Sebastian: The way you ended up with a staged performance seems to be a natural consequence of your previous works. I’ d like to start our talk with Teenage Pantomime and the performative aspect hidden in it. Could you tell us about that project?
Antje: I’m glad you are seeing it as a natural consequence, because it seems that way for me, too. Teenage Pantomime was a book I published with Charles Asprey in 2002, but the photos you see in it were taken much earlier, when my sisters and I were growing up. Like a lot of children, we loved pretending, disguising ourselves, and my sister Ulrike was very good at making costumes and putting on make-up. We started to put together little stories without words, which we staged carefully. I would make plans for each photo and be very careful because I didn’t have so much pocket money to spend on film. I got my first mirror reflex camera when I was 14 and started taking all those photos, not only the staged ones but also portraits of my sisters the way they were. A lot of my later works developed out of that: on the one hand side to create fantasy costumes and strange stories, but on the other hand to carefully observe the reality people are living. My paintings also had the two sides; from the harsh social realism in The tramp and the Police or The Prisoners to the wild imagination of L´invitation au voyage; but I don’t really think they are really different. Basically I think that all images you can see inside your brain are realities.
A lot of times I staged the photos that I later used for my paintings, working with friends or semi-professionals. When we prepared Masks, it was a wonderful day with my friends all dressed up in my costumes and wearing this strange make up, and the image of them walking and moving kept coming back to me as an alternative to the static canvas I had turned it into. I then did Video, a show in which static images turn into moving ones, which involved a mime, a gay performer and me doing an expressionistic (Mary Wigman style) dance; and started to think about working with professional dancers moving in real time.
Being finally able to work with dancers was absolutely great for me, because they are able to convert themselves into the figures I had been seeing only inside myself, and make them come to life.
Sebastian: When we met for the first time you mentioned a desire to work with actors/ dancers, but it was still abstract and it might’ve led you to different areas. When did you decide that Bytom is a good location for your project and what was the reason for choosing the city that is said to be a place of socio-economic failure?
Antje: Several reasons. The first of them is of course you, because when we first talked about the project it was at a meeting of the Bundeskulturstiftung in Graz and you proposed your help with it and invited us to Bytom, to see the dance festival held there each summer and the famous Silesian Dance Theatre. We came for the festival, hoping to spot a young choreographer we could work with, and we were very lucky and found Tomasz Wygoda, who ended up not only doing a great choreography but also helping the project in a lot of other ways (finding the dancers, places for rehearsal etc).
You were still very interested in what we were going to do, and we met the great people working at BCK. So in the beginning we just knew it would be possible in Bytom with all the help and enthusiasm we were getting from the Polish side. But we also spent these first ten days wandering around Bytom, driving out to Tarnowskie Gory to visit the mines, and we were very impressed by the city. Impressed both in good and in bad ways. Of course the city is poor, and it has a still very powerful past, traces of which you can see everywhere, and just now it doesn’t seem to have a future; but Bytom also has a very strong and unique atmosphere, with it’s beautiful Art Nouveau houses and the empty streets, big trees and beer gardens. When we learned that a lot of the damage we could see was caused by mines that actually lie underneath the city, we knew we had found a starting point.
For us Bytom was far more interesting than for example Krakow could have been, because it is very concentrated on one thematic: the mines. Of course there are a lot of people who work in other fields but the whole identity of the city is based on the mines. This makes it possible to see it as a paradigmatic city.
Sebastian: Those travels to Bytom ended up in the discovery of legendary underground creature called Skarbek. As you know I’m a bit frightened making such “an excavation” – using that neglected and abandoned leitmotiv of Silesian folklore. I can’t imagine any Polish contemporary artist who would be eager to do something with it. Can you say more about your discovery and how it is connected to German legends?
Antje: I was planning to do some paintings of mummies on aluminium at the time, and I was reading a lot about mining and all things underground, scientific as well as mythological. One day I read a book by a German Professor of Metallurgy that he had written in his free time, about all kinds of stories connected to metals and minerals – and he had a chapter about dwarfs and mountain ghosts. Stories about these creatures appear everywhere in the world where there is mining. They are a way to translate the fears of the miners, fears of death underground, of being buried alive, of the revenge of nature for robbing her of her treasures; but also the overwhelming hope for a special find that once and for all would lead the miner out of a life in darkness and poverty.
We were sure that Bytom must also have had these kinds of stories, and when we asked you about it, you told us about the Skarbek, and researched in archives to give us more information. We were fascinated because it turned out that Skarbek had been used as a pedagogic tool during communist times, as a symbol for the ethic of the ideal worker; but behind that we found that he had been a very ambiguous figure, sometimes helping the miner but often also playing some nasty tricks on him.
For us the story about people who go into an abandoned mine to try to find something (a treasure, maybe only adventure) and meet Skarbek, who slowly draws them into his strange reign of the dead mineral world – that’s also a story about Bytom as a city which for centuries has lived of the underground treasures, even of those in the ground underneath the city. Now that the mining is in decline the city has lost its main source of income as well as identity. But just like the dancers in the end manage to get away, we are sure Bytom will make it, too.
And just as the stories about mountain ghosts are universal, even though each is very local and very different from the other, this story can also serve to tell a tale that isn’t only about Bytom. Actually what you see on stage is a lot more abstract than what you can see in the catalogue, in which I have a series of large-scale photos about Bytom, which for me reconnect the whole project to the city, from where it started from.
Sebastian: It wasn’t your first contact with Poland. You invited eg. Monika Sosnowska and Pawel Althamer to your exhibition projects….
Antje: We had been coming to Poland almost every year since the early nineties. Our very first trip together was to Warszawa. Later we would just take the car or the train and drive somewhere that we didn’t know. Quite a few of my artworks deal with Poland: Beach Picture, The mountain climbers, Autumn… I don’t know if I felt a special connection to Poland because of my family history.
I just liked it very much and for years I had wished to have contact to Polish artists. First I met Pawel Althamer in Graz, in a show we were both in, and we talked quite a lot, about mummies and drugs and so on. For me he is one of the really great artists, so when Ingo and I planned Atomkrieg in Kunsthaus Dresden (2004), it was clear that we asked him if he would participate. The idea was to ask artists from various countries to come up with an artwork about Nuclear War. Pawel decided to send his two teenage sons, and his wife Monica to look after them, and call this collaborative work “wojna domowa”. His sons Szymon and Bruno showed a video about their mates in Warszawa, they made apocalyptic drawings and great photos.
Splendor Geometrik was a show that I curated with Anke Kempkes at Gisela Capitain, Cologne, in 2003; it brought together artists that in one way or another made geometric artwork. I had seen Monika’s work at the Foksal Gallery Foundation in Warszawa, and some books about Edward Krasinski – Monika did two works for the show and we could also show three works by Krasinski. He was too ill to come himself but Joanna came and applied the tape the way he would have done it. In the same show I painted a lost sculpture by Katarzyna Kobro, who is not Polish, but has lived here all her artistic life. I went to Lodz where they keep nearly all her artworks. In Germany her work is still only known to specialists, which I really think is not fair. For me she is better than Mondrian.
I’m very happy that through Skarbek I feel the ties to Poland have grown. I’m extremely grateful for all the work that everybody put into this project, which is really not only a work by Ingo and me but by everybody involved. Everybody from the great dancers to you or Pawel Koj, the director of BCK, was really interested in making it work, and in the artistic sincerity that we could only try to reach together.
I really wish to continue working here and of course having friends and making new friends in Poland. I just can’t let it stop here! So just now I plan to make a short film next year with Tomasz Wygoda and some actors.
In: Magazin Sztuki, winter 2005-06