Painting, science fiction, feminism –
Antje Majewski in conversation with Andreas Schlaegel
To measure the cosmos that artist Antje Majewski has devised since the early 1990s, one would have to choose a system of coordinates that encompasses at least three axes: first, a unique approach to painting as a means of generating imagery in a reciprocal relationship between photography and video; second, a collaborative approach to work that includes communication with her subjects, other artists and artistic mentors; and finally, her joy in narration, schooled on reading science fiction by the Arkadi brothers, Boris Strugatzki, and Philip K. Dick. For Majewski, narration creates reality – past, present and future.
Andreas Schlaegel Not every artist finds motifs for their work at their own doorstep. But this is what happened with your new works currently on show at Neugerriemschneider in Berlin, isn’t it?
Antje Majewski The project is made up of objects that came from a small garden colony across from my building. The area was cleared out in the spring: the houses demolished, the fruit trees cut down, now there’s nothing but level ground there. The lot belongs to a department of Deutsche Bahn, which used to give their employees small plots to grow fruit and vegetables. Now they’ve sold it to an investor who plans to build a self-storage facility there. For the moment, though, the plot of land is still in an in-between state: no longer a garden, not yet cement. You can still see that the plot is built on soil; in the spring, plants still sprout from the ground. And even when an excavator rolls over it, perennials will still be in the ground below. I’m interested in this place of anarchistic freedom in the middle of the city. Basically, my exhibition is all about this moment of transformation: from the demolished houses to the painting-sculptures, partly reworked and painted in encaustic, with beeswax and natural colors: jade, malachite, alizarin, madder lake, soot-black …
AS The works are all titled E.F.A. in the Garden (2015) and are numbered. What does ‘E.F.A.’ stand for?
AM ‘E.F.A.’ stands for ‘Eco-Feminist Anarchism.’ For three years, I worked together with the ff group, which I also co-founded. We tried to create temporary autonomous zones for art. I pulled out of ff in order to work more on content and politics with E.F.A. as a smaller group. I wanted to lodge an objection against construction on the site, but unfortunately, it failed.
AS This took your previous work The World of Gimel (2009–ongoing) a step further. The World of Gimel, as is stated on your website, deals with relationships between the world of the given and that of the possible. What’s this about?
AM The World of Gimel comprises seven objects from my studio, including a meteorite, a ball in a wooden pot and a hedge apple. I’ve studied these on research trips to their various countries of origin, developing my study of them through conversations, paintings, performances, texts and videos. Ever since my exhibition at the Kunsthaus Graz in 2011, where I first showed these objects, there have been exhibitions that form individual chapters about these things. The World of Gimel is not complete in itself; rather, each of the objects is highly complex in terms of its cultural connections and material properties, its origin, history and future. And finally, in the painting Guardian of all things that are the case (2009) there is a museum vitrine next to a museum guide. A large body of work I’ve worked on for the past several years is based on this, The Museum in the Garage (2013–ongoing), which is still growing.
AS Isn’t it also a kind of cabinet of wonder, a personal-universal museum?
AM My interest here is in museology. I thought about the function a museum could have that didn’t only show dead things, whether paintings, sculptures, or other artifacts. The World of Gimel exhibitions have been met with increasing acclaim. For example, when my Miniatures from Ravensbrück (2014) – paintings made from photographs of small objects that prisoners of the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück carved from plastic toothbrushes – were sold, the money went towards restoring the original objects in the collection of the Ravensbrück memorial site. I’m interested in loops like these that have an effect on reality. My intervention is not merely to observe, but also to change. If you know that every observation also effects a change in its wake, then you have to own up to this power of action.
AS But how does that go together: the power of action, The World of Gimel, and then a motif such as the apple in the current exhibition in Mönchengladbach?
AM My current project Apples. An Introduction (Over and over and over again)(2015) at the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach is part of The World of Gimeland refers to the ball in the wooden pot. The ball comes from Poland and led me to Paweł Freisler, a Polish artist who in 1968 worked with a steel egg as a measuring unit for all chicken eggs. Freisler taught me an old Roman saying: ‘From the egg to the apple’ – in other words, from the beginning to the end, because in those days, dinner began with an egg and ended with an apple. This exploration of the apple led to an exhibition at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź and now to the one in Mönchengladbach, to which I’ve added the egg.
AS But it’s mainly about real apples, isn’t it?
AM To develop the egg piece I spent two years talking to apple growers, geneticists, farmers and others about the apple as a cultural product and foodstuff. In the process I gained insight into recent developments in the food industry, which I’ve presented in the film The Freedom of Apples (2015). Apple-growers talk like artists. But the food culture that we had in the 19th century is dying out. Today, cultivation and trade have reduced apples to a handful of varieties. And you have to realize that ‘variety’ means that all individual trees of a certain variety are clones – in other words, one single individual on millions of rootstalks of other varieties, which are also clones. This is an unbelievable loss of genetic diversity. The film depicts a situation in which capitalism has radically homogenised our cultivated plants.
AS Did this discussion come to a conclusion in the film, or did it go beyond it?
AM Together with residents in the city, we planted old apple varieties and wild apples, and decided to revive the long-dormant tradition of the apple festival. Apples are something everyone can relate to. And then there are works of art with apples, also by Freisler, that were shown here for the first time: apples with ornaments carved into them. Freisler is my mentor in this project, although we communicate through email and have never actually met. What connects us is the idea of freedom, or to be more concrete, what I mean by anarchism in the context of E.F.A.: a belief in the basic freedom of the natural.
AS How do you mean that? In the sense of artistic freedom?
