The life of objects

 

An interview with Antje Majewski

 

The Berlin-based artist Antje Majewski (*1968, Marl) moves between the media of painting, video, and photography. From 1986 to 1992, she studied art history, philosophy and history in Cologne, Florence and Berlin. In 2011, she was the first artist invited to the Artist in Residence program of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. In the Weltkulturen Labor, she had the opportunity to examine objects from the ethnographic collection and to realize an artistic work for the exhibition “OBJECT ATLAS – Fieldwork in the Museum”. In December 2016, we met to talk about their experiences.

 

Beatrice Barrois (BB): In 2012, the exhibition “OBJECT ATLAS – Fieldwork in the Museum” took place at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt. You were the first artist to work in the Weltkulturen Labor. There were also projects taking place elsewhere where artists were invited to ethnological museums to work with the collections: for example, the projects “Humboldt Lab” in Berlin or “Grassi invites” in Leipzig. What do you basically think about the development of inviting artists to ethnological museums?

 

Antje Majewski (AM): Basically, I think it’s a very good idea. I was glad to receive an invitation from Clémentine Deliss to work in the laboratory of the Weltkulturen Museum. I was actually the first artist to work there, so I noticed that the situation was unusual for the long-time custodians of the museum. It was a new process for the institution and for me. What helped me a lot personally was that I have a university education. Scientific research is not completely unfamiliar to me, and from my point of view, I got along well with the curators. An exchange took place in which the knowledge of the custodians from the ethnographic-scientific field and my artistic questions worked together very well. It was about taking a new look at things that had been stored in the depot for quite some time. These objects had never been shown in the museum before. The stone objects from Papua New Guinea are objects that the custodian for Oceania, Eva Raabe, pointed out to me. Without the cooperation, I probably wouldn’t have come to these stones. Mrs. Raabe listened to me and pointed me to these objects during my search. They are very rare stones, which in this grouping are very infrequent in the world. Nevertheless, they had never been shown before, probably because they look very inconspicuous to the visitors of the museum. For this reason, it makes sense for me to invite artists. Our questions are very different from those of scientists, and we come across other objects. It was Clémentine Deliss’s wish to bring the objects back into a new form of symbolic exchange by joining us. I totally agree with that. I think this approach has a future. For example, things can have a retroactive effect on fashion or handicrafts, which is already happening. But these objects are also effective for artistic productions. Many of the objects collected in the ethnographic museum are art for me. For me, the term art, i.e. the demarcation between art and something which is not defined as art, or which is defined as European or non-European art, are completely obsolete subdivisions.

 

BB: I was particularly interested in your work for the exhibition “OBJECT ATLAS – Fieldwork in the Museum”, because it is very complex and consists of several parts. One is the conversation with Issa Samb in a backyard in Dakar, the other are the prehistoric stones from Papua New Guinea, which you associated with the science fiction novel “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugazki brothers. Can you please explain to me how these ideas came about?

 

AM: The work with Issa Samb can be seen independently of the work at the Weltkulturen Museum. It was created before. I met Clémentine Deliss before she was director of the Weltkulturen Museum. She was curator of the residency program “Randolph Cliff” in Edinburgh, to which I was invited. I told her that I wanted to question objects and bring them back to their countries of origin in order to find people who could tell me something about them. One of these objects was a large sea snail from Senegal. Clémentine Deliss said that she was going to Senegal. Shortly before she took up her position as director of the Weltkulturen Museum, she invited me to join her. I thought that was incredibly generous. We hardly knew each other and flew to Mali and Senegal together. In Dakar she introduced me to her longtime friends of the Laboratoire AGIT’ART: Issa Samb and El Hadji Sy. She said they were the people I had to talk to – and they were. Especially with Issa Samb I talked about this shell. He made the shell talk for me. The first part of the interview with Issa Samb entitled “The Shell” (http://www.antjemajewski.de/2010/09/16/the-shell/ (06.12.2016)) is a theoretical and cultural-philosophical conversation, and it is very important for my whole approach. Issa Samb has become my teacher or spiritual father. What he said is very important to me. I learned a lot from him. We’re still friends, too. I was in Dakar just two weeks ago. This conversation is the abstract basis for more concrete works, such as the work at the Weltkulturen Museum with the stones from Papua New Guinea.

 

BB: How did the link from the prehistoric stones to the novel “Roadside Picnic” come about?

