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“Torso” by Anne-Li Karlsson and photographer Gustav Karlsson Frost.
Anne-Li Karlsson on life, art, and the
artist’s perennial search for answers
When Audi Norway commissioned renowned Swedish artist Anne-Li Karlsson to interpret the manufacturer’s vision for the future of urban mobility, she collaborated with Norwegian advertising agency POL on an ambitious project: “Electric City.” The deceptively simple, creative concept is powered by nothing more than paper, electric ink and imagination. And yet, it encompasses what the not-too-far future might look like.
Coinciding with the launch of the Audi e-tron®—our first 100 percent electric vehicle—Karlsson’s paper city at once erects the future and takes the audience on a journey through it.
The stunning piece is futuristic yet presents an imminent interpretation of urban mobility. Picture a Northern European city made completely out of paper, like an adult-sized pop-up book. It is punctuated by three-dimensional buildings, no more than three feet tall, all outlined in black, with etched windows and street lamps that become illuminated as the tiny electric Audi e-tron quietly makes its way down the white paper street, powered by the special conductor ink inside the very pen that drew the road.
Take a look at the 2019 Audi e-tron®
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Karlsson used electric ink to draw circuits that enabled the miniature Audi e-tron® to cruise down the paper city’s roads.
Click to watch Karlsson create an Electric City powered by nothing more than paper, electric ink, and imagination.
Because of retro-futuristic dystopian novels and space sci-fi films, the eerily prophetic power of art has made an undeniable cultural impact. Often, when we think of the proverbial future, our minds imagine it as we’ve seen it portrayed through spaceships, robots masquerading as humans, or flying cars. It can seem as though the real roadmaps to the future are built by screenwriters, artists and designers as much as they are by scientists.
Karlsson’s work on Electric City is an original work that’s also—hopefully—prophetic: a vision of mobility that’s quiet, clean, even harmonious. It’s easy to see how the uncluttered white symbolizes a new environment. It should be a vision of mobility that may not be too far off.
“If you can’t imagine it, you can’t come up with it.”
“This is why artists are often in charge of imagining the future,” Karlsson said. “Our job is to push the visual envelope. We have to envision the future.” With Electric City, the challenge was to show the future, “but the future in that sense is already here,” she said. “So we built a city very much reminiscent of northern Europe now.”
The artist paints a mural in Tokyo, Japan.
The concept of “idyllic” is not, however, central to Karlsson’s artistic profile. Her work—which stretches from thumbnail icons and illustrations quietly made in her studio space, to live wall paintings and large-scale commercial projects like the Audi collaboration—demonstrates her forward thinking and often quite provocative approach.
Karlsson, who considers herself the opposite of minimalist in her personal life, counts the radical, emotionally expressive work of Gustav Klimt’s protégé, Egon Schiele—who painted at the turn of the 20th century and died shy of 30—as one of her core inspirations.
Adopted from Seoul at age one, she wasn’t brought up in a family of artists. In fact, her family just let her do art without much of the now seemingly standard parent helicoptering. “I think that nowadays parents are overly engaged, so the joy is quickly moved from the act of doing to the act of showing the parents,” Karlsson said. “Looking back, I´m thankful I could do my own thing left alone, finding my own inner motor.”
A transformative moment occurred in high school. Karlsson remembers seeing the world as if for the first time after putting on eyeglasses and looking at a tree whose outlines came into sharp focus. “It is as though, for the first time, the world became clearly defined for me, as if I’d been looking at it through a soft lens up to then,” she said. “Suddenly, the world became full of lines, and it’s still how I see it today.”
Today, Karlsson mixes commercial work—like the kind she has done with Urban Outfitters, Moleskine, H&M and Audi, which is, in its very nature, large-scale and collaborative—with quieter, more introspective and purely artistic projects. Examples of the latter are her solo exhibitions in Korea or the week she spent in Osaka, Japan, inside a shopping window at the Hankyu Department for her “Graffiti Meets Window” live drawing in front of a rather curious audience.
Karlsson in front of her life-sized mural in Gothenburg, Sweden.
“As an independent artist, oftentimes you’re doomed to be a freelancer forever,” Karlsson said. “You can be quite isolated. But what I loved about Electric City is how collaborative the work was, and how truly immense of a project it was. We worked around the clock for days. We did a lot of testing, which meant a lot of failure. And yet everything came together.”
These days, live drawing can seem like a retro concept because we live in such a digital world. It’s as though the analog lines that defined Karlsson’s life have been redrawn. But one thing remains constant: the need to pose questions and to answer them.
Karlsson noted that all artists, like scientists, “are always looking for answers,” no matter what shape the canvas takes or what channel the art goes through. “There’s a thesis, and then a pursuit of confirmation,” she said. “And if you can’t imagine it, you can’t come up with it.”
“Flying cars now seem like retro-futurism, don’t they? It’s a funky loop.”
So when everyone 40 to 50 years ago was occupied with “What does the future look like?” we may have been imagining flying cars. “But flying cars now seem like retro-futurism, don’t they? It’s a funky loop,” she said with a laugh.
Perhaps that’s why when Karlsson was tasked with imagining the not-too-distant future city for Audi Norway, she did so not as a distant abstraction but a subtly aspirational déjà vu: a kind of future that’s actually here, as the miniature Audi e-tron model demonstrates.