Upon first glancing at Karin Törnell’s sculptures – amazement! Never before have I seen anything like this! What is it? They are imbued with stillness and tranquility, and yet my interpretation still seeks out their unusual nature. Are my associations with the characters of a disappeared alphabet, preserved on papyrus in the sediment of the Nile Delta? Or perhaps to star charts of another planet’s night sky? To tools whose function is unknown? Yet after my first look, a different and opposing sensation arises: a sense of recognition. I have seen this once before, but I had forgotten! And it is a particular type of recognition – a familiarity with something facing away, a kinship with something foreign. Karin Törnell has an ability to depict the most primary and basic facets – traits thought to be paradoxical, but which comprise precisely the inner contradictions that shape a life. Fickleness and permanence at once. Fragility and durability. Home and away. Soft and solid. Concern and rest. Connection and release. Concentration and expansion. Escape and return.
Her art requires her to have advanced familiarity with the material. She must have experience and knowledge of the characteristics of the material and the technical processes by which it can be transformed and shaped. Yet neither the material nor the technique are of primary importance for her. A desire for expression comes first. When she works with cast glass, it is not in fascination with the material; rather, it is a path to expressing something she is attempting to say. She would therefore sooner transgress the material than revere it. She is not a servant to glass, nor is she interested in free experimentation; rather, she wants to master it so that it will achieve her will. She knows how to leverage the characteristics of glass when it is fluid and elastic at high temperatures. She finds it satisfying to create with a material that both bears the experiences of the past and lends durability to the work in the future.
Her relationship to form is also associated with time. She understands how the forms come from within her personally, as a matter of course; they are sifted out of all she has seen and experienced, and thus begin from her own life and from the present, her present, our present. Simultaneously – and of equal importance – to her, the forms pass by the individual and the limitations of time and space. They might come from many bygone eras and far-off places, with the ability to transcend linguistic differences and cultural affiliations. For her it is not a question of something from afar, but of something right here, within reach. And at the same time, something astounding – she can be struck by how the sculptural language reverberates so powerfully across the ages. At its core, this language tells her that she is not alone.One inspirational experience was the early encounter with Cycladic art – she looked, went back, looked again. Surprise: I have never seen anything like this before! So too was the insight that it is indeed possible to take in and incorporate something that was created thousands of years ago. That experience also entailed a perspective on beauty, not as something that wants to offer itself to the gaze of the viewer, but which possesses independence and permanence. Karin Törnell is not interested in glass as a subject for beautiful objects, but as the stuff of an expanded understanding of beauty.
The work must also be allowed to take time. The material and technical processes have more or less absolute conditions with regard to time, which she engages with using her expertise. But as a whole, for her, the artistic process is a slow rhythm, unpredictable and often laborious, shifting between waiting and inspiration, tension and relaxation, doubt and trust, toil and clarity, sometimes resulting in discoveries and realizations. She knows this time cannot be forced, only continued and maintained – time which is, in essence, nearly improbably distinct from the faster attractions and rewards of the surrounding world.
Roman philosopher Lucretius (99-55 BCE) understood sensory impressions to be material images that stream from the objects to the eyes. He thought that each individual item gave off thin, visible membranes from the surface layer, constantly. Sensory impressions and the surface layer are essential for Karin Törnell, but the visible is not, as it is with Lucretius, separate from the solid body. She never adds color; the outside is not an opaque facade. When she talks about color as a “tone” that must be in harmony with the whole, she uses a word that generally refers to both color and music, to the eye and the ear. Color, she says as well, is one of the tones in a scale. How should we approach tonality in her sculptures? Perhaps – expanded – as phrasing, accent, movement or counterpoint, something dancing, in tension with gravity. Something that gives weight to delicacy and lightness to weight. Her sculptures can be viewed as connections. They often contain a relationship. The shapes are rarely uniform; rather, they expand, split apart, reach out from or to themselves, at times in a circle, at times in parts and unions that seem incessant. But for Karin Törnell, the sculptures are also connected to us, the viewers who share space and time with them. Their essence lies in exercising influence over us, on our body, gaze and mind. They are intimately close to us, regardless of whether they are hanging on a wall or placed on a podium. We can approach them, unnoticed, as if the sculptures were asleep. Indeed, we get very close; we weigh them with our gaze and caress their surface with our eyes. We can walk around them and sense that we, like the sculptures, are a construction.
This is a consequence of the fact that for her, these works are very much bodies, closely connected to her own physical being, to her body’s edges in time and space. They are connected with her as immediately and sincerely as dreams of the night, the sense that the sculptures know something which the body knows as well. We could easily turn from viewer into toucher, for the sculptures have a tactile appeal. And they contain not only seriousness and tranquility, but also playfulness and humor. For Karin Törnell, the sculptures must have something unexpected in common with their viewers. Moving among them should be able to be like a passage, where an unexpected reflection might appear, as if the sensory impression could connect to reason and reach the entire body and psyche. She therefore considers the sculptures’ placement in the room to be deeply important; they must have space around them. They must be placed upon something, though not necessarily in such a way that they are “resting.” On the contrary, they should be able to be experienced as being on guard, prepared. Indeed, life is full of instability.
In ancient Greek mythology, the Chimera was a three-headed monster with the heads of a lion, a goat and a snake attached to different parts of the body. We also find this fantastical improbability in the word chimera, which refers to something illusory, even a fantasy. But when botanists refer to chimera, the word gains a real purpose: a plant in which two genetically different tissues have grown together. Karin Törnell’s sculptures can sometimes be perceived as unexpected compositions of different parts, and still as new units, new existences if you will. The viewer may be reminded of mechanical components that have been joined together. Or of small organisms or plant parts with uncertain proportions. But she is not looking to fascinate the viewer with original oddities; rather, she seeks out mutuality and a sense of sharing. It is true that she brings into the world something that has not existed before, but it will prove to be a reunion – for her, the composite exists specifically in the familiar. And if the viewer has a sense of being turned upside down and inside out, this inclusion lies in the actual casting process, where positive and negative forms cross through one another’s boundaries. The reversal is part of the origin story of the objects.The circle is a shape with a connection to arithmetic and geometry. In arithmetic, it is the symbol for nothing and for a number’s multiplication by ten, and in geometry, a circumference which can be drawn with a compass. Another such shape is the straight line, which can be seen as a vector, suitable for the physicist to calculate direction and size.
The circle is also a loop of sewing thread and rope, a tiltyard and the annual cycle, the continuation of everything, which returns to itself. The straight line is the tower and javelin, the road and the descent. Both are imbued with male and female iconography. But what happens when Karin Törnell joins the circle and line together in a hanging shape that actually shirks such decoding? The line and circle meet at a crossroads, in a Y that both separates and unites, eternally. But above all, both the material and the fixed interpretations break down here; the force of gravity acts as if the immovable hardness were a resilient, flexible resin – here, there is a swelling as if with blood, a sign of vitality; the light spills in and throws the abstractions aside. The sculpture contains a smile, an elegance and a sense of relaxation, a friendly reminder that the impossible is possible. Certainly glass cannot do that? But it does.Karin Törnell prefers to name her sculptures after the exhibition in which they are shown, each furnished with a number. And to allow the individual works to avoid definitive names while simultaneously preserving the connection to the time and space of the exhibition in which they are first shown. With this approach, a trace of the first appearance is preserved, but nothing more. From the very beginning, the sculptures are on a path away from the stamp that a name entails. It is up to the viewer to respond, perhaps with recognition. I have seen this before, and I remember.
Author, culture writer and playwright at the Royal Dramatic Theater.
His latest novel is Förföljarna [The Followers] (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2017)