jochen gerz

Judith Mastai: In a lot of material that critics write, one finds as much about their own understanding as there is information about what you are doing. I'm interested in asking what I would call "simple" questions which have to do with two things: one is the processes by which your work comes into the world and the second is how we might be able to make a bridge to the person who thinks that art is about paintings. These questions have to do with quite material issues. One of the articles about you that interested me the most was an early one by Herbert Molderings in which he raises the different kinds of materials you use. I understand the work in which you use yourself as the material; that is, the material for your work is the experiences that you have lived. But then these experiences get transformed into a material form which can never hope to capture all of it but provides pieces. Some of the people who have written about you have discussed the relationship of this process to memory. Molderings says that the events of 1968 in Paris meant that art could become an integral part of political and social activity. He tries to make a case for the fact that the idealistic concept of the art work as a substitute world for contemplation turned into a practice that had social relations. I'm interested in this because I wondered whether you also felt that it was the events of this time that made certain material forms obvious. Out of what impetus did the things you were using come, since they obviously did not derive from a fine art practice. And do you think that Molderings is right when he says that the politics of that time contributed to a more social practice.

Jochen Gerz: It's a fact that the times had something to do with the work. I would say that the times come first and the work comes second, because the times don't start with my work and don't finish with my work. On the other hand, what you do is linked to time in a more complex way. So there are "times" that come up in your work that don't relate to the times in which you're living. There is an interference into the contemporary experience by a funny state of mind, like impressions of what a time was and is. The experience of the present moment and the experience of a time, as a state of affairs or a social state, not only a state of mind, interfere with each other. I think the work needs contradiction between these two experiences and also confirmation of one by the other, because you cannot work in a vacuum. The work is influenced by the social state of affairs in your time, but it can also get feedback from your own experience of a time.

Mastai: You never wanted to become a painter, or a sculptor?

Gerz: No.

Mastai: So you never wanted to use any of what we might call the historical materials of art. You, the subject, are passing through the world, bringing memory, prior experience, real-world experience. At some point it became clear to you that there was going to be a physical manifestation. Were you using "manifestations" (materials) that were simply readily available in the world around you? I'm trying to find a starting point for the question of the form. There seemed to come a point where the performance of your work wasn't enough. Living life, performing life ... there seemed to come a point where there had to be a material form as well.

Gerz: Concerning the decision whether to become an artist or to become a sculptor or any of those, it's as if I didn't have the idea. I lacked the vision of that. From the original experience of myself, I had the assurance that I would be writing, so I was doing whatever I was doing within the invisible framework of writing. I never thought of painting as a frame for the work I was doing. So, it's as if the time you live and the time you take for granted are related to your regional setting. According to my regional setting, I was writing. According to real time, contemporary time, I became an artist. With reference specifically to painting, I refuse to be marginalized by any user of canvas. What I am doing is at the center of the question of painting. For me, textual material is the most desirable materiality. I consider myself to be a "software" producer. "Hardware" is needed, but it is not an object that exists as "given" from the beginning, by a trade, by a milieu, or by any kind of understanding or consensus. Hardware is something that has to be judged from piece to piece with respect to it being the "box" for the software. No box can serve all types of software. The work must be conceived from scratch, each time. I don't use any convention concerning the identity of the work. The software question produces the hardware question. The software question is the material — my painting, my color, my palette is this type of materiality which has been considered "immateriality." But there is no such thing as immateriality. There is only materiality. It's an old question, but it is an acute question because we are in a time when objects and even the production of objects, as they were traditionally understood, are in a shrinking process. More and more we will be facing non-objects, ex-objects. We will know each "invisible" thing by its antecedents which were visible. This is a threat, as Emerson says, which runs through all the objects and all the hardware questions. Art cannot stay out of that. That is the problematic. Art cannot go on the way it used to go on. It, too, will be involved in the implosion. I think that creativity will be with people who teach us to make things vanish, and not with people who cause us to fill up space. So, materiality is something that can have time. It has an aspect of temporality.

Mastai: You speak of yourself as being at the center of painting. Here, in your studio, you have works that have a text, a photographic image, and a color field. Is this keeping you in relation to the question of painting? Or is it an element that has a very different meaning for you in terms of the practice of art?

