Die Bauern (1927) engl.
Die Bauern (1927)
Interview between Alexandra Hopf and Nadia Schneider Willen, collection curator, Migros Museum, Zuerich
Nadia Schneider Willen (NS): During your TaDA residency, you worked on a project entitled “Die Bauern (1927)” (the peasants). It is a multi-layered artistic project based on a fictitious encounter between two historical personalities, Bertold Brecht and Kasimir Malevich, who together intend to create a theatre play with the above-mentioned title – Brecht as author and Malevich as costume designer. As is often the case with your projects, this work is accompanied by a publication, in this case proclaimed to be the programme for the play’s performance. It contains fragments of a dialogue between the two protagonists, your own texts, and excerpts from historical sources. The publication is beautifully in keeping with the spirit of that age, but also includes clear references to our own digital age. Besides, your work also contains patterns for costumes as well as pictures of objects that can be interpreted as costumes designed for the play. The images in the programme are in black and white, but one can still recognise that the garments have been made to shine by various applications to the fabric, and one can sense that the material used for the cover is related to this. You yourself developed the objects – you call them “costumes” only in the context of the fiction you created – during your residency in Arbon. Together with the publication, they form the content of “Die Bauern (1927)”.
First of all, I would like to understand how you developed this complex and highly research-intensive project. What elements served as your starting point for the development of the objects during your TaDA residency, and what followed on from this? Did the experiments with materials and techniques carried out in collaboration with the specialised firms influence your project, and if so, in what way?
Alexandra Hopf (AH): For some years now I have been closely studying the Russian avantgarde of the early 20th century, which included visions of new humans, a new humankind for the future under communism.
As my starting point, I took Kasimir Malevich’s late paintings of farmers created in 1927. Although the pictures show lonesome and faceless farmers in their fields, the representations nevertheless emit a metallic glow reminiscent of Russian icons. I found this contradiction fascinating. How can the connection to nature (or rather the loss of this connection) embodied by the peasants and new technology of that era (the industrialisation of agriculture) be transmitted and conveyed in our day and age by means of pictures and materials?
At Lobra, a firm situated in Thal that specialises in processing and customising various film and sheet materials, I punched and cut various forms out of retro-reflecting material and laminated them onto natural materials such as jute and linen. Thanks to its high level of visibility, retro-reflecting material is also used for reflecting heat (thus for thermal protection shields) in many areas. It is a material for the future, with its reflection and efficiency factors constantly being improved.
As the firm also prints the logos of well-known companies on sheet material, I took up the idea of branding and developed various logo-like forms and patterns from the sickle and the fist used as symbols by the communists. The patterns for their part are also vaguely reminiscent of the embroidery on rural Russian costumes.
I then retroactively decided on the concept of using the “garment” objects as costumes for a piece of theatre – an imaginary collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kasimir Malevich –, which in 1927, the year of its imaginary production, gives voice to criticism of re-education plans to bring forth a “new Soviet person”. On the costumes, the communist sickle becomes a purely decorative element, which deprives it of its symbolic function. The fist, on the other hand, can exert its impact as a symbol of resistance beyond the Soviet or communist age.
NS: If I understood you correctly, the basic idea with which you applied for the residency was to create a contemporary interpretation of these shimmering garments – presented in a highly abstract form – in Malevich’s paintings. Only later did you develop the “script”, if I may use this term, for a narrative that is fictional, but nevertheless precisely embedded in its historical context. Is that correct?
What always fascinated me about your work was this indissoluble relationship between the material artistic object (in this case the “costumes”) and the text/publication. The object might be a painting – you are an outstanding painter! – or, as often in the past few years, pieces of clothing with special origins. The material objects could possibly stand alone, but I believe your artistic work is only complete when it is combined with a very thoroughly researched and written text and a carefully designed publication. What is your view on this relationship between object and text? And did the fact that you experimented and tried out new techniques with specialists at Lobra during your TaDA residency lead to any changes in this relationship and in your manner of working?
AH: I had already written the script, in other words the play, for the publication in April/May 2020 during lockdown. So the idea to use “costume” objects for a theatre piece was already there in my mind. The historical texts were added later. The publication, which combines historical research, fiction and poetry, is both part of the overall work and a stand-alone edition. The “costumes” are sculptures, but can also be worn, for example at a performance.
Text and images in the publication contain references to one another. The text alludes to contemporary issues (state of crisis / art as a virus), although the narrative takes place in 1927. I also integrated elements and symbols we know from internet pages into the layout. They contribute to the interplay of different time levels.
The arrangement of the sickles worked into the “costumes” can be reminiscent of calligraphy. Owing to the retro-reflective material’s high degree of radiance in the dark, individual objects disappear in the dark, leaving only silhouettes to be seen.