AM More in the sense that plants are not property. In a strict sense, earth isn’t property either – these are all fictions, the kind that make the world go downhill. I think that the fictions of possession and money do not function. One must go beyond complaining or deconstructing things, and reveal this basic freedom – to show it. Many people don’t see it anymore – we’re stuck in the midst of the spectacle, as Guy Debord says.
AS These two elements, the ball and the pot, not only led you to Freisler, but also to Alejandro Jodorowsky in Paris, is that right?
AM It was a real stroke of luck. I thought about who I could bring my things to, someone who spent a lot of time investigating the meaning of things. I had this ball from Poland, which led me to Freisler, and I had a pot made of Moroccan root wood that I bought in Paris. Jodorowsky worked for a long time with psychomagic, a kind of Situationist physiotherapy using things and actions that developed out of his Teatro Pánico. I found his telephone number and asked him if he could tell me something about my objects. In the end, he invited me over, and I stayed for two hours. He wasn’t interested in who I was, or what I was planning to get out of our meeting, but he saw that I wanted something from him. He brought me two fake gold bars in Berlin, which I then used in the World of Gimel, a theme of which was false currency. His son had made the fake gold bars for him, as thanks for what Jodorowsky did for him as a father.
AS In September, on invitation by the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, you will realize an artistic reinvention of Allan Kaprow’s Fluids (1967) in Berlin – here, too, you’re not working alone, but have invited four other artists to take part. What is it about collaboration that’s so interesting for you?
AM My talent as an artist might have to do with being a good medium: an ability to let the conversations, friendships, newspaper articles, everything that surrounds me to pass through me. And in the process, they find a form. Working together with other artists is beautiful because you get together with someone who’s also collecting things. My solo shows often arrive at a collaborative format. A thing like the Kaprow reinterpretation would be boring alone, and so I expanded the circle of participants. Sometimes the works are just too big for one person. That’s when you have to think with several people. But I resist being the one to say what has to be done. Even when I worked with models for my paintings, they were like actors to me, and the whole thing a collaboration. In 2000, for instance, I worked together with Krylon Frye aka Krylon Superstar, a singer and performer from Los Angeles, for a painting and a video. He had his entire wardrobe with him – I never would have been able to do something like that alone.
AS So there’s a dialogic principle in painting, too. But doesn’t one also arrive at imagery through inner concentration?
AM Both. It’s true for painting, and I can’t describe it any other way. Really good paintings simply emerge, and they only emerge after you’ve immersed yourself completely in a motif for at least two months. And then, when you’re completely exhausted, you have to do something else entirely, and then suddenly an image pops up out of nowhere. After that, though, you have another problem: how to convert it. While converting the image, you have to allow for certain liberties. This vision that I have isn’t fully formulated, but the basic idea or mood has to be very clear in the mind. Otherwise I wouldn’t need to go to the studio. Sometimes I don’t go to the studio for half a year.
AS So what are the ideas that motivate you to continue painting?
AM In Chinese landscape painting, there is the notion that the painter is a medium who expresses something of the larger cosmos. To paint well requires a lot of practice, so that the qi – which one doesn’t produce, but rather partakes in – can flow into the painting and through it with as little obstruction as possible. This runs counter to the feminist critique of genius and enables a personal signature again. I used to work from designs, very rigidly in fact, but for a long time I wanted to work more freely, and in recent years I painted a lot directly in front of the objects. Through my study of Chinese art and nature theory, another form of painting opened itself up to me which, I hope, is just the beginning and will offer me plenty of time to explore.
AS Are there any painters you particularly appreciate?
AM Kerry James Marshall was important for E.F.A. in the Garden. In some paintings he used the pan-African flag, and I thought: great idea! He’s a great painter – particularly in the way he works with political narration. Agnes Martin is an opposite pole in this regard. She retreated to the desert, without a TV or radio, and she hardly read or received visitors. In an interview, she said she stopped meditating when she noticed that she was no longer thinking. These two approaches don’t necessarily contradict one another. If I were to paint the stone from the inside out, then I would indeed have to give up thinking, because the stone doesn’t think. But as a human being, I can perceive it in its environment with all the possibilities at my disposal. Both exist concurrently.
AS Is your interest in science fiction grounded in a fascination with ‘the possible’?
AM Yes, my work Entity (2009) – which has been traveling since 2014 as part of the Goethe Institute exhibition Future Perfect and can currently be seen in Brazil – is based on a science fiction story I wrote myself, but which deliberately borrows from science fiction authors I love. I made the work shortly before The World of Gimel, and then it became a part of it. It’s all about the hedge apple, one of the objects in The World of Gimel. In Entity it was only a virtual object found on the Internet used to represent the ‘entity’ in the painting: an object that an artist named Antje Majewski created together with a biotechnology firm. It’s the art object of the future that replaces all art objects, a living monad that devours itself from the inside out and has no other dealings with its surroundings. Wherever I go around the world, I ask people to contribute a new narrative: Sebastian Cichocki in Poland, for instance, or now the Agência Transitiva, a group of young artists in Brazil.
AS Does the hedge apple actually exist?
AM The hedge apple is also called the Osage orange, after the Osage Nation in the midwestern US. Historically, wood from this tree was adept for making hunting bows. When the European settlers arrived, the Osage planted prickly bushes to cordon off herds of cattle. The fruits look like strange apples, but they can’t be used for anything. Animals don’t like them, but the now-extinct Megatherium, or giant ground sloth, might have eaten the fruits. For me, the ‘worthless’ hedge apple initially represented a monad, but in nature, as the Osage orange, it’s actually a fruit with multiple seeds. This means that each segment has its own kernel, like a single fruit, and can germinate individually to make new plants. Which can be art, too.