SK: That’s correct, lightness, a lack of bonds and the creation of a rupture are important elements in my work. The sculptures travel with me, they don’t stay forever or a long time in a single place. They break up in order to reshape themselves anew in other contexts. They are the metamorphoses of which you spoke. They disappear, surface again and merge and mix anew.
ABO: Exactly, your installations blend with the space. They do not stand in opposition to it. The result is an integration under the influence of the “Labyrinth”. The “Labyrinth” bespeaks your entire work, since it does not merely cause a disorientation, but also a visual and physical experience: that of movement. The “Labyrinth” is proof that there is not just one possible direction within the space but, I would say, a well thought through System that widens into a diffuse space.
SK: The work that I, in fact, call “Labyrinth”, was also the first work I built outdoors, even though it was made from sensitive materials: paper, cloth and ink. It stood exposed to wind and rain, a limitless space of sky on the lowest level of an abandoned quarry, a lonesome place. Then I built the buffeted “Labyrinth” into the Museum where viewers passed by what was left after the storm. After this exhibition it remained again outside until it disintegrated.
ABO: The “Tent”, the “Labyrinth”, the “Wheels” are all works of nomadic origin, they speak about the change of place and the overcoming of borders. A continuity of inside and outside. The idea of the nomadic in your art is also fruit, I think, of an eroticism you assign to art. Art is not still but in motion. It is a form of expression with its own discipline, but also its debauchery.
SK: My art is based on my own rules. I don’t submit to any of the rules of the art market, for instance, through a generally recognizable style. My works follow a red thread that one can perhaps recognize only in retrospect. At the moment of building the installation, I work freely with the materials. I sometimes bring some already prepared modules. So the form, as well as the tension I feel in me, remains open until the last moment. The building of an installation stands in a dynamic exchange with the place, with my feelings and with the material.
ABO: One cannot define your installations only as sculptures for open or closed spaces. Since there is always the reference to sign, to color, to drawing, to gesture which refers to the change of place. Which kind of relationship does your painting have with your sculpture in the installations?
SK: It is a symbiotic relationship: The first ideas for a sculpture grew out of my images, as painting was for 20 years my main area of work. Already at the beginning of the 80’s I had the idea of ‘constructing’ a painting where one can enter, for example my pair of wings / the floating canvasses and the carousel of color and shapes. These constructions were still dominated by color.
ABO: We can say that your installations become dynamic as a result of the paintings and pictorial gestures?
SK: Exactly, and at the same time I celebrated the sensuousness of color.
ABO: There is sensuousness but also drama. For example, in the “Broken Image”, a work that strives upward like a flux of archetypal signs in a visual alphabet and then falls back down again. Of course one can surround it and pass through it, but at the same time you also describe here your idea of time that leads from life to death, and from death to life.
SK: My long stay at the Goethe-Institutes of India and Pakistan has certainly left substantial traces in me and my work. During 1995/1996 I prepared five exhibitions in different places in the Subcontinent. I experienced things that I had never seen before: the suffering of the poorest and their children, a total reliance on destiny, but also a joyfulness and a faith that was unknown to me. I was particularly receptive at that time since I had a little child in need of nurturing and protection. I tried, through religion and philosophy, to understand the mindset of people, the way death in the Hindu religion is experienced as just a moment within an infinite cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Since that experience, I am sure I carry a piece of the Orient in me.
ABO: Oriental in your work is also the fragility of the materials: bamboo, cloth, paper together with hieroglyphics derived from Oriental writing, but freed of its meaning, and regarded by us westerners as an archetypal symbolic alphabet.
SK: That is exactly how I have frozen my Oriental experience into my work, through components that suggest an intimate secret. Writing like Goethe’s “the East-West Divan”, Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise”, the writings and meditations of the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, and the Persian mystic Al-Hallaj have been important me. One builds bridges out of light materials and precious thoughts.
