Dolk in dialogue
Interviewed by curator Bjørn Inge Follevaag
Dolk is an alias. Where does it come from?
I have several versions of this, but the official one is that I used to work with scalpels on my stencils and I wanted the symbol of a knife to represent me, hence the alias Dolk – the norwegian word for dagger.
How did you take up street art?
My first experience was in Melbourne, where I studied graphic design. At the time, Melbourne was the capital of street art. During my final year of studies, I spent two days a week at the Academy and the rest of the time I spent cutting stencils in my room. My first encounter with the medium was when I saw a street artist called Rone cutting a stencil – a boom-blaster. It seemed so simple. When he copied it onto a wall, I was impressed, but it took a long time before I was able to make something similar. What attracted me to stencil graffiti was the rough, unpolished visual expression. This was back in 2003, and most of the work I’ve done since has been stencil-based. It is interesting to see how everything is a coincidence. I remember the second time I was doing an illegal stunt with a mate of mine; a stencil of a banana in a striped pyjamas sprinting along the wall. Basically, it was only a test. We started spraying, but when you shake the can the ball inside makes a lot of noise. Suddenly a guy comes out of the house, grabs us and asks us what we’re doing. He looks at the piece and says “I love it!. This is my place and I run a nightclub here”. Instead of beating us up, he invited us in, and asked me to decorate his club.
How long did it take before people started noticing your works?
The street art community is very small and, as a matter of fact, it didn’t take long before people noticed what I was doing. I made a couple of pieces that stood out, like “I’m your father”. I was no particular fan of Star Wars but it obviously struck a chord among the public.
I went on to working with multi-layered stencils. Sometimes up to twenty layers. I wanted to do something nobody else had done, and kept producing works like these for about a year; totally absorbed with the process, and working night and day. After a while, however, it became too graphic and I decided to go back to producing black, one-layered, stencils. All you need in order to make a wall stand out is a good concept. So I devoted most of my time to focusing on the idea. Gradually the quality of the stencils and ideas improved. Everything I do has layers upon layers of ideas and significance behind it. A seemingly innocent image often has many different meanings behind it. My ambition was to communicate directly to the public. When I see my works on the street or in a gallery, I assume that if I find them interesting other people might as well.
So now you´re a graphic design dropout with ambitions?
I wanted to be famous for my work and somehow
I felt I would be. At the time, Banksy was becoming hot on the scene, and seeing how he was emerging as the most important street artist on the planet, I sensed an opportunity. In many ways, he paved the way for me, as an inspiration, but also as a symbol of mainstream acceptance. I emailed him some of my works and he liked them. He included me in his Pictures On Walls (POW) project. A lot of people thought I was doing rip-offs of his works, but after looking at them he was very clear on our differences. Actually, he gave me the confidence to ignore all the flak I was given as a Banksy rip-off artist.
POW became my way to semi-fame. Not financially, but in terms of acceptance. Suddenly I was among the fifteen artists he included in this project. But POW had a commercial angle whereas my imagery gradually changed in a more conceptual direction.
I returned to Bergen, connected with an investor, and he established Handmade Posters. This gave me the opportunity to work freely with my own concepts. I had no desire to go back to graphic design and pulled out of POW.
I began to work with ideas closer to my heart.
I wanted my works to appear simple, but none of them are. Every piece I make has multiple layers. For better or worse, my works are imbued with observations and references whether the public notices or not. My main concern is the manner in which I express these references. Every person who looks at my work has a personal opinion. I draw inspiration from all walks of life. If all you want is surface, that’s fine, but my ambition is to make people aware of all the underlying substances.
My artistic freedom is essential. My relationship to Handmade Posters has been a constant for many years and has given me the opportunity to work with concepts that are important to me.
My work process revolves around a constant search for new ideas.
In my search for visual expressions of my ideas, every stone is turned. If you look closely enough, you will find gold. I am very systematic in my search for themes and visual expressions, and very systematic in my search. I spend a lot of time thinking. That is perhaps the most important aspect of my production. I may have hundreds of ideas, but only one of them may end up as an actual work. When I find a theme I want to investigate I am willing to sacrifice. Art for me is where I search, and all I search for. My life is my art and without art I am nothing. I have no regrets that I have chosen art above all else. Nothing I have done has been simple, and I have never received grants or public support, nor have I applied for such support. This mentality has been an integral part of my artistic practise.
Yet you are visible through all your international projects and travel a lot. With all this travelling, who commissions your works?
