To be an artist does not only mean producing and exhibiting work, it also involves processes that happen behind the scenes, such as collecting, archiving, and cataloguing. Since the work of every artist is distinctive and unique, it is difficult to apply universal criteria in terms of pictorial archives.
Kerstin von Gabain investigates the relationships between objects and images exploring their representation within their contexts. In recent years, the artist has dived into the storages of the Viennese Museum of Applied Arts and the Josephinum Collection of the Medical University of Vienna. At the Vienna Secession, she imagined herself as a raver who gained access to an archaeological museum. Reinterpreting the status of objects, in many ways, became part of her artistic practice. Kerstin von Gabain’s approach towards mold making and casting is mostly process-based. Through working with traditional techniques that required her to leave objects frozen and unchanged, the artist constantly re-evaluates and re-makes the current. Kerstin von Gabain met with Natalia Gurova in her studio to discuss how digital archives have been taking over analog structures and how storages can change collective cultural vision.
What was your experience of working in and for museums?
In my exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in 2013, I was specifically asked to work with their collection and I wanted to do something with their furniture. The museum reminded me of a hospital and the objects there were patients that I had to take care of and nurse. It was essential to demonstrate a particular visual analogy.
Would you say that you were archiving memories? What helped you move through the archive?
Humanizing objects was a crucial point for me in my work. Earlier I created a series of works where I bandaged used mattresses. The whole structure looked anthropomorphic because I gave those mattresses human qualities, and later, in MAK, I continued doing it, but this time, I used and took care of furniture instead.
For the Josephinum, I made a huge neon blinking eye displayed on the facade of the building, a phenomenon called pareidolia. I think it’s very natural to see a face in the facade of a building; it means transforming it into a human.
When I was invited to the Secession, I turned away from the anthropomorphic and tried to turn it around and instead objectified myself, making casts of my own body. My casted body parts resembled fragments of Greek sculptures. I worked with plaster, and in the 19th century, this material was used to replicate famous fragmented remains of ancient monuments. Also, I couldn’t cast myself as a whole, so I had to cast pieces instead, and in fact, this also reflects how you perceive your body in real life. For example, you only see a part of your own arm or leg. Basically, you can’t see yourself as a whole person.
You got access to the hidden areas of museums - what did you see there and what do you think about the consumption of the antiques nowadays?
Every museum collects, but there is more to it than that. Even things which have an unclear function or fate are stored. Is it worth keeping them or not? Museums used to restore objects by bringing them to their original state. Today they don’t do it anymore because the usage of things has become museum-worthy as well. Greek sculptures were originally often covered with colorful paint and when they were rediscovered, they were presented in a way that rather alluded to the taste of the 18th century.
What’s the difference for you between archiving and collecting or preserving memory and fighting amnesia?
I would say an archive should be as factual as possible and should conserve something true to its original state - preserving memory and fighting amnesia is something more subjective and is more emotional. However, for society in general, libraries and museums with their collections and archives are designed to function as a public memory as well - so it’s kind of intermixed. I think it is interesting how we constantly rewrite our past - collectively as well as privately.
How do you archive your work?
There is the actual analog work of mine that is being stored and there is the digital documentation of it. The digital consumption of images is replacing the real experience. It’s a process we can’t stop, even if we pretend it’s not true. Of course, my digital administration of work has been growing and sometimes I think it is taking over my actual work. However, I don’t think we will stop making real works, because we are in this loop.
On the contrary, we need to keep producing things to feed the internet with, otherwise, we don’t exist. I think we feed our virtual bodies. So, perhaps to counter that, I like the idea of working with real bodies, even if it becomes very abstract - for me, my silicone bands are body parts.
What do you think about the stability of these entities: digital and analog?
This interests me a lot, along with the question of how to deal with it as an artist. I did a lot of 3D computer animation when I studied 20 years ago, and I even did two semesters of computer science. A lot of the data I produced back then I can’t access anymore. I still have my negatives from the photographs I made in the 90s, but I can’t read any computer files from back then. I wonder where we are heading with that. For example, there is the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in Egypt, it’s 3,000 years old. It’s alive. At the same time, I can’t read data on my laptop, which is older than 10 years.
How do you organize your archives?
Mostly I just put things into cardboard boxes, but my archive feels very chaotic. Also, I keep a lot of my casts in the flat file drawer. I don’t like clutter. I constantly clean, edit and throw away, and it’s a never-ending struggle. When I was younger, I used to keep ‘research workbooks’ - folders where I zealously collected and rearranged images that interested me. I did this until 2011, when I stopped, probably because of the internet. Now, I only collect pictures digitally; however, lately, I’m trying to work with mood boards and print things out, look at the images next to each other, and build connections outside the computer screen.
Do you ever come back to your earlier work?
Unless I give it away or sell it I constantly re-purpose, re-edit or re-appropriate things I have made in the past. I’m very unsentimental in this regard - if something keeps lying around in my studio it is not really finished and can be reused. Also, I work a lot with wax, so it’s easy to re-melt my objects and reuse the material. I cast a lot of body parts and I constantly re-work these into new objects until they become something entirely else that does not even have a hint of a body, but then again everything is a body. I think your artwork is only finished when you are dead.