in conversation with Margot Norton
Margot Norton: I know that you had formal training in ballet, and I was curious how this training manifests itself in your work. I think about your video Gloss of a Forehead (2011), where you perform the Sisyphean task of transporting things around your studio, contorted in a folded-over position with your butt in the air, or Multiple Keyholes (2014), where you attempt to transverse your studio window by aligning your body to the lines between window panes. Is there something in the constriction of movement and the molding of your body in these works that relates to your training as a ballet dancer?
Anna K.E.: While living and studying in Europe, I distinctly tried to disregard the symbols and events that related to my personal history, such as my classical ballet education. I believed that unpredictability could only unfold in unknown territories. After I finished my studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 2010 I moved to New York City and finally found this unpredictability I was longing for. At that moment, I started to express myself in time-based media, such as video-actions and sound pieces. Today, I see those works as manifestations of my temptation to answer, while on the other hand my installations deal more with exploration and questioning. The very first video I made in the studio was Gloss of a Forehead, where the presence of the body—as a creator, as a vehicle—is in an ongoing, fluid dialogue with its surroundings; moving through space in a non-hierarchical manner. Humorously deconstructing the truth and importance of objects, as well the process of creation itself, by reflecting the world upside-down. Multiple Keyholes, on the other hand, decodes a metaphysical consciousness and transforms it into an unknown sign language, through an organic body. The physique bends and adjusts itself on the grid of geometrical window frames, transforming the geometric structure into corporeal hieroglyphic codes. This merging of body and architecture creates black, keyhole type gates, on the transparent grid of the windows. The dialogue between the body and its surrounding environment, and the reflection of this encounter, was probably born during my stage experiences. When you are performing, you create a moment of your own, being fully absorbed in the action and the role, while still being able to distance yourself and observe your own body and action. You become one of the anonymous eyes that are facing you on the stage from the limitless darkness of the parterre. That experience was probably the initial moment when I saw my artistic processes as independent performances.
MN: It is interesting how you speak about your videos as being attempts at answering, whereas your installations are about questioning. One video of yours, which I feel is important to mention, especially given the dialogue between the body and its surrounding environment as you have described, is Cultural Catalyst that Drives the Popular Dialogue Globally (2012). In this work, you traverse a messy art studio, full of potential tripping hazards, while en pointe in a pair of satin ballet shoes. This work could be read as metaphor for this transition between your life as a ballet dancer in Georgia, and as an artist in New York. I think about how ballet—which restricts and controls the movements of the body as if it were a machine—can be at odds with an intuitive or haphazard approach to working in the studio. Was this tension between restraint and abandon something that you were thinking about with this work? And if so, how did it relate to what you were going through at the time?
AKE: I would like to answer your question with a quote by Rumi: “Who could be so lucky? Who comes to a lake for water and sees the reflection of moon.” Cultural Catalyst that Drives the Popular Dialogue Globally happened right after a long period when I was in Germany and was left without a studio space and my daily creative practice, for nearly four months. On the first day that I returned to the studio in New York, after a very long day of feeling stuck in a blank mental state, and just before leaving for the day and thinking of taking a piss, I had an insight: I spontaneously slipped on my used point shoes that I had brought with me from Germany and… discovered the moon (of Rumi).
The subtle dance of a symbolic figure consisting only of pondering pointe shoes wanders the studio, accompanied by Bach’s music. The pointe shoes represent the idea of the female monument, a refined and graceful image, polished by culture, which is strolling through the studio space, a raw state of mind full of unfinished ideas, thoughts and processes. The pointe shoes seem to purposely avoid these non-legitimate territories, producing an erroneous repetitive cracking sound of a broken pointe shoe sole. This cracking adds an element of precariousness and danger—an error that inevitably accompanies the veil effect of culture. The tender tiptoe movements in the video charm the viewer, as if the casual play takes place between them, and the camera represents the viewer’s integrated emotions. The camera is actually fixed on a part of an industrial vacuum cleaner—a low-tech construction that prevents any control over the frame and composition of the image. It’s like a blind dance that creates an illogical tension. At the end of the video, the camera comes to a rest, the music ends, and the shoes reach their final position. There is a brief moment of calmness, before the point of resolution. All interpretations disappear with one final gesture. The catharsis of the “Real”, represented by a clear waterfall of urine. It creates a pool on the floor (a reminder of the lake), and on its surface, Rumi’s moon starts reflecting, while the pointe shoes start absorbing the urine.