 

AM: The science fiction novel “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugazki brothers was published in 1971 in the Soviet Union and deals with a future society in which aliens left behind mysterious objects on a certain site after a visit to Earth. So-called stalkers (The title of Andrei Tarkowski’s film version from1979 is “Stalker”) go illegally into this area and get these things, because some of these strange items have forces that affect humans. You can use them for example to heal or start cars (the “batteries”). There are several functions. However, they obey other laws of nature, and one does not know how they actually work. An object, for example, is the “Empty Zero”, consisting of two discs with nothing in the middle. You can’t get between the disks and nobody knows why. The stones from Papua New Guinea that I examined have a long history. They come from a prehistoric culture of which one literally knows nothing. You don’t know how these people lived etc. The stones were found and used in the last few hundred years by the current inhabitants of Papua New Guinea. Because of their magical effect, they were kept in the men’s house or as fertility magic for pigs in the stable. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea attributed functions to these objects, which in their eyes originated from their ancestors: Some were good at killing enemies, others at fertilizing pigs. But exactly these functions or characteristics of the objects are uninteresting for Western scientists, or scientists from Papua New Guinea, who refer to European ethnographic scientific standards. The whole research revolves around the original, “authentic” functions of the stones. It is assumed that some of them were used for food preparation as mortars and pestles, although this is not really clear. There are some objects with figurative elements that are rated much higher than the others. The interpretation of the Papuans, who once found the stones and partly delivered them to the mission stations in the 20th century, was considered insignificant and partly contrary. For the Papuans, for example, the figurative elements were not necessarily important –also an unhewn stone could be of great value to them. I find it very interesting that the functionality of these objects was of magical value to the Papuans (or in connection with their ancestors) and of utility value to Western scientists. Since a magical function is negated by Western scientists, it was not relevant. I investigated that and built a bridge to the science fiction novel of the Strugazki brothers. Here, too, ominous objects are ascribed functions without one knowing which objects they were originally. Nobody knows anything about the aliens, nor about the old culture of Papua New Guinea. I discussed this parallel with Mrs. Raabe and it turned out that she was also a big fan of the Strugazki brothers. That helped a lot. She has written a good and rich text on it which, from her scientific point of view, makes reference to the novel.

 

BB: Artistic research is often referred to in the context of artists who realize works in ethnological museums. How would you describe what you actually did during your time at the Weltkulturen Museum? Was it some kind of research? Or was it more an artistic process? Could you please give me a description of your activities?

 

AM: Artistic Research has become a buzzword in the meantime. I can remember about six years ago, acquaintances in England asked me how much Artistic Research was involved in my work. It was the first time I heard that word. Since I’ve been making art, I don’t do anything different! Even my very first exhibitions had literary models. My first solo exhibition in 1993 was based on a novel by Samuel Beckett, the second had a lot to do with Immanuel Kant. For me, dealing with literary and philosophical texts has always been important. Also historical research was very central for me, who studied modern history and social history at the university, already in the first exhibitions. I long researched about the so-called feminist view and the history of suffragettes, for example. That’s what my first exhibition in a gallery was about. In the mid-1990s, an approach such as research was not so common yet. It’s nothing special with me. That’s how my thinking works. My works develop from questions that I ask myself. Ultimately, the term Artistic Research is very vague because it now refers to approaches that are close to academic or scientific approaches. But I’m skeptical about that. I don’t mind artists doing PhDs. However, I find it problematic when the value of an artistic work is measured by their academic titles. If professors are appointed on the basis of their title and others who are perhaps dyslexics but outstanding sculptors don’t get a chance, then I find that a great pity. Artistic work is always research, whether on the material or with the hands. Research does not necessarily have to be represented with footnotes.

 

BB: I want to come back to your conversation with Issa Samb. It deals with objects and their history. Issa Samb suggests that objects can speak. I have interpreted this in a way that there are things beyond our knowledge that we cannot understand. In our globalized society, there are certain norms governing how knowledge is generated into objects. Other forms of approach to the world and its objects, perhaps alive in many ancient cultures, are excluded in the modern world. How do you feel about that?

