Kurt Schwitters & El Lissitzky
Merz Issue 8/9, Nasci, 1924
Courtesy of Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Sprengel Museum, Hannover
Photo: Ingo Gerken, 2011
Interview with curator of Castlefield Gallery, Clarissa Corfe
Ingo Gerken with: Matti Isan Blind, Madeleine Boschan, Rainer Ganahl, Antonia Low, Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Reto Pulfer and Gregor Schneider
Eilidh Gilfillan: Could you tell us a about the current exhibition, Born after 1924?
Clarissa Corfe: Born after 1924 is centered around the influence and legacy of the 20th Century German artist Kurt Schwitters and his Merz magazine Nasci, published in 1924. It is a site-specific show by the German artist Ingo Gerken and his interpretation of the art historical contexts surrounding Schwitters’ work.
Gilfillan: And the importance of Kurt Schwitters?
Corfe: Schwitters practice was eclectic and he worked in various mediums like collage, performance, poetry, painting, graphic design. He was most closely affiliated with Dadaism and movements like Constructivism and Surrealism. Some of his most well known works were his ‘Merz’ collages. He was one of the first artists to use detritus in his collages, like used bus tickets or tax forms. Some Dada artists used rubbish as an act of subversion but Schwitters was committed to it’s validity as an art form.
Gilfillan: How did this exhibition come about?
Corfe: Ian Hunter, the director of Littoral approached us about a year ago saying that he was organizing a season of exhibitions relating to the work and legacy of Schwitters so he encouraged us to curate an exhibition centered around Schwitters. He spent the last 8 years of his life in Elterwater in Cumbria where he built his last Merzbau, the Merzbarn, with a stipendium from Alfred Barr who was art historian and director MOMA in New York. Littoral acquired Schwitters’ Merzbarn estate and valley in Cumbria in 2006 with funds they raised from an auctioned painting that Damien Hirst donated to them.
Corfe: I knew that I didn’t want to curate a group show that used Schwitters’ influence on contemporary practice as a starting point because art historians have already exhausted this area and it would be impossible to communicate anything substantially new. So I did some further research on Schwitters’ individual works and came across the magazine, Nasci that he co-edited with the Russian Constructivist artist El Lissitzky.
Tim Noble & Sue Webster. Images courtesy of the artists
Photo: Ingo Gerken, 2011
Gilfillan: This magazine Nasci that Kurt Schwitters co-edited is the stimulus for much of the artist response in the exhibition. What was it about?
Corfe: This magazine was like a curated exhibition on the pages of a publication, with images and text by well known artists like Man Ray, Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and other artists of the era. The theme for the magazine was ‘Nasci’, a Latin word for ‘being born’, ‘coming into existence’ or ‘nature’. The text that you see interspersed throughout the magazine is deeply philosophical,
linking the natural world and geometric forms.
What really excited me about the magazine is that it marked the convergence between Dadaism and Constructivism - these two completely opposing art movements; it marked the death of Dadaism and the dawn of Constructivism, coming into being. He was announcing a new formal approach for art. Dada represented anti-art, the despair that artists felt with the tragedy of WW1 and the deepening rift they felt between themselves and bourgeois societal values. Constructivism on the other hand represented a puristic formal language.
Gilfillan: And what does Merz mean?
Corfe: ‘Merz’ was the term Schwitters’ assigned for all of his works, abandoning the word ‘art’. The term was created from the word Kommerz (commerce) which he came across one day whilst cutting up words from an advert for the Privatbank for one of his collages – from it, he extracted the word ‘Merz’. Whilst subverting and inverting the word Kommerz, the nonsensical and completely fabricated term became the prefix for his different forms of expression - Merzbarn, Merzbau, Merzmagazine, Merzperformance, Merz everything.
Gilfillan: How did you then create the exhibition using this concept?
Corfe: I first met Ingo Gerken a few years ago; he had a show at Gitte Weise Gallery in Berlin. His work struck me as being really playful and humorous in the way that he used ready-made objects from his personal life and the staff in the institutions he was showing in. He was interested in twisting, or reinterpreting art historical narratives often through the use of collage, so I was interested in the parallels that could be drawn between his own and Schwitters’ practices. I then invited Ingo to respond to Schwitters’ magazine Nasci and the theme of ‘coming into existence’.
Gilfillan: And when Ingo Gerken came to visit the exhibition space how did he respond?
Corfe: When Ingo first came to visit Castlefield Gallery last year, he was really struck by the angular and irregular interior of the gallery – none of the walls are parallel to each other. It immediately reminded him of the image of the Merzbau in Hanover - in fact he had once built a re-construction of the Merzbau for a big Expo in Germany so had experienced it’s interior quite intimately.
Gilfillan: So, Ingo Gerken curated the exhibition space as an artist?
Corfe: Its more that he sees the exhibition space as his ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, as if the installation – in a sculptural sense - is one of his collages. In his collages, which are often made from art journals, he attempts to collapse time by creating new historic connections, enabling the viewer to experience history from a new perspective. The exhibition can also be seen as a single installation; the gallery occupies the space that normally a single sculpture or installation would, except with this installation, the visitors can walk through it.
