Devastating Destruction and Unforeseen Resilience – A conversation
Dialogue between Marco Obrist (curator at Kunsthaus Zug, in Switzerland) and the artist, 2016
Marco Obrist: When entering your exhibition Substratum the first work one encounters is An Unlikely Outcome, a sitespecific work in an elegant dining room of a building from the early 20th century in the Art Nouveau style that used to belong to a pharmacist.
Samoa Rémy: The layout of the exhibition, created by the sequence of the rooms in the building, begins with the dining room that belonged to the bourgeois family of a Norwegian pharmacist called Øwre. The room is still furnished as it was ideated by the architect Hagbarth Schytte-Berg and completed by the craftsmen who created this exceptional Gesamtkunstwerk of Jugendstil in 1907. One is therefore projected into a historical scene. Every detail was chosen aesthetically and created using handicraft methods: ranging from the carved and inlaid furniture to the wooden chairs, from the wallpaper designed and produced in Japan to the lamps in marble and metal, not to mention the tableware with objects in metal, glass and ceramics, all created by craftsmen. The inhabitants of the small town of Ålesund, found on the western coast of Norway overlooking the ocean, were at the time above all fishermen specialised in the commerce of salted codfish. The top of the social stratification was therefore made up of only a few welloff persons who practiced exclusive professions such as those of the pharmacist, the doctor or the bank manager. During the phase that preceded the creation of this exhibition my reflections concentrated on the position and situation of the Art Nouveau style, both in a historical perspective as well as specifically in the very particular case of the town of Ålesund. I tried to imagine the historical situation and asked myself a lot of questions regarding the phenomenon, the users of the homes and of the Art Nouveau objects, the philosophical essence of the style, its death,… One can say that in a certain sense Art Nouveau had something symptomatic about it in reply to man’s alienation to the machine that increasingly gained ground following the Industrial Revolution. These and other reflections brought me into a dialogue with space in a new way, exploring the connections between past and contemporary, and above all intuiting aspects of that period which in my opinion have an incredible forcefulness today.
M: Without the terrible blaze of 1904 that destroyed most of the town and led to the rebuilding of Ålesund this would not exist.
S: True. The essence of everything that was created in Jugendstil in Ålesund has its origin in a devastating destruction.The fire that razed the small wooden town to the ground during a night in which stormy winds spread the flames without control, leaving 10,000 people homeless, reminds us of the destructive forces of nature, confronting us with overwhelming consequences. The event saw thousands of people lose everything they possessed in fifteen hours of fire. What I find interesting is the equally overwhelming outcome, the result of a period of fervent action: the reconstruction in a very short space of time of a new town in Jugendstil over the ashes of the disaster. An energetic and teeming construction site of intense activity that only lasted for a few years (which this time, however, saw the birth of a town mostly built of stone). This upheaval on a physical, architectural and aesthetic level makes me think of the psychological capability called resilience. This force that is present in nature had already inspired the title of an earlier work of mine – entitled Resilience #1 and #2 of 2013 – and is one of the intrinsic mechanisms in “vital substances” and in the psyche which to the greatest extent attract my curiosity, precisely because this force shows their elasticity and resistance. I’m fascinated by the ability of a system to adapt itself to dramatic change while at the same time upsetting its course. The very essence of life as transformation.
M: Some of the objects on the dining table seem to push through the jet black wooden plane that covers them, like emblematic symbols of a new ideal world more beautiful than the one there was before. Is this how we could interpret the title An Unlikely Outcome?
S: An Unlikely Outcome has partially to do with the unexpected, with what is not programmable and is unanticipated. It’s the unforeseen that has rendered the historical facts in its dynamics, although it is a movement of stratification which in this precise case is of emblematic interest to me. The burnt plywood sheet is a sort of map of the table and gives rise to a contrast of two sequential historical moments: the destruction and the reconstruction. Although it also shows the blackening, almost as in the alchemical state called “nigredo” which foresees dissolution and death before the beginning of a new stage. One can try to imagine the state in which the townscape of Ålesund found itself the following day after fifteen hours of the flames that burnt all or almost all that formed the town, with the exception of the few architectural parts in stone. Mainly just corners and chimney stacks remained visible amidst the ashes. Perhaps this sensation of greater beauty to which you alluded actually emanates from the two-fold geography created by going backwards. For me it was important to return to the Jugendstil of Ålesund the terrain from which it came. Clearly enough a strong contrast is formed or, in a certain sense, also a striking or jarring agreement. In this respect I like to think that the conquest of beauty is never definitive.
