«Something unforeseen always happens»
A dialogue between Ulrike Kessl (U. K.) and Necmi Sönmez (N. S.), 2003
Hidden child: He already knows all the hiding places around the house and seeks them out like a shelter where one can be sure to find nothing changed. His heart is beating, he holds his breath. Here he is enclosed in the material world. It becomes incredibly clear to him, comes near to him without words. Just like someone who is hung only then becomes aware of what rope and wood are. The child standing behind the portière himself becomes something fluttering and white, a ghost. The dining table under which he has been crouching makes him into the wooden idol of a temple whose four columns are the carved table legs. And behind a door he is himself a door, has put it on like a heavy mask and, like a magician priest, will bewitch all those who enter unsuspectingly. He must not be discovered at any price.
Walter Benjamin, Einbahnstraße, Frankfurt/M. 1997, 13th edition, pp.59f.
Ulrike Kessl’s installation project, “Arbeiten für ein verstecktes Kind” / Works for a Child in Hiding, in the exhibition space of the RWE Tower in Essen comprises five works which deal with new aspects of the artist’s work. Since Kessl developed the project from an intensive critical engagement with the given architectural features of the tower, and the time schedule was very tight, the collaboration of all those involved in this exhibition was, in the truest sense of the word, a work in progress. There were many changes made during the preparations. Our decision to explicitly treat this process of change in the exhibition as well led to the following dialogue which we had on 1 May 2001 in the artist’s studio in Düsseldorf.
N. S.: You have often realized works which go beyond “autonome Skulptur” and strive to interact with the viewers. Can one regard your new installation project, which was developed especially for the RWE Tower in Essen, in this context as well?
U. K.: Yes, the sculptures are conceived of in such a way that they can, but do not have to, enter into an interaction with the viewers.
N. S.: It’s necessary to define why interaction is important for you as an artistic strategy.
U. K.: On the one hand, of course, it is an essential feature of an installation that viewers are drawn into the work more strongly than in the case of a painting or a sculpture. Viewers are surrounded completely or partially by the installation. It occupies the space, so to speak. On the other hand, direct bodily contact between viewers and art is important to me.
N. S.: When or with which art work did this interaction start?
U. K.: Some of my very early works which I did as a student are basically already conceived in such a way. In 1983 I stretched threads at a distance of ten centimetres from each other just below the ceiling of a very long narrow corridor in the academy and hung newspaper over them. When someone walked down the corridor, the newspaper moved behind them like a wave.
N. S.: But when did you incorporate the exhibition space into the context for the first time?
U. K.: That started really with the large textile works. I realized the first of these in 1993 in the Dominikanarmuseum in Rottweil. It was a kind of tent and it struck me that very many visitors, especially children, asked whether they could walk on it. A year later I reacted to this in the Haverkamphalle in Münster. I designed the work Staircase in such a way that it could be used. The installation could be walked on on the ground floor.
N. S.: To incorporate interaction into an art work as an artistic strategy means of course to present a certain challenge to viewers so that only after they have accepted this challenge can they begin to interpret the work properly or to understand it.
U. K.: But that does not necessarily mean that those who do not enter into a concrete interaction therefore cannot understand the work. My works also work when they are not used, but then they work in a different way.
N. S.: Your works also have a very highly aesthetic and poetic attractiveness. This attractiveness can also unfold like it does for an autonomous sculpture. But some of your installations in space make themselves felt more noticeably if one enters into interaction with them. When I think about the development of your works I am struck by the fact that you often shape your work between two poles. The first pole is the desire for interaction, the invitation for viewers to participate. The second pole is a highly aesthetic, very sensuous materiality which is present in your textile installations and which can provoke viewers. For me it would be very interesting to find out how you decide for a certain work which pole you will put into the foreground and which pole will then step into the background. Or don’t you make this distinction at all?
U. K.: I don’t really make such a distinction. The starting point is always an idea. Only then do I ask how can I realize what I have in my mind. In this phase I also think about the possible reactions of viewers, although it is difficult to foresee these in detail. The exhibition space, its context and the movement of people in the space play an important role in this connection. The architect guides and leads the viewers and then I intervene once again in my own way. To give an example, at the art fair, Art Cologne, in 1996, I showed an installation which was composed of 260 scales arranged to form a field. I wanted the visitors to move around on the scales and to weigh themselves. Since the arrangement of the walls was not yet finalized, I was able to create a transition situation which practically incorporated visitors into the work. This of course was quite a special situation because normally the space is defined in advance, but the example shows how important the interplay of architecture and installation is. Until the exhibition opens I often do not know whether my idea will work and whether the visitors will react how I think they will. It is like a spontaneous performance, something unforeseen always happens. For me this moment of surprise is extremely important. From it I always derive something for my next works. But I think that I can plan so far in advance that the interaction will work. To date anyway it’s always done so.