 

AM: It’s very important to be precise. There is a great discourse about animism. Issa Samb is certainly an animist, if only because of his culture as Lebou. He is also an extremely precise philosopher based on post-Marxist and post-colonialist discourses. In our conversation he told me: the way objects speak to us is related to their history, which is always a human history. He says: “It is not ruled out that when giving it meaning – perhaps new meaning – you will take the cultural meaning into account that people, an individual or the culture that produced it, gave to it as a social function.” (http://www.antjemajewski.de/2010/09/16/the-shell/ (07.12.2016)) So here we are talking about a social function of objects. We talk about cultures, about people and about the production of the history of objects. Issa Samb, for example, talks about the hands that have made an object in China. Even a small, insignificant, fragile object from China could, after passing through many hands, reach Africa. This is history. He continues: “At any rate, today, when it comes to objects and their circulation, it is important – very, very, very important – for the understanding of people and cultures that every object that is imported from one country to another, from one hand to another, from one sector or territory to another, and yet another, should be considered charged with an entire history: the history of the individual who made the object if it is a manufactured object, or the history of the people, nature, country or space from which the object reaches us, if it never experienced the human hand on the level of manufacturing (...)(ibid). He goes on: “Your object, wherever this object comes from in China, brings all of China with it. Even if it is the tiniest of objects, it carries all of China within it. So, you hold in your hands all the possible and imaginable means for getting to know China and beyond. (…) For example, if you say that it’s an object that comes to us from China, then – even if we have a perspective on the object that helps us to better understand it – it is necessary to go deeper into its meaning in relation to the place that it originates from. As a socialized cultural object.”(ibid) This means that these objects are culturally socialized. That’s one level. There is, so to speak, a language of objects, which is a language of people. We learn more things about other people through these objects. We do not necessarily learn anything about the object itself. The object forms part of a network of meanings that make up a material culture as a whole. Issa Samb talks about the globalized world and its wild capitalism. How, where and under what conditions the object was produced and traded plays a very important role for him. He is interested in power relations or colonial histories connected with them, for example. All this inscribes itself into the object. The moment we hold it in our hands, it has a history. This has always been very important for me and my whole approach before. Issa Samb says it in a way that is very clear. Furthermore, he says that it is not a question of interactivity, but a question of relations between all living things. Now the questions arise: What lives? What is life? This is where animism comes into play. Issa Samb explains: “The objects speak their language. The wind speaks. The wind speaks its own language. The birds speak. They speak their language.” (ibid) The question I ask myself is: is there any way to translate or speak this language? How could we talk to birds? That they speak their own language is clear. Maybe even stones speak their own language. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we can understand them. What we can understand is in what way the stone we have in front of us has been determined by men. Issa Samb continues: “This object has meaning in it. It informs us about the ideological situation not only in China, but also in the globalized system of the globalized world. Globalization as the dominant ideology of today’s world.”(ibid) But then there’s another level. Issa Samb asks me: “Is it now necessary to know whether it is you yourself who have a view of the object – something inside you – a certain inwardness that urges you to the object – or whether it is the object itself that contains its own energy, something that calls for you? (...) Or is it so that the object contains its own energy, its own, which is related to the same energy that is within you, which is active outside of you – outside of both yourself and the object?”8

In the end he states: “And objects, they allow for a lot of things … but respect is necessary and that is the most difficult thing to achieve from a Western perspective. It is very, very difficult to consider the object in and of itself, to grant it another energy charge over and above a superficial one, or the one that a machine may have given it. Because we know it to be fortuitous that we are unwilling to grant that stone this energy, this word that force without seeing a god, a unique creator in front of us. And even with the death of God, mechanical or industrial civilizations don’t want to go that far. Because it would mean facing up to a unique creator. And this brings us back to polysemy. We would like to give objects a new meaning, several meanings. We would want there to be several meanings. But there is still the refusal to accept that beyond the meaning we give or that people give to socialized cultural objects, there is the meaning that objects give to themselves, which we haven’t created.”(ibid) Here two things become clear: On the one hand, it is about God. Issa Samb comes as a Lebou from an animistic culture, for which Baobabs are persons, for example. In the context of Senegal, that is not a question. Maybe some Senegalese don’t think like that anymore, but originally it was clear to everyone that certain trees are alive. They were sacrificed sour milk. At the same time, there is an old Islamic culture in Senegal. The Brotherhood of the Mourids, the Baye Fall live a very spiritual, mystical Islam. But, as Wasis Diop told me: even in animism, the highest principle represents something like an abstract life force or a basic law. It is the abstract reason of all existence. That’s very philosophical. This is not the personalized God of the Abrahamic religions. It is rather an abstract basic principle that lies on the basis of all existence and represents a life force. This life force not only fills people, animals and plants, but also stones, for example. In this respect, one can say that there is a relation between the life force that is in me and the one that is in the stone. But I can only recognize this when I know that this life force exists everywhere. So it’s not some kind of esoteric nonsense, like: “I’m talking to the rock crystal and it’s telling me how to satisfy my desires.” The point is to acknowledge that everything comes from the reason of this abstract principle, which leads to the fact that everything can constantly transform itself with and into one another. Issa Samb likes to use the terms transformation and transmutation. At the same time, one must acknowledge that in the differentiation into the various objects, plants, animals and whatever, all are equal. We humans are not superior to animals, plants or stones. Everything is filled with the same energy and therefore not hierarchically ordered. That’s how I see it. But that also means that you have to respect the stone or the tree, as a counterpart, as something that you can not only use and that you don’t just relate to yourself as a human being. It’s something that has a life of its own and maybe has nothing to do with my life. We are connected by this same primordial ground.

