1994.03.27. / ART MACHINE / NORRKÖPINGS KONSTMUSEUM / NORRKÖPING / TEXT BY DANIEL BIRNBAUM.
IN THE SHADOW OF CATASTROPHE
A Conversation with Ulf Rollof
By Daniel Birnbaum 1994
Your investigations of the ambivalent zones between life and death, or technology and nature, are often concretized through specific sites. The abstract boundary is changed to a boundary in a concrete geography.
Yes. Most of my projects are bound to specific places that are investigated in a concrete manner. It may be a matter of economic structures or ofnature’s resources and forces; the most elementary conditions of life. I want to get away from the political maps with their boundaries between east and west, good and evil, the industrial countries and the third world, the centre and the periphery. For me it has always been a question of highlighting and clarifying energies that are normally invisible because they are economically negligible. Living in a little village in Mexico for a year has been important to my work. I came into contact with a completely different way of life where everything was in very limited supply. Perhaps all my work seeks to describe how one makes use of resources.
Was it an accident that you found yourself in Mexico?
Would your work have been completely different if you had ended up somewhere else, in a little Russian village perhaps.
I don’t think so. The catastrophe – the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 – is, indeed, an important point of departure for my work. It is a decisive point of reference. But I think that a very similar investigation could have taken place somewhere else. You find yourself in an unknown world with strange notions and unfamiliar social structures. Gradually you become familiar with the environment and can draw your own map. You can display and clarify different conflicts and power relations. Had I ended up in Russia the map would have looked different but I do not think that my way of working would have been very different.
Can one consider your work as mapping?
Yes, but it is not a global or complete projection of the world; rather, you start from what is familiar and immediately available. You start by investigating what is closest. Gradually the field expands, but a centre remains. And the strange thing is that this centre is not something that one has chosen but something that one has been apportioned. Quite by accident.
I am reminded of Joseph Beuys diving down into a foreign world. He met a foreign culture which he then carried within him for the rest of his life and which characterizes everything he has done: ideas about certain animal energies and the characteristics of different materials.
For Beuys everything started with a catastrophe. For me too: the earthquake. But at the same time I believe that the catastrophe was something that I carried within me. The concrete and actual catastrophe gave rise to a landscape on which I had been working on an imaginary level. By the age of thirteen I carried within me a war-torn and completely destroyed landscape. I rebuilt it time and again in models. I have always been concerned with destruction.
But catastrophe also has a positive dimension?
It is not just a question of destruction but of being confronted with a situation in which everything has fallen apart and where it is a question of saving the final remains of life. This is where the life-giving or life- supporting processes come into play.
Is the large machine that you showed at Documenta positively charged?
I cannot say whether it is positive or negative. In one sense it depicts a breakdown in that it is entirely non-functional. It does not fulfill its function but it has a pedagogical dimension. It has a manic desire to relate something. In a sense it relates the catastrophe: a machine that is vastly over-dimensioned wants to catch and destroy a minute little animal. But at the same time it explains the metamorphosis of the fly from maggot to fly. As you know, a series of other works are connected with this massive apparatus. Nine paintings for flies were mounted on the facade of the building and then there was a ”fly vision box” – a machine that one could enter to experience how flies see the world. It also sought to demonstrate how limited our vision is. So one could claim that the whole project constructs a sort of dialogue with the fly at the same time as it is a study of the fly from the outside.
Is it a question of extending our human perception to areas that we are not normally concerned with – a sort of study of the limits of humanity?
I have had many projects that have sought to make animal perception available to us. I had the idea of placing a camera on a falcon in order to see how the bird registers its hunt. I have produced work that has dealt with communication with axolotls – both registering their lives and explaining our lives and anatomy to them. I constructed a sort of electric waistcoat which one could wear underwater and which was intended to show the human constitution to the axolotls. So the boundary between humans and animals and the attempt to cross this boundary is central to much of what I have produced.
Are your bellows animals or are they machines? Are they organic or artificial?
They exist in a boundary zone between nature and technology. Many of my works contain elements that can be difficult to place in terms of the opposition between organism and machine or between nature and technique. They may be concerned with technology’s ability to breathe life into an organism or to keep a new being alive. Air is the central element here, the medium of breathing. I am trying to portray the process of life itself; the absence of life and the generation of life. It is surely not an accident that many people see spirits as a sort of aerial being.
