Interview with Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson
Interview with Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson, November 2012, published in ‘Phantom Of The Factory‘ Issue XY29.
“What are you doing?”
“That’s a very personal question”
Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson is a 35 year old Icelandic sound and visual artist who’s most well known for his confusing, funny and absurd performances.
Can I see your performances as an absurd form of stand-up comedy?
I have heard this before, that is: people refering to my performances as being stand-up comedy. Well, to me it´s weird because that was never my intention. But I don´t think of it as a negative or a bad thing, if people think so that’s fine by me. And it all depends on where I perform, if I perform for example at a “respectable” art museum only a handful of people dare to laugh, as there it´s looked upon as an art performance, and at clubs or rock venues people laugh usually near towards the end when they don´t know how to react on it anymore. I prefer actually the art museums and galleries to perform at because of two things, that is the atmosphere is usually dry, you know, white walls, naked bright lights, people small talking and just having a few glasses of wine with art works all around them, and people seem more focused on the performance than at the bar or club venues where you have people maybe dead drunk trying to interact with the performance and that can make me bored with the whole thing and just wanting to leave the stage… It still hasn´t happened yet, but it nearly has, usually I hear people telling this one guy who´s babbling and interfering to shut up, which sometimes can be nice for the whole scenario.
Your performances are almost Andy Kaufman-like.
In Germany one wrote that I was the next Andy Kaufman, and another one wrote that it was stand-up comedy for intellectuals, one wrote me a mail after a performance saying “Why doing these performances? People will never understand, they will never get it!”, and once in France a guy said the performance had similar effect on him as an LSD trip does etc… I have heard quite a lot of things, and I understand all these things people tell about my performances but yet what does it mean? I don´t know… For me I do these things as they are very natural to me, I have been performing all my life, since I was a child I preferred being dressed up as Spiderman or some other superhero or even Santa Claus, or make other kids think I´m a foreigner just by speaking some made believe language. And later on I started doing these performances because nobody else was doing them, at least not at the time, so I thought: well, somebody has to do it…
As a teenager I had very little patience with school and studies, I just wanted to stay at home and watch fucked up movies, listen to music and read books on serial killers, and when I got interested in art it was through a book I had gotten for Christmas on artist Marcel Duchamp and I fell in love with it, I was like “Wow, I didn´t know art can be this much fun and interesting”, because back then, I was around 15 years old, art to me was about boring landscape paintings. Mind you; I have started doing landscape drawings now! So I got more books on the Dada movement and the Surrealists and finally the Vienna Actionists, now that´s when everything started getting really interesting.
John Waters movies did their share of help with keeping me away from being a depressed suicidal teenager and I would watch and read anything he would recommend as well, he was like my mentor, even though there was no internet at the time I would just read all interviews with him I could get. My bible at the time was the 1986 book ‘Incredibly Strange Films’. William S. Burroughs was also a great influence as a teenager… All this stuff mixed in nicely together – that´s where I´m coming from, well I guess so as I don´t really think too much about these things, like where influences come from, it´s just there, and a lot of things were there before those influences came about. Like for example my music has been linked to stuff I´ve never heard before or even worse when it´s linked to stuff I don´t even like… And if I was still in art school studying, say, video art and I would make a black and white video piece where you would have two girls entering a room both wearing a mask and they would start dancing and everything would be happening in slow motion and played backwards everybody in the class including the teacher would say “Yes yes, this is very David Lynch”. It´s like David lynch owns that thing, and on the other hand you would never read an review of a David Lynch film which would start with “The latest film by director David Lynch reminds me a lot on early experimental films by Rene Clair, Man Ray and other artists from the Dada movement of the ´20s…” You would never get that because a lot of people think he invented that stuff. People would just go “Dada who?”. And it isn´t even David Lynch´s fault, it´s just what critics create, because they like to categories everything, and people seem to like that everything goes neatly into a nice little drawer. It makes it also easier a job for the art, music or film critics to just name those obvious names, this movie is very David Lynch, because it had a few slow motion scenes played backwards in it, or a review on a drone record “This is very much like early Thomas Köner”. It´s all too simple and people always go for the simple and obvious things it seems, because it´s a nice feeling and you don´t have to think about it any further, it´s finished, done, it´s over with and you can go on to the next thing.
Some years ago when people would ask what kind of music I make I would just reply: “Experimental”, because it makes it more simple for me not having to talk or explain myself too much, and I find my music is not really experimental, as it´s very controlled and composed, but if I would say that it´s ambient music people will think of this music they play at yoga or pregnancy gym classes, or if you would say it´s electronic music people will think I am a techno DJ. So I guess in the end the best reply is: “That´s a very personal question”.
The more recent your performances, the more abstract.
My art is moving towards that direction, so I must obey and follow. I have no control over these things.
Your performances are often rather short, sometimes even just a couple of minutes.
During the performances I get into a total trance, I mean not knowing time or where I am, I get sometimes totally lost, I have fainted once during a performance in Iceland, but nobody noticed, they thought it was a part of the act, I just fell on the ground and was laying there for some minutes. Often people say to me after a performance, “Damn! You stopped when I was just getting into it”, but for me it´s like either I think it has gone on for too long, in the trance and not knowing for how long it has been going on for or I am just too exhausted to go on further, or a mixture of both.
Sometimes incidents that you experience go on in your head like in a loop, so maybe you experience a brutal act out on the streets or something that´s out of the ordinary, or somebody said something to you that shocked you and everything happens really fast, your head can go on and on about it all day, like “What happened there, what happened?”, playing it in a sort of a loop and trying to grasp it or to understand it, and that I am very interested in.
