Lisa Hockemeyer: Mats, you just said ‘Jestem’ ?
Mats Bergquist: Jestem! I am!
L. Like a trace of being?
M.Yes, like a testimony. I occupy myself with things I have seen.
Nobody ever sees the same. Even when walking together on the street in two, we are seeing different things. Jestem! It is also a verification of our existence, something we would like to hear from a missing person: I exist!
L. You affirm your existence through your work.
M. Yes, my existence I assert through my work because this is the way I express myself. As Goethe said: ‘Bilde Künstler! Rede nicht! (Artist create! Don’t talk!) I communicate through my work. I don’t talk much.
L. Your way of creating is a very physical act and the works themselves are strong material presences. Technique, method, and the work in process seem to play an important role in your art. Can you tell me more about your approach to technique and manuality?
M. Today technique always arouses curiosity as does respect for the painterly tradition. Once I started with works made with India ink on rice paper. I also worked with oil on canvas, but always removed the oil paint with turpentine. Things have slowly, slowly, over the course of thirty years, grown, gained in volume and turned into reliefs. Sometimes I stepped aside and then my works turned into sculptures and then I went a step back again and they became reliefs once more.
L. You trained as a painter but your work is marked by a strong affinity you have for materials per se and technique. Once you noted that your approach to materials and technique has its origin very much in the Nordic background of your artistic formation.
M. Yes. As young artists we met in Stockholm’s restaurants, bars and cafes and discussed a lot. We studied and compared the work of artists like Monet and Picasso but we always talked a lot about technique. Whether we spoke about Twombly, pointillism or photography, technique was always central to our discussions, it filled us with curiosity. And then there prevailed a respect for the materials we used. We did not, for example, paint with oil on paper as you often see in the South causing those big blotches to appear after some years… Yes, I think it is Nordic.
L. You find confirmation of Jestem, ‘I am’, in the finished work of yours. With respect to the manual process involved, is getting there akin to a way of meditating?
M. Yes, it is the research itself that interests me, the process of getting there. It takes me one month to make a white square, a cube. Afterwards I hang it on the wall, put it on the floor, on the table and there it is: this month has passed. I have been present. This is my testimony. Jestem!
L. Have you always worked within the same techniques?
M. No and I have been sidetracked working with many materials such as copper and marble, too but it is always the same knot I try to detangle by taking material away, reducing it. Already in the beginning when I painted with oil I used to take the paint away again. Now I remove the material by rubbing it down with sandpaper. Also the colors vanish and all that remains is white and black.
L. Taking off, removing, what does it represent to you?
M. To find what is important.
L. In recent years, your search for the essential has made you concentrate very much on the icon as the ideal form of representation.
M. I am intrigued by the concentration inherent in the icon as an object; the entire process which has led to its creation and its life afterwards. I am fascinated by the monk who has done it and, beginning with the moment he has planned to paint it, the time it has taken him to do it, his prayers. And once the icon is finished it has a candle placed below enhancing the concentration which the faithful or any other audience seek when praying. The icon is like a container of ideal faith.
L. You have had first-hand experience living with monks in a monastery. You stayed and worked there?
M. Yes, as an act of curiosity, in a valley in my life, I wanted to try living in a monastery. I was always fascinated with the life within the monastery. Many of my works found their way into monasteries and churches.
L. Your icons are devoid of imagery but have the power to invite the viewer to halt, to reflect, to look inside themselves.
M. Yes, I like to think of them as containers of the questions we are all asking ourselves. But there is an outward version to them which is out of my control, the reaction of the viewers: There are those who laugh, those who cry, those who pray. I am very sincere with what I do. I am a master in doing a white cube. It takes me a month to do.
L. When do you know that your work is finished?
M. I just know because there has been the lengthy preparation and execution, layer after layer. A breath, a last touch with the brush and I know that I am there because I have given it all. Then the work is finished. Jestem!