Artist Talk: Gloria Zein in Conversation with Stephanie Rosenthal

Goethe-Institut London, 3rd July 2012


The event took place on the occasion of Gloria Zein's exhbition "I can't stop the dancing chicken" at the Goethe-Institut and was part of the London Festival of Architecture.

Stephanie Rosenthal worked as curator at Haus der Kunst München before she became chief curator at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre London.


SR: I have decided that it would be nice to start here, where we are right now: When we all enter the Goethe-Institut the first thing we encounter is the staircase. Was that a place that you decided to work with? How did you pick the sites, how was the invitation related to the re-opening of the building?

GZ: I wanted to develop a project, that looks closely at the different functions of the Institute (the cultural programming, the language department, the library and the administration). Furthermore, I examined the building, which at the time was still a construction site. The main staircase appears like a spine linking the four departments. Therefore, I decided to do something with that space. Besides the façade and its windows, it’s the sole remaining historical feature of this building. When I had visited the institute before, I always felt that it was somewhat neglected.

SR: There is a long tradition of murals, but I think this work functions quite differently, because you are using all the parts, not just the walls, but also the ceilings and little details. How did you decide which parts you want to use? It’s almost like a sculpture one can walk in.

GZ: To transform the space into a walk-in sculpture, I had to involve as many surfaces as possible. Historically, the main staircase’s iconography represented the owner of the building, his self-understanding or genealogy. Architects and artists used to work in service of the landlord and depicted qualities that he had chosen. In contrast, I introduced an arbitrary way of determining the colours of this work here, which disempowered the Goethe-Institut. 

SR: But also you gave the power away...

GZ: Each Goethe-Institut worldwide is assigned to a regional institute. London holds the authority over nine institutes in north-western Europe. Therefor, I built a nine-sided dice, which I threw on colour charts by Goethe, Itten, Küppers and Munsell. Before each throw, I consulted the dice about each institute’s opinion on the head office in London, taking the 27 different colours, on which the dice landed, as answers. So, in a way, gambling determined the representation of the Goethe-Institut.

SR: Did you publish the questions somewhere or is that something you did for your private purposes? Is it something the visitors can read?

GZ: I decided not to. I didn’t want the work to be foremost about decision-making or scientific survey. I find it more interesting to appreciate the volume as a sculpture or as a spatial intervention. The knowledge of what happened allows you to imagine how the colours were chosen which adds a narrative layer to the work.

SR: It also adds a nice personal element that reflects the feeling of the staircase: You are not confronted with anything mathematic. The work became very human, which I think is surprising for such an enormous space. It still has something very warm, which might be due to the fact that you involved others in the decision-making.

The other thing that impresses me is how your architectural view or your knowledge about the space helps to create. The sculpture TH.I.W.H. which was placed in front of the Chelsea College, has reminded me a bit of this stairwell because of the colours you use but also because it has that combination of being a space and being a sculpture. Is that something you think about, the connection between architecture and sculpture?

GZ: A sculpture is a body. It’s nothing that exists for itself. It always establishes a relationship to the surrounding space. My project for the Goethe-Institut deals with this specific place, which is neither a gallery nor a white cube. I’ve worked with the facts of the building and what happens in here. TH.I.W.H., on the other hand, refers to the College’s site and its history, but less to its architecture. I knew from the beginning that the sculpture would only stay there for a few weeks, before it went to the Cass sculpture park in Sussex from where it will move on… In this case, the spatial interaction emerges anew, each time the work changes location.
Other than that, I approve of your observation: TH.I.W.H. deals with the notion of space: You only see its outside, which encloses a confined, inaccessible space. In this sense, it’s the opposite of this stairwell, where you can only enter the sculpture’s inside. Its outside is made of brick walls, adjacent to the neighbouring building and the elevator shaft. It therefore remains invisible.

SR: For me, the sculpture at Millbank is a bit like a hat that can be moved on “skis” (well, they aren’t skis…). It’s like something that comes along wherever you go. You mentioned that the idea is linked to the fact that the site used to host a prison. In which way did this knowledge play a role for picking the form?

GZ: With the knowledge of the site’s history, I produced drawings rather unintentionally. When I picked this one for realisation, imagining it as a three dimensional sculpture, I noticed that I had drawn a confined space, large enough for one person. A place you can’t escape from. Equally, I observed the movement suggested by the girders after the drawing was made. For me, this intrinsically intuitive approach is quite new and very interesting. It keeps the process open for a maximum amount of time. The subsequent organisation of the work brings in the concept.

