Don’t Ask Nanna Rosenfeldt-Olsen to Make Art That’s ‘Beautiful’

We talked to the Chicago-based, Danish artist about taking risks and ditching beauty for substance.

Photo by Ida Buss

During the summer, the beaches of Denmark are an angelic utopia. Svelte youth douse themselves in tanning oil to soak up as much sun as possible; cherub-like children build sandcastles with their wholesomely smiling parents; and a blonde woman drags a gargantuan fishing net full of garbage along the sand as a crowd of people trail behind her. Wait, what?

That last bit describes multidisciplinary artist Nanna Rosenfeldt-Olsen‘s most recent project in Denmark. She wanted to discuss how we humans are fucking up the planet, basically, by creating a work that’s both political and personal; to achieve that balance, she transformed her body into a metaphor for the ocean and all the crap it has to carry around with it because of us. Dragging a heavy fishing net full of garbage down the beach was strenuous and painful—but ultimately a demonstration of the extent to which Rosenfeldt-Olsen fully invests herself in the projects she’s now undertaking. As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, Rosenfedt-Olsen focuses on risk: the risk of her specialization, performance art, but also the other mediums she dabbles in that let her undertake a personal challenge while simultaneously pushing the audience. Which is important: before packing her backs for the States, Rosenfeldt-Olsen made a career as a stylist and production designer in Copenhagen. She used to make work that’s beautiful, fashionable and polished. As a result, she now wants to do pretty much the opposite.

In light of that, we decided to catch up with Rosenfeldt-Olsen about the importance of risk, turning off the mind and tuning into the body and digging into the personal.

Photo by Ida Buss

Girls Are Awesome: Hey, Nanna. When and why did risk become an integral part of your creative practice?

Nanna Rosenfeldt-Olsen: I wanted to focus more on my art and move away from fashion and commercial stuff because I was missing poetry in my work and wasn’t taking any risks. I was always focused on creating something beautiful. And in general, being in America and going to school here is so different because it feels like a lot of people take risks simply because education is so expensive. You have to believe that what you do will be important enough that it’s worth all the money you’re spending on your education.

Why is art riskier for you than fashion or commercial work?

Because now I dig down to the personal. When you’re a stylist or production designer, of course there’s an element of risk because you don’t know if you’ll make a living off of it. But it’s different from making art, where you have to dig into yourself and figure out why you’re doing it while building a voice that relates to other people. So now I’m not only doing things that I inspire me: I’m also trying to create work that relates to what the audience thinks about.

Photo by Joséphine Løchen

What are your creative areas of focus now?

My working field here is performance art, although technically I’m getting an MFA in art and studio. But I am very interdisciplinary; I also make objects and do photography and film, although I read all of that through a performative approach.

What do you tell yourself to give yourself the courage to put yourself out there via performance art?

I remind myself to be in the present: to be in a space and put myself out there rather than hide behind a camera. With performance art, you aren’t telling a story through something visual; instead, you’re the person in the scene that viewers relate to—the ones they ask questions that you have to answer. I love that type of conversation I am able to be a part of in performance art, because it’s so in the moment. It’s something in general I feel we are moving away from in society because everything is becoming so interactive. It’s not so much about being present these days.

Photo by Ida Buss

Tell me about a recent performance that you did that made you feel like you’re on the right path.

I’m currently working on a collaborative performance with four other people called ‘Five Things I Know to Be True.’ It’s kind of a manifesto. We thought it was a fun approach, because a manifesto is an old school thing artists don’t really make anymore. It’s a manifesto of the body, in a way, and about trying to turn off the mind to let our movements lead us instead. That’s very difficult to do! We’re also wondering, is it even interesting enough that my body wants to tell this story? Because the mind is so extremely important with what you want to say, but body language isn’t something we use a lot of time on studying in our society in general.

We start by giving ourselves one word, then challenging ourselves to create a series of five movements around it in ten minutes. It’s about trusting our bodies to come up with something based on a very small gesture of meaning, and then pulling out the movements that we think really say something. It’s kind of creating a language.

What’s the red thread that runs between all of your practices and mediums you work in?

Trying to be personal, because that’s often what I find really inspiring in the art that I see. Like, I love political work, but I think you need the personal thread in there if you want the audience to relate to it. If you work with something you don’t understand or care about, it’ll show up in your work. So, it’s about balancing working with important topics and also keeping it personal. For example, something that’s very important for me is climate change and the environment. I try to incorporate those topics into my work, but I don’t want to bang people over their heads with some sort of message. The work needs to feel like it comes from a personal place, like, “this is how I feel, therefore this is how I show that.” It doesn’t feel honest if I just get a good idea but it doesn’t relate to me; I don’t think people would be able to read it, because it wouldn’t be my hand or language.

Photos by Georgia Colman

What’s an experience that you’ve had with your art where you felt you tied the personal and political very well?

I did a performance this summer in Denmark which heavily involved audience participation. I met up with the audience at a beach and had this really old fishing net with me that some fishermen had given me. I had the audience put trash into the fishing net and I dragged the net behind me as we were walking on the beach. It was a really moving experience fro me because it was extremely difficult to move the net—it was hard and painful! People wanted to help but I wouldn’t let them, and the concept was to discuss how the ocean carries around all the garbage we throw into it. I translated the burden we put on the sea and the environment onto my own body, and got very closed in on myself because it was such tough labor.

There was this little girl there who was like, ‘why is this woman carrying this really heavy thing on her own? why is no one helping her? I want to help her!’ And I think that’s a natural human instinct: we want to help each other. I think we should be better at creating a system where we can help each other more. It’s difficult, but that is what art can do. It can break some of these barriers down.

You do commercial work too?

Yes, I did commercial work and styling as a stylist and production designer.

How does your approach to risk tie into commercial work? Because obviously, working within the confines of a brief leaves less room for improvisation.

It’s much harder and you are working on something you don’t necessarily believe in. For me, the commercial work I do is more about being part of the team—it’s very rewarding because everyone on a film set works their ass off and is great at what they do. It’s kind of like being a robot in a factory. You are a part of the machine, helping put the pieces together. The group spirit is also something very inspiring but you have to cut something off inside your brain to be like, ‘oh, I’m doing this really hard labour for something I don’t believe in but because I’m good at creating something beautiful.’ You know, it’s a money thing.

Thanks, Nanna.

Photo by Joséphine Løchen