Gilles Deleuze has claimed that Francis Bacon’s paintings are an attempt to destroy humanism and to transform the human body in the direction of the animal: the bat, buffalo, pig …
With me it is not so much a matter of destroying something but, rather, of establishing contact and creating opportunities for communication. It is a question of breaking a sort of human isolation. An obvious cause of many of humanity’s global problems today is, if I am not mistaken, that type of human isolation. It is a matter of creating new insights into natural processes and of spreading information. My machines are tools in this process. I see them as a sort of vehicle. From a technological point of view they are pretty worthless. But that is also the point: they are supposed to be useless from such a perspective because they deal with receptivity. Their function is to help us to absorb information that we do not expect.
Your current project also deals with breaking down isolation. You speak of five different phases.
Yes, at the moment I am working on an extensive project that will be carried out in five stages. I have planned five exhibitions that, geographically speaking, are very scattered: Warsaw in Poland, Norrköping in Sweden, The Hague in the Netherlands, Tijuana in Mexico and Ljublana in Slovenia. All the exhibitions are concerned with the fir tree as a symbol of nature and of what, for me, is an origin. The first stage is an exhibition in Warsaw. The fir tree’s position in our culture is investigated, more particularly as a Christmas tree. Visitors will be able to see a rotating fir tree while sitting in a chair that is coupled to a central-heating system. The windows of the room will be open so that cold air pours in. And so a room is created in which nature and man can exist together. It is a matter of isolation, of being put in a situation of complete solitude: sitting in front of the rotating fir tree one has a chance to remember. Childhood Christmases, dancing round the tree…
Is it a matter of coping with a loss? Of preserving a memory?
Yes, indeed. It is concerned with retaining a memory, or rather of synthesizing an experience from the past. With the knowledge that, as an adult, I enjoy today I can comprehend things that I experienced more directly as a child. I can reconstruct scents and colours artificially, as in the work with steamed pieces of Christmas tree being inhaled through a gas-mask. Yet something is still missing. And as a contrast to this childhood memory there will be the second stage which will be shown in Norrköping, Sweden. Here a fir tree will be stripped and split and mounted round a rotating pipe. The fir tree has been drawn into an industrial process in which the sap will drop. The fir tree will weep. The trunk will be mounted in such a way that it will look like a rotating spit. At the same time it invites the writer to cross it like a bridge. But since it is rotating this is a very difficult task.
What sort of test are we faced with?
We are offered an impossible passage – a passage over a rotating treetrunk dripping sap. The next stage is the exhibition in the Netherlands at The Hague where a living tree is subjected to direct pain. In a narrow room the visitor is forced to confront trees hanging upside down. A number of trees will be lynched. It is essential to administer the pain yourself so as to make clear your own role. Normally I only consume pain, both in its everyday and more extraordinary forms. Three fir trees are first felled and the root bears down on the trunk.
What is the significance of the geographical distribution of the various exhibitions?
The very fact that the exhibitions are being shown in such different places and dissimilar cultures illustrates, in a manner of speaking, the central theme that I have been concerned with. This theme is particularly obvious in the fourth exhibition which will be shown in Tijuana on the border between Mexico and the United States. To be in a position to conduct a fruitful discussion with other people one needs to know who one is oneself. Your own background will always influence your perception of the other person; something which I seek to show in this machine. It consists of a train that runs round a circular track. On the wagons there are fir trees that obstruct the view from the chair in the middle of the circle in which the viewer is seated. The chair revolves along with the fir trees. I can never get away from my origins – my Swedish fir trees are a part of my horizon. What I am trying to clarify is precisely the importance of getting to know oneself.
In comparison with the previous stages which deal with a general crisis situation this exhibition would seem rather to deal with personal responsibility. The necessity of reflecting on one’s own place and identity.
In the last exhibition, which will be shown in Slovenia, the various stages are summarized to a degree. After the four previous conversations we reach the point where information is spread to others and a new type of interaction takes place. I shall fill a whole room with fir trees fixed on counter- weights so that one can push them and they will swing backwards and forwards but finally return to their original balance. The fir trees will be so close together that they interact: if you push one, others start to move.