Gerz: Whatever I use, including text, is not about the image. For me, the work is like warm clay as long as it can be worked. There is a kind of "justice," when something is right. If I use photography, I only use the basic information — that a photograph is a photograph. If I use color, it's a pure stabilization element. I like to use black and white and for ages I've been using the negative opaque color which has no other meaning but its real, graphic use — to cover. This paint covers best. We shouldn't forget that about paint. It covers. A piece of art, hanging on the wall, whatever else it does, covers the wall. We shouldn't forget the wall when we talk about art. In a fundamental way, no work of art is more valuable than the wall it covers. The text is an endless stream — one item after another — that runs over its own borders of understanding. The question is not whether I understand the text. It is more, if I see a text, I know that there cannot be anything other than understanding and not understanding, side by side. With a text, I have a challenge which doesn't exist with color, about me being informed or not being informed. There is a tricky way we behave in front of texts. We want them to inform us. But sometimes we may need to let things be — not use them, not use them up.

Mastai: When you say that the color is a cover. Is it then a way of establishing a space that's hidden from us? And it has no relationship to a practice of painting.

Gerz: It just means, as with the text, we have information and no information. Color and no color. There are places which are hidden. Watch it. How many places would you like to have around you which are hidden? Is it a question of taboo? Or is it banal? Is it too late? Is there something you could know, if you were more of a maniac? The very basic thing is that they may be windows, but they look like mirrors. Should we identify with the work of art or with the people in the room? What is dangerous? These works are made with one photograph. The upper part of it has been printed on paper and the lower part of it is on film. The lower part is semi-transparent. If the wall were painted, the color of the wall could be seen through it.

Mastai: You don't actually print these works yourself, do you? A manufacturer somewhere puts the works together for you, according to your instructions?

Gerz: I didn't invent my telephone either. And I'm writing with a pen that someone else invented. As I said, I see software. I'd like to turn to photography again. What I like about photography is that you first need the world, then you have a picture. So, what I show with the photographs is just to tell us: it's this world. We have seen these forms many, many times as we've supposedly seen ourselves.

Mastai: So, you're not using these materials in any symbolic way. You allow an open reading, a multiplicity of meanings. You are not attempting to establish any unified sense of the world. The materialities that you choose are not accidents, but they could be accidents. What appears at any place, at any time, textual or otherwise, could just as likely have been something else. So the spaces in between those which have materialized have a function as much as the things that we actually see.

Gerz: It's important to touch ground each time. I can't start writing with a word. I can't start pictures with a photograph. I cannot start form with a form. Before writing, I have to go to the time before writing. Before I use pictures, I have to go to the images before pictures. This is what I call my regional setting. I'm only a specialist in transferring and perhaps I am a trader.

What I am doing is a failure each time. These pictures look backwards as much as they look forward. Each time, the work fails to relate truthfully to its origin. It's mimetic. It's all reporting from a state of affairs that is no paintings, no pictures, no texts. I did not go to an art school. When I started to work, very few of the things we use now existed. Photography with a text is now a genre on its own. You barely see a work of art without a text these days. But this already existed in other times. I did not even think about using it; it seemed so obvious to me. It seemed impossible to imagine a painting without that which is immediately produced by the painting, which is some kind of reading. I cannot be in front of a monochrome painting without starting to make thoughts and I cannot begin reading a novel without immediately producing images. Why not work with both? You can create a complex place for escape. Viewing art is a kind of escapism. You can treat this in the work, or in the work and in the viewer. So the real work of art, with a photo/text, is not the work, but the work viewed by the viewer. I say that the viewer views himself; the visitor visits himself. That is what these works are about. They're not about objects on the wall. They're about a person seeing herself and himself. There's a chemistry that takes place when somebody sees something without knowing. I think we see more when we don't know.

Mastai: Let's talk about one of your works that I know very well, which is in the Vancouver Art Gallery collection — "The State of Our Provisions" (1987). The first thing the public often wants to know is what its story might be. How did it come to be in the world? What experiences does it represent?

