Studio visit: Swedish artist Maria Bajt in Berlin

Sheena Malone

In Berlin, a city in which an eclectic mix of internationally renowned galleries, private collections, institutions and a lively street art scene, I joined Swedish visual artist Maria Bajt at her studio who has been based in the city for the past six years. Prior to moving to Berlin, Maria attended the Royal University College of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she obtained her MFA. Recently she has had various solo exhibitions including Distance of the Moon at Botkyrka Konsthall, Stockholm, Night wanderer, Galleri Thomassen, Gothenburg and also Cows Can Dream at Wanås in Sweden where she collaborated with Jason Diakité on an exhibition and children’s book. She has also exhibited internationally at Enclave Projects London, Gumbostrand Konst och form, Finland, Galerie d´YS, Bruxelles

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city’s plentiful empty spaces and low rents have made it a magnet for international emerging artists. Sharing the top floor of an old industrial building with two other artists, entering Maria’s studio is a wonderland of artworks, screen prints, cutouts and books. Numerous paint pots are filled with every shade of blue imaginable, due to a current piece, which she is working on. The neutral white brick room of the studio space becomes almost like a diorama but instead of it being one of her artworks, it is her narrative where instead of storyteller she plays the leading role.

How long have you been living in Berlin, and what was it that attracted you to the city?

I have lived here since 2008, but I was spending a lot of time in Berlin before I moved here. I was attracted to the art scene, the cheap rents at that time, and the ambiance of the city.

What are the differences between the Stockholm scene and Berlin's?

The scene is bigger and more international. There is a broader diversity in what is shown in the galleries and art spaces. People seem to help each other more frequently here – working for free, exchanging favors, and in this way, new collaborations are formed. I got in contact with artists from different fields here, working with film and books, for example, that have been important to me. Berlin is a good meeting place for artists.

Do you feel that a difference in location has an impact on the themes that you explore or the work that you produce?

Yes, sure, it adds new layers to my work. I've lived in Berlin for so many years now that it’s very familiar to me, but the city still surprises me. It’s like it´s constantly changing and moving in different directions. Here, life confronts me more directly then when I lived in Stockholm. It gives me new perspectives, and so it has an impact of my works, too, of course. The people I've met here, with whom I worked with or had an exchange with, have also been important to my practice.

Apart from Berlin, I have made some longer trips, for example, to Thailand, India and Mexico, which have been very important for the development of my work. During the trips I find myself surrounded by a lot of new visual information, material, colors and stories. I´m like a squirrel, I collect it all and it pushes my works into new directions.

When I look at your work, I see various references to both ‘high’ art and outsider folk art. From what influences do you draw upon in relation to your own art practice?

There are so many different influences. I´m interested and inspired by all kinds of visual languages and expression. In my works, I´m combining those different layers. As my works are very detailed and “full”, I´m putting up rules for myself. For example, to only use one or two colors. Within these frames, I feel more free to experiment with the material and the content.

In SÉANCE, you created two characters in a non-linear narrative. Do you see yourself as a type of storyteller in your art?

There is a story behind all of my works, a visual story that is non-linear, as you say. The narrative develops and is “written” during the process as more layers are added. I want the process to be free and open as long as possible; then, as the series of works develops, a red thread becomes visible and ties them together into a wholeness.

These worlds that you create are alternative worlds or universes that are perhaps more primitive than the ones we live in. Where do these worlds and characters come from? What do these worlds signify to you?

I work with symbols and metaphors for mental and emotional conditions. The alternative or parallel worlds, and their characters, refer to the world we live in, disguised as something else. Dreams and the sub-consciousness belong to our reality. My works become like a mirror of myself mirrored in the world as I experience it, and in the people I meet. There are different steps in my working process. At one point, the works start communicating with each other, I forget about the original idea and just go with the flow. That’s when a lot happens and develops. I have to lose control sometimes for something new to appear.

This work was composed of many small dioramas that, when added together, created a larger installation onto which the audience entered. Do you feel that the audience plays an important role in your work? Do they complete it in some way?

Yes, they do. I work with my installations somewhat like a scenographer does on a theater play, and I want the audience to physically enter the space and not just be spectators. My goal is to develop this further. Make it more interactive.

Do you find that this role is comparable with that of the reader? I’m asking as you have also been involved in creating children’s books, e.g. “Cows can Dream”, with Jason Diakité and Wanås Konst, 2013.

In this project I also worked with an exhibition in the art hall where the idea was to enter the book physically. The room was built up as if you were stepping into one of the illustrations in the book. You walked through a cut-out of the cow's head to enter the room. There were wall paintings and elements from the illustrations, built up like painted silhouettes. In the middle of the room was a huge yellow, round cushion, on  which you could lay down upon and listen to an audio recording in which Jason reads from the book. This was a site-specific, interactive project.

For you, is the collaborative process needed for the making of a book different than the creative process of making an exhibition?

The difference is that when the story is already written, I need to relate to that in my drawings. The exciting thing is to find a parallel visual story, to say with images what has not already been said in the text. I'm not interested in illustrating what the text already says. I want to add a new dimension. In that way, I feel very free when working with books. It is challenging in a different way, finding a visual concept for an existing story. However, I also work with artist-books that are not linked to a written text.

How is this comparable with “The Pushingstick”, in which you collaborated with Kate Lyddon and for which you put yourselves under pressure by creating an exhibition that evolved during its installation?

Kate and I wanted to see what would happen with our works if we merged them together in an intense organic process. We only had one week to complete the installation. This process was very different, again, from the book collaborations I've done. Also, because when working with books, I have a clear role – doing the visual work. With Kate, we were two visual artists finding a common form of expression. That was the biggest challenge. Then there was the extreme limitation of time, of course. We actually started making a stop-motion animation, but then we realized that there would not be enough time, so we concentrated on building up the work as a fantastical environment instead – a scene in which the stop motion might have taken place. I worked on the scenography, and Kate with the figures that were placed on small mirror plinths that swirled around. We also did a comic as an original, with our drawings combined.

You mentioned that you were aiming to incorporate music and projections into your artworks. Do you see this as an evolution of the gesamtkunstwerk in your practice?

Yes it´s an intention I have, to combine the different elements I work with and new ones within a larger installation. I take it step by step now, and concentrate on developing the different parts separately. When I feel ready, I will add them together; it´s a process that will take some additional time to develop.

What are your plans for the future?

My immediate plans are to move into a new studio in Schöneberg in December, where I will have more space. There I will continue with a series of painting collages I´m working on, and I'll go up in format. At the beginning of next year, my second children's book, written by Hanna Slak with layout by Antje Tchirner and Malte Nies, will be released. I´m very excited about that.