If the exhibition in Mexico is about one’s own personal position, here you are instead involved with the collective; the necessity of acting together.
That is true, but all stages are essential. It is only when one begins to understand who one is that one can begin to talk about the other.
This will be the year of the fir tree.
GEOGRAPHY OF DESTRUCTION AND HOPE
Reflections on Ulf Rollof’s art
By Daniel Birnbaum
There are artists who succeed in creating new geographies: imaginary worlds that are empowered by the real map and from the actual axes of politics but which, at the same time, shift our understanding of them. Öyvind Fahlström was just such a speculative cartographer: ”Kidnapping Kissinger” has to be read as a geopolitical fantasy. Joseph Beuys was another – with his Energyplan for Western Man” – probably the most influential in the postwar period.
Related projects can be found today with a political artist such as Alfredo Jaar whose work often revolves round the relationship between power and geography. But even more powerful examples can be found with artists whose work is characterized by a double cultural and political base; the Russian exile Ilya Kabakov is perhaps the most impressive contemporary cartographer. Or saboteur of established map projections. East and West will never be the same again.
Often it is a question of shifting the seemingly self-evident picture of the world; finding a different way of drawing its contours. Ulf Rollof’s artistic project moves in these latitudes. His work never confirms the established map but manages continually to problematize traditional boundaries both in actual and mental geography. Rollof disables the established map with its built-in prejudices Rollof disables. Existence is built anew out of the concrete situation, out of the material and resources that happen to be at hand. ”I want to get away from the grand and self-evident maps with their boundaries between East and West, good and evil, the industrial and the third worlds, the centre and the margin, etc. For me it is a matter of lifting up and clarifying energies that usually remain invisible because, from an economic point of view, they are negligible”.
Rollof’s works open new avenues and new connections. At times he has elected to work with concrete political boundaries, as in the project ”Abandonado II” from autumn 1992. With Michael Schnorr he built an installation on a vacant lot in the city of Tijuana on the Mexican-American border, a place where a large part of the illegal immigration to the USA takes place at night. The installation became a sort of park (many people saw it as a playground) the object of which was to thematize the geographical and political tensions of the locality and which was, at the same time, a map of Baja California, the area which is the final lap of the journey for many of the illegal immigrants. But the map is not an unequivocal picture of the actualsituation but, rather, a destabilization of the geographical and political situation. In Rollof’s own words: The map we constructed turned the map round: North became South in order to establish a point where one loses one’s sense of orientation just before one is able to cross the boundary. When one goes from the Southernmost tip of Baja California on the installation’s map towards Tijuana in the North, one actually moves South, back into Mexico.” (Kunst & Museum journaal 4/1993).
Rollof’s interest in ambivalent border zones is not confined to politics and geography but also addresses other spheres. Many of his most powerful works are to be found in the difficult to define territory between the organic and the artificial, the human and the animal, the rational and the occult. His bellows and machines draw their energy from this ambivalence. They are concretizations of the border zone, of the passage from one level to another.
Something that recurs is the idea of communication between humans and other living organisms – plants, animals and spirits. The rigid division between man and other animals that which is one of the foundations of traditional Western humanism is continually questioned in Rollof’s attempts to open our perceptions to new regions. The deconstruction of a humanistically perceived subjectivity, a recurring theme in the art and theory of recent decades, assumes a highly concrete form in these investigations. But rather than a dissolution of the human ego he seems to be attempting to widen the narrowly human towards the animal in a broader sense: by communicating with flies or fish man gains access to perceptual fields from which he has previously excluded himself.
These works are often pervaded by a sombre, threatening note – Rollof’s bellows and machines hardly function as illustrations to an optimistic view of science. On the contrary, one feels the acute presence of catastrophe even when these organisms breathe and are filled with life-giving oxygen. They are in a space full of tensions which opens itself between the threat of extinction and a vision of salvation. This theme was explicit in the exhibition ”Lifeboat” (1990) in which two giant bellows breathed at the boundary of life and death. The end seemed close at hand – perhaps the catastrophe had already taken place. But this threatening installation was balanced by a promise of rescue, here in the form of a calendar of lifeboats. Every day is represented by a wax boat; every day carries rescue within it.
