in motion with erika henriksson

Image courtesy of the artist.

Erika Henriksson (born 1984) is an architect, researcher, and artist from Kalix in the north of Sweden, currently based in Gothenburg. Through her practice-based Ph.D. ‘Performing Architherapy’, she built up the concept and practice name Architherapy, together with residents at a rehabilitation clinic. In addition to her architectural practice, Henriksson teaches at HDK-Valand- Academy of Art and Design, Gothenburg. Selected exhibitions and events include: Art in the periphery -hot or not? (2021, Norway); MENDABLE -climate and environment in contemporary art practices (2020, House of Foundation, Moss); We live in cities of sites (theatre-performance, 2018). 

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: In Motion, project was created as a result of a residency in Norway. Staged on a piece of land owned by two artists, it additionally contributed to turning the natural environment into an art park. Could we first discuss the name –In Motion; a sculpture of 19 meters?

ERIKA HENRIKSSON: Titles are for me an integral part to understand what I am doing and framing the process. In Motion was decided upon at the very end but came from several different angles that related to how I work, and how the sculpture communicated to me.

I often work relationally and directly from the environment where the work is positioned, which for me is about setting out on a journey or a movement. This specific project was about being in movement together with trees and the forest.

Drone image of In Motion by Johnny Barajas.
Full -size sketching of the project. Image courtesy of Erika Henriksson.
Work in progress. Image courtesy of Erika Henriksson.

LŠ: The project was created in tune with the surrounding nature and materials found locally – what was the selection process?

EH: The work was created as a part of a residency, that is operated by an artist couple – Mona and Morten Grønstad. The space is located in Rena (the inland of Norway) and the artists’ couple has now turned their summer residence into an art space – Kunstarena. I was the first AIR artist (artist in residence).

They were already aware of my work and the specific building technique I use – cordwood masonry. Grønstads wished to create a tangible connection with the surrounding forest and also at that point they had many wind-fallen trees and the idea was for me to advise what could be created. So, all the materials are gathered from the environment surrounding the sculpture, except the clay which I sourced further out of the area due to insufficient ground conditions. Numerous building elements were also contributed by neighbours.

When it came to the wood used in the masonry work, the main selection process was made based on the level of humidity. If it was too wet, I could not use it. Otherwise, I found materials by talking to people. It is not everything I find that I use but I look for options.

Platform of the sculpture. Image by Erika Henriksson.
Trees that were selected for the In Motion sculputre. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cordwood masonry technique. Image by Erika Henriksson.

LŠ: Could you tell us more about the technique you use in your work? 

EH: Cordwood masonry is an alternative and low impact building technique where you combine cut pieces of untreated wood with a clay mortar. I have been working with this technique for a few years now and it started through a previous project, where I transformed a small building, working together with residents at a rehabilitation clinic in Järvsö, Sweden.

And following that experience I started to look at building techniques as scripts that direct the body – it tells you where to go, what to do, how to interact, and how to work. What I find so appealing about cordwood masonry is that all materials are nature-based. It is essentially a masonry technique, where we have a combination of clay mortar mixed from clay, sand, sawdust, water, and some reinforcement fibres. You use this mix with untreated wood and as they bind together you leave them to dry out.

Clay example. Image courtesy of the artist.
Detail of In Motion sculputre. Image by Mona Grønstad.

I was also drawn to this building technique as there is a lot of action involved around the gathering of the material – interacting and learning about the environment. And I was fascinated by the history  – it emerged through hardships and poverty where people looked for what they could build with using the scarce resources they had. Something that also bears witness to creativity and abilities to read the surroundings.

Historians are not exactly sure how and where the technique emerged – probably around industrialization, when the sawing technology was developed (the first thin-bladed hand saw entered the market around 1840). During this period, there was a transition of people who moved to the cities from the countryside, and subsequently, there was a surge in cheap housing. This building technique was common among workers at the new and emerging sawmills since they could get cheap off-cuts to build with.

LŠ: The work also refers to sometimes broken relations between nature and the built environment, where we are extracting materials too aggressively. How do you see this relation having a possibility of dialogue?

EH: For me, it is a process of learning that builds on ethics. It is important to be aware of what one is doing and what are the consequences. To think thoroughly about the responsibilities that one has. My methodology started as an examination of relations between humans, environments, materials, and also different aspects of society.

There is so much aggression happening in terms of nature and materials and working as an architect, I really try to go outside the studio. That is not to sit at the distance but to actively engage with materials and surroundings. I feel there is an ongoing problem of working with too much abstraction in our profession. A skill that architects need to learn more is to improvise and work with things that already exist. Often there is a grand vision to build huge structures with little care for the environment and this definitely needs to change.

Workspace photographed by Adrian Bugge.
Image by Adrian Bugge.

LŠ: Do you see other professions such as designers contributing to these new working approaches that are very in tune with nature?

EH: Definitely – because they have a huge range of skills. And, interestingly, you mentioned design because at the moment I am teaching at HDK-Valand- Academy of Art and Design in Gothenburg. I appreciate their advocacy for an artistic approach to design and learning processes. You can design a framework or a project and there is no one way of working. What I find exciting is that in comparison to architecture, design has a closer connection to the action of work or practice through testing, prototyping, and conversing with the industry. Design truly sits at the intersection of all creative spheres.

LŠ: It is definitely a space between fine art and architecture.

EH: For some years, I have to admit I was very sceptical towards design. But now I see that design is being able to talk multiple languages and I think that architecture has a lot to learn from design.

LŠ: That is very interesting. Speaking of In Motion, through your technique you mentioned you hoped to test the lifespan of the installation. How do you see its existence?

EH: Well, to be very frank I was very open to all possibilities – even that the installation might not survive (laugh). As the structure is in the open, it is constantly challenged by weather conditions. I was very excited just to be able to test the whole work to its limits. The structure is not static and stands on its own. It is anchored on the stubs and it is clay based. All these segments could indicate that it would not last long but it is still standing (laugh)!

I left dried-out mortar for Morten and Mona, that when mixed with water can be used to repair the wall in case of any damage. I created the roof to provide protection and there was a whole community created around the work. Neighbours came to observe my work and many are well-versed in forestry thus their knowledge was absolutely a fantastic contribution. It became a project for the area to look after the work but for me and to build up relations with people through the work.

LŠ: It is an incredible example of community-based care for buildings.

EH: You know there is a story I heard of Ise Jingu grand shrine in Japan that is dismantled and rebuilt every 20 years. The idea is that new skills are learned and that the knowledge is passed on and active. I believe that we should never distance ourselves from work, care and repair because then the ability to take care of things is lost. Part of the problem we have today is that we do not have the knowledge to take care of certain elements in architecture. We have created a cycle of buildings that are not meant to last very long. This is a very trashy way – it is the money rules everything principle.

LŠ: You also previously mentioned that human relations are an important part of your work.

EH: For me, the beauty of In Motion was to have the possibility to live in the area. Some of the projects I do are participatory but there has to be a reason to work together. I do not want to force collaboration and prefer for them to happen organically.

I received really valuable advice on how to work with untreated wood that is not pre-cut, sawn, or recycled. I also talked to different people to find out where to dig for clay and these are all examples of organic support and exchange system. So, I never see my projects as solo work but it is often with the help of local knowledge that I develop through conversation. One cannot exist in a vacuum.