IN CONVERSATION WITH
HANS ULRICH OBRIST
Miriam Cahn This is my stock. For example, there is Wach Raum over there, a whole room-installation which was made for dOCUMENTA in Kassel.
Hans Ulrich Obrist Wach Raum is a work from the ’80s, isn’t it?
MC Wach Raum is from 1982, yes. It was part of Rudi Fuchs’s dOCUMENTA. I set it up and then I took it down because they destroyed it.
HUO Who destroyed it, the visitors?
MC No, it was Rudi Fuchs, the curator and his team, who removed part of the installation in my absence, before the opening, to stick another artist in the same space. I came back and they were in the middle of removing it.
HUO Without your authorisation?
MC Yes. They were always saying they couldn’t reach me by phone, which wasn’t true, and when I saw how they were removing things, I told myself this was out of the question. It was a room installation. That was like cutting off a piece of a painting, or part of a film, you know. So it really wasn’t appropriate. I took everything down in fifteen minutes.
HUO And it was never exhibited it again?
MC Yes, it was much larger.
HUO But in Kassel you didn’t show it anymore?
MC Not in Kassel. I took my little bundle back to the hotel and then I went back to Basel with Harald Szeemann, who had a car, and he just wanted to eat Italian. That’s why we ended up in Basel. He didn’t want to be in Kassel. And that’s why we’re showing it again now, but it’s a different version naturally.
HUO Did you continue drawing?
MC No, I still had much more to do. There was Wach Raum 1 in Zurich at Konrad Fischer, Wach Raum 2 would have been in Kassel, Wach Raum 3 was in Zurich again, at the Kunsthaus, and there were still others.
HUO And now all of those Wach Raum are going to be set up?
MC Yes, that’s the rest. They’re 17 positions. I’m taking all of them and setting them up again.
HUO In Wach Raum was there a reference to insomnia?
MC No, not at all. On the one hand it was the Wach Raum found in hospitals in the past, where suicidal people were in a room that had a guard in the middle. And at the same time in that period, the ’80s, there was the Fulda Gap, with soldiers in the ground—I don’t know, somewhere in America—who could more or less trigger a world war. It was that combination of meanings, and that’s why it was called Wach Raum.
HUO Unfortunately it’s still highly relevant today with the new cold war, isn’t it?
MC We don’t learn anything! It’s true, we’re not learning from history. Maybe it’s not the Fulda Gap anymore, but it’s still the Wach Raum.
HUO There are a lot of Rauminstallationen there.
MC They’re all Rauminstallationen. I remember that Jonathan Borofsky experienced the same situation as me at the 1982 dOCUMENTA. He’d made a very beautiful installation called Hammering Man in the old museum where there are those classicist statues. There were one or two very large Hammering Man, and aside from that there was nothing. And at the last minute they put Disler, Salomé and all the new painting into those empty spots. It looked stupid and I saw how Coosje van Bruggen was talking to that big guy, Jonathan, who was crying, because he didn’t know what to do. You see, unlike me, he couldn’t take his Hammering Man under his arm and go back to his hotel. That was really a particular dOCUMENTA, the turning point in 1980s art, when everything became a lot more expensive, when new painting came along.
HUO When you conceive an installation, it’s a room.
MC Yes, it shouldn’t be a huge or big room. It can be small, but not mixed with other works because—I know it’s a bit arrogant—what do I care about those curators’ ideas?
HUO It’s really impressive to see this archive. It’s so well-organized. When did the very large drawings start? Was it in the early ’80s?
MC Around then, yes.
HUO Was there an epiphany, a trigger?
MC Not an epiphany. It was more a decision to start over from the beginning... Ah, it’s a bit hard to explain. In Basel there was that great gallery, Galerie Stampa, and when I was a young artist, after I’d trained as a graphic designer, they were showing the early videos, the early performances: Odenbach, Export, etc. I’d never seen things like that. I told myself ‘ah, great! Performance! Great!’ So I told myself that I had to do something like that, but I don’t do performance.
HUO They were performance drawings.
MC Yes, and that’s still the case. If I make the installation with my own works, it’s very fast, it’s very corporeal and very performative. That’s why I made large drawings.
HUO This is that idea of wanting to connect with performance.
MC Wanting to do something corporeal, concentrated, very short, very concentrated, and when the concentration is finished, I exit that performance. That’s it.
HUO And when you paint it’s the same thing. Very intense.
MC Yes, it’s very fast, very intense. In principle it’s still the same thing.
HUO And you’ve never done filmed performances?
MC No, I made two black-and-white videos that were of the production of that chalk. The chalk is big slabs like that. That way it generated a lot of dust. I created a room that was completely blackened by dust.
HUO It’s more the idea of the process, yes. When we met in the late ’80s in Basel, there were the drawings, which I saw in the studio, and then suddenly around the 2000s I started seeing the paintings. Was there an epiphany in that case?
MC No, that was corporeal. I had terrible back pain. For six months I was completely laid flat. I could no longer draw on the floor, so I had to do something else. And that started with painting. But it’s logical that when you decide to do something without color you think of color. But I’m lazy. I waited until I was not longer able.
HUO The colors were always there?
MC I also started using colors on paper, but it didn’t work very well. But it was my back that said to me: ah, finito!
HUO That’s very physical.
