Antje Majewski’s (*1968) studio—like those of many Berlin artists—lies in Wedding, an area in the northern part of the city. Gentrification moves at a slow crawl here, unlike in Kreuzberg or Neukölln. Leaning against the wall is the oil painting Meteoarises (2009), where we see the singer Arises holding the yoga table pose while burdened with an enormous meteorite. The painting is part of The World of Gimel, a series currently in progress. Majewski and I co-founded the collective Redesigndeutschland in 2001. In 2004, we co-curated the exhibition Atomkrieg in Dresden, and in 2005, we staged the dance theater piece Skarbek in Bytom, Poland, and Berlin. In 2009, Majewski and I collaborated in Dubai Düsseldorf, a project that envisioned the prospective fusion of the cities Dubai and Düsseldorf . For the latter she developed an artwork of the future, but not one she would necessarily like to realize.
IN: Last year, you exhibited an artwork of the future: the Entity.
AM: Yes. The Entity is a fictional artwork of the future. The idea is that in the future, I will work with a biotechnology firm to develop an organism that has no sensory organs, that cannot reproduce or move its own body and whose only activity consists in digesting itself. It comes into the world already complete, so to speak, then digests itself from the inside out and at some point is mummified. This artwork is to be exhibited in a pavilion, possibly also in a Kunsthalle, and replace all remaining Kunsthalles. That’s as far as the story I developed goes. There’s a painting upon which we see the artwork being presented to a future museum director. It’s a large, realistic painting showing several figures. The rich female collector that will hopefully finance it in the future is giving it to the museum director, surrounded by nothing but assistants or co-curators or whatever they are in splendid garments. A painting based on Piero della Francesca. Another one hundred years further into the future and the Kunsthalle is plundered. The Entity is now collecting dust somewhere in the corner of a fruit and vegetable stand and has long since mummified and turned to a dry, little ball.
The Entity is also ascribed a cultic function.
Well, let’s put it this way, the artist in this narration, Antje Majewski, is not necessarily identical to me. There is a story in the form of an illustrated text and in it there’s talk of this artist Antje Majewski, but that’s not necessarily the same person as me. I just want to put that out there in advance. All of that takes place in the future and who knows if I will do something like that in the future.
And if a biologist were to come along now and say, technically that’s already possible …
Yes, then I’d like to do it. Right now I would. But who knows if I’ll still want to do something like that in two years. So I’m now talking about things I’m developing for a future that will probably never take place, namely in connection with the Dubai Düsseldorf exhibition, where there’s supposed to be a shared vision for these two cities. The idea was to make a work of art that is not pictorial, doesn’t represent anything—which would in other words satisfy the aniconism of Islam—and the same time it would also do something Western art is always wanting again and again, namely a cathartic moment or a kind of identification with the artist as a Man of Sorrows or the one who takes it upon himself to process things society has rejected or doesn’t want to process. In the case of the Entity, this remains completely abstract. It consumes only itself. You can project any kind of content possible into this digestion process. But it will evoke empathy; at least I think it will. You get the feeling there’s a living thing there, and this poor creature has none of the nice things we have: it can’t see, it can’t feel, it can’t taste, it doesn’t have sex, it can’t even run away. All it does is die. Sympathy would be a very normal human reaction to that. And it is through this sympathy that you’ll begin to reflect on yourself. So there’s a Kantian sublime effect—in the sense that this creature seems so incredibly strange.
You can’t help him either.
You can’t help him. I mean, sure, it isn’t greater than we are or something. When I talk about being forced into self-reflection, I’m only saying that in a different way you could perhaps be happy with the fact that you can perceive anything at all. That you can feel, taste, see, run, touch—and think.
The Entity shows the limits of cognition.
I think people have a huge tendency to emphatically identify with any living thing at all. It could be anything. There are people who think iguanas are great. Creatures maybe a lot weirder than a ball like that. I imagined the Entity as a relatively perfect sphere that looks a bit shriveled from the outside, like a kind of fruit, in yellow-green. And it smells repulsive. The human being is a social animal to such a huge degree that it, I think, would try to adopt a creature like that somehow, and then he or she would figure out that there’s this limit. It can’t respond. A turtle can still lift its head and supposedly look at you. Or it uses its claws to crawl forward. And this thing is so closed up in itself that communication is no longer possible. All that can happen is a projection that is reflected back at you. Insofar it is a look into the mirror.