This catastrophe scenario is something that recurs in Rollof’s work. Destruction is a fact, but hope has not completely been extinguished. The duality characterizes most of what he has done. It seems to mirror a fundamental attitude to what can be understood as a global machinery of death: technology. The critique of technological thinking that one can discern in Rollof’s art is, more closely considered, never a mere rejection of modern technology. He never dreams of a time prior to technological thinking, to a more pristine relationship between man and the world. The manoeuvre that he is attempting is more complex. Negative technology is to be conquered within its own medium – in and by technology. This is what lends Rollof’s ”machines” their hard-to-classify status. They belong neither in a scientific nor in a romantic and anti-technological discourse but in some third discourse that has yet to be defined.
The complicated relationship to technology has counterparts both in investigations of the relationship between humans and animals and in the attempts to dissolve a seemingly self-evident geopolitical order. These different fields are not so disparate as might appear at first sight. Man, technology, geography – in relationship to these themes Rollof stages destabilizing operations aimed at one and the same system: the rigid map of Eurocentric Reason. Nowhere is this speculative geography as clear as in European philosophy’s macro systems; the paradigmatic formulation that one finds in Hegelian dialectics in which European humanism is seen as the culmination of Reason and the end of history. By means of a Reason that has obtained absolute self-sufficiency the non-human, non-European and non- rational is stripped of all status and is excluded from history’s rational development. Even if the belief in Reason has seldom attained such an absolute status as in Hegelian philosophy, nevertheless the excluding figure has been an essential aspect of more recent formulations of ”the European project”. It is in the critical zones where this project has practiced its ”rational” violence that Rollof’s most revolutionary investigations take form. Not just as a simple reaction against it but as a problematizing and fine division of categories that are overly coarse. Starting from the new conditions the territory can be crossed anew and a new type of map can be drawn, freed from the abstract violence of tradition.
More interesting than the question of whether this art is for or against technology is the question of what such a ”for” or ”against” might mean. In the five-part project that Rollof plans to undertake in 1994, several interesting questions are posed pertaining to the possibility of criticizing something of which one is very much a part. The whole project, which revolves round the fir tree as a symbol for the artist’s origin, is a sort of geopolitical investigation of what is one’s own and what is foreign: How do I gain access to what is my own, how can it be made visible? How do I gain access to what is truly foreign? Can I ever catch a glimpse of something other than myself? By spreading the various stages of this investigation to culturally different places on the globe, the theme is further emphasized.
After the Warsaw exhibition’s introductory investigation of one’s own origins – the fir tree as a symbol for cultural belonging and as a catalyst for memories – two concentrated images follow that present different aspects of our critical situation. Our own origin has been transformed into a trap. The fir tree is drawn into a machinery of destruction that seems impossible to stop. In Norrköping we are faced with the impossible possibility of escaping from a catastrophic situation: a revolving tree trunk offers a bridge over the abyss. Hopelessness seems total. But at the next station (The Hague) it gets even worse: we ourselves inflict the pain.
After these three attempts to get closer to one’s own situation we are moved to really foreign parts: Mexico. Is salvation to be found in fleeing from home, away from the Western world that has placed us in the critical situation that the exhibitions in Norrköping and The Hague so clearly formulate? Is it a possible step? The answer presented by the Mexico exhibition is: No. With an almost mechanical instruction this installation shows the unavoidable nature of origin. Whichever way you turn the Swedish fir trees obscure the view. What lesson is to be drawn? That all change is impossible? That you are fated to be what you already are? Perhaps not at all. If we are to believe Rollof this tells us rather: ”Only when one begins to understand who one is oneself, can one speak to the other”. It is a question of the possibility of dialogue: I become visible myself when I meet the other – I see the other only when I have made myself visible to myself.
Is this utopic? Perhaps. But the final and, in that case, truly utopic step remains. We have caught sight of ourselves; now we start to talk to each other. This takes place in Slovenia, where else? Here Rollof builds an installation with communicating fir trees. They all move yet remain firm.
Thus we reach the end of the geography of destruction and hope.
Group Exhibition ART MACHINE at Norrköping Konstmuseum, Rådhuset, 601 81 Norrköping, Sweden.
Curated by Onita Wass.
”27 MARCH 1994” is part of NORRKÖPING KONSTMUSEUM COLLECTION.