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Sonja Nilsson – Visibility is a Trap | ARTLECTURE

Sonja Nilsson – Visibility is a Trap

-Interview by Hyuna Ji and Ahreum Han -

/Artist's Studio/
by Ahreum Han
Sonja Nilsson – Visibility is a Trap
-Interview by Hyuna Ji and Ahreum Han -
VIEW 338


The interview with artist Sonja Nilsson was conducted in written form. Before listing the questions, poet Hyuna Ji and I shared in emails various personal stories that in one way or another were related to Nilsson’s Visibility is a Trap. We talked and talked. From doubts of own identities to the evil of comparison, to seeing things and things people consider weird, to Lola of The Life Ahead, and to Jesus and the Virgin Mary who was laid in a manger. The stories, which sometimes seemed to have nothing to do with her work, expanded continuously. Within the journey, the poet wrote a new poem, and Nilsson gave contemplating and elaborate answers in a calm and orderly way, while even reading a book that one of the question had referred to. And Ji and I still talk, with Nilsson's work planted in a corner of our daily life and social reality. The interview could never be enough to reflect everything we had been thinking about during that time, but we do hope it will help anyone to tell their own story and to understand the work and the ideas addressed therein.

Hyuna Ji: As I kept thinking about the title ’Visibility is a Trap’, a famous old story in Korea came to my mind: ‘The skull water of Saint Wonhyo’. A monk called Wonhyo drank dirty water that had gathered a skull in a dark cave and vomited after he learned about it under the daylight. Darkness covered his eyes but quenched his thirst, and light revealed the reality but caused pain. I thought this would make sense, if I read ‘Visibility is a Trap’ the other way around.

AAAAAUUTHHHENTICITYYYYY(2019), at Zarinbal Khoshbakht , 2021

Could you explain a little bit why you chose ‘Visibility is a Trap’ as the title of this  series of works and how it relates to the theme of passing?

Sonja Nilsson: The story with Saint Wonhyo and the skull water brilliantly captures the essence of how powerful the mind can be in creating our reality! I think it applies very well to how you could interpret the title and issues in my work. The title is taken from Michel Foucault and it describes the condition of an individual when the supervisor or controller, which guarantees order, becomes invisible. It causes the individual to have a feeling of permanent visibility and of being under constant scrutiny, without retreat or integrity being allowed to him or her. At first, I simply thought of it as an illustration of the loss of privacy that visibility creates. Later I have also been thinking of another loss, that you sometimes stand closer to reality before you start defining it. While someone is passing, it is our perception that defines what we understand as reality. And after an outing, when the passing has become visible, it is instead the description that creates our reality.

Actually my intention was never to make a work about ’passing’, it just happened that all the stories ended up tip-toeing around that term. When I describe the term to others, I usually describe it as: a person's ability to be perceived as a member of an identity group other than the one of their origin. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias describe it as: a person's ability to be perceived as a member of an identity group different from their own. I always thought that is rude, who are they to decide who someone else is?

Ahreum Han: Can you tell us a little bit how you came up with the theme of passing? Does it relate in any way to a personal story or background?

Sonja Nilsson I'm dyslexic. The way I see it today, it's nothing more than being a little differently constructed, like some become left-handed. But I have not always thought so. There was a time in my life when I concealed it, since I was convinced that others would perceive it as a handicap of the intellect. How I handled this is perhaps something that has shaped me more than anything else.

My story, in short, goes like this; reading and writing difficulties were discovered at the start of school, at a place without knowledge of how to work with it. I got to spend much time in the room for those with special needs so that I would not fall behind. It actually had many advantages to have your own teacher by your side, but created a completely dependent position. I had a talent for drawing, and I did not see any opportunity for me to manage studying on my own, so later I applied to art school. With my newfound interest, the desire came to participate in the theoretical part. I met a very studious girl. I fell in love and we became a couple. In a lecture by psychotherapist Esther Perel, she says: ”... we tend to partner with somebody whose proclivities match our vulnerabilities. So a person, in need of space meets a person who is more equipped at space …” In my case I ended up in an absolutely co-dependent relationship where she was helping me read and write almost everything. From fear of being judged, I did not want anyone to know, which led to a kind of double life. It became very complicated and also had a high price. But despite the struggle, it had enormous meaning for me - to be a part of, and have a sense of belonging to, that space.

This is a one of the parts that especially interests me regarding the dynamics of passing: where the aim is not to actively deceive others but to withhold parts of yourself that would disqualify you from existing in a space in which you feel you belong. 

Introductory text to Visibility is a Trap - the Source Book, at Zarinbal Khoshbakht , 2021

HJ: I wonder why you chose the medium of video. Is it because of the temporal dimension that is present in stories of passing? 

SNI have always been amused by the visual way of telling. My wish was to create a situation where the viewer’s position made them part of the work. By placing the people portrayed inside the walls in this series of work, I wanted to show how they used to be a part of our space. As a metaphor about the outing, they were now excluded and only able to exist in the empty space between the walls. The video projections of the characters were made so they appeared as holograms that gave them a physical presence. Now and then, the characters gave us eye contact and the dialogue was directed at us as viewers. In that sense, the holes in the walls also became as the broken fourth wall, reminding us of the situation and our positions. I think this is like a wish for me: to provide a lived experience that the viewer can keep, as art is usually understood at a later stage when you look at writings and have the artwork explained by others.

HJ: I was impressed by using ‘walls’ as the way of watching projections. It looked like a wall of impassibility. It also made me remind of a word like “closeted gay”. I like it because it seems to give the visual effect of outing as a crime by eavesdropping on or peeping into a hole in the wall. Do you think that the time before being able to speak out by oneself is also a part of passing, as well as of course the decision not to tell others  at all?

Österängen Kosnthall, 2019

SNBeautiful thought. Without vulnerability or the risk of getting hurt, or the difficulties of not being able to accept for oneself, passing would not be necessary. “A closet” describes it well. I absolutely think that passing is the act that takes place when a person is in the closet. A person may be forced out of the closet against their will. That is an ”outing”. And for some it may be a relief to get out. That is a “coming out”. The symbolism becomes even clearer if we think of it as the idiom “a skeleton in the closet”, a shameful secret.

HJ: You have re-enacted several characters. I was wondering what was your criterion for working out the characters. I was surprised to find O.J. Simpson. Probably you researched more people, and more data must have been collected. If there are people who could not be finally included in the book, why didn’t they meet the criteria?

the Source Book [Visibility is a trap]

SN: From the beginning I had ideas about topics I wanted to deal with in the different scenes. It was rather the stories connected to the characters that decided whether or not they were included for discussion in the different scenes. The piece with a character portraying O.J. Simpson is about passing taking place without the person changing their physical appearance. Like how O.J., in an exceptional way, was accepted into all-white communities. This illustrates the way these groups passed him off as a member of their own. Even if I wanted to focus on that specific part of the young O.J story it would be, of course, impossible not to think about what happened later in the case around him. After he messed up his life and he became the symbolic case where the court chose to let him pass as innocent. The same way that the court in previous years had let the  offender pass in the Rodney King case, and in principle all other similar cases. To be clear here, unlike most of the characters in my work, this is not a story of passing from a personal angle. But it included so much of what I think about the nature of passing that it played an important role in that scene. And as you said, there were many stories that I did not adopt. For example, I had studied the case of Jörg Heider, the Austrian right-wing politician who pursued an anti-homosexual policy. He officially lived a life with a wife and children. But when he died in a car accident it emerged that he was returning from a date with his young boyfriend. I left that story out as the content never fitted into any of the topics I wanted to address in the scenes.

AH: I have wondered about the identity of JT , which is not a hoax. And about the question what a “living” identity is and what would be its opposite, a “lifeless” identity. Based on JT saying, 

People made me into a hoax,

it was like I never had existed…

oh well, maybe I actually never really existed,

but I was definitely alive. 

- JT LeRoy,  [Point of no return]

It seems that there might not be a kind of “living” identity itself, but we should call identity only something that makes us feel alive or exist. Because only then even something like a hoax can have a life. In one way, you seem to try to say that all people who bring their own stories (narratives) to light have identities which are alive. What is    identity for you? And what can you say about your identities? 

