Artists Interview Fairs USA

Hammering out a theory of description

Images of workers inspire a new kind of show and tell

Striking a propaganda pose: Dean Cornwell’s 1918 Work for America!, photographed by Esther Shalev-Gerz for the Wolfsonian exhibition

Esther Shalev-Gerz, the Lithuanian-born Paris-based artist, works in situ. Her most recent location of choice is the Wolfsonian–Florida International University museum, where her solo exhibition “Describing Labour” will be on show until 7 April 2013. Drawing on the museum’s collection of art and artefacts from 1885 to 1945, Shalev-Gerz invited 24 people to select and describe pieces that depict industrial workers, images that have fallen out of favour in the West thanks to their socialist connections and use as propaganda. The descriptions were videotaped and projected alongside photographs, sound installations and glass sculptures, in her distinctive, multifaceted approach to history and memory.

Shalev-Gerz came to public attention in 1986, when she created Mahnmal gegen Faschismus (Monument against Fascism) for the German city of Hamburg, with her husband, Jochen Gerz. In a statement on the futility of such monuments, the installation repeatedly, and deliberately, sank into the ground until it finally disappeared in 1993.

Running parallel to the Wolfsonian show is Shalev-Gerz’s first big exhibition in Switzerland, “Between Telling and Listening” at the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne (until 6 January 2013).

The Art Newspaper: You completed a residency at the Wolfsonian in 2011. What attracted you to the museum?

Esther Shalev-Gerz:
?It really intrigued me to enter into this slice of time, it was a mind-boggling experience. There is an endless amount of stuff on show, not only art but also parts of buildings, windows, etc. Through bits and pieces, the museum tries to do the impossible: to take you back in time. It’s very touching. And propaganda is something that I have been interested in for a long time. What struck me most [when looking through the collection] was the image of the worker and that we don’t depict these people any more, it’s no longer attractive. It was very much used in propaganda and nobody salvaged it after that. Images are everywhere nowadays. Pictures of ourselves, our families, of politicians and of criminals. But nobody in the art world really makes pictures of the people who make the things around us. Why are we living in a world that doesn’t have a face? This is particularly striking in Sweden, where I teach. It is the country where they invented Ikea, Metro, H&M – ways to disconnect from historical objects, from the clothes or the table of your grandmother.

The title of your show is “Describing Labour”. What does that mean?

The word “describing” is a funny one. I can describe someone forever, and it will never be that person. It’s always this thing next to them. It’s this other thing. It’s a creative process, it’s a wish to duplicate the person, which is what art is all about. I therefore decided to make a project around the idea of description. The people involved in the exhibition are familiar with the language of description in art: artists, curators, historians, journalists, collectors, etc. Also, when people look at art, they are silent. Describing the work brings them out of that silence. A lot of my work deals with silence and words, and this was a bonus that came out of the project.

To prolong this futility, this other thing that is taking place when we are describing, I decided to create hammers out of glass. Many workers are holding hammers in the pieces that were selected. Hammers are still tools that we use now. Almost every household owns a hammer. These glass hammers, which are shown with the videos and photographs, have a ghostly appearance. They almost look like drawings.

Were there similarities in the way people described the works?

A number of people related the pieces to their own experiences, saying that they reminded them of this or that. It was one of the things that came out: the way we bond with works. One person said the work reminded them of the grandfather they had never met. One woman looked at a piece and said that, although she knew exactly when the work was made, it still reminded her of 9/11. It was also very touching because the people were intuitively in the now. History or memory depends on who tells it and when it’s told. The project captures how people actualise their relationships to these works, their memories, or what it evokes in them at that particular moment.

Dialogue and personal memory play an important role in your exploration of history. Can you explain the significance of speaking and telling stories in your work?

Voices are an important material for me, because until not too long ago, voices were hard to capture. No one teaches us to speak. We are taught to write and to read, but not to talk. Usually, when we speak in class we are kicked out. Our talk is still the wild element and can reveal profound things about us. You have writers who write, singers who sing, but talkers? No. Most of my work is based around making somebody talk, and every time I find a different way of making this happen. At the Wolfsonian, it was through the works. For me as an artist, speaking is almost the utmost format through which we reveal our thoughts about the world. The voice is also the first thing that the child hears. In the womb, the ear develops before the heart. I discovered this not too long ago. The voice is something that anchors you to the world more than other things.

Do you deal with memory so that we don’t forget?

Yes, we must not forget for a reason: so that it doesn’t happen again. [Western] Europe used to be the bloodiest place on earth. It changed itself and killed itself many times over. For 60 years, it has been peaceful, which is incredible, and it’s important that we don’t forget that. I like the personal, I don’t work with heaps or with numbers. We can’t imagine a billion of money, a billion of grain, a billion of people. Art is all about this border between imagining or not imagining. Do we imagine it or do we need to see it? But the border keeps changing because our world changes. It’s not only the portrait of the speaker but also the portrait of the listener that is important. I will stop speaking to someone if they stop listening to me. These two are a necessity because if it’s only the speaker, then we have a demagogy. A lot of my work deals with these two; not just the one, because the one is scary.

Much of your work also touches on the experience of the immigrant. Do you see yourself as an immigrant?

For me, immigrating was a moment of celebration. It was absolutely fantastic, it transformed me completely. I was eight when we moved from Lithuania to Jerusalem. I remember everything because it was like “wow!” There were people from all different colours, it was a complete liberation. In this way, Israel is an even bigger melting pot than the US. I therefore never thought of immigration in a negative way, it made me fall in love with this moment. So whenever I had a bit of money, I would travel. I particularly love Europe. I find myself more European than anything else. All artists today are immigrants, they all move around. I actually feel more like a migrant, I need to migrate. When you look at the old maps of human migration, it poses the question, why did they migrate? I don’t think it was for food, but rather out of curiosity. They were bored! I remember the first time I went to the beach in Miami, I met some people from the south of France. “Why would you travel from Nice to Miami?” I thought to myself. But they said the beach was different. Immigrants have tremendous stories to share. In my class in Sweden, whenever I have a student that comes from two cultures, I get them to share their experiences with everyone. It wakes the Swede-Swedes up, it makes them more creative. And we know that; when immigration happens, even when we are resistant to it at first, the place flourishes, it becomes energised. It is a scary thing to meet somebody new, one has to make an effort. And this effort is sometimes positive and sometimes negative. I’m interested in this change, in this impact of a new arrival.

What are your forthcoming projects?

In January, I have my first solo exhibition in Canada at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver [“Esther Shalev-Gerz”, 11 January-14 April 2013]. I am also working on a research project called “Trust and the Unfolding Dialogue”, which has been funded by a three-year grant from the Swedish government. It’s a project based around the word “trust”, and its importance in my work, the art world and the world around us. We rarely use the word in art, it’s not really something that artists explore. But we employ it all the time. When we go to a museum, we have to trust that what we are shown is important, that it’s authentic and not a forgery. The heavy museum walls were built so we can trust the institution, a work is sold for €120m and we trust that this is its value. I want to know why the word trust is rarely used in art.

I have invited three researchers to work on the project with me, and next year we will organise an exhibition, a conference and publish a book on the topic.

”Describing Labour” is at the Wolfsonian-FIU (until 7 April 2013)


Esther Shalev-Gerz
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