Acts For Reconstructing History | A Conversation with Simon Wachsmuth

Zilberman Gallery
Mar 17, 2017 9:56AM

The title of your exhibition is Some Descriptive Acts. In relation to your artistic practice, this title seems to refer to acts that are descriptive of cultures, traditions, and told histories, such as rituals. How do you regard this title in relation to the works in the exhibition?

The title basically describes my approach to things. I like to observe, and the next step would be a description. Description is a more active and determined way of dealing with things than the observation, as it contains more performative acts. I am also interested in the notion of “Beschreibung” (description) as Wittgenstein uses it. According to him, human behavior is narrated, meaning that we cannot approach a story directly, as it’s narration stands in the way. As a reader or viewer, we are confronted at first with a narrated presentation of a story. The story itself is not identical with the narrative, making it someway abstract. Wittgenstein relates this idea to language, but I often think how his idea might be related to the way artists work. Thus, I consider the acts of observing and describing already as viral parts of representation. Talking about that, I should mention the line from Goethe’s Faust, “Im Anfang war die Tat” (In the beginning was the deed), referencing the Gospel according to St. John: “In the beginning was the word…” These quotes display the characteristics of these two activities for me.

Your video Qing is the main piece in the exhibition. In it, we see a dancer moving along with traditional Chinese garments and porcelains. This piece also has a personal relevance  for you. Can you tell us more about this story, and how it relates to the idea of ‘migration of gestures’?

Some members of my family were dancers, and have been part of the avantgarde scene of the first half of the 20th century in Vienna. Many of these dancers were persecuted by the Nazis, and were forced to leave, going to places like Shanghai, Bombay, England or Palestine. Often, the immigrants could not take anything with them except the physical knowledge that was part of their cultural and social heritage. Gestures, movements, physical intuition and sensitivity have been either the key to survival in a foreign context or a barrier for the continuation of artistic practice. With all those materials in my own luggage, I tried to grasp what it meant for these women to flee and begin a new life and career, and how the ones who couldn’t leave felt. However, the film is abstract in the sense that it does not have a clear narrative or a precise time reference. It shows a dancer moving along an imaginary line in front of an indefinite background, encountering silk-robes and porcelains. Both the beginning and the end of the film are enigmatic; there is no clear account of leaving and arriving, no explanation for the movements or gestures of the dancer. It is an observation of a motion, a description of an event.    

This video is accompanied with an arrangement of archival materials, reminiscent of Aby Warburg’s influential Mnemosyne Atlas. These archival materials suggest an interpretation of the continued existence of antique  forms and signs into the present. As archival work is an important part of your artistic practice, how do you perceive the existence of this archive in relation to the video Qing?

Working with archival materials allows me to arrange and rearrange materials, to experiment with narratives and to question modes of meaning production. In regard to this work, it helps me to shift the focus from a personal story to a story with a wider impact. After all, things like those I address in Qing are still happening. As you say, it’s also very interesting to investigate how these forms have changed through their journey, from the past into the present.

In your series titled Master of the Nets – The Kochi Tiles, we see tiles produced in China that you have encountered in a synagogue in Kochi (India), with slight differences in each tile. Can we say that this series says a lot both about the repetition and the singularity, and also about the shared and differentiated characteristics of cultural heritages?

I like what you say about “repetition and singularity,” as they keep coming back in my work. We are concerned with the question of difference both generally and specifically, which you refer to as cultural heritage. Many cultures share the aim to create a perfect mechanism for flawless repetition. But there are cultures objecting that mechanic notion of perfection. A little flaw in the material, infusing some me- lancholy in our perception—as you can find in the Japanese idea of Wabi-Sabi—is an example for a different approach. I would think that the blue-white tiles in the Pardesi Synagogue in Kochi are not representing that sophisticated idea of imperfection or hidden individuality. From far, repetitive patterns on the floor of the synagogue seem almost perfect, but when you look closer you will see the slight differences between the same motifs. The boat of the fisherman is never on the exact same spot, the trees or rocks are never precisely the same. The tiles were made for export in Canton and were imported around 1760 by the Portuguese to India. It is using elements from Chinese culture with its long tradition of painting. What I like in this story are the misunderstandings through translation: motifs from one culture are being adapted by another, distributed by a third party and used by a fourth. Using only the motif, I try to understand both the incongruity and the productivity of that process.

You have an archival work about the Gate of All Nations in Persepolis. It is known that the first Westerner to visit Persepolis and make drawings was Cornelis de Bruijn. For years, many westerners kept visiting the site and making drawings that are all different from each other. What does this say about historiography, archeology and their inescapable subjective characteristics?

