Heide Hatry with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve and Laila Pedro
Heide Hatry is an artist who grew up on a pig farm in the south of Germany and studied art history at the University of Heidelberg. She has shown her work in galleries and museums in the United States, Germany, and Spain; curated numerous exhibitions; produced over 200 artist’s books; and spent seventeen years running a rare-books store in Heidelberg. Her own work makes original use of materials including animal skin, flesh, hair, and human ashes, engaging questions of perception, objecthood, memory, and love. She spoke with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve and Laila Pedro about inventing her own technical processes, the intellectual and emotional imperatives behind her work, and the complex books she creates as part of every project. Her current exhibition, Icons in Ash, is on view at Ubu Gallery through May 16, 2017. A closing book party, with art, music, dance, and spoken-word performances related to death, will take place at the New Museum on May 12.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve: Were you really just on “To Tell The Truth”?
Heide Hatry: Yes. They had to guess who is the real Heide Hatry—the artist making portraits out of the cremated remains of the depicted subject. I had never heard of this fairly well known show from the ’50s through ’70s that’s been revived in this century. Now it’s shorter, and I don’t know if it is that exciting, but for me it was very exciting, because they actually discussed my artwork on TV and, as you know, my work is not exactly easy mainstream art.
Goodeve: You grew up on a factory-style pig farm in the South of Germany, and you’ve talked about how the notion of art or making art was completely unknown to you. When did you realize there was something called art?
Hatry: Even though, as a child, I had no notion of art per se, I was always drawing. It was just the natural way I expressed myself. My father could draw beautifully, and I was totally fascinated by the possibility of conveying ideas in images the way he did, though he certainly didn’t think of what he was doing as art; he could explain something much more easily by just showing me. In addition, he was a sort of naïve assemblage artist: he was always salvaging things that seemed somehow interesting to him and combining or repurposing them, for example, making friezes on the sides of our barn out of disused tools and machine parts. They were both elegant and somewhat surreal. My aunt, after whom I was named, was a talented artist and her husband an art professor who taught typography and printmaking at a prestigious art school in Germany.
Saying it that way makes it seem like art was everywhere, but the reality was that work was everywhere and these little incursions of “art” were the distinct exception in an otherwise very focused way of life. In my memory, and probably in my mind even then, the few weekends I spent with my aunt and uncle loom large, because this was what was already drawing me like a magnet; it was magical to me. But even my recent experience tells me that what I saw wasn’t what was there, and in the most distressing way.
Goodeve: How do you mean?
Hatry: After very little communication with my aunt and uncle over many years, I just received a horrible letter from them telling me that if I want to be serious about art I should consult with somebody who is competent to explain and teach me to improve my technical skills and creative ideas. This was of course related to Icons in Ash, but also to my work with animal parts. I was reading this letter and crying. I couldn’t believe that the two people who had meant so much to me, who I thought of as the most important teachers in my early life as an artist, felt they had to take action to set me on the right path, while patiently explaining to me that what I’m doing is not art.
Laila Pedro: I think it’s extraordinary when people call something “not art.” It can be “bad art,” or “boring art,” but not art? I am wondering if it’s a question of material or medium. For example, in the Not a Rose works, is the argument that what they are made from makes them not art? If so, why? The Icons in Ash are as embedded in art-historical tradition as anything can be—the status of the portrait as a category of art is not in question, so again: is there something insurmountable about unsettling materials? What specifically were they objecting to?
Hatry: Well, of course, he didn’t really know what to say about the actual work (even though the letter was full of dismissively knowing asides on “postmodern” art), only that he has been on many art juries over the past sixty years and “this is not art.” I have no problem with them telling me they aren’t really into what I do, but to tell me it is now time to start making real art with real art materials was very disappointing. It disenchanted the beautiful and cherished memories I had of them.
Goodeve: You get that a lot: the issue of gimmick or sensationalism. This is how David Cohen framed the discussion at the Art Critical panel at the Brooklyn Library in March—something to the effect of, “Is this a sublime new technique or merely a gimmick?”
