A Glimpse Behind the Curtain
An Interview with Pawel Althamer
With his actions and performances, Pawel Althamer repeatedly calls the conventions of the art establishment in question. The Polish artist's commissioned work "Almech" is one of his most spectacular projects to date, transforming the Deutsche Guggenheim into a veritable art factory that produces sculptural portraits of the exhibition's visitors. Prior to the opening of the show, critic and art historian Karol Sienkiewicz met with Althamer in Warsaw for an interview.
||Karol Sienkiewicz: In your father's workshop you came upon an idea for an entirely new way of making sculpture.
Pawel Althamer: After many years of working with my father at Almech, I realized that we don't have to work with one person doing one thing, another person doing something else, but that it would be much more interesting for these paths to intersect. That way, our expressions become connected. Through using my father's machines and the materials from his production line to create things from my own production line, these two lines can come together and be mutually beneficial. On a recent trip to Mali, I visited a large, so-called salvage yard where the Malians use hammers to pound down the metal from old refrigerators and cars and turn it into new, practical items. Right away I thought it would be wonderful if they all worked together on the same thing. As an outsider, I can look at this, get excited about it, and propose a collaboration on a different production line.
After traveling there two years ago for Common Task (2008-), I brought back a kanaga, a mask that connects our world with the world beyond, with the spirit powers. Putting on masks helps us break free from a purely materialistic approach to the world. Dance does as well. Among Mali's Dogon people, dancing occurs during burial ceremonies, when it's already hard not to think about what is beyond the material world. It's hard to bury someone by just throwing the body in without reflection. Before I started making sculptures from plastic produced at my father's factory, I saw just a moldable material for realizing a form. Only later did other associations - Egyptian masks, death masks, coffin portraits - become clear. At first there was just this little image - of me, like a hardworking ant, using plastic to record information.
Taking part in the creation of this kind of plastic (self-) portrait has something of a rite of passage about it.
For all of the participants in the Deutsche Guggenheim project, it will be a resurrection, if only for a moment. They will surrender to the ritual of making a death mask. Each will have the mask removed so that he can look at himself. It's a form of mummification, without physical death. Not long ago I saw children playing "funeral." A boy was lying down with a serious expression in a television box. Children are most clearly drawn to this; it's great to play that you're dying and being reborn. In our culture, there are processions and theater, but the rites are disappearing. In older cultures and ancient civilizations, there were rituals, such as burying in the ground, walking on hot coals, or going to the sauna. Some of these are now interpreted quite di#erently: today, the sauna is a way to rejuvenate yourself, not a ritual of purification and resurrection in body, mind, and spirit. The spa grew out of rituals for assimilating death and understanding its essence, ephemerality, its illusoriness, and became a luxurious form of panicked flight from its harbingers, so that, in our culture, death may cause us terror. That's where the panic comes from. I recently read that when the end of the world comes, as predicted in the Mayan calendar, the rules of the game will change. Either you'll be ready or you won't be. But you'll experience this change in consciousness that will swoop you up like a deluge. The curtain will be drawn aside. We will see all the machinery that moves the world. That's why some may panic a bit.
In your project for the Deutsche Guggenheim, you connect two threads that have always been of great interest to you: the selfportrait and sharing an experience with others.
It will be a kind of group self-portrait. I'm posing the question of how we can broaden the self-portrait and move beyond the moment when it belongs solely to the one artist. Always working with oneself, delving only into one's interior, is boring; sometimes you have to mix into a group or lose yourself in a collaboration, without owning any one single vision that arises from it. These activities are born of the longing for self-knowledge, to recognize oneself in this diversity, in difference. I'm quite taken by the fact that this group involved in the exhibition includes not only artists, but also office workers, and maybe even malcontents or those opposed to the project. They are all creating this self-portrait. Many of my projects were preceded by an image, in a visionary sense, as if someone had sent it to me. In this case, it's a distant echo of the Chinese tomb with an army of terracotta warriors. That is, it's an expression of "I shall not wholly die," and with it a collection of portraits of residents of Berlin, of employees from such dignified institutions as Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim, of the curators, perhaps of artists who'd like to make their mark, test their abilities in sculpture, and be preserved. It's likely to draw on a number of different motivations. It will be interesting to see what compels people to participate in a collective sculpture.
As an artist who works with other people, for instance by inviting employees of Deutsche Bank to participate, you can be easily accused of manipulation.
There's no promise of security in what I do, even though at a certain point, one has a sense of a mission, of responsibility, as well as the question of how to join that sense of responsibility with the conviction that the game is not safe and never will be. But I am of the conviction that this is the only true game, the one really interesting game. Danger is merely a lack of self-confidence. When I have it, even a momentary intrusion won't distract me. Maybe I'll hit a false note sometimes, I'll get it wrong. I once invited a group of friends on a nighttime walk through the woods, and I lost my way. And I faced the following challenge: either I lost my way, or this was how it had to be. In those moments, I won't say, "I'm lost, every man for himself!" I say, "Follow me, I know where we're going." I cannot, however, claim responsibility for everyone, because maybe some people want to get lost, and maybe someone will find a better way.
The concept of the Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition seems almost like a prank.
It is a kind of prank, a confusion of principles. There is nothing yet to exhibit: it's coming together right now. No one knows how it will turn out. Maybe the sculptures will be weak or no one will come. Still, I'm curious to give it a try. Institutions give artists space, tools, and money. Then they say, "Now, artist, get to work." But what if the artist says, "Okay, let's do this together, right here?" I'm changing the principles. We're not working within our own four walls, but trying to take part in a process, that is, we're sculpting, touching the material, and making portraits of ourselves. The result is that roles are confused or even switched. That's why the sculptures are on wheels: you can set them up, animate them, and put them in motion. Here we can change the way that things are arranged in our businesses, institutions, and hierarchies. For example, the CEO, like the security guard, can stand in a line and come face-to-face with someone he would never meet otherwise, and they can become friends. That disruption is interesting. When someone agrees to use his or her likeness, his or her person, it is an act of courage and commitment. Actually, by the very fact of coming into the world, we have already expressed consent to our own use.
To me the only good institutions are those concerned with art. Those are the ones that right now are in a position to bear all these transformations. Youssouf Dara, a sculptor I met in the Dogon village in Mali, is building a Dogon toguna, or meeting space, in Bródno Park in Warsaw. What I won't say, the toguna will, and it will make generations of African artists, the spirits of their African ancestors, actual forefathers of today's councilmen in Warsaw, manifest. It will enliven the sensitivity of those who sit there. People in Bródno will perceive the dignity of that gesture. The toguna allows us to appreciate what a meeting and a genuine discussion truly are. The Museum of Contemporary Art that is supposed to be built next to Warsaw's Palace of Culture serves the same purpose: it will be the next, larger toguna.
The two of you are executing a kind of interchange between cultures.
Yes, but these interchanges only serve to acquaint us with an extant culture. I'm at home among the Dogon people. Why do we constantly distinguish between the foreign and the native? Everything that I like is my own.
The interview was conducted in Warsaw on July 13, 2011, for the Deutsche Guggenheim Magazine. Karol Sienkiewicz writes for the Polish cultural magazine dwutygodnik.com
Pawel Althamer: Almech
October 28, 2011 - January 16, 2012
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin