Claire Waffel works with peoples’ memories and stories which are distant but not isolated from the present. By revealing that the contemporary conditions may be just like a fake surface, we can learn more about ourselves and place we are living in. Waffel quotes a line from “Sea and Fog”of Eten Adnan, what describes well her artistic approach: „Space is not some abstract notion but our own dimension“.
Barbara Kepa: In some of your works (Metopia, War Veterans or Close Family) you have explored the themes of family histories, reception of origin or personal stories filtered through the mechanisms of memory. What was so appealing for you in taking the direction of personal stories? How do you feel in the role of person who brings intimate stories to the daylight?
Claire Waffel: Although my pieces that you refer to here focus on individuals and personal details of their lives, as for example their home or objects of importance, I never had the impression of revealing any intimate details of their lives to the public. Rather, what I was looking for in these people’s lives, surroundings or objects was an experience or emotion that other people could also relate to. I always became interested in something private when I felt that more was at stake than the personal. I would not like to propose these two words as opposites but rather as something dual.
The word intimate I find more resonant in this context because it seems to describe the quality of closeness, of the personal. Intimacy I find is explosive in its potential.
Working with my grandmother for 2 years (“Close Family“ 2003-04, “Inventory“ 2004) opened up exploring her house and our relationship in the minutest detail. I realized that the relationship between grandparent and grandchild undergoes a radical transformation in that the dynamic of dependency and responsibility undergo a complete reversal. In “Inventory“ my grandmother describes from memory the upstairs of her house and the minutiae of her familiar surroundings, while the camera films the current reality of this space. As she was no longer able to access the upstairs of her house due to her physical condition, she lived in her memory of the rooms how they looked 10 years ago. The no longer visible yet still present reality and the current moment question each other and in this way make their interdependent relationship visible.
BK: What does your creative process look like? Maybe you could explain more about this in relation to the work “Please Do Not Touch The Ceiling” (2012)? Could you describe the process behind your work in Košice?
CW: My work deals with place, memory, history and the narratives, ruins and reconstructions arising from these. During my 3-month residency in the East Slovakian town Košice I was searching for a building that would talk of the specific changes that this part of Eastern Europe has undergone. I became curious that a city with 170.000 inhabitants has 5 synagogue buildings.
“Bužňa” (2012), a two-channel video projection shows a concert hall in Slovakia that, for ideological purposes, lost its former function as a synagogue. The space was reappropriated under Communism in the 50s and a lowered prefabricated ceiling introduced in order to hide the ornamental religious cupola.
The movement of the camera in “Bužňa” lets the viewer travel through the space, scanning details and drawing spatial relationships between two adjacent yet disconnected spaces. Working with visibility and invisibility “Bužňa” sheds light on collective trauma. Is it is true that trauma will resolve only when the “memory comes”? “Bužňa” questions the manner in which historical narratives are abandoned or have not yet come to exist. This concert hall, also House of Arts is both a story of dispossession and of cultural appropriation. The lowered ceiling as an architectural symbol, is an ideological gesture and refers to the horizon of a specific perception of the world.
In the screening at the project space Centrum last weekend I installed the video so that it became a part of the architecture of the space itself. Originally when I exhibited this video piece in Slovakia I found that the gallery space in which I was showing the work also had a lowered ceiling. This gave me the idea of cutting a hole into the ceiling and in this way creating a sculpture from the architecture of the space.
BK: I would like to ask you about your relation to the city of Berlin. Maybe you could also talk about your work “Aller Retour” here?
CW: The video “Aller Retour” (2008), a collaboration with Miriam Visaczki started from the idea of the image and sound track being recorded simultaneously, yet at two different physical locations. The idea was to film these two elements as they move towards each other and physically come together at a specific point and time. We selected Wiener Straße, a street in Kreuzberg for its strong variety and infrastructure, seeming to contain much of a city’s activity in just one street. The video starts at the “touristy” end filled with shops, cafés, bars and restaurants until it becomes less frequented with less attractive buildings and one also passes a circus, a swimming pool and a park.
My relationship to Berlin has changed very much over the 5 years that I have been here. Originally having come here for the reason that attracted many other artists, I now often feel that I am able to observe the changes that occur when a city becomes attractive. The last year I have really questioned how much we are individually responsible for shaping and able to influence the city we live in. Kotti & Co has been a very important initiative for me regarding these questions and I hope that they are successful in achieving their aims. Currently there is a constant negotiation about space, the most recent example being the East Side Gallery, which is supposed to give way for luxury housing; a poignant picture.
BK: What I really like, is that you have recalled two artists in your works: the writer W. G. Sebald and the eccentric architect Verner V. Visaczki. Could you write something about your personal list of artists who influenced you?
CW: This is not an easy question as there are many. However, I really appreciate the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, Francis Alÿs and more recently Etel Adnan whose work I discovered at Documenta 13 last year.
In Gordon Matta-Clark’s deconstructive interventions and ‘anarchitectural practice’ I like how the public space is turned into different acts of communication. The interventions raise questions about the social conditions and political dimensions of public space and at times show the inherent connection between private and public. This happens for example by the artist cutting gaps and intersections into domestic buildings and making them porous. Matta-Clark creates sculptures through architecture and by documenting his artistic process and the buildings often being derelict, the aspect of time and duration becomes an important part of the work.
Francis Alÿ’s work is also so resonant for the interaction it creates with its environment, commenting on it, often in a very witty way. The process itself seems an integral part of many of his pieces, which also ascribes to the work a certain duration that I like. So processes become sculptures or sculptures that disappear. Similar to Gordon Matta-Clark I feel that through the performative element he invests himself into the work in a way that he is putting himself on the line.
I am just at the beginning of discovering Etel Adnan’s work, whose paintings I saw for the first time at Documenta 13. I never suspected such a strong poet and essayist to also be behind these works. “Sea and Fog” and “Sitt Marie Rose” are what I am currently reading. „Space is not some abstract notion but our own dimension“, a line from “Sea and Fog” that stays in my mind and continues to raise questions.
BK: Could you tell me something about the turn in your art from telling stories through people to telling stories through architecture and landscape?
CW: This turn that you describe in my work is something that developed over time. It is also connected to the fact that I started working in photography before opening my practice to other media such as video, installation and collage. In my most recent work I realized that by dealing with architecture and more precisely a specific building in East Slovakia, it in any way talks about the individuals that frequented this building: those that made decisions about it, those currently using it and those that were prevented from using it and no longer are.
BK: Thank you for the talk and good luck.