Jan Winkelmann in conversation with Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset
Jan Winkelmann: The first concept for your show in Leipzig was more object-related and based on different projects for the different rooms of the gallery. At which point and why did you start to think of doing only one project that was more process-oriented and ephemeral and why did you think this would suit better?
Michael Elmgreen: A couple of months before the show in Leipzig our studio was completely covered with working sketches of potential installations, halfway finished models and notes spread all over the floor, and we simply got sick of looking at all that stuff. We had just had an object-based solo show in Copenhagen and we were working on some installations for upcoming group shows. So we decided to do things the other way around. We came up with the idea to give the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig a break, instead of just filling it up with a whole bunch of artifacts, in order to create a period of almost silence in which the spectator, ourselves and the staff at the Galerie could be given a little quiet space for reflection.
But in fact it was not quite as quiet as you had planned. We had a lot to do, like every time we produce new pieces. I had to organize the unemployed painters, handle many telephone calls, interviews, organize the time schedules etc. All the spaces had to be prepared, and then of course the painters were here every day. This meant giving them some attention, talking with them about their experiences with the public and so on. But I think you meant more a kind of a visual break, and indeed this worked very well, also for us. I really enjoyed being in these pure white spaces. When the sun came in it was bright and shining all over the spaces were filled with light and reflections. It was a wonderful and meditative experience, very silent and strangely powerful.
Ingar Dragset: Well, yes, we didnt intend to give you holidays.
In which respect do you think "Zwischen anderen Ereignissen" is different from your earlier performance-oriented pieces and how would you describe the development that took place between the other painting projects and the project for Leipzig. Was it the first time that you involved other people performing?
Ingar Dragset: Our first painting performance was "12 Hours of White Paint" (at Ex-Teresa, Mexico City and at Galleri Tommy Lund, Odense, 1997). For twelve hours we continuously painted and washed down the walls of a smooth white cube space, until the physical features of the gallery blurred and became an accidental landscape. By adding more of the gallerys main signifier white paint the gallery became relieved of its so-called sublime qualities and could no longer function as just a neutral backdrop for the presentation of art. At the Secession in Vienna (1998), we constructed a 6 x 6 m glass cube in the middle of the exhibition hall. From the inside of this box we painted and scraped down the transparent walls over and over again. We wanted to create a constantly changing space within this old, venerable institution. This performance defined its own space through the painting activity, and through the shifting transparency and enclosure it entered into this peek-a-boo-like dialogue with the audience. The main differences between these two performances and "Zwischen anderen Ereignissen" are that in the latter we were not the performers, and the painting action was stretched out over a much longer period of time. It was important for us to avoid any of the romanticized ideas that cling to the artists body or the artists subject performing. By employing professional house painters to do the job, we took one step away from issues related to the artistic self.
How did your experiences with the painters in Leipzig match your expectations?
Michael Elmgreen: Well, as we didnt know Mr. Richter and Mr. Rothe, the two painters, beforehand, we couldnt have any expectations. But our collaboration with them and the communication we had during the week of preparation turned out to be very satisfying for both parties, I believe. During those days we chatted a lot, although our German is pretty bad, and we learnt something about each others backgrounds. We could explain about our ideas and intentions in a relaxed atmosphere. The more we spoke about the project, the more the painters could also relate to it with a deeper personal engagement. Somehow it must have appeared quite weird to them in the very beginning to be asked to paint the same venue white over and over again for seven weeks. But while we were working in the space together, covering the floors with sheets of transparent plastic and sticking strips of painters tape along all the edges, shopping for materials etc., the painters gradually hooked on to the idea. They figured out that this was not just a joke or a provocative gesture on our part but that we were serious about the whole thing that we cared for the details and that we had a great respect for their professional skills. Later on, when they were interviewed by a local newspaper, the journalist tried hard to get them to complain about their participation in this project. Instead of doing so, they replied in a very insightful and loyal way. And, dont you remember when you once got corrected by one of them. You said something about just painting white over and over again, and I think it was Mr. Rothe who told you that white was not just white, but that each room of the space would always have a slightly different tone.
No, in fact it was Mr. Richter who directed my attention to the fact that white seems differently white in the different rooms because of the different quantities of natural and artificial light. So the whole project also had very much to do with perception, and that one could perceive oneself by perceiving.
Ingar Dragset: I recall Mr. Rothe starting to use the expression Living sculptures about their participation without us mentioning this term at any time.
But Jan, I would like to ask you about your interpretation of having your own role as a curator turned into something different in connection with this project. Im thinking of you in the new position of making job interviews for a whole week or so?