Cornelis de Bruijn was an artist who traveled from the Netherlands to Java, passing through Egypt, Jerusalem, Russia and Persia. He published a book with the account of his travels that contains marvelous pictures. I looked it up in the archive and made photos from the parts regarding Persepolis, and realized his pictures do not necessarily depict accurately what he saw. As archeology only later became a science, it was not necessary to be precise and keep track of every detail. It was quite com- mon to exaggerate and make the motifs a bit more impressive. Others even altered the form of a staircase in a drawing, making it “baroque,” and thus more appealing to the taste of the readers at home. Still those images have been influential as they coined the western perception regarding the image of the Orient in general. But also “Beschreibung” (description) applies here in a very interesting way. Although the images of these travelers and archeologists were supposed to document, they were effected by the weight of knowledge and preconceptions. This refers to what you have addressed with your question about the subjective characteristics of history and archeology. We have to keep in mind that all these people knew about the Greco-Persian wars and Alexander the Great. They were familiar with works of Roman and Greek art, and had read the Greek playwrights and historians. The travelers came to the sites, equipped with all these bits of historical and mythical knowledge.    

Photo: Andreas Schlegel

Starting with Cornelis de Bruijn, many of these visitors inscribed their signatures on the walls of the Gate. And in the exhibition, you show photographs depicting these signatures. This continuous act also symbolizes the urge to own the spaces and the history.

In archeology, a graffito is either an authorized or an unauthorized inscription in the stone. In Persepolis you find both: the representative inscriptions commissioned by the kings and later on, the names of travelers, archeologists, diplomats, or visitors that are historically unaccounted for. Most names have been inscribed starting approximately in 1704, the first one by Cornelis de Bruijn and his fellow traveler Ad- riaan de Backer. The intention of most of the visitors was to state their presence at the site. The inscriptions give us an insight into the chronology of events that diffused the knowledge about Persepolis in the West. Usually, local sites were “discovered” by Western visitors, something that remained typical in archeology. Most non-Western countries started to develop that scientific discipline much later. The question is of course, whether archeology has to be local or national at all times. That discussion is still prevailing, as archeology has always been part of either direct interests, politically or militarily, or indirectly, as the urge to write history in a culturally specific or tendentious way. The common denominator of both is the intention of exploiting something for one’s own purposes. Putting your name on something is a proprietorial act, like a painter signing his canvas. It could be seen as claiming some kind of legitimacy for the right of exploitation. Here we come back to the idea of Wittgenstein: Prior to the real story, we have the description, as a starting point for interpretation. The signatures tell us about the “who, when and how” of that procedure.

These works also say a lot about how monuments and excavation sites can be used as means of power through preserving material memories. At the end of the day, what we remember can be manipulated through what is chosen and left out by others in the documents and on these structures. What is your standing in regard to this idea of materialization of memory and cultural (re)constructions of history?

Monuments are only one part of the whole. The missing spots and those objects that cannot be displayed are as important. Many monuments exist in an ephemeral way as they are in danger of being engrossed. Think about the plain of Marathon, it is a common and prominent element of European history but it only exists in a narrative way—in books, songs, paintings that reconstruct the legendary battle. The plain itself is empty, devoid of any trace that would enable you to recapture the historical event. The chance of a historical experience comes only through the process of temporalization. Visual art has always been an appropriate means for supporting this task. In the past, we had the dictum from monument to document, but after Foucault, it changed to from document to monument, as the amount of documents has grown into a monumental structure that, partly through the archive, determines our way of constructing history.

In contrast with this approach, in your work titled In Dialogue Form from Cappadocia, we see three Christian icons whose faces are erased. This urge to erase contradicts with the urge to inscribe: being forgotten vs. being remembered. How do you position iconoclasm in relation to this?

This contradiction is a dialogue, you react to a picture with the gesture of erasing. As long as you don’t erase it completely, you have traces leading you to the origin. There is the idea of palimpsest, a manuscript from which text or image is erased by means of scraping. This was usually done for economic reasons, in times when parchment or paper were scarce and needed to be used more than once. Roland Barthes uses this term when he writes about Cy Twombly’s paintings. It means that the underground material holds the memory of what was once written onto it. To me, it means also that you can work on an object for more than one purpose; you can reuse and rededicate it. In the course of history, rededication was often done in a violent way, like in iconoclasm. Sometimes the erasure is an image itself, bearing the function of a warning sign. If you still recognize the original image under the destructive scratches, you know that it was not everyone’s darling.

Photo: Andreas Schlegel

The stone keeps on coming back on the stage as an important material: on the walls of Persepolis, in the video Qing, to name two. Regarded as the most reliable material, history is told through stone. What is the role of “stone” in the exhibition?

Again, we turn to the term “description.” You usually describe what is visible and allocable and one of the most reliable witnesses of the Anthropocene is the stone. From Paleolithic hand axes to Neolithic dolmen and rockart; from Greek temples and Roman sculpture to the cobblestones of the Paris Commune and early modernist architecture, stone has been an enduring medium. But also the imitations and hybrids of the material, such as clay tablets with cuneiform script and ceramics are very important in archeology and history. This materiality is the ground on which images and desires are transcribed and inscribed. In the exhibition we have ceramics, porcelain, stone and textile as the constituents of narrative but only as images, which brings us again to the notion of description...

Naz Cuguoğlu    

Zilberman Gallery