A little bit like when someone is lying in a coma.
You speak of a cathartic function. Can you name artists whose work caused you to have these kinds of experiences?
I don’t know if I’ve had these experiences so strongly myself … actually, sure I have. That would be Beuys. Paul Thek. Somehow it doesn’t work with me with Bas Jan Ader, even though I like him a lot. Okay, surely van Gogh is a classic.
That was your experience with van Gogh?
What I can definitely understand is the fact that I think that a lot of his paintings are migraine paintings. I know spatial warping like that from my own experience. But does it have a cathartic effect then? Looking at a picture like that?
No, not for me. But I know it was handled that way in terms of reception.
All of those are …
I could name two more that just came to me: Alina Szapocznikow and Eva Hesse are also classic. I think there you can start to think of quite a few relatively quickly. Kafka.
You’re not naming any painters.
Paul Thek painted. Van Gogh painted.
Yes, but you said that for you, van Gogh isn’t that experience. With Paul Thek it isn’t the paintings either, is it?
No, it’s more the action-based work.
And the Entity itself isn’t a painted picture either.
It’s a reflection procedure. I don’t really produce the Entity. And if what you’re asking is whether or not I would do it if someone were to approach me about it? Of course I would, just because I’d be curious. But whether or not it gets made isn’t important. All that’s made available is a story, and that means there’s a built-in distance to it.
So you’re saying this cathartic function of art isn’t actually a central concern in your own work?
[Pause] Well, I in any case haven’t been [pause] a figure like that so far.
What do you mean “a figure like that”?
Well, Paul Thek and Beuys are art figures. A person isn’t just like that, you have to make one of yourself. You have to decide to create that type of figure. Decide, for example, on a way that you’ll be portrayed, or a certain way of expressing yourself, or maybe also a certain way you might feel for now.
You mean their art wouldn’t work if you didn’t know about their person?
Yes. In Beuys’ case that is very obvious. He did practice a very extensive self-stylization.
And Paul Thek? What about him?
Yes, and also through photos. His art is for the most part unpreserved. It is only documentation material. There are a few sculptures that work for me. But a lot of what goes on in the broader reception has to do with him as a person.
His emblematic work is surely his Pyramid (1971). With a cast of himself as dead man lying inside.
The catharsis does actually work through people. It comes from the theater: a person acts something out that you can put yourself into, and in the end the audience leave the theater with the feeling they’ve been washed clean of their suppressed aggressions or whatever. And with my Entity it’s not necessarily so much about catharsis as it is a kind of activation or sensibilization of the viewer. Nothing’s really being processed there. If you take someone like Beuys, then the cathartic moment consists in something like the way he processes this whole war trauma. Just like you could say Artur Żmijewski is actually dealing with catharsis the whole time. Basically a kind of psychoanalytical invocation of something so horrible you are usually not allowed to name it.
For me it seems like a kind of encounter therapy: to walk naked into the gas chamber and start playing catch, or setting different Polish extremists loose on one another.
I talked to him about it once and he confirmed it. In other words that he does think it is a process with at least some parallels to the classical Freudian psychoanalytical process. The fact that you’re naming and showing things that cannot otherwise be seen. And that this process is of course painful, that you’d actually rather not live through it but in the end there is an opportunity to come out of it and into something like freedom. But now we’re talking about Żmijewski. [Pause] And if you’re asking about objects by someone like Beuys or Thek, then there might be something else going on there besides catharsis. Catharsis is extremely easy to understand in relation to Thek because he was very pious Catholic. You can really stick him with a concept like Man of Sorrows. He also did performances that operate with religious symbols. But if you take individual objects like that by Beuys or Thek, then they might already have a whole other function altogether. They have something like a kind of energy carrier function.
With Beuys it has a lot to do with these energetic models—warm-cold.
Yes, in principle to create esoteric magnets that way, or batteries or fields.
Behind you is your painting that features a rock, Meteoarises. Is there a relationship between this rock, the Entity, and maybe also the objects by Beuys and Thek?
