Monday, June 16, 2008

Juliane Zelwies: TODAY + TOMORROW. ZAIM Yokohama, August 1 - 3, 2008.

The Laundromat gallery is pleased to present TODAY and TOMORROW featuring new work by Berlin-based artist Juliane Zelwies at the ZAIM Art Center in Yokohama, Japan.

Today and Tomorrow, 2008. Installation views.

Today and Tomorrow. Detail: Projected Love, 2008. 

Today and Tomorrow

When I arrive, it is hot, very hot. The heat and the humidity will continue like this for at least another three months, but back then I did not know about that.

On board I had felt sick. Ginger Ale and aspirin had not helped. Eventually I had felt so miserable that I had to lie down on the floor of the airplane as I could neither sit nor stand any longer without becoming more sick. The flight attendants had forced me to get up again and wanted to call the ambulance to pick me up on arrival.

I. The Scene of Arrival

Philadelphia, August 20th 2005:

The hostel was an old and yellow Victorian house at the dead end of a long road inside a huge park. For hours I didn't see or hear anyone but a striped cat dozing on the front porch. At night I sat quietly on the porch to sip a cup of tea while I watched the other guests eating and preparing their trips for the following day. Later on I would also hear the snorting of horses from the ranch on the other side of the street.

It was hot, very hot. And humid. The crickets were incredibly loud.From the bus station it had been another half-hour walk to get to the hostel. Road signs said "watch turtles", posters pinned on trees warned against a murderer. I felt strange when I found out that the woman, who was raped and murdered six days ago, had stayed at the place where I am now- and when I am told now that the murderer is still not found.

When I arrive on campus a few days later, the faculty is surprised. They were not sure whether I would make it to come. To come where? Shortly after the security service explains how I can contact them if I am in danger. In a role-play I also learn how to say hello to a stranger on the street.

II. First Contacts

Henceforth, I sit every morning in front of the Visitor Center and observe how the tourists start their trips. The employees of the Center wear costumes and speak about the history of the place in well-rehearsed phrases. One of them is dressed like a safari-park ranger and shouts at the visitors to stand in line only from the left side to enter the building. When the line hits a particular point, he wants people to change direction and orders to line up from the right. People follow his orders obediently.

I visit the Visitor Center two times to ask for directions. The first time a black lady behind the counter explains to me patiently how to get to the place I need to go. She ends with: "Do you know that you have wonderful skin?" The next time another lady helps me. When she figures out why I am in the country, she leans back and shrieks: "You must be such a wonderful artist!" Generally speaking, people are very open-minded and friendly to me.

III. Happiness

Last night I went to a bar with three of my male colleagues. They want to get to know me and I appreciate their curiosity. Eventually it turned out that their main interest for the evening was to find out why I don’t have a boyfriend or a husband at home. They seemed to be sorry for me and although I tried to redirect the conversation several times, one of them didn’t let go: "What did your last boy friend look like? Maybe I can find someone for you!“ When I laughed at him and answered that I am not interested in being hooked up, he continued: "I am serious, I want you to be happy while you are here.“

IV. The Party

There were far too many people that I could remember all of them clearly. When I look back, I remember only a few of them:

The police officer, who could not be alone. The woman, who lost everything but did not learn from that. Her husband, who got almost killed in an accident and was eventually murdered – their son, who happened to be a friend of her friend Chris. 

When the party was over I asked Chris if he knows anything in particular about the circumstances of his friend's story. He said he doesn’t know. Instead he described elaborately how he – Chris - gains personal happiness in life, how he is going to be shooting his next movie, why he once thought of joining the army. Like other times before, I was frustrated with the situation. I believed he was lying to me, but I did not dare to let him know.

A few weeks later I came to know that my friend’s friend was a veteran, who became traumatized by his experiences of the war. Since then he has been hospitalized as he needs to be on permanent suicide watch.

V. The Midpoint

When I look to out of one of my windows to the right, I see myself unlocking my bike from that linden tree on the opposite side of the street. I will get on the bike and ride out of sight. When I manage to get fast enough to the other side of my room and look out of the window over there, I will see myself passing.

I don’t feel bad, but I am worried. I have been distracted for months now, unable to focus. It must be the weather, the language and “the others”. I am quite different here, mindless and happy. Especially in the mornings I am often extremely happy. I often wish I could prolong one day into two days – and skip tomorrow.

VI. I Am My Model

She is nervous, she is stressed out, she is almost panicked as she suddenly understands something: It is not about finding a solution, it is not about finding an answer to something. 

If you begin with the individual in this way, you will create a type. Your story is about the model. It is about the pursuit. 