Every trip I’ve made and every stencil I’ve produced I’ve paid for myself. The fact that my works can be seen in cities all over the world, is because I’ve loved to travel and have a need to be noticed, whilst the anonymity I cherish is based on shifting focus from the artist to the art. It is nice to see how this gives the people who see my art an opportunity to find personal references without filtering them through a name or a face.
One of your major public work projects has been painting on abandoned farms and houses in Northern Norway…
The concept in Lofoten was an idea from a fellow street artist; Pøbel. He had been to Lofoten a year before and asked me if I would like to join him. We worked on this project for three years on and off, since we could only afford to stay there for short periods at a time. The works have become iconic, and are based on an artistic collaboration between the two of us. All the owners gave us permission to work on their properties. One of the pieces I did was the mushroom girl. It took several days to finish the 10x5 metres stencil, cutting it directly on the wall. This project included about 20 different houses in the region.
You have had several public commissions, of which «Prisoner» at Halden prison is probably the most proliferated internationally. But you also mentioned a recent commission from Ålborg in Denmark?
The project in Ålborg probably confirmed that I’m still an outsider, or want to be an outsider. I was given total freedom in terms of expression and the commissioner probably thought I would make her a massive stencil. But, as I was considering the wall, I decided to do something entirely different and covered the entire wall in a huge square of paint – a “buff”. Buffing is the process of covering unwanted graffiti with paint. But quite often the buffing increases the volume of the graffiti in an unconscious way, a symbol of censorship. I made the buff with grey spray paint, covering nothing-
a symbol of freedom as I saw it. The commissioner did not understand my concept. I can relate to that, but somehow this project triggered a new sensation. It spurred a process and development, which was interesting. When you cover an image with a new layer of paint, or pretends too in this case, it becomes a symbol of power as well as a symbol of powerlessness, censorship and rebellion.
What happened when you took the step from the street to the gallery?
I have worked with canvases consistently since 2004. In effect, my canvas has never only been the urban landscape. The production of posters has continued since 2006, yet, personally, I’ve always felt that the streets and areas of urban decay have been my main gallery. In 2011 I was invited to present my street art in a fancy gallery space.
How did it feel to enter fine art’s hallowed space?
Exciting and interesting, but incredibly serious. Somehow it was also the recognition I had been searching for. I suddenly felt more important than just a street artist. My work became important to other people beside myself. The exhibition was a great success and demonstrated that there was an interest in my work beyond the street.
In 2013 I had my second solo exhibition, this time in my hometown Bergen, at Galleri S.E. The works in the exhibition became a turning point in my career.
The installation of the musk ox on top of 2 slot-machines is based on an observation of a guy who was striking the side of a slot machine in a shopping mall, an act of frustration over loosing money.
I wanted to take this action into a new setting, putting the Ox in his place, to illustrate how primitive this action really is. Of course the Ox doesn´t not know what he is doing, but that might be said about the man as well. These sculptures are the basis of a new form of expression. They made me decide to expand my artistic practise.
For me, this was a huge leap, since the amount of work involved is massive. I realised that I needed help from others to make these visions come to life, and that something important was about to happen in my life.
This brings us to your present works; the Rip-off series. Where did you find inspiration and why do you use staples?
An outdoor message board, where you see the staples and paper strips left from posters, is like an abstract work of art. It is fragments of life, of human activity, posted and re-posted in an eternal cycle. For me, the message board became a separate work of art. A message-board is also a form of censorship; planned, natural or involuntary. Postings come and go continuously. What if all posters were black? Like an anarchistic rebellion, where competing forces rip off each other’s postings? Black squares symbolizing an eternal cycle of censorship and rebellion.
I like the dichotomy of being both rebel and authority. I am the agent, censor and initiator in these projects, and thereby in complete control of the sequence of events. The works take time to complete. One work may be a month’s work. Initially the works were a process of trial and error, but gradually the project found its shape as my sense of colours and patterns developed. In order to make things work, I need time to see these structures and patterns.
The first work was a collage of strips of paper in multiple colours. That is how it started, but it took a long time before I was able to produce artworks based on this scenario. I try to «paint» with paper and a stapler.
Among your stapled works there seem to be three distinct expressions. One is the Rip-off Masters series where colour, composition and elements from the masters are more or less visible. Then you have a series of abstract landscapes based on different coloured paper and finally those where you have painted over the paper and the staples.
The most advanced form of censorship is the one that removes all traces. The form remains the same, but the essence and lustre of the underlying work has been removed. Those works have a different softness to them, but I like all three expressions. I have also chosen to leave some areas of the work untouched, creating a composition where the empty space becomes the essential space. The single-coloured Rip Off works in this exhibition is another experiment into the use of staples and paper. As opposed to the Rip-off Masters series these are entirely my own.