That’s not a rock, it’s a meteorite. I don’t know if you’d call that a rock. Actually it’s a hunk of metal that falls from the sky and is originally this [makes a tennis ball-sized hollow with her hands] big. It’s part of a series I’m working on now that is actually about these kinds of charged objects. [Pause] Well, it’s just different in that I don’t start out assuming these objects are charged to begin with. In other words I charge them here. I charge them with different meanings, but every time I also throw this charging into question. There is a series of paintings in which these objects appear: that’s a stone, that’s a seashell, those are different objects of natural origin or that imitate nature. All of those are objects that carry a kind of magical possibility in them. In other words, magic in the “age of resemblance.” As Foucault called it, analogic magic—things that look like something else or are called something similar to something else, or because they fell out of the sky, for example. And I took the objects to Africa a few weeks ago, because I was interested in this idea of bringing them into a whole other culture, one that structures things differently than I do when thinking about them and can describe them differently or interpret them in another context. In other words, it would take these objects and return them with a different charge.
This meteorite, for example, did you relate it to something you came up with yourself, or did you only see the potential of relating it to something?
The potential. That’s why I’m saying, I myself am not that kind of figure, not right now anyway. For me, art works as an opportunity to communicate content that cannot be conveyed otherwise. It is a vehicle—or it’s supposed to be. And I think what interests me about objects is emptying that vehicle function and going ahead and naming it at the same time. In other words, to say, this painting is a vehicle, a receptacle, just like this stone can be a receptacle. And a meteorite is especially well suited to that because in many cultures it’s a carrier of secrets or it can take on a magical function. Just because for a lot of people it’s a pretty crazy thing when something just falls out of the sky like that. Plus, it’s iron! You can make something out of that. In every culture, the people who worked with iron were at the cusp of being magicians. The blacksmith is always also the wizard or the one who’s a little bit outside of the normal village, and is subject to very specific rules. So in that respect, I thought if I bring a meteorite to Africa or whatever country, I’m sure to find someone that can ascribe it a very specific meaning.
Then the transfer has to convince you?
Not necessarily. In the stone’s case there were two interpretations in Africa, both of which I thought were really great. The first is, I was in Senegal—which is an Islamic country—and I was told they use lava rock (which also symbolizes a cosmic, elemental force) to clean their hands before prayer if there isn’t any water. And to people from the Islamic cultural circle, the stone very obviously looks like the stone in the Kaaba. So in any case it would be a very special stone, just because it’s black and square-shaped. But then there was also a second interpretation by an artist who said that for him the stone brings up the question as to whether or not God has inscribed something into this particular stone. In other words, if the stone contains a sign. And he associated it with a gravestone he placed in front of his studio for a friend. He and this friend had discussed that very question: does God inscribe something in stones? And when he died, he wandered around in this village and looked until he’d found this very special stone. To him, it’s the friend of his that died, so to speak. Then he went in and drew a connection between that stone and my stone and also gave me another object as a gift, one that’s made out of iron and that the Chinese had buried there as the stadium in Dakar was being built. It’s a kind of cosmic metal brick that is very heavy and that he had painted gold.
Does that change the way you see your own painting?
Hmm. No, because I hadn’t ascribed it any kind of significance. It hadn’t any meaning from the start. Now of course you could say the energy emitted from something like a Beuysian heat source doesn’t have any meaning either. All he’s saying is that it’s a positive or creative energy.
And has the meteorite itself become more powerful for you?
No, because for me it was already powerful before. It’s just that I was also given this other object, and I have the feeling I could walk around with that now and set it up anywhere in the world—now we’re getting really esoteric!—and maybe it could radiate something. Who knows, maybe it’s radioactive.
What kind of effect does this radiating have?
Zilch. [Laughs] Like I said, I’m no follower of stones. No, of course that’s not true that it doesn’t have any effect. [Pause] Actually it’s really strange. I’m from Düsseldorf and back when I was in school I was really interested in Beuys. He was still alive then and was a professor in Düsseldorf. And somehow I imagined I would study under him. I’m noticing only now that it really did have a big influence on me. There are two very strange, different poles that probably no one would associate with my paintings, namely Duchamp on the one hand, and Beuys on the other. Duchamp also made these weird little objects that are also like reservoir tanks for any kind of meaning you can think of, shifting and nesting in themselves. In which, according to his theory, there are definitely still various perspectives, and these then form a kind of knot. That might be the idea, that you can form some kind of knots, which can then emit something in turn. You can’t say they’re emitting this or that meaning or significance. That’s open. But what you do have to do is collect and bundle.
This emission, what effect does it have then? Is it something like a consciousness-expanding drug? Does it work as an amplifier of other perceptions?
As to whether or not I can manage that with my objects, I’m not so sure. But it could be both. It could be that it makes you yourself broader, that it causes a kind of expansion or enlarges the internal space. Or, as Duchamp would say, that it represents a bullet hole—I’m talking about The Large Glass (1915–23) now—in our three- or four-dimensional time-space continuum. His theory was that maybe there is actually an n-dimensional space, from which we are only shadows. And that art, so to speak, produces totally ephemeral little bullet holes in the horizon of experience we normally live in. We, with our sensory organs and our bodies, are incapable of perceiving these further dimensions. The funny thing is, you can think them. You can calculate them mathematically. And from that you can develop an internal idea of how that could be. Of course it can’t be accurate because we’re not those kinds of beings. But the strange thing is that we humans are capable of developing these thoughts at all.
Why did you become a painter then? Coming from Beuys and Duchamp.
I keep asking myself the same question! [Laughs] No, it’s just because … if you assume there are these bundles, then they can contain anything you could possibly think of, including any kind of image. And I’m interested in this very abstract feeling on the one hand, and on the other hand I’m interested in how it would be to just unfold all of that into lots of different kinds of stories. In other words, all the things that can happen.
The way you say, I’m still not that artist, it sounds as though painting were a big, long ramp that leads you there—or maybe not only you.
It’s all about communication. I think it’d be nicer if I could produce things inside the person looking at it. In other words, throw him into a world in which he might then encounter something. In Roadside Picnic (1971), the Strugatsky brothers’ novel, a man keeps going into a zone that’s been polluted by aliens. And in it are lots of strange objects. These objects are completely foreign to people, some of them even obey different laws of nature. And the humans, in their human way, go in there—they’re like trash trawlers or waste management officials—and decide, okay, this weird thingamabob, you can use that to do this here in our human context. And until now I have not been able to put myself in the position of being the alien, so to speak. I’d rather the viewer be the one who put the thingamabob there.
That’s what I meant: a takeoff ramp not only for you, but also for the viewer.
That’s also always part of it with Duchamp. Many of his works are essentially launch pads like that. It’s all these perspectival arrangements through which you might possibly get somewhere, or through which you might learn more about how you yourself perceive things. That’s what I mean: in front of and behind The Large Glass there’s the world. You look at it and also you look through it. I’m interested in the world or possible worlds. I’m interested in showing the world or possible worlds on these two sides. Also the fact that you have a viewer. I have always had quite a few people in my pictures that encounter or react to each other. But I’m not exactly sure where that would lead. It could be that on the one hand, it becomes more concentrated, folds inward, and becomes more abstract. And on the other hand, I have more and more of a desire to build the narration up even more, to make the paintings even more complex and connect them to each other and knot them up and build in nothing but hinges and still more parallel stories with all of them referring back to each other. At the same time it would still revolve around this empty space the viewer has to fill in himself. [Pause] Maybe I’ll paint these objects from Roadside Picnic too. I’ve been planning on doing that for a few years now already. But it could be that it takes another five years until I can do it. It may be another five years before I can. I would always only be interested in painting them. I don’t want to produce objects myself. I have the feeling that a painting offers more freedom insofar as one thing is already clear: it’s an illusion. A theatrical, illusionary space. You step in and fill it with your own. An object would be much too literal for me. That’s something I also find a little kitschy about these Beuysian objects—you have this thing and it says, I am an energy transmitter. Then it looks like an energy transmitter, and I’m not even allowed to touch it! That’s the worst. [Pause] If you bring a real object into a three-dimensional world, I think it would be better if you could also touch it, or stand on it. And as long as that’s not possible with the way our art world is organized, I think it would make much more sense to make things that only occur in the realm of ideas anyway.
Couldn’t you just say, these things are there to be touched, changed?
