Truly Magical

Anna Iltnere


Kim? Contemporary Art Center is now presenting an exhibit by Swedish artist Ida Pettersson (1979), The Vegetable Lam and Other Ravishing Stories from the Past, which was on display in Uppsala, Sweden, in 2010 and in Riga will be open till August 7. The drawings, sculptures, and photographs seen in the exhibit conjure up a unique love for people’s gender. The myths selected by the artist about fantastical creatures and strange phenomena each embody a specific era’s impassioned attempts to understand the world. When 16th century Europeans came into contact with the enormous nut Coco de Mer, nobody knew where it came from. Over time, ignorance was replaced by a widespread view that the nuts grew on mythological trees at the bottom of the sea.

Having received a positive charge from humanity’s imagination in creating myths, I was momentarily overcome with irritation at the scientists who show up and “ruin all the fun.” In this way, in the late sixteenth century, the doctor and collector Sir Hans Sloane unmasked the Vegetable Lamb as a hoax: the animal’s legs were in fact made of fern stems and its supposed wool came from the fern rhizome. Before that, people believed the Vegetable Lamb grew from the ground, connected by its navel, and was incapable of moving from its place. The Vegetable Lamb nourished itself on the surrounding grass, and when all the grass was eaten it starved to death. A couple of years ago Ida Pettersson saw a model of the Vegetable Lamb at the London Natural History Museum, and so the idea for the exhibit was born.

But it’s hard to stay irritated for long at those scientists. The artist’s exhibit establishes a distance that allows you to see the rationalization of nature as just another stage in world history, in which people untiringly search for an suitable explanation for what is going on around them. And just when it seemed as if the Earth had been crisscrossed twice over—that all the trees, birds, and animals have been documented and classified—the world’s tallest palm tree was discovered in  Madagascar in 2007. The palm appears once every fifty years, grows, blooms, and then immediately dies. Nature researchers are poring over dictionaries and encyclopedias with furrowed brows, because they staunchly believe they will find an indisputable explanation. How sweet.  

The story about the Vegetable Lamb made me recall one of the most unusual and wittiest tales I’ve ever read; as a child, I came across it in the book Latvian Folk Myths and Fables. It’s the story of a hungry man who, out of anger at his famine, threw his stomach into the bushes and left it there. The stomach just lay there sadly because there were no leaves left on the bushes—it had chewed them all up. But it couldn’t get away, since it was just a stomach, without arms or legs.

I can’t remember how this fable ends, but it reminded me of the incredibly creative imagination with which cultures have always been blessed. But what, to your mind, is a myth? Is it an attempt to explain the inexplicable? Or perhaps an attempt in oral culture to surprise and engage the listener as much as possible?

Some myths are definitely an attempt to explain what isn’t clear, to make it more accessible. Today we are accustomed to a scientific prism in which there are facts, the clear truth. Long ago, our view of things was perhaps more free. The boundaries of truth were more pliable. You could believe, or you could choose not to believe. The world was much more magical.

Have you been interested in colorful myths since childhood, or is this a new interest?

There was a period when I was interested in tales with a sad ending. For example, the Vegetable Lamb eats grass and then at one moment dies, because it has a short life cycle. The Squonk is a beast so ugly that it constantly cries over its ugliness. Sometimes it transforms into a big puddle of tears. Then there’s the story of the whale, or some other enormous sea creature, whose back looks like an island; seamen disembark on it, but then perish when the whale dives back down into the sea. [Ida has draw each of these creatures, including an ant with a lion’s head, and included them in her exhibition. –A. I.] I worked on the exhibit for about three years. At the time I lived in London and went to the London Natural History Museum, to libraries, and studied information available on the internet. 

When I read descriptions of the mythical creatures you selected, I occasionally caught myself feeling a childlike delight. Do you think it is also important for art to stir up these types of emotions? Unexpected surprise, excitement, delight. Or perhaps this isn’t the primary function?

I think if a work of art possesses something like this, that’s only a good thing. A small dose of humor rejuvenates it. There tend to be works of art that seem dry. It’s important that a viewer can link a work of art to their personal experiences.

An interest in stories has been the basis for some of your other works, too. For example, you created a work of art from various films with the same plot. Why are you so attracted to stories?

For me, it’s always seemed interesting to emphasize part of a story, leaving the beginning and end open, when you don’t know how the events will develop. I’m attracted to narrative, how people present things.

For example, this exhibit has many separate units, but I wanted for all of them to merge with one another, so the texts overlap. Instead of presenting everything transparently, I like when an exhibit is layered and you have to unravel it. There are many exhibits that are crystal clear, like advertisements. But I prefer a blending of meanings, which allows you to guess and interpret.

Your solo exhibit is divided into two parts—one features myths and the other features scientific explanations. If I’m not mistaken, then Theodor Adorno said that scientific facts are myths too, only contemporary myths.

Yes, exactly right! That is the basic idea behind the exhibit. What is true today, is no longer true tomorrow. To play with the values of truth is one of the guideline of my art.

Looking at things philosophically, there is the world of myths and the (seemingly) scientific world. Where does the artist belong in all this?

I think there isn’t one answer to this. It depends on who the artist is. There are those who want to be like scientists in their work. But artists have the magic to immediately choose want they want to be at the present moment. They can play around.

Who are your favorite artists?

My favorite is French artist Pierre Huyghe (1962). His exhibits include works of art in various media: sculptures, videos, etc. But the works are very narrative. This is very close and understandable to me.

Have you begun planning any future projects? Will you continue the theme of the exhibit, or begin something new?

The next thing I’m planning is to compile a book from the works in the exhibit. Then when I have some more time… [Ida became a mother at the beginning of the year. –A. I.]

And what is your favorite myth?

The Vegetable Lamb!