Gilfillan: Is it a group project then?
Corfe: It is a project led by Ingo as an artist. He invited artists that he wanted to include in his installation. You could think of the installation as ‘elements’ of stage set for a fictional narration paused in time. This is also exemplified in a quote within Nasci by El Lissitsky, “A work of art is a stopping point on the road of becoming and not the fixed goal”. The different areas within the gallery suggest areas of a house or a studio; a writing room with a desk in the form of Matti Isan Blind’s work; a bedroom with a bed sheet in the form of Reto Pulfer’s work; a reading room with art journals in the form of Ingo’s work; a private collection of old obituaries from the New York Times in the form of Rainer Ganahl’s work; a storage room with boxes and trash in the form of Noble & Webster’s piece; DIY sounds from Reto Pulfer’s work; a dead artist under the stairs in the form of Gregor Schneider’s work and the original keys of the Merzbarn, mysteriously rotating.
Gilfillan: So let’s have a look at the exhibition.
Corfe: Here, in the far end of the gallery, we have got the unmistakable Tim Noble & Sue Webster’s work; this sculpture is called TrasHead (1999) made up entirely from glued together trash. This projector light points towards the sculpture and the wall to reveal the silhouettes of the artists’ profiles. Here, Ingo has surrounded the piece with bags of rubbish, art journals and the packing crates used to transport the other artists’ works from Germany.
Gilfillan: There is so much rubbish in this space…
Corfe: As people often forget, Dadaism was one of the first movements in which artists started to use rubbish as a serious material in their work. Rubbish represents the exorbitance of modern life. We buy, we use, chew it up and spit it out – it is the excrement of everyday life. The Dada artists couldn’t have expressed their dissatisfaction and anti-war sentiments any more clearly than that. Schwitters on the other hand saw the piecing together of refuse in his collage as necessity; the war had fragmented peoples’ daily lives, and so he saw the gluing and nailing together of these fragments almost as a process of catharsis. Of course, today the use of detritus in sculpture is common practice, you know, rubbish from the street or old train tickets, theatre tickets or whatever comes to hand. Schwitters is considered the father of collage and the use of rubbish in his practice.
Gilfillan: And the audio piece?
Corfe: In this space downstairs we have a work by Swiss artist Reto Pulfer. His works are performative based and the installations are usually made up from the remnants of a performance. The sounds you can hear are part of the piece Instrumente (2008-2009) which are made from these primitive looking contraptions on the gallery floor. As you can see, the configurations are made from sticks, wires, stones and clay. The sounds can be heard sporadically throughout the day and possibly references Schwitters’ sound poetry.
Gilfillan: What’s under the stairs!
Corfe: Under the staircase here, we have a piece by Gregor Schneider, Mann liegend mit steifem Schwanz, Man lying down with stiff cock, (2004). Schwitters’ work and particularly the Merzbau has been a consistent influenced on Gregor’s work. His most well known work is Haus u r (started in 1985), which means ‘dead house’ in German. Instead of building awkward shapes in the room like Schwitters, Gregor built exact replicas of the existing rooms - with walls, windows etc - inside each other repeatedly. So, there are complete rooms within other complete rooms - quite a psychedelic idea. He does this until each room in the house becomes extremely small and very oppressive. This artwork is exemplary of Gregor’s work. As you can see here we are not sure if the man is dead or alive; the upper half of his body is covered in a black bin bag and he has an erection. He provokes an uncanny and uncomfortable feeling and almost a physical response from the viewer.
Gilfillan: And the black lines in the architecture of the exhibition space?
Corfe: The graphic interventions – black vertical lines that you can see intersected throughout the space are influenced directly from El Lissitzky’s contribution to the Nasci magazine and Ingo has also played with the architecture of the space by painting the vertical pillars and other areas. It separates and punctuates Ingo’s instllation as well as the other artists’ works. It reinforces the idea of the Merzbau; the way in which Schwitters dedicated each room to an individual artist. Ingo has done a similar thing here; all these black lines that you see around the place are not usually here. The architecture is also altered through Antonia Low’s dissecting of the lift raft and the revealing it’s mechanics and the strong perpendicular resolution.
Gilfillan: There is a new publication for this exhibition based on the original Nasci magazine.
Corfe: In our new publication Born after 1924, Ingo and Madeleine Boschan have redesigned the Nasci Merz magazine replacing all the original artists’ works with the artists from this exhibition. Ingo has been faithful to the design and structure of the magazine and if you compare the original with the Born After 1924 you will see beautiful parallels that Ingo has created. So for instance Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square has been replaced with an image of Gregor Schneider’s End and so on. The original Nasci magazine was in German with French translation and the Born After 1924 publication contains the German text with the artist’s English translation. You can buy the publication from Cornerhouse Publications Distribution.
Mann liegend mit steifen Schwanz
Man lying down with stiff Cock
Photo: Ingo Gerken, 2011
Eilidh Gilfillan is an arts writer and MA student of Art Gallery Studies at the University of Manchester. She spends her time between Manchester, London and Edinburgh.view all articles from this author