Swedish artist, lives and work in Stockholm

Painting desire essay on Meta Isæus-Berlin by Sinziana Ravini

Written by Sinziana Ravini

“Desire, the sole motivating principle of the world, the only master humans must recognise” stated André Breton, the father of Surrealism. Influenced by Freud, Breton – like his fellow surrealists Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini, Meret Oppenheim, André Masson and Salvador Dalí – saw desire as a path to self-knowledge, an engine for provocation and traversing boundaries where life’s deepest impulses meet each other. Surrealist art is the ultimate arena for human desire. But this does not mean that surrealist art is unworldly, as many detractors have tried to make it out to be. Surrealism calls upon us to change the world by exposing the mechanisms that enslave man. In a time of war, pandemics, ecological and existential crises, surrealist art has become more important than ever. Last year’s Venice Biennale put Surrealism back on the agenda by highlighting both past and contemporary artists whose works address man’s connection to the universe, nature, animals, technologies, and, last but not least, the most frightening and wonderful of all – the subconscious. Surrealism’s double motto is thus to “change the world” (Marx) and “change life” (Rimbaud). How? By actively working within the inseparable trinity of art, love and freedom. Because before we can understand the world, we must first of all understand our own constitution.

An artist who has worked for a long time in this liberating surrealist spirit is Meta Isæus-Berlin. Her wondrous and dreamlike paintings, sculptures and installations are comparable to the multiple parts that make up a single great machine of desire that would have delighted both Freud and Hitchcock. Isæus-Berlin both plays with intricate, cinematic staging of scary phenomena such as flooding in a bathroom, graveyard in a home, the struggle between different furniture, and different emotional scales, and the desire to amaze, worry, mystify, confuse, provoke, frighten, mixed with the desire to seduce, entertain, comfort and soothe – usually all in one and the same motion.

In the installation The Eternal Dinner, we encounter a table that looks both welcoming and terrifying. The dining table, which is usually the core of a home, has been turned on its head ­– quite figuratively – swaying like a rowboat out on a stormy sea. The water flows back and forth between the plates and the wine glasses, which, against all odds, remain, as if the material objects were stronger than the forces of nature. The only thing that is constant is the table. The dinner guests are absent, but the viewer is drawn into a meal whose rules elude us. What is really at stake? What monsters are there that haunt the sleep of reason? Georges Bataille argued that the role of art is not to comfort us but, on the contrary, to worry us, to “open” us to make us “bleed inside”. It makes me think of all the dramas that have unfolded around a dinner table, both manifest and latent ones.

The swaying table can be seen as the image of a symptom, an image of how something feels and is expressed, rather than what caused this feeling. To go into psychoanalysis is to learn to enjoy one’s symptom, because when we welcome the monsters that haunt us, they usually disappear. Letting a drama take place around a dinner table, as if it were a divan where words can flow freely, everyone’s words, both those that are coveted and those that are less so, is a way of both welcoming and finally getting over it. The water flowing back and forth across the table can be seen as a purification process, as a time caught in its own movement, but also as a promise of a better time to come. “A lot of water under the bridge since then”, one usually says when one has come to terms with the passage of time. Isæus-Berlin’s The Eternal Dinner is both eerie and pleasurable—a call to navigate our dramas as if they were necessary storms, to contemplate them, forget them or linger on them. The last meal has been replaced by an eternal meal in which there is no need for saviours. Why? Because the linear time that waits for the apocalypse, the rescue, the doom, is cancelled.

A work that captures a different relationship to time is The Philosopher, a bronze sculpture depicting a koala lying awake in bed. Isæus-Berlin reminds us in a conversation that “the logic of the night is different from the logic of the day”. What would it mean for a philosopher to sleep? That thinking is out of play? That to sleep is the most philosophical thing there is? In that case, what does the koala dream about? The surreal dimension arises from the fact that the koala has curled up and is lying with a blanket over it, like a small child. As I am currently at my mother’s house, I ask her what she thinks the work represents. She’s not wearing her glasses, but I urge her to look anyway. She squints and says – A man who landed with his parachute? – Well, I say. Look closer. She does and says – A male genitalia sticking out of something? Something that wants to unite with something? I finally tell what the painting represents and wonder – What can be said about a sleeping koala?– That it is a content koala, my mother replies filled with content. We see what we are and what we desire. Art, especially surrealist art, can offer fantastic journeys towards the unconscious, even become “psychonautic”, and Isæus-Berlin is psychonautic to the very highest degree, if you approach her art carefully.