 

BB: A few years ago, I was interested in religions and especially in animism. The Christian tradition has outsourced God to an afterlife, or to heavenly paradise. If man passes his trials on Earth and does not commit serious sins, he will be taken into the divine Kingdom of Heaven after his death. This implies that there is only one approach to God on Earth and in us as humans during our lifetime. This has massive consequences for our existence on Earth. In animism, it is almost contrary. The divine is in us and in all existence, in the here and now, not in any paradise. Man and the whole world are divine. This, in turn, leads to a completely different way of dealing with people.

 

AM: In animism, there is no distinction between Heaven and Earth, or between matter and spirit – for example, the whole world is full of spirits. Everything that matters is also spirit. You may not be able to see the dead either, but they live the same way we do. This penetration of an invisible and visible world is very important. But I can only tell you what I have learned through my recent conversations. I haven’t read any ethnographic books on animism in Senegal. I would find it interesting to deal with it more intensively. Everything I can tell you now is based on conversations I had with Issa Samb, but also with his friends Abdouleye Bâ, Alioune Diouf, Alpha Balde and Wasis Diop, who are also in the yard of the Laboratoire AGIT’ART.

 

BB: If one now transfers these worldviews, i.e. those of modern, western and animistic society, to the ethnological museum, its collections, categories, strategies and the object, as soon as it has been brought into the museum by researchers, have acquired a new, different meaning or started a new life. The object is in a new context and gets a completely different view of the world. Perhaps you have an idea: How could one do justice to both worldviews in ethnological museums? How could one represent these per se contrary ideas?

 

AM: First I have to say that I am not so sure that an object in the museum will get a new life. It is given a new meaning. I find it very important what Clémentine Deliss had in mind: the objects come back into a living context, they are literally taken into the hands again. Many of these things were things for everyday use. They weren’t meant to be locked in a display case or an armored cabinet. This is a completely unnatural state for the objects ... well ... “natural” is a very broad term. Also the classification and the new context, that for example a bow is added to the 150 other bows that already exist, are completely meaningless in the original context. Why does someone who never goes hunting need 151 bows? From the point of view of the cultures from which these things come, this mass of objects can only have one meaning, and that is that of a burial object. For me, all these objects are grave goods in the museum, and what we bury here are the cultures that are supposed to be exhibited. An example: You drill a pyramid or a tumulus hill. This is the only case in which in the past you actually find 150 bows or 30 pompous vessels, i.e. things that you used in everyday life, you suddenly find in such a mass. The aim was to represent the wealth of a human being, and this wealth was to accompany the deceased into the realm of the dead. There should be nothing missing from this person. I am not sure and cannot say exactly what kind of transformation has taken place through the museums. The transformation consisted in the fact that the ethnographers went, partly in full consciousness, to countries of which they knew that the colonial governments were destroying cultures. They went to these countries consciously and precisely for this reason. To this day, they’re credited with that. The ethnographers are the only ones who have preserved this material culture which would otherwise no longer exist and could no longer be seen. But for whom have they preserved this material culture and for what reason? That’s the question, isn’t it? Let us take the case of Cameroon, once a German colony. I was at the ethnographic museum in Dahlem with my life partner, who is a Cameroonian on his father’s side. We’ve seen what’s there in the depot. He said: “These are closets and closets and closets with things that no one ever sees.” It is pure possession and possession ... make sure ... I don’t know. It’s something very strange. All this having and possessing a foreign culture that one has incorporated, appropriated or “eaten up” ... The other might be triumphal processions. Similar to the triumphal processions in ancient Rome, in which the weapons and treasures of the defeated were carried through the city. Perhaps this is also a function ... I am not sure. My life partner said that if you now go to a museum in Cameroon, in Yaoundé, then there is only a fraction of what is in Germany. On the other hand, perhaps this is also natural, because the people in the areas, the kingdoms, from which the colonial governments cobbled together what they then called Cameroon, actually had no reason at all to collect these things. The whole concept of a museum is imported from the colonizers. In Cameroon, for example, there are still kings with functioning courts, where many of these things can still be in use. Or you are dealing with wooden objects that were originally intended to be sorted out at some point. These objects were originally in the moment when they were in a cultural flux, just like our human existence, in a kind of transformational process. The European museums do something very strange: they cut off the current of time like a pair of scissors and bring the things to their burial mounds. Why do these museums do this? You take a small basket into your hands that was once intended for fishing. Originally, millions of these baskets have been woven since the Neolithic Age, or whenever one started to weave these baskets. Usually, they get a hole sometime and are thrown away. But this basket here is treated with a special agent, somewhere in a showcase. The custodian is only allowed to touch it with white gloves and it will never catch a fish again. And that must remain so now until ... you don’t really know when ... because you have this concrete bunker. It is a total sacrilege to think that this basket could be thrown away as much as the other ones before them.