MN: I like how you describe this final release at the end of Cultural Catalyst as “the catharsis of the real.” Sociologist Erving Goffman, in his text The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, wrote about how in our society defecation is the only activity that causes an individual to go out of character in their performance of the ‘theater of the everyday.’ It is only during this act that one is able to “drop from his face the expressive mask that he employs in face-to-face interaction.” Like you mentioned with Cultural Catalyst, it is in this moment that the “real” occurs, and one is reminded of those base activities that keep us human. Your video God Created the World and I Did the Rest (2012) also has such a moment, when the camera pans on your reclining nude body that recalls myriad images of nude female bodies throughout the history of art, and then reveals an emoji-shaped pile of excrement sitting atop your left hip. What is in this moment of purgative and perhaps liberating release in these works? Perhaps the moment towards the end of Multiple Keyholes when you tumble down from the window in your studio breaking the tension and precision of your movements is also part of this…
AKE: There is a short but important moment in Multiple Keyholes, right after the fall: the silhouette climbs back up onto the frame of the window to start its exercise from the beginning—diving back into the archeology of movements—while the picture slowly fades into white. In this particular moment, I feel, the Sisyphean nature of our “being here” is resolved. The deep sorrow of our dilemma is transcended by the embrace of pure absurdity as a liberating force. In all of these works, there is a natural flow of energy towards the “absurd” —an outburst that transcends the politics and mathematics of coded thoughts constructed by human consciousness. That outburst of energy feels connected with the unconscious mind, in the sense intended by psychologist Erich Fromm. It is in the moment of an unpredictable gesture that the mind reveals itself and a sort of inside-out crystallization takes place. A sense of the “real” can be discovered in those moments: through the shifts, dislocations, gaps and errors; reaching out beyond thought, and its area of operation. The idea of inside-out also comes into play in the video piece you mentioned above: God Created the World and I Did the Rest. Here, the body is schematically shown in its natural state, as the camera slowly pans its surface. Excrement is presented as the temple of truth (the “real”), build on the highest point of the horizontal line of landscape—atop the left hip. This truth, in its pyramidal form, sits in monumental silence beyond binary oppositions, and instead as a renunciation or denial of its historic fetishization is transformed into a liberating “emoticon,” hovering over the shivering skin.
MN: We have spoken a lot about your works in video, but I also wanted to ask you about your sculptural installations, which you described earlier as being realized through a process of experimentation and questioning. I am thinking about the sandwich boards in particular from your Teen Factory series (2015), or your sculptural installation No Entrance, No Exit at the Kitchen (2015), and the tiled wall work Profound Approach and Easy Outcome that was at the Queens Museum (2017). There is a way in which these sculptural works never seem to be completely resolved. As in your video works, there is this tension that they could collapse—the sandwich boards could buckle, the wooden planks could teeter, or the tiles on the curved wall in the Queens Museum could peel off and spill to the floor. Then there is also the question of how one’s body reacts to these precarious situations of potential failure and impending doom. How do you think about these works in relationship to viewers’ bodies?
