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Exploring Individual and Collective Trauma: an Interview with Peter Brandt

Welcome to this exclusive interview with Peter Brandt, a visionary artist whose work transcends boundaries and challenges conventional artistic norms. With a profound commitment to pushing artistic boundaries, Peter's innovative approach draws inspiration from diverse disciplines and historical contexts. His creations evoke a harmonious dialogue between tradition and modernity, inviting us to explore the intricate interplay of form, concept, and emotion. Join us as we delve into Peter Brandt's artistic journey, uncovering the influences, philosophies, and techniques that have shaped his captivating body of work.

21 August 2023

Joana Alarcão

What would you say defines you as an artist? What steps did you take to become the artist you are today?

When I was quite young, I did an art course at evening school since I was always drawing and writing in my schoolbooks, crossing things out and overpainting pages. The art teacher encouraged me to apply for becoming a student at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, which had never crossed my mind. I applied and was offered a place, so, I very much became an artist by accident. After a while, I dropped out and then returned years later. In between I attended a drama school where I was trained in the Stanislavski system by a Russian actor and director and It is this training that my entire artistic practice stems from. Stanislavski developed a system based on a rigorous process of artistic self-analysis and reflection. It is a way of working where one is using one’s own experiences in context with questions related to culture, society and historical material and translating it into a physical form. My art practice is influenced by feminism, trauma theory and masculinity studies, I am invested in pop culture and film and art history. My intention is that my work (hopefully) is engaging in a dialogue between being a subject and societal and cultural question in a specific historical time.

Looking for Pasolini (searching for Ana Mendieta) by Peter Brandt.Image courtesy of Mikkel Kaldal.
Can you elaborate on how the feminist body art movement of the 1970s has influenced your artistic practice and approach to addressing issues of violence and trauma?

I remember vividly the first time I saw works by the American artist Hannah Wilke (1940-93) and how it resonated with me in a way that no other artwork had done before. It led me to research her practice and culminated in a solo show Peter Super-T-Art where I scrutinized her works, selected certain pieces from her oeuvre, surveyed her gestures, reinvented them, and molded them into new territory – my aim being to subvert the phallic law from a man’s point of view.

This again led me to research other female artists, filmmakers and cultural producers from that generation who had an approach that linked the personal with the political. I still think that these cultural agents from that specific era haven’t got the credit they should. They shed light on numerous human and cultural phenomena like violence, sexual assault, race, harassment and discrimination, and questions of gender, sexuality, and class, often from a position of being a subject. They subverted the whole tradition of artmaking, what one could make art of, and how. The feminist body art movement also challenged very fixed ideas about aesthetics and about who has value as a subject - all of which has influenced my practice.

So Help Me Peter… by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Anders Sune Berg
Your practice creates a discourse around very sensitive subjects. How do you navigate the complexities of portraying sensitive and challenging subjects such as assault, trauma, and suicide in your artwork?

I have been exposed to violence myself and I carry these experiences with me, they are ingrained in my body and soul. So, when I use my own violated body and mind it is from the position of being a man subjected to violence, which often feels like being dead and alive at the same time. I try to create a kind of community of victimhood by relating too, and including other people’s violent narratives that resonate with my own experiences. It is a super delicate thing to do since it raises a lot of ethical and difficult questions. E.g., when working with violence and assault I always do it from the moment after the violence took place. The aftermath. The last thing I want is to reproduce violence, since that is capitalizing on other people’s misfortune. It is greedy and sensational and I can’t see the empathy with the subject, e.g., Pier Paolo Pasolini was photographed after he was brutally murdered on the beach in Ostia in 1975. These images are circulating on the internet, and I wish that I have never seen them, because now I must live with these images in my mind.

My oldest brother committed suicide and I have had friends and acquaintances who did that as well. I have never contemplated suicide myself, but I did have suicidal thoughts, especially after I was exposed to death threats some years ago, since the thought of being murdered was such an intrusion that killing myself seemed like the only way out, at least I would have some control over my death. Having these experiences, I have given myself permission to work with them, to try, to understand life experiences that are on the border of the human experience.

his-stories/suicides by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Bo Gyllander.
In your statement, you mentioned being interested in the relationship between the individual and collective trauma. In what ways do you approach these themes both conceptually and visually?

There is a tendency in the visual arts to applaud people for working with the collective trauma and to be very suspicious of artists working from their own personal (or private) experiences. It seems that working from a subject position has no real value. That it is not trustworthy or even that one is capitalizing on one’s own misfortune and addressing oneself as a victim, and therefore it can be discarded. Still being a victim of assault just means that someone took control over your body and soul without your consent. I think the position of the subject is very important since single narratives of trauma are what in the end make a collective. But if one is only working with the collective, very individual, and subtle nuanced experiences of trauma will be missing out. I do think that working from a subject position also challenges Western culture's obsession with speaking from a neutral position which is a concept that originated out of white male supremacy. I value a certain kind of urgency in working with the visual, the feeling of wanting to say something, fast and furious, like responding in a conversation, to leave a mark, a wound. For me, it’s a way of working that relates to both abstract expressionism and activism.

