This interview is part of DREAMERS, a collaborative project with MCQ that couples aspiring artists to their heroes for a one-on-one advice session. The conversations are recorded, redacted, and can be read in their entirety on my.mcq.com.
Monday 24 May 2021, 2pm Kazakhstan time
Violetta Bogdanova: As an emerging artist, I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to talk to you about things that worry me. There are so many things that you can’t learn in art school or on the internet. And I personally had a hard time getting to know some things, and I would’ve been really happy if someone had told me about them. I think we should start by talking about the place you come from. For some reason, I feel a very big connection with artists from Scandinavian countries, because the art from this area seems to be very light and fresh, without heavy meaning and pain. Maybe I have this connection with your artists, because I’m from North Kazakhstan which has a similar landscape, where everything is white with the snow. However, when you travel to another part of the country, it’s just a desert. We have really huge, monumental landscapes. And so, the first question I want to ask is how the land you’re from affects your art, and what it gives to you.
Matilde Duus: That’s a really good question because sometimes it’s difficult to know how you are really affected by your surroundings. Denmark is a small country in many ways, and it’s very flat, but you have a little bit of forest, small lakes, and then you have the ocean all around. My boyfriend is Norwegian, and last summer we went to the mountains, and I ended up making a new artwork where mountains were a motif, so somehow you do take in the experience. But when you talk about Scandinavian art generally and perhaps the silence, I can recognise myself in it. It seems that you sensed there’s maybe something inherently ‘northern’. It’s difficult to realise how you are affected, actually. But you’re also affected by the social and political surroundings, though here in the north we have a safe community in many ways.
Violetta: You came to the next question I had! Kazakhstan is really a new country. First it was kind of part of the Soviet Union, and now we have a lot of discourse about decolonization. That’s why artists here feel a bit of pressure to have their cultural code in your artworks. Like, if you’re an artist from Kazakhstan, you need to put something in from Kazakhstan, and if you’re an artist from Japan, your art should look like it’s from Japan. What do you think about this? Do we live in a globalised world where art is just art, or should you put a bit of your surroundings in your art?
Matilde: I think it will show even if you don’t want it. I have been thinking a lot about my own art practice, and it’s not so affected politically. I’m not commenting directly on specific political situations in that sense, but I have this idea that being an artist and working with art is a political act in itself. Actually, so is being alive ‒ all the decisions you take in your daily life are political.
“Even though we live in a very modern country in 2021, it’s still completely unbalanced to be a female artist. ” – Matilde Duus
Violetta: If we talk, for example, about artists that made work during the second world war, their art shows it. I feel like we have a lot of issues in Kazakhstan, and many artists put the political context into their art, but I feel that there is so much anxiety about our country that we need to just breathe. I try to make artworks that show the beauty of our land, with maybe a positive view for the future, a break from all the problems. Perhaps you can call it a bit of escapism, but I really believe in my country. I feel that it’s beautiful and wonderful, and if you focus only on the problems that we have, it gets really hard.
Matilde: I think that when you work with an abstract motive, you may be finding a way to be somewhere in the middle. To give you an example, one of the important issues being discussed a lot in Denmark and other northern countries is the balance between women, male and non-binary artists. Even though we live in a very modern country in 2021, it’s still completely unbalanced to be a female artist. There are very talented artists in Denmark that have this as a theme for their artistic practice, but another way of meeting the issue is to just make our art and talk about it with women in general. To be part of sisterhoods, being colleagues, and encourage sharing – also between countries. This is at least as important as making art that has the issue as its theme, and it shows that you can work with different perspectives and approaches.
“I think art school is really important but at the same time it’s good to know that it’s not necessary.” – Matilde Duus
Violetta: What do you think about art education? If you didn’t have the education that you got, would you have become an artist?
Matilde: For me, it was important to have an education. It was about wanting to be an artist professionally but also finding a way to believe in it. I didn’t really think it was a possible career, but during my education, I became more sure that I would really like to enter this space somehow. I think art school is really important but at the same time it’s good to know that it’s not necessary. Maybe the path will be a little harder without it, as you do get certain knowledge and possibilities in art school.
Violetta: So you got some knowledge and practical insight, but it was also part of your personal growth as a human and as an artist?
Matilde: Yes, and in Copenhagen it’s actually six years of studies, which is really a long time compared to other studies. I feel really privileged to have had the opportunity to go to art school for that duration. It was this process of being very nervous about my art and not being sure, but having the time to seek my identity. It was amazing because in the middle of my education, I started to find more of the themes that I’m really interested in, and I got more confident about what I was doing. Art school definitely is a personal journey.
