An Interview with Sonja Ahlers

[Sonja Alhers’ book The Selves was published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2010, and we had interviewed Sonja for books.toronotist.com in conjunction with that release. You can find The Selves here and you can find her newest book, Swan Song published 2021 by Conundrum Press here.

I am posting this Dec 21 2022, but backdating this blog post to coincide with the actual interview date.

Originally Published on July 06 2010 for books.torontoist.com]

Howard: You’ve been on the arts scene for a fairly long time, in the indie arts scene, when did you start your style of associating images freely but narratively. 

Ahlers: Well I started doing them in the zines, in the early 90’s, probably 93, way back then. Temper Temper is an amalgamation of earlier work, about five years of work, so I had been doing it for a while –  very obscurely.

Howard: You’ve been able to get by, as far as I understand, on the bunnies that you handsew from angora?

Ahlers: Uhh – well, I stopped resisting it. I didn’t want that, I never wanted the bunnies to take over my life. It’s just taken me years to … figure this out, to just, let it – to stop resisting. I mean craft does support my art – if I let it. I just didn’t want it to take over my life, it’s like a day job, basically. People do kind of go crazy for the bunnies, it’s a whole other … monster… I have to deal with. 

Howard: Is it sort of like another identity you have, another online identity?

Ahlers: Yeah – it’s sort of like a split personality or something. 

Howard: It’s also marketing, is what I’m thinking.

Ahlers: Marketing? How so?

Howard: Well, if you have an online presence, if you have a kind of definition around people buying your bunnies – are people buying your bunnies more aware of your other work?

Ahlers: Some of them are. I’m afraid some people who love the bunnies, I think would be disturbed by my art. Especially earlier work. I don’t know, I’ve tried to keep them separate for a long time, but… it’s OK now [laughs].. it’s under control.

Howard: Do you make a distinction between art and craft, in that way? What kind of distinction would you make between the two?

Ahlers: There’s definitely a distinction – it’s interesting – in North American culture there is a definite distinction between craft and art, and I find in Japan, for instance,  there’s not such a disconnect, and I identify more with that culture than with North American culture. Craft is accepted as an art form in that country and I feel I’ve had more success with the work that I do in Japan than I have with North America. The work I do is coming more from a place of emotional intelligence … it’s hard to explain… it’s sort of an intuitive response that the viewer has.  I feel a strong connection with Japan. 

Howard: Are you talking about the angora bunnies or your work in general?

Ahlers: In general – they don’t see such a disconnect between all of the stuff I do – they can see it as a package, whereas here it’s like I have two identities. I think, here, I’ve tried to hide the fact that I craft items because it’s so looked down upon, and that frustrates me. Because it’s feminine work, and feminine work isn’t heralded in the art community. So, I’m frustrated by that. Things are changing, I know, but – I’ve been doing this for a long while. I just persevere. 

Howard: I’ve seen before you mention the distinction between masculine work and feminine work, masculine art and feminine art. 

Ahlers: Yes

Howard: Would you characterize any of the work that you’ve done as ‘masculine art’ or is masculine art strictly applied to men?

Ahlers: No, when I say masculine/feminine, I don’t mean male/female, or men/women.  I like to think of it as a yin/yang model, which is comprised of male and female characterisics– it has to operate as a whole, I think everyone is part male, part female, and the goal is to balance that out in the individual. I’m just more interested in seeing feminine work. For me, that’s more organic, more intuitive, there’s less structure – 

Howard: – it’s associative?

Ahlers: [pause] yes… yes. I just think that there’s a real imbalance, on a global scale. I think of it as a teeter-totter, between the masculine and the feminine. And I think a lot about the ying/yang model for sure. I just would like to see it balanced out.

Howard: Where would you place media in that? Your book The Selves often uses magazine ads, and other images from print media, and I’m interested how you would characterize advertising – would you characterize that as more of a masculine or a feminine kind of art?

Ahlers: Advertising? Advertising in general?

Howard: Right, advertising intersects with a society in a way, and I’m thinking advertising is associative, non-linear, kind of interface. I’m wondering – because your book seems like it’s really intersecting media – it’s all these images within media that you’ve rearranged, to give them different meanings, new associations –  but they did have their own associations when the were first born into the culture, when they first came out – for right or wrong, good or bad, premeditated or not, you know, maybe to get you to buy something. I’m thinking of media – where would you place that that in your masculine/feminine view?

