The lost thing
An interview of Hanne Tyrmi  
by Lotte Konow Lund
The House
LKL: This exhibition has as its theme the house. Why have you chosen the house as a framework, and as if it was your own house?
HT: The house is a metaphor for my artistic life. A house is something you can walk into. And walk out of. The house is a body, my body. It is a refuge and a container. I have spent my life going in and out of this house, investigating it, making objects that belong there. But only now is everything collected under one roof, you might say. The house, as I see it, is more than a home, it is also a metaphor for a society. Yes, it can be a society.
LKL: When you say society, do you mean that you consider this work political?
HT: Of course it's political, not least with regard to feminist politics. I am 60 years old now and my adult life began in the 1970s. I became a mother around that time, and from then on had to make hard choices. I wanted an education: could I allow myself an education that might not help me to support my family? I needed my own space to work in. It would cost money, and yet I would be working without an income. Was that justifiable? These were choices affecting my place in the world, my identity – and this house is a reflection of that.
At various times in the last twenty years I have lived abroad – in Brazil, South Africa, India, China, and Spain. In each of these countries I have sought to gain access to their closed female societies, in order to learn more about a country through the choices women are compelled to take. In some instances outsiders are barred from entering, but in others I have been privy to stories about the house and the women who inhabit it that have become part of my house.

LKL: How did you arrive at precisely this house? For it is, I suppose, a specific house?
HT: I decided I would fashion what I called a "prologue" to everything I had already made, the objects that would be placed in the house. Not any house, but My House. And the house that materialized rather took me by surprise. It turned out to be difficult to get into, and difficult to get out of. We can see its exterior and interior at the same time, as if they were two different sides of the same coin. A contradiction – an impossibility. As an object it might seem to be inside-out. While I have been working on the contents of the house I have been moving around in it. Down to the cellar, into the kitchen, up to the bedroom, into the bathroom, and down to the cellar again. I noticed that as I went from room to room I grew and shrank in size. In one place I felt that I was large, but small in another place. So the works I have created for it have followed that order, they have expanded where I have felt larger, and shrunk where I have felt small.  

LKL: Like Alice in Wonderland?
HT:  Yes, like Alice.
LKL: It reminds me of a lovely sentence in
The Poetics of Space by Bachelard: The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Is your sense of how your size expands and contracts a sort of metaphor for how our dreams, memories, and fantasies work?
HT: Yes, many images – both from my childhood and later in life – surface while I'm working. Perhaps most from childhood. So my sense of myself corresponds to the size I had when the memory was formed. The way my mind works is that I am always conscious of the physical size I had, when I first formed an impression. This time I also wanted to execute the works according to the size they inhabit in my mind.
LKL: Let us now enter your house, such as it is in the exhibition. You have opted to bring us straight into the cellar?
HT: Well, the cellar is of course closest to the ground. Or rather, not only closest to the ground, but
in the ground below the house. And everything above will at some time end up in the cellar. It's unavoidable. It runs down – through the pipes and down the walls. Rain on the roof and condensation on the walls drip down, or pipes get bunged up and the pressure builds. But sooner or later it will all come down. To cellar level. The closed system brings it all down there before expelling it. The house's plumbing is like a closed circuit with the cellar as the main junction. All the stories the house can tell come down to the cellar through the various trunks and branches of the plumbing. Bathwater after a cleansing process, shower water with passion in it, excrement from the toilet – love, anger, anxiety, and declarations of love. They all come down to the cellar.
When I say that a house is like a society, I mean that parts of it are exclusively reserved for those who are allowed to enter, while others are open to everyone. It is not wholly positive or negative. It's how life is. A house is like an anthill, with tiny parts being carried in from outside to make up the whole. Everything becomes part of the edifice.
LKL: Beginning in the cellar is, therefore, like coming straight into the engine room of a huge ship, where coal is being shoveled into the boilers? Or the heart, if one could go on a tour of the body? The place where the pumping and pushing is going on, the main intersection?
HT: That's right. In the cellar it is dark and a little unsettling, but there's more to it. Complexity can also be found there, as I see it. The complex – that can also be tackled there. Difficult things are often stored away there. But it is also a real place to which most people can relate. We remember the excitement of going down the cellar stair into the dark, the dank air rising up at you – the uncertainty of what might be down there. Or you feel the comforting warmth of the boiler, dry cellar air around the plastered walls or the smell of apples stored for winter. The cellar has this duality, it is hiding something, it is a devious place. Nevertheless I feel that the cellar, in a more abstract sense, can be a happy place for me. Something light. Simply because we need light in order to understand the dark.
LKL: In your cellar there is a breathing machine working away among the dripping, running fluids – your house is an organism. It is the breath that is the difference between living and dying. I've watched people die. It's that moment when the movement of the chest ceases – it's so unthinkable or unrealistic that the movement should be absent. As if that movement in itself was the difference between something living and something dead.
HT: Yes, breath is existence, that's why the breathing machine is in the cellar. Like an engine, a boiler, or a heart. For a house is a living being. The constant movements around a house make it speak. There is movement through the plumbing and air, as if the house were stirring and living. Houses can tell you stories, tell you what they have been through. The voices you hear may be no more than your own anxiety for what lies in your memories, your story, but they bring the house to life.
LKL: This sounds like the formula for a classic horror movie, transferring your deep fears into your surroundings. As if the subconscious were turned inside-out, and all your angst were displayed for all to see. But you lead us out of this anxiety into a spacious, airy room. Where are we now?

