She scrutinizes the seams of the gender costume
Professor and artist Maja Gunn does not wish, nor does she need, to choose. In her world, theory is interwoven with practice, researching with creating, teaching with exhibitions. With the help of textiles, clothing, and fashion, she explores her own gender, sexuality, power, and norms. A strong sense of justice runs like a common thread through everything she does.
In a display case in Kungsbacka Konsthall lie a blouse and a jacket together. Or rather, what’s left of them. The fabric has been ripped up, leaving only threads behind, and the only thing holding the garments together are the seams. We can still see the cut of the front pieces of the blouse and the buttons on the right side of the jacket. They signal what gender the garments are meant for. Although they are falling apart, the framing remains. The norms are lodged in the their structure.
Maja Gunn is a professor at HDK-Valand and the artist behind the work Unraveled Garments, which is currently on view at Kungsbacka Konsthall. Over Zoom from her home office in Stockholm she told me about the exhibition Konstruerad detalj (Constructed Detail) and why she works with textiles.
“Our clothing constructs and communicates gender, and we all have bodily experiences of clothing. That makes textiles and fashion a rich and interesting arena for exploring social norms and power structures,” she says.
The exhibition in Kungsbacka is part of a larger pattern that extends throughout all of Gunn’s art and research. That pattern includes criticism of norms, identity politics, power structures, and historical descriptions.
A newer element of the pattern touches on the elderly and the aging process. Gunn was recently awarded a research grant to find out how elderly people in assisted living facilities can use art and design to create a sustainable environment that fosters social engagement and participation.
“I’m going to be working with designed living environments through co-creating processes with the elderly residents and staff,” she says, looking into the screen.
Teaching students in the Textile-Body-Space program
Gunn is accustomed to remote conversations—not because of an awful virus, but because for many years she has had a job with widely varied assignments and workplaces. She might be sitting at home and writing a research paper one day, designing an exhibition in her studio the next, and then teaching students in the Textile-Body-Space program the following day at HDK-Steneby in Dals Långed.
“I think it's a strength—both for me personally and for my work—to be able to work on different things and in different ways,” she says. “I also make costumes for the theater and film and work as a curator.”
Ever since Gunn was in first grade and won a competition for the design of the school’s shirt, textiles, clothing, and fashion have been her favored materials and means of expression. But she has always found the meaning in the world outside. She sums up her work and her motivation by telling me about a sign with the word PEACE that she made as a five-year-old.
“Fundamentally, I do the same thing now as when I was five years old and made that sign. I use my making and my artistic practice to express and create change.”
Gunn grew up in a small town with few cultural opportunities. But thanks to her mother, who had a burning passion for culture and continuing education, she still got to experience everything from opera to art exhibitions. It was there her interest in societal issues was awakened, leading eventually to a commitment to social justice. In her teenage years she got involved in politics, and when Gunn was later admitted to Konstfack, the University of Arts, Crafts and Design, it gave her an entirely new platform. Art and design replaced politics as her medium for making an impact. When she took the step into research, that platform grew yet larger.
“I need challenges to make me feel stimulated, and after a few years as a practicing artist, I was longing for something to dig deeper into. I wanted more theory, so I applied to a doctoral program.”
Research opens doors to new contexts
In 2016 she became a Doctor of Philosophy in design specializing in fashion, and in 2017 a professor at HDK-Valand. Since then, she has united her artistic practice with her research. She uses research to explore her art and vice versa. The two fertilize each other, each lending different qualities to the other.
“Clothing and textiles are a visual tool that speaks to our experiences. They are linked to experiences, memories, feelings, and behaviors, like the fear of being dressed wrong or what happens when we wear certain clothing. The research in turn has given me a chance to deepen my reasoning and has opened doors onto new contexts.”
One of them is collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, such as the research projects Origo and FIRe, which took a perspective critical of norms to examine how design and architecture can promote equity in the emergency services. The results included the publication of Social Byggnorm (Social Building Standard), a booklet of proposals for new ways of thinking about design and architecture.
“One example is the firefighter’s uniform,” notes Gunn. “It’s based on the male body, and there’s no bra with the kind of protective qualities that other parts of the uniform have. Besides that, they’re expected to change outside the vehicle. If we don’t want female firefighters to have to expose their private underwear, the uniform needs to include underwear.”
Just then her picture freezes on the screen. The Zoom link breaks down. And new conversations await for Gunn, whose students are in the middle of finals.
“I love this time of year,” she confides. “It is tremendously fun to get to be part of the students’ final results. To see how their aspirations and what at times appear to be impossible challenges in the end lead to fantastic projects.”
Another of her responsibilities as professor that she feels right at home doing is the strategic work of organizing the program’s curriculum.
“That requires a comprehensive perspective and visions, because higher education has an important role to play when it comes to the democratic values in a society,” says Gunn, who has also served on HDK-Valand’s Equity Committee.
And so our conversation comes back around to the place we started, to that common thread.
“Of course I love textiles, the feeling and the symbolism, I’ve loved them ever since I was a child and bought some incredibly good-looking clothes that weren’t meant for play at all, but it’s that opportunity to make a difference that gives me the courage to explore our social norms and the power structures that control them.”
- Holds a PhD in design specializing in fashion.
- Is a professor at HDK-Valand and teaches at HDK Steneby.
- Her dissertation, Body Acts Queer: Clothing as a Performative Challenge to Heteronormativity, explores artistic and performative methods for challenging the dominant heterosexual norm through clothing.
- Has worked at Beckmans College of Design, the Swedish School of Textiles in Borås, and Halmstad University.
- Has had solo exhibitions at the Textile Museum of Sweden, Museum Anna Nordlander, Norrbottens Museum, and Steneby Konsthall and has participated in group shows at the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, Färgfabriken, the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle.
- Researches topics such as the construction of clothes in relation to the construction of gender, and has researched how design and architecture can foster equality in the emergency services.