Elke Marhoefer Interview
I like to entitle works, to use this possibility to add something to the work which doesn*t explain it but opens another dimension. It doesn*t need to make sense in a way.
Date: Jan 17, 2010
Location: FCAC Shanghai
Interviewer: Li Xiaofei
Interpreter: Zhong Yi, Yu Jing
Type-in / Translator in English: Zhong Yi, Yu Jing
Proofreading: Elke Marhoefer
Elke Marhoefer (hereinafter referred to as Elke): I*m very happy about the show because it*s the first time that I present my work in China. China not so much in the sense of nation or place but as a position, a border, a limit, asituation. I*m also very happy that I could show such a big work with many different layers, levels and ideas etc.#
Li Xiaofei: My first question is: When did you start making art?
Elke: ※Seriously§#. hmm. I think my first serious project was in 1998 when I went to Former Yugoslavia. It was also a socialist country. Today however it*s divided into separated countries, such as Kosovo, Bosnia, Slovenia... In 1991/92 the war broke out after the socialist state had collapsed and radical nationalist campaigns emerged. Many refugees came to Germany while I was still studying. After I finished art school in 1996 I got interested in what it means when people from different backgrounds live together peacefully. And (for a long time) Yugoslavia had been a positive example for this. But when the war broke out however, they started to hate each other because of their different backgrounds. I was interested in questions like: How could it happen that when beforehand people lived in peace and married each other, and loved each other all of a sudden the situation turns into hatred. So I went to all those new※countries§ and talked to the people about their daily lives# I documented the situation# My point was to question through the film, or by making the film, the idea of „ethnicity※ as a construction.
Xiaofei: So did this experience inspired your artistic approach?
Elke: Yes, it probably was my first serious project, and also my first political work# 每 or rather a work that tends to be ※political§, so-called "political§. It*s difficult to say whether or not a work is political, because in fact every work is political, every art work, even if people don*t touch on politics.
Xiaofei: Did this experience influence your creative methods and later works?
Elke: Yes, it did influence my further work and I got more interested in political philosophy.
Xiaofei: But your later work seems to deal more with daily life. Was there some change? You focus more on the lives of poor people. Is this a result from your work so far or does it represent a change of direction?
Elke: No, I think that is still political. Politics for me is not what my government does. I mean informal politics with a lower case (p). It*s not the formal &Politics* with a capital (p), about which we read in the newspapers. It rather is about the politics of everyday life. How we relate to our (needs and) desires but also to economic repression for example,# simply the fact that we have to work to make money. This is related to politics too.
Xiaofei: Most of your works are films. Is that kind of influenced by the new German cinema?
Elke: Not at all. I mean, I don*t even know them so well. I was ※influenced§ mainly from directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson, I would say. I prefer French films, however I do appreciate Fassbinder.
Xiaofei: Let*s change the topic. I very much like the titles that you have chosen for your works. They are all like titles of a novel. Do you read a lot?
Elke: I like to entitle works, to use this possibility to add something to the work which doesn*t explain it but opens another dimension. It doesn*t need to make sense in a way. And yes, I do read# mostly French philosophy# (laughs).
Xiaofei: More philosophy? No novels?
Elke: I recently started to read novels. When I was younger I thought novels would waste my time, while I wanted to be serious, (laughs)# I thought I needed to learn more# to gain knowledge# But recently I have changed, I got interested in novels too.

Xiaofei: There is also knowledge and thoughts in novels.

Elke: I recently started to read novels. When I was younger I thought novels would waste my time, while I wanted to be serious, (laughs)# I thought I needed to learn more# to gain knowledge# But recently I have changed, I got interested in novels too.
Xiaofei: There is also knowledge and thoughts in novels.
Elke: Sure. I think, I am in a new ※phase§ now.
Xiaofei: (laughs) Congratulation!
Elke: Thank you! (laughs)
Xiaofei: Everyone has this feeling, me too. After each exhibition I feel that I have reached another level.
Elke: No. I mean it came while working on this exhibition# The works here, for example, are not very discursive, they don*t relate to any discourse. Before, my work existed mainly to discuss a "problem". (When I came to China I wasn*t sure what I could do here. I wanted to work on the subject of agriculture, but I couldn*t collaborate with farmers as I did in Burkina Faso because: What does it mean to show solidarity with a Chinese farmer? Instead I asked myself: How can I be with somebody? To be somebody means to accept limits. Maybe I censored myself, however I like to think that these limits extended my modes of production. So I started to focus on issues such as perception, narcissism and hallucinatory satisfaction, and the question what it means to be in a certain place, and to show the work here.)
Xiaofei: While your work looks very rational, you strongly seem to emphasize its irrationality. What do you think about the relationship between rationality and irrationality in your works?