Gerz: In "The State of Our Provisions," you see elements of pictures that show the result of civilization. I struggle with anecdotes. I would love to take the first two letters away from the name of every place, of every country. Everything I care about, I would like to take away a little of its recognizability. Art is one example. This picture is places and I was there. Me, German; there, Israel. Of course, it means something. But don't think you know anything about that. Don't think that it only has to do with what you have seen. This is one part of the material. It comes from pictures that are due to civilization. The other image — that has nothing to do with the first image, except that they are together in my work (that is, I was there) — is of driftwood in British Columbia. This is what water does with random pieces of wood that end up on the beach. No one puts these things into signification. The work is only about the fact that one picture material cannot be without the other. People often see a contradiction here. So I ask them: What are you looking for? Are you looking for unity? Do you want to be only one? How much do you need to exclude? Do you want to be only from here — over and over again? Are you sure about being a man and never a woman? Are you sure about what you know, and ignore, and about saying "that's all there is"? These images are reduced to the pure fact of their materiality.

Mastai: So, in a way, it functions like viewing the news on television, without the sound.

Gerz: Sometimes the sound is on and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you pay attention to the program and sometimes you don't. I don't think that the information has a right order in itself. I think little things are happening all the time. We know, we hear, and we see, even at times when we're not actually seeing. The world we live in is full of the substance of these images which are just tiny parts of something else. There are also two frames in "The State of Our Provisions" that are mirrors. Somewhere, maybe anywhere, is here. This place is not comparable. Be careful about here. The mirrors break into the other images without any aesthetic reasons or excuses. It just shows you where the picture is. Then there is a sentence: "Whereas we came to learn about ammunition, pigment erosion and the state of our provisions." These three things are concerns for someone who moves — not a sedentary person — a person who moves or takes risks — like an artist.

Mastai: Your work seems to touch both a macro-social world, like "The State of Our Provisions," and a micro-personal world, like your image of the two lovers watching each other while they sleep. Some, like the latter, are very intimate works.

Gerz: These works have common roots. And two people are highly political. These people say that they don't want to count on themselves as two. They talk about being one in being two. This has a traditional connotation because we call that love. But in another way, it is a story about how I work. I often say that I start counting with 2; I don't understand 1. It's about the text and the images and not about people. It's just another report from the laboratory. So I'm not so sure that the intimate is not political and the political is not intimate. If we consider the three things expressed in "The State of Our Provisions," we notice that it's not "me" but "we." The three things run the gamut from intimate to public. "Public" and "intimacy" are undividable in terms of my senses. Political thinking would be to put the intimacy into a public space and the public into the space of intimacy — or better, to run down the fences of language, between the two. Every work of art is political. The difference may be whether it's political in spite of itself or not.

Mastai: It's interesting to hear you speak of a pre-conscious space, before the word and before the image. I know you're aware of the psychoanalytic approaches which consider the word as the law and the law as the representation of something that is gendered. The pre-conscious space is considered to be pre-gendered, but also a maternal space. You say that each time you come to your work, you start from scratch. You clear the way for a space out of which the work grows. I think that this is a process that is rarely articulated in terms of the making of a work, whether it's a table made by a craftsperson, or a work of visual art, or a relationship between people that starts from a feeling, or a sense, or an intuition, from a pre-verbal space. And a lot of your works have involved the body. How does the body figure in your work today?

Gerz: In the beginning, I worked with performance. I don't have the Midas-touch for this or that. I don't have a skill in doing things. I don't compete on the level of talent. If I have some kind of recognition about what I do, it is that things are treated according to their nature. The nature of a thing may also turn out to be the culture of a thing. But I'm not interested in starting from the culture of things. It's not usable material for me. I no longer make photographs in Europe, for instance, because it's too much about the culture of things. When I go to places that are "empty," I don't need to take photographs because things don't ever change.I like these photographs. So the body is the tool for the handicapped. It's the tool for people with no tools. But my legs on the ground, my steps on the earth are writing. The performance is about standing and being a monument when you stand, but having probably little to do with your surroundings. It's about being separated from many ways of being visible, and to rely on an act of will. It is about finding a degree of expression that is expressible; a homeopathic state of expression within a given context that is art. Is the context part of the work? That's what the game is about.

(This interview took place in the artist's studio in Paris on November 26, 1993, in preparation for the retrospective exhibition, "Jochen Gerz: People Speak," which opened in September, 1994 at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada.)

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.