Last week Eva Koethen‘s show The Creation of New Spaces of Perception opened at the German Consulate General in New York. The photographs in this new exhibition, installed on the floor of the lobby, are not only to be viewed but also to be walked on – in a corporal as well as metaphorical sense. S2S talked to Eva Koethen about the concept behind her current work, her home town Berlin, her frequent visits to New York and the changes she has witnessed throughout the years in both cities.
S2S: You are known for your Tritt-Bilder (Step-on pictures). You have stated that in your work “the field of potentiality at the feet of the beholder is no longer limited to visual observation but the images have to be walked on and across.“
[Das zu Fuessen liegende Feld des Potenziellen laesst sich nicht mehr nur mit den Augen betrachten, sonder muss durchschritten werden.] How important is the visceral experience of your walk-able photo installation?
Eva Koethen: To actually set foot on the imaginative pictorial space [“das reale Betreten des imaginativen Bildraums”] is most important for me. This visceral experience/corporal aspect I developed at the same time with the expanded pictorial space [der aufgeklappte Bildraum] of my big painting-installations in the early 90s (It means the prosecution of the flat image area on the floor without constructing a 3-dimensional stage for the object). Paintings, as well as photographs function as play of unsettledness between the surface of the image, space of representation/sphere of imagination and real space [Bildflächen, Vorstellungsraum und realem Raum].
S2S: In the late 90s you showed your project Berlin – Walking on a Construction Site in New York’s Parsons Gallery and at the Goethe-Institut in Washington. In those crucial years, Berlin transformed from a divided city to the capital of a united Germany. Was the impetus for the work besides its conceptional underpinnings also a desire to document and archive those changes?
Eva Koethen: Yes! At that time the whole City of a new Berlin was a fascinating construction site with the omnipresent signs: “Betreten der Baustelle verboten” [Warning do not enter this site]. I was driven from turning this exclusion into “Bitte Baustelle betreten” [please enter this site] and tried to discover all the mutated places with their torn open and ploughed up [aufgerissenen/durchpflügten] surfaces by taking photos. These images transported my astonishment of a city that went under rapid (re)construction and let me be part of a historical process that never comes back. With my floor installations, I wanted others to experience the overwhelming changes in Berlin in a special way (see my concomitant ear-phone-installation with the words of Cees Noteboom in the early exhibitions).
S2S: The exhibition at the German Consulate not only contains images from Berlin and New York but also includes photos from other global cities such as Tokyo and London. Was this selection a deliberate choice reflecting a globalized world where the differences between cities are becoming less and less pronounced?
Eva Koethen: Yes, but this is only one perspective. At the same time, I like to reveal that singular phenomena are still existent, if we are able to see them. They have to be perceived and focussed on – not only in art but in everyday life. (I will talk about that on Tuesday at Deutsches Haus at NYU)
S2S: The last time you exhibited in New York was more than 10 years ago. Is this the first time you have been back and what are the changes in New York City that especially stand out for you?
Eva Koethen: No, I came back in March 1999 right after my show in Washington, and also in summer 2000, when I was invited to an Aesthetic Congress. Also, I passed through NYC in August 2001 after my exhibition “Walking on water” (Artship Oakland together with Goethe-Institut San Francisco). This annual visits were before 9/11 and I felt a kind of continuity and even familiarity to the City.
I noticed big changes in November 2008, when I was asked to introduce my work to a gallery in Williamsburg. There was little interest in the concept and theoretical background of my work, though these people were engaged in art. Instead of business talks I loved to discover the borough of Brooklyn. It seemed to bring me back to the open atmosphere that I believed to have found before in the streets of Manhattan.
S2S: The German Consulate is located in a very bureaucratic building – a challenging space unlike the white cube of a gallery. What site-specific considerations went into the installation process?
Eva Koethen: One thing was crucial to me: the mezzanine, that I could not get at other places. The mezzanine makes it possible to experience the tension between detail (micro view) and taking in the whole picture (macro view) – in a broader sense between physical perception [körperlicher Wahrnehmung] and mental imagination [geistiger Vorstellungskraft].
In this context, I considered the location of the German Consulate right across from the United Nations and its spirit – as unifying diversity without assimilating it. (see my talk!)
S2S: During the opening you have stated that each photo has a story, whether it is cities you have visited or peoples’ homes you have stayed in. However, these narratives are only known to you. Just like montage techniques used in cinema, it seems that the content of the single images is less important than the effect you achieve by placing them next to each other. What formal considerations go into the selection of the individual image and the overall design of the Tritt-Bilder (Stepping Pictures)?
Eva Koethen: My narratives are not important for the beholder, whom I want to develop his/her own feelings and thoughts. But these percepts -of course- are conducted through my composition: The order of images are determined by form and color affinities and spontaneous associations, as much as breaks and contrasts [Bildfolgen, die ich nach form-farblichen Affinitäten und spontanen Assoziationen gestalte sowie deren Bruchlinien und Kontraste]. I consider my artwork as finding and creating new patterns of belonging which do not force and manipulate you but give unusual views and inspiration (including heavy irritation like in my body-floor-Installation).
When I shoot a single photo, it is the characteristic of the motif or scene I want to get. But when I put them together there arise other criteria: I look for diverse kinds of affiliations: analogies, resonances, and adaptations of the photographically captured phenomena [Analogien, Resonanzen und Anverwandlungen der fotografisch eingefangenen Phänomene.] The design process is unpredictable and always surprises me. Some photos are too beautiful to coexist, so I have a special gaze [eigenen Blick] by which I decide if and how I can position things.
S2S: The Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov was known for the Kuleshov effect, the editing of two unrelated images that would influence how viewers would read what was presented to them. The implication is that viewers brought their own emotional reactions to the sequence of images. Do you utilize this technique or do you prefer to influence the viewers’ associations as little as possible?
Eva Koethen: Neither nor! I like to offer surprising effects that convinced me in the aesthetic process and withstand in my further re-views. But just as much, I want to perpetuate the ambivalence/ambiguity of the images. I have no message for the beholder but make use of the complex simultaneity of visual notions.
S2S: Besides being a practicing artist you are also a professor of art theory. How much do semiotics and visual culture theory inform your work?
Eva Koethen: After a time when I was highly aware of the split between the two different functions I fulfill, I learned to interplay theoretical and practical work fruitfully. I need both ways of gaining knowledge and insight about the world and do not want to play science off against art. Cognition or realization in one field enriches the other, if you do not confuse their characteristics. One realm questions the other and does not let you advance rapidly nor succeed in one direction of impact! For both “work patterns” demand your heart blood, need carefulness and much time to develop in a satisfying manner.
For more info about Eva Koethen, please click here.
Eva Koethen: The Creation of New Spaces of Perception
October 8, 2013 – October 31, 2013
871 UN Plaza
(1st Avenue between 48th and 49th Street)
New York, NY 10017
Opening hours: Monday through Friday from 9 am to 5 pm.
Deutsches Haus NYU
Tuesday, October 15, 6:30 pm
42 Washington Mews
New York, NY 10003