Elke: Yes that*s right, here and there I do ※infuse§ some irrationalities into my work or I try to combine rational and non-rational thoughts. I don*t know if I am just scared and what it would mean to go towards an ocean of madness, a total non-rational dimension? Or whether it is a good thing to keep up a balance# ? But in this exhibition I especially tried to lean towards the non-rational.
Xiaofei: As a spectator or as an individ, ualif we don*t have your texts, it*ll be difficult to understand your work.
Elke: Do you think so?
Xiaofei: Yes, I do.
Elke: No, I actually prefer people to be without the text. It is something that adds to the work if they want to. It is like ※further information§# But people can understand. People do understand or get a feeling of understanding by looking at work, just by perception. (Like Mao Zedong said: §At first, knowledge is perceptual.§) (Art isn*t a ※universal language§, that idea would draw a mythical picture, and it doesn*t need to serve all people equally or as many as possible. But by perception one can form an understanding that is foreign to oneself in the first place.) An understanding that might correspond with what I think or understand. But certainly it depends on the individual person. It*s easier to communicate or understand what you already know, at least know a little bit or in a general way. So, if somebody has experienced something similar, or seen a similar work before, akin to what I do, the better he or she can follow my way of expressing things. Whereas someone not familiar with this kind of work might have diverging ideas about it. I like to write about my work or to bring my thoughts into a different dimension. Writing is also a part of my work.
Xiaofei: I think that there are some misunderstandings. For example, in Nearness to large river eats eyes I very much like your understanding of ※dead time§. This "dead time" makes us (and the viewers) experience our own thoughts. We have to constitute a self-questioning and independent thought. I was very touched by this understanding. I think this is very good. So I contemplated your work by following your directions.
Elke: People can experience the work here and other works in general,# artistic works,# and form their own point of view. But if they get further information they will also have further problems or further questions or further emotions about it.
Xiaofei: Of course. The work you do is your ideas and your opinion. I think that, as an artist it*s your duty to show your opinion, to allow the viewer to understand it. The viewers might follow the direction that you are offering, or he or she might follow another direction, but this makes the charm of art.
Elke: I also appreciate artists who don*t speak about their works. However, I recognize that when I write about my work I understand better what I did in the first place. Usually I write when it*s finished. I kind of get a deeper understanding when I have to explain to myself what I did. I gain a certain kind of knowledge about my work and myself.
Xiaofei: This inspires me too. For me, usually in the beginning or in the process of the work, I have an outline of my ideas and then develop it further slowly. When I finished, I have made an experience. I also have something like text as what you have done. You stress in sch谷ma amusement that you are against the imitation of language. You oppose people who think that they can express their thoughts through the language of others. But actually. this is a paradox. A person needs to explain himself to others while others can*t understand him. Is this what you think? How do you think about this problem?
Elke: That work relates to a certain approach of documentary films where directors go to foreign places in order to explain the daily lives of foreign people to their "fellows" at home. I wanted to say that this is impossible and that this kind of information doesn*t lead us to a better understanding of the person or the situation shown in the film (anyhow, you don*t hear what the other person says). But I think that just by watching somebody spinning like in this film, what you can do is find your own way of relating, an emotional understanding, of what might be foreign to you, through your perception of the image, while all kinds of explanation have to stay away. This makes people more equal to one another. I don*t need to explain anything. Thus we don*t see each other as different. I think we*re feeling a connection at least towards the image.
Xiaofei: In Sugar-free, the work you made in 2007, you talked to peasants who grow cotton in different countries in the world. (The language used is the local language. You had to find a local person to work as an interpreter. ) What kind of problem do you want to discuss regarding this? Was this problem kind of similar to what you have just said?
Elke: I think Sugar-free was a very different type of work from sch谷ma amusement and it involved a very different approach. (It might sound contradictory, but) I wouldn*t even call it a film. (Sugar-free is more of a video-newspaper made with and for cotton farmers who often can*t read or write and who don*t have access to alternative information which conflicts with the big co-operations that buy their cotton at a very low price). It was a different work method altogether, even though it*s also part of my practice. It was a direct, politically engaged project. However, in some respect there are similarities between the two projects because the farmers never explain anything to "the audience". It was very much an insider*s perspective# It is supposed to work mainly within the farmers* context, limited to a certain group of people.
Xiaofei: Actually, there is something about listening. Listening, chatting and thinking about one*s own thoughts. You and your interviewees have different ideas. In Sugar-free you are listening to others and at the same time you have a different understanding towards them.
Elke: Yes, I gained a lot of knowledge through meeting the farmers and by listening to them. I think this process or idea of listening to somebody is interesting.
Xiaofei: So sometimes listening makes more sense than expressing.
Elke: Yes, it was interesting for me to go there and learn something.
