“They say the world is owned by brave ones. Speaking of Johanna Hästö’s performance in Sarkandaugava’s psychiatric clinic, I would say that the brave ones see the world more colourful. Performing “A Last Farewell” in a morgue was a crazy idea – we all know how much people change face even hearing this word. Yet Johanna managed to convince the hospital staff that this is just another part of a single hospital body. Built in Soviet times, the morgue of the psychiatric clinic in Sarkandaugava had not been used for many years. We decided to give her all our support. Reciting a monologue Johanna was speaking of all the things mundane, unavoidable and eternal. I was taken by an atmosphere she managed to create using her soft and pleasant voice. It was so silent! Was there a delight? Probably – not. However, she did create a room for contemplation and meditation, and I believe this is exactly what the festival “Survival Kit” aims to do – make us see the world from a different, unusual angle.” – Silva Bendrate, social relations manager at Riga’s Centre of Psychiatry and Narcology.
I met Johanna Hästö this autumn, two weeks before “A Last Farewell” was performed in the premises of an old morgue, residing in Riga’s Centreof Psychiatry and Narcology. We’d gone to the clinic to learn about its geography, perplexing history and future plans. Never before had I crossed the hospital wall, nor lingered on the many issues surrounding the discourse of mental health treatment. Back then “A Last Farewell” performance was still in its embryo phase. There were sketches, fragments, thoughts in development. Yet it got me thinking ‘what do we know about the building beyond the white concrete wall? How long has it been there? Who are the people living on the other side? What would our life be without mental health institutions?’
“People are by natural reasons often afraid, reluctant and unwilling to engage with the issues surrounding mental health treatment. They tend to keep a sharp division between the world inside and outside the hospital wall”.
“A Last Farewell” performance was part of a bigger project based on several visits to Latvia and a vast research of the subject. Johanna admits that even today psychiatry preserves its mysterious and somewhat negative aura. People are by natural reasons often afraid, reluctant and unwilling to engage with the issues surrounding mental health treatment. They tend to keep a sharp division between the world inside and outside the hospital wall. Nonetheless, we should not underestimate the huge work undertaken by the hospital staff to promote a positive and very humane image of the clinic. I wonder how much our perception of that building and the whole institution of mental health treatment will change in the next couple of years, a decade or a century?
“My parents used to work in a psychiatric clinic in Säter back in the 70s. Enclosed by a beautiful centuries-old garden, the clinic was also a shelter to hide in when we were skipping sports lessons at school.”
During our conversation, Johanna Hästö recalled her childhood in Säter (Sweden), confessing that psychiatry always played a significant role in her life. “My parents used to work in a psychiatric clinic in Säter back in the 70s. Enclosed by a beautiful centuries-old garden, the clinic was also a shelter to hide in when we were skipping sports lessons at school.”
At the age of 15 she became more conscious about many historical, social and cultural elements inherent in psychiatric discourse. Johanna remembers walking amidst an abandoned graveyard and noticing a cross with a name Johanna Blixt written on it. In Swedish blixt means flash or lightning, making this striking combination a very beautiful and powerful name. “I felt a strong connection to this person, who later became my personal link to the past. The name Johanna Blixt was also a prophecy, a sign that has taken over some parts of my identity. We made this pact with Johanna Blixt that I would use her name to do things I would not dare to do being myself. Since then this theme has been ever present in both my art and my private life.”
“As an artist I always rely on my intuition and it leads me to all the different and unimaginable directions”.
Still at the university Johanna started to collect zippers for one of her projects. Assembling hundreds of them, the artist was mostly interested in those zippers that had been used by someone, thus loading the work with peoples’ personal stories and lifetime experiences. Only later did Johanna notice that the Swedish word for zipper is blixtlås which is composed of blixt (flash) and lås (lock). It was such a revelation to spot the hidden message channelling through the work she had been doing so the next couple of years the artist spent making the “Zipper Suit” (“Blixtlåsdräkt” in Swedish) for Johanna Blixt.
“I wanted to make a suit that would give an extra layer of skin to my body or become my armour.”
It was a brave decision to undertake such a complex project, without knowing that it will ever be finished. Johanna remembers spending a lot of time trying to understand the construction of the suit and putting some other projects on hold. “It was a very hard and time consuming practice. I wanted to make a suit that would give an extra layer of skin to my body or become my armour.” In the end Johanna did quite many things with it. Last year she wore the zipper suit when traveling by plane from Sweden to Riga. In this symbolic performance the artist was searching for a single point within the society, where the experience of wearing the suit would get extremely sharp, thus testing the limits of what is normal or acceptable.
“The skin, just like the wall controls what you show to the world, what comes out of you and what stays hidden.”
The idea of exposure as well as protection is equally present within the “Zipper Suit” and “A Last Farewell” projects. Johanna explains, that “the skin is like a barrier for your body and the hospital wall is also a barrier that protects its organism. The world enters you through the skin just like it does through the hospital wall. The skin, just like the wall controls what you show to the world, what comes out of you and what stays hidden.”
“I started to rehearse and suddenly a very strange and unfamiliar voice came out of my mouth. Of course this was just an acoustic trick, but at that point something magical was happening between me and the space.”
Many would find the degree of self- exposure inherent in Johanna’s work shocking and even provocative, yet shocking is not a goal in itself. On the contrary the artist spends a lot of time meditating and preparing herself for every performance in order to remain calm, composed, reliable and credible. Johanna admits that she was not scared to work within the premises of the old morgue. “I just had to start working with it, making it part of my own experience. Although I do have to admit that returning to the abandoned building of an old morgue alone to rehearse the text was a challenge. I did not want to touch anything. The presence of people could still be felt in all the tools, medical equipment, furniture and clothes scattered around the premises. Then I started to rehearse and suddenly a very strange and unfamiliar voice came out of my mouth. Of course this was just an acoustic trick, but at that point something magical was happening between me and the space. It was interesting to watch how our relationship went from being complete strangers, to becoming almost like friends. When I left, I knew that now there is a part of me belonging to that space.”
“My work is an attempt to create a room, both physical and metaphysical, for discussion and mediation, questioning the standards of our perception. What do we know about ourselves? What our weaknesses are? What is normal?”
Johanna Hästö is a Swedish artist, who works across different media, from textiles and drawing to poetry and performance art. She often focuses on such themes as human body, history and mental health issues. The artist had previously participated in a number of small group shows across the globe, her work was shown at Bildmuseet (Umeå, Sweden) and she also made site specific works in connection to the psychiatric clinic in Säter, Sweden. This year for the festival “Survival Kit 5” Johanna Hästö produced “A Last Farewell” performance becoming a hospital body sending its last message to the world.
Text: Art Links People. Images: From the artist’s archive. Published in: echogonewrong.com