”Your work doesn’t look that Scandinavian at all”: an interview with Emanuel Röhss

Stamatia Dimitrakopoulos

The first time we saw the work of Emanuel Röhss was online, after cruising his immaculate website. Intrigued by his perception of the “white cube” as an artistic medium itself, we contacted him asking for a studio visit that was held right after in his Los Angeles studio which was luckily full of works, ready to be installed in Thomas Duncan gallery as part of Invitation to Love, Emanuel Röhss first solo show in Los Angeles – and his seventh solo show since 2013.
The following interview was held by email, as a recap of our previous visit. Going through the answers, one will see a highly confident artist talking about himself and his work, the exact type of confidence we count on seeing during the evolution of his work.


You were born and raised in Sweden, studied and lived for a couple of years in London while currently residing in Los Angeles. How does this very interesting topological synthesis shape your artistic identity?


In a schizophrenic way I think. I feel fundamentally Scandinavian; there’s something about your cultural heritage that won’t ever disappear no matter how much time you spend in other cultures. So there is an element of the cliché tropes of Scandinavian-ness deep within, like some kind of scepticism towards things that I find largely absent in the American culture in particular. There is also this sense of modesty in Swedish culture that I can’t escape from, regardless how much I try. Even if I probably don’t come across as modest, it is still a cross I have to bear.
On the other side, during this decade that I have been an artist in an active sense, I was never based in Scandinavia. I went to School in the UK and Ireland and I think I was trying to be quite aware of what was going on the different art scenes across the West. The work, the people and the artists that influenced me since from early on were never limited to one explicit locality.
Moving around a lot one becomes aware of how the tendencies in art work in local levels, although it is impossible to generalize about multifaceted places like London for example. In Sweden there is dry conceptualism, or people painting pine trees; art produced through pain. In Southern California art is flashy, it looks like artists are having fun making it and may also come through as more shallow; art produced through happiness. I can relate to both.
People comment on my work rather regularly now ”Your work doesn’t look that Scandinavian at all” which is maybe true. I guess one’s interest as an artist is not determined by genetics or your ethnic origin, but by things that you feel provoked by or passionate about. I do care about what’s happening in my home country, politics etc, yet my work is concerned more with other things.


What triggered your decision to move to Los Angeles? Are you affiliated with the art scene there?


My first visit in LA was a while ago, drawn by my fascination for a culture that would be fundamentally different to my origins. There was a point where I could have stayed in London but then an opportunity came up about moving to California, and now was the time.
I think the art scene is exciting here. It’s more cliquy and heterogenous than for example in London where there is a dense community of artists from my generation. In LA things operate differently on professional and social levels. It’s more chilled, everyone is hanging in their zone, in their clique. Yet the scene feels engaged, and there are some really exciting artists here who inspire me.
The possibilities for making work here are great and the local production of culture, movies, architecture and art has provoked me to develop my work in ways I would not have done if I was still based in Europe.


Invitation to love is the title of your first solo show in Los Angeles presented at Thomas Duncan gallery. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House plays a crucial role in the concept of your show, what triggered your fascination with this building?


When I arrived here I was looking at the residential architecture that happened here since the beginning of the 20th century; Neutra, Lautner, Eames and the godfather, Frank Loyd Wright. There are also other buildings like Hispanic mansions, Greek temples and some others that are just nuts. Here people want to distinguish themselves and their taste by “pimping” their houses in one way or another, something that does not happen in Europe where buildings, old and new, are restrained by tradition. Swiss people build great but still conservatively for example.
The Ennis house has both the sense of early American modernism and extravagance at the same time. Frank Loyd Wright wanted to make a Mayan temple, inspired by Uxmal in Yucatan and the Ennis couple were vining with his concept, yet wanting to go further by adding Fire God ornaments, stained glass and marble floors so that they had to fire Frank to pull it of. The result is an heterogeneous house generated by several disparate visions.
Perhaps this is also it is the residential building in LA with the most references in features, videos, commercials, shows and video-games.You can shoot there without doing intervening to the interior, it just looks great on camera. It’s the set designers dream in a way, they just put a vase with flowers or a bonsai tree and their job is done. You’ve probably seen LA plays itself, a documentary about how the movie industry has influenced the urban development and vice versa, how the shaping of the city has influenced the sense of a generic place in the majority of American movies.
The Ennis House embodies these phenomena more than any building. It also proved to be impenetrable when I started working with it, both physically and practically. I could not get access to go inside, so I started writing this story about a couple, boy and girl who stand as alter egos for me and Sofia, my girlfriend. While on a night patrol to haunt the ideal location, the couple breaks into the house. In my story the house plays a character on its own right, it’s an animate being shaped by the many narratives that where enacted in relation to it. The couple gets trapped inside the house, and they encounter the characters that I have appropriated from films. This story became the spine in the Ennis House exhibition trilogy that started last summer from Johan Berggren in Malmö, moved to SALTS in Basel and now most recently at Thomas Duncan gallery in Los Angeles.