Ahlers: It’s funny, sometimes I joke to myself ,“Why do I make art ? I should have gone into advertising” It’s funny, a friend and I were walking down the street the other day and we saw a poster for a record store, and I said, “Oh, look, they’ve copied Christian Marclay,” who is a visual artist I love – I don’t know if you know his work, he’s been copied over and over; he did a lot of cassette work, with cassette tapes in the early 90’s. Now he does epic film pieces. Dragging guitars behind a truck to create a sound piece. He’s amazing. He also did a series where he took album covers –  like, say from a Tina Turner album he took her legs and then he took a Blind Faith album with a pre-pubescent girl holding a model plane, and he would piece the album parts together and make a body. It’s really amazing, it’s collage work with album art. But I saw an ad in a record store, they had completely copied that idea, and my friend and I joked that basically artists are kept around as sort of kind of a think tank that advertisers can dip into. Because that’s what they’re doing, they’re out looking for ideas all the time, to copy, or steal, in order to sell product. It’s such a crazy form, it’s all about consumerism. It’s almost the evil version of being an artist – there’s the artist and then there’s the advertiser. The artist always has the original idea.

It’s interesting what you’re telling me about how much advertising you’re seeing in my book, because that was subconscious. The images, a lot of them that I did choose, I deeply considered every single image in this book, and I spent a really long time on it. But I do feel I worked on the material for so long, I created subliminal messages of my own – my own…form of advertising (laughs). But advertising for important issues that are near and dear to my heart.

Howard: Your own personal mythology?

Ahlers: Yes. Yes. Again, for this collective biography, which is how I see it. And a lot of the images in the book – like the images of the book cover for Sybil, the girls from the Led Zepplin [Houses of the Holy] album, that’s stuff that I’ve looked at my whole life. I honestly feel like I’ve stared at it forever, and that it’s been shoved down my … a lot of advertising is, they’re shoving something down your throat, and the only way you can take control is to appropriate it, filter it, and just kind of get it out of your psyche – you know what I mean? Like a filter system, and just to clean – – I know a lot other people who have been disturbed by these same images, like the Sybil book cover.

Howard: I liked what you did with it in your work, how you’ve cut out the shattered images of the original book art and pieced them together to make the face whole again, but the text now looks disjointed.

Ahlers: Yeah, I took the actual cover and cut each strip again and tried to piece her back together. You totally got it, thank you, not many people pick that up. Some people are “I’ve never heard of that book” or “I’ve never seen that cover before,” and I’ve been, like, terrified or terrorized by that image my whole life, it’s so disturbing. 

Howard: Really it’s an extended collage that has a narrative. There is a narrative there, right? I’m not making that up am I?

Ahlers: The character actually grows up throughout the book, so, yes, there is a narrative. It’s like The Selves, there’s a cast of characters [who make up the main character]. 

Also the movie Pallendroms, it’s a Todd Solondz movie that came out in 2004. He used six or seven different actors to play one character throughout the movie, each of a different race, age and gender, all playing a 13 year old girl. I was sort of rifting on that idea, using different characters to play the same person, who’s literally growing up throughout the book. And I’m sort of touching on snippets and fragments of things that might happen along the way. Like, listening to rock music, and using Diana meeting Loverboy at Expo 86 to illustrate that. And then the Degrassi references.

Howard: When I first read it, I read it pretty quickly, I found I had a very strong emotional reaction.

Ahlers: You know, I do this work and I feel like I’m doing voodoo, especially when I’m ‘in the zone’. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing but I also exercise control freak tendencies over the material (masculine) but I leave an element up to chance (feminine).

Howard: Your process is intuitive? It’s trusting yourself?

Ahlers: Yes it is forcing me to trust myself which is sometimes impossible. It’s an exercise for living in the world and trusting the process of life. That is another face of what art making is to me. I make work for the viewer, it’s for an audience, it’s not personal indulgence, it’s meant for the viewer. That’s what art should be, it should have a purpose and people should have an emotional response to it, that’s the only reason I’m doing this, swear to god. It’s social work. I do make other work for myself, but I don’t show that work. With The Selves, this was something I pounded out. I spent a very long time on this. 

Howard: Listening to yourself while you were putting these associated images together?

Ahlers: Yes, I was doing that, but I was also – I was able to take a bit of a break from the book, like three months, and then I went back to the work, I finished the work in the Yukon. So I was able to just completely immerse myself to complete the book and I was able to take it to a whole other level, and in that time, I actually wanted to extract as much of myself as I could from the book. It wasn’t about me, it was about this collective… group,  basically.

Howard: I found it very dark.

Ahlers: Oh, that’s interesting – how did you find it dark?

Howard: I found a lot of the images of girls and pre-pubescent and pubescent kids very sexualized, which is very “advertising” – I found it drew attention to the level of pedophilia in advertising.

Ahlers: Yes, yes. This is what should get looked at with my book,  it has eye-candy appeal to it, like “Oh, wow, this is interesting and fun to look at,” but then you go back and see that it is heavy material. It reveals itself upon repeated viewings. It’s like listening to an album.

Howard: I admit I may not have read it as closely as I did as I was preparing for this interview, and in doing so, I found it very dark, so much so I had leave it for a while after I’d finished it. When I picked it up again to re-read it, if found I didn’t see the same things in it

Ahlers: Yes, it’s a like a choose your own adventure, depending on your mood or where you’re at. It has that capability, you see what you want to see, or see what you need to see in that moment.

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