M: Artists of the Nouveau Réalisme and Arte Povera movements likeYves Klein or Jannis Kounellis have worked with fire: while Klein “painted” on rectangular stretched canvases with a blowtorch, Kounellis has worked directly with fire. We can physically experience the heat of the flames of the gas burners in some of his installations. Did such works influence your research for this exhibition in any way?
S: Hmm, this is a difficult question … [smiles]. Every time someone names one of the artists who has influenced the development of the artist in question it’s almost as if he or she disowns the inspiration from so many others who have contributed towards making up each artis’s enthusiasm and wealth of interests. Although I absolutely can’t deny that Kounellis’ work is a continuous source of inspiration for me. In the same way that while I burnt the plywood sheet of An Unlikely Outcome I thought of the canvases worked with fire by Yves Klein and of his alchemical approach to art. About ten years ago I worked occasionally as a guard at the National Museum in Oslo and on a few occasions I had the opportunity to light and put out the flame of a petrol lamp of a work by Kounellis. Ritual. The fire and the physical act of burning remain alive and vibrate with its blackness in the created work. The carbonised black adds an absolutely different dimension. Although An Unlikely Outcome was created also with another premise: to visualise the historical and psychological substratum of an age. In this sense the black defines all.
M: You use this element, i.e. fire, or the trace of it, in a different way than the artists I mentioned. The uniformly charred surface floats horizontally over the table. The openings in it lead our eyes to focus on the precisely arranged glass, metal and porcelain objects and on the textiles found on the table. But at first glance we might not even notice that the surface of the wooden rectangle was altered by fire.
S: When looking at the installation from a distance one has the impression that everything is in its right place on a bourgeois dinner table of the beginning of the last century. The viewer experiences the work in its full presence when coming close to it and overcomes the sumptuousness of the room. The intervention surrounds the objects on the table and intensifies their positions and presence. The black absorbs. The glass and the metal reflect. A counterpoint is created which hopefully lets us relive the historical, social and psychological contrast of the passage from destruction to regermination. One can say that my action in this work has something contrary to excavating or digging to it, while contemporaneously it’s as though it reveals what lies below. With the work An Unlikely Outcome I wanted to create a stratification.
M: Substratum, the title of the exhibition, alludes to layers. So everything is about stratification – and about closer inspection?
S: Substratum also reveals the presence of an underlying stratum or layer. Rather than “close inspection” I would try to define it as the wish to bring about a reappearance, to complete, position and to interpolate what has been extrapolated. Although it’s true that in a process of this type as an artist one more fully investigates and comes closer to mechanisms that are not normally revealed. The process of reflection regarding the phenomenon of Art Nouveau led me to observe the mechanisms of reaction that are created in the historical development of a society. The concatenation of historical phases of repression to moments of freedom often shows that the energy present in a reaction to repression is often of a brief but intense duration and often it is as if it evaporates and disappears. And Substratum also has to do with the terrain and with the bipolar relationship which the human being has with the earth and with the resources it contains. Vices and virtues are tied together in us as an indissoluble whole.
M: Is there a connection between your installation in the dining room and earlier works of yours like The Past is in the Light of the Present with its sharp delineated borders and its contrast between the light and a seemingly impenetrable darkness?
S: The heliograph entitled The Past is in the Light of the Present shows the solar system as conceived by Kepler. The title suggests a reflection regarding our own perception of the universe and of the light that comes from it, together with the contemporary nature of what we receive. The work is part of a series made up of another two heliographs which were a sort of opening towards an installation entitled Reazione [Reaction] of 2014: Layers of Light that represents the ultraviolet wavelengths of the spectrum of the sun. Subtraction of Light that represents the first daguerreotype of a total solar eclipse taken in 1851. The first optical reproduction of the total shadowing of the sun in history. These three works hold a dialogue, and it almost seems like they visually get sucked in by the conical form of the ray-shaped installation. All three are archive images which I used and partially elaborated in accentuating the tones of black directly on the metal plates before printing them. Formally speaking, there’s an interesting similarity between the heliograph entitled The Past is in the Light of the Present and some details of An Unlikely Outcome. It’s as if both speak about the need to delineate an external perimeter (which could instead be extended or else infinite in the case of the universe) and the internal space that surrounds and defines the presence, in the first work of the objects, in the other, a part of the universe. They are two maps. Moreover, both works show a black space that is almost impenetrable and hint at the unknown, at emptiness, the vacuum. The carbon black refers us to an unexplored dimension, and it’s as if it retained within itself everything from the very beginning. At the same time the blackness totally emphasises light. The white gleams. In An Unlikely Outcome the black seems to lead into depth and into low tones whereas the objects on the table hover and are more acute. The holes created in An Unlikely Outcome in order to give space to the objects reinforce the vision of a strange landscape.