Violetta: I think it’s great you were able to seek who you were during art school, because I know that some schools don’t have this process and the artists feel a bit lost. The questions that a lot of emerging artists have after art school is: what’s next? Especially in post-Soviet countries, only a few contemporary art schools have appeared and most of them are very conservative. So many young artists need a few years to get rid of these ‘borders’ that art education gave them. Did you have any borders or was your education free enough so that when you graduated, you knew what you wanted to do?
Matilde: In general, the art schools here are very contemporary and they seek to provide a frame around the personal journey. Of course, the purpose of art school is also to educate and provide art history, but in many ways you already have your own framework when you graduate. Afterwards, it’s still not easy to find out the ways in which you want to enter the art scene. At least in the northern countries, there is a gallery scene and it’s often necessary that you do artworks that can be bought. I don’t know how it is in Kazakhstan, but here you can seek funding. There are possibilities to seek funding for things like artist-run spaces, so you have some possibility for doing work that runs parallel to being commercially viable.
Violetta: Yes, we need to find some balance and look at art as a language that can give us ideas about the world, but at the same time, they are material objects. I would like to talk about shows, and solo shows in particular. From the pictures that I saw, your shows look like installations: the whole space is like an artwork by itself and that’s really beautiful. Do you create different things that come together in this installation or do you have an idea about the whole space and then the artworks follow?
Matilde: It varies across different projects. For each show, there’s always a clear story between the artworks, at least in my head. It makes sense in terms of the connection between the works and the installation, so it wouldn’t be possible to just take in another artwork. Sometimes, it starts with a title, that often brings ideas or inspiration to me. It’s a mix of words and images in my head, and the artworks and the connection between them starts from there.
“I don’t believe in originality. It ends up like a fight in a way, instead of thinking about art as a floating thing. ” – Matilde Duus
Violetta: Do you agree with this idea that the artist is a sort of transmitter? Something comes to you and you create, and sometimes you aren’t even conscious about the art you created. And then when you listen to yourself and you listen to people who interact with your art, you realise that it’s just something from another dimension or something.
Matilde: I do agree, absolutely. The artist as a transformer relates to where we started: it’s our surroundings coming in. It’s like a breathing thing, it’s coming in and then it will always come out. You can’t hide your personality or where you come from. Whatever you do will have your own touch. It is something that you cannot control and that actually has its own life, and this is kind of beautiful. That’s why I don’t think it’s dangerous to make artworks that are similar to the artists you admire, because of this process – in the end, it will be in your own language.
Violetta: Most emerging artists want to create something original that’s never existed before. But then you get into art history and it feels like everything already exists, which then leads young artists to try and push further to create something that never existed. What advice can you give to those who feel this way?
Matilde: I don’t believe in originality. It ends up like a fight in a way, instead of thinking about art as a floating thing. I think we need to think of each other as colleagues, we are surrounded by the same things and live in the same world with a climate crisis and pandemic. We are much closer than we think. So I don’t believe in it, and I’d rather think of it as a language, as you also said earlier. It’s creating a language and movement, in a way. Instead of seeking this originality, I think it’s a journey and a continuum, and thinking deeper, which is the most beautiful thing about creating art. So this is what originality is about, it’s about your language.
Violetta: Another question I have is that in this early career stage, I interact with a lot of curators, galleries, art dealers and managers. From some people I get the feeling that they can give me a lot in terms of my career, but energetically I feel that we don’t fit each other. Is it important to work with people with whom you share similar ideas, or are there people with whom you just work?
Matilde: I get it. This is a conversation I often have with some of my colleagues. I think it’s important to focus on what kind of collaboration it is. For example, if it’s an artistic collaboration with a colleague, then maybe it’s more important that you are connecting. To survive in this modern world, it would be nice to think of different hats that you have to wear. Hopefully most of the time you’ll have your artistic hat on, where it’s okay to be exactly who you are. But other times it’s really smart to put on the organiser hat, and maybe at that point it’s not so important that you completely connect, because you take on another role and you don’t have to be so personally involved. It could be business talks with galleries, or you have to say: “No, you have to pay for my work,” and you don’t have to be shy or nervous.
Violetta: So we should separate artistic practice and management. Sometimes it’s hard to realise that just making art is not enough, and you also need to be your own manager. I’m very thankful for your ideas about people with whom we work, because that’s what I’m thinking a lot about right now. I also wanted to talk about the pressure on artists of being ‘contemporary’. A lot of new things appeared in the world like NFTs or digital galleries. Speaking about my personal artistic practice, I really love painting, and sometimes I feel like: “OK, painting is dead.” But I enjoy it. And you wonder how to be a contemporary artist in a healthy way, like, should you worry about these things?
Matilde: I think the most important thing is to be very honest to yourself. And then I will say that painting never dies.
Violetta: I’m happy to hear that. I’m really inspired after our conversation!
Interested in learning more? You can find all the interviews from the DREAMER series here.