Studio Visit: In Sweden with Malin Ståhl

Fainting (Spruce) Malin Stahl


Fainting (Spruce)  - Photograph courtesy of Malin Ståhl

Malin Ståhl is a Swedish artist based in Stockholm. She creates multi-layered narratives dealing with topics including landscape, art history and gender. Through performance, photography, and video she tells her stories using a cast of recurring characters - Miss Wedding, Death and Fratercula Arctica to name a few.

I first met Malin over ten years ago when we were both studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was on a semester exchange from the Iceland Academy of the Arts. We kept in touch over the years and it was my pleasure to catch up with her at an artist residency in Sweden last fall: the Artist Colony. You can read more about my time at the residency here. I'm excited to share Malin Ståhl's work here - read on for a Q&A about her work and inspirations. 

Rebecca Mir Grady: What drew you to performance art? As long as I’ve known you (over ten years now) you’ve been interested in the theatrical. Did you try out other ways of making before you found performance art?

Malin Ståhl: I started out in painting and then shifted into sculpture. There was a sort of performative element surrounding the creation and handling of the object that I found interesting. Gradually this made it possible for me to approach performance as a medium. I started doing performative acts for the camera and they became prints that I stored in a drawer as I didn’t know what to do with them.

Later on when I went to art school I found a platform for showing and talking about the performance work that I was doing. 

Malin Stahl Fainting (Spruce) 2


Fainting (Spruce) - Photograph courtesy of Malin Ståhl

RMG: Many of your performance works and videos have pastoral settings - in a field, at the water’s edge, the top of a mountain, in the forest, or on a stage. Does the expansiveness of space in more rural areas become the stage for you? Do you find it easier to work in spaces that are more removed from people?

MS: My practice revolves around the subjects of landscape, body and costume. I look at historical and cultural links, primarily between body and landscape but also between body and animal. I am interested in the overlap and connections between folklore, religion and science as well as the exigency for transgression that exist between these. 

A lot of my work is probing a relationship to a natural setting, the situation of being surrounded by nature. I think my work feeds off this relationship and I am not sure it could really exist without the scenery that these locations provide. I definitely find it easier to work in remote places where there is less human interference.

Death Waiting (dusk).jpg


Death Waiting (Dawn) - Photograph courtesy of Malin Ståhl

RMG: Your work has a large cast of characters, mostly played by you, and in some works other artists have re-imagined your characters. Your characters often reappear in different works. Is there a character that you've been working with the longest? Do you have a favorite character to play?

MS: For a long time my work centered around these characters that I invented. There were many clowns, and in a way I think of most of them as clowns even though this is less clear in some cases. The historical role of the clown is to be the mediator of feelings that are to large to contain and the clown will take these feeling upon himself and act them out and so relieve the original bearer. This idea of the too large feelings and the way these make someone act really fascinated me for a couple of years and I found inspiration in pop music and romantic movies.

Gradually I have left this cast of characters behind and it is now only the more stubborn of them that keep popping up in my work. One such character is Death which draws its inspiration from the historical depictions of death within Christianity, a skeleton man walking around and luring people to follow him.

Death Waiting (dusk)_photographer Elisabet Rydell-Janson.jpg

Death Waiting (Dusk) - Photograph by Elisabet Rydell-Jansen

RMG: Your work has a lot of magical and otherworldly undercurrents. Where does your interest in these themes come from? 

MS: People are getting further and further removed from having a relationship with nature, and rarely do we feel a personal dependency on nature. It is not long ago that we were fully dependent on nature and then we were also close to myths and folklore. These phenomena that have become quaint appearances were once very real within peoples belief systems. This really fascinates me.

In my work these references function as a mediation of the unknown qualities within the landscape that surrounds us. On a larger scale they also function as symbols for the hope that anything can happen, which ties back to my past interest in girls culture.

RMG: You mentioned that you have made many of your works in and around Duved and Åre, Sweden. What is it about this place that makes it such great place to work?

MS: I have a very strong relationship to the area having spent a significant part of my childhood and youth skiing and hiking in the mountains there. I somehow feel a personal affiliation with the snow, the trees and the shape of the landscape, still much in the way a child would relate to the territory of their play, a sort of unspoken territory. I used to know the exact look and feel and smell of the moss and lichen on the ground. Now I know it from a perspective that is based more in memory than in a direct relationship and I want to insert my art into that situation.


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The cabin in Duved, Sweden 

RMG: When you’re not in Duved, where is your studio?

MS: I have a studio in Stockholm where I live. I use the studio to research and make sketches for new work. I make costumes, paintings and props for my pieces and this is also where I edit and produce the videos which often are the result of the interventions into the landscape.

RMG: How do you develop your performances? Do they start with an idea? Or a costume? Or a setting? Which usually comes first? 

MS: My performances often start with an idea. This idea is usually coming out of a visual impression, or something I read about and then imagine what it would look like. Most often I am inspired by ideas about the organization of the world in different situations, contexts and times. This might often be expressed through the body and the way the body is poised through times and ideas. Things that inspire me, that ticks my imagination or make me find these connections are often depictions of characters in myths and folklore, historical dance performances and contemporary fashion editorials in magazines.

Forest of Trees Malin Stahl

The Forest of Trees - Photograph courtesy of Malin Ståhl

RMG: What are you working on now?

MS: Right now I am in the process of working on a new performance piece that will be show in Åre this year. It will center around the process of making ice cream and the role unicorns play in that.