Oh yes, it was an unusual but nevertheless very interesting experience to work on this project. In the beginning, when we put this ad in the "Bild Zeitung" announcing that we were looking for unemployed painters for a temporary job, and the first reactions came, I suddenly saw myself faced with a completely different world. A world I usually dont have access to. It was slightly shocking. A number of long term unemployed painters arrived for the job interviews, some with very tragic and depressing stories like the father whose wife had left him from one day to the next, and how he had now to take care of three children alone and without a job. Others came half an hour too late for the interview (imagine being late for a job interview) and a couple of them even turned up slightly drunk (at 10 o’clock in the morning). Many of them never showed up for the appointed time and so on. In the end, I was very happy to find Mr. Richter, Mr. Rothe and Mr. Fischer, though Fischer gave up half way through, for some private reasons. What I never thought of as a pressing issue was the psychological effect on the painters themselves. You mentioned that one aspect of the project was to give the painters a chance to earn some extra money and with this to give them some freedom (either to do or buy something that they could not afford without this job). Quite soon it became obvious that the painters were very happy that their skills and abilities were appreciated and that they were needed again. I realized that being unemployed means a lot more than just not having a job. It was interesting to see how the painters blossomed just because they could use their skills again.
Maybe you could say a little bit more about how you came to propose this project as your first institutional solo show in Germany. From what I know of your work, I would say you most often develop site-related projects (maybe the term site-specific would be a little bit too strong in this case).
Michael Elmgreen: Visiting Leipzig the first time, it struck us how posh and renovated all the buildings appeared. At the same time the city of Leipzig has some significant social problems and in that way the extreme renovation almost seemed like a too thick layer of make up upon very tired skin. From this first impression of the city we got the idea of doing an exaggerated renovation of the space. At the same time we must admit that we actually find a certain kind of beauty in these non-efficient processes, activities that have no logical purpose and that do not take place just to obtain a specific goal. Maybe some people expected us to improve our artistic abilities in a more traditional sense at this point making a more spectacular set up for our first solo show in Germany but it is always important not to fulfil such expectations, isnt it?
I wouldnt say that it is important or absolutely necessary not to fulfil such expectations, but in your case it worked out very well and I was certainly very pleased with it. In fact "Zwischen anderen Ereignissen" was one of the most sober, dense and consistent projects in the short history of the Galerie and I am happy that you proposed it.
Ingar Dragset: Just a comment on your previous question; theres still a tendency to define site-specific only by its relation to an actual physical space. Today artists operate with a much wider definition of site: virtual sites, sites that are defined within social, cultural, institutional and economic discourses. Miwon Kwon has some very interesting theories on these issues in her essay "One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity" (October, No. 80, Spring 1997).
This is why I talked about site-related and avoided using the word site-specific because it is too limited. So far you mentioned only the relation to the city, as a point of departure, but in fact the institution itself was also related. At the very least, I would say that a newly opened (and beforehand totally restructured) and renovated house would not need to have such an ongoing renovation-process. At first sight it seemed even more senseless to realize such a project in a new institution like the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig. In the end, I would say that it was even more intensive because of this fact. In an institution that needed some new paint maybe it would have assumed a much too didactic impetus. But maybe you see this point differently.
Michael Elmgreen: No.
You told me that you are going to realize a new version of painting-peformance at the Rooseum in Malmö. I am very curious to hear what exactly you are planning and how it developed further from the piece for Leipzig (if it has).
Ingar Dragset: The version we will do for Rooseum is more in the line of our earlier performances, as we perform ourselves. We divide the actual exhibition space into two parts with a wall of glass. This wall will seal off a part of the room and create a kind of void space, a sort of interzone. From the inside we paint the transparent wall white and wash down the white paint ... over and over again, until the discreet features of the white cube architecture slowly dissolve. By this performative process we create a moment of dynamic architecture. The work corresponds closely to the piece we did at the Secession in Vienna, but this time we operate directly with the already existing spatial conditions.
The book that we are working on and in which we are planning to publish this discussion is an important part of the project. How do you see it? And in which respect is it different from the book you produced before?
Ingar Dragset: Our previous book, "Powerless Structures" (1998), was much more of a catalogue which had a general introduction to our work. From the beginning "Zwischen anderen Ereignissen" was meant as a project-specific publication an integral part of the show. The catalogue presents the entire process, visually and conceptually: the dismantling of the previous show, the preparations for the seven weeks of renovation, the coffee breaks, the installation of the next show and so on. These parts were all hidden from the audience during the opening hours of the exhibition, but with the book our idea of the in-betweenness is made even more obvious hopefully.
Michael Elmgreen: The perception of an art exhibition is often limited to a rather short-term experience based on what kind of visual information you receive from the objects, videos or conceptual statements present at the very moment you enter the exhibition hall. The information you get as the spectator is just the final extract of a longer and sometimes much more interesting dialogue between curator and artist only the final result of a whole period of preparations. We liked the idea of a catalogue that includes a bit of this context and creates a whole different experience. Not that you get a completely different story or the whole truth through such a book it just makes it possible for the reader to follow the process step by step ... as opposed to the momentary experience.
(Translation: Stephen Richards)
Published in: Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Zwischen anderen Ereignissen, Kat. Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, 2000
© 2000 Jan Winkelmann