Marianne Heske and Jon Fosse interviewed by Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Hans-Ulrich: First of all, thank you very much for making yourselves available to do this telephone conversation. I'm very interested in this dialogue between the two of you. I've been reading an account of your two works and it made me wonder how your dialogue started.
Marianne: I think our dialogue started because we share a similar background. We both come from fjords, from remote villages where we have experienced the isolated farms along the fjords. There is something very unique about the houses in the region where we both grew up. We have both made observations about the people living in the loneliness of these houses, their search for happiness, you know, and their sorrows and life and death and how life goes on generation after generation. I think we have something in common there.
Hans-Ulrich: Jon could you maybe comment on that?
Jon: I agree with Marianne. I think it's very significant to grow up in such a landscape as the Norwegian fjords. The natural surroundings are quite impressive, and perhaps as a result, the way people act towards one another is somewhat strange. People from that region of Norway are not very talkative, and all over the western part of Norway they use a lot of irony. People never say what they really mean, only something close to it.
Marianne: I use words more metaphorically, and then I experience that people try to translate the metaphors. In our work we both use this 'non-spoken fjord language' which is really difficult to translate.
Hans-Ulrich: And how did you actually meet? When did you start talking? Can you tell me about that?
Marianne: Meeting is not necessarily about talking, but I called Jon because I had been thinking about it for years. We were supposed to have a project together about ten years ago. I don't know if you remember that Jon. I was preparing for an exhibition but ended up not being able to do it. But also I was thinking about contacting him because I recognized myself in his work. So I contacted him, and that was only one week ago. We had a nice meeting and he generously proposed his piece called 'Freedom' for this book. So, this book includes a kind of premiere of this piece.
Jon: Of course I have known Marianne's work for years, but I don't think we had met before we met a week ago. So I'm happy because of that Marianne.
Marianne: Yes, I'm very happy as well. Hans-Ulrich, do you know what we were discussing for a long time? We both have boats where we can observe what is happening on the land. I think we have something in common there too.
Jon: Oh yes that might well be. I love to sail with my boat along the western coast of Norway.
Hans-Ulrich: I think that's very interesting. The question I want to ask you is about the studio, because obviously ever since the '60s there has been a lot of talk about post-studio practice and artistic practice no longer being bound to a studio. It is interesting that you talk about both of you having boats. In the context of post-studio practice, I would like to know your thoughts on the boat as studio; because I met some years ago the late architect Ralph Erskine. You know, he was one of the key members of the Team 10 of architects. He came from England and had immigrated to Sweden very early in the 20th century, and he had his architecture office on a boat. During the summer he would always work on the boat with all his assistants, and they drew buildings on that boat and they went wherever they were needed. So, talking about travel, about the house, about your boats, what is the importance of the studio and where is the place you most prefer to work?
Marianne: Well, speaking for myself first, I think I create all my works while on the move, while travelling. That of course is connected with my background, my childhood. We moved back and forth between two houses, one on the fjord and one out by the coast. So we travelled by boat and car. During this time I observed so many houses and made observations about the people who lived in them. Since then, I started to move houses myself. First I moved a very old log cabin from Tafjord, a small village on the fjord, to Centre Pompidou in Paris. The house is an empty container, but still a house made of timber. The only traces of people in the house are the inscriptions on the timber walls that show the lives of people passing by. From that point on I continued to move houses. For example, the project 'Voyage Pittoresque' was a video installation, a kind of tent-like house that was moved around in Scandinavia and in Europe. Basically it was a 'travelling video installation' in a tent. After that I moved around two ice houses. The same thing goes for the houses I built on the Wilhelm Reich orgone theory, which were related to the idea of energy in containers in the form of houses. In my approach I sought to question concepts about inside-outside, internal-external, and vice-versa. Of course, the project was also about moving something non-concrete, like temperature.  So, the project was not so much about the houses as such. I was interested in moving non-tactile things. In a sense, I was moving illusions. My interest in houses, or shelters, continues through my most recent house in Oslo, and Hans-Ulrich, you were the person who really pushed me to take the initiative with the Norwegian building company Selvaag, who provided me with an actual house to embody the dolls and their mind-projections.
