In a duo exhibition on the sixth floor, Norrbotten artists Erling Johansson (b. 1932) and Olof Marsja (b 1986), both with their roots in the municipality of Gällivare albeit from different generations, share a generous and varied selection of works. Their cultural and linguistic affiliations find resonance in their art, illuminating also cultural complexity of the Norrbotten region. Meänkieli was Erling Johansson’s mother tongue, while he learned Swedish when attending elementary school. Growing up with the strong presence of laestadianism in his native village Sarvisvaara also influenced both person and work. Olof Marsja, likewise, is of a Sámi family, but is as well exposed to Swedish in schooling and in society-at-large, a dual heritage also identifiable in his art. Sharing as such both geographies and the experiences of multiple influences, Erling Johansson is a respected and much recognized veteran among visual artists from Norrbotten, with an artist career now extending across six decades, working in several media, including painting, film and public works. The much younger Olof Marsja – half a century between them – has in the last few years established himself as a resourceful and accomplished sculptor and object-maker.
Olof Marsja contributes a selection of recent sculptures, some of which are produced directly for this exhibition. Working as a maker of grafted, hybrid, amalgamated figures and objects, that blend treated or reworked materials with found things or discarded goods, all of which are processed, reassembled, and transformed into new entities or beings. In the digital era we are living today, Olof Marsja’s sculptures underline the critical potentiality of physical matter, of materials, and things. His sculptures ground the voice of the avatar of cyber culture with textures, shapes and the laws of gravity that characterize the physical earthly world.
Olof Marsja collects objects, materials, and allows them to transform, mutate into works of art in his studio. As he himself puts it: “There are things that I have carried with me for a long time and which are connected with my personal history, my Sami background. They are side by side with things that I have found in the ditch or on a shelf in a warehouse of construction materials.” Sami duodji materials, such as reindeer skin and ribbons, other animal hides sourced from relatives and friends, show up together with a pair of old runners and a Lidl plastic bag. Such found materials and objects are in turn combined with ingredients such as hand-blown glass, carefully carved wood or casted metal. In the meeting between these disparate and different things and elements, the individual stories—anecdotal, existential, personal, political—contributed by each component are joined and brought together in large anthropomorphic figures or smaller metaphorical objects. Using these different materials, crafts and techniques is for Marsja also a method for unsettling or undermining yet critical aesthetic categories such as good/bad, beautiful/ugly, contemporary/traditional, spiritual/physical, useful/useless, new/used, or finished/unfinished. As Marsja also notes: “I draw inspiration from my background in duodji, medieval art, popular culture and everyday life in the urban metropolis I live in.”
Ppez (made with an exquisite list of ingredients: glass, birch birl, linden wood, reindeer horn, aluminum, concrete, garbage can, tin can, stainless steel) is a new and central work from this year, serving here as an illustrious and representative example of the art of Olof Marsja. The artist describes the process as follows: “Ppez started with a nahppi (a milk bowl), a discarded craft attempt that I pursued during my time at the Sámi Education Center in 2007-2009. It returned to me in 2016, but now I saw it as a readymade. Which thus, like Duchamp’s pissoir, could be put to a different end and take up a new position. An abdomen then became visible, where previously there was a nahppi. And I began to think about a figure whose context had disappeared and who had lost his place on earth. Although the nahppi figure sat tired, helplessly staring at nothing, he nonetheless pointed to the landscape I now find myself in. And now he leans comfortably towards a garbage can with one foot resting on a head made of glass. As a kind of monument to a lost place and a lost context.”
The work process of Olof Marsja generates ambiguous and hybrid figures, made up of body parts, readymades and processed materials and objects, reworking their own landscapes of desire and meaning where boundaries and stable identities are constantly dissolved. The sculptures put forth a world that has grown out of the feeling of belonging neither here nor there. In fact, the characters of the sculptural figures take on roles and positions beyond the artist’s capacities or abilities. These are unruly bodies with diverse anatomies, embodying a variety of stories and experiences. Indeed, the work of Olof Marsja is an infinitely humorous and deadly serious exploration of identity and ways of being, in the past, present and the future.
Olof Marsja was born 1986 in Gällivare. He studied Konstfack University of Arts, Design and Crafts in Stockholm. In 2019, he was one of the Maria Bonnier Dahlin fellows. Marsja is represented in the Swedish Arts Council and the Maria Bonnier Dahlins Foundation. Olof Marsja has recently participated in exhibitions at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, Galleri Steinsland-Berliner, Berlin, Galleri Box, Gothenburg and Stenungsund Konsthall, Stenungsund.