ABO: Your installations are moving towards a total work of art in which all languages are found and in which literary worlds of thought can flourish. In this way you open yourself to all surroundings, be it land or sea, city or natural landscape. Especially your work “Bilancia” has to do with water, with depths, with the birth of life, where mankind takes its beginnings, with movement and at that very moment with a wafting removal, a pause. Thus I think that your sculptures do not carry in them the seizure of a place, and therefore do not need to excuse themselves. Since it is especially through this seizure, this repeal, that you do create a dialectic relationship with the surroundings. Where do you place “Bilancia” in this context?
SK: I saw the “Bilancia” (a self-made lift net typical of the area) on the Tiber delta for the first time in 1984 when I moved to Rome, and I was immediately fascinated with its filigree quality constructed with pipes, steel wire and netting. With much strength but little surface area, these constructions framed unreachable areas on the water and balanced them on the mirror-like surface of the water. Over the years this original structure was extended, and modified. It was a way of working that is close to my own. I bought this ‘fishing scaffolding’ from the fishermen on the Tiber. I dismantled it and rebuilt it on a bunker in Denmark. It was exactly 50 years old, like the 50- year peace celebrated with the “Bunker Exhibition Fredskulptur / Peacesculpture” in Denmark. The “Bilancia” looked like it had been made according to my specifications. I wanted a symbol of life and of transparency hanging in the wind and over the water as the greatest possible contrast to the cement of the bunkers. On the netting I fixed the drawings of the human inner ear, the organ essential for walking upright, the equilibrium, the evolution of mankind. The experience was extraordinary. I wanted to try out this construction or its successor in some new contexts.
ABO: And from this stemmed the second “Bilancia”, the “Amphibian Bilancia” (lift net construction), where your drawings would hang instead of caught fish. Water in your work has a fundamental significance. It is the element of flux, of birth. It is the function of water in nature, since one is right in saying that nature never rests. In this sense it is very interesting to supersede nature’s development. One of your works is called “When the Rivers Flow Backwards”. How did you achieve this ‘inversion’?
SK: I decided to work on a heavy pontoon, almost like a boat. I welded a little village of clay houses first on iron stands and then on the pontoon. I called this ensemble “When the Rivers Flow Backwards”. It was important that it should travel backwards (against the current) in the river at regular intervals, and pass the gorgeous silhouette of the city of Dresden and all the cranes for the rebuilding of the city. This was a project conceived during special times. The two Germanys were supposed to grow together again and everyone was looking ‘forward’: all around were construction sites, immense projects were being planned. People were working only on setting up greatness again and seldom looked back to the past. I wanted to build something simple and primitive which would stand against this frenzy.
ABO: I always thought and also openly explained that art also projects the past. Accordingly, rivers can flow backwards. At the same time, art can also summarize, as with your work on the “Library of Life”, which began in 1982 and which is still a “work in progress”. In 30 books it synthesizes your life, your experiences, impressions and feelings, it is a self-managed archive and simultaneously a library that opens to the future.
SK: Yes, very open, this theme of processing page after page in books from painting, and drawing over photography to even collage and textual creations. I have also made a kind of sculptural art with books. They are indeed my life’s archive in which everything has found expression. I always have handy a sketchbook or a form of visual working journal. They accompany me on my journeys. I pile them up in their casings, sometimes on palettes, sometimes on tables, sometimes in showcases.
ABO: Frames stimulate you to cross their border. Basically you are transgressive and absolutely amoral, but not immoral.
SK: It is difficult for me to accept borders imposed from the outside. Even though I also work with classical materials (brush, pen, paper, cloth, ink) I am always attracted to experimentation and inventive curiosity, to try to reach as far as I can. I always see an enormous field of experimental possibilities in front of me.
ABO: You remain unconventional also on the surface of the language of art. Because you would like to cause a short circuit between life and art. Clearly you do not limit yourself to saving your experience only in the “Library of Life”. From there you install the “Rooms of Evolution”, spaces full of iconographic signs, in a special relationship to a visual alphabet.
