This conversation took place on November 12, 2014, as part of the seminar series “Something You Should Know: Artists and Producers Today” at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris, organized by Patricia Falguières, Élisabeth Lebovici, and Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez. This seminar with Miriam Cahn accompanied her Corporel exhibition at the Paris Centre Culturel Suisse. It has been edited and condensed for this publication.
PATRICIA FALGUIÈRES ÉLISABETH LEBOVICI NATAŠA PETREŠIN-BACHELEZ
“IN MY WORK, EACH DAY IS IMPORTANT”: CONVERSATION WITH MIRIAM CAHN
ÉLISABETH LEBOVICI: How did you arrive at the exhibition title Corporel?
How does corporality influence your work?
MIRIAM CAHN: It was important for me to show people in very different
situations and positions: lying down, standing, exposed, hidden, etc. I used this as the basis to conceive of a structure for the exhibition. In the first hall there was a long corridor, so I came up with a concept that would give people walking down it physical sensations, and others relating to memory, of what they had already seen, plus anticipation of what they were about to see. That was when I decided to use an eye-level horizontal line. People look figures directly in the eye, which leads to certain behavior. Another idea that struck us during the preparations was to put my sketchbooks on the floor, as there wasn’t enough room to install display cases. It was even better because people needed to adapt—they had to bend over, crouch, or sit. That’s how I work. If I’m not exactly sure of what to do, I install very, very quickly—in an hour, an hour and a half—and either it works or it doesn’t. A bit like the performances of the ’70s: either they worked or they didn’t. But usually it does work, and most of the time it works very well.
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style was entirely feminist. Perhaps she is important to a lot of Swiss female artists, but not to me. She was also from another generation. EL So, for you, it was feminism as seen through performance? MC Yes, because it was interesting to observe someone like Ulrike Rosenbach, for example—who used to be very feminist, but too ideological for me. We would speak of things in terms of contemporary art since, for example, the slogan “das private ist das politische, das persönliche das öffentliche” [“the private is political, the personal is public”] is equally valid for both feminism and art. EL In the exhibition at the Swiss Cultural Centre there is an entire section of your lesser-known work, photos of your in situ interventions. Could you tell us about these rather special works? MC It started during a scholarship at the Cité des Arts in Paris in 1979. Since I had a small studio, I used to go outside to do large drawings. And that was interesting because, being a woman, everyone told me it was very dangerous to do such things alone, at night… EL Yes, indeed! You went under motorway ramps, pretty rough areas… MC And the infamous tunnel! That was fascinating to me because it had columns and it was like a book. Once again, I worked very quickly: less than two hours, late at night. I went straight back in the morning to take photos, and by the afternoon it had all been erased (EINGESCHLOSSEN IN MICH SELBER [closed in on myself]) A (1979). The following year, I did another large work when I returned to Basel. It was during a large motorway construction project. For me, it was a political gesture, as I wished to protest against this motorway that was going to destroy a whole district. But the first night I went over there, in five minutes I fell in love with the place. Not as a motorway, naturally, but as a space for my work. I really liked the concrete, the functionality, and the fact that it was so beautifully immense. EL Effectively, you replaced slogans, posters, demonstrations, and marches with in situ drawings. MC Yes, they were just the starting point. What followed was something else entirely. That’s what interested me. EL And did it become a motorway in the end?
