Alexandra Hopf

Reflection and Empathy (en)

Interview with Annabelle v. Girsewald

Interview on the occasion of the exhibition Reflexion & Empathy, Kai 10, Arthena Foundation, Düsseldorf, 2012

AvG: Friedrich Kiesler (1890-1965) was not only an Austrian-American architect, he was also an artist, designer, and theoretician. His work is based on the notion that architecture, theater, design, science, and the visual arts can be combined to work together, and he became known for his innovative exhibition space design. In the 1940s Kiesler organized exhibition projects that allowed for exchanges between the pre-war European avantgarde and the new generation of young American artists. Kiesler sought to define the perception of the subject. Around 1938/39 he worked on his Vision Machine, investigating the physical conditions under which perception functions, as well as its psychological blocks and interruptions. “Vision” is not a separate function, but is instead shaped by an overall experience. One does not see real objects, but the invented or symbolic image that we believe are objects. To what is extent is Kiesler’s type of Vision Machine important to you? As far as your works are concerned, how much of the entire work has to be seen in order to understand it all? How important is the exhibition poster, the photographs of the performances, and the paintings, if we’re to understand the Museum of Non-Objective Art?

AH: The Museum of Non-Objective Art (and its offshoot, the Museum of Fear & Desire) are a kind of “container of perpetual inventory,” representing a continuing process of inventorying the materials they contain, while, as they are amassed, they define a museum space. Within this framework, shifts and overlapping occur. The museum setting is based on the act of perception and remembering, which is also at the mercy of similar deviations and re-assignations. It cannot be fixed, but is subjective, a kind of “phantom inventory.” Even though each object retains its autonomy, it is interlaced with the other works. The eye presents them so that the objects interact with each other, and the field of perception is expanded. On the photos of the artists’ group The Anonymous Circle 1-4, for example, each individual actor presents himself on an asymmetrical stage, which is, at the same time, the picture frame. There is also a poster from a historical performance given in 1948. The poster documents time in the same way that it is also a real announcement. However, it is not clear if the viewer has just missed another debut performance, or if it hasn’t yet happened. One finds oneself in a time loop.

AvG: How important is it to seek out the past? The title of your catalogue, Future Revisited, refers to the future, but we learn that this exhibition of the future is the future for which the exhibition has longed. Would you please tell me some more about the theme of various times seen from different perspectives?

AH: Future Show is a kind of puzzle. It’s about reconstructing lost objects from an exhibition that has taken place in the past, but which had been oriented toward the future at the time it occurred. These lost objects are supposed to be reconstructed; their loss is the driving force for their reconstruction. At the moment in which we once again seek out the past future, we know about the outcome of the things it was anticipating at the time it took place. Simultaneously, to use the form of a retrospective in order to look back at the things that were once anticipated, is creating a paradox. Whatever the exhibition had desired from the future turns out to be the promise of a utopia, even though we already know that it has not materialized as promised— not because it did not fulfill the contemporary criteria of the time, but because the criteria themselves altered due to political and cultural-political movements and societal factors. I’m referring to Aby Warburg and his iconographic science, which claims that paintings are Wiedergänger, or revenants that revive antiquity in modified form for Modernism. Images are constantly replaced or modified; other images are laid on top, yet the old things can still be seen flashing beneath them—they have an afterlife. They can be recognized or mistaken. They are camouflaged or are apparently illusory.

AvG: What does the Mechanical Mirror mean in your video? Are you alluding to Kiesler’s Film Guild Cinema (1929)—his first project, and the only building he did as an architect—according to which the screen can be considered a reflective mirror and a transparent lens?

AH: The Mechanical Mirror refers to Kiesler’s visual instruments, which he used to translate his theories of perception. The act of seeing becomes an event in and of itself, amalgamating with its surroundings. Whatever occurs and is visualized during the act of seeing is, at the same time, reflected by the object and is thrown back as a projection of its environment.
In the film Future Show, I translated this act of transformation into film images. As individual images are superimposed on each other, they work like animation, albeit in a time loop, creating a syntheses with the underlying voice-over. The complex information about the act of seeing and the simultaneous act of imagining it is, however, irritating when you attempt to observe it. What remains is the feeling that comes over you when you try to remember a dream. The images slowly dissipate along with the voice; the more you try to fixate on them, the more they are in danger of dissolving.

AvG: Could you say something about the artists in the group Anonymous Circle, who are responsible for the Future Show exhibition at the Museum of Non-Objective Art? Why are they anonymous? If the task of the museum is to preserve things and exhibit them, to what extent does that also represent the group of artists? To what extent is the museum itself your own collective memory? What are you claiming, in your works?

AH: The Anonymous Circle unites the oppositions and contradictions in the construct of identity. Its multifaceted outward form makes it possible for it to remain disparate and to present itself accordingly. The collective can dissolve and re-invent itself again and again. In this sense, it subverts the institution of preservation. On the other hand, it affirms the act of remembering. The artist traces collective memory, for example, by gathering together a storehouse of paintings, objects, or other forms of communication representing a placeholder or container for this memory. He puts them through his personal filter, creating new connections and associations. For instance, the individual actors in the Anonymous Circle wear the images from the exhibition as costumes; they represent and house them. Depicting them—meaning, performing them—also means exhibiting them. Embodying the paintings is the actual work of the presentation. With them, something else comes into view besides their meaning, something non-representational . . .

AvG: Kiesler developed presentational systems for exhibitions, viewing machines, and installations. The exhibition itself became a “perceptual apparatus.” It served to test his theory of “correalism,” which sought to explain the relationship of architecture, man, and the environment in a scientific and analytical way. How do you see the connection between the museum setting of this exhibition, the manifested forms of identity as represented in Anonymous Circle, and the context of the eternal promise of utopia? What is the meaning behind the various realities in your presentation?

AH: The museum setting deliberately shifts the works into a retrospective light, which guides our eye to a distant point, while at the same time shining forth as a vision of utopia. Like an old star. The space that is created is a kind of perfect future. In this intriguing relationship, the exhibits operate like fragments of a whole construct, as elements of a larger apparatus. Similar details keep appearing in the works, although they are each woven into different media. In the museum video Future Show, for instance, all of the other images in the show appear once again, blended into each other and mounted on top of each other. Parts of the visual compositions detach from the images and float in the space. They break through the boundaries of the images. They reach out into the space, they dissolve spacetime. In Escape from Fiction, on the other hand, the portrait of a couple of six-fingered, spangled gloves the size of my own hands, which turn out to be two left-handed gloves, manages a leap in time, into the recent past They are copies of Michael Jackson’s glove; among the other artifacts in the museum, it undergoes a fairy-tale-like defamiliarization and, in a certain way a kind of resurrection.

Annabelle v. Girsewald is a curator and art writer