M: In the series entitled Ubi Consistam a pattern of small holes covers the picture plane, as if there had been test drilling for the extraction of ground samples going on. Or should we speak more generally – and less in geological terms – of overlapping layers, of hiding and revealing, of premonition and having to guess?
S: With Ubi Consistam I wanted once again to explore the relationship between the outside and the inside, between what is visible and what is hidden or doesn’t appear to us. In the work each print on cotton paper depicts a mineral that has an exceptional formation with intense and magnificent colours. The holes in the paper that “constellate” the mineral, on the other hand, let us glimpse the underlying layers: the burnt plywood and on the surface the wax with its red pigment. As you suggest, the visibility of these “openings” which are disseminated on the mineral pictures they are hints, they show and they don’t show. Ubi Consistam also talks about “scars” present in something that possesses a sublime beauty. These scars are always kept hidden.They form part of the patrimony of non-perfection, they show traces of resistance but also of fragility in that they are in part revealed. Looking at Ubi Consistam is as if a perceptive shifting takes place: the solid substance of the mineral, enlarged and printed on paper and therefore two dimensional, in a certain sense once again takes on its three dimensional character at the moment in which it is constellated by the “perforations”.
M: Colour is also important, as is the black background. What can you say about that?
S: The black of the background projects the image into a dimension that differs from their natural one. It’s almost as if one loses the parameters and proportions: it’s more difficult to position the mineral, to grasp its nature and provenance (terrestrial or celestial). The choice of colours was of considerable importance for various reasons: I needed strong colours, natural but at the same time almost extranatural in their intensity. Furthermore, in flanking the two series Ubi Consistam and Hallucinations the element of contrast was important: At one side the distorted black and white images of the trenches creates a disorientation, on the other side the bright colours of Ubi Consistam transmit a steadfast character.
M: The grainy images in Hallucinations were produced on a photocopier that you used as an instrument to distort the historical photographs and then you enlarged them.We are very close to the soldiers – protected by the trench they are standing in but so vulnerable at the same time.
S: The series entitled Hallucinations – on which I’m still working – for me was truly born in a state of identification or projection. To perceive what it means to live closed up in trenches is difficult. Lairs open to the sky in the midst of war, tunnels that put the soldiers in direct contact with the ground/earth, its smell, the humidity and the insects. In the moments of alert they were cramped together in a space below the horizon, without a panorama, paying attention to every rustle, forced by the flag and by instinct into a situation of defence and attack that was both acutely cruel and exhausting. World War I was a war of position, in a certain sense of immobility. The attacks were in the main “naked” and defenceless and the casualties in battle – as we know – were extremely high in number. The use of gas as a chemical weapon was also very frequent. The photographs taken during this war directly confront us with what happened, but when looking at them I always have a sensation that everything is too immobile with respect to the soldiers’ lived experience. I carried out my intervention on the photographs with an anything but elaborate photocopying machine. It was the movement of my hand which gave me what I believe is a deeper understanding of the reality of the trenches and of the war. Every time that the band of light of the photocopier moved I looked for the right rhythm in order to distort the image to an exact extent, although every time the result was slightly different, depending on the degree of experimentation. Given that the image was turned downwards on the glass of the photocopier I didn’t directly see the image. This was the reason for the oscillation of the hand depending on the time cadence and the gliding of the luminous band which scanned the image. In this way, after hundreds of photocopies, at a certain point I understood that I was trying to “unsettle” the motionless soldiers of the photograph in order to bring them back to what I felt was a more authentic emotive state. For me the doubling of the human presences was also much more in agreement with the psychological state of the War: being taken to a situation of such extremeness, to the brutal confrontation with oneself, almost as in a state of hallucination. This is why Hallucinations transmits a state of loss of centre, of disorientation to the observer. With the decision of enlarging the photocopy by scanning it and then printing it once again, the presence of the trench’s space becomes even more physically present. There are no definite rasters and not even visible pixels in the blow-up, precisely because the photocopying machine creates a composition of irregular and organic signs.
M: These works are very immediate and compelling because of their scale and the vantage point of the photographer. We can almost smell the hallucinating fear of these men trapped in a nightmare. How do you find the images you work with?