You mentioned “the performances of the ’70s.” Did you do performance in those days? MC No, I’ve never done performance, but I did enjoy performances by Jochen Gerz, Ulrike Rosenbach, Vito Acconci, Friederike Pezold, and many others during the ’70s. They worked directly with their bodies; their bodies were their tools. I liked those people a lot. I didn’t know them all personally, but we had an excellent gallery in Basel, Stampa, which would invite performance artists back when no one was interested yet. So I saw these young people who regarded their bodies as a center, and I thought it was wonderful. I wasn’t inclined to do performance myself because I wanted to draw and paint—I find the process particularly beautiful. I paint as if I were doing a performance. I don’t mean large pieces that I work on for weeks, but ideas that are the effect of concentration: an hour on a Monday gives completely different results to a Tuesday, but everything has the same value. Large paintings and simple drawings are all the same to me. I think that comes straight out of the ’70s, along with feminism, which was very strong in Switzerland at the time. EL We’d like to know more about that! Where did you encounter feminism? Was it in Basel? Was there a more generalized Swiss feminist movement? Did you speak German or French? MC Since Basel is neither Germany, France, nor Italy, it was a very interesting melting pot of ideologies. EL What were the Swiss feminists’ main demands? MC The same as everywhere else: access to abortion, equal pay, and what to do when you’re a woman with children. Things like that. EL There was an exhibition about Meret Oppenheim at the Lille Métropole Museum in Villeneuve-d’Ascq not so long ago. It showed how, in the ’60s, she was quite verbal about her situation as a woman and how she had been exploited by the surrealists. When reading texts about Oppenheim, it would seem that she played a vital role for artists proclaiming feminism in Switzerland. Is that true? MC Not for me. She was very important to male and female Swiss artists alike. She was intelligent, elegant, and very determined, but for a long time she denied being a feminist, even though her life-
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also clear in performances of the 1970s. Take Jochen Gerz’s performance To Cry Until Exhaustion, for example, where he stands on a hill, shouting “Hallo” as loudly as he can. After ten minutes, he is hoarse but he continues, on his knees, until he loses his voice completely. So, for me, it’s a way of diving even deeper… I used to do drawings on the ground, as if diving into them. I would close my eyes, work with my body, and when I opened them again, it was done. NATAŠA PETREŠIN-BACHELEZ: Do you ever return to your canvases or drawings? MC My drawings, never. My paintings, sometimes. But in general, once a canvas is finished I put it aside. When I think about it later, without looking at it, I might tell myself that something’s wrong. Then a week or two later, I might consider adding to it. But if I do, I repeat the whole process: diving in, working, emerging. You never really know why something isn’t quite right. PATRICIA FALGUIÈRES: In the film, you said: “My work is more intelligent than I am.” Is that linked to the idea you mentioned before, that you must plunge into a state or disposition that is well beyond your will or perception? MC Yes, it’s a state, and that’s why it’s more intelligent than I am. I’m sure we can all enter states that surpass our own intelligence. PF Is it also a way to avoid speaking of “projects?” You put yourself into a state in which the work gets created. MC Yes, I never use the word “project.” To me, my work is like words and sentences for a writer. I use the materials that I have at hand. Then, through concentration, work, or what I call “the dive,” interesting combinations occur, but the words and everything else are there already. EL How do you choose which medium to use? MC It depends on what’s available. I do drawings, paintings, photos, films, and sometimes large sculptures. I would never have believed I’d make sculptures, but I created them in the same way, even though it’s another material. Wood is worked by hand, after all. So, it’s a similar way of working, but naturally it looks different. PF There is a whole series of striking drawings in the exhi-