AKE: Yes, those installations have an ambivalent nature, representing the process of their formation or even their falling apart. Formation and dissolution are, to me, very similar when understood as part of a process that never has a specific aim to become didactic or ideological. Also, there is always a hidden choreography in the emptiness of the space that connects the objects and installations. The negative spaces in-between the objects provide a voice to the sub-layer of the work. I purposely form different rhythms of emptiness within the space, which creates an unconscious, awkward feeling for the audience, activating the potential of failure as a co-author of the work. One of the aspects of the large wall installation in the Queens Museum, Profound Approach and Easy Outcome, was that it enhanced this emptiness by creating an illusion of a three-dimensional body in a composition with two-dimensional figures, suggesting movement through space. This simulated three-dimensional appearance of the work, which also recalls a digital mockup, deconstructs the scale between the viewer and the object. Teen Factory is a complex of fragile objects, which have been growing rebelliously and inexhaustibly in my studio space for over two years, and one day, I found myself in an enormous forest of these approximately twenty-six independent creatures. Teen Factory gives my intangible ideas, which are gathered and suspended as a cloud in my “mind archive,” a voice and a body. At the end of the process, I was inspired to create a superior gap, amplifying the tension by dividing the works in Teen Factory into two different groups and showing them simultaneously on two continents: Europe (Berlin) and America (New York). With this oceanic division in the installation, vast emptiness became an organic part of the piece—a surreal shift in time and territory. The installation at the Kitchen had plenty of attributes and props for a performance: a swimming pool frame, both in physical form and as a projected digital image, folded swimming suits, a springboard, and a hidden piece of Art Deco glass, halfway filled with water. However, the viewer was left with their own expectations and imaginations, to fill in the gaps within an empty stage, and in anticipation of an absent performance.
MN: The idea of an absent performer reminds me of something you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, which is this distance and awareness you have in relationship to your own body that you realized when you were performing ballet on stage. I am interested in how this idea of being both present and an observer of your actions relates to our relationship to technology and our digital presences online. Here, I am thinking specifically about the work you made with Florian Meisenberg, Late Checkout (2015-ongoing), as well as the photographic works you recently showed, Intangible Economies of Desire (2016). In Late Checkout, the videos that you and Florian shot in hotel rooms, there are moments when he is filming you aligning your body to the architecture of these generic spaces, and you hold a mobile device in your hand that shows you the footage of yourself. In these moments, there are these infinity mirrors created in your device, a never-ending loop of images of you looking at yourself. In Intangible Economies of Desire, you are likewise framing isolated fragments of your body formed in a three-dimensional animation program within overlapping frames—distancing yourself from images of your own body. Do you find this idea of looking at your body from an outside perspective, rooted in your experience as a performer, as also symptomatic of the digital age?
AKE: Indeed, the idea of escaping or collapsing our human biology is often projected towards the digital realm as a symptom of the future. However, for me, the way we convey this “new future” creates an image of it as a refugee, driven toward a territory at a remove from our present, suggesting an imaginary, enhanced version of the now. We think we have an image of the future, but we do not realize that we are swimming in the sea, eluding to envision the vast ocean of the future with its ungraspable capacities. There is a beautiful story, which describes the first revealing of young Krishna as a lord, when he opened his mouth and his mother suddenly saw the entire universe inside it. I remember when I was 9 and my father read this story to me, I was absolutely mesmerized by the idea of being able to discover eternity in the most unexpected places, and in that instant being able to grasp there the “whole” and the “unknown.” An even more astonishing part to this story was how easily this sublime moment ended in the second that Krishna closed his mouth. In the Late Checkout series, the ongoing repetition of movements of alienated creatures behind the screen, which loop and mirror in the generic environments of hotel rooms, reminds me of the wide-open infinity of the universe within Krishna’s tiny mouth, where it was least expected. Intangible Economies of Desire shows high-definition body parts of my avatar suspended in an achromatic environment. They are pointing and projecting light, superseding my personal affections. In this neutral setting, some colorful drawings are inserted, presumably recalling abstract citations from different contexts in art history. These elements together seem to form a landscape of “future ruins,” such as one might see when looking back once already having crossed a river, glancing back from the other shore.
in conversation with Margot Norton
Late Checkout II, 2015
All images Courtesy: the artist