Pedro: I’m also interested in the presumed binary that is embedded in the question of sensationalism: the notion that some things are intrinsically sublime and some intrinsically gimmicky strikes me as breathtakingly reductive. A gimmick is something that is calculated to draw attention: isn’t an artwork intended to elicit a response? Isn’t an artist’s role, in part, to discover and deploy the most appropriate mediums in order to frame the questions she’s trying to pose? The “gimmick” label seems more an indicator of the labeler’s relation to particular subjects or mediums than any actually cogent descriptor.
Hatry: I don’t think that David Cohen wanted to say that it’s a gimmick, or he wouldn’t have chosen to talk about my work. I think he wanted to give the panelists a basis for contention that in principle would lead to a lively debate, while nevertheless raising the issue in a “knowing” sort of way, as a signal to the art sophisticate who might reflexively dismiss conceptual work whose concept is ostensibly simplistic, or as someone at the New York Times said, “literal.” He was well aware that others might not respond to the deeper human aspects of the project, or even perhaps that he might think it slightly embarrassing to do so. When he brought his class to Ubu Gallery to look at the show, he posed the same question, and his students discussed it in a much different and, to me, more exciting way. Of course, I think that the questions Icons in Ash engages about art alone should be more than enough to sustain a critic’s interest—the relationship of the artwork to the viewer, of art to “the real world,” representation and presentation, of what the actual artwork is, the thing or the engagement it enacts, art and the commodity and the loss of art in the commodified relationship, for example.
Goodeve: And these portraits are made for people mourning a loved one. In that sense the audience is very specific.
Hatry: It is work that within the intended viewer, and really only by virtue of empathy for any viewer other than the specific person for whom it was made. What is a critic to make of a work that, in its deepest core, isn’t made to speak to him? Or, for that matter, to his audience? It disengages the commonly accepted dynamic of the art relationship, and hence leaves the ordinary critical mind more or less speechless.
The panel in question spent more time talking about the way the shows they discussed were hung and whether being shown in certain galleries was prima facie evidence of un-seriousness than anything about the art itself. They didn’t seem prepared to talk about life and death any more than they were about beauty, or even aesthetics, though I think that David Cohen was trying, however cautiously, to open that door. There was quite a lot of art politics, on the other hand.
At the same time, there is a respect in which this body of work does fall outside the range of art, of “serious art,” by drawing attention to what art regards as mere medium as if it were fundamentally important, as if the medium were at the same time in some sense the content of the work. Whether he understood it or not, Clement Greenberg could talk about “paint” because it was obvious that that was not what Abstract Expressionism, or even color field painting, was really about. If it had been about paint, what could he have said that a chemist or a hardware store clerk couldn’t have said better?
Goodeve: On the subject of materials, how did you come to the idea of using ashes as a medium?
Hatry: My art ideas usually come to me in a sudden jolt, like a revelation. This body of work was the direct result of the overwhelming grief I felt when a close friend killed himself, which resurrected still-unresolved feelings about my father’s death a number of years previously, which at the time I also regarded as suicide.
I can remember that I already felt a strange calm the moment I thought: I have to make portraits out of my father’s and out of Stefan’s ashes. Of course I didn’t have their actual ashes—in Germany ashes must be buried—so I was forced to use a substitute. Nevertheless, making the portraits was both comforting and energizing in itself. I felt that it was in some way a shamanic act: once they existed, I lived with them as if my father and Stefan themselves were there with me. I cried and I screamed at them and explained myself and talked to them and listened, and soon their presence, embodied in their portraits, melded into my life. I felt connected to them again in the way we had been, and not merely in the negative register of grief.
But even the material, as John Berger and others have pointed out, is (also) hiding something, even in “uncontroversial” art; it carries its history into the work. Minerals for pigment were mined and marble quarried by slaves or abused workers; binders were often a secondary product of animal slaughter; vast networks of exploitation and colonial subordination were erected to insure that raw materials were the prerogative of the conqueror; the earth has been devastated and inequity multiplied to sate the lusts of the powerful for the signifiers of their worth, among which art has often been prominent. Even the most straightforward iconography reveals a story of dominance, greed, oppression, and treachery. I use material to speak to issues that are obfuscated, if not ignored entirely in most art; the violence that supports our comfortable lives, that is actually its sine qua non under our present state of social organization, and the fear of death that just as easily presents itself as the cool indifference of the sophisticate, but just as surely abdicates the responsibility of the human in so doing.