I also included a human skull in the project, and a life-size bronze bust of the doll's head, which is the archetype for all the other dolls in my work. The metaphor of a doll or a marionette is the oldest symbol in mankind, mirroring the human being. Of course, the skull represents reality, and the bronze bust is inscribed with human faculties that are projected by scientists about the human mind. So basically it's all about illusions, projections and the force of mankind expressed in a playful way. It changes all the time and still you have this outside house, that outside body. So I think Jon is interested in some of the same ideas in his work. I saw his piece last week called 'Svevn' in Norwegian, 'Sommeil' in French and 'Sleep' in English. The play is about a flat where people move in and out through different generations. It's about life and death.
Jon: For me writing in itself is a form of travel. When I'm writing I enter the unknown. So for me it's very important not to travel when I'm writing. I have tried it and it's impossible. Some years ago I was on the road a lot, over half the year, going to performances here and there. I tried to write during travelling but it just doesn't work. I don't get the concentration I need. It becomes too much for me. I have a cottage north of Bergen, an old fragile building, not what one would call a beautiful place, but I have an empty room with a sweeping view of the fjord, and I have done most of my writing in later years in this cottage. The state I enter when I am on my boat along the beautiful coastline is quite close to the state I enter also when I'm writing. So doing both at the same time would be too much for me. I get confused and nervous by it.
Hans-Ulrich: I found it interesting that Marianne mentioned the presence of the house in your work. Could you tell me about the link between writing and architecture, and how writing and space are related?
Jon: For sure they are related. It is at least obvious when writing for the theatre. I've been living and writing in different houses over the years and I've experienced that in some houses I just cannot write. For instance, I had a house here in Bergen for several years and there were quite a few rooms in that house.  I tried to write in each and every room but it was completely impossible to write in that house. I can't explain it but for me it is so. But now, in a tiny little cottage I manage to write very well and I think it has to do with a sense of security or shelter that is necessary for writing. A house can both give you shelter and inspire you to write, but one needs some kind of protection from the house to be able to write. My experience is that an old house can either be a perfect place for writing or it can be impossible to write there. I'm living in a new flat right now. It's an okay place for writing, quite good in fact. I don't know how to explain it but I just know it. So it is.
Marianne: It's funny because for me it's completely the opposite. I've had different ideas sometimes when I'm driving through landscapes or sitting on an airplane on the way to New York for instance. I like spacious, non-limiting surroundings where I can observe what is going on around me. But I need to be alone.
Jon: I need to make my surroundings smaller. I prefer a small and empty room for writing if possible. More like a cave in a way.
Hans-Ulrich: I wonder if there might be something relevant in terms of the importance of the house and the very basics of a form of shelter, the manner of living in both of your works. I wonder if this might have to do with a certain intensity of the experience as it relates to the here and now.  There have been a lot of cliches out there about this idea, particularly related to Strindberg and all that. But still I think the anti-idea of the cliches is an interesting digression here, and one that relates to this very important notion of intensity of experience. Could you talk a little bit about this?
Marianne: I can definitely say something about that in relation to my experience of Jon's work. You cannot compare his work to the cliches about this Nordic image. I think that Jon and I each have our own personal way of approaching this issue. We share a very rare experience that is hard for non-Norwegians to understand. The unique experience Jon and I share from having lived by the fjord and having experienced the loneliness of those isolated houses has provided us with special insight. In our work, we reveal the small glowing points of life that you might see from the boat. Scattered inhabitation like this is so rare. I don't think Strindberg ever experienced anything like that. Not Munch either because, as far as I know, they were never there. Ibsen has written a little about this in his plays about the loneliness of people living in very isolated places and thinking that their little community is the whole world. So it's a very intimate and at the same time universal topic.