In my Rip-off Masters series I try to search for the DNA of the masters that have inspired me along the way. What happens when you look at their use of colour? Or, what happens when you dismantle a work and rearrange it by using staples? I try to find the essence of their use of colours, a process which has been both exciting and rewarding. Rip-off is a form of theft or an appropriation. It is also an action where you staple a poster to a board and then rip it down afterwards.
It is fascinating to see how you move from figurative to abstract. What triggered this transition?
This is a process that has been going on for many years. I no longer felt a desire to work with stencils. That part of my life is on hold. Everybody wanted stencils, except me. I had outgrown them. I searched for an opportunity to express all my artistic concepts without choosing a particular category. I somehow also felt my ideas were no longer mine and found them increasingly hard to express in new works. Then I decided to listen to my own inner voice. I had many ideas, hundreds of them. I needed to do something with the ideas that went beyond the format of the stencil. I investigated techniques, materials, colours, compositions and expressions. The expression changed, and became much more advanced when I considered the surfaces, light, reflection, the absence of recognition and the tools I had at my disposal. More than anything, I work conceptually. If I need to include a line, the line needs to be justified. What I really dream about is to re-invent the line. The references are already there.
A lot of my work today is sculptural. Even the canvas has somehow become sculptural. Physical actions or interventions – the performance – is a natural element in my artistic process.
This brings us back to your whole artistic career which is, in essence, the performance, and how you move the performance from street level to studio…..
For me, a lot revolves around my use of materials and fitting them to my purpose. One part of the process is the craftsmanship involved. When I order a «canvas» made of lacquered aluminium, I ask for perfection on all levels. When I scratch them up it is an affront to the people who have gone to extreme lengths to satisfy my demands.
I find this provocation very interesting. What they have spent days and weeks to bring to perfection I destroy through a singular action and thereby, as I see it, make it perfect. My inspiration in these works is the car. The painted stripes are inspired by logos from vans and lorries where the owners have used many different colours to make them stand out.
We have discussed how you damage a perfect object in a performance, and then attempts to repair it, unsuccessfully.
As I see it, the scratches created by the key is what makes the work whole. I fix it by destroying it. What remains is the artwork as a mind-map. How do I address problems? What would it look like if I chose the worst possible approach? I want to investigate these kinds of issues further. I have several projects in which I discuss the process of repair. The process of repairing, also on a human level, fascinates me. Trying to repair objects we treasure is a characteristic of our materialism. I don’t discuss the car or the key as such, but rather who we are and how we see ourselves. And how we are mirrored in the surface. And everything I do refers to some form of poetry.
The disturbance created by scratching is a strategic choice, and conceptually it is perfect. It adds life. I have chosen to work with the perfect metallic finish we find on cars. There is nothing as boring as a polished human surface. Like in my work, the scars and imperfections are what makes them interesting.
How do people respond to your new works?
They seem to fall into three categories; those who immediately love it, those who think they get it, and those who are not interested at all.
I assume the response to the Rip-on and Rip-off series are somewhat different? Is Rip-off perhaps more user friendly?
I think people see much more work going into the Rip-off series with all the staples, thereby making it more “art”. They see the other works as simpler, even though they are not. Like I mentioned before some of my “easiest” works are actually the most complex. What I strive for is to reach an audience that is intuitively touched by the works. I know what these works are, and I want my audience to understand how much more timeless and interesting they are compared to my earlier works. In the Rip-on series the underlying layers are more subtle. Like the key. A key is supposed to open something up, and in this case I really have. I have opened up a door to a new artistic direction, using the key as my tool. I have created the ultimate line, a line inspired by the most provoking vandalism that exists, keying. The word is used in the graffiti world and means scratching up a car with a key. This act is often based on jealousy or hate, and I find it interesting to do this to my own work.
To control the line with the intent of creating something beautiful, taken out of its context and thereby owning the concept. I have included a perfect, red cube with white stripes in a corner of the exhibition. The only imperfection is a scratch across one of its corners. It is also based on the car/lacquer theme. The stripes come from typical racing design and the colour is Ferrari red. In this work, a large three-dimensional form, keying takes on a new role and expression. This is closely related to the original idea of scratching a car. The cube rotates in order to emphasize its originality, similar to how a new car model would be presented at a fair. On the human level, scars are also often caused by external factors. Scars can run deep and penetrate all the layers of lacquer and varnish into a person’s core. These are all factors I have taken into consideration before I made the works.
