The Immigrant Artist Biennial – In Dialogue

In Dialogue with Linnéa Gad, Magdalena Dukiewicz, and Anna Ting Möller

Linnéa Gad. Detail from Shoal II. Photographed by David Schulze. Courtesy of The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

Instead of transcribing a previously established set of ideologies through scholastic mediums, Linnéa Gad, Magdalena Dukiewicz, and Anna Ting Möller engage with materials that “breathe”—materials whose lives and afterlives warrant separate biographies.

Presented within the context of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone, Swedish artist Gad creates sculptures with limestone, oysters, lapis lazuli, and other materials profoundly connected to the Earth’s carbon cycle. On Governors Island, her sculptures, Shoals I-II, evoke humanity’s resonance with and reliance upon nature. Polish-born artist Dukiewicz juxtaposes industrial components with provocative, organic materials such as hair and blood. In the group show, Enmeshed, Dreams of Water, at NARS Foundation, Dukiewicz’s Object #6 (2023) contains decay, regeneration, and fluidity elements into beautifully translucent and sculptural artwork. Chinese-born Swedish artist Möller, whose work will be presented in Parasites and Vessels at Accent Sisters, unpacks the convoluted social history of kinship via kombucha cultures. The oysters, hair, and kombucha are not subjected to manipulating the artists’ hands; instead, the materials are collaborators in these projects, bringing their subjectivities, histories, and sociological implications into the creative process.

Together with TIAB’s co-curator, Anna Mikaela Ekstrand, the artists speak about their work about technology, materiality, and ecosystems.

We are living in an ecological crisis at the same time as when ideas that disrupt the common notion of what it means to be human—posthumanism, the cyborg, and indigenous thoughts connecting the body to land—are becoming more commonly adopted and spoken about in art circles. How do you engage with and think about these various concepts?

LG: Over the past three years, as I’ve been working with limestone (calcium carbonate), I have been considering the carbon cycle and contemplating how the processes of marine biogenic calcification can be emulated. As I work with different materials, I ponder how to sculpt in a manner that mirrors how a mollusk makes its shell. I’m intrigued by how the posthuman perspective encourages us to consider the agency and subjectivity of other life forms, such as oysters, their role in shaping our world, and the lessons they can offer.

I perceive the cyborg as a symbol of hybridity and transformation. My sculptures and installations explore a similar concept by merging industrial elements like metal and lime mortar with organic materials such as limestone and oyster shells. This fusion represents a kind of “cyborg” transformation, through which disparate elements come together to create something new, unexpected, yet inherently connected.

My upbringing in the Stockholm Archipelago profoundly influences my work by helping me foster an intimate connection to the landscape. Observing this environment’s moods and subtle shifts throughout my life has nurtured a deep sense of care and empathy for the rocks, seaweed, and water there. This local experience, which applies to other landscapes and broader perspectives, aligns with the indigenous notion of acknowledging and respecting the land and its resources.

MD: I am very conscious of the ecological crisis. Consumerism and environmental issues are often discussed in my installations. My artworks leave no waste. Once their “life” is over, they are reused in another artwork or buried in the ground to decompose. The inorganic matter I incorporate is mostly scrap metals and other found materials that I recycle and combine with organic elements. Many people are not conscious of environmental issues or care enough to make informed choices; some might think that each individual’s decisions don’t mean much, but without shifting this mindset, no change is possible.

I am not against the development of new technologies or AI. I am fascinated by these forms of progress and refer to posthumanism, transhumanism, and the evolving nature of humanity in my work. What does it mean to be a human? We humans carry with us tens of trillions of microbes. We share many of our genomes and behavioral patterns with other great apes. Lastly, the presence of plastic particles in our veins, the development of mind-controlled prosthetics, or the use of hearing implants blur the lines between humans and machines, raising questions about the definition of a cyborg. You cannot stop and shouldn’t stop progress, but it always comes with a risk.

ATM: My work is ephemeral and constantly morphing, just like humans, but in contrast to humans, the life cycle of my sculptures looks different. The result can hydrate and dehydrate thanks to cells that can act dormant if needed. The work carries the potential for other perspectives on life and death. Fungi and mold can break down bodies and are often linked with decay. The world of fungi is unexplored mainly and can offer another understanding of existence, in which life appears different. In my latest body of work, the sculptures represent a more exposed performative corporeality. They contemplate the concept of kinship and, more precisely, “disrupted kinship.”