One way is to become aware of the painful fact that images hide rather than expose things. The painting can point to a potential action, but never really the action as such, especially if one, like Isæus-Berlin, does not depict the so-called reality, but rather creates new realities through the paintings. What stories do Isæus-Berlin’s surrealist images hide? What stories can she through concealment automatically provoke within us? In Väktaren [The Guardian], a fox stands and directs its gaze at us with a key hanging right next to it. Is the fox the guardian? Or is the guardian out of the picture? And where does the key go? It looks like the fox knows, that the fox guards the key to meaning, since Isæus-Berlin’s paintings seem to function like encrypted texts. But there is a problem with this reading. When we expect to find a hidden meaning, we regard paintings as if they held a secret, even something they have been guilty of on a symbolic level. But paintings do not commit crimes. Demanding their meaning is like putting them against the wall, figuratively, in an impossible police interrogation. Art is then innocently condemned, when the real villain is in fact the viewer. The psychonautic experience of art acknowledges the fact that art’s meaning arises fore and foremost, in the encounter with our selves.

Leonora Carrington said “There are things that are not sayable. That’s why we have art”. Another way to apply a psychonautical views to art is to associate it with the unspeakable. This is precisely what Isæus-Berlin’s art invites us to do. In Fest med sig själv [Party with oneself], I see an octopus hanging upside down around a table, with its arms held around different glasses – an image of pure and self-sufficient joy – I am satisfied with the manifest content of the image but am acutely aware that it there is a lot which is not said and that cannot be said. In Förklädd [Disguised], I see a lady standing in a room that has been tilted on its short side, as if the room was a box you could rotate, with a horse in the background. Both are transparent, and seem to live in symbiosis with each other, or are they, on the contrary, about to drift apart? Either way, the colours and shapes are beautiful enough. I don’t need to understand more than that, just be, because, as the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said, “we are where we do not understand and understand where we are not”. In Magikern [The Magician], a gray-haired man holds a raven in his arms. His beautiful, furrowed face seems to hide layers and layers of stories. Which? One wonders. In Fyra porslinshundar, Sommar [Four porcelain dogs, Summer], you see a fairy-tale-like girl with a displeased, almost scornful expression sitting on a dog-like animal. Where is she going? In Nattsyn [Night Vision], an anxious girl in nightgown and lantern is visited by a pair of phantom animals. Is she afraid or fearless? Where does she come from and where is she going? In Höstblomster [Autumn flowers], you see a bunch of semi-abstract flowers. They look both as if they have withered and as if they have not fully bloomed yet. Who has picked them and for whom? In Loveletter you see a koala with a letter in hand. Is it a letter to or from the koala? And what kind of Venus do we meet in the dark and, at the same time, very sensual and voluptuous Venus födelse [The Birth of Venus]? What is she born as and what will she give birth to in turn? Isæus-Berlin’s art invites us to live with the mysteries. Her paintings have the elegant ability to ask questions rather than provide any answers. And luckily so, because as Maurice Blanchot said, “the answer is the accident of the question”.

There is a passage in surrealist Romanian writer Mircea Cărtărescu’s new novel Melancolia that makes me think of Isæus-Berlin’s intricate art:

I’ve been walled up alive here this time in this glass globe where it’s snowing over this cardboard model city, in this baroque pink mother-of-pearl shell in this chitinous sheath that covers me up to my eyes, transparent as nails. Layer upon layer, the cell becomes more cramped, crushing me, melting me inside it, and prevents me, like a vile, boundless pain, from thinking clearly and truly existing. It’s more than a human can bear to live like this frozen in a block of ice and howl pathetically inside an amber without a sound. I so wish I had never been born.

But Isæus-Berlin’s art seethes with life and constant rebirth. The dark melancholy is there, and the metamorphoses too, but her sensual kaleidoscopic and often rebus-like works challenge us to feel and think in new ways, to break out of linear time and embrace others. Isæus-Berlin is herself fascinated by the ancient Egyptian concept of time. The Egyptians had two times – a cyclical one that concerned the sun, the moon, the stars and the periodic floods of the Nile, and Zep Tepi, the first time, when everything is born and ever present. Even art history is in many respects cyclical, something that curator Cecilia Alemani reminded us of in last year’s surrealist Venice Biennale.

I myself was on the way to becoming an artist once upon a time, but my surrealist art was not to the liking of my art college teacher at the time, who told me that the surrealist train had left a long time ago. I started writing about art instead, because if you love art, you don’t necessarily have to make it yourself. What if I had known that art history was not a linear phenomenon, and that art currents, if we are good enough to understand and welcome them into the temple of the art world, come back again and again? I tend to take solace in Oscar Wilde’s belief that writing about art is an art in itself and that we are all artists when we transform our lives into one great work of art, which I have tried to do, with the help of art.