Their pursuit of happiness. Beauty is just a fabrication.

Did we shake hands in the end?

The longer he spoke the less she could breathe. She knew he was right, and she knew it was necessary that someone finally spoke about it aloud. She tried to sit upright in order to uncramp her chest, but she could not sustain this position for long. Instead she embraced her knees with her arms. She could not look him in the eye anymore. She looked away.
She saw him leaving and he would retell the story of their encounter other times, in different situations, always in the presence of others. From now on it was his story - and his performance.

VII. True Stories

“I finally finished the sculpture that you inspired me to do! The one with the ribbon speaker and the twisting poles. Remember when we got high at the studio last spring and we played with that little crummy proto-type I made? Without you coming over and hanging out, I might never have figured out what to do with that speaker.”

Fog and mist cleared up the morning I agreed that we were all performing, establishing ourselves in front of each other – again and again. Creating both instantly: individual stories and the story of the other. Treasuring these stories for ourselves, but also for the others. 

The individual performer may be sincere or cynical, his only obligation is to believe in the part he is playing. For the audience it is almost impossible to judge as it can only guess what is real and what is not real. 

New York, March 31st 2007:

When I left it was sunny. It was not too cold anymore and not too hot yet.
I had kissed my friends quickly and had left the house in the usual rush. Like any other day I would run down Wyckoff Street, make a left on Smith Street, get down to the subway. That day trains did not run in time and I almost missed the airplane. I still don’t remember how I got on board.

On board I felt sad. Ginger Ale and aspirin did not help. Eventually I felt so miserable that I had to lie down on the floor of the airplane as I could neither sit nor stand any longer without becoming more sad.
I don’t remember why I had to get back there today. But when I look out of the window, I see myself passing – again and again. Tomorrow I’ll see if it was true or not.

-Juliane Zelwies

Kevin Curran interviews Juliane Zelwies:

Kevin: ZAIM has the feel of an office building or a school. There are linoleum and concrete floors, wide staircases and florescent lighting. Approaching the show you hear the sound of a piano coming from inside. The show announcement posted next to the door is a bubble diagram in English and Japanese, and they are inscribed with phrases such as “scene of arrival”, “happiness”, “the heat”, “my insecurity”, “a projection”, “pretext”, “explanation II.”

Once inside the door there is a video projection to the right. To the left there is a row of thin booklets hanging along from long cords attached at the top of the wall, so they sway back and forth in the light breeze.

Further down that wall are a bunch of framed pictures and texts. They contain bits of love letters as well as pictures of flowers, a man in his regalia of the university, a cat, and a house.

Kevin: The one thing in your installation that I think shades the feeling of the entire piece the most is the music. You told me that this particular song goes back to a personal memory of yours. Your willingness to re-live that moment, that part of your life that you preserve in that bit of music is to me the most personally risky and charged element in your show. The song is so powerful and I wonder how you feel about that, as the artist, ceding so much impact to a song, a feeling provided by someone else. What about the fact that no one who visits your show will have the same feeling of that song that you do?

Juliane: Of course nobody will have the same feeling of that song – as no one will have the same feeling of the photographs or the video either. I have chosen the song because I believe it is powerful even to someone who has never heard it before. No other element in the installation reaches out for the visitor as much as the music does. The photographs, the video, the texts and the letters: All of it has to be examined carefully by the visitor whereas the music provides an immediate and also emotional approach to the piece.

What I was mainly interested in was to figure out how I could tell a story in the given space, how I could use the space as a display for a narration. That is why I arranged miscellaneous elements or “fragments” in the space to possibly become one story in the viewer’s mind.

If you argue that the music was more powerful than any of the other elements, I agree with you. That is the nature of music – and for this reason I rarely use music in my work (last time in 2004 for the installation “Der Brainstorm”) as I am not interested in lulling someone if there is no specific reason for it. For “today and tomorrow” I consciously used the song by Keith Jarrett as a possibility to tie the different parts together through creating a distinct atmosphere- truly nothing but a pitiful trick.

Kevin: Your piece was a collection, so of all the stories, images and artifacts that might be included or excluded, what was essential? In other words, what are the different elements included and how do you decide what is vital for your purpose?

Juliane: I believe that there is no such thing as “one reality” or “a truth” in general. Nonetheless I am constantly searching for it. I always want to find out if my experiences are real, if my emotions are true and if there is a meaning for what I see and hear. When I moved to the USA, a lot of things happened to me that I had never experienced before.

