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Soft Turns: Seven Hours of Daylight

Malmö is an unlovely city. Oh, it fools you at first. You step off the train from Copenhagen, skip across the Øresund strait care of a snappy new bridge, and see Sweden’s third-largest city and the capital of the southern province of Scania spread out before you. It looks like a cross between a bustling harbour and a classic Nordic toytown, complete with warped timber-and-stucco shops selling mittens and scarves; cobblestone courtyards; pubs older than the British North America Act; and enough ornate iron sea monsters to make Tim Burton drool.

But something happened to Malmö in the mid-1960s. At the onset of European post-industrialization, entire blocks of the city’s historic centre were razed and turned into bland public low-rises. You need only walk five minutes from the “old town” tourist district and you’re in Anywhereville, Midcenturyland. Apartment boxes—swathed in cheerless colours like browned banana and bleached tangerine, and supported by dull retail rectangles—line the long, treeless streets, like whales caught in an inlet. There is almost no foot traffic, even on a sunny mid-winter day. Shopkeepers are annoyed by your arrival.

Malmö is blanketed by a persistent low-level crabbiness. Or perhaps it’s disappointment? Nobody wants to live in a box, after all. Small wonder the city turns up so often in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s seminal ten-book crime-novel series The Story of a Crime, starring the always-irritable detective Martin Beck. It’s the place where crimes (and criminals) begin, end or try to hide.

So what are two cute and ambitious Canadian artists in their early 30s doing here? Slumming it, or feeding their melancholy muse?

Sarah Jane Gorlitz and Wojciech Olejnik, together known as the collective Soft Turns, have been making animation-based installations since 2006, after meeting through art-school connections. Their works are almost constantly on display in Europe and across North America, and, not surprisingly, the two are always working on new projects: time-eating, slow-to-form, delicate and mysterious projects that convey a solemnity (and a grinding dedication to craft) that’s a bit out of whack with their youth and with their stateless, wandering lifestyle.

Following Gorlitz and Olejnik around Malmö, from the art school to the studio to their standard-issue shoebox apartment, I learn that Malmö, grumpy and dingy as it is, might be the perfect place to make compact, portable and very quiet art. The other side of grumpy is pensive, and Soft Turns’ work is nothing if not thoughtful and monkishly still. How the two landed in Malmö is answered simply: Gorlitz is completing an MFA at Malmö Art Academy, a part of Sweden’s prestigious Lund University. And Olejnik, who cobbles together a living working for other artists and writing art reviews, is being a good partner (one, he later admits, who has come to love the city’s brutalist architecture and shrugging, shabby style).

After a quick stroll through downtown, we stop at the Art Academy for tea. Housed in a turn-of-the-century elementary school, the academy looks, feels and smells exactly like my old grade school. The coat hooks are hung at child level, the bathrooms are haunted by a century’s worth of dished-out bruises and noogies, and the rooms are lined with enormous, daydream-inducing windows. Somewhere in the building, the ghosts of a long-dead nun and a depressed math teacher get together to whack the radiators with phantom rulers.

“Neither of us had even made attempts at video before we formed Soft Turns,” Gorlitz tells me as I scan her studio, which is crammed with her thesis paintings. “We’re both painters, or were painters, first.”

“What actually happened is that Sarah Jane was making a model for a painting, and I was doing some architectural drawing, and we started talking about film…” Olejnik begins. Gorlitz finishes: “And the stop-motion thing came out of us both thinking we could do something in 3-D, with models, sculpture.” It happened organically, they agree.

“We both do everything, and the biggest part of the collaboration is the conversations. We’ve started to realize, though, after five years, that we don’t have to follow each other to the hardware store,” Gorlitz says.

“Now Sarah Jane does all the lighting, I can’t touch her talent on that,” Olejnik explains. “And Wojciech handles all the computer stuff, and the cameras—the technical aspects,” Gorlitz concludes.

Like any couple—and especially an art-making couple—Gorlitz and Olejnik tend to finish each other’s sentences. Olejnik is the more chatty of the two, but Gorlitz is the more concise. It’s a good fit.

Looking at a prop-in-progress, I venture a guess that accident has little place in their practice. Gorlitz half-agrees.