“The history of kinship has to include the loss of kin relations, the loss of the status of kin under coerced conditions, and the production of forced kinship as a ruse of power.”

— Judith Butler, “Kinship Beyond the Bloodline,” from Queer Kinship (2022).

I am appropriating Judith Butler’s discourse on kinship. How do we define making family—making kin? Adoption is an unconventional way of family-making, but one cannot ignore the intricate system of power relations that enables privileged, often white parents to nurture children while disempowering those considered subordinate by their gender, class, and race. One can describe it as disruptive kinship, a synchronized performance of family-making that takes place alongside the unmaking thereof.

Butler dismisses the bloodline and discusses disruptive kinship, stressing that it is a retrospective action. Butler also references classical Greek tragedies, in which kinship is revealed only through accusation, fantasy, or guilt. According to Butler, every kinship is subject to misrecognition. Kinship cannot be mapped. It can only be exercised and, therefore, performed.

Anna Ting Möller. S/KIN. Live bacteria culture, nylon, water, and hand-blown glass receptacle. 13 x 13 x 48 in. Photographed by Eivind Lauritzen. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

What was your path into sculpture? Why do you like the medium?

LG: My love for materials was my way into sculpture. I started painting, which I still do, but there was a point when I realized that I was deeply intrigued by the materials I was working with—whether it was the surface of the wood panel I painted on or the pigments I used.

I’m interested in how materials carry their histories and lives, not just in the hands of humans but also in their interactions with other beings and the natural world. In my view, sculptures have the unique capacity to encapsulate numerous layers of material meaning; they can become memory palaces—repositories of rich and intricate stories.

MD: As a child, I always thought I would be a painter. I even graduated as a painting major from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, and that was when I discovered that two-dimensionality alone is not enough for me to express ideas. Installations are my favorite medium. I love working on site-specific projects, especially for unconventional exhibition spaces. I aim to give viewers an experience—to provide them with something they can relate to and immerse in. An experience that can be very subjective: a short moment of rumination, a thought, a feeling, or a state. Using organic materials incorporates biological and physical phenomena into the creative process. Material decomposition, blood deoxidation, and objects reacting to elements leave artworks in a constant state of transformation; I want spectators to have this exclusive moment just for themselves.

ATM: In 2015, I traveled to China in search of my birth mother. Ultimately, I did not find her. Instead, a woman I stayed with gave me a kombucha mother, and that’s when a different kind of “mother” found me. Since then, I have been cultivating that same kombucha culture with tea and sugar—both are consumer goods with fraught colonial relationships with Northern European economies. I started exploring the many metaphorical personas associated with kombucha—mother, offspring, caregiver, contaminant, and even parasite hinging on the necessity of continuous care.

Therefore, with its fantastic potential, kombucha informs my work’s material logic. Conceptually, it is important to me to keep working with the same kombucha mother, continue the lineage of offspring, and examine this matrilineal “family tree” very closely. The method expands on the mother-child relationship and the imagined origins of a child. The work contemplates adoption as well as loss, both private and public. It is messy and operates both on a micro and macro level. The work is inherently political and speaks to who has the “right” to become a parent.

The Mother Mushroom is a colony of yeast and bacteria that ferments the healthy drink kombucha (Symbiotic Cultures of Bacteria and Yeast, or SCOBY). I subtract layers of tissues from the living organism and transform the material into sculptures. Fermentation is a sort of domestication, and a jar of a fermenting culture provides a small window into how life happens. In this way, the particularity of my material allows me to create alternative sculptures that address many social constructs that can be further unpacked.

Magdalena Dukiewicz. Object #6, 2022. Hydrolyzed collagen and the artist’s blood. 40 x 20 x 12 in. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

Magdalena, you work with biological materials such as blood and hair, while Anna, you nurture a Kombucha SCOBY that seems to be a stand-in for a human body. Can you tell me how you work with these materials and their relationships to nurturing, growth, sustainability, death, and your body? In addition, since these could be somewhat unconventional materials for various institutional and gallery spaces—have you been met with pushback? If so, how have you navigated the situation?

