by Gilda Davidian

I don’t remember how I first encountered Helena Kvarnstrom’s work, but I know it was on LiveJournal close to a decade ago. Helena has a way of getting as close to the source of what she is looking at as possible. There is a push and pull in her work – a rawness, solitude, beauty and intensity – that makes it hard to look away.

Hi Helena! What is it about photography that works for you? What about it doesn’t work for you? Photography lets me make the kind of images I want. I used to paint and draw, that’s what I went to art school for at first, but then I started doing photography and I never drew or painted again. It is not generally the kind of work that interests me most when other people make it, but when it does affect me I think it can affect me more than other mediums, except maybe music. Like Sally Mann’s landscapes, I look at them and there can’t be anything better than that, there is nothing you could paint or sculpt that could make me feel that way. However, photography is expensive and it depends on practical limits. I don’t have regular darkroom access. I can’t get 40 women together on a cliff in Iceland (although I guess I haven’t really tried). I am not a very technically proficient photographer because it has not interested me, but I am starting to want to become one.

Who are some artists whose work you love at the moment and why? I’ve loved Jenny Holzer since I was sixteen years old, but I just saw an exhibit at DHC/ART in Montreal recently and even though I had seen it before at the Whitney it was an entirely different experience because it was completely empty and the spaces were much smaller. The Lustmord tables and For Chicago are some of the most incredible things in the world, the way it makes me feel so uncomfortable, disrupts comforting ideas I have about collective trauma. It makes me feel unsafe, not in the world, but in my relationships. I can’t think of any other artist who has dealt with sexual violence in such a way, a way that is so much more complicated than identification, a way that isn’t representing a singular narrative but reminding you of your multiple relationships to violence and its constant threat. After I saw it I wrote:
“For Chicago is the worst, especially if you are looking at it with a man, especially a man you want to believe is good. I have talked about it with one of my friends sometimes, how watching violence against women with men makes you feel like they might have secrets you will never know, makes you feel vulnerable to them, small and ashamed, makes you resent and dislike them even only for a few minutes but sometimes for much longer, makes you angry and become so aware of your difference. Sometimes it makes you think ‘you are so safe, you will never ever know. sometimes I hate you for it, like right now.’ You wonder what they are thinking about you, what this does to them.”

What have you been listening to lately? Today I was listening to Robert Palmer. Smog. Bruce Springsteen. The new Antony and the Johnsons record is beautiful, but it doesn’t have a song to really cry your eyes out to, which is most of the reason you listen to Antony and the Johnsons.

Tell us a story from your childhood. When I was nine years old I had a chameleon. We had had them as class pets and I had convinced my mom to let me bring mine home. The chameleon disappointed me because it didn’t really change colours very much. I had been expecting it to turn yellow and purple and orange and instead it was just a tiny bit more green or a tiny bit less green and I might have been imagining even that. But I’d never had a pet before so I overlooked it. I fed it mealworms that I kept in the refrigerator. Unfortunately for both me and the chameleon this happened at a time when my grandfather was taking care of me because my sister was at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Boston and my parents lived there with her. She walked on her weak and skinny legs with her IV stand down the hallways and every meal included Jell-o. The hospital smelled a certain way, she brought it with her when she came home. I even liked it. Anyway, my grandfather made me cooked broccoli every day after school and he didn’t know anything about chameleons. Neither did I. So I didn’t give it any water because I assumed lizards didn’t drink water since they lived in the desert and where would they find water there? It dehydrated and died, it was dry as paper. It’s very hard to know if a chameleon is dead because they don’t move very much. We buried it in the front yard of our house and I still feel so guilty about that chameleon.

Thank you, Helena!