“Brave & pathetic is better than drowning in shame”. Josefin Arnell on the pain, anxiety & control of a life lived

, 26 October 2018

“I always say it’s because I’m a Gemini”, writes Josefin Arnell via email about her film and performance collaborations with the likes of Natasja Loutchko, Aapo Nikkanen, and Margaret Haines. Others include Pauline Curnier Jardin, Geo Wyeth and Dorine van Meel, as well as Max Göran (“Gemini too”) under the name of ‘HellFun’. “We wanted to make a forest porno and since then we try to go under the motto: Brave and pathetic is better than drowning in shame.” The series of works acts as a soap opera making Arnell and Göran, “the proud parents of two abortions that at the same time are ourselves,” she says about the two artist’s fraught relationship with the world. “They were aborted from Florentina Holzinger‘s stomach during our first public film shoot ‘Walpurgis Knight in 2015’. We have since parented many children, born from surrogate mothers and developed from our eggs and sperm. We also have a childcare business where all the surrogate children have grown up called ‘FFF – Born to be free. (Föräldra Fritt Forever (Free From parents Forever)’.”

Josefin Arnell & Margaret Haines, Sister said to Satan: my diary is too hot for you (2018). Installation view. Photo by Manuela Barczewski. Courtesy Auto Italia, London.

Now showing as part of the Complex Realities group exhibition at Berlin’s 3hd Festival 2018:System.Lure, running October 23 to 27, Arnell’s most recent film ‘Den blomster tid nu kommer (Now the time of blossoming arrives)’ (2018) is a continuation of an ongoing project featuring her mother (aka Mothership) as they playfully explore their relationship and roles surrounding addiction, illness and family. It takes its title from the Swedish hymn sung at schools before the summer break, its lyrics referring to maternity and life. “[It’s] about the rotten grass that gets born only to then again die,” says Arnell, “I think it’s a fun film and it was fun to make.” The film is just one of a vast body of work that could be described as a surreal and intense examination of human fragility, delivered with a humour typical to that of a person most vulnerable to it.

**Your work is located and grows out of your own experiences — never more explicitly than with ‘Mothership Goes to Brazil’ where we follow you and your mother on a pilgrimage to the Brazilian spiritual healer John of God. You go in the hope that he will cure her addiction to alcohol. Can you tell us more about the making of that work — how was it working with your mum, and what was your interest in John of God?

JA: I discovered John of God when I learned about psychic surgery from Jodorowsky’s books. It’s kind of hardcore healing where he performs both spiritual and physfical surgery, meaning he will cut you up with a knife if he needs to (Oprah Winfrey and Marina Abramovic are big fans). Around the same time my mom was turning 60, so it was a perfect gift — to lure her with a trip to Brazil and therefore into a film where both she and John of God would be fictional characters. I knew my mom would be a stunning actress cos she is one of the most hilarious people I know. Her jokes are nasty and she often cracks them in unsuitable situations. Really it started as a kind of revenge, for all the times I felt miserable as a result of her addiction, it is such an emotionally infectious disease and it carries so much shame and shit for the rest of the family.

The economic aspect of medical tourism and spirituality and John of God’s fame also interests me. I think we were both shocked when we arrived at the casa cos many of the people there had come as their last shot once conventional medicine had failed them and some were ready to die while others were just rich and so had come there anyhow. Many people get cured and just stay there forever, while others think it’s a scam and leave. The ones who stay often get initiated, and begin to work on new visitors for donations.

I believe in most stuff but my mom was harder to convince, eventually we decided to just go 100 per cent in. But when we arrived everything just fell to shit cos John of God had an intestine infection and had to be hospitalised. All the belief we had built up crashed. We never met him, instead we spent time with our guide that we had already paid for. It was a package that included personal spiritual guidance, a hotel and trips to special healing waterfalls. We left to go to a really cool treehouse in the jungle, where I felt free but mom felt it was like a prison. We saw a black poison snake and decided to leave early from there too. It was a sticky trip on all levels.

To work with my mom is like exorcism. It’s painful and it’s a way for me to heal and to dig my way out of the mess. We use humour to survive it. I have continued to make work with her, I guess you, scarily enough, can say she is my muse. For example, at the moment I’m developing my first feature film together with Natasja Loutchko. It’s a film about confronting and empowering our mothers both of whom are addicted. It’s a blessing and so much more fun to work with another artist and an additional mom. It’s a soap opera documentary with thriller elements set in the rural countryside of Sweden where we ask our mothers to explore their fantasy selves.


