Elin painting surrounded by the nature of the Amazon.
Back in 2014 you finished your Fine Arts degree in Trondheim, Norway. Your final exam included a short film called “Searching for Eden” and by watching it one could feel your passion for nature.
—By then, I had already joined some friends on their journey to Galapagos and Peru in 2013, and it inspired my solo show “Journeys to Galapagos and the South Pacific – an Exploration Through Painting” the same year. I had never had any dreams of traveling, but this journey opened my mind in many ways. I realized that in my studio I was already traveling to the places before the journey began; I had always loved plants and longed to experience thick, green jungle.
I started to define my dreams, and my bachelor project became a part of this process. I traveled to The Eden Project, in England, to gather images of tropical plants for a giant 4-meter wide acrylic jungle painting and for my short film “Searching for Eden”. My dream was to be close to plants and their natural habitat while I was painting. That is how my journey started, longing to go to the place in the world with the most diversity of plants: the Amazon jungle. After my bachelor degree, I spent the next year planning my first journey to be close to plants and learn how to paint using colors from nature. And in November 2015, I left. For an almost five-month-long journey, alone, to the Peruvian Amazon and several Pacific islands.
Your grandfather, Knut Haugland, was part of the crew of the Kon-Tiki expedition that took place in 1947. He was also the director of the Kon-Tiki museum in Bygdøy, Oslo. I guess he awoke your curiosity about these remote cultures.
— In my teens I was lucky to hear many exciting stories about the South Pacific and its islands during that time. Still, the story about six men crossing the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft felt like a fairytale to me. Right before my grandfather passed away in 2009, his life story was told by Svein Sæter in the book “Operatøren”. While reading it the stories came to life, especially the parts where he describes the incredible starry sky and glowing bioluminescence surrounding the raft at night, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
To get closer to these stories, I started working part-time at the Kon-Tiki Museum in 2012; there I learned a lot about Thor Heyerdahl [the arranger of the Kon-Tiki expedition] and he became one of my leading stars. While working there, I got interested in the subculture of Tiki Pop, that emerged in the US in the early 1930s. It was the American dream of a Pacific paradise, a place that actually only exists within the subculture. In 2014, the Quai Branly Museum in Paris had an exhibition on the history of Tiki Pop, and another one about the history of the tattoo, which started in Polynesia; there I saw my first ‘tapa’ barkcloths. The patterns of both the tattoos and the ‘tapa’ went straight to my heart.
The environment has a big importance for you, and that is of course reflected in your artwork.
—Yes. Ever since I was a little child, I felt like the flowers in the forest were communicating with me. What they showed me touched the core of my being. I can’t put it into words, but I think that everything I create today comes from this meeting with nature. As I was growing up, I felt that many of the things adults tried to teach me about reality were wrong. Even cutting down a tree felt wrong. As a fifteen-year-old I read about the world views of people like Native Americans and I found stories that made sense to me. And when I traveled to the Amazon jungle at the age of 27 I finally found people who shared my views and inspired me further. I am especially thinking about the belief that everything that surrounds us has consciousness. Rocks, plants, forests, oceans, rivers, drops of water. Brushstrokes. Paintings.
There are two British botanical artists who inspire me very much in their approach to nature. Marianne North (b. 1830) felt so drawn to the tropical flowers in Kew Gardens that she traveled the world on her own to paint plants in the field, until she died from all the diseases she had caught on her travels. Charles Darwin was a supporter of her work, as she painted the plants in their natural surroundings and that was very unusual at the time. Margaret Mee (b. 1909) specialized in plants from the Brazilian Amazon, and devoted her life to fighting for the protection of the Amazon, as mining and deforestation started to increase. I want to create a story of my own, building on their values.
Eventually, your artistic experiences and interests made you take the decision of going where the prime materials were. How did you feel before your very first journey?
—To begin with, my dreams felt so big and distant that I almost did not dare to dream them. I was not interested in traveling far away and the thought of doing so, and alone, scared me so much. But the thought of painting surrounded by tropical plants made me feel alive, and if my journey could be for something bigger −not a vacation, but to gather knowledge and then dare to speak about it− then it could be worthy.
“During my year of planning, I pushed myself to do things like sleeping in the forest alone and jumping with a parachute from a plane”
Through my colleagues in the Kon-Tiki museum I came in contact with the Explorers Club, and suddenly I was surrounded by people who cheered for my ideas. And when the day came, I felt ready.
This artistic, but also humanist pursuit has allowed you to meet ancient cultures that otherwise you would have just known by the stories of your grandfather.
—When you grow up close to nature and inherit a belief system that has been passed down for generations by people who lived even more deeply immersed in nature, what does reality then consist of? You start off from a completely different basis than the one we think is true in our ‘modern’ societies. I am interested in the ways that humans from different cultures have expressed themselves traditionally, using materials directly from nature. I love to use handcrafts as a way to start relations with people I meet, and to learn about different traditions. Through my life and work I want to share these perspectives, show that there are alternatives.
Meeting all these people, being allowed to participate in their traditions and knowledge is a one-in-a-million opportunity. One would like to make the most of it. Did you follow any special education or training for your journeys?