Xiaofei: Then let us talk about Les exclus. In Les exclus you re-explained through an approach of Robert Bresson the riots in the banlieues of Paris in 2005 November. I have two questions here: Firstly, why did you choose this event? (This kind of event happens every day. Is there anything special about this event?) Secondly, why did you want to imitate Le diable proplablement by Robert Bresson?
Elke: (laughs) # From my perspective it was a very extraordinary event. I was in Paris when it happened, and I went to the banlieues and talked to the people about their motives. I found the situation extremely positive, I have to say. I was totally touched by their power and their emotions and also by their rationality. Two kids had died, two young boys fleeing from the police, that was the trigger. The riots started because people felt excluded (and hunted at the same time). The way politicians (and the media) talked about ※them§, Sarkozy calling them ※racaille§ 每 rabble... Those people in the banlieues wanted to show their dignity and their power by burning cars, burning buses, and burning schools. In their situation, the way they live that made totally sense. However, they never killed anyone. They destroyed things and they had very rational ideas about what they destroyed: school buses, schools and cars (things, that are all concrete and repressive). Things they could never afford like a car, but which were always present and precious such as buses. There are very few buses in that area, there*s hardly any public transportation because people in the outskirts are considered less important (and they are not welcomed in the city center. Schools in those areas don*t supply knowledge (and opportunities), but rather keep the people locked away). (And even more interesting was the fact that they did not specifically claim or reject anything. They did not negotiate anything. They had no political demands, however they made something like ※reality§ visible.)
In the film Le diable probablement the main characters are kids living in Paris. They too refuse to participate in society. He (Charles) doesn*t want to marry, doesn*t want to study, doesn*t want to participate in a society that he*s not interested in. It is a similar negation like that of the kids in the banlieues. From Bressons* film I choose the sequence on the bus because it represents in detail how repression works in every daily life: You have to wait to take the bus, you have to get a ticket and you have to validate it. If you don*t validate the ticket you*re an# (laughs)# First you have to wait for an hour for the bus to come, then the bus arrives 每 and it is crowded. The people in the city center have cars to drive around. It*s a different life, so to speak. This is why Bresson*s film is so interesting. It says: ※I*m not interested in that what you*re interested in. I*m not interested in your desires and your idea of happiness.§ (For example, Charles feels great pleasure to sense the nothingness, to do nothing, to be a zero in consumer society that disgusts him).
Xiaofei: In the beginning of the film, things are visible but then increasingly shift out of view. Actually, these things are most important and most essential. This reminds me a of a sentence of Bresson: ※The important thing is not the part they show to us but the part they hide from us, especially the part they have but they don*t realize.§ As an artist how do you express this "invisible§ part?
Elke: Yes, I don*t know how I express it, but I think Bresson did it very well# (laughs). He worked with ※models§ who were not actors. He hardly ever employed real actors because he thought actors are lying. So he worked with regular people. But he projected something onto these "regular§ people, something that they "concealed". However, somehow all his ※models§ look similar# So it (whatever was hidden) is something that was more related to Bresson (himself) rather than to the people (he worked with). It is probably more Bressons* imagination about what they hide. And maybe they hide something quite different from what Bresson thought them to#
Xiaofei: You said that Bresson has influenced you a lot. I think that the invisible part is difficult to express.
Elke: I think you try to express this in your work too. How do you express it?
Xiaofei: I think it*s very difficult. You can*t do it in a very direct way. I have once written a text. The text explained by the knowledge that we know is too simple. Sometimes there are many things that can*t be explained. What we do is something complicated but simple at the same time.
Elke: To abuse language or to render language absurd (might be a way). Like I did in (reincarnation) the film in Korea. In a sense I made language absurd. (While in the other films I tried to avoid language completely. In permeable super real you only hear crickets and oblation for a fragmented forest is silent.) Maybe this is a way to express this (invisible parts). However, maybe the films only refer to the problem (itself) rather than expressing what is actually invisible (or inaudible)# Maybe the films are pointing at this problem but they don*t reveal what is possible. One could say you understood it because you asked this question in this interview. I don*t have a solution but I try to prompt questions.
Xiaofei: I think so. If we have a method to do art, there will be some troubles.
Elke: Yes, but I mean Bresson had a method. In his films he had a method to bring out what
Xiaofei: I think Bresson or whichever artist, they all constitute a method and then destroy it, and then constitute it again. They continuously improve their method.
Elke: Yes, h豆n hao#(laughs).
Xiaofei: Now let*s talk about some more relaxing topics. I gather from your works that you are a rather pessimistic person and sometimes you seem to express a kind of highly romantic image. That is my impression anyway. Is that true? I have this feeling because in one of your texts I read the following sentence: ※When a creature is created it is already decided by a sort of type.§ This idea is so pessimistic!