SNI tried to portray the characters in the pieces as I thought they had been in their specific times while they were “passing”. At the same time, I wanted them to know and to be able to discuss everything that has happened after being “outed” - their deaths, and everything else up until today. I think of identity as a collective experience that arises between people and is constantly changing. Therefore, it was important to try to keep their spirits and mindsets from their own time-bubble, and not who they might have been in the light of today. What I mean to say, is that what we believe in for a period of time is an essential part.

In that sense, there was a time when JT was the young gender-fluid writer and former drug-addicted-truck-stop-teen-prostitute. He had his own subject and was a narrative involved in many people's lives. That I would say makes him pretty much alive!

The knowledge of today that this had happened with a mind and a body of two different persons, makes it quite special. Nevertheless it has still happened. And what has changed is only what we know about how this happened.

"Point of No Return", 2019

HJ : In one of the videos  ’Point of no return’, some characters such as Billy say that silence is best. There may be reasons for survival, safety, or privacy. But you decided to reveal it. Why did the value of not being silent have priority to you?

SNMonica Lewinsky said in an interview: “I would do anything to have my anonymity back”.

If it were possible, I would love to have helped her with that. But since it's out there, it is the point of no return. The stories I’m telling are all public famous cases, and in these cases, I think it is more helpful to let them be examples and for us to talk about them to seek a better understanding.

While researching the people who appear in my book, I found out that one of them had undergone gender reassignment earlier in their life. This information was no longer available on any public website. If I had chosen to include it, that would have meant committing a type of outing against this person, and I saw no point in doing that.

AH : When it comes to identity, stories of a body are involved in many times. And your book says, 

“Raymond argues that it is not possible for men to become women through hormones and surgery and that trans women should not be seen as women. From her point of view, it was because of missing a history of lived experience and the discrimination attached to growing up in a female body.”

And JT says in your work ‘Happiness is a human right’,

“When my voice wasn’t deep enough or other feminine features were shining through, people just saw it as I was genuine and authentic in my desire to be a girl. There was no way I could have become alive in the body of a forty year old chubby woman. I mean you can exist in someones mind but for it to become real, you need a body to be tangible.”

What is the meaning of a body to you – as a person, an artist or related to your work?  One could assume that without a proper body equivalent to one’s self-existence, passing would fail. What is the meaning of changing a body when visibility is a trap? Should I understand that it is more like closing other’s eyes rather than deception?

Detail from "Happiness is a human right," 2019

SNAbout people with passing stories, the motivation probably differs considerably depending on each individual case. What intentions someone may have had can of course only be answered by the people themselves. But if we were to compare Günter Wallraff’s use of passing as a journalistic method, to when it has been a question of people's own existence. Where these people have often tried to do everything so that it would never come to the public's attention. In these cases, I think passing always aims for some kind of privileges; whether gaining access to an area that society has limited or becoming a member of a social group for more personal purposes.

When we talk about body, much is not a choice. We are evaluated according to society's conventions and prejudices others might have about our origin and gender. We are born with different physical possibilities, where, for example, the beauty ideal of our time will give us different fundamental conditions. Those whose appearance is more ambiguous are certainly much more likely to pass. Nevertheless, I would like to say that the body is only one factor when it comes to passing.

But the physical body is not enough. Things like body language, ways of thinking and expressing oneself verbally and perhaps even more subtle things like pheromones can be very important in our communication.

I want here to share something I have witnessed from a very close and dear friend of mine. On several occasions when we ended up in a queue for a nightclub, my friend walked past the queue and confidently showed her hand at the entrance, and was let in! It is as if the entrance guard forgot to look at the hand, which did not have a stamp, and let her pass for her convincing way she behaved. In the same way, I believe that passing is often more about embodying a mindset and letting that come to life.