In some way this art rejects the tendencies of current art in which art critics, not necessarily to say art historians, have quite a lot invested. Self-reflexive though it is, or maybe something different even, I see it as the conceptual equivalent of a Klein bottle, in which inside and outside are one—it is not “cool” art (insouciant, ironic, post-emotional). It is the locus of powerful feeling, but it can’t necessarily force someone to feel who has evolved away from feeling. And it explicitly rejects the market, in that its relationship is necessarily to one unique “client,” or “user.” If it is universal and fundamental, it may be in a way that renders the communication of that fact quite difficult; it is universal one person at a time.
Goodeve: Let’s talk about the role of books in your artwork. For all four of your projects, Skin , Heads and Tales , Not A Rose , and now Icons in Ash , you have produced books. Each is different conceptually—they are not catalogues, nor are they supplements.
Hatry: The books—which I think of on the one hand as collaborative conceptual artist’s books, and on the other as a kind of protracted farewell to the project, an acknowledgement that it is no longer mine but still evidence of a reluctance to part with it, that its real life, its enactment, begins only in the minds of others— are in an important sense the work that I am actually presenting, so it is also a way, if illusory, of anticipating the fate of the work, of forestalling it just a little longer, like trying to trick the owner of the magic in the fairy tale, in which losing is always the cost of getting something.
In my previous projects, the visual artwork has been essentially ephemeral, and it retreats from the “viewer” through a series of disintegrating echoes, even as the thought that surrounds it grows and amplifies into a book. I began with objects, which, because they were made of animal skin and parts, would begin to decay even as I was making them. I would document them photographically, which, though it gave the sense of a permanence, or an “authorial” control, that they didn’t have, would also arrest them in their course. By then embedding the “documented” work in a book, often ensconced in a web of deceit—faux-scholarly articles, contrived biography, Latin taxonomies, a thicket of words in which they are hidden, both literally (if you will), and conceptually—I normalize what began as something alien and perhaps disturbing, protracting the moment of revelation, and render it invisible except in the intimate context of the reader-text relationship. And this is, perhaps paradoxically, the effect I wanted to achieve. Although they were physical, visual works—or more than that, beings that have suffered for our pleasure—they have become something that is merely graphic and at the mercy of text, though obviously the image can struggle to hold its own in the textual environment.
I liked this strategy both because it felt similar to the physical decay and dwindling of the original object, which, let’s not forget, had once been part of a living animal, and because it mirrored the process of forgetting that enables us to choke down our meat and tolerate a practice that destroys hundreds of millions of sentient beings every day, even as our minds are swarming with thought. That that tension can infuse the quietest thing in the world, the book; that the quietest thing can become the most assertive: it was this sort of force I had in mind when I decided that the book had to be the fundamental level on which I presented my work. I like it that it is both greater than the images alone, that it is something beyond me, and growing with every use, out of my control, and yet it is somehow my whale with which to struggle.
Even though I feel it is undeniable that the work of art is communal, not really existing at all until it enters the mind of viewers and is thought (there is an almost quantum perplexity to the dynamic), which is, paradoxically, the moment when it is no longer something in itself, the art wants to evade this capture by the viewer. It wants to be itself, unaffected by its audience, to be an art subject, not an art object, and that’s what I finally realized that I have been trying to do in my work with Icons in Ash: to make things that are ends in themselves, that interpret, or judge us as much as we them.
But each of the books works differently as well; each has its own function. Skin, for example, was configured as a curatorial project in which I introduced my first artwork, but presented as if seven different artists have made the work, while I was just their curator, or for Heads and Tales I asked women writers to write the back stories of the woman depicted in the book, which were photographs of sculptures (busts) made out of pig skin, pig eyes, pig eyelashes, and meat.
Goodeve: Why did you give the sculptures back-stories?
