Gothenburg-born artist Carolina Falkholt raised eyebrows and garnered media attention last Christmas, when she installed a mural of a massive phallus on the building at 303 Broome Street on New York’s Lower East Side. Now the artist, who has spent much of her life and career as an artist, graffiti writer, and musician shuttling between Sweden and New York, has replicated the controversy and subsequent censorship of her erections-on-erections, painting a five-story penis mural in the colors of the Swedish flag on the side of a building in Kungsholmen island, Stockholm, earlier this month. The piece, which lasted roughly a week before being painted over, was titled “Fuck the World.”
Falkholt took some time out from preparations for the spring open studios at the International Studio & Curatorial Program, where she is currently a resident artist, for a phone interview with Hyperallergic. During our conversation, she parlayed her thinking on the inspiration and subject matter of her controversial murals in colorful and delightfully graphic terms, revealing a thoughtful spirit who sees these images as addressing aspects of sexual abuse and patriarchy that demand recognition for society to move forward.
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Carolina Falkholt: I grew up in Sweden and in New York, and my work speaks to that part of my biography. Right now, I’m going back into a time when I was feeling crushed by a lot of conservative structural power infusion stuff that was going on.
Sarah Rose Sharp: Do you feel like that is directly connected to the penis murals?
CF: I feel that New York has this extremely empowering energy, and the city itself is an organism living inside us. Sometimes it’s like getting a blue hug from the sky, and sometimes it gives a lot of concentrated resistance. It kind of elevates one, and it’s hard. It’s a 24/7 world — work is everything here, and I think that’s the beauty of it, to be in that place where I am able to work out with these topics that I’m dealing with. Right now New York is offering resistance to the real estate of public art itself — the politics of an artist taking that space, occupying it with power. There is a fragility in being just that artist, investing all in creating only a concentrated vivid visual real estate. New York is all about the real estate.
SRS: I think there’s an interesting parallel with the fact that there are a lot of buildings that resemble penises in their architecture. It’s ironic to make an overt depiction and have that be poorly received, when there’s kind of this subliminal penis in a lot buildings anyway.
CF: It is what we sublimely resemble — we live inside the industrialized penile system. We live inside of mental penises, you know? Wanting to squirt ourselves upwards and reach a uteric space of full care for a long period of time — that’s where we all want to go back to, Mother Earth reincarnations. In Sweden, we have a summer festival with group pole dancing. Everyone does it in the summer to celebrate the light and our indigenous roots.
SRS: Like maypole dancing?
CF: Yes, we have that tradition. And we make a dick out of wood, we dress the dick and the balls in flowers, and then we put it down in the earth, to fertilize. We make all these songs about that, and we dance around the dick, the flower pole, that we just put into the earth.
SRS: But then I would think that if that’s a part of Swedish tradition … it sounds like the mural you made in Stockholm was also met with resistance?
CF: I guess that some of the Swedes aren’t aware of where we originate from. It’s just like, oh no we came here with a bird [stork], let’s not talk about where we really came from! It’s just a very dark confusion with our history. And I also think that everything that has to do with removal and censorship of my work is about the fear of having that dialogue. Standing up really hard for artistic freedom in public art, creating that space to talk about exactly anything, and taking as long as it takes to explain the content coming from its core. When I’m going to explain something, I have to go really far out on an associative brainbow, trying to dive into my core and see what I can find, asking questions like: where am I coming from, or where are my thoughts coming from? I’m trying to use these enormous erections, because it’s so hard to stand up, there is the pain of coming to grips with wisdom — it takes my body, I’m occupied by pain. That is my real state of mind.
SRS: So it sounds like, on the one hand, you see the penis symbolism as a kind of potency and power, but then it’s also an oppressive structure, something that’s sort of coming down on you?
CF: Right now, I’m suffering from post-rape stress, which is the name that I have given to being inflicted with the forceful manipulative violence in sexuality at an early age. For me, it created this post-rape trauma that I’ve been dealing with almost this whole life. There is no real cure, the only cure for me is trying to curate my work. So it’s both of those things, and it’s also trying to erect myself and run my own power.
This art is actually married to politics. I’m trying to look at artistic production, really trying to investigate what is the place for me to create this work. What is the work? Carolee Schneemann is among my guiding spirits, you know — writing and telling me how she went through the same struggles back in her days before gaining recognition as a “serious” artist. Repeating herstory. For me, it’s all about having conversations with other creatives, mostly women artists and writers, with whom I feel I can expand my thinking. I’m extracting intellectual property from those conversations and bringing them back to expand my aura. It’s an egosystem within the ecosystem that helps raise the individual cells to reach their fullest potential.
SRS: I think it’s also interesting, the difference between when a man literally shows a woman a penis, and your decision as a woman to put a penis up on a wall. That part makes people uncomfortable, but we live in a culture where men are sort of allowed to inflict penises on women all the time.
CF: Yeah! To paraphrase Judith Bernstein: “If a penis can go into a woman, it can go up on a wall.”
SRS: And I think there’s something about the way that real estate uses artists to increase property value, and your decision to put something up there that is controversial — to not be used in that way, in a sense.
CF: I think the beautiful art, graffiti, street art circus could for some raise the value of the hood it plays in. How many eyes are falling on this block right now and where will they land next? How much is this block worth, how much is this building worth? And then someone comes to put a piece up — “Oh my god, it’s that name” — and as long as the content is mainstream, everybody loves it. But then this wicked witch comes, with hardcore New York wetness, and whips up a big wienersausage on the wall, and all of a sudden it’s not so much fun anymore, because it’s reality. And it is so much bigger than all the other men’s dick reality. It sharpens the mind of whomever cares about it. It forces them to think deeper, longer, wider, harder — it forces us to expand our thinking. The ritual dancing around the pole is now mental and emotional. What does it mean? We need to look at those things. My work is there to force people to stop, reflect, and think. Please just think and talk to each other about it. Look at art to understand. That’s all I’m asking. The painting is the question.
SRS: You feel the murals make that happen?
CF: In Sweden, I made a painting, and people were making pilgrimages to that space for the week it was up, in a rush to get their picture taken with the painting. People I know were there, and they were starting conversations with so many people randomly about the painting. I watched people go there through the pictures they were posting, and I saw pictures of people taking pictures and enjoying the painting for a little while, and I think a lot of people got a lot of free art education. It was like a real live art opening, out in the open for free.
I believe in donating to the arts, giving this lush energy I have, I need to share it. I need to give it out, spread it and make it as many as possible. I believe the energy can be distributed in so many ways, feeding the ecosystem loud, hard strikes of artistic spatial occupation. I just want to make this aural ambience around my paintings as big as possible. Containing endless love and energy to evolve and care for our mental freedom.