Were you always fixated on architecture or is it something that appeared in Los Angeles?


I was always thinking about architecture while producing my work, either as content in the work or as a parameter that influences the work formally. The past five years I have been trying to deal with installations in my work, and most often – always on the occasion of solo shows – the context and space the work appears in would influence its final shape. In any exhibition venue, I am trying to draw the viewer’s attention to properties and context that they would not be fore-fronted otherwise.


Invitation to Love is the third part in a trilogy of exhibitions that play off of the multifarious life of the Ennis House, presented at Thomas Duncan gallery. How does the sequel as a concept leads your artistic narration?


Good question, the work has certainly become increasingly narrative over the past couple of years. At least every solo project, but also work that was made for other situations has departed from a narrative that I invented or identified. This becomes more apparent with the Ennis House project. Talking about the work, I cannot avoid mentioning this aspect of the project, particularly since we just published this story as a book. Now we plan to make a film adopting the story for the screen. Without any doubt, the work develops to become more narration dependent than ever. To put it this way, with my work I am trying to narrate something quite concretized.


Can you tell me a few words about the works you are showing there? Is there a different concept on each floor?


The concept remains the same throughout the show, but the presentational modes are slightly different. During the fall of 2015, I was working on two solo projects in Tandem, the show at SALTS and the one with Thomas Duncan gallery were developed and produced simultaneously. It was one work, one installation composed from different elements. This was the first time I built an entire architecture of an existing room, a room within a room. For the show with Thomas Duncan I wanted to go more classical, to create a sort of tension or discrepancy between the projects. I made a new series of paintings and new sculpture, work for wall, work for floor, gallery work. I like making that kind of work too. The downstairs gallery was installed as a sequence of paintings comprised from movie imagery that I appropriated, and an “Ennis totem” pole in the middle. In the upstairs gallery I wanted to incorporate the sense of theatricality that we had achieved in the SALTS show. Using tungsten lights we back lit three pieces installed in a very staged formation through the space. “Ennis House in a lava lamp” an “LA – Weekly” critic called it. My idea was more like Ennis house at the theatre, but I did not mind that labelling either.


During Los Angeles Art Book Fair you also launched your book, Location Scout. Can you talk to me about this project?


Location Scout is an artist book, the fourth instalment of the Ennis House project. I worked on it with my designer Chan-Young Ramert and my editor Lucy Chinen. It is the first time that I work on this medium. Some people expected something different out of this, like a nice Emanuel Röhss catalogue, and I can promise them that that will come too. But this is a work, it operates differently than work shown in galleries, you can carry it in your pocket on the subway. The format of the book is that of a VHS cassette, interlinking content and form. For me this book means a big deal. Its published through CURA.BOOKS, and is available through them and through art book retail worldwide.


Do you always publish books? What are the different challenges you have to deal with when publishing a book?


This was my first proper book. I made some zines earlier but I didn’t feel dedicated to that. The book format is more interesting to me. I have written some stories before but not published much, I am not a writer. I don’t write everyday and I don’t have any training in it. It is a means to expand my practice and to gain an understanding of what I am working with. I think some writing may remain private but I am also interested in continuing to publish more.
Location Scout was really a challenge, writing isn’t easy and my mother-tongue is not English so it took time. I wanted the text to sound American, I didn’t want it to be the Swedish tourist in California speaking. It was a very collaborative project though and that part of the experience was great, Chan-Young and Lucy added layers that I did not foresee and it really made a difference.


Your book is published by a renowned publishing house, CURA. How did this collaboration occurred?


I am friends with Andrea and Ilaria from CURA, and they really encouraged me to pull of Location Scout when I met with them last summer and described the whole idea. It was still in an abstract form back then but I guess they recognized that I was invested in it and thus they followed the development all the way. They did not push to get the book they wanted but encored me to go as far as I could with the idea. I like collaborating in different formats. Last week I opened a show together with CURA at Rowing in London, it was a group show curated in collaboration with them called “Esperanto”. Esperanto is this chain of restaurants that a new culinary-entrepreneur, Mr. Bow, is opening. The Esperanto chain will soon be seen in other cities like Brussels, Rome, Stockholm and Los Angeles.


What are your plans for the future? Will you move from Ennis House project?


I am working on a few projects at the moment apart from the Ennis House as I want to be able to do other things as well after giving my full-time attention to Ennis House for almost a year. Currently I am developing a plan for a public sculpture that my home town has commissioned me for and I am making a new painting + sculpture installation for a show in Stockholm in a museum called SWEDISH ART NOW! haha. Then my next solo show will happen in Scandinavia later this year, but I can’t talk about that right now. By the fall I hope to have secured the Ennis House as our location for Location Scout the movie. Then we just have to raise a million dollars and start shooting.

March 23, 2016