Siri Skjerve

Visual Artist

As We Evolve (english)

Siri Skjerve

Translated by Arlyne Moi

In the innermost part of the body are the lungs. Outermost is the skin that packs you in. It is permeable, opening its pours every time you breathe, every time you sweat and every time you get so close to another body that there is no space to intervene. Skin that breathes is like an open border. It stores experiences and tells stories about lived life, aging, illness, joy, external influences and geography. As a material, it tells about life and death, the certainty that one day your body will no longer be part of you. Skin without a body has a different kind of breath.

The texts in this publication are written from the same starting point: raw and tanned hide as artistic and conceptual materials. They are presented in connection with the exhibition As We Evolve at the art centre Møre og Romsdal kunstsenter. The exhibition is my first solo show and features works made of naturally tanned hide, rawhide and fur.

The term ‘skin’ refers to the outermost layer of both humans and animals. It is also used to denote an abject thing, a torn-away part of ourselves. Skin is a reminder of our origin, transience and the boundary between ourselves and the world. It is the divider between me and everything that is not me. Raw and tanned hide visualises reflections about ourselves as human beings seen from a distance as well as from an intrusively close vantage point. It is a visual language that belongs to the human body, is body and at the same time is estranged.

I have never seen Meret Oppenheim’s fur-clad cup (Object / Le Déjeuner en Fourrure / The Luncheon in Fur) in reality, but the image of the cup, saucer and spoon clothed in gazelle fur sets my teeth on edge and gives me a strong sensory experience. The fur packs in the cup, hides it, reshapes it, estranges it. But we see it; it is almost more visible now than before it was covered in fur because its function has changed and only a bit of the handle is visible through a crack in the fur. The gazelle fur can represent something sexual and obscene, but first and foremost it represents a feeling. There is the idea of putting the fur up to my lips and tasting what may come out of the cup. Hair on the tongue. Soft fur against the teeth.

The leather needle’s three sharp edges cut through the hide when I sew. I apply pressure to push it through and use a thimble to avoid poking a hole in my finger. The rawhide is wet and a bit slippery. It contracts around the linen thread and has a faint odour of leather, animal, fat and proteins. In some places there are still remnants of fur. The markings in the hide and the hairs that stick up here and there remind me of the living animal. They also remind me of my own body. Skin against skin. Dead against living.

All mammals have largely similar skin. It consists of three distinct layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the hypodermis. From a tanner’s perspective, if you want to treat and preserve skin, the dermis is the most interesting layer. A tanned skin is treated in a way that makes it soft and durable. Rawhide is skin that has been dehaired, scraped and dried. It is hard when dry and soft when wet. Rawhide is not as durable as tanned skin, but it can be formed when wet and will retain that form when it dries.

Traditional tanning and ways of treating skin have largely fallen into oblivion, and most people today have little or no knowledge of them. Skin is a natural material that we relegated to industry in the mid-1800s. Through industrial treatment, it becomes so saturated with chemicals that it no longer belongs to nature. When chrome tanning superseded the traditional techniques, it reduced the time needed to tan leather, but the quality and durability of the leather was also reduced. The knowledge of traditional tanning methods was no longer something all villages needed to maintain and pass on from generation to generation. Nevertheless, in some cultures, not only here in Norway but also elsewhere in the world, tanning is still a thriving craft. This is why the knowledge has not been lost and why I am able to explore skin as an artistic material.

To be born is absolutely necessary. But no one remember their own birth. A birth is a story, whether trustworthy or not. When you’ve chewed on it a while, the question emerges of who you actually are. The answer to that can be a discovery. Something you find if you search. Or an invention? Something each and every person must create.[1]

Human life involves constant movement, both physically and through time. Our surroundings change and we use different approaches to tune into them. Our identity is inconstant. Who we are is an ongoing process. Five years ago, I moved to Todalen, a village with 300 inhabitants. I grew up in Oslo and studied in Bergen. In what way is artistic research influenced by changes in one’s geographical starting point? In my case, it took a long time before I discovered, some years ago, that raw and tanned hide would be what created continuity between the place I had moved to and the core within me. In my own way, I situated myself in a tradition and culture that have formed this place for many generations. The material, skin, gave me a language that both belongs to my own history and the history of this place.

I follow the material until it hangs, ready for use, in my studio. In the hunting season I collect skins from the local hunting teams here in Todalen. I see skinned animal bodies emitting steam as they hang from the ceiling. Entrails lie heaped in a wheelbarrow and the skins lie on the floor, still warm. I am interested in the possibilities this material affords. To understand the space of action available to me, and to get help to treat the skins in the best possible way, I take them to Jutulskinn in Vågå. In collaboration with the hunters and tanners, I decide how the material should be treated. The stories begin before the sculptures are formed. They begin with the animal, myself, the hunting experiences of many generations and those who have marshalled and preserved the knowledge of treating skins with natural tanning agents.

My starting point for working with skin is the human being per se. Skin is a material that is also part of me; it is something we all have. This material is a constant reminder of shared existence, community and interdependence between humans and animals. Is the animal estranged when its body is gone and I am left only with its outer enveloping layer? The eyes are extinguished, the individual has left and the body has become meat, food. I transform and insist on turning the animal into a new story. But the material will never be devoid of history. Do I get closer to the animal when I give its skin a new shape? Or do I move myself farther away from it?

I stand at the bedroom window and look out. It’s cold, but I’m not cold. I see that the snow has fallen like a protective blanket between the ground and the night. It turns the moonlight blue. Like a crystallisation of the forest’s darkness, I see thirteen shadows standing with bowed necks. I hear the silence and the sound of noses digging for dry grass and mouths pulling it loose and chewing.

Together, we are fourteen. Do they know who I am?

We breathe in the same air. We are this place.

[1] Beate Grimsrud, Jeg foreslår at vi våkner (Oslo: Cappelen Damm, 2020), p. 16. Our translation.

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