HT: The next room is all about chairs and tables. A house's most archaic shapes. A chair conforms to the shape of the body. It is not only made to accommodate the human shape, it
is the human. The chair lacks only a head, then it would have a complete body. The table has a different function, it is an object that collects us round itself for meals and for our conversations about meals. It is not a symbol of the individual, but of the communal. This table, however, is covered in a huge washing up, there is no room left for any social activity. It's what is left over when conversations fail. It's the emptiness left by a community that doesn't exist. A picture of failure.
LKL: But it is still beautiful?
HT: I wanted the installation to express emptiness, something translucent and fragile. Something that the light might wash away. Something quivering at a point between being visible and being non-existent. But there is nothing romantic here. Something disappears, life goes on. It is the same duality I return to constantly, the painful and the ugly are not necessarily one and the same.
LKL: And across the room there is a pile of dust?
HT: Yes, but in the middle of the pile there is a chair. The chair is the person that at first is covered in dust, and finally disappears beneath it.
LKL: This is a home where hygiene doesn't seem to be a priority, what with all the soiled smocks and piles of dust. Is it covered in shame?
HT: I would rather say that there were obstructions everywhere. The dust is blocking the way for the girl or woman who is something much more than what is expected of her. Particularly with regard to the home. For not everyone, girls or women, manage to conform to the image others have of what a home should be like. Many women experience it as a loss of control. I have wanted to direct attention to the woman who is stuck in a home and a situation, but whose gaze reaches beyond it. The roles women have been assigned are connected with what we define as the norm. This is perhaps a protest against it.

LKL: For the Haugar exhibition you have brought together dust, light, and a table in a different work, made of hair:
HT: Yes, it is an older work, from 1987. The significance of the amulet fascinated me. For me it is something to be worn on the chest. I wanted to take something very dear to me and fashion from it an object. So I took some of my son's hair and made it into a ball and a teddy bear. It appeals to me, something very close to me having a place in my house.
LKL: Hair can have a kind of duality: for women it can be associated with both beauty and shame. It is the living and the dead, and of course something to which we can all relate.
HT: Yes, hair can have shameful associations, but also invites us to think of countless love stories or of intimacy. Wearing someone else's hair on your body. The word abject is one that can be applied to hair when it falls from us, then it is transformed from being a delight to something repulsive and banal. But the hair of someone you love cannot be disgusting, it remains part of that person. It seems to stop time, because it doesn't lose its quality as the hair of the one you love – like fresh food that never goes off, if you see what I mean. Hair is also thin, fragile, and strong. As a material it seems to me to have a strangely sculptural quality. Like spider silk. And the silk of a spider brings to mind again the relationship between mother and son. There is a connection.
LKL: On our way out from this light room we come to a stair. It is a staircase leading up, not down. How do I know that? It must have something to do with the positioning of the stair in the cube form, with one step at the top suggesting that the stair continues on beyond the staircase. This is the stair to lead us out of the room of light?
HT: There are two stairs in my house, one leading up and one down, sensibly enough. The other stair is elsewhere in the house. This one is narrower and straighter, and obviously carries us upwards. The experience of climbing a stair changes with the shape and position of the staircase. It's something altogether different going down a stair that has a turn in it, and you don't know what you will meet. The darkness of the loft is also different from that of the cellar, it is a different air, a different sort of quietness, and you are guaranteed to encounter different things in the loft than you do in the cellar.
LKL: There are some photographs here, apparently of destroyed rooms. Or rooms under construction? A building site?
HT: They are of the rooms behind the walls. The insides of the house. Behind the surfaces. The joinery and construction. What's actually holding the house together. And which we blindly trust. Which we have to trust, but might collapse round our ears if it is poorly built. We forget or overlook that a house is a construction, a piece of engineering. That is what's going on in the spaces behind the surfaces. It's all about measurements and materials. But they are still rooms in the house, although concealed.
LKL: These photographs are a collaboration with Marte Aas. How did you begin working together?

HT: I have known Marte's work for a long time. When I look back at her work across the years I realize that, as an artist, she has had a lengthy relationship with the house. In the earliest of her works that I am familiar with, she considers the house from a distance, as part of something larger, of a society. Since then she seems to have steadily got closer to the house, and gone in. In her films and later photographic works she is mostly concerned with people and the way a body functions in a room.
LKL: It sounds like a very different approach to yours?
HT: Yes, it is. But there is a meeting of minds behind the walls, in these strange spaces caused by the way a house is constructed. There we are very similar and can work together. While I work with materials, Marte captures the rooms made by the materials. It is interesting to see the ways the photograph can be manipulated to create a reality out of unreality. The photograph tells a different story of reality than the one my hands are familiar with.
LKL: So it is about seeing and being seen, about reality and who defines it? On another wall there are two keyholes. They are at eye level and placed so close together they become two unsettling, staring eyes.
HT: It's called
I see therefore I am. For me personally the keyholes are about anxiety. That you peer at something without seeing it, the blood pumping in your ears. To be present without anyone knowing you are there. Present without making a noise. What you see through keyholes doesn't actually exist. It's about transgressing, but not having any alternative, it's something you are compelled to do.
LKL: A peeping Tom? Someone who will never take part, but only steal a look. Stealing an uninvited look is of course regarded as reprehensible, but here it's more mixed. Maybe someone is looking at us, and we feel vulnerable under someone's gaze. Here, again, you have altered our size, in the previous work we were tiny beings inside the wall, here you have scaled us to child-size?
HT: Yes. Or at least you will feel small.
LKL: The phrase
She is even more powerless than I am is also a reference to how we perceive relative dimensions?
HT: It is about size, as perceived in terms of power. I made that work on coming home after three months as artist-in-residence in Johannesburg in 2000. The idea was to create a telephone box into which people could go, lift the receiver, and listen to other people's stories. To come into contact with people I went round the area in Johannesburg where my studio was, hanging up notices with the text:
I am a resident artist, please come and visit me in my studio. I cut out footprints in yellow rubber and laid them on the pavement to create a path straight to my door. I invited everyone who came to tell me their story. In this crowd of people a young girl turned up. A completely ordinary girl, no education, no protection, no possessions, just like everyone else. She told a story of violence and rape in her home. She was raped by all the men in the household. Her father, her brothers, her uncle, and the neighbour. And she related an incident in which her father had beaten her mother with a clothes iron. It was in the course of this narration that she said those words: She is even more powerless than I am. That really struck me. She is even more powerless than I am. I felt I carried those words home with me, and couldn't shake them off before I had carved them into the wall at home. Through my arm and into the wall.
LKL: How does the issue of size come into that story and work you eventually made?
HT: I think all women can relate to that sentence. Every woman has some other woman she compares herself with, not as an ideal, but as someone who is even more powerless.
LKL: But it is also true of men? Isn't it the case that men who fight feel small, and need to find someone who is even smaller?
HT: Yes, I think so, but for me this work is about the relationship between women.

LKL: Ok, in a home there are those who hit and those who are hit. But much of this remains hidden. At least in our part of the world. The largest work you have made for this exhibition is called
Dusk, and is a curtain of lead. Is this about concealment?
HT: Dusk is that short period in the evening when it is neither light nor dark. When everything loses its shape. When I came into this room at Haugar and saw that large niche in the wall, it reminded me of the large panorama windows that were so typical of mass-produced houses in the 1970s. The curtain is not only there to conceal the house's interior from prying eyes outside, but also to avoid contact with the outside world. It is a necessary membrane between what is going on inside and outside. In this instance – when it is made of lead – it becomes a complete barrier. No communication is possible between the interior and exterior worlds.
LKL: It brought strongly to mind a work by Annika von Hausswolff,
'The Memory of my Mother’s Underwear Transformed into a Flameproof Drape (2003). A heavy vintage pink curtain covers a whole wall. There was a sort of perversity to it, it wasn't only made to conceal, in fact it was also a stage – the clothing nearest the body, intimate with pubic hair and decay, was a theatre curtain. And if you draw the curtain, what do you have? Is there a stage behind your curtain?

HT: It's one way of looking at it. But my curtain is an impenetrable barrier. It is leaden and heavy and it falls. It is gravity.