“Mormor is the Norwegian nana – the one who always listens, gives advice, nurtures and comforts. But is anyone listening to Mormor?”
Norway ranks number one in gender equality worldwide, but Karoline Hjorth, 33, a Norwegian photographer and journalist, didn’t think that Norway’s mormors – strong, independent grandmothers – received the respect that they deserved. So to challenge the stereotype of the quiet, nurturing grandmother and to honor the strength of Norway’s mormors, Hjorth created the Mormor Monologues.
The Mormor Monologues – a web-based art project – brings to life a series of older women via a creative, multisensory experience made up of of their recorded voices with English subtitles and photos of each woman in her home surroundings.
Hjorth’s site invites us to “Experience, react and respond” – and we did, via an email exchange with the artist.
You dedicate the website to your grandmother, Liv Lebesby. Was she the original inspiration for your work?
Yes she was. Liv is her name. She’ll turn 80 next year and I’ve known her all my life. Still, I’m not quite sure who she is.
So one day I asked. Equipped with a camera and a sound recorder I was going to examine my grandmother with documentary precision, once and for all. I put on my investigative field reporting eyebrows, she put on her shiny lipstick that smells like marzipan cake and the inside of an old leather bag from 1988, and the hunt for the woman behind Mormor began.
After the initial test with my own nana, I realized I had to broaden my research and try to find my answers and insights by visiting other people’s grandmothers.
“I am a very independent human being, perhaps even too independent for many men. I think a lot of people had a hard time accepting that before, while I guess it’s considered old fashioned these days if you’re not independent.” -Dobbe Truuk Doyer, who lived in a hostel bathroom for a summer
How did you meet the women you interviewed?
Word of mouth was a big help in the beginning.
As I dived deeper and further into the material, it also became more evident that the project depended on finding a diverse set of characters. I decided to go on a national grandmother hunt and was lucky enough to get a spot on a national radio show very popular amongst my particular group of interest – and many of them called the radio channel suggesting themselves as suitable candidates.
“We completed weapon courses and ‘closed guard defense’ course and shot with AG-3 automatic rifle and Schmeiser. That was lots of fun.” Anne-Lise Berntsen on her time with the Norwegian Home Guard
What process did you go through to create the mormors’ profiles?
We normally spent the day hanging out together, exploring the house; the women showing me around and sharing stories as I noticed objects around the house. Sharing the nicest meals and recording our conversations throughout the day – a lovely way of getting to know a new person!
Some of them were shy in the beginning, some of them were the opposite of shy and most of them were like most of us, somewhere in between, but deep inside liking the fact that another human being shows interest.
“When it comes to gender equality there is still one point where the imbalance is striking. That has to do with clothing. It is a disgrace when women like me are going out to buy clothes, and I find something like this to complete my skiing gear. Just think about our veins and the blood circulation, how harmful it is to squeeze into this thing.” – Olga Meyer
Do you think the mormors’ comments apply to Norwegian grandmothers in particular, or do their words reflect universal truths about this generation of women?
Now that is something that I am very curious to investigate further. I have been wondering what role the Norwegian welfare state is playing in creating these mindsets and gender roles. I would love to compare with other countries actually, and have been playing with the idea of doing an international Mormor Monologues version.
Have you kept in touch with the women? Did you ever have a gathering of them?
I am in touch with many of them, and I send everyone who’s still alive a Christmas card. Many of them have unfortunately passed away, and some of them have forgotten that we ever met. Two of the women that I am still in contact with have actually taken part in my other project called Eyes as Big as Plates.
Eyes as Big as Plates, an international art project, had a residency in New York City earlier this year where you incorporated local seniors into your art. Please explain this unique project.
Eyes as Big as Plates is a wonderful, ongoing collaboration with Finnish artist Riitta Ikonen and a group of senior heroes from Norway, Finland, New York and, most recently, France. It’s inspired by Scandinavian folktales and the old Romantics’ celebration of imagination. It includes personalized costumes, organic materials, online presentations, performances and photographs from the New York chapter.
Two of my favourite people in the universe are Astrid and Agnes from Gjæren on the Southwestern coast of Norway. Agnes jumped the parachute when she was 85 and did her second jump at the age of 90! She is not afraid of anything. So for the Eyes as Big as Plates project, Agnes was the perfect embodiment of the North Wind.
Do you find the seniors here different than in Norway?
Yes and no. Living in New York shapes you into another type of big city person. The scope and mindset and ability to think broader is perhaps one of the biggest advantages of living your later years in New York compared to a homogenous village community on a remote island on top of the world, although that certainly has its charms too. I think I have to divide my time between both of these worlds when I get to that age.
Are there senior recreation or activity centers in Norway? How are they the same or different than those we have here?
We do have those, but compared to the one that we visited in Chinatown, the Norwegian ones are very old fashioned and traditional. I guess Mia Berner, my favorite ranter of all ranters, the wisest and most groundbreaking of all the women I talked to, says it best:
“This hag came over to my place and spent two-and-a-half hours telling me how old I was. Now, I’ve never had any trouble realizing that I’m old, in fact I rather enjoyed being an old lady. But apart from that I used to believe there was more to me than being old. I used to think I was a person too, and moreover someone who’s still vigorously thinking and working…. The social services are sending out these advisors, and these semi-gifted women in jumpers pop by to tell you that your life is over and that you just have to accept being exposed to a sevice that you never asked for.” -Mia Berner
What are your current plans for the Mormor Monologues and Eyes as Big as Plates? What is your ultimate goal for these art projects?
Mormor Monologues is still touring as part of a theater play called “Før Kaffen Blir Kald” (Before the Coffee Gets Cold), which is based on the project. Eyes as Big as Plates is in full swing, with Sweden, Russia, UK and Japan scheduled for 2014.
By focusing on elderly, active participants in shaping contemporary living, and a living embodiment of our recent past, my aim is to generate fresh perspectives, both through a celebration of the human imagination and for its ability to foster change.
Click below to experience the Mormor Monologues
Click here the see and read more about Eyes as Big as Plates.
Click here for Karoline Hjorth’s website. Her photographic work received the Deloitte ward at the National Portrait Gallery in London and has been exhibited internationally.
Feature photo: Mia Berner from the series Mormormonologene © Karoline Hjorth