 

BB: Do you have a very good explanation for that phenomenon?

 

AM: I’m not done with my thinking ... I have no idea, I have no answer to that. On the other hand, I also grew up with ethnographic museums. I have always loved to look at these things and learned a lot from these museums. I really have to say that. Of course, these things convey something, and even if it’s just amazement at how skillfully and magnificently people have made things. That’s not much more than would have happened in a Chamber of Wonders, but it also has to do with respect. That’s a very inaccurate answer, but that’s because I can’t give you an answer. Fortunately, I don’t run such a museum. That would be terrible. (both laugh)

 

BB: Yes, it is a very multi-layered and complex issue. I think these things have been snatched from their context and people, rituals, festivals and ceremonies are missing, as well as all everyday activities. You have a very clear view of this problem. Do you still deal with ethnological museums and their collections today?

 

AM: Yes, I don’t have a concrete project in a museum at the moment, but I’m definitely interested in the question.

 

BB: It is a matter of redefinition and processual food for thought within these museums. An important point is to do justice to the countries and cultures of origin and to pay due respect to them. In your opinion, would a closer cooperation with global partners be a possible approach?

 

AM: I had an idea in the context of a museum collection. I had talked about it with the artist Otobong Nkanga for some time. It was about the question of restitution. She said that as a Nigerian, she was not quite sure whether it was right to return the items, as the objects would probably end up on the art market again very quickly. Then I asked what it would be like if you didn’t just return the things that came from Nigeria. Let’s take an example: Dahlem has 150 bows, of which only two or three are exhibited now. Instead of returning only the Nigerian objects to Nigeria, one could proceed differently. Nigerians also have the right to see the richness of cultures that have existed around the world.
Perhaps it would be very interesting for Nigerian children to see how Eskimos used to dress. Perhaps it would be exciting for Nigerian fashion designers to look at Bavarian costumes. That’s why my idea was: if restitution, then not only the respective objects to their cultures of origin, if they still exist. It is important to see that we live in a globalized world and can no longer rely on nation states. You could think about how to build knowledge depots all over the world, where people could look at things, pick them up, study and learn something from them, or just wonder and be amazed. But that would also mean that from the 150 bows, let’s say from Sumatra, you would give two to Nigeria. I love that idea. Of course, no one will ever do that, because museums find it hard to return an item to where it once came from (laughs) ... and then voluntarily donate items to other countries that you have in the depot ... I don’t think anyone would do that. But that would be the only fair thing. One would have to say that the period of colonialism was a very short period in which only the Europeans had a chance to plunder old cultures. This will not be repeated, if only because many of these cultures have already been destroyed. I think you would have to spread the treasures all over the world to make up for that at least a little bit.

 

BB: Larissa Förster, a scientist actively participating in this discourse, once said during a public discussion at the GRASSI Museum Leipzig, where I was present, that one could ship a kind of container, equipped with all kinds of objects, around the world. This would give people global access to these cultural artefacts. The container, or even several, could be set up in cities and in different places on a weekly basis and presented to the public ...

 

AM: That would also be a possibility. The right of ownership would then remain in Germany ...(both laugh)