Yes, it’s the motorway that goes to France and Germany, so there’s nothing left to see! EL Weren’t you tempted to see the city through video, to see your drawings through video? Or did you take photos? MC I took photos myself, and still do. I photographed the drawings on the motorway, but of course I knew the police were taking photos, too. It’s fantastic that they have photos of my art in the police archives! Since they were in charcoal, my drawings vanished quickly, but five different entities lodged a joint complaint against me! EL Were you convicted? MC Yes, I got a 150 franc fine, but it was worth it! The judge asked me: “Ms. Cahn, are you prepared to feel guilty?” And I replied: “No, I’m not prepared to feel guilty for doing my job!” It was really funny, and the fact that I didn’t feel guilty is still in my case file. EL So, the police had a catalog of your works at the time? MC Yes. EL Why did you give up the outdoor art if it was going so well and the police knew you? MC You can’t keep doing the same thing. It gets boring. After they caught me, I decided to stop. EL What then? Back to the studio? MC For me, that was always in parallel. I kept drawing, either at home or out in the streets. EL But you retained a performance aspect in your work. If I understand rightly, you do your works in one day… MC Not a whole day, just an hour or two. EL Including the very large canvases? How do you do it? MC I really don’t know. EL Your work is very physical. MC Yes, exactly, hence the title of the exhibition! In my work, each day is important. I get up in the morning and decide whether to draw or do something in a larger format. It’s always a spontaneous decision. Both are equal for me and take roughly the same time. I only work from one to three hours a day. My concentration is very intense: I dive into it, then emerge, and it’s finished. It doesn’t mean that the painting is perfect when I’m done. That was
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bition, reminiscent of sixteenth-century drawings of bodies entwined, almost erotic… MC I’ve done a lot of those, in the context of interesting discussions about porn in the ’70s. Those discussions were politically important. I always felt it wasn’t true that porn is only made for the male gaze, that women are victims who don’t watch porn. Some people don’t watch porn, but women and men alike do watch it. For me, porn has always been connected to the classical body image. That’s why my drawings are titled DAS KLASSISCHE LIEBEN (classic[al] loving) B + C (1987), because C / P.62 I felt that, in order to work, they required bodies straight out of classical Greek and Roman art. Shortcuts don’t work here. When we were very young, at the height of feminism, I remember we formed a group of women who were interested in porn aesthetics. Since there were no porn shops in Switzerland, we had to go to Lörrach in Germany, just over the border. There were about ten of us of the same age, all feminists, but at least half of them didn’t want to go in. I never understood it. Why shouldn’t we watch? EL Those drawings exhibit skillful technique. MC Classical bodies are interesting because they’re everywhere. I trained as a graphic artist and only perfect, classical bodies are used in advertising or found in museums. It makes me wonder why this image of the body—male and female—is so popular, since it creates a body image that does not correspond to our own bodies at all. I see that as a fascinating region for art. EL There are entire sketchbooks of such drawings that you’ve included in the exhibition. MC When I was young, a sketchbook seemed as much a series to me as the large drawings I did on the ground. It’s serial thought, and it works just as well for drawings as for large oil paintings. They’re all on the same level to me, equally valid. Single works, series, or installations all have the same value. EL So, for you the idea of demonstrating that equivalence is to create horizontality? MC Yes. When I do an installation, it’s very important that
the characters in the paintings are all approximately the same size and eye-to-eye with the viewer. In this way, people at the exhibition feel like they’ve caused a “Hände Hoch!” (Hands Up!) situation. EL But there is also an abstract canvas among those figurative works—no characters, no trees, no animals. Yet, at the same time, dramaturgy is at work between the canvases in the same hall. MC I wouldn’t usually say dramaturgy, as I don’t like theater… But of course I think about content and often produce paintings with nothing in them. People say that’s abstract, but it’s not my style. For me, they simply contain nothing. That’s why they are often entitled nichts [nothing] or malfreude, which means “the pleasure of painting,” because doing them truly is a pleasure (MALFREUDE [NACHDENKEN ÜBER DAS SCHNITZEN] [joy of painting [thinking about carving]) D (2009). PF Or, rather, “joy.” MC The joy of painting. EL Why is it more pleasurable to paint them than the others? MC Because you take a break. You paint nothing but colors, and it’s pretty and cheerful! Like when musicians pause; the pause is important to hear the music when it starts up again. EL Some of your paintings also contain extremely violent scenes, while others don’t. Is that also a way to punctuate your exhibitions? MC Yes, that’s true and it’s connected to what we see on TV every day. Even though I live in a valley, high up in the mountains, I always stay informed about what’s happening in the world. I have to. I need to know what’s going on, that there are wars, and why they exist. I often think about wars. Of course it’s a total disaster at the moment. In Syria and other places, all these people forced to flee amid the brutality. People like us... I can’t help but take it personally. That’s exactly why my pictures aren’t illustrative, but seek to show something inherent in us all. In the exhibition at the Swiss Cultural Centre, one small picture is the most important for me. I mean EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM ÜBERMALEN (painting over eichmann in jerusalem) E (2012)—it’s a famous shot of Eichmann that I took from a TV program about Eichmann in Jerusalem. I’ve done something new with this picture of Eichmann, whose content I find stunning. What we see