—In 2015 I took a class in Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo to prepare for my journeys of exploration and art production. This was very helpful to get a better understanding of the diverse ways of living on the planet, and ways of showing respect when meeting with a different culture. To give an example, I was introduced to different family systems that exist. In some cultures it might be the brother of the genetic mother who has the father role of the child, and the person we would count as the father instead has the role of an uncle. When I stayed in Samoa for a month in 2016, I learned that it is common in some islands to raise some male children as female, who will then become caretakers in the family.
I am by no means an expert on anything. My main focus is on art and creative expression, and I have visited many cultural museums to get an overview of variations in symbolism and materials. My mediums of expression are painting, collage, text, experimental film and photography, and I transform the impressions I get in each place, both from nature and the culture, into an abstract language.
Tell us more about your first research trips, that took place between 2013 and 2016.
—During the first research trips, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. I knew that a tipping point between art and science triggered something in me. I wanted my process to be closer to scientific research, and my interests were on botany, alchemic processes, anthropology, cultural history and traditional art practices. So everywhere I went in Europe I visited museums and botanical gardens. From 2013 I gathered inspiration in England, France, Czech Republic and Iceland, as well as the USA and the journey to Galapagos, Ecuador and Peru.
After these journeys, I developed an interest in traditional Pacific art expressions. My fascination with tropical plants had increased, and I started getting curious about other ways of viewing and understanding reality. I have always loved painting, and I wanted to find a way to go deeper into the essence of what a painting is, combined with a closeness to nature. That’s where the idea of painting close to nature came. I started to plan my first big journey of exploration, focusing on natural color pigments. I first stayed for two months in the artist’s residence Sachaqa Centro de Arte, in the Peruvian Amazon jungle, situated in an area of misty hills covered in tropical forest. Then continued to Easter Island, Tahiti, and Western Samoa where I stayed for a month in Tiapapata Art Centre.
“The nature in Samoa is the most beautiful I have ever seen”
Their social structures and traditional way of life are very much preserved and I found this part of my journey very tough. After all the lessons I learned there, it was a relief to spend my last three weeks driving and hiking around New Zealand. What really stands out in my memories from that part of the journey is the time I spent in Te Urewera National Park. The Māoris living there (the Tūhoe, which means ‘children of the mist’) had just been given back their rights to the land. Now they are in full development of running the park themselves and receiving visitors.
In 2017 you also traveled to South America and conducted two fieldwork trips: to Amazonas, Brasil, where you attended an art program in a forest reserve outside Manaus, and to the Peruvian side of the Amazon jungle.
—Yes, I went on two separate journeys. The first one started with a one-month stay in Easter Island living with a local family. Then I traveled back to Sachaqa Centro de Arte and stayed there for two months. This experience taught me more about the balance between masculine and feminine energy (Easter Island has a history of being a male-dominated warrior society). Later that year, I visited Brasilian areas of the Amazon. This journey became a more political one. I was so lucky to be chosen for the Lab Verde Art Immersion Program; there we were thirteen artists from different countries meeting with scientists on the Rio Negro river, in a nature reserve called Adolpho Ducke. This area is closed for visitors and used as a science base to run experiments.
After the program I continued on my own for about a month, up the river to the small town São Gabriel da Cachoeira, close to the Venezuelan and Colombian borders. This area is very special, as almost all of the population have an indigenous background. The surrounding forest is one of the highest populated areas in the Brasilian Amazon and is packed with political issues. I was surprised to discover that missionaries still have a great impact on these societies.
One of the friends I met there was Juliana Lins, a biologist working for the anthropological institution ISA, who spent some periods of time at a village by the Tique river, studying the local’s belief system and relation to the forest. How they talk to the clay before taking some for making pottery. How they believe that under this world in the forest, there is another river underground where trees, plants and animals are humans. Scientists have discovered that there actually is an underground river beneath the Amazon.
You recently came back from Easter Island. What has changed in your perspective this time? Have you found something that you didn’t find on your previous trips there?
—Yes, so much. After the month I was there in 2017 I had only scratched the surface. I felt that with my 2018-19 journey the time had come to dive deeper. The terms ‘tapu’ and ‘mana’ had caught my attention in previous journeys. ‘Tapu’ is a term used historically for things that are forbidden to do or places that one should not visit in the island. ‘Mana’ is a complicated term and hard to explain in words; it is about energy and I have heard people say that the island has now lost the ‘mana’ it used to have.
Last year you took part in the PechaKucha Night Oslo, your experimental film “And their faces will be painted” was screened at the Fresh Stream Experimental Film Festival in Los Angeles, and you were also invited to the grand annual Explorers Club dinner, in New York City. Are there any upcoming events in which you will be participating?
—I am currently working with the Norwegian musician Kari Harneshaug on cover art for her next two singles; I have previously produced an experimental music video for one of her tracks. I am part of Under the Perfect Canopy, a traveling group show that will take place in the Art & Mind Center in Nagoya, Japan during March 17th - 31th, and in Galeria da Arte e Pesquisa in Vittoria, Brazil, during May 2nd - June 7th. Also, on the 27th of April my studio at Prindsen artist collective will participate in Oslo Open.
@primusprimus, where Elin shares her work process
searchforeden.wordpress.com, with writings about her projects
mosemose.no, her eco art group