You can say that, but on Monday I was having a discussion with Simon Wachsmuth, for example. He had a picture on the wall with silver balls on it and said the viewer is reflected in them and becomes part of the picture, and that he or she can also move these silver balls around on a kind of magnetic surface. So then of course I asked, oh yeah, can I touch it? [Laughs] And he said, well all right, just this once. The thing usually just hangs there of course, and you’re not allowed to touch it. And then I said, okay, but if the viewer is usually not allowed to touch and change it, how is he supposed to know that it’s even variable? And then he said, well, you can tell by looking at it. And I didn’t think you could see it at all. So I just took a ball and pushed it and of course it instantly made a total scratch on one of these adhesive surfaces. Luckily the whole panel was already claimed under insurance, so I didn’t have to pay several thousand euros. But that’s normally the case. You have something by Öyvind Fahlström that was conceived to be interactive, or all the remnants from happenings or whatever interactive performances: the moment they enter the museum, a process begins by which they become mummified. Edward Krasiński’s studio in Warsaw is a good example of this. He died a few years ago and had transformed his apartment into a Gesamtkunstwerk. There are a lot of little objects there, lots of installation elements that transform the apartment into a strange kind of labyrinth. Five years ago they still said the studio should remain open, things should happen there, young artists should be allowed in, they should be allowed to make art themselves in the middle of these works by Krasiński or act in response to them. I called them two days ago and the word was no, the family is absolutely against having anything happen there anymore. You can take photographs, you can look at it, but it is a museum. And then later on it was, well, you know Krasiński is more than just an artist now; he’s a national treasure, so to speak, he might be showing at the MoMA soon.
And there’s so much institution-critical art there, so much critique of the sacralizing of art.
Maybe you have to make a place like that yourself, where people can go and touch things and relate these things to other things.
Yeah, that’s an idea. To found a center for unsellable art right here in Wedding. [Laughs] I think that would be great. On the other hand, I know exactly how much work that means and that I would rather put it into my own work. But I do think about it. I want art to be able to mean a direct transmission of experiences or of life. I’m just not interested in some pile of dead objects that I can then go and sort out somewhere according to value criteria—that the object basically only specifies how well you know your stuff. In other words, that you’ve arrived at a very specific position within a discourse and have already understood all of the other positions before it. And the moment the viewer understands it, he can attribute himself more value, because he’s in a position to participate in this discourse. I wish I could beam the paintings just as they are into the minds of other people, without all these detours through goods that have to be produced and displaced, that have to be stored; without rooms full of other dead objects.
You are in a privileged position compared to the painters that are already dead in that you still might be able to experience that in your lifetime.
Well it’s not all that easy. [Laughs] There is more involved than just stimulating the visual cortex and having a few flashes of light. To really be able to transmit the kind of thing I am describing, you would basically have to be able to transmit the entire contents of the brain. [Laughs] And that’s really a far cry from where we are now.
What do you want to send, the things happening in your brain or the painted pictures?
I would think both are great: the painted pictures in their materiality, but I also think it would be great if I could really concentrate some kind of picture in my mind, like I do before I make a painting. Sometimes years go by where I’m working on a painting in my head—not in the details, but in the feeling of the painting. You only know it isn’t quite right yet. Then something shifts again and all of a sudden this feeling is very clear but doesn’t necessarily contain whether the woman is wearing a pink shirt or a white one. And of course it would be great if you could beam this feeling over directly, without having to go over materiality. But it is more complex than just a thought. It’s a thing that you can look at from all sides, but not a film. I couldn’t make up for that by making movies. And it isn’t a book, either. They are things that stand still in time and are condensed.
A lot of art today can’t be understood without additional information, even if you’re living in the same time. Information printed on a piece of paper that gets handed to you, maybe just a rumor circulating through the art world. Without it you wouldn’t be able to comprehend the meaning that suddenly makes an artwork interesting for a lot of people. The transferability is extremely vulnerable. You could say that it’s actually like all the data carriers we have today. Where you know, okay, the DVD might somehow keep for another ten years, but then …
Sure, but that’s of course a fundamental problem of art history. That you study Dutch still life paintings, and you painstakingly try to work out exactly which object is tied to which allegories or which literary sources. Back then they also had extremely elaborated systems of meaning that we don’t understand so much anymore. And nevertheless I can go into the ethnographical museum, for example, and look at an Indian miniature painting or Mayan sculptures—I certainly don’t perceive them as the people created them intended, and nevertheless something gets across. Maybe I’m being really naive here, but I don’t think it’s so important that the thing conveyed is same exact thing that the person that made it intended. More important, perhaps, is a kind of intensity or horizon of experience. And there again that has a lot to do with the human ability to feel empathy. I don’t think it’s relevant if I know exactly which element means what on a Mayan sculpture, exactly which God was being appealed to. Even if I knew, I would never really be able to comprehend what was going on there. But that’s why I still can’t just leave them to the scholars.
Would it be important to you to be able to touch them as well?
You can. If you go to Mexico, for example, and crawl around on one of those temples, then it is something different than standing in a museum in front of a vitrine.
There are two directions. The first is that you wish you had an even more direct transfer of information, one that no longer needs the information carrier. And the other is to the contrary, that you wish for a more direct handling of materials. But you could actually do both. Maybe the future is exactly that.
I think the best would be if someone would—in my lifetime, please—develop a method for migrating my brain to a less fragile medium. [Laughs] But I always think if that really were to happen, then it would actually prove that everything here is only a construct anyway. Because it would just be too much of a coincidence that that would be developed in my lifetime.
There’s the simulation stochastics. If we—this is the Nick Bostrom argument—are ever in a position to transfer the brain in all its complexity to a digital data carrier, then probably we could do it not only once but billions and trillions of times. In other words, if we are at exactly the point where we could do it, how likely is it then, dammit, that we are already a simulation.
Exactly. [Laughs] But the chances of that happening in my lifetime aren’t so good. If it did work out, I think it would have to be in another two generations or so.
But that doesn’t change the likelihood of it happening. As soon as you see that it is possible …
You could also enclose these new thought machines in bodies that look completely different from ours. That are much more beautiful or much more functional and above all live much longer and never get any diseases, etcetera. But if there continued to be human beings, the branch of art that actually concerns itself with material things could become important again, with the sense of touch or the communication of very individual experiences. It could lead to things that are made by hand becoming a lot more important again; that at some point you just disengage. I think in the future art can continue to expand in different areas of society, which is already happening now. This morning at the academy in Weißensee, for example, we had a talk by Ute Meta Bauer, who is applying to be president of the school. And she talked about how production design, information technologies, and artists work together at MIT. And from that comes a lot of socially relevant and also technology-enthusiastic artworks, like plantable caravans or especially prettily shaped electric cars that you can stack on top of each other. In other words, where the artist basically becomes a worker for the industry, but in the best sense of the word. The same way big companies also have mini-laboratories now, where they do nothing but develop things for which no one has any immediate use. Because they know that in ten years this crazy idea might turn out to be the product that then becomes a total success. That is certainly a whole area unto itself, that art becomes some kind of cutting-edge future innovator, because there are these people that somehow think outside of the box. I basically see socially critical art as part of the same area. It doesn’t lay the groundwork for the capitalist machine, but for the political machine. This whole vehicle moves clumsily along by way of division, correction, division, correction, but somehow it goes forwards or sideways. Like an amoeba, the system pulls over this foreign body that’s developed there, assimilates it, encloses it, encases it, forms it into an elegant little granule, and then it moves on. But what I mean with this individual experience is like in the old Japanese culture, for example, the way cherry blossoms were depicted or perceived, and the cherry blossom festival is there not only to mark the beginning of spring, but also so that people really go there to have an aesthetic experience. And that you basically can afford this pure aesthetic experience even more if you’re unemployed anyway. That you can really devote more time to making things that make you happy. I can’t imagine that with the probably 20,000 years humanity has adorned their weapons, clothes, pillows, furniture, and buildings, investing an unbelievable amount of time in the process, that this impulse to appropriate the things that surround us will just disappear. With it, you also mark your territory—that is my personal dress, I embellished it, only I embellished it like that. There are patterns you can copy, but everyone does their own version. I could imagine that coming up again if the people have much, much more free time on their hands.
Interview conducted for; Ingo Niermann, Erik Niedling: The Future of Art. A Manual. Sternberg Press, Berlin 2011