“The fact is that when we’re building these sets or constructing the environments for our stop-motion animations, they are responses to very specific circumstances: where we are at the time, what we can afford, how much time we have. The situation makes the decision for us, and that is kind of like letting accident play. And often we have to re-evaluate—we’re going in one direction and it stops making sense, and then what we have already done takes us somewhere else.”

“What each of us is doing and thinking becomes part of the whole flow of the project,” Olejnik says. “It’s not totally calculated, but the work looks really controlled in the end. We plan and adapt, plan and adapt.”

“And the monotony of our work process, of stop-motion, clears your head for other ideas to enter. A long project lets you give up some control,” Gorlitz muses.

“A friend in Berlin, a photographer, can’t get his head around why we bother with stop-motion,” Olejnik says. “He thinks we do it so that we have to spend more time together—we create this situation where dialogue and time together is necessary.”

“But we think very differently,” says Gorlitz . “Wojciech is very systematic in his approach. I’m much more spontaneous—I react to situations. But somehow it’s managed to work, because I’m still constantly surprised by what he is thinking.”

And how has working in this space, this old, cold school, affected their work?

“I did notice once,” Olejnik says, “that most of the projects we’ve done were not done in the summer. We never do anything in the summer! That’s the only way I can answer that.”

“I definitely feel the cultural, political, social differences here, caused by climate and location. The northern-ness, you can feel it. There’s a ‘sitting by the fire working’ feel to being here,” Gorlitz tells me.

“Also, with our animation, we rely on the climate in one way that just occurred to me: we rely on the sun, on certain times of the day, for the light and then for total darkness. So how we work here has changed, because the day/night change is so distinct,” Olejnik adds.

“Working together, inside, on repetitive work—it’s very communal and very northern, culturally northern,” says Gorlitz.

Olejnik interjects: “But let’s face it, we do become delirious sometimes. It becomes like praying, by default.”

As we leave the school and wander into the fading sun, I realize I’m actually overdressed—for February, in Sweden. Though Malmö is a northern city, its climate is not Greenland-harsh—indeed, we walked everywhere in relative comfort.

Winter here manifests itself less through snow and ice and more through a prismatic variation of types and intensities of light: from blanched white to flattened, felt-soft grey. Mid-winter days can be as short as seven hours but blindingly bright. Considering Soft Turns’ output to date, these fractal, ephemeral differences in clarity and opacity must prove an optical goldmine.

Witness, for instance, their two-and-a-half-minute stop-motion animation Icarus’s Dream (2010), wherein a series of dully lit surfaces are paraded before the viewer; each facade is gradually, haltingly approached, then jerked away and replaced by another subtly light-touched surface. At times, a window or the reflection of a window is visible—but only faintly, as if caught at dawn or some other uncertain, hesitantly emerging time.

Through The Window (also from 2010) is a slicker, more seamless act of dual-channel stop-motion animation, but one that, again, relies on the displacement of light to convey a sense of remoteness, of longing conflicted with comfort. Just under 90 seconds long, one channel of the film presents the viewer with a bubbled-glass window inside a white frame, surrounded by a pale-blue sill. The window opens and closes an inch or so, while outside, in silvery silhouette, a small bird flaps its wings and fusses about on a lone, thin twig. We want the window to open so we can see the bird, and yet we realize that if the window does open fully, the twitchy bird will fly away.

The tension in the film plays out not only via the perpetually about-to- open window, but also, more piercingly, via the sudden increases in brightness that take place each time the window threatens to swing out, thus letting in light around the frame.

More light play is enacted in the 2008 animation Cloudbuster, which features a bare white room (a miniature, exquisitely made), several noon-lit windows, a boiling pot and a swirling cloud of mist that gradually morphs into a destroying storm.

“Malmö is not so northern that you have the 24 hours of darkness and blizzards, but it’s very different than Toronto, the way the sun moves. The biggest problem is that the sun peaks over the horizon at a very sharp angle, so you never really feel the sun. It’s unavailable, absent—it’s confusing,” Olejnik muses as we walk into the very sort of sunset he’s describing.