SR: So what you are saying is that now you start much more with the form or the colour and then you intellectualize it afterwards?

GZ: Absolutely. With regards to research, I feel that the more time has passed, the more my research becomes accessible for artistic exploration. The work doesn’t run the risk to literally translate my concerns.

SR: Did you research the history of the college’s site and the fact that it was a prison?

GZ: Yes, many years ago! While I was studying architecture, I had enrolled in a course where we were asked to design a prison. At the time, I intensively researched prisons, their history, how they are intended to function and how they do function in reality. One of the books I read was Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison”. He describes the Millbank Penitentiary, where the idea and architecture of surveillance was brought to perfection: The floor plan showed seven adjacent hexagons with a guarding tower in the centre of each. This optimised form allowed for a minimised number of guards to survey a maximum of prisoners. Perchance, before the Cass Prize’s call for proposals, I had read that this prison used to stand on the grounds that today host the Chelsea College. So my research on prisons, done many years ago, fed into the development of this sculpture. By the way, for the architecture course I handed in a video explaining why I refused to design a prison, which was probably my first art related work.

SR: I can see that you do better now making sculptures in relation to that subject. But before you decided that you wouldn’t build prisons, as they are not the right way. That was your statement.

GZ: Yes, but I couldn’t suggest any solution for the problem. This added to my decision not to further engage with architecture. As an architect, you often encounter this situation: If you want to build, you need to stop asking questions.

SR: So that was the moment where you decided that building based in a structure you might not agree with is not the way you wanted to relate to society.

GZ: Yes.

SR: That’s interesting. I feel that you do shape society enormously by buildings. But then, it’s probably limited: You cannot change a whole cityscape with one building. However, with art, you can escape certain systems by building up your own structures, like you’ve done here. There is no reality that would tell you: No, you’re not allowed to. Yet it seems to be an interest of yours to integrate the people who are directly confronted or to work with other people. In most of your works you have collaborators in one way or another. That seems to be your solution to communicate to society or to integrate things, which are coming from other people.

GZ: It establishes a different relationship with people if you involve them in the process. It’s also a way of researching a subject. I use their expertise to make a project richer or to think about something in a way I couldn’t all by myself.

SR: Your interventions make this building feel somehow alive. There is always a relation to the body. On the one hand you move people through the space. One feels drawn by the follow up of colours, wanting to stop at places…it’s almost like choreography. On the other hand, the liveliness seems due to the forms of the other sculptures. To me, the big one outside is somewhat like a person. I am almost tempted to give it a name because it is such a strong character. I wonder how much you think about them as figures.

GZ: I look at them as characters that belong to a world of its own, in the sense that they result from a specific preoccupation and process. The sculptures in the offices are very much in cohabitation with the employees, who have to share “their” space with this intruder, while the one outside can be avoided (at least by the employees). You can simply not go to the terrace and not engage with it. But an additional body in your office (as opposed to a two-dimensional work) probably does trigger some kind of physical relationship.

SR: How you place the main sculpture outside, it’s hard to miss: It blocks the window! The work is really coming towards you. That one is very present, while the one’s in the building are very subtle. I find this balancing act quite interesting.

GZ: Each sculpture has a strong relationship with the architecture. Originally, I had intended to place the large work in front of the door, blocking the main escape route, which was rejected. Consequently, it found its place in front of the window, which determined its final shape.

SR: You said before, that your decision to make visual art was related to the fact that you felt that architecture doesn’t really fulfil what you think you want to do in relation to changing society.

GZ: I am not so sure any more about the artistic impetus of changing society. Probably, the small things you do, the small interventions are more likely to leave traces and, at one point, engage a different thinking or sensibility. That’s also the kind of interaction I am looking for with the participatory work.

SR: Here at the Goethe-Institut there are three different approaches: One is  participatory, where you talked to every member of staff and realised little sculptures for them. The staircase opens up to the wider context of the Goethe-Institut. And finally the outdoor sculptures, which you realised without anyone else involved. But if I am right, you wouldn’t say: The Goethe-Institut relates to three pink forms. Did you come up with the shape before you knew the site?

GZ: I was interested in subverting ideas of branding and representation, anticipating that anything placed outside the German Cultural Institute would be interpreted as “German Art”. A touch of absurdity seemed to make sense here. After quite a bit of experimentation and projecting, I turned to earlier drawings. I don’t remember if the ones I picked were done while I was starting to think about the Goethe-Institut or just before. However, the subsequent transformation of the drawings into sculptures is quite significant. I use the terrace as a stage where the Goethe-Institut presents or produces itself. Playing with this notion of theatricality, I treat the works as hybrids between theatre-prop and sculpture.

