Kirsten Reynolds: “When the darkness grows around you, the atmosphere almost feels comfortable”

Ahead of her new show at the Auckland Arts Festival, the British artist talks about her process and isolation in Norway

In 1937, Kurt Schwitters fled to Norway to escape Nazi-occupied Germany. Schwitters was a renowned member of the Dada art movement in the 1930s, which invited a notion of artistic anarchy born out of the social, political and cultural values of the time. Dadaism had no place in Nazi Germany and all examples of the work were banned or destroyed. Schwitters moved to Norway and took refuge on the island of Hjertøya until 1948. Almost 70 years later, Kirsten Reynolds, an artist influenced by Dada, travelled to Hjertøya and used the island as a source of inspiration and base to work from.

There is something special about being alone in the natural environment after dark

Reynolds is an English artist who works across the mediums of drawing, paint, sculpture and collage, as well as working with light installations and print. Within her work, Reynolds takes political and social cues from the Dadaist movement and also geometric characteristics of the futurist art scene. Drawing on her time as a member of the British industrial noise band Headbutt, Reynolds also incorporates musical references, such as illuminated gramophones in her long exposure shots and lighting experiments.

Following in the footsteps of Schwitters, Reynolds’ most recent body of work, The Illusion of Democracy features scenes from her time spent alone on the island of Hjertøya as well as in Greece, Tasmania and New Zealand. We caught up with Reynolds in New Zealand to hear more.

When did you begin experimenting with the use of light sources and long exposure?

I began making long exposures as a teenager using black and white film that I developed and printed in a tiny darkroom. I recently came across some black and white prints that were taken on Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where I was experimenting by illuminating grasses and sand dunes with a torch.

The next time I tried the method was in the early 1990s when I lived in a Victorian squat in Limehouse and used to spend time exploring abandoned warehouses along the canal, often at night. Again, I tried the technique this time using old magnesium flashlights that I would spin around on wires during the long exposure.

Tell me about your experience of isolation in Hjertøya.

Hjertøya is a small island close to Molde on the west coast of Norway. I visited it one day during a residency and found it immediately appealing. It is hard to describe why a certain place has that effect and why I felt so at home, but I knew that I could work there and with so many potential locations, it seemed to make sense to spend the night.

There is something very special about being alone in the natural environment after dark. If you were just dropped in the middle of a forest at night it would be understandably scary, but when the darkness grows around you, the atmosphere is very calm and rich and feels almost comfortable. I am always aware of the hazards and respect for wildlife is essential, but there is also a certain magic in the natural world after dark and I hope that the photographs capture some of the feeling of being in that situation.

How has the current political climate influenced your work?

Politically we are witnessing some backward developments that I thought were impossible. The gradual and insidious reduction of freedoms is concerning. The elevation in importance to economic matters over environmental concerns is deeply worrying. The way in which language is being manipulated with a seeming intent to control and subjugate is scary. Radical used to be a positive word relating to a departure from tradition, being innovative or progressive. Now it has been put together with another previously innocuous word, extremism, to create a faceless horror that is being used to instil fear.

So within the works, particularly the paintings, I’m interested in how we view or represent things that aren’t always what they seem. An image of suggestion and ambiguity can be a more realistic interpretation of a situation than a purely visually representative one.

Can you explain the process of selecting the locations you shoot?

Geographically, I’ll often work in a place I’m visiting for another reason. For instance, the works made in Wellington, New Zealand came about because I was there with Power Plant, a sound and light art event that takes place in Botanic Gardens at night. We are five artists who all make idiosyncratic installations that form a large-scale show. In terms of selecting specific locations for the photographs, I begin by choosing a likely starting point, for instance an accessible length of coastline, and then I will just walk and look in the daytime.

At some point, I’ll decide that a place has a particular appeal and the choice is very intuitive. I also look for practical advantages, for instance, I need to avoid being close to cliff edges, deep rivers etc, as I get quite disorientated while moving around in the dark. When it comes to dusk and I’m setting up the camera and tripod it sometimes happens that the chosen place simply doesn’t work and then I will continue to search for something else nearby in the dark. It can be awkward, but sometimes more surprising images result from a place that seemed unlikely in the daytime.

Has your musical background helped you develop as an artist?

I think that it is a vital and completely connected part of my artistic development. In simple terms, the light drawings are very physical and require a dynamic understanding of timing, tempo and energy – all of which are directly related to music. I find it helpful to be thinking in non-verbal terms while making the work. This is exactly the way that music is created. There are intuitive and rapid decisions made on a subconscious level.