SK: I was interested in developing an alphabet that summarizes the anatomy of the first beings in water and on earth. What might look like gestural, abstract signs are in fact concrete moments in the development from the fish to the amphibian, related in particular to the evolution of gills and of fins.
I wanted to establish an iconographic sign system tied to the essential life development process. My alphabet includes 250 different signs. The first two “Rooms of Evolution” I exhibited in the United States, the third one in Teheran.
ABO: Describe to me the difference in the creative experiences between America and Persia.
SK: Initially I react to the exhibition space. These spaces could not be more diverse. The space in Teheran was totally black like a stage; the American spaces were more neutral, white, one rectangular the other one rounded. In Teheran I had quite a lot of problems of a practical nature, which inhibited my creative energy, but the problems soon resolved themselves thanks to the people I met there, and who were ready to take on a risk for me, and so the ambiance grew into an inspirational surrounding. I emerge from these experiences, as well as from those in Pakistan, transformed, with new friendships and insights. The influences on my work actually take place in retrospect, sometimes years later. My creative experiences in the States are truly unique, as I am offered possibilities there not found anywhere else. These possibilities, and the accompanying broad range interest for my work, are unbelievably inspiring to me every time. My yearly working visits in New York are like a new creative blood transfusion. I have done some of my most important works in the USA.
ABO: What influence did the different East-West life styles have on your work?
SK: I think that without the intense experiences I collected in India, Pakistan and Iran my newest installation, the “Jerusalem-Project”, would not have come about. In it I try to bring together the two apparently opposing sides.
ABO: Your work also arouses the suspicion that the unforeseen, the random play a role. You work with destruction, for example, through tearing. What does this mean for you: force or also development, growth, transformation?
SK: It means all that, but also injury. One of my yet unrealized projects would be to represent in some manner or form a scar so that one could visually feel the pain. Nothing bloody, only through drawing, a kind of wall relief. The wound, the scar could be the symbol of our time. The repeated wounding, the never healed scars.
ABO: Nietzsche said that to build one must first destroy. Where do you stand on this?
SK: In art this rule is certainly valid, as it is sometimes for nature, too. Often a painting is lost when one tries to rescue it. But when one is ready to risk everything, even an apparent destruction of the painting, then miraculously it finds its path. Every artist knows this. For me it is also a matter of giving the works a story similar to that of archaeology or geology, in which one reads the individual layers of what had happened. This I find moving. It links you to the past and the process. Often Tintoretto destroyed certain compositions in his work in order to find the final version, not always voluntarily though. Looking at his paintings one feels this density and this quest and rejection and agony to find the right expression.
ABO: From the ‘Room of Evolution’ to the ‘Wired Rooms’- what happens in them?
SK: Quietness – pause – an in-between space, a frozen motion. The exhibit was called ‘In the Course of Things, There is also Standstill’, and it was shortly before September 11. The ‘Rooms’ signify for me the impenetrability: grids in front-grids in back, it remains ambiguous.
ABO: Two things dominate in your work: rhythm and movement. The line is not rigid, but an enveloping, circling geometrical line. Does this express your feminine identity?
SK: It could be that my interest in arabesques, in the twirling line, in growth. The rhythmic element I attribute rather to my musical side, my fascination with dance, but also my interest in abstraction.
ABO: There is also always the idea of flux, of flowing. In San Giovanni in Orvieto you have created a work that gives the impression of a waterfall.
SK: Yes, it gives me the impression of a moment of quiet and cleansing. I sometimes watch the video of this work which has a beautiful soundtrack. I also experience the installation as a musical composition, temporarily inserted into the very beautiful harmonic and regular spaces within the framework of the cloister’s archways. Places of this kind are seldom available tome the fountain is in the center. From it begins the cascade of lines that flows towards the far corners of the courtyard.
