Astrid Svangren once told me about a story she had read as a young girl. The story is of another young girl, returning home to Sweden from Borneo with an infection in her inner thigh. Upon closer inspection by a doctor, who is also secretly a lepidopterist, it comes to light that the infection is not an infection at all, but a pupa buried in her skin, harbouring a rare butterfly. The doctor, fuelled by his obsession, seizing the opportunity, holds the girl hostage in his butterfly sanctuary in anticipation of the emergence of this rare and beautiful creature from its host.
The story was read many years ago, the plot details are vague; instead, it is the memory of an imagined experience that carries the story. It is the sensation of being transported into some literary fantasy world that resonates most clearly in Svangren's telling. She brings forth the moist, sticky warmth of the tropical rainforest, the thickness of the air in a butterfly enclosure - the recreation of a specific climate suitable for butterflies but whilst holding them, removed from their nature, as objects of desire. The young girl is there too. The tension of her skin as the butterfly grows inside her, of being held captive and the imminent emergence of something beautiful, the image of the young girl's innocence and the image of her thigh in the humid air of her prison.
In an almost Proustian manner, Svangren evokes a memory of the past and simultaneously elicits an immediate sensation. Amongst butterflies, memories, beauty, nature, the artificial, desire, obsession, captivity, creation, violence, and the tensions between innocence and experience, we find ourselves situated in Svangren's world. Her art.
Much has been written of Astrid Svangren and butterflies, they are pinned in frames in her studio, and there are rows of books dedicated to them there too. The chrysalis and the butterfly are reoccurring motifs in her work. It is not surprising perhaps given that so much can be said of their symbolic role in her process and expression. Less surprising even, is how they may have become nestled in her memory, where they have long played a role in human history as symbols of metamorphosis, of life, death and rebirth, of beauty, in spiritualism and animism. But also as objects of study in the natural sciences as examples of evolutionary traits, with camouflage or the use of bright colours as a warning, or as pollinators and a food source in complex ecosystems.
There are indeed many ways of knowing butterflies, as there are many ways of knowing Svangren's work, allegorically and discursively. But, there is something else too. Sensation. That which is not known, but felt. The ways in which we move, and are moved, the pathways we trace as we experience butterflies and Svangren's work, and in the ways that these movements serve to bring us closer to our own lived experience and the world in which we live.
As you move through Svangren's work, it is you that carves out a pathway; there is no clear narrative, no clear beginning or end. The work however, also moves you. Around, under, over, in between, leaning in, zooming in and out, focusing and refocusing. Like finding a chrysalis hidden under a leaf on the branch of a tree, as a child, you find treasures and secrets in Svangren's work, treasures of beautifully intricate detail, microcosms, hidden and found again. Or those moments of material expression as if you had found an exhausted, dying butterfly, wings tattered, frail, as if made of dust - that become moments of sadness, fragility, vulnerability and exposure.
But, as with a butterfly floating through the air, Svangren's work beats and pulses, there are moments that appear as if from nowhere, flowing continuously into one another. You trace them with your eye, an intrigue and an excitement are aroused in you. Now you are moving too, together with the work, always trying to see it in its fully realised colours and patterns, but never quite succeeding. It is here in which the power of Svangren's work lies. It cannot be seen as a monist whole or known from the outside, you must participate in it - you are immersed in it. As you move, the layers and textures of the work melt into one another, and then become unravelled and obscured, always changing form, always new, as partially connected versions of itself, as if in a dream. The work cannot be known in its entirety, only as a set of memories and sensations, moments that hang together briefly and delicately before rearranging completely, and you, fully entwined, become acutely aware of yourself as an effect of those sensations.
M.Sc in Techno-Anthropology
B.Eng (Mechanical), B.Finance