One of them has spent her entire life exploring and studying humankind’s penchant for indulgence. The other has constantly strived for reduction and restraint. Right now, we are showinga selection of Charlotte Birnbaum’s sculptures and three photographs by Dawid. Their means of expression are very different, but they have been friends and followed each other’s work since the 1980s.
Charlotte, when did you start making sculptures from dinnerware and porcelain figurines?
About ten years ago. I’ve always enjoyed collecting beautiful, unusual objects. It happened at the time when I was writing, reading, and publishing books about table decorations throughout the ages. That’s my main area of interest. I write about the intersection of food and art, particularly the pastries and sugar sculptures of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The first time I made one was when I had the idea of making one as a gift for my friend whose birthday was coming up. It’s so much fun, and so stimulating, to forage for these objects. You only need a single one of each kind. They are composite works, in a dual sense; a tribute of sorts to pastry makers of old. One of the pieces in the exhibition is a paraphrase of a 17th century pastry: a turtle with a date palm growing on its back. I found it so far-fetched and fascinating. But then I found out that the motif had been used as a crest by a cardinal. I also enjoy the old concept of a ‘conversation piece’: something spectacular, beautiful, and complicated that you present on your dinner table, featuring Gods and Goddesses, and adorned with hidden legends, clues, and references. The idea was to give people an opportunity to show off their knowledge of the various references.
I’ve always had a great passion for food. It’s not an area where I have any specific training, but I do have a background in art history and the history of theatre. I find what happens on the dinner table to be more interesting than anything that goes on onstage. I appreciate how the dinners at these banquets where plotted, with a succession of acts and grand finales, all according to a particular set of rules. Any simple meal is an exhibition – a work of art.
Why did people use to “play” with their food? There seems to have been a shift somewhere close to the entrance of modernity, in the mid-19th century. Playtime was over, so to speak…
In part, this was to ensure that poor people would know their place. The differences between rich and poor were huge. Nobles were highly esteemed, and when they came to visit, they were presented with abundance and spectacle, a party to which everybody was invited, and where even the poor were granted a brief taste of luxury. Sugar was an important material for the rich. It was expensive, which made it an important signifier of status.
I find it interesting that food was art. If you were a royally appointed artist, like Raphael, for instance, you would work in all kinds of materials, including sugar. The luxury here was in its perishability, in the act of presenting something that would inevitably crumble. To be there meant to be granted a unique experience. It is also related to illusion. It could look like marble, and it could be translucent, like glass. They coloured it with ambergris and spinach. Then, the price of sugar dropped, when the process of extracting sugar from beets was discovered. Until that day, tooth decay had been an affliction reserved for the rich.
How do you approach the initial stages of working on a sculpture?
I usually begin with whatever I intend to place on top, but not always. Something I’m always doing is looking for new stuff to use in finishing something or other. Along the way, I find a bunch of other stuff. I sometimes spend months on end working on things that I can’t seem to finish. But in the end, when it all falls into place, it feels great! I always enjoy the most recent ones the most. I search for objects everywhere I go.
Dawid, tell us a little about your life in art.
In 1968, I began taking photographs, and since then, I’ve gone through a few different phases. During the first ten years, I took pictures just like all the other photographers did: carrying a 135-format camera loaded with film around on my shoulder.
“Street photography”, as it was known, was all about taking pictures of your life and your friends about town. When I recently took a look at my pictures from those days, I thought to myself that they were a great treasure. I had my first solo exhibition at Liljevalchs konsthall in 1973. They gave me a whole room, but the show didn’t exactly make waves. It was all depressing, all black-and-white. Very melancholy. Except for a single picture: a photo of the bottom of my girlfriend at the time.
Are you saying that photography wasn’t regarded as art before the 1980s?
Photography is beginning to be shown as art. People’s collecting habits have changed, and the museums are opening photography sections. New materials, and old-fashioned large format cameras. I began taking photos at home instead, it was like having a studio. What caused me to begin regarding my photographs as art was actually watching American movies and seeing that there were framed photographs on the walls in them. It had already begun over there. I realised that I was trying to make art. In 1976, I made a book. It was titled Välstånd (‘Affluence’). It was never published. There were a few pages in it where I’d signed some of the pictures. Nobody was doing that back then. I suddenly thought that this particular work had a certain gravitas; that this was an object people might appreciate. Along with some friends, I acquired materials from abroad. Hans Gedda and I both bought cameras from Chicago. Deardorff. They stopped making them a long time ago. I remember so well when we went to fetch them at Arlanda airport.
Then, in the 70s, the pinnacle of achievement was to get to make the front cover of a book or magazine, or a record cover. I did Bonniers Litterära Magasin (BLM) and record covers for Fred Åkerström,Lill Lindfors, and Pugh Rogefeldt. That was really cool. But I was still working like an amateur photographer, without any assistants. I still don’t have any today. I do it all myself. I don’t rely on anybody else for anything. My left thumb is completely deformed after all the cutting I’ve done–even the glass for the frames.
My breakthrough came when I had an exhibition at Moderna Museet titled Rost (“Rust”). In a corridor, in a small project space, they let me show something new. That was back in 1982–83. Eventhe notorious photography hater Ulf Linde, who was the director of the Thiel Gallery, produced an exhibition with me: Arbetsnamn Skulptur (“Working Title: Sculpture”). In DN, Lars O Ericsson called it the first postmodern exhibition in Sweden. Peder Alton, who was also a critic for DN, wrote that it was the last modernist exhibition, heh. It caused quite a bit of controversy.
So, did you understand at the time that what you were doing was something entirely new in the world of photography?
Street photography – Art photography. Edward Weston, Josef Sudek. Other photographers had been doing this kind of photography before we did. It opened up a whole new world to me. Quite soon, I realised that there really is no way to make a masterpiece. And that’s when I found my method: a wooden box the same size as the negative. And then all I had to do was get to it. Like sketching. All you have to do is practice, practice, practice.
What I do isn’t exactly sunsets. It’s not what you’d expect from photography.
I’m interested in language; in photography as a language, and as a phenomenon. What happens if I tilt the camera, or set the camera up to take blurry pictures? How will that change what I’m communicating? I’m broadening the concept of photography.
I think colour photography used to look ugly. But today, there are some very nice materials, and I’m able to make the prints myself and control the whole process. Digital technology has made colour photography possible.
So, I guess you could call that my third phase: the addition of colour. It’s like a thumb print in a way. Because of how the printers work, and thanks to digital printing, you can control the process. When I make large prints, I print a whole bunch and evaluate them. Yes – I’m suddenly able to make big things, and add colour to them!
Interview by Paulina Sokolow.