SR: For the large sculpture you are using round, female forms. At the same time (even though it’s always strange to speak about these kinds of boxes) the sculpture feels quite male, which is due to its position and its power. I think this creates a very interesting tension. What is more, there is something pop coming together with a futurist language. I wonder which are the inspirations for your vocabulary? Are there things you look at, when you start to shape things?

GZ: I look quite a bit at futurist projects or science fiction imagery, which I became interested in because of its opening up to beyond what exists. Departing from the status quo, it proposes improbable alternatives, sometimes bearing an immanent reflection or even critique on society. I am intrigued by the relationship and overlaps between that other world and the one we live in. With reference to the idea of male and female forms: I agree that the energy or dynamic that the large sculpture suggests can be read as “male”. Curiously, some people have remarked on it to have male, others female sexual connotations. It seems to be very subjective….

SR: Yes, it is. But that’s because both is in it. You manage to bring together different connotations in one sculpture, its shape and colours.

GZ: It’s a hybrid! I think a lot about different ways of positioning and ideas of belonging. This sculpture appears to belong to the building, sitting (or rather caught) on the fence. At the same time, it seems to exit the window, pulled back by two diagonal tubes. Additionally, it inspires male and female connotations. And it negotiates between theatre prop and sculpture. From one side it looks rather two-dimensional, from the other three-dimensional…. I am aiming at this state of in-between.
There is also a relation to TH.I.W.H. and its notion of movement. Additionally, the latter has two differently coloured sides (black and coloured stripes) that speak about two different states or moods.

SR: Talking about placing something into space or things finding their place, your performative work comes to mind: When you asked someone else to arrange yourself as furniture in a flat, you placed yourself in an environment for a certain period of time, your own body becoming a table or a chair or a book-end. It seems very much related: You tested the space with your own body.

GZ: The performance has, in a funny way, sexual connotations, too, examining the body and its use value. It triggered a very immediate relationship with the audience. What is more, the project was about giving up control as an artist: I had drawn a list of objects in my household. The performance took place during eleven days, and each day the landlord could pick one drawing and arrange me as that object. In this way, I resigned control of what the artwork would finally be or look like. This strategy relates to dicing the colours for the stairwell.

SR: That seems like something you are very interested in: Trying to loose control. Having to do thirty sculptures for the offices in a very short period of time seemed to be one tool for you. We’ve talked about it being like “écriture automatique”: You produced a lot without thinking too much. It would be interesting to understand how you worked with the members of the Goethe-Instiut. Which kind of discussions did you have and in which way do you think these discussions influenced what you finally did? In which way do you feel now the sculptures are related to the people working in these places?

GZ: I didn’t ask any personal questions. The idea was to dedicate a work to each function. My interviews aimed at the structure of the institute via the employees’ job-descriptions. Some people also spoke about how they got here or how they were trained. Basically, I wanted to understand what’s going on in the building and what the different departments are doing. After the interviews, which took four months on and off, I returned for a short period to Bangkok, where I discovered that Buddhists place little ghost houses outside of each building. Here, they make offerings to their ghosts and spirits. Those who don’t have special ghost houses, hang small objects or arrangements above the entrance. I very much appreciate this appropriation of a place, without fully understanding its symbolism. The gesture seems considerate and timeless. Simultaneously, Bangkok has enormous highways that dominate the city. On several levels, these massive concrete structures connect different points of the city with each other.
For the small sculptures inside the Goethe-Institut, I merged the idea of the small ghost house with that of the highway. By combining specific materials, forms, fixtures or symbols I aimed at creating a lurking network within the building. For related functions, even if they don’t belong to the same department, I used similar materials or forms. For instance, the press and PR office works with every department. Consequently, the sculpture includes a black element (a colour that I applied throughout the language department), as well as mirror foil (that I used for certain employees of the administration). Furthermore, there is a jagged form, which was originally part of my installation for the terrace but couldn’t be realised for financial reasons. This is its connection to the cultural division. In this way, I merged several links within one object.
The revelation of this “system” intends to instigate a closer observation of each work. It allows for the viewer to create his or her own network of relationships. This approach is part of my reflection on how to engage with abstract sculpture. Instead of trying to find out what it is, says or represents we could look at what it can 'do'.