Having to give up my original plan of realising the project idea by means of screen printing ultimately allowed me to try out other methods in a freer and more playful manner. Seeing how the specialist firms, too, keep on experimenting, was exciting and inspiring for me. The fresh insights and knowledge I’ve gained of new technologies and materials have led me to consider designing an entire stereoscopic image for the exhibition.
NS: You just mentioned the interplay of different time levels. This can be easily recognised on the visual front, for example by your use of sign language from the digital world (publication), or the use of political symbols such as a sickle and a raised fist for branding or a logo. It is less obvious on the textual side. What is it that fascinates you about the Russian avantgarde, and where do you see reference points to our present day and age?
AH: The Russian avantgarde was well ahead of its time. Already during the Russian revolution (1917), artists were applying their experimental practice to numerous fields of production, such as advertising, product design, fashion, architecture, and theatre as well as industrial manufacturing. They designed textiles, everyday objects, forms of packaging, etc. In brief, artists developed entirely new aesthetics of everyday life. The “new soviet person” was to experience a higher quality of life thanks to superior design, liberate his or her body from tight clothing and be given more scope for the design of new forms of community life. Education was a key point in this context. At the theatre and in performances held in public spaces, the masses were to be educated and thereby develop greater political and social awareness. However, at the textual and content level of my work that you refer to, the “programme” publication is more about the failure of this revolution, which had been built on ideas of radically changing society for the better, but ultimately betrayed its own ideals. The texts deal with different interpretations of truths: progress vs. tradition, party doctrine vs. religion, real/tangible vs. intangible or imagined realities, and show that the borderlines are always blurred, as they are to this day.
The topic of revolution is constantly with us – we are today in a situation of global crisis – and this raises questions about humans in the future. The retro-reflective material (the publication cover) makes the past era appear closer, like in the rear mirror of a car, nearly blinding us with its gleam.
NS: In our dialogue, the term “theatre” has come up numerous times, as it does in the publication, and the textile objects created during the TaDA residency are repeatedly associated with the term “costume”. And yet, except for the fragmentary dialogue between Malevich and Brecht, there is no text that would be suitable for a stage production. Of course, you are a visual artist and not a playwright. But still I see a performative potential in your work – and not only in this latest piece – that is not really exploited. How do you see this? And the follow-on question: What might “Die Bauern (1927)” in a theatre production turn out to be like?
AH: In the publication, the “performance” takes place in one’s imagination: In the final picture, the peasants step out of the corn fields, in other words out of their reality, and onto a stage, where they cultivate the (stage) ground. So one has to ask where the borderline is between reality and fiction during the piece. This imaginary space is very important. In a previous work, I had one of the participants wear one of my objects, called the “Siren Suit” (2020), in a film. In the post-production phase, I developed an entire choreography for several dancers out of this short sequence of movement. There will also be a film about “Die Bauern (1927)”. In an exhibition-like setting, the exhibits are installed like costumes in a history museum. Together, this results in a tableau – as described in the publication. Viewers will trigger a sensor in the exhibition room through their movements, and this will make the exhibits that are reflecting in the dark rotate like in a mechanical ballet. A programmed light is linked to the movements, and a random generator will ensure that all variations are presented. Like in a museum, texts from the programme are displayed on walls and or on screens. And there is also a film.
NS: Just by reading your description, one can sense the pull you exert on viewers. We find ourselves in a vortex that draws together past and present, history and fiction, theory and playfulness. To finish off, I would like to ask you what you appreciated most about your TaDA residency 2020 (?), what you tried out, experienced and learned, maybe something that wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere. And also what you, as the first resident, may have found lacking.
AH: Most of all, I appreciated the opportunity to gain insights into the history, production and distribution of various firms – and their drive for innovation. Relations as neighbours and the interplay of local and global factors as well as of technology and tradition have a long history in the cantons of Appenzell and St. Gallen. Being introduced to new techniques and production methods, as well as the exchange with specialists, proved to be an exciting and challenging experience, especially in view of all the options it opened up for my project. I would have liked to have had more time to explore them. The firms experiment a lot when researching new methods, materials and processes. This is where interfaces to art open up. On the other hand, I received only vague answers from the firms to my questions regarding new environmental awareness that is necessary for the manufacturing processes. Partly for that reason, maybe, my work “Die Bauern (1927)” was largely realised by hand. The film and sheet material consisted mainly of leftovers from industrialised punching, supplemented by other forms produced in low numbers with a small punch press. The supporting materials such as jute bags and old linen came from thrift stores. Since we were pioneers as TaDA residents, everything was open and an experiment, which suited me very well. I hope that eventually there will be a possibility for me to display all the existing and still to be completed works in a presentation or exhibition.