And since I asked myself persistently why these things were happening to me, I got very confused. All the sudden I found myself in the position of someone, who was observing the people and subsequently myself as I realized that it was me, who was “the foreigner / the other”. For months I believed that I had to integrate all these newly discovered fragments of the “other world” into my own world.

That was the base I worked from in order to make this installation. If I go back to the question you asked first: I personally was not interested in re-living that moment of confusion again, but I wanted to bring my audience in the position of someone who needs to ask questions in order to keep moving. That was how I set the pattern and that is how I sorted and arranged the material.

If people in the show have asked themselves “Is this the memory of a love story?” or plainly “Does this plant called Zelwieskraut really exist?” I am happy. Beyond that I am still trying to find out how much detective work someone is willing to do in order to unfold the next layer – another reality, which lays behind the original layer.

Sometimes things you once believed in may change into something quite unbelievable. These are the moments in life when situations may appear either tragic or funny. I find it challenging to describe such a situation openly without becoming either banal or cryptic.

Kevin: You included love letters you had received from three different men you met while living in the U.S. Can you tell us more about the letters and other items you received from these people and how you feel these artifacts relate to or build on the other elements in the installation?

Juliane: I received these love letters within a time span of three or four weeks from men I didn’t know at all- one saw me when I was visiting the MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York City, the other one was a cab driver, who brought me and my friends home in Philadelphia. The third letter was written by someone I had dinner with when I accompanied a mutual friend.

Not only that it seemed quite absurd to me to write a love letter to someone you don’t know, it was quite an overwhelming experience to receive these letters. One of these men had sent not only a love letter of 20 pages, but a whole package of information to promote himself - an audiotape with opera music and Irish folk songs, a collection of articles written by him, postcards of his favorite paintings, photographs of himself, his cat, his house in New Jersey etc.

I decided to show some of these artifacts as a potential back-story. A back-story, which could be imagined or constructed by the viewer if he /she was in need for more information. Though I am sure that it is fun to work out the comical elements of this particular story by showing the artifacts in a different way, I was not willing to break the story down to such a humorous or ironic statement.

Instead I worked with the conflict I found myself confronted with: What happens to you if someone projects his / her emotions on you? How do you change your point of view when it is you personally who is asked to satisfy the wishes of a stranger? All this seemed to be worth an examination and also worth a presentation.

Kevin: Why did you decide to include the flowers and how did you choose which to include?

Juliane: I had chosen photographs of flowers as it seemed to be a possibility to make the visitor believe in a story, which was easy to follow and which had begun with the music. Also, I was looking for a symbolic translation of the texts I was writing.

The more I started to think about the different pieces I was going to show, the more I realized that the work was clearly an examination of stereotypes and clichés. In that sense flowers seemed to be a perfect carrier for “romantic love”.

However, I believe that the chosen photographs do not fulfill the idea of what people may expect when they think e.g. of “romantic love”. Nonetheless I believe that these photographs literally illustrate certain expressions of the love letters included in the show. For example the kiwi-plant looks pretty steamy to me – I can’t help but linking it to the “bursting vitality of the springtime” one of the three men wished to share with me.

Kevin, thanks a lot for inviting me to show at ZAIM in Japan. It was a great pleasure to work with you! I’d also like to thank Thilo Bock, Amy Lincoln, Philipp Hartmann and Markus Ruff for discussing the work in the process of making with me.

Also, here on the web we did not include the dictionary entry “Zelwieskraut”, which may be the key to what you have seen, heard and read beforehand. Instead of having the text on Kevin’s website, please feel free to follow this link.

About the artist:

Born 1976 in Berlin, Germany, the artist studied Sculpture and Media Art at the Berlin University of the Art in Berlin, Germany (M.F.A. in 2004), at Konstfack (College for Arts, Crafts and Design) in Stockholm, Sweden and at Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, USA.

Zelwies has been awarded several grants, prizes and fellowships: From 2007 - 2008 with the NaFöG - grant (research grant by the City Government of Berlin), 2005- 2006 with a grant from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), 2005 Laura H.Carnell Scholarship at Tyler School of Art, 2005 special price from the headquarters for political education in Rheinland-Pfalz (Landeszentrale für politische Bildung), Germany, 2004 Lili-price (best student of the year, Berlin University of the Art).

In 2007 she was nominated for the Camera Price Dortmund, in 2005 for the Werkleitz-Project Grant (Germany) and in 2003 / 04 for the EMARE-Program (European Media Artists in Residence Exchange).

Her work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions and screenings in Europe (Germany, Austria, Sweden, Bulgaria) and in the USA.

Her video works are represented by the arsenal experimental program (Cinema Arsenal Berlin, Germany).

For more information about Juliane Zelwies please visit her web site: