CONNERSMITH is pleased to present “Silent Revolution”, an online exhibition of photographs by Maria Friberg. As visual artist, feminist, and environmental activist, Friberg has imbued her art with pioneering environmentalist subjects for two decades. In this selection of signature works the artist critiques power structures and industrial practices. With captivating imagery, she denounces the destruction of ancient ecosystems through widespread deforestation, the overconsumption of material goods, and inequities in modern society.
Gallerists Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith explored the development of environmental themes in Friberg’s work in a recent discussion with the artist.
JS: What is the traditional role of nature in Swedish culture and how does it inform your work?
MF: Historically Swedes enjoyed a close connection to nature, and it is still a deep source of our cultural identity. In my work, I express the essence of this relationship with a special emphasis on forests while also bringing societal change into focus. Until recently we were mostly farmers; we industrialized relatively late. At present most Swedes are no longer farming or living on the land and have lost traditional ties to nature. Many of us attempt to reconnect by “forest bathing” or picking berries and mushrooms in our leisure time, but those pursuits frame nature more as a stage set for city residents than as a basic element of life.
JS: Why do you place a special emphasis on forests?
MF: Sweden has lost over three-quarters of its old growth forests since the 1950s. Now, with only ten to fifteen percent of wild forests surviving, our situation is even worse than the Amazon. The forest products industry is destroying entire ecosystems that will take centuries to recover. The government condones the practice of clear-cutting – harvesting wood like crops in an agricultural field. Then those areas are replanted with monocultures of trees, often of lesser quality wood, and in some cases non-indigenous species. These planted forests are susceptible to bark beetles, fungus, drought, fire and storm. Even if plantings survive, they can’t be harvested until eighty to one hundred years later. In the meantime, the industry harvests more old forests. Reforestation lacks the biodiversity of naturally occurring forests, which puts many species at risk. Reindeer, for example, rely heavily on lichen-rich old growth forests.
LC: What was your first environmentalist image?
MF: The first work I made that was purposefully focused on the environment was “Still Lives (11)” in 2007. This photograph shows a man sitting on the ground in a planted forest, not a naturally occurring, old growth, forest. You can see that all the trees are alike and are uniformly spaced. Back then, no one reacted when I was talking about deforestation and engineered reforestation, even in Sweden, but now there is a huge discussion about it here. I expanded the theme of man’s relationship to nature in “Alongside Us” (2007) where male figures recline in tree branches symbolic of men trying to find their way in turmoil. “Full of Silence” (2015) evokes a contemplative relation to nature. The figure, viewed from behind, could be any gender. Facing a reflection of trees in water, this individual represents a state of human longing and embodies a Romantic conception of existence and nature, as in the works of Caspar David Friedrich.
LC: More recently you have focused on youth and the environment.
MF: Yes, “Silent Revolution” (2019) and “Night Vision” (2019) represent a new generation standing up for the future, along with Greta Thunberg. This movement gives us hope. I created images of hoodie-wearing teenagers reposing in forests. I wanted to emphasize how passive resistance, modeled after Gandhi, can grow and mobilize a whole generation of young people around the world. Sometimes what one does not do can make a positive impact- like not flying or not consuming single use plastics. “Silent Revolution” is set in a planted forest where all the trees have died, whereas “Night Vision” and “Mirroring Nature” are set in the lush green landscapes of wild forests. These figures, nestled in mossy bowers of ancient forests, echo images of fairies, gnomes and trolls in illustrations of Swedish folklore by John Albert Bauer (1882-1918).
JS: Your recent series, “Handed” (2021), also resonates with Bauer’s mythical imagery. How does this work fit into your artistic environmental discourse?
MF: Yes, the “Handed” images relate visually to forests depicted by Bauer and thematically to Pre-Raphaelite painting, with its critique of industrialization and modern society. My concept stemmed from planned suburbs outside of cities in Sweden, which are spaced far apart, with forests and fields in between. So now we have concrete suburbs surrounded by reforestation. Suburbanites are physically isolated from natural forests as well as from cities. They are also socially insulated; you might even say some are marginalized. Dreams of equality and prosperity remain unfulfilled. This is especially discouraging for migrants or refugees who hope to make a better life in a new home. In these photographs, suitcases and clothes floating in water refer to a need to leave, to embark on an uncertain journey. These images may be understood as alluding to migration, a young adult leaving home to start a new life, a partner starting over after the end of a relationship, or a society in sudden change. In a more universal sense, they are metaphors for finding our way home. In this time of climate change and environmental damage, we all need to find our way back to a more natural lifestyle, in harmony with Mother Earth.
LC: Is there an intersection between feminism and environmentalism in your point of view?
MF: Absolutely and, in my work, I often address how environmental problems arise from power imbalances. It is hard to trace power structures in our modern society: is it the government or industry that runs the system? The Swedish government wants the money from the planted tree industry. It’s all connected, and it always comes back to one question, who profits? Women tend to think beyond the ego; they are concerned about the next generation; they want enough resources to be left for those who come later. My grandmother grew up as a farmer surrounded by old forests. She practiced tree thinning, based on a long tradition of knowledge. In her family, trees were selectively harvested and replanted in kind so her grandchildren could benefit. I believe in this type of practical feminism, the sustainable management of resources. I would like to think that our society can understand that real feminism, the balance of power and justice between men and women, is the best for us all and for the planet.
LC: How has your environmental stance affected your artistic practice?
MF: To conserve energy, I try to select local settings for my projects when possible. Online exhibitions like this one decrease fuel consumption in art shipping. I use environmentally friendly materials rather than synthetic materials when I can. I also source objects from flea markets rather than purchasing newly manufactured goods. In my most recent project, “Force Majeure” (2022-2023), I built skylines, horizons of cities, like New York, Miami, and Paris, using everyday kitchenware. It’s my response to the confinement of the pandemic. I was thinking of nostalgic posters of skylines with dramatic black and white imagery reminiscent of Hitchcock and Helmut Newton. The shadows are more than aesthetic, in the sense that now the world is living through drama with wars and climate disasters affecting the planet.
JS: What is your outlook for the future?
MF: We just entered a new epoch, if you think about the Stone Age, the Iron Age, etc. Now it’s the Human Age. We need more wild animals and more nature, but humans affect the planet the most; we change the environment and the planet’s future. Whether we are talking about environmentalism or about feminism, it’s always about justice for all. It’s both scary and hopeful that we can really do something positive. I believe in art as a bridge to each other – a universal language whereby we can understand our differences and create change.
AVAILABLE WORKS BELOW (scroll, scroll).
Selected public collections:
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, USA; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, USA; Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden; Fotografiska, Stockholm, Sweden; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, USA; Fotomuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland;Kiasma, Helsinki, Finland; Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, USA; Tampa Art Museum, Tampa, Florida,USA; Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Itacha,NY, USA; 21c Museum, Louisville, KY, USA; European Central Bank, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY, USA; Museo Fortuny, Venice, Italy; The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA, USA; Espoo Museum of Moderna Art, Esboo, Finland; KU LEUVEN, University, Lueven, Belgium; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden; Malmö Konstmuseum, Malmö, Sweden.