A Violent Life by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Mikkel Kaldal.
In what ways do you believe art can serve as a tool for subverting patriarchy and bringing attention to the abuse of power within society?

In terms of my own practice, I always have doubts if my own works have any power at all in challenging people’s thoughts, ideas, and feelings about the existing normative power structures. I am constantly questioning If I really succeed in doing what I aim for. But then I am thinking of my own responses to certain artists and their work. I do believe that art has the power to transform one’s being (and acting) in the world, quite simply because I have experienced this myself. In art, there is the possibility to increase people’s social consciousness and awareness of the suppression of certain groups of people, individuals, and the earth itself. That said, I don’t think most art do that. A lot of art is just aesthetic objects, made from an indefinite neutral position or art being pseudo-critical. In both cases, I think that kind of art is reproducing and confirming the existing power structures in culture which is sad since we need to change our violent behaviors to more caring ones to survive.

Covered in Whiteness by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Mikkel Kaldal.
Could you discuss the significance of gender as a political category in your work and its role in challenging cultural oppression?

In the Western world, gender plays a significant role. Everything is gendered, meaning that we are born into specific gender roles and expectations, and these structures are played out in real life, but also quite dominantly in representations of different forms of cultural products. I remember at the drama school how gendered most plays were, and how narrow it was in what kind of experience one was allowed to represent. Even today it is not considered very manly to have been a victim of violence and speaking about the physical and mental consequences of that. So, when working with a kind of wounded masculinity I am opposing the traditional view of the man as being invincible. Also, very importantly I do think that we have to create a new kind of masculinity that is not reproduced through traditional male domination, since that is based on a whole system of violent behavior, which is still “accepted” as “normal male behavior”. These beliefs are rooted in male essentialism, instead of opting for the huge possibilities of social change when acknowledging that masculinity is socially and culturally constructed.

I Object (Memoirs of a Sugargiver) by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Salim Santa Lucia.
Can you elaborate on the communicative breakdown between trauma survivors and the outside world and how it informs your artistic exploration?

First, I would like to comment on the word trauma. It stems from Greek and means wound or injury and according to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster”.

Nowadays the word trauma and being traumatized is being used very commonly and there is a tendency to think that everybody is traumatized, just by being human. I don’t think that every human being is being traumatized, as it takes certain kinds of experiences to be that, so the notion has kind of demolished itself unfortunately. These misconceptions often create conflicts, distance and confusion between people who are traumatized and others who are not, since people who are traumatized often experience being ignored, stigmatized and/or rejected.

This is also what often happens when people develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is described as “experiencing a threating situation too fast, too soon” and that brain can’t recognize what is happening and is therefore having difficulty in storing the information. Instead, events return as flashbacks, nightmares resulting in a nervous system that is overly sensitive to different kinds of triggers, that evoke feelings of danger. Saying this, I am of course not to decide who is traumatized or not. However, when living with trauma, and working with it, my experience from doing artist talks with Q&A is my experience that quite a lot of people do not really understand living with that kind of condition. Part of my artistic research concerns attempts at encapsulating PTSD experiences as living with PTSD can give rise to a lot of self-hatred and moments of feelings of losing one’s mind since one can feel danger at the slightest thing, and that can be very difficult to understand and accept for other people.

Contusions by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Peter Brandt
What can you tell us about your project, History of Violence?

History of Violence is a project where I explore the violent deaths of the Italian film director, author, and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini (ITA 1922-75) and Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta (CU/US1948-85), intertwined with my own experience of near death, violent assault in Rome 2002 and being subjected to death threats and harassment by my neighbor since 2020. The project is based on extensive research in Rome, Ostia, and Bologna using the Pasolini crime scene as a starting point. The works examine traces of violence and trauma materialized in the form of hybrid works between different bodies, narratives, and art practices.

History of Violence by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Mikkel Kaldal
Within this project you have a print entitled Where is Ana Mendieta? What did you wish to convey with this work? How did you choose the final visual composition?

For some years there have been demonstrations when artist Carl Andre has openings of his retrospective exhibitions at major art institutions. He was the partner of Ana Mendieta and was suspected of pushing Ana Mendieta out of the window of their 34th-floor apartment but was acquitted of all charges due to lack of evidence. These demonstrations go under the slogan “Where is Ana Mendieta?” and are both pointing to her (possible) murder, and the exclusion that takes place in the art scene of her and other female artists.

In 2021 I was at a residence in Rome at Circolo Scandinavo and went to see an exhibition of 40 years of feminist art at Galleria Nazionale. It is always weird for me to visit that museum because just opposite the building I was assaulted there 20 years ago. So, when entering the museum I had some text fragments in my head from an earlier work of mine dealing with that experience while I entered the museum. I saw the phenomenal feminist art exhibition. When entering another room and there was a large Carl Andre sculpture, seeing that felt like a punch in the face.