N. S.: I’ve often looked at your sketchbooks and notebooks. One can see very clearly that you start at a very early stage to think about an interactive aspect in your work. Then you make very precise drawings of how you imagine the interaction concretely. Finally you are given the chance to realize your ideas in installations. I am interested in this transformation. How do you transfer your ideas, your sketches to the space? To what extent is this transformation from a sketch to an interactive work for you dependent upon the situation in the space?
U. K.: They are always interdependent. It is very rarely that I have an idea and then the space is added and bang, it works. In most cases there are some ideas which exist in the form of sketches or notes which are then transformed by the situation in the space. That is a process which goes back and forth. For example, some time ago I made a note about two mattresses in the form of brain and digestive system. This note has now become the Sitting Landscape and the Playpen. That is simply the artistic work which then still has to be done.
N. S.: The exhibition space thus plays an important role in your works from the very beginning because your installations very often interact with the given features of the space. In Essen the exhibition will take place in the RWE Tower in a very prominent and difficult architectural space. Is the architecture of the space in this sense a challenge for you? And what were your feelings or thoughts after we looked at the rooms together for the first time?
U. K.: Yes, that was certainly a challenge for me. The very first impression was: gigantic, a monumental presentation of architecture, a tower standing on stilts, the columns bearing the whole weight, the walls are basically just a skin. Here it is being demonstrated, hey, look here what technology offers today. The architecture presents itself with the elegance and coolness with which a company like RWE wants to present itself to the public.
The spatial structure, the form of the space, is of course also very unusual. What especially interested me, however, was the situation in the entrance hall. The first time I was here it struck me that people don’t really use the exhibition space proper, but come in, go to the reception and then directly to the elevator — that half the space on the ground floor is pretty much undefined. You can see someone sitting on a sofa every now and then, but nothing really takes place there. Basically half the space is used only as a passage. I wanted to break through this with my work.
N. S.: When I saw your sketches it became clear to me that you did not want to enter into competition with the architecture here. On the basis of your notes and sketches I noticed rather a dialogue with the architecture because you have spread out your concepts over five different groups of work in the space which protrude not only inwardly but also outwardly. Could one speak here of a congenial complementarity? You add something to the architecture which it did not have and conversely, your work receives something from the architecture.
U. K.: Yes, one can view it this way. I do not want to compete with the architecture because I don’t think that that would make any sense.
N. S.: With the fourth work, Cell, which is conceived for the outside space, last time you expressed the wish to provide your work with a link to the architecture without fail. The more insight I gained into the your sketches, the more I reflected about them, the more it became clear to me that a very harmonious dialogue has come about. Each position, that of the architecture and that of the artwork, maintains its definition of purpose and aesthetics. In my opinion it follows very clearly from this that you use this difficult architectural framework as a reflective surface for your work.
U. K.: I find this formulation very good.
N. S.: For me the entrance hall of the RWE Tower is also a place of encounter where employees receive visitors. When I think about your works, from the child’s playpen to the carpet in the basement, it becomes clear to me that you have chosen precisely this place of encounter as the background for your project.
U. K.:: That is certainly the case. I often take my ideas from the context of the space or the venue’s situation. For this project it is the situation of the reception hall of a large company which has its headquarters there. One can view the inner organs in such a way that the administrative headquarters represent a kind of inner organ of the enterprise. Things take place here which do not become public but which keep the entire organism alive.
N. S.: You regard this company with all its employees like a body, an organism which, like the human organism, functions by means of its organs. These inner organs which perhaps at first glance do not have much to do with the work which is done there, give the whole another presence through the transformation they go through by means of your installation. When I think about your work Playpen, whose form resembles a brain, I can well imagine why you are presenting this work here. But why are you showing the ‘digestive organs’ at this place?
U. K.: I searched around for a long time for a suitable organ as a complement to the brain, which was firmly established as an object from the outset. Heart and lungs did not seem to me to be a good counterweight and the stomach on its own was too one-sided for me. Then I struck upon the digestive tract without initially being able to provide reasons for this.
Both brain and the digestive tract produce something but with the difference that the one product is highly recognized socially and the other is stigmatized. Only children who do not yet know social and cultural norms do not make this distinction. On a formal level there is a surprising number of similarities: the endless convolutions in the brain are repeated in a certain sense in the intestines. There are kilometres of tubes which are pressed together in a narrow space. However, whereas in the brain, put simply, ‘thoughts’ take place as chemical processes and take complicated, entangled paths, the same thing takes place in the digestive tract on a more concrete, material level. By the way, there are scientists who call the intestines a second brain because the intestines carry out complex functions independently of the brain.
