Helena Petersen Interview

Helena Petersen is the winner of the 7th ARTWARD artist-in-residence prize. At the end of last year she travelled to Brussels to work in the loftspace of collector Alain Servais. We asked her about her experiences during the residency, which was also effected by the attacks in Paris in November 2015.

How are things goindg in Brussels, Helena?

Did you come to Brussels with a concrete idea that you wanted to realize here
No. I was looking for space in an inspirational environment. Brussels, as a provocative city with many fractures and an exciting art scene really attracted me. And in the huge spaces of Alan’s loft, to live and be able to work, in the midst of his art collection, freed from the responsibilities and duties of daily life, seemed to me like the right place.

Your Pyrographies are always produced at the shooting range, which Alain Servais’ loft can’t really offer you… Could you tell us how your working processes are usually and how you work in Brussels?
It really is the case that my work is created outside the studio. The projects generally ripen over a long period of time. For my research I spend time in libraries, in contemporary, arcgaeological or natural history museums, in bin ich in Bibliotheken, in zeitgenössischen-, archäologischen- oder Naturkundemuseen, in observatories, or in the natural environment. Often I combine this process with ‘research trips’. Often the projects arise with the help of contributors, like the owner of the shooting range with the pyrographies, or forensic specialists and vulcanologists with one of my latest pieces. The last step is then the realization in the photo lab.

With Brussels it’s different. The residency provides a distance from my familiar surroundings. Apart from many good exhibitions, performances and the Amsterdam Artweekend, I spend a lot of time in the loft. I use the quiet and the time to think about what I’m working on, to broaden the work, to project it. I try new things, write about the work, and all of this with the space to walk up and down. A free space with a lot of distance for reflection. Alain’s critical observations from the view of a collector, lead again and again to constructive discussions and new questions when we visit exhibitions together.

After the Paris attacks in November, Brussels, being the place where the suspects lived, was in a very particular situation. How did you experience this? Has it influenced your work?
I experienced it all from close up. Because I visited ParisPhoto, I was in the city up to the evening of the attacks, also close to the locations shortly before, and I was even on the metro with German football fans. When in the night I found out, it hit me hard and I spent the following days and nights staring stunned at the live news feed, while the wail of the sirens in Brussels grew ever louder. Police, controls, eventually heavily armed soldiers with tanks and the lockdown that went on for days. In a city under suspicion of housing terrorists, where shops, restaurants, cinemas, museums and the subway all shut in the middle of the day, it quickly becomes quiet and empty, really unsettling. But basically, the daily freedoms were strongly limited, with no possibilities for recreation and true freedom of movement, and this seemed at least as unsettling as the rest. In my neighborhood Schaerbeek there was, however, no real noticeable change. In retrospect this seems deceptive because I recently found out that one of the terrorists that they were looking for was apparently hiding in a house one street away.

Whether this situation has influenced my work is hard to say so soon after the event. The pictures, videos and stories of those that survived the Paris attacks and those left behind, have etched themselves deeply, especially all the sheets covering the dead. The feeling of living in a city that fears an imminent terror attack also leaves its mark. Emotionally and visually I make reference to a lot of impressions which, after a certain gestation time, I reencounter in my work, at least in the form of impulses when not directly. As far as content goes, it is exactly this subject matter that causes me pain or feelings of empathy. Violence and injury, also by way of weapons, are constantly recurring themes in my work, even if usually in a way that is subtle or hidden. The arbitrary brutality in Paris is what stays with me most.

Your depictions make a strong impression. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Can you tell us already how yours plans are looking for 2016?
I have a lot planned. There are a number of big projects that I’d like to finish this year. I’m planning to travel for work, to Ecuador, Naples and to the Ruhrgebiet where, the coal mines continue to occupy me. There are a number of exhibitions coming up.

And to finish: What should one absolutely not miss on a trip to Brussels? Do you have a tip for the future ARTWARD artist-in-residence winners?
Certainly going for walks. It’s the best way of seeing the city’s fractures. The mood and atmosphere can change radically from one street to the next. There are beautiful parks and squares that are very hidden, and you discover them best on foot, especially in Schaerbeek. At www.neca.be you can find an overview of all of the private views and exhibitions. The off-space La Société in Molenbeek was interesting. Alongside the galleries around the Place de Salon you also shouldn’t miss the many chocolate shops. Passion Chocolat is particularly worth a visit.

Many thanks for the interview and good luck with all of your upcoming projects!
Interview: A.R.