Elke: I don*t remember having ever said that. That something is decided before you are born? I don*t think, I have said that. (I say the opposite, that humans, plants and animals are infused by immaterial fluctuations, like migration, mutation and ghosts 每 ghosts 每 not souls. Meaning, nothing is decided already, and even the idea of the species is a construction.) I agree however, that I*m pessimistic and also romantic# (laughs).
Xiaofei: For you, what*s most difficult regarding your work? Not financial problems, what I mean here is the problem regarding ideas?
Elke: Difficulties for myself# To find a reason to make any works in the first place.
Xiaofei: Every time you need to find a reason?
Elke: There are some works that simply appeared (by themselves), they just crossed my way. For example, the events in Paris ※inspired§ me, the young kids, their riots, their upraise. So it was easy for me to come up with this work. But that doesn*t happen that often# Therefore, I*m searching for these kind of events. At the moment I am ※inspired§ by other film images that I have in mind, which inspire me to make new work.
Xiaofei: Isn*t this kind of creating too passive? Wouldn*t it be better if you created your own system to do your work?
Elke: I have a studio at home, as in ※artist have studios and work in their studio§. ("Studio" being a synonym for an autonomous, sovereign system) But I rarely go to my studio. I*m more inspired by going out or being exposed to unexpected events, events that draw me out of my studio and make me produce new work as a result. So, yes, my production is always related to the world outside.
Xiaofei: What I mean is that you constitute a work system for yourself. Through that you take the initiative to search and find what might inspire you. You have said that usually a certain event touches you and that as a consequence you start to do something. Isn*t this way too passive?
Elke: Yes, it might be passive, if you want to call it that. (But what is active and what is passive, anyway? It is the same ability 每 to effect and be affected by something. There is no difference. If you want, you can judge it. Passivity is still an intensity, it is a passage from one event to another, and from my experience it strengthens the capacity to act.) By experience I know what affects me, so I go there and look for a moment of ※inspiration§. And it needs to relate to the outside world. History can be an event or even film. (I think you are searching for a bourgeois, autonomous, independent subject that creates a system just out of itself, a subject that I*d like to overcome.)
Xiaofei: While working, do you include your identity as a female artist into your work?
Elke: I question the idea of gender and identity. (If somebody comes to me and says: ※Hey, you female§ I would question why he or she needs to state this? The problem is that we become what others want us to be.) I think this is a construction. Gender is a construction, a social construction, (and the biological concept of male and female shouldn*t be a destiny). Anyhow, I like to confuse these definitions. That would be in my interest. I want to confuse gender categories, confuse what*s male and what*s female. I want to confuse the definitions. But the installation here, maybe people would call it ※female§, ... Anyhow, I wanted the decorative impact. So, I used ※female§ home decoration material such as curtains for the installation in this supposedly ※neutral§ white cube gallery (It might be some &old-school feminist* approach). A white cube gallery that has a ruff, ※male§ dominated appearance# Maybe the white cube gallery is a "male" construction, anyhow #? I found it kind of funny to make a ※female§ decoration in this space here# But generally, I don*t address the problem of gender, of male and female, in my work.
Xiaofei: I don*t have any other meaning here. Actually, I don*t feel something "female" in your works. There isn*t a strong female element.
Elke: I think presently it*s very difficult to address, or to say that an art work is "male" or ※female§, to define it by gender (since gender itself is a contested category).
Xiaofei: You have come to China several times recently. What do you think about Chinese contemporary art?
Elke: I cannot really stay that I have an overview of Chinese contemporary art. I saw some shows but not that many either. However, I have some difficulties regarding to what is labeled ※Chinese art§. I see a lot of pressure on Chinese artists since so many people come to visit China in order to exhibit or collect "Chinese art". So, I imagine artists here are in the difficult position to meet the demand of making something that looks ※Chinese§. I think there is an unspoken request: ※Give me something that looks Chinese.§ So, Chinese artists are in a dilemma: If they want to work within a contemporary art discourse and make something about their own context, their life and their tradition, their surroundings and their environment, at the same time the international art market demands: "Sell us &Chinese art.* " How can they resist the projected perspective and not satisfy the identity politics that are imposed on them? The view onto Chinese artists creates a certain identity. That view however does not come from the outside only but also from the inside. It could even be a Chinese collector saying: ※I want something that has a Chinese identity§ It was similar in Germany during the*70s and *80s: American collectors came to Germany to buy art that related for example to fascism and a ※German identity§ (Anselm Kiefer*s work is a notorious example). If you don*t want this identity superimposed on you then you have problem, I guess. So, here I came across many works that have this "Chinese-ness§ about them. It is not always a Mao flag or Mao*s face, it can be subtler too# (Sometimes it*s healthy to keep a small dose of paranoia.)
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