Gorlitz and Olejnik’s apartment is so blandly Scandinavian it could be a set left over from the TV crime serial The Killing (the Danish version, not the current US one). The floors, most of which are taken up by their current projects, are plain hardwood. The windows are heavy, boxy and unadorned; the furnishings—all borrowed—are stark and simple. Snacks are presented in little laminate bowls, and there is a tidy set of shot glasses. I look around and, yes, of course, there’s a pair of lumpy, wooly slippers in the corner.

In the main room, three projects are on the go. There’s a new stop-motion animation, Solitary Man in Nature, that requires the artists to replicate, hundreds of times, a single cut-out image of a man standing beside a tall plant. In graduated variations of size that change millimetre by millimetre, the cut-out will be photographed back into its original landscape, causing the man to shift in and out of focus. I am shown 15 seconds of the film as it exists so far and the effect is spooky—the flickering man is present and not-present, perfectly and imperfectly inserted onto his toy stage with delicious unreliability. There’s also a polygonal, globe-like sculpture Olejnik is making out of a painstakingly folded and creased paper that carries map images of his hometown, Scarborough. And, finally, I’m shown a small, handcrafted slug-white paper tree, a sculpture that will form the core image of the stop-motion project St. Helena Olive Tree, Extinct 1884–1977 (2003–10), an ongoing animation in which, once again, distant, striated light plays across the visual field, reshaping the central image with each milky iteration.

As you can tell from these packed descriptions, every Soft Turns project requires and is fuelled by an enormous amount of unpacking. The “man and the plant” film is the result of a massive amount of research into the career of a team of well-known Eastern European explorers, Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka. The globe stems from a complex (and, to me, baffling) set of mathematical and mapping equations that Olejnik has worked out. And their St. Helena Olive Tree has a long, sad story to tell; such trees were native to a tiny South Atlantic island of the same name, where Napoleon was sent to his final exile.

Gorlitz and Olejnik are happy to share all of this, and to share some more. One gets the sense that their semi-isolation in Malmö has had the twofold effect of making their already labour-intensive and unrelenting work ethic even more studied, more layered, more cabin-feverish (there’s not much else to do, they admit, and the local art community is vibrant but small), and also of making the two a bit starved for art chat, a bit homesick for the more bustling social and art worlds they left behind in Canada.

“All of our animations require the viewer to take time with them. But I always work this way. I’m still not sure if being here has made me more like I already was, or if I’m reacting to where I am,” Olejnik says. With a laugh, he adds, “we watched one of our animations at a screening of films in Toronto, and there it seemed so slow and boring! It was like the context had changed for it. I was so uncomfortable!”

On the subject of a “northern sensibility”—whether or not they have one, or have acquired one—Soft Turns, not unexpectedly, turn to thoughts of the metaphysical. Their work is nothing if not incantatory in its methodology, its quiet choral hum, and, well, its churchiness.

A place like Malmö—a dishwater city attempting to rebuild while burdened by both a grim reputation and a grimmer appearance; a failed city desperately in need of smarter, better schemes—is bound to have a powerful effect on an emerging artist’s mind and practice. When I was in my late 20s, I left my home and wound up in Montreal. At the time, it was a broken city with clashing populations—in other words, the perfect spot to be a young, skull-clutching artist. When I remark that Soft Turns’ work seems driven by a marked (and markedly youthful) yearning for completeness—by remote visions that are never quite fulfilled—and mention my memories of Montreal, Gorlitz and Olejnik become a bit bashful, but don’t dodge my insinuations.

“Our work is contemplative, sure, and sometimes the images can be read as religious, or at least existential, metaphysical. Our work is about what you can imagine and what you can have, the romance of that distance,” Olejnik says. “But you could also say our work is about love. For us, the very impossibility of definitiveness is inspiring; we find patterns in that. And we find ridiculousness in it, too.”

“But not irony,” Gorlitz says earnestly. “Never irony, no cynicism. Our work is about yearning, yes, but at the end there is the experience of that yearning, too, within the animations—and in the end, there is the experience of the video as an object. And what is life if not the desire to continue to search?”

Olejnik nods. “I don’t have faith, but I have questions—more questions all the time.”

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