AH: When Brendon says, “it’s almost like a paradox, on one hand you’re becoming who you are in the eyes of the other, but as soon people learn about your past they will only see that instead” I thought there is another visibility for us to cross, which has been imprinted or shaped in our perception. It means we are seeing not only what’s in front of our eyes. Brendon and Billy are oppressed also by this invisible visibility even after they achieve who they are in the eyes of people. So even though visibility has functioned as a means to cross the border between their different identities or as a means for human relations in a way, fundamentally it is a “trap” like you say with your title. Because it is quite nonconforming or making discord in their own reality, isn’t it? 

SNActually, when it comes to those two, I might have an over-romanticized idea in thinking that their lives would have been playful and life-affirming. Having so many women who fell for them, how confirming must that not have been? Considering all the stories told by people who were close to them, I do believe that it could have been close to how their lives were.

We can, of course, speculate about how it could have been for them sexually not to reveal their body status to their girlfriends. But I think that is to assume that they really, deep down within themselves, would have been "trapped" in a non-affirmative way. There seems to be an idea that a more authentic identity would exist inside of people. Many of those who are transsexual often claim that they are trapped in a body of the wrong sex. At the time of Brandon and Billy’s outing that idea was not a generally well established way of thinking for most people, and they were most often considered to be women disguised as men. Today, most people probably would give them some form of transgender identity. It doesn't matter whether we would now consider them to have been lesbians who had trouble acknowledging it for themselves or to have had a transgender identity that they could not be open about. I think these ideas, themselves, are the real tragedy and what the "trap" is about.

Sonja Nilsson in her studio, 2021

AH : Honestly, I believe that it’s not possible to say anything unpolitical these days. But do you think your work is political or do you mind being called a political artist?

SNI would like to divide this answer like this:

As content.

I definitely think that the topic in my work is politically charged.

As my way of thinking.

By looking at the background, I think you create understanding. I find either/or thinking uninteresting. I like to look at things from a dual perspective, of what it means for one part and, the hurt from the other part. Sometimes these two even have very little to do with each other.

As my affection.

Despite my work having political content, I would say that my interest and viewpoint is of a psychological nature. I find the idea of trying to convince others how to think a terrible idea. Therefore I would not call myself a political artist.

As my motivation and purpose.

I think what happens when works are viewed in public is a magic moment. Many times it appeared to me a funny feeling of watching my own work as if it was done by someone else. This way of letting the work "get a life of its own" creates a sense of meaning for me. I do not really believe in changing society with my art. But if I did, I think it would be more as an influence evoking thoughts and inspiration.

AH : What do you think of the opinion that art shouldn’t be political? Have you ever got any questions from audiences asking you a kind of solution or political position related to the artwork? If so, how did you respond?

SN: Here is a short answer: In my opinion, art may happily be about political topics, but it is less well-suited to providing solutions. Think about what makes art exciting – as with a lover, it is something you can not understand and you want to explore. You notice an intention, and you are turned off.

Sonja Nilsson, born 1977 in Veberöd, Sweden, lives and works in Berlin. Nilsson studied at Hässleholm Art School, Kristianstad Art School, both Sweden, and received her MFA from Valand Academy, Gothenburg, Sweden in 2001. Her solo exhibitions include Visibility is a Trap , in the project space SCOTTY, Berlin (2020) as well in Österängens Konsthall and Norrtälje Konsthall, Sweden (both 2019), and Sonja Nilsson , Färgfabriken, Stockholm, Sweden (2013). Her group exhibitions include Döden - en utställning om livet , Liljevalchs, Stockholm, Sweden, 30 år med Maria Bonnier Dahlins stiftelse , Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden (both 2016), Verket , Avesta, Sweden (2015) and Stargazer , Sven-Harrys Konstmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden (2013). Nilsson's work is represented in the museum collections of Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, Göteborg Konstmuseum, Alma Löv Museum, and Verket, Avesta Ironwork Museum, Sweden. 

*Sonja Nilsson will exhibit her work at Konstepidemin in Gothenburg, Sweden, from May 21 - June 13. Some images and biography being used in this article are from the materials of the exhibition at the gallery Zarinbal Khoshbakht in Cologne, 2021

The interview in a longer and less edited form with a poem of Hyuna Ji was published in Korean on Artlecture (

Online rescources

all images/words ⓒ the artist(s) and organization(s)