MC Yes, also when I do an installation, it goes very quickly, I carry the works myself.
HUO Do you move them yourself?
MC I move them myself… Yes, they are very light.
HUO Is that why even the frame is self-made?
MC Yes, that’s how it has to be, and then I can carry them if I have a room. It can be large, it can be small. I have to remain alone for maybe an hour. I carry them like that and it produces an installation.
HUO And when those extraordinary paintings are created, is there the same immediacy as the drawings, or are there preparatory drawings?
MC No, no, nothing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small drawing like that, or a large drawing like that. For something like that, I paint for an hour and a half or two hours. In principle, that one’s finished for example. I’m sure I won’t go back to it.
HUO And what about the formats of the paintings? Is that the largest you do?
MC The format has to be… let’s say it can be moved.
HUO Yes, that’s it. It’s linked to performance. I’d never understood that. It’s very important.
MC Yes, hugely important! Because that changes having to find people to help. I don’t want that. I’m someone who likes being alone. And that’s also why it’s not done very well, because I’m no good with numbers, so occasionally it produces some mistakes. It doesn’t matter. I find it very beautiful.
HUO Yes, the irregularities are important.
MC It’s very beautiful. They shouldn’t be removed, put on another frame, you know.
HUO Yes, the frame is part of the work… Do you repaint paintings?
MC Yes, actually. While painting, if I feel like it’s annoying me, I repaint it.
HUO As Boetti said, everything moves through waves, with spaces, pauses and silences. That’s incredible too. And those groups of figures—how do they emerge?
MC That’s quite simple. I think it’s over the past five years that I’ve been doing it. That all started with the refugees. I have a large work that’s at Jocelyn Wolff gallery, with wooden sculptures that are very large. They’re big hand-carved trunks. There are fourteen of them, and with those sculptures, it’s a room installation with five slides. If it works we’re going to exhibit it at Art Parcours in Basel.
HUO In that case we’ll see it. So there are the sculptures…
MC The sculptures and five slides.
HUO What do we see in the slides?
MC We see photos that are also of plastiline sculptures that don’t exist, that only exist in the photo.
HUO The sculptures have been destroyed?
MC I made them with plastiline and I took photos.
HUO When was this?
MC It was about two or three years ago that I did that. The photos are all that exist, and in this case they exist in that room installation. You see it’s good. I quite like it. If it works, that’s what we’ll do.
HUO Aside from what you told me at the beginning about the Stampa gallery in Basel, performance art, Acconci and so on, once you started painting, who were the painters that inspired you? Philip Guston, for example?
MC I like Guston a lot.
HUO Guston came to my mind.
MC And you’re right.
HUO That’s very Gustonesque.
MC I like him a lot, and I saw that big exhibition that Jean-Christophe Ammann created. Aside from these references, I grew up in a house with all kinds of art books. I really like Munch. I think he’s just as important as Picasso, because I like the way he worked. It’s the whole history of art. My father was a numismatics collector and my brother was into antiques. All of us were always interested in contemporary art and music. In that house there was a lot of art, so you could say that for me it’s normal.
HUO And Maria Lassnig was a reference too?
MC I don’t like the paintings themselves all that much, but I like how she made the paintings. I like that a lot.
HUO So there are the landscapes, there are the groups of refugees, there are the portraits—heads rather, not portraits of people. And then there are the empty buildings. How did that start?
MC That’s the first painting I made here. Naturally it’s banal. I did a lot of houses.
HUO Oh, that’s the very first painting you made in your new house?
MC Yes, it had to be a house.
HUO Where does your catalogue raisonné start? What’s number one in the catalogue raisonné? That’s always an interesting question.
MC It starts in ’76 or ’75.
HUO Those are drawings?
MC They’re very small drawings. I have some here.
HUO It would be nice to see them.
MC I went to see dOCUMENTA and there was all that photorealism. There was Gertsch, for example. I was very impressed. I always told myself I wanted to take photos like that, and it would have to seem like a painting.
HUO And those heads are often taken from the imagination.
MC Expressions, looks. They’re not people, they’re not portraits.
HUO And what type of color do you use?
MC Oil, a form that’s very classic.
HUO And drawing has stopped completely since there’s been painting?
MC No, I make a lot of them. In principle it’s the same thing, and I’m showing you a sketchbook and a good installation, a mixture of oil paintings, photos, drawings...
HUO And the houses? How did that start? They’re often empty houses.
MC I’ve been doing empty houses since the beginning. All the houses are up there. Everyone knows their house.
HUO It’s memory.
MC It’s memory. A lot can be interpreted in a house. It’s an archetype.
HUO There’s often a cinematic inspiration in your work.
MC Through cinema, but today it’s TV. They’re films on TV. When I was younger, I went to the cinema every day. I liked it a lot, cinema was the best. I do a lot with photos. Every time I do something I photograph it.
MIRIAM CAHN (b. 1949, Basel, Switzerland) is a figurative painter but has associated her artistic project with performance or installations. The influence of the feminist movements and thought of the 1970s and the 1980s can be seen in her work. She places the body and its expression in an aura of profoundly emotive, subjective colors. She has exhibited in several important institutions such as Fundación La Caixa, Centre Culturel Suisse, dOCUMENTA 14, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST (b. 1968, Zurich) is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than 300 shows.
All images Courtesy: the artist