Northern Light

By Gregory Kurcewicz

schmeerguntz-gunvor-nelson-doroty-wiley.jpgSchmeerguntz, 1966

The unique oeuvre of Swedish artist film-maker Gunvor Nelson continues to inspire

Born in Sweden in 1931, Gunvor Nelson first went to America to study in the 1950s, settling in San Francisco in 1960. Her first foray into film took place within a mainly male avant-garde environment, headed up by the likes of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie and Kenneth Anger. Since the mid 1960s, she has produced an outstanding body of film and, more recently, video and digital work. Through the strength and integrity of this oeuvre and, with her teaching at San Francisco’s State University (a college then) and Art Institute, Nelson has exerted a major influence on generations of film-makers.

Originally trained as a painter, Nelson’s work has always oscillated with threshold-crossing technique. Her first film Schmeerguntz (1966), made with future regular collaborator Dorothy Wiley, initiated a recurring theme; that of how the female body is observed and portrayed. A visceral montage of the realities of life with young children, offered as a reaction to media glossing/mythologisation and the idealisation of women, it resonated strongly with its audiences. Following this, My Name is Oona (1969), an intimate portrait of Nelson’s daughter absorbed in enthusiastic play and contemplation, was accompanied by a looped soundtrack of the girl’s voice. During the ’70s and ’80s, Nelson developed a rich montage of refigured imagery, with painting on photographs, cut-outs and transparencies. Frame Line (1983) explores the quality of memory through a return visit to Sweden. Acting as a kind of generational meditation, Red Shift (1984) focuses on a poetic three-way domestic dialogue between Nelson’s daughter, her mother and herself. A later film, Time Being (1991) offers silent footage of Nelson’s dying mother.

Currently enjoying something of a renaissance, Nelson has developed a new body of highly poetic and intimate digital video work exploring temporal and spatial themes, from Treeline (1998) through Snowdrift (2001) to the evolving installation Evidence (begun in 1999).

During her recent retrospective at the Avanto Festival of Media Arts in Helsinki last November, I spoke to Gunvor Nelson about some of the issues raised above and about her working methods.

Greg Kurcewicz: How do you set about planning and making your films, as I believe it is sometimes difficult to explain to sponsors how the work might develop?

Gunvor Nelson: When I apply for grant money, I have to make up some kind of story about what I am going to shoot, because I know maybe where I’m starting, but not where it’s going. Instead of having it all spelled out, I have ideas and lists of things I want in the film but, as the film builds, it’s an organic process: the film itself tells me where it wants to go. Every film has its own rules and regulations. With video, I just have a starting point and then it’s what I can do in the computer programmes; that becomes the content of the piece. Just a starting point, nothing else, no other thoughts, and that starting point leads me to unknown territories.

I state a ‘theme’ with a few scenes at the start and search for as many solutions and variations within that as I can find – it can go astray in many ways, and it should, but then come back more or less to the starting point at the end. I want to see how much can be done with very few ingredients. My films, on the other hand, are much more complicated, with much more diverse material to edit, to make montage and sense of. I use less montage in the videos. The opportunity with video is that it’s so easy to repeat, but repeat with slight changes.

red-shift-gunvor-nelson.jpgRed Shift, 1984

GK: Has the process become easier over the years? Do you come now to a new project with the ideas more formed?

GN: I try not to. That’s the most interesting thing about it. I want to jump into a project and not know where I’m going; I take that journey with the making of the film or video and it isn’t easier, absolutely not. I’ve just accumulated a lot of very close-up video images of flowers in my garden. I have gotten into the flowers with my lens, really into them, like a bee. So I have all this fantastic footage, enormous amounts of it, all quite similar and now I have to figure out how to edit it, and I’m just as bewildered as when I first started making films; in that sense it hasn’t become easier. The filming process is very fast compared to the editing process; 95% of editing usually, compared to 5% filming time.

GK: This intimacy in your work, getting very close to things, is something you seem to have been doing since you began. Were there any particular filmmakers, whose work you saw, that influenced this approach?

GN: I assume it must have been seeing the work of Stan Brakhage. He goes very close in his films… It came so naturally, it seems such an obvious thing to do to go close and get more abstraction; it’s a way to see the world differently. You don’t see things that close normally and it’s an easy way to enter other territories, to see other horizons opening up, both with sound and the image. In some of my films I have edited from a distance shot to very close up and back again, in order to create a spatial, sculptural form.

frame-line-gunvor-nelson.jpgFrame Line, 1984

GK: I don’t seem to see much artificial light in your work. You seem to be the kind of person who would wait for the right natural light...

GN: In the case of Red Shift, all the interiors were lit but we tried to light it so that it didn’t show. In Time Being, I was lucky. I didn’t have an extra light and placed the bed right in front of the window and was very happy that the sun lit up the room very brightly to white and then went dark again, which created a fragile feel to the scene. In the process of editing, I am very careful in matching scenes to get a flow and create a cohesive world.

GK: Time Being is a very beautiful film; also very difficult to watch; and I’m interested in the responses audiences have had to it over time.

GN: What I have understood is that the first time people see it, there is this incredible tension – because I hold that scene rather a long time. Even though the film is actually only eight minutes long, it seems like an eternity, It’s so confrontational. But people say that, by the second viewing, they don’t experience it as so long. They have already adjusted themselves, so that they know what to expect. It is a hard film. It is difficult to confront your own death, or your parent’s death...

GK: Was it the result of a dialogue that you had had with your mother? Was it a matter of course that you would film her?

GN: No, I had not discussed it with my mother. I was living in the US and I hadn’t followed how she became more and more withdrawn and smaller, fading away...

GK: In making Red Shift, what kind of conversations did you have with your mother?

GN: She did everything we (Diane Kitchen, my assistant and I) asked. When my parents were young, they were involved in amateur theatre and my mother directed high school plays, so it was, in a way, her last opportunity with the stage. With the undressing and putting on the stockings, she was all for it.

light-years-gunvor-nelson.jpgLight Years, 1987

GK: When you are making a film, do you always carry a camera with you, because it seems that you are pursuing themes all the time, that that you are perhaps never off duty...

GN: I’ve never carried a camera, ever, unless I have a definite project. It’s not haphazard when I collect images; but I also collect images in my memory. I might see something and store it in my mind for possible use in some film.

GK: How has working with digital cameras changed things for you?

GN: Well, shooting more than I need for one...

GK: Do you like the digital image compared to film?

GN: I have been very unhappy about the video image; sometimes the projection can be very bad too... I need good projection with good contrast. I use a Sony mini-dv camera. I don’t know where the deficiencies are, whether it’s in the lenses or all the way through the video system that makes it poor. Therefore, I refuse to put my films onto video; I haven’t found a good system to transfer with yet.

Gregory Kurcewicz is an artist and independent curator of artist’s film and video. His programme A Beautiful Virus inside the Machine, computer animation by Lillian Schwartz from 1970-80 and presented in collaboration with Lumen, will be shown at the Barbican, London in May and through the UK and Europe in 2004.

Gunvor Nelson’s films are available for hire through Lightcone (; Canyon (; Filmform ( and LUX (; video)

Her work will be shown at the Curzon Soho, London in January 2004 and at the Scratch Festival in Paris in March 2004. Gunvor Nelson – Still Moving (I LJUD OCH BILD; ISBN 91-89422-80-5) is edited by John Sundholm and published by the Centre for the Creative Arts, Karlstad University. Gunvor Nelson and the Avant–Garde (ISBN 3-631-51838-2) is also available.