ABO: You always dialogue with architecture, the meaning of the context, with the outer frame. You do not work against the space. It is a many sided relationship of change. The space flows into your work and you flow into the space. Even when you work vertically, the sculpture opens up so it can connect with the free air of the universe. Like when you built the “Tower of Marzahn”, which generates strength out of itself, so that it overcomes the roof.
SK: The space is the first condition I face. I really like to create site specific works. The Marzahn neighbourhood in Berlin had elements that interested me: a contradictory space in an area not without conflict.
ABO: What is the difference between “The Tower of Marzahn” and “Mäander”?
SK: “Mäander” and the “Tower of Marzahn” have certain similar starting points, but they are different in their character. They are apparently of the same height and were both built under a glass roof, which is how they communicated with the sky. The “Tower of Marzahn” stands over a rectangular structure, whereas “Mäander” springs from one ring to the next – seven altogether -, falls onto a mirrored surface and sinks into it as in the sea. “The Tower of Marzahn” is architecture, “Mäander” is nature.
ABO: The idea of transparency, of continuity, of difference and conflict, passage and confrontation. Towards a moment in time, a specific point, you have asked yourself where and how life is born. The “Ur- Egg” is the work where you try to express the energies that break the shell, move freely in order to spread out into reality, life and the world.
SK: A similar idea lays in the concept of the “Library of Life”. Drawing and painting alternate, but they stay hidden in their wrapping. The egg in its inner core consists of drawings about life, anatomy, emotions. I continue building with such life symbols until the egg is fully formed and ready to explode and give life to something big.
ABO: One can say that this birth, this widening of an idea comes from the rhythm of life. At the same time, you are not just occupied with life, but also with survival. A “Survival Kit” which finds its expression in a balance in the heights.
SK: It stands for hope in the most impossible and most dangerous of situations. To always be able to save oneself, to never give up after a steep fall, and to experience being held for one magical moment four meters above ground. In this overhanging amplitude of the parachute there is a similarity to the iconic mantel of the Madonna, which opens its protection to all.
ABO: Another similar picture of hope is the tree and the sky. You made a drawing using tree and sky. You also researched nature in the depths of the human brain. In the horizontal drawing of the brain in the field, for example, which you dedicated to your “master in nature” Giovanni, a farmer. There you drew on a horizontal plane once again the labyrinth of thought, a kind of description of the brain.
SK: To learn from nature, that’s what Giovanni, my good friend, taught me. He knew exactly when to sow and when to reap, when to dig up the soil and what the trees desire during the different seasons of the year. The tree itself became my teacher after Giovanni’s death: the olive tree which, whenever I see it, tells me what I have to do. Maybe it was only because I observed the trees that I was able to do the “Gold and Tar Project”. The ramifications are also to be found in our own bodies, not just in the brain, but also in our organs and bodily encirclements.
At special moments I manage to be in symbiosis with nature, and to feel for seconds its same rhythm.
ABO: You are working on the relationship between art and life, not on their coordination. You think about border areas. What does a border area signify for you?
SK: Border areas are etched in my soul. Having lived for years in a Berlin separated by a wall and being able to visit friends in the east only through complicated means. The different zones were funnelled into such a border: no man’s land, death strip. One knows that borders are no joke, they can mean death. Unfortunately one gets used to this, too.
ABO: You are more interested than anything in being stateless, in a status that allows to move freely. In your work you have built a “Carousel of Lines”.
SK: That is true. The line dances and floats without being bound to anything. I live in the in-between¬ spaces of countries, nationalities and art forms. I take advantage of belonging to all and to none.
ABO: You expressed it this way: you want to create synapses…
SK: … to receive impulses and react spontaneously.
ABO: Your installations don’t occupy the space, they create it. They become an experience for the artist and for the view.
A conversation between Achille Bonito Oliva and Susanne Kessler in the book „Susanne Kessler_Framing Space“, for the solo exhibition in the American University Museum/Katzen Art Center, Washington, DC, 2015