My Paradoxes of History
Katrin von Maltzahn: My Paradoxes of History. In: Artists as researchers – a new paradigm for art education in Europe / Mika Hannula, Jan Kaila, Roger Palmer, Kimmo Sarje. Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts, 2013
“History” for me can function as a catalyst for works of art. The visual results become independent – they go beyond history without intending to document or illustrate. My works are triggered by language or the development of meaning in words, signs and pictures. Sometimes I look into my past, picking up memories that then lead me into further investigations, or I come across material, such as newspaper articles or pictures. The following text introduces a selection of my works in chronological order.
In 1995 I was invited to participate in an exhibition in London – the theme was “Berlin”. At the time, the differences between East and West Berliners were still quite strong – for example, East Berliners did not speak English. To me this appeared like a continuous and invisible, but strong border. It made me decide to develop works about the “English language” – based on my own experiences of learning English at school – in East and in West Germany.
Up to 1977 I grew up in East Germany, where I had my first English classes. They where called “English for You”. English was taught with the help of books and a television program. Foreign language teaching in Germany after 1945 was strongly influenced by the occupying powers. In the Western zone, English and French language classes quickly became the norm. In the Russian-occupied zone, the first foreign language taught was Russian.
In light of developing technologies and in order to boost his country’s economy, the president of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, reinstated English language instruction in East Germany by a decree issued in 1958. This represented a major step, as English was still considered the language of capitalism – the enemy. To support English language teachers and their pupils, the Ministry of Education decided in 1962 to produce the English language television series, “English for You” (EFY). Altogether 35 episodes were produced by the Defa documentary studios in Babelsberg. The first episode was broadcast in 1965. EFY was the leading language course in the GDR.
Native English speakers who sympathized with GDR ideology were sought for the show. Diana Loeser, an English woman, already lived in the GDR. A communist, she had moved there in 1956 together with her husband, a German immigrant. In the show she took on the role of moderator. The main characters in the program were played by Allan Clarke as “Tom” and Valery Lester as “Peggy.” Clarke was an English actor who came from a well-known communist family. Valery Lester had been living in the GDR for several years for personal reasons. The scripts were written by non-English education specialists.
I went deep into investigation: in London I met all the former British actors as well as Stanley Forman, managing director of “Educational and Television Films Limited“, a company that provided the Left and the films in an archive that stored GDR films. Some of them had already been destroyed, recycled to extract the silver.
No one really learned English in the GDR. The opportunity and motivation to practise English simply did not exist in reality. What I find interesting today seemed totally boring when I was at school. It was uninteresting for most people, because it just repeated the same propaganda that we already knew in a slightly different way.
When I was 13, we moved to West Germany. Later, after having worked with my GDR English books and films, I made a project using my West German English language material. I used old school books of my sister’s and my own, and gave it a title straight from the books: “How do you do ”. I began to look into the relation between image and text. To my surprise, there were lots of handwritten translations of English words in the books. And almost all were wrong! As a child, having recently moved to the West, during my English lessons I experienced very directly the close connection between language and culture. There were lots of question marks and misunderstandings. I realized that belonging to a culture involves lots of unspoken agreements and specific knowledge.
No objects in our culture become obsolete faster than consumer electronics, they are the fossils of our age. Will any of them be of interest to future generations?
For “Models ” I swapped a bottle of wine for a 9-year-old computer. I then took the hard drive apart and carefully studied each component. I first made pencil drawings of the individual components. I focused exclusively on the shape of each part – not their function. From the drawings, I remodelled the individual parts in rough clay, much enlarged. My study of the forms of these electronic and mechanical components was similar to the approach of archaeologists who decipher forgotten cultures by analysing their artefacts.
How will future researchers view our culture if they try to read it through the vast deposits of junk emails filling up our servers?
I archived eight months’ worth of electronic spam on a 20 m long roll of Japanese paper, writing down the subject headings in chronological order. I got the idea when I was desperate about all the garbage I received on my computer day in, day out. I tried to fight it, but to no avail. Finally, I decided to welcome the enemy and to simply exploit him for my own purposes. In the work “Spam ” I transform language into an image. The rough, absorbent paper and the use of a dip pen made accidents prone to happen. The original content is hardly readable – the words and sentences dissolve in benefit of an abstract image.
In 2005, twelve artists were asked by the documenta organizers to take a look at the documenta archives, the history of the exhibitions in Kassel. My response was “Charts 64”, which explores the archive of documenta 3 in 1964. I was immediately fascinated by the great amount of material in this archive, and how it had been stored and structured. I decided to develop a work that would give a kind of overview of the whole archive of documenta 3. I was lucky – in the age before fax machines, photocopies and digital media, the amount of material remained manageable.
My goal was to create a work that is developed by posing questions to the archive, but which can also exist autonomously and have its own qualities – be poetic, even. Very early on I got the idea of a kind of visual cosmos – a documenta 3 universe based on the documenta archive. I chose the “pie chart” as the basic form for my drawings and watercolours. Although I use the circular form very freely, the result is always based on proportional representations of data. I focused especially on subjects such as power structures, money, feedback, problems, the context of 1964. In some aspects, I imitated the scientific method – I counted a lot, made lists, analysed different kinds of sources. And although my research produced lots of text, the result was dominated by the visual. As soon as a picture was finished, I put it on my studio wall and let it influence the attitude and the criteria of the next one. The process involved many decisions (colour, proportions, distances) relating to the installation as a whole. This became the creation of my documenta 3 universe.
My ongoing series “Afterglow Johannesburg ” began after a stay in South Africa in 2008. I came back filled with ambivalent impressions. What concerned me most were the complicated and dangerous living conditions, the poverty, the continuing inequality of blacks compared to whites, the still very tangible consequences of the apartheid era, all the myriad problems that seem impossible to solve. On the other hand, I also experienced an immense diversity of culture. Eleven official languages are recognised in South Africa’s constitution. English is the most common language in official contexts and in commercial public life. However, it is only the fifth most common mother tongue.
I became friends with a specialist in traditional African art. He taught me a great deal and also imparted some of his obsession to me. I became fascinated with handicrafts and folk art; traditional African beadwork and the art of weaving objects. Many of these objects were sacred and embellished with elaborate images and symbolic designs.
The art of telephone wire baskets was invented in the early 1990s. Originally such objects were made of natural grasses and palm fibre, and were used to keep flies out of large beer containers or to hold nuts and snacks for guests. An age-old craft was now applied to a new material. The baskets are made of recycled material – telephone wire – and are produced by people of the Zulu tribe living in urban areas. Often the baskets incorporate messages and symbols which are woven into the pattern or are part of the pattern themselves. Only people who are familiar with that kind of language can read them.
Language as Tool and Inspiration
All my works are related to language, although in current pieces this may not be immediately obvious. Language is translated mostly into images or sometimes into objects. This method is neither logical, nor is it reversible. It is based on experimental processes triggered by intuition, trial and error. To me, the results represent questions – questions that are posed through purely visual expression. The viewer – myself included, when a piece is finished – is free to process my visual questions and question marks.