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“IN MY WORK, EACH DAY IS IMPORTANT ”: CONVERSATION WITH
in the portrait is just a man, but if we know who he is, we see it differently, which puts another slant on the E exhibition. For me, it is the central work. EL What does übermalen mean, exactly? MC To paint over. EL So Eichmann is painted over? MC Yes, the photo of Eichmann in Jerusalem is painted over, but using colored pencils instead of paint. F EL You once said the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a terrible shock, and you just mentioned Syria. Have you been marked by any other historical events that have had an impact on your art? MC The 9/11 attacks were very important, and the Yugoslav wars were a precursor, almost twenty-five years ago now. It really shocked my generation. We realized that it changed everything, but we weren’t sure how; we were unprepared. That’s also interesting about history: when you’re immersed in it, it changes everything. 9/11 was even more interesting because of the images that remained. Karlheinz Stockhausen really put his foot in it when he called the attack we had all witnessed “the greatest work of art ever.” But he was right—it’s incredible to produce a photograph now that is seen globally at the very second it’s taken. Essentially, it’s what Nam June Paik sought when he started working with video. You really wonder what it means to create images today, even if you only work using traditional techniques. Some terrorists produced images that were even more incredible than those you wish to create. That’s exactly what Stockhausen said. Obviously it was cynical, but he wasn’t the cynical one—it was the situation. So, I’ve lived through three historical situations: the Gulf War, the Yugoslav Wars, and 9/11, and I take them personally (ABSTURZSTELLE [crash site]) F (2005). EL Yes, it’s hard not to take them personally. MC What was worse, I’d drawn the Twin Towers so many times in the ’80s. I did a critique of capitalism, symbolized by the Twin Towers. Then along came Al-Qaeda and—boom! It’s a very strange
feeling. Personally, I don’t think an ideological critique becomes more justified by taking direct action. NPB Do such things later fuel your work in the studio? The concentration and this physical, corporal work? Do you remember images and ideas? MC Yes, naturally. I remember what I can. My memory is temporary. Memories of images must be managed like a garden. You never know what will come of it! The older I get, the more I have some sort of archaeology of images in layers, but it’s all rather unclear. NPB What form does this archaeology of images take? Is it always mental images, or do you cut pictures out and archive them for later use? MC No, I don’t really keep archives. I either have them in my head or I don’t. But, naturally, I see huge numbers of images when reading the newspapers, watching TV, and so forth. But I’m not systematic and I soon get bored. They’re all in my head. EL Your works contain horror and violence, but also joy, all on the same level. MC And it has to be on the same intellectual level, too. Returning to Eichmann and that central work at the Swiss Cultural Centre, we might be tempted to think we’re good people, and the Nazis were the baddies. But it’s not that simple, and today we see it isn’t the case, anyway. Regarding content, that’s interesting because, since I work every day, it’s a kind of procedure—pretending to treat everything the same, on the same level. Of course it’s impossible, but I feel it’s a great viewpoint to work from. Not differentiating whether a work is pretty or ugly, good or bad. Of course they’re different, but I find it interesting to work while pretending that everything is equal. EL Is that related to your working conditions? The fact that you’re all alone in your studio in a rather remote Swiss valley? Is your concentration linked to your isolation? MC I never know what people imply when they say “remote.” What does it mean? EL A valley in the mountains… You can tell I am from Paris! MC It can be very remote in Paris, too.
Patricia Falguières, Élisabeth Lebovici & Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, “In My Work, Each Day Is Important”: Conversation with Miriam Cahn
Published on Apr 15, 2019
Patricia Falguières, Élisabeth Lebovici & Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, “In My Work, Each Day Is Important”: Conversation with Miriam Cahn