In my future works, I want to develop the aspect of layers. This has always been a consistent part of my artistic production, and there are many ways to approach the phenomenon. It is probably not groundbreaking, but I seem to have found a way to work around it.
You seem to consistently use graffiti terminology
Rip-off and Rip-on, Buffing and Keying is taken from this terminology. “Rip on/rip off” refers to a scam in which smugglers slip illicit goods into containers and retrieve them before customs inspection.
I thought it suited my concept perfectly since I will change the whole exhibition midway. Smuggling in my own work and giving the audience something they did not except. Rip-off, on its own, is self-explanatory, whereas Rip-on is slang for criticism. The criticism in this case is a form of vandalism; scratching perfectly lacquered surfaces.
In Rip-off I paint with paper and in Rip-on I draw with a key. I scratch a perfect surface and then cover the scratches with a new layer of paint that doesn’t quite match the original. I work with people’s need for perfection, and how we try to repair or fix things, yet the scars or marks always remain. The beautiful end result is that perfection is never perfect, and that the surface or image we present doesn’t really reveal who we are. My work may seem very masculine, but it isn’t. I work with themes relating to posing, mirroring and reflections. In my work I try to portray some of the characteristics we all share.
It comes from the street, our environment and from a shared experience.
You mentioned that you currently draw inspiration from five separate artists; who are they?
Nina Beier, Tauba Auerbach, Keltie Ferris, Harmony Korine and Sterling Ruby. What I love about these artists is their insane precision. They know exactly what they are doing and it is like a punch to the stomach. Harmony Korine is a genius on so many levels, I was a great fan of his movies and when I saw his paintings I could not believe how good they were. His «Raiders» exhibition almost made me hate him because it was so amazing. I will probably never afford one of his paintings and that really bugs me.
You seem to constantly challenge your own perceptions?
I am not afraid to challenge my own works.
Nor am I afraid to test or to question what works or not. I had one work which was sold in the gallery before they knew I had painted over it. This was a work that took a month to produce. So no, I’m not afraid. I always look for new answers.
What is art and how does my own art change the way I see things. I am uncompromising in that art is what I live for. The art I make is more important than much else in my life. My ambition is to be in constant artistic development, and even talking about it now makes this purpose clearer for me.
In this exhibition, you have chosen to invite people to see the Rip-on works first and then halfway through the exhibition you present your Rip-off works.
I wanted to present an urban expression in this show. Both projects originate from the streets. I did this to break free, with two different formats that are vaguely related. What I am telling the audience, is that they will never know what to expect from me. This new expression is something I had to do. I was ready for a shift in my artistic career. I am ready for new challenges and I want to bring the audience on a journey.
One essential part of this is my need to analyse reality. I try to always be on the edge, and to seek out new challenges.
One of my most ambitious projects would be to produce a work with a hearse, with coffin and flowers inside, and a rip on the car. I want to make people wonder what has happened. I want to question everything about it. Is this a statement for or against death? Or has it to do with the dead person inside? I want to leave the key next to the installation and question the untouchable. Nothing is more untouchable than a hearse. To key it would be considered a most disrespectful act by us all. That triggers me.
This is all about the art I make today. This is my first gallery show as I see it, and the abstract/conceptual expression allows the public much more freedom to interpret the works.
Two of the works in this exhibition have holes cut through them, making them appear almost sculptural.
These are my most recent works, and bring my concept to the next level. They connect my past with the present by drawing the line back to my stencil works and merge into my new rip on series. I laser-cut the aluminium and use the whole as a stencil. Then I spray-paint through the stencil, leaving paint on the surface of the painted aluminium as well as on the gallery wall. It becomes three-dimensional. I then scratch the surface of the artwork to produce that final connection. It is all about different cycles and different elements, and about the tools I use. It is a sculpture, but also a painting. It is a performance and at the same time just a wall-piece.
It is scruffy, and not entirely perfect, but still it creates a totality that turned out much better than I imagined.
Normally you would do a performance in, as you call it, an invisible space, away from others, while the performance format is generally a very public and visible art form.
It takes a lot of courage to physically attack and destroy something perfect. But this total lack of respect is something I want to achieve. It is all about daring to go up against something insurmountable. It was strange to have people watching while I worked. All the Rip-On´s were made in the gallery. It was only three persons, but still.
You work in large formats more suitable to institutions than private homes.
I believe all artists dream of large formats. To me, almost all great artworks are large. It is all about where I want to go, and what I want to do. I want my art to be monumental and slightly frightening - appealing, but also a little scary. That’s art I find highly attractive.