My work Where is Ana Mendieta? is composed of four elements, a documentation photograph of the Carl Andre sculpture, a textile pocket from the jacket I wore while I was assaulted in Rome all those years ago and a performance picture of me being nude and vulnerable with a heaviness in my body, which I became interested in since I thought of the “heaviness” of minimalism in art history which Car Andre represents. There is a text on the photograph composed from several sources; a fragment from an earlier work of mine where I write about being assaulted just opposite the museum and my soul being murdered, some text from the museum’s introduction to the feminist exhibition “lo dico lo” (I say I) and my emotional response being in the museum and the betrayal I feel when I discover the Carl Andre work in the adjacent room. In working with the visual I wanted the items to have the aesthesis of forensic material, like the whole piece is being presented as evidence of different crimes.

Where is Ana Mendieta� by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Mikkel Kaldal.
How has receiving the Danish Arts Foundation's three-year working grant impacted your artistic journey and future projects?

In the early days of Covid, I received this huge grant. It was a great surprise to me since I never thought I would get it since I feel that I am very much on the margin of the Danish art scene. Strangely enough, I got the good news four days after I was exposed to death threats for the first time by my neighbour’s adult son who is a paranoid schizophrenic. Later in the year someone broke into my storage and stole 63 of my works, done in a period of 20 years, so I lost what I call “testimonies to my life”. Thus, instead of providing excellent working conditions due to financial stability, I have spent a lot of time dealing with the police, the Danish legal system, being in court cases etc.

In short, my life has been quite crazy and demanding for the last couple of years. However, I am very grateful that I did get the grant because otherwise, I would not have been able to pay for the extensive therapy I have been in since the beginning of the death threats. I have also done been through a lot of healing and body work and these experiences are slowly finding its way into my work. So this experience also gave me new material, even though I would have preferred another kind of material (laughs).

Wit(h)nessesing by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Mikkel Kaldal
What message would you like to leave our readers?

Life is unpredictable and so is an art practice. One never knows what is coming or what keeps going on in one’s mind, what one needs to do, being silent or taking the next step.

So much of my art practice stems from my personal experiences with violence, but after the death threats I just wanted to be as invisible as possible in all aspects of life.

After a while I started to think about some of the protagonists from different projects of mine, who all have been silenced by violence, but who keep on whispering back to us through their works. It materialized in a cross-referential work with the title Unspeakable Acts: Mendieta, Pasolini, Monroe, Brandt (inflicted silence).

I used different kinds of materials; a photo I took in a Pasolini archive of some of the press coverage of Pasolini’s murder, a dried leaf from the crime scene in Rome where I was assaulted years ago, a print of a page from FBI’s surveillance record of Marilyn Monroe, vintage photographs of Pasolini’s last film Salo, or the 122 Days in Sodoma, dust collected in my flat and put in a glass jar, a photogravure made of a photo I took of the beach in Ostia where Pasolini was murdered and with reference to Mendieta’s way of engaging with nature with pencil annotations from Pasolini’s poem on Marilyn used in his film La Rabbia, 1963, notes from my own notebooks, and a quote from bell hooks when she was asked how she wanted her books being placed after her death?

“In a museum, when male supremacy is dead. I would like my work to be an anthropological artefact from an extinct, primitive society”.

Know more about the artist here.

Cover image.

No Safe Place by Peter Brandt. Image courtesy of Peter Brandt.

Peter Brandt (b. 1966) is a Danish visual artist based in Copenhagen. He studied at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. Brandt’s works is influenced by 1970s feminist body art, trauma theory, masculinity studies and art historical material. The (wounded) male body is Brandt’s most vital material either in performative photographs and video works or in the making of hand-crafted works in a wide range of materials.

Solo shows include History of Violence, Galleri Image, Aarhus, Denmark 2021, Monument to Violence, Memory of The Future, Paris, France 2019 and in 2016 did Västerås Art Museum, Västerås, Sweden organize Post Trauma Documents, a comprehensive mid-career survey exhibition with selected works from 2000-2016.

Recent group exhibitions include Still Here, Staromestská galeria, Zichy Palace, Bratislava 2022, Rematerialisations, Destiny’s, Oslo 2022 and Ecopoetics of Generic World, Torrance Art Museum, Los Angeles 2022.

Brandt had residencies at Delfina Foundation, London, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, Circolo Scandinavo, Rome and The Danish Institute in Rome.

Writers and cultural critics like Laura Cottingham, Joanna Frueh, Tomas Lagermand Lundme, Bo Nilsson, Aukje Lepoutre Ravn, Annelise Schübeler and Jeppe Ugelvig have all written essays about his work.

In 2020 the book No Safe Place was published by Really Simple Syndication Press and in the same year, he received the Danish Arts Foundation’s three-year working grant.

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