N. S.: I would now like to go into the materiality of your works. It has become clear in all its facets through your installations in the RWE Tower. The spectrum of materials used passes from foam through timber to cables. But above all, you use textiles. Are there criteria according to which you select textiles and materials? Where does this manifestation of textiles in your works, which is a kind of leitmotif, come from? Are textiles materials which are more easily to form?
U. K.: It’s not so much a matter of whether a material can be worked with or formed more easily, but rather whether it is the right material in relation to the idea of the work and also in relation to the exhibition space. I sought out the colours and patterns in accordance with the idea and I must say that this is the first time I have used patterned materials on this scale.
N. S.: Earlier on you always used monochrome textiles.
U. K.: In other contexts I have always used monochrome textiles, mostly white or red.
N. S.: Does that perhaps have something to do with the fact that now you have a child and that recently you have often come into contact with these colours and textiles which are typical for babies?
U. K.: Perhaps that is so. It is always difficult to decide how such ideas come about. Above all I wanted to counteract the stern atmosphere and the subdued colours of the room. The concept for my exhibition works intensively with contrasts with respect to colours, forms and also themes. I think there is also a humorous element in this; in any case, the bright patterns of the textiles could be interpreted in such a way.
I must say that the concept, textile art, is negatively connotated for me. I am really only interested in textiles in large quantities, as large surfaces. My previous textile works are basically architectures, spaces made of textile.
N. S.: But previously these works were consciously monochrome textiles, either white or earthy, dark green or similar, i.e. mainly subdued colours. For the exhibition, Sculptural Ideas, we worked together. I think that for this exhibition the coloured fabric assumed a position in your work for the first time, different from the usual position it assumes in textile art. The colours of the textile you choose stimulate strong feelings. When they are red they generate warmth or energy and a kind of emotional surface arises.
In your work, “Vorhänge des Vergessens” / Curtains of Forgetting, for example, one could view the red in two ways: on the one hand as the colour of blood, and on the other as the colour of the brain, which is a whitish red. This symbolism of colours plays a large role in your works, for you always employ it on a different level depending on the context of the work.
U. K.: Of course colour has an emotional component. Previously I was moving on relatively neutral ground by using white or natural coloured fabrics which adapt themselves to the architecture and do not add any strong colours of their own. Colour always brings in an additional dimension. Especially in the case of textiles, associations are ready to hand; baby colours in pink and light blue are only an example. Fashion aspects are also important; that starts already with what textiles are available. I want to control the textile with which I work. It should not divert attention from my idea but form a unity with it. The choice of colours and fabrics has something to do with the theme of organs. Compared with the earlier sewn rooms, the themes now come more from the context of the body. Images are already there, colours and forms, associations which I do not simply adopt but which I want to shape. But I also have to incorporate what viewers already have in their minds.
N. S.: On the basis of this multipartite group of works you want to show viewers various ways of seeing and interpreting. The works of the installation project refuse a central perspective, normal seeing. I am thinking for example of the work on the ceiling with which you force the viewers’ gaze to move high up above the ground by the threads’ positioning, thus compelling them to adopt a frog’s perspective. In another example, Carpet, it could mean that it is only perceived when one is very close to it or is standing on it. In my opinion these experiences of seeing are an important aspect of your artistic investigation of space because your work breaks through the visual spectrum of the average exhibition visitor and goes beyond it. The architecture does provide a certain framework, but through a changed viewing position your works bring across another visual experience which is hard to describe.
U. K.: Yes, that is of course my intention. To continue the architecture and the space in another way so that one consciously looks upward and makes a connection from the front area through the sluice in the middle to the rear area. My work is supposed to connect the two areas with each other and to break through the isolation of the ‘exhibition tract’. It is a work which has a connecting function also towards the outside, as if one wanted to draw the line further in thought. I will position the Carpet in such a way that it can also be seen from above. A downward connection in the vertical dimension will then also arise. But a come back to your question as to whether the works would function individually or only in a group. They can be seen independently of each other, but in an interconnection there are additional aspects. The Playpen as brain and a Sitting Landscape in the form of the digestive tract, for example, are related to each other. One would spontaneously ascribe the intestinal tract to small children and the brain to adults, but in my works precisely the opposite is the case.
N. S.: That is an interesting interpretation because small children bear the idea of the future within themselves.
U. K.: There are various explanations. Especially with children the brain is particularly capable. Never again later in life are they capable of learning so quickly. That makes sense of course, but there is also a crossover in this constellation with the works with the Sitting Landscape and the Playpen. On the whole I would say that all the works are also autonomous and work individually, independently of each other. But for this space they have been conceived as a group in an interplay with each other. This idea is also important for me: the entire building is like a living being. This idea I believe becomes all the more clear when several works come together.
N. S.: Thank you very much for this conversation.
Translated from the German by Michael Eldred, artefact text & translation, Cologne