Jon: In my writing the house plays a very important part. The house as a motif and different scenes connected to the house "looking out the window for instance, looking at the fjords. It's a basic motif. In the play Marianne mentioned, Sleep, it's the flat that somehow talks. In a short novel that I wrote, Das ist Alise, first published in Germany, there's an old house that may well be located in the western part of Norway which somehow tells the story not as a house but through its persons. It's very hard to understand why some motifs are so crucial in one's own writing. Of course it's very easy to imagine that it has to do with the bad weather around here and the importance of shelter. But of course it isn't that simple.
Hans-Ulrich: In both of your works there is this moment of dialogue that happens, like in Jon's work there is this very intense dialogue. It might be someone like Claude Ragy and there is obviously a big difference between that and the activity of writing because you're first of all a novelist and a writer. I always thought of writing as an authoritative activity. And the same question I would like to ask of Marianne is how you relate on the one hand, to it being an authoritative activity and it being a dialogue. What about the notion of collaboration in both of your practices?
Jon: Of course writing is a very lonely thing, and it ought to be. When I started to write for the theatre it was a really great experience for me to be taken out of this loneliness and to be able to share art with someone else. It wasn't at all painful to see my work done on the stage. It was a great relief. If it's a good production I don't feel at all that my writing is weakened or anything, on the contrary, it becomes stronger. For instance this production of Ragy in Paris is strong in its interpretation, the director's voice is quite present. At the same time it is completely loyal to my writing. My plays can be done in many different ways of course but if it's a great production it's a great common experience in art and of art. It becomes dialogue on each and every level. To me the best metaphor for writing is listening and I think a great director is also basically listening, to the text, to the actors, in order to make something that is not himself. Basically writing for me is an act of listening and when you are listening you are of naturally in a kind of dialogue.
Marianne: I feel the same as you more or less. I also feel like an observer and that is very lonely because I observe in silence, yet after a while I would like to share my observations and to be creative and contribute something to the world even though I know this sounds very, you know, naive. Most of my art is interactive, like walking in and out of the houses, like the ice houses in Sao Paulo and in Atlanta, the orgone houses in Dusseldorf and Berlin, and walking in and out of the house at Centre Pompidou and touching the walls. It feels very lonely to have these ideas and to express them publicly, but it's all about sharing and observing.
Hans-Ulrich: Earlier you mentioned this notion of direct engagement with the work. How much do you think the viewer does? Is it half? Is it more? And Jon, you have talked about these intense 'Olympian' moments. Even if they are inexplicable there are moments of entente, moments of responding between the public and the author, and as you write beautifully in your text that there are moments when the author and the public experience something together that makes them both understand something they did not understand before.
Jon: Of course if you are working with theatre you will soon learn that the performance can change a lot from one night to another and to a large degree this has to do with the audience. Different audiences somehow change the spirit of everything. How important this is depends on the production. If there is a very strict production, as for instance the productions of Ragy, the audience doesn't influence it that much I would say. But if you have a less strictly structured production the audience can change the meaning of it, they can turn a very tragic moment into a comical moment. That's a very strange thing. My writing is a kind of tragi-comical writing. One night a moment can be a very funny moment, another night a very sad moment. This has to do with the audience and the interaction between the performers and the audience.
Marianne: What you are saying now is really the essence of my art. Because it's about how it's interpreted. How it's perceived. It's incredible how people can interpret things also as you say in a completely opposite way. We all project so many different things onto the work. My little doll's head for instance is all about projections and illusions. So I leave it open for people to project their own illusions onto it. In the same way, the houses I move around are also about people being free to interpret them, which they invariably do. I don't want to put any limits on it. And maybe that is why my works are timeless. It's about perceptions. My last house, 'A Doll's House', was also about projections and how people perceive these projections. It's a never-ending circle.
Hans-Ulrich: Can you tell me about projects that have yet to be realized, projects you haven't had the time to do, and projects that might never be realized?
Jon: I want to go back and write more prose, and perhaps write one more really long novel. Right now I'm writing so much for the theatre that I haven't had time for it for years and I don't know when I will find time for it. But a long period with slow concentration for writing "that's a hope and a wish."
Hans-Ulrich: Is there any kind of unwritten novel you have thought of and haven't written yet?
Jon: I don't write like that. I have to have an empty mind when I sit down and then the writing just happens. I don't plan in advance.
Marianne: Neither do I, I let it happen by itself and the house that stands in Oslo is a typical example of this. It just happened after our discussion, Hans-Ulrich. Suddenly the house is there. It's filled not only with dolls "there aren't as many dolls as I thought there should be. Instead I've filled it with projections that symbolize all kinds of human emotions like desire, hope, fear and happiness, all these constantly changing mental states that are found in the walls of every house. As you say Jon, some houses you can write in and other houses you can't write in, so I think you would have difficulties writing in this house in Oslo with all the projections. It would be very disturbing. At the same time the skull is there and the bronze bust, which represents eternity. It's very important to have the bronze bust. But the skull is there next to it so it's about the projections and the mental states. I think I would like to continue to work with projections and the ever-changing mental states of human beings and maybe also to express and symbolize that with the dolls. I'm really into mental states but also like Jon I don't plan too much what I would like to do ahead of time, it just happens. I always focus on being in the moment.
Hans-Ulrich: There are just a few more questions I would like to ask. One question relates to the houses and about life and death, because obviously this idea of a house is always related to life but also death. Also, I wonder if you could both comment a little bit about the importance of memory. It's interesting to consider that our conversation this morning would not have happened without Pierre Restany, who, shortly before he died, suggested that Marianne and I should have this conversation. You could say we are having this conversation this morning in memory of Pierre Restany.
Marianne: I would say that we exist in a dance between life and death, desperately searching for the 'truth', and this is a masked drama because we don't know what it's about. But we are dancing and it's behind the mask.
Jon: I think the house as a motif in my writing has a lot to do with death. For instance, in a play like Someone Is Going To Come, when someone enters the house they are entering a place of shelter and love but they are also somehow entering death. It's hard to explain. In a good production like Ragy's this becomes obvious. But to explain it and say too much about it is difficult. It is just so.
Hans-Ulrich: Now one last question about minimalism. Quoting from an interview in Abend, which I read in 2003, Claude Ragy said: 'I always react to the term minimalist. Few authors have been able to infuse so much complexity in so few words as Jon Fosse has been able to do. In fact he is not at all minimalist. His work is completely full. What is actually minimalist is the number of syllables, the fact that there are short lines often interrupted, indicated by the duration of the silence, the rhythm, the writing.' So this whole idea of your work being minimalist and yet being full seems to relate to the houses in some way. Could you both comment on full minimalism?
Jon: It's an interesting concept. It's the first time I've heard this way of looking at it and at least for my writing it's a good description. It is a kind of full minimalism.
Marianne: It's also a good description of my work because I have few words. That is only the wrapping. And what Hans-Ulrich is saying that even though the wrapping is very minimalistic it's so full and to me, similar to a small project like the installation of the dolls, it looks so simple because all the dolls look the same. But still it's so full that it demands a lot for the public to understand it fully and also these houses that I move around look more like tents, like houses, but still they are full even if they're empty.
Hans-Ulrich: Jon, Claude Ragy says that you use very few elements but at the same time create something very rich with them. Would you say then that it's about repetition?
Jon: Of course it has to do with that. But it is also about using the silence; it has to do with making the silence talk. If you compare let's say Racine to Shakespeare, you will see that Racine uses quite a few words in comparison to Shakespeare. But, at least to me, in his play Phèdre he is saying as much as Shakespeare is saying. So it's basically just two attitudes to writing, and both have to do with making silence speak. It's about using words but letting the silence say the rest.
Marianne: Shakespeare has famously written: 'All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.'
Jon: Basically I think there are two different attitudes to writing: for instance, the maximalism of Joyce and the minimalism of Beckett.
Hans-Ulrich: Well I think that's a great conclusion so I thank you both very much for taking the time for this conversation.
Marianne: Thank you.
Jon: Thank you.