S: For me the beginning of a new project is almost always marked by the lack of a clear plan (as I imagine is true for many artists). For years now I have regularly worked in searching for new archive images from books I find in libraries, antique shops, old postcards and specific Internet sites, as was the case of my search for the photographs used in Hallucinations. The search took a long time (and I’m still looking for new images). It was essential for me to find photographs shot almost from inside the trench or, in any case, very close to it, so that as a viewer you would almost feel like being inside and below ground. In this way I think one can sense the instinct of survival, similar to that of wild animals that take cover in holes in the ground (when threatened by predators). It’s as if in Hallucinations the soldiers at war, confronted with the absurdity and delirium of the situation, reminds one of the state of imprisonment of trapped mice.
M: There are dreamlike or surreal elements in the silent and solemn video entitled Strategie ohne Strategie where leavening dough breaks out of its hard confining shell in the shape of a horse.
S: Strategie ohne Strategie is a video of 2012 which I felt could communicate with the rest of the artworks in the exhibition.
In the projection inside a completely dark room a figure of a metal horse (almost life-sized) slowly rotates around itself. The figure is divided in two, horizontally, and inside is filled with leavening bread dough. Strategie ohne Strategie talks about internal and external forces, about a surface subject to internal pulsing. The initial idea of this video was as clear and limpid as it was unreasonable right from the beginning. To see the metal figure rotate and the leavening bread dough with the same tone and the same light as the horse expand and burst out is as if the transformation – in spite of its illogical nature – was preexistent. The reference to the Trojan horse creates an affinity between the Greek soldiers hidden and closed inside the belly of the horse and the soldiers who sought refuge in the trenches, both stuck and part of a strategy of war.
M: The work entitled An Invisible Force consists of two pairs of black and white images from a natural and a technological context, roots next to a captive balloon and rounds of ammunition that stopped a bullet in its path. Much more than just formal analogies connect these four elements.
S: The four prints reveal a dynamic tie between the subterranean forces, represented by the two roots with their anomalous form, and the forces of attack and defence of a war. And yet the coherence is upset from the moment in which one of the two roots with the form of a submarine with a delineated pointed shape threatens the image next to it, a root that has a shape similar to that of a human being. Meanwhile the rounds of ammunition horizontally perforated by the bullet seems ready like a stinger to puncture the captive balloon in the image next to it (Captive balloons of World War I, also called “Drachenballon” in German, were used to observe the enemy territory from above, but were always tied to the ground with an “umbilical cord”). It’s as if a sort of self-attack between images belonging to the same “family” is created. A disorder is generated around the intrinsic logic of a conflict. The photograph with the ammunitions aligned one next to the others like nuns in a procession is particularly beautiful. This image “narrates” a particular story and leaves us to hope that the ammunition “in procession” has probably miraculously saved the life of a soldier from the deadly bullet halted in its passing through. The connections between the four illustrations express the inherent threat which is found in any system out of balance.
M: In Mirrored Tension the tip of a digging shovel from an agricultural context and the tip of a smaller spade for military purposes point at each other, suspended in space, as if they were to be catapulted at each other by the bands that hold them in place.
S: In this installation many of the thoughts and sensations which accompanied me during the process for the creation of the exhibition Substratum are condensed here. The shovels have totally contrasting origins, one has been used for digging and turning over the soil in agriculture while the other is an instrument that accompanied the soldiers in the trenches, a utensil for digging them during World War I. In Mirrored Tension both shovels have pointed metal blades and they have been turned 90 degrees in respect to their natural vertical position. The shovel defines the physical relationship between the human being and the earth from the vertical viewpoint. The ground that contains both the roots and the human beings who have taken refuge in it is the pivotal point on which the equilibrium and the contrast of this installation are played. The idea originated with the certainty of wanting to create a tension between the two entities and the elastic bands used are for me the essential element in order to configure this charge of energy. The elastic bands are made of material that slightly vibrates at the minimum oscillation of air, and which therefore signals the presence and the tension that anticipate and halt the moment. Installing Mirrored Tension saw us immersed in a process on the site literally for hours (precisely because the material was so challenging to use). Small variations of the lengths of the rubber bands had a forceful effect. Finally, reaching the pre-planned geometry inside the frame saw the two shovels transformed into two arrows ready to be shot. In this way an alternation between attraction and threat is expressed by two originally harmless objects.
Translated by Howard Rodger MacLean