Why? That´s the ultimate question. “Why?” should be the very first question of every interview with an artist. I think the question “why?” is something many if not all artists have a hard time dealing with, and it´s a nightmare for every art student after nervously explaining your work in front of your class and the art professor asks in the end “But why?”. I´m more interested in “How?”. As soon as I get an idea I think more of ‘how’ than ‘why’ because I´m not interested in ‘why’, and I think there lies the magic. If I would understand or know why I was doing or working on the things I´m doing it wouldn´t be interesting to me and I probably wouldn´t be able to do it. Many people need and want to understand why and want to know the meaning behind everything, to me that is killing the magic. And somehow I think it´s not my job as an artist to understand these things, as there are art historians and art theorists that´ve studied hard on working these things out and so I guess I leave that job to them.
Your performances remind me sometimes of those You Tube office clips where you see someone completely losing it because their computer crashed. Is humor, like Chaplin said, some else’s misery?
I used to watch Chaplin movies when I was a kid and I really like those films, I have a beautiful memory of watching those but not remembering that I found them funny, I think I was never actually laughing about those movies, it was more about the beauty of the images and Chaplin´s speedy movements and acting that I was interested in, without maybe knowing that as a kid, but thinking back I think I didn´t find them necessarily so funny, I actually never laugh out loud by comedy, I do laugh when I watch B-horror movies but it´s more of a nervous laughter or a laughter out of pure ecstasy and love for those kind of movies. I think reality and life in general is a big joke. The humor in Iceland is a bit like what Chaplin describes: we laugh about people´s mistakes or when something embarrassing happened to them. You know this TV serie Klovn from Denmark?
Not really, but tell me about it.
Well, that sort of humor is big in Iceland and I guess in whole Scandinavia. But in Iceland it is changing as people are becoming more and more politically correct and if you tell those old black humor kind of jokes now you might even offend somebody so much that they will write a whole article for the newspaper or a blog about how poor mannered and a bad human you are. Which I think is totally funny.
People are now more aware of all sorts of things they weren´t aware of before and are getting all this information from the internet, which is a good and a bad thing, as people are now running around in their heads thinking that they are sick and need to do some kind of therapy or they missed out on life, paranoid, and long term relationships are now pretty much a thing of the past, parents try now to make their kids not do the same mistakes in life they did and write books or blogs and articles and people read all that stuff and it has an effect on them and they pass it on to others. Information is going faster than before, and there is more demand to be on top of things, everything is about careerism and not talent whatsoever… Times are funny at the moment, and nobody knows where all this is leading us.
Today I got a mail from a friend in the states which said: “America is one funny joke. Join and let´s laugh together.”
If art is about communication, then what are you trying to tell with your performances?
I´m trying to get onto the audience things that I would like to experience myself in an art gallery, an art museum or a bar or club. And I also want to tell or show people how I feel inside. Everything I say and express in those performances is a part of me, inside I feel there are at least 3 or 4 different characters, and the one I like the most I call the Grumpy Old Man, whom is influencing and affecting my life more and more now as I grow older, I´m only 35 years old but already I´m like: “Those kids today don´t know anything, you know in the ’80s before the damn internet I had to seek out all those rare horror movies and it was a hard loving labour but kids today they have no respect and just download that thing from that damn internet” or “I told them the first time around when CDs came that it was a lot of bullshit, I told them, and now see what´s happening, those fucking things are nothing now, I told them already 15 times before” or “They keep saying painting is dead, drawing is dead and that it´s old fashioned and belongs to the traditional art thing, but I´ll show them… I´ll show them, they´ll see… fuck those computers and video artists, bunch of crap… all these computer effects in video art will look silly in 2 years time when they´ve upgraded final cut, VHS is the thing for video art, those computers are crap”.
So yes, back to the performances: I´m also showing how I feel in those situations, I am feeling totally naked in front of an audience, I am stepping into an area which is still unknown to me, and I love that, I love feeling off and on a grey area at times. I´ve been homeless now for a few months and the time not having a home or not knowing what´s coming up next, or what´s happening next week, or whether I´ll have money for food etc… has been very good for my creativity, this lifestyle, which isn´t entirely new to me, has showed me a lot of good things, not saying that I recommend it, but at the moment it´s still working for me, as I´m always on the move, going around Europe…
You are a talented, intelligent, well educated young artist with an impressive Curriculum Vitae. What happend to you that you are homeless right now?
I hope I´m not coming off as complaining about being homeless? As I´m not, it´s just that I missed the flat that I was living in and I didn´t have the money to start renting another flat or a room, as times are quite tight moneywise at the moment and I also thought it was time to move on and get out of Iceland for a while or for a longer while, I´m just gonna see how things develop. I´ve been doing a lot of theater work lately, working for the dance theater company Shalala and we´ve been having shows around Europe and I decided one day not to take the airplane back to Iceland and stay in Europe as I didn´t have a home in Iceland to go to anyways.
About the impressive CV: I think a lot of people who are very talented and have a very impressive CV are in the same situation as I am at the moment or at least know this situation. People screaming over the phone about unpaid bills, taxes and lack of money for food is something that can keep you up nights but one must go on with working on one’s thing and use that situation, it works for me.
What can we expect from you on the last evening of the ’15 Years of Ultra Eczema’ expo?
Don´t know. I never plan these things, if I do then there´s no magic. Of course I have some things in mind for each performance but I feel best when I have no plan. Sometimes when people have asked me when booking me for a show “Will you do a Shivering Man stand-up thing or something else?” I don´t know what to reply. Sometimes I just like to play my stuff with a video backdrop, you know, the standard laptop gig. I like to do all.