavia. While these theories are widely discredited, there are several things that are of interest to me here. They have inspired people to dream up expressions that mix Azeri and Norwegian cultures. Some musical compositions, for instance, like those of Hallvard Bjørgum, mix ancient folk music from the two countries as an exercise in finding resonances between them. The result is extremely evocative. I’m also fascinated by Heyerdahl himself as a character, a person at the edge of science who found notoriety through charisma, rigour and old-fashioned communication skills. I am also interested in the links and tensions between his explorations and his private life.
There is a performative element to your work – what is the significance of creating interactive experiences?
I wouldn’t say that my interest is in interactivity, per se, since the performative element in my work is not necessarily in terms of a contact or direct exchange with the audience. It is more a case of motion, mechanisms, sound and physical action all being part of an installation that audiences see as a whole. If you think of it in theatrical terms there is always a fourth wall: it’s just that the wall is not so geometrically delineated in a space. In Sleipnir, there are eight performers activating the space and the pavilion at all times. They are an important symbolic element in the exhibition. They are the silent motor that makes everything exist in the space, they make the magic happen for those who enter the pavilion, but their aim is not to claim centre stage. This relates to a lot of my work, in which physical performers are seen as part of a greater arrangement of which the mechanical, the visual and the auditive are also a part.
The progression of technology and its effect on society features heavily in your work. Where does this stem from?
It started with a series of works that are activated by gravity, in which objects are created to fall in carefully choreographed ways. While this has some clear resonance with the existential, the fall, death, collapse, and the cosmic (polarity, etc) it also begins to speak to how an arrangement of things work together and generate motion, which in itself comments on productivity and progress. In general, since our relationship to technology – from tools to machines to networks and digital systems – has historically been a big part of societies and individuals, I try to explore various meanings that might arise through them. I am particularly interested in the simultaneous presence of the powerful and the pathetic in machines and technical assemblages.
You are a professor at the Faculty of Arts of Bergen University. How does teaching influence your own practice as an artist?
The art academy, to me, is not merely a place of transition into a professional field, but a destination in itself, an artistic context where knowledge is produced in a very particular way that is very difficult to find elsewhere. I am lucky to be part of an incredible group of artists, be they teachers or students, who work and challenge ways of making art at the University. They are a constant source of inspiration and criticality.
What are you working on next?
Since each project calls for a new set of skills and relations, there’s never really a linear, level-by level, way of assessing progress. However, I’m lucky to work with a very close group of collaborators, and we are slowly becoming better at allowing very open experimentation to translate into quite concise work processes. After all, there are all sorts of institutional and personal resources that depend on us being able to be playful and explorative, but to also be able to deliver somehow.
To your question of what is next I can share that I am working on a new piece which is centred on the story of an agoraphobic character that belongs to a long lineage of factory workers at a shipyard in Norway.
Pedro Gómez-Egaña: Sleipnir at YARAT Contemporary Art Space, Baku, 10 November 2018 – 24 February 2019, yarat.az
Images courtesy of the artist
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