**I watched ‘Mothership Goes to Brazil’ alongside ‘Gag Reflex’ during your recent show at London’s Auto Italia gallery. I was totally drawn in by the hyper, barfing trio who come out with these really anxious statements. The control or purification, gained this time through purging and laughing, seems much more liberating than with ‘Mothership’. I get the sense that we’re all a bit fucked so let’s just find a way to live with it. Is that the intention? And can you also talk us through some of the (gag reflex) images used in the short text you presented for ‘Sister said to Satan’?

JA: I guess you’re referring to the collection of found images of puking teens that goes with the text. They are vulnerable and gross situations. Often puking is the body’s way of telling you that it has had enough, you pushed it too far. It’s a cleanse, it’s such a powerful body movement. In the work ‘Gag reflex / I wanna puke in heaven’ it is more about wanting to master this powerful body reflex. Just like eating disorders, it’s about taking control or even taking advantage of the only resources that you truly own: your body. In a way the work also plays and pushes the glorifications around eating disorders to its limits. Yes it’s a good conclusion; we are all a bit fucked and we don’t give a fuck anymore, a kind of rejection to just turn yourself inside out and to puke on everything. Yes it’s liberating. But also that intentions are so easy to manipulate, something sweet can easily just likewise be rotten. Together with positive affirmations and laughter the characters confirm for themselves that puking is a great idea. The affirmations are inspired from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, I love her books.

**Can you tell us about ‘I’m in the Mood for Love’ — the six hour long public film shoot for FLAM (Forum of Live Art Amsterdam). What is it like to shoot a performance in that way and what are you planning to do with the footage?

JA: You think six hours is a long time but we still didn’t manage to do everything that we wanted to. We didn’t have a rehearsal so it took time for the performers to get into character. ‘HellFun’ are such worried, control freaks that it actually helps when we perform as directors and have a time limit cos then we just have to trust and do it.

In preparation for the shoot, ‘HellFun’ went to Hydra island in Greece to pump our libido by killing and eating an octopus. It can be seen in the film ‘I’m in the mood for love — The Vacation’ which also includes a scene with pregnant people shot in my bedroom. It was probably the most uncomfortable ‘HellFun’ I’ve ever encountered.

Except for the ‘…The Vacation’ piece, we’ve only shown the footage from the public shoot a couple of times as a kind of VJ performance with live voiceovers. At some point we might make a film too.


**Finally, congratulations on winning the Theodora Niemeijer prize! I read that you intend on making a giant B-movie like monster tick with the money. How does the language of horror and sci-fi relate to your interests in individual trauma and perfectionism? How does the experience of the individual manifest at a social or global scale?

JA: Thank you. I’m actually making a giant tick sculpture that people can ride on and I’m working with a local girls’ choir who are gonna sing Avril Lavigne songs for an accompanying soundtrack. I want to present a kind of horror scenario where the ticks have taken over the world and want to infect us all with viruses. It’s Mother Earth’s way of giving back all the shit that we as humans have caused her. I mean this horror is a reality. The work talks about how sensitive we as humans are to environmental changes and that the increasingly common fear of being bitten by a tick is a consequence of our disastrous actions, one that creates a kind of separation between us and nature. Many people are so scared of getting bitten and infected by a tick that the few times that they manage to get out into nature they can’t relax. It’s sad.

The viruses that ticks can spread, such as lyme disease, are really nasty and the symptoms can drive you crazy. We asked [US reality TV star] Yolanda Hadid if she’d like to do something for the opening night. As a sufferer, she works to raise awareness around lyme disease. She even wrote a book in which she shares her story with the often mysterious and invisible virus. I hope she can come or at least reply our email. I’m very excited to make a sculpture.

**I was going to ask what your directorial influences are but actually, maybe I should ask instead what horror or sci-fi you’ve been watching recently?

JA: Once as a teenager I watched a horror ‘The Dentist’ and weirdly enjoyed it. And I recently watched the Swedish film ‘Thriller — en grym film’ which apparently is the inspiration behind Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’. I wish I never seen it. Otherwise, I never really watch horror films, I’m too much of a chicken… maybe my work is terror enough.**

Josefin Arnell is now showing at the Complex Realities group exhibition as part of 3hd 2018: System.Lure at Studio 1 of Berlin’s Kunstquartier Bethanien, running October 23 to 27, 2018.