SR: I can imagine that lots of people would try to understand what it says. That’s the funny part of it. That no one really knows and can’t really find out what you were thinking. I start to do my own thing: “Oh, maybe she thought that’s a difficult job so that’s why the forms don’t really go together….” I wouldn’t probably get that black is language but make another connection. I like the idea that everybody creates their own connections and highways between offices. It starts to link people on a different level and has a distinct participatory aspect.

GZ: Yes, that’s when participation returns to the work. It exists at the very beginning during the interviews and at the end when your own imagination becomes part of the work. That’s what I meant before when I said that I use people’s input: I couldn’t have realised this project without the interviews. They allowed me to establish my own little world, which now infiltrates the building.

SR: How you placed them shows that they are really made for the people in the offices. Some sculptures are hidden when you look in from the outside, which I think is a nice gesture. I also like that you have to adapt very funny positions when you look at them. If you are not the person who sits at the desk, you have to bend backward, or enter the room and turn your head. Therefore it would actually be nice to have them as an exhibition. They are – again – about movement through space. I see that quite a bit in your work – not in every work – but it’s very present in the one you’ve done for this place here: It’s creating certain movements, which is probably a way of bringing the building to live. I think this is related to you being also an architect.

GZ: Sometimes, the results surprise me as well. When I was looking for places to install the sculptures, I started to engage with the building and its architecture differently. The same counts for the stairwell: The coloured walls and ceilings really bring out the railing. It looks like I did it on purpose, but I didn’t. I had pictured the white stair string within the coloured space, but I didn’t  expect the drawing of the railing being so present. In this sense, my work also allows me to discover the architecture. Nevertheless I agree, as an architect you probably develop a certain understanding of a space’s potential...

SR: ...and of how space functions! This is where sculpture and architecture come together. It’s about how you imagine space but also how you occupy space. And how you lead though space. Accordingly, my interest in dance is a lot related to how people are manipulated to move through a city. That’s for me the interesting choreography. How are we manoeuvred through buildings or forced into certain movements? These questions also seem to represent a red thread in your work.
Before we are opening up, I would like to speak about the exhibition title, which brings an interesting aspect into your work. Maybe you can talk about how you decided to use it.

GZ: In addition to my sculptural intervention and as part of the Goethe-Institute’s 50th anniversary, I was given the opportunity to put together a film screening using the institute’s comprehensive archive. My selection deals with resistance and spaces of freedom that people find in society. The ten films look at the personal to talk about the political.
My exhibition title stems from Werner Herzog’s film “Stroszek”, which was part of the program. It tells the story of an artist, who struggles with society and tries to escape or resist in different ways. After a long series of failures, he robs a small super market, leaves his burning car on a square and walks into a roadside fun house. There, he spends his last nickels on a chicken dancing in a box before committing suicide in the adjacent ski lift. The arriving sheriff calls his boss reporting that he “can’t stop the dancing chicken.” For me that was a very powerful image. The chicken compulsively dances for the musician who performs for society. So, does an artist eventually end up trapped in a box dancing for money?

SR: At first, the title sounds very funny. But the second you mention that relationship to the film, it’s not any more, because it is a very sad film. At the same time, it is visually very beautiful. I remember that you said “I don’t want to be funny but it always comes in.” That’s a nice thing to realise that in your works there are these two sides: On one hand you’re engaging heavily and involving the people who are confronted with your work. But at the same time creating a beautiful form, which is not related to that any more. Equally, the film does both: On the one hand it’s criticising how art and society go together. How an artist can exist in society. And at the same time, it’s art by itself because it’s very beautiful how Werner Herzog sets it up.
I remember looking at the drawing and your outdoor sculpture, and I felt that the latter is less heavy. The drawing has a dark side and a kind of sadness, which the sculpture with its more cheerful pop aspect now has lost a bit. That relationship is reflected in the exhibition title.

GZ: Indeed, the way the sculpture is set up here brings out its more cheerful sides, whereas in a different setting like the Berlin workshop, it almost has a different character. I find that quite intriguing.

SR: When I found out what the title is referring to, I watched the last bit of the film on Youtube. I had to rewind three times to find that sentence. When you tell the story, one might think: “Oh, this is the big final line of the film.” But the Sheriff says it in the middle of a very long sentence. For me, that’s very characteristic for how you work, because you are really interested in small details and give them attention. That also makes the little sculptures here very interesting. They are small but make a big statement, because they activate every little corner of the building, which I feel changes the building a lot.
And that leads to the question if we should do a quick walk around and look at some of the sculptures. This might be one of the rare opportunities to see some of them and experience the staircase. And on the way we could start to discuss and you could ask questions and maybe raise some issues that you have thought about.

Let’s go!

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