The Penetrating World of Snövit Hedstierna

Chatting with the Swedish artist about the importance of looking at your genitals.

okt 14 2014, 2:15pm

Snövit Hedstierna. Photo by the author

Contemporary art can sometimes seem a little pompous and up its own ass. But when it gets to you, it might actually penetrate you. Swedish artist Snövit (which means Snow White, and yes, it’s her real name) Hedstierna, who – whether it’s creating life-sized statues in dildo jelly, or having an orgasm onstage – always seems to make art that is both funny and thoughtful. She's currently exhibiting a piece at Skövde Konsthall in Sweden, which she calls the Greater Harm. It's a video that features women describing their experiences as victims of sexual violence. 

During a brake from travelling around the world with her art, Snövit stopped by Stockholm this summer to chat about her work and why she thinks it’s important to know your vagina. 

VICE: Hi Snövit. I've read so much about you and now I’m confused. What’s your title?
Snövit Hedstierna: I call myself a visual artist. Since I do a lot of work in different areas, I used to fill up on titles of what to call myself, until I realised that it’s easier to just call myself “artist.” I mean it’s all art in the end. 

What are you working on right now?
Well, I usually have about ten to 15 pieces going on at the same time. So right now I’m working on photo, film, sound and performance projects. One of the projects I’m doing is an interactive sound piece with about 200 female voices discussing gender issues. Another thing I do is that I’m sketching people at strip clubs – people who are masturbating, looking away, standing up or covering their faces. All kinds of characters. Then I make life-sized statues in, you know, the jelly stuff they make dildos of. I produce them in China to really get the mass-produced aspect of industrialised sex as a part of the statues. 

Why statues?
Knights and kings and you know what I mean, different men who’ve done “amazing things” like winning wars have historically got to be the statues. I think there are other subject matters and acts throughout history that deserve to be remembered. Like the wankers, they haven’t been made into statues. You know, people staring at you in the subway, or drunk ogling characters you meet at night. Those guys are people who my generation have been talking about a lot, with different opinions about their existence and the hidden culture surrounding them. I want to make a cultural impression where the wanker is represented as a memory of our time.

Ha, will that be exhibited?
This is going to be an exhibition in Montreal in 2015, and I’m sure I will show them at other places as well. 

Pretty much all your pieces have a very straight pitch. How do you put these thoughts into action? Are they as straightforward from the beginning as they are when finalised?
For me, context is key. The content should really be the narrative, and not just the visual elements. Although that process is the fun part, just dressing everything up and getting it all glittery, I try to look at my artistry in a more philosophical way, with a clear narrative. Art can sometimes become a bit vague when there are too many props and complicated titles. I might have gotten the idea of a more clear or simple communication from working as an art director where you actually need to talk in terms of pitching.

Yeah, you used to work in advertising.
Well, I’ve been through a mixture of things but I worked with advertising, perhaps with a focus on communication rather than commercials, for a few years. But I’m not sure that’s the reason why my art is the way it is. But it’s certainly made me aware of how easy it is for people to misunderstand things. So if you’ve got an idea or a message that you’re trying to communicate, you must be very clear, at least to yourself. What the audience thinks, feels or how they react in the end, is nothing you can control. Everything is free and open for different notions and outcomes.  

To Give and to Hold.

You got into a lot of heat last year with one of your exhibitions, what was all that about?
Well, in one of them called, To Give and to Hold, I invited the audience to be the big or little spoon for 48 hours. The performance was streamed online. I did it as an act for peace with the statement that, “I would rather spoon someone than shoot someone,” which I think is becoming more and more relevant.

Another one that got some attention in media was a series of photos of people looking at their genitals in a mirror called, The Practices of Looking. that started out with that I noticed – as a foreigner in Canada – that looking at your genitals is kind of, not shameful really, but that people are like, disgusted…  Looking at your genitals is something that your partner does. Not you. And coming from Sweden where it’s more common that you’ve had at least a peak from your point of view. But I’ve experienced that in many countries that’s kind of taboo.

Do you feel that this is a question of age?  
Compared to like, my mum who gave birth while watching a giant mirror of her vagina and taking photos at the same time, and their generation who in the 70s just sat in a ring comparing each other’s genitals, my generation seems kind of shy and prude. In a way the project is striving for a kind of un-sexualisation of the vagina, but also to create a photographic-based archive by stating an act, that that is part of our daily life and that can be very sexual. 

And people got offended?
No the beef was more with my curator, who wanted me to photoshop and crop the images, which would turn the piece into some completely different. What’s interesting is that all of these people had so different approaches and postures when they held the mirrors, so I’ve also made it into a choreography called “Another View” which was the third work that got a lot of attention.

Of people mirroring their genitals?
Ha, yeah. It goes on for 90 minutes and almost looks like a Bikram yoga session but with different postures. 

The Practices of Looking.

Many aspects of your art concerns queer and gender aspects of society, where do you think this comes from?
Yes, well I guess life experience in general. I grew up in a very queer culture. Many people say that I’m very girly, and that’s not because I’ve had a lot of role models who were women and girly, but rather a lot of transvestites who were very girly that I looked up to and thought were so pretty and cool. 

How did these people enter your l life?
Well my dad, who’s a musician, was touring during a big part of my childhood. I guess I created my own father figures around me. My uncle, who is gay, kind of became my father figure. Him and his boyfriends – there were five of them during the years – became kind of stepdads. None of them are transvestites, but I met several though them and I was always very amazed.  

You’re still in contact with them?
Haha yeah, I’m still in contact with all of them. Then my mother had a boyfriend who was bisexual, who also brought a queer mindset, which kind of normalised all of those aspects of life for me. 

Snövit in her studio. Photo by Angela Blumen

I guess your name, Snow White, must have had some impact on you childhood. Have you called Snow White from birth?
Yes, well my dad is from Peru and my mum’s from Sweden, and they both kind of liked it, so within my home I’ve always been called Snövit. Although I've also used my other names officially. It’s a very Swedish way to think of a Native American name in a funny way. There were a few years when Snow White was protected by copyright infringement but now I think there are like eight people in Sweden called Show White.

Do you always introduce yourself as Snow White?
No, sometimes I introduce myself with one of my middle names, Linda or Mina. Like, if I’m ordering a taxi I don’t usually get into it. When I grew up I remember that I used to think that it would be so much easier with a regular name. Growing up in this kind of artsy not very nuclear family, bringing two dads to parent-teacher night, and being vegan I used to feel like there was something wrong with me. But as I grew older, the name kind of grew on me and became more of a statement, both privately and in my art. 

So what would you say your statement as an artist is?
I guess my art is my statement, but there is this expression called “bearing witness,” where as my voice, my experience can become yours. I believe we should talk about stuff we don’t really talk about. 'Cause there’s this idea that it’s impossible to change the world, and I don’t think that’s the way it is. There’s a myth around it, like if you don’t do anything practical or physical it can’t be done. But if I tell or listen to a story that’s been an experience of a passion or a pain, you can pay it forward and also make it part of your own life. I believe that people can connect and become part of the same reality through talking and listening to each other, if you do it in a mindful, heartfelt and truthful way.

Snövit Hedstierna's the Greater Harm is part of the group exhibition Norm.Alt at Skövde Konsthall, Sweden, which runs until November 23. She will be hosting artist talks at Lokstallet in Strömstad on October 29, and at Atelante in Gothenburg on October 30. See upcoming shows and more of Snövit's work here and here


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