MD: I play with those culturally and politically charged corporeal elements and recontextualize them in works of art, exploring how their perceptions are linked to the changing contexts. Each piece provokes visceral reactions while playfully welcoming open-ended associations and ambiguities. Often, they become a starting point for a conversation or a reflection about the visitors’ experiences, traumas, and relationships to gender, identity, the other, and the self. As women, we are often objectified in private and public spaces. Working with my blood and hair is a very empowering experience because it allows me to make my own choices, however transgressive they may appear.

As for galleries and institutions, there are some restrictions on showing artworks containing human blood in public institutions in the US. For example, these artworks are banned from university galleries for being potentially biohazardous. But to clarify, any pathogens in blood die within seven days outside an organism, so I am not putting anyone in danger.

Choosing materials like blood and hair is a risk and a commitment; however, it also takes away the pressurizing expectations imposed by the art market. When a commercial gallery decides to collaborate with me, they are usually a very particular group whose primary concern is not the monetary value of artworks. How do you evaluate your body fluids and your DNA anyway? I am very particular when it comes to sales. I don’t want to focus on fulfilling the demand of the market. Instead, I am much more interested in institutional shows to share my work with a broad audience rather than sending it off to a collector’s storage.

ATM: I work with liquids and living matter, so I constantly negotiate with my sculptures. I often need to compromise, which is also an excellent allegory for countering the norm. One is appreciated for one’s non-normative ideas, but they still have to work with existing guidelines without going far beyond. It’s a balance that I have not mastered. I am always impressed when I go to spaces that allow artists to work with unconventional materials and methods.

Linnéa Gad. Shoal I. Mixed media sculpture. Photographed by David Schulze. Courtesy of The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

Linnéa, in your interdisciplinary research into lime, what is the life cycle of lime—is there a beginning and an end to the material in its various forms, or are the processes open-ended? Which approaches resonate with your work?

LG: The life cycle of lime is more accurately called the carbon cycle. I was introduced to this material through the word “lime” instead of the scientific term calcium carbonate. The carbon cycle is a sequence of chemical reactions where calcium moves through the different states of matter. For instance, CO2 enters the atmosphere through volcanic eruptions and merges with water vapor in clouds, forming carbon acid that rains down to the earth. When the weak carbon acid reacts with the Earth’s crust, over time, rocks dissolve into mineral solutions that carry liquid calcium to the ocean through streams and rivers.

Then, the most remarkable part of this life cycle occurs: Marine organisms such as mollusks, corals, or single-celled zooplankton pick up this calcium with bicarbonate to form their exoskeletons. These calcium carbonate shells are deposited on the ocean floor at the time of their death. The CO2, once in the atmosphere, now becomes locked to an ocean bed, which, in millions of years and under compression, will turn into limestone. When tectonic plates collide, the limestone enters the Earth’s magma chamber, dissolves, and is eventually released into the atmosphere again as CO2.

Through my study of the lime life cycle, I have discovered this material’s immense diversity and versatility for sculpting. It spans from fossiliferous limestone, marble, and lime mortar to oysters, lapis lazuli, corals, calcite, aragonite, and gofun shirayuki. Understanding the intricacies of this life cycle and beyond is important—the materials and ecosystems we interact with. The carbon cycle provides insight into the complex interplay between geological, biological, and chemical processes that shape our world.

This interview was edited by Jenny Wang, TIAB’s writer-in-residence.

About the Wrtier : Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a Swedish/Guyanese writer, researcher, and curator interested in feminism, social practice, and decolonization and the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes. Anna Mikaela holds dual master’s degrees in art and design history from Stockholm University and Bard Graduate Center. Her latest books are “Assuming Asymmetries. Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects in the 1980s and 1990s” and “Curating Beyond the Mainstream,” published by Sternberg Press in 2022. She is co-curator of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone and the organization’s Associate Director.

Linnéa Gad, Magdalena Dukiewicz, and Anna Ting Möller are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the complete program here.

Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this interview is part of an interview and review series that will be published throughout its programming.