Hatry: They didn’t seem complete to me. They felt so real and so alive, but somehow empty; they needed their own story, and when I read the texts that my writer friends created for them, I saw the whole project in so many new and interesting ways, that I felt confirmed in my decision. With Not a Rose, I had been pondering the question of the human relation to flowers all my life, which in some way I gradually came to understand as the question of beauty, but it was only when I observed the effect that knowledge had on the viewers of Not a Rose—they went from fascination to repulsion sometimes right before my eyes as they realized what the images actually were—that I was able to configure the question in a way that made sense: how does what we know or what we have experienced affect our sense of what is beautiful. It was this question that was always in the background both of the project overall and of the 100 different texts I solicited for the project, by specialists and writers in all different domains of endeavor, even though their overt concern was the human relationship to flowers.
Pedro: Not a Rose, of course, suggests Magritte’s pipe-that’s-not-a-pipe, but it also reminds me of Anne Waldman’s poem “The Lie,” which has the repeated refrain Art begins with a lie. Is there an ancillary truth to be sought in cultivating these back-stories or explanations? You make these very intense, viscerally potent works—they absolutely stand on their own, to my mind—and then you add explication. There’s both the narrative development of the sculptures, in which the fiction is a kind of conceptual adjunct, but then, as you say, there are the explanatory essays of Not a Rose. Does the imaginative mode of creating the stories play a substantively different role than the didactic mode of analyzing our relationship to flowers? If so, how do you choose to engage with a particular mode?
Hatry: The idea that the “Heads” were incomplete occurred to me relatively early in the process, so the overall concept was fairly organic: image and word were part of the personas, just as in life we are not just the way we look. And although I was in a sense making portraits— I’ve always been fascinated by ultra-realistic depictions of human flesh, especially at the level of the microtextures and subtle layering of derma and vasculature that even the most meticulous painter has never quite captured—I was really more interested in making people: something richer and more textured than an image can do on its own. I was unsatisfied with portraiture in general because it was never real enough, and even using “real” material I saw that simple representation was never going to be satisfactory. Of course, there were any number of subtler issues involved which I wanted to bring closer to the surface. Catharine MacKinnon’s introduction did a great job of contextualizing all of that.
With Not a Rose, I have to admit that I really wanted to collect all of this diverse experience and insight relating to flowers for my own delectation, but the notion of assembling perspectives was also a way of involving humanity in the question I had about what I perceive to be an utterly spontaneous and universal interest in flowers and beauty. A book consisting entirely of works of fiction about flowers (and there were a few of those, an excellent crypto-fiction by J.W. McCormack, for example, not to mention your wonderful contribution, Thyrza), wouldn’t have been entirely pertinent to the nature of the inquiry, much though a few instances gave it a richer overall texture and more universal scope. So, I guess the answer is that the project itself dictated those choices.
Goodeve: Let’s talk specifically about the book Icons in Ash. First there is the design. There are several different covers, each of them bearing a different portrait. Can you talk about those images?
Hatry: I wanted the vessel of my book to be stunning; I tried to make the outside as beautiful as the inside. Icons in Ash is bound in black linen and has a debossed area on the front panel, and in that niche we have affixed a reproduction of one of the portraits, printed on sandpaper to suggest the texture of the actual pictures. Because it was only possible to do that manually, we realized that we could use different portraits on different copies of the book. The really interesting, and to me very touching, aspect of the design is that the person who commissions a portrait can also have that portrait on his or her cover.
Goodeve: You have an essay by your partner, the writer and bookseller John Wronoski, who wrote an extensive exploration of death in Western philosophy from Plato to the present, which opens the book. The essay grounds the project in that history, as does Thomas Laqueur’s essay. His book, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains was the inspiration for my piece on the use of dead bodies—human, animal, insect —as material in art. Laqueur writes:
The ashes of the dead have always borne the most attenuated relationship to the flesh and blood of the human beings from which they come. Moist, warm, subtly colored and clearly ordered—head, torso, arms, legs, fingers, toes—while alive the dead body remains for some time not unlike the living one. In the ground or fed to the birds, it takes some time to become truly something else. But within the span of a day, fire renders it into dry, brittle, chalky white—or darkened by smoke—fragmented, disorderly remains. In the old days there was still something human about the dead body, even after cremation. A corpse would be placed in full view on a great pile of wood; more fuel might be added over the day and part of the night it would take to finish the process. Even the most thorough old-school funeral pyre would leave some semblance of a body behind: the more or less intact large bones of the leg and upper arm; recognizable bits of skull and rib. This is how we recognize cremation in archaeological sites.1
Hatry: My idea was to look at this fascinating and very disturbing fact that a human being (or an animal) becomes an object when he, she, or it dies. I find that utterly strange and compelling. And then, what do we do with that object? How do we deal with it today, how have we dealt with it throughout history, what is done in various disparate cultures, how have we treated and how do we treat that object, in our personal lives, in art history, in religions, philosophy, psychology? How do we cope with loss of the person that was? Such questions multiply when you start thinking about them, as I did for quite a long time. I wanted to hear perspectives from a multiplicity of different sorts of thinkers who have also spent a lot of time with them. I already had voices clamoring in my own head, and I wanted to turn the noise into a polyphonic engagement with death, which is what I hope the book has become.
So I am thinking about this thing that had been endowed with life and which is now inert—though, as Laqueur implies, it hasn’t quite lost its charge in the immediate wake of death—and of course in the feelings of the living, even as ashes, it still possesses a ghostly power. I see my work with this precious substance—everything we regard as precious is so because we invest value in it, but this is like gold that has suddenly turned to sand in a frustrating dream of failure—as a symbolic act of redemption. I want to bring it back to life, to honor the fact that these molecules, now so inert and broken, so uniform and inarticulate, were once the medium in which the mystery of life was enacted. But, I can do that only in configuring what amounts to a very static narrative, one that can speak more eloquently only to the people for whom it is a touchstone of memory. The painstaking method that I use, a mosaic process, as opposed to the fluidity and lively gesture of painting, is like a kind of surgery, of patient repair, of somber and reverent ministration, and like Moses reconstructing the tablets of the law, from which the word mosaic derives, it is chastening to the person and the artist in me.
Pedro: How does working so closely with remains affect your relationship to your own body, your own mortality? I am thinking of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” whose primary mood is dread at the artist’s own imminent demise following a traumatic illness, even as the character of death seeks to seduce. Your flowers and the icons are both deeply seductive as visual, tactile objects, and seem to be more concerned with an electrifying kind of beauty, and with our own relation to flesh and memory, than with any fear of mortality. They suggest a very touching facet of the inevitability and universality of death as a shared experience, like art.
Hatry: It might seem strange to say, but it was this project that made me understand that I will die. I mean, I’m a mature woman who has experienced and read and seen quite a lot, and I did not truly understand that I will one day cease to exist. I was the subject of an attempted murder when I was young, and yet I never understood that before. It was more of a shock than fear that I felt: shock that this wouldn’t just continue, that the joy that I know in life would simply stop, and that is disconcerting. Admittedly, artists are self-involved and focused on their work, but doesn’t that seem strange, I mean, given that we also normally have a special capacity for imagination? And might it not, I wondered, also mean that many other people also don’t really get that they will die? That I am probably surrounded by people who do not possess the sense of death? I fear it does. And everything I see around me that involves the teaching or social understanding of death suggests that for quite a long time we have mostly been avoiding the subject in the cultures of the West, even if I also detect very positive signs that that is changing. I had the advantage of growing up on a farm, where death is explicitly part of the day-to-day economy, and violence and suffering as well, and even I have lived mostly oblivious to it. Even in the odd subcultures that seem to celebrate the majesty of death, musical, religious, martial, sexual, don’t really seem to have a feeling for it.
For the Romantic temperament, which encompasses not only Schubert, but Coleridge, Keats, Blake, Poe, Friedrich, Goya, Nerval, De Quincy, Melville, and Chopin among many others, and some vestige of which may still persist in Mediterranean cultures, the seduction of death might really be seen as a sense of the inadequacy of life to support the powerful experience for which they thirsted. I see my relationship to subjects as being similar to those which consumed them more as to the organic aspect of life, especially in Icons in Ash; I feel more like a priest, or what I imagine as the ideal of a priest, interceding between life and death, than a soul enflamed by desires too powerful to be contained in the body. I feel a duty to respect these materials that had once been privileged to conduct life.
Goodeve: My own favorite essay in the book is George Quasha’s reflection on duende. He writes:
Duende only shows up as embodiment within a medium—the body, the eyes, the voice, the guitar, the poem… And yet it doesn’t quite stay in the thing. Something nevertheless remains in the recordings and films, for instance, of the great moments of cante jondo. It seems to happen again in our registration now—provided that we have attained a comparable focus and know how to refocus—or, as John Cage said, unfocus—to allow the event to take place inside us. It means leaving behind what we already know. It’s like a sudden identity that happens in a state of between, a conscious liminality, a being at the edge of what is and is not oneself or one’s known reality. The art that embodies this possibility creates an alternative possibility of viewing, listening, reading. I italicize the words to invite a little shimmer in the thinking, because at the level of concept we’re nowhere near duende. It’s the present act of connection that matters. You don’t witness duende art so much as undergo it. It shakes any confidence in knowing what art is before it happens. You are the site of its happening, so you are in question. There’s a disturbance.2
Hatry: I always feel that I am not making “visual” art. It is art that demands a certain experience. To say it is “conceptual” is correct to a certain extent, but it is art that is visceral, conceptual, and visual all at once, speaking to what George also called “mindbody” in his essay, for want of a common term that encompasses all that. For me the artwork has to be alive, it has to have a power to shake the person experiencing it. Of course, duende is also a tenuous, elusive quality, always uncertain that it can be prevailed upon even by its most devoted acolytes, and some may not see it even when it happens in front of them. I feel that I am tracing a very fine line in this work, risking falling between art and craft, or the deepest relationship we can have to art and simple indifference. To enable the spirit of the dead person to emerge, even fleetingly, or for a small audience, and I’m not sure if that resides in the idea or in the execution, is, I think, the effect of my devotion applied to what I deeply feel is this sacred material. Some very sensitive people who have seen the work have said that before they knew what it was, that they felt a strange energy in it, while they are, in some obvious respects, ordinary-looking portraits. But ordinary is, strangely, how I wanted them to look—ordinary like life in general, or ordinary and ineffably mysterious. I worked on the first of these portraits, my father and my dear friend Stefan Huber, as in a trance: and it lasted for months while I tried to perfect a technique that would preserve the sense of the actual stuff of which they were made, which turned out to be the incredibly painstaking mosaic process to which I already alluded. There was something that sustained me in that, which I really can’t quite explain: this was not my art in some way, but the expression of the person it embodies.
Pedro: You mentioned being fascinated by drawing. You are also quite evidently fascinated by books and texts. What has been your primary motivation for making art, for creating objects, images, and narratives?
Goodeve: The question puts me in mind of what you write in the introduction to Icons in Ash:
The art that I love doesn’t just hint that life could be different, doesn’t just hold out a desperate resistance against the irresistible or subtly insinuate criticism of a seemingly insuperable and basically unalterable “totality,” but actually changes it now. It speaks to me, confronts and questions me. It is not merely subversive, but actually revolutionary. Standing before it, I can feel it working upon me in the shiver that runs down my spine, the heart pounding with confusion or racing with exhilaration, the involuntary tension in my throat, as if I have been seized and throttled by the work. No doubt someone observing me will think that something is wrong. And it is. Art is criticizing my life: telling me that I have not been paying attention, or making the effort that it demands, that I have abdicated something of my humanity, that I have been negligent. I see possibilities where there had been only things and situations. What had been rigidly silent is talking to me. What had been set in stone is suddenly in flux. We expect to see things a certain way, and so they cooperate: they let themselves be seen that way. But that is not what they are.3
“I’ve been seized and throttled by art.” It makes me think of the way whenever you describe the ideas that lead to you making an artwork, as in this series, it comes from something that has throttled you; something has seized you and then you are propelled into making. By making I don’t necessarily mean making art, though it becomes art. But it’s making first.
Hatry: It’s true that the work that has absorbed me for the last fifteen years did originate in personal crises, events that shook my world and made me question everything; and the art that came out of them wasn’t entirely what they started out to be, or even remotely what I expected to be doing for such a long time. The whole idea of working with organic materials, for example, though it connected with strains of thinking that had been on my mind for years, was a sort of cathartic solution to the break-up of my marriage. I don’t need to go into specifics here—though it was symbolic, it would probably strike a lot of people as extreme and quite disturbing, even if it was never quite completed—the action that I conceived as a solution to my pain gave me the intimate contact as a functional material with a substance I had known since childhood, and with which I certainly took a strange pleasure in reuniting: namely, pigskin. This first use of it was for me alone, and I never thought that this was an artwork, if anything more like a simulacrum in a quasi-magical ritual. Similarly, the first portraits I made in ash were for me, and I never expected to make any others. The thought came to me with the demand that it be executed: I have to do this. That was the whole of it, almost as if I were being forced to make them. I mean, why would I want to make a portrait out of ashes? It wasn’t just that I had the idea, which might be a good or might be a bad idea: I felt compelled to it. And I had no expectation of what it would look like, and certainly no expectation that the portraits would do anything.
When I finished them, I felt an incredible sense of consolation, as I said. And I assumed that this was the effect of the work I had done over such a long time—three or four months to get everything right—which was also “work” in a more pop-psychological sense. I was actually somewhat shocked to discover, when I agreed to make a portrait out of his mother’s ashes for a friend, that he experienced more or less the same thing, though he hadn’t done the work. Even then I didn’t start to think of it as an art project, but rather as an incredible gift that I could give to some people who were suffering with grief. Even after I decided that its art dimensions were as profound as its personal ones, I put it away for several years, mainly because I realized that a lot of people might think it seemed sacrilegious for a German to be working with human ashes in an art project. And then, further along, I ran into the problem that the people for whom I had been making portraits for several years as gifts were disturbed by the notion that their loved ones would be on display in an art exhibition, and they refused to participate. After that, I had to change my strategy and ask people to agree to let me show the portraits in the show before I made them. For these people, the opening was the first time that they would see the portraits, and the opening of the exhibition was incredibly intense for that reason, with so many people experiencing powerful emotions basically in public. I somehow hadn’t anticipated that, and felt a little uneasy about it, but also amazed at what was happening.
So, although I am always thinking in terms of art, the way my life as an artist has developed was determined by totally other experiences.
Pedro: What was your process like in working through the perceived sacrilege of how being German situated you—whether you acquiesced or not—in relation to your materials? Aside from the obvious, I would imagine that the problem was particularly heightened by the way ashes connect to memory. Siri Hustvedt, in her essay on Anselm Kiefer in her latest book, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women [Simon & Schuster, 2016], addresses the immense challenge, for German artists, of dealing with the question of what the War generation did in an ambiguous (that is, artistically open) way. She writes that, “The extreme views of Kiefer’s work interest me not so much for their content but because they uncover the ambiguity in the art itself. ‘The truth is always gray,’ [Kiefer] once said, citing a platitude that is also a color key. There is a lot of gray in Kiefer, both figuratively and literally.” Of course, the same can be said of Icons in Ash.
Hatry: I felt completely stymied by what I imagined as the likelihood that many viewers would be horrified by a German making things out of ashes, things that could almost be conceived as handicrafts in the Nazi Kitsch “tradition,” an issue with which I had had to come to terms in my skin works as well. I really stopped the project completely for years, though I still worried the idea was in my mind. Finally I researched what the Nazis actually did with the remains of their victims, and it was even more horrifying to me than I had expected. After burning these untold numbers of people, they would force other prisoners, themselves awaiting the same fate, to pound the bones of the burned bodies into dust with hammers and then scatter them into the rivers. They erased every trace of these people’s existence, and I suppose this was their idea—complete de-humanization, the reduction of persons to dust. It made me sick to think about it, but I realized that my intention was exactly the opposite: I wanted to remember, to give others a way to remain connected to the dead, in some sense to redeem the mere matter that they had become. And, very importantly, to be true to them.
The “gray platitude” certainly strikes me, too, as evasive—not that I can’t understand why descendants of Nazis would want to be evasive: they didn’t do anything, and yet the crimes of the fathers have been visited upon them. But I’m also not so sure just how that should be read into Kiefer’s palette. I might be more inclined to see that as evidence of the grim, infertile lifescape that the Nazis left people like him, and to some extent even younger artists like me. For us, the truth must always bear the admixture of this other history that is both alien and, distressingly, ours. It is almost as if we lie by merely expressing a joy in life.
My gray, at least on the material level, is indeed the truth. The human ashes are gray, and I supplement them with birch ash and white marble (which I chose as symbols of life and death respectively), in order to establish a functional palette. Of course the material dictated that in the first place, but for me, the feeling that is always conveyed by a black-and-white photograph, on which the portraits are based, is of time irrevocably past, implicitly a memento mori: a shade, but a shade that has resolved enough to assert selfhood and evoke memory.
Goodeve: This brings in the issue of portraiture and a certain kind of realism or naturalism, which is what I think the Review Panel critics found uninteresting. You mentioned in the interview in the book that you thought about making the portraits more conceptual. Like Gerhard Richter’s—making them blurry, but the people you were making these for wanted to see the person. In fact, they chose the photograph.
Hatry: I wanted to be true to the subject. They are subjects, and to intrude on how they present themselves with an “artistic” presentation, would deflect from, or even deny that fact. The Richter technique is nice, of course: our memories are fading, blurring, even as we experience (even as the camera documents that instantaneously), including blurring the horrors we have perpetrated in the past, and it is in part something along the lines of what I am trying to address as well; but real memories are fading, and the people for whom I made the portraits are profoundly aware of that. They wanted—and I myself wanted—the image of what these people meant to us in the height of their vitality, to let them speak, not to be fading into oblivion.
I often think about why most “realistic” art (if you think about it at all, it’s obvious that it isn’t realistic) is lost on us nowadays—by “us,” I mean people deeply involved in the arts, not necessarily the ordinary person, for whom pre-modern art is often still more resonant. At some point the fact that we are perceiving the world, that we are complicit in what it presents to us, that it is not something outside that we can capture in its purity, overtook the long technical pursuit of verisimilitude. Let’s say that began explicitly with Impressionism, which is at the cusp of the two tendencies, even if the portrayal of dream-life, of myth, of ecstatic or deranged experience, and even of some notion of abstraction, if only as ornament, has been part of art forever. Then the presumptive unity of experience that still infused Impressionism and even the more overtly proto-modernist experiments that followed, and which was undergirded by institutions, rigid class, race, and gender demarcations, and the privileging of education broke down, according to the standard narrative, with the First World War, though a modernist visual sensibility was already developing with Futurism and Cubism well before the war. The center no longer held. The era of the individual, but of the damaged, frightened, hopeless, perhaps deranged individual, had begun. As much as we might think that we are struggling to become whole again, to be the kind of people who could have made and appreciated that older art, our spiritual roots, shallow in some sense though they might be, are in modernism, with its inward view of the world.
Portraiture is inherently outward, and therefore inherently retrograde, in spite of the subtle (or more recently, expressionistic) counter-dynamic that has always sought to reveal the inner person, often inimically to the interests of the subject at hand. Although we no longer have the sort of cohesive culture in which the portrait is meaningful or cherished on a larger scale, we do have the fragmentary experience of it in the family, the beloved, the friend, and perhaps we cling to it all the stronger for that reason: look at the vast numbers of never to be remarked-upon photographs almost every one of us is taking on a daily basis nowadays.
The realism that I have proposed in Icons in Ash (if you can call it that, when it is, minimally, a conceptual project, if not a holistic, a philosophical, or even a strangely spiritual project, if I may advert to George Quasha’s duende again), is a realism that, at least in this modality, is previously unknown (at least to me)—in which the portrait of the person is the person. And such “banality” or ordinariness as the portraits exemplify is not banality for the person for whom they were made. Someone said that they reminded him of mug shots, and I realized that he was right in a way he might not have intended: mug shots are one great blur of anonymous humanity until we come upon the image of the one who has harmed us, the face we can’t forget even in such a crowd. To most people these portraits will look like portraits of people they don’t know and aren’t likely to care about. Perhaps they will feel the inscrutable spark of life that some viewers have caught, but for me, and for those whose beloved’s ashes have been reconfigured into their visages, they are ineffably precious.
Goodeve: Both Not a Rose and Icons In Ash play with our perception of art at a glance and with notions of art as kitsch: with both the book and the exhibition for Not a Rose, we talked about how someone picking up the book or seeing the invitation to the exhibition might think, Oh, this is just about flowers—until they pause, and within seconds realize there is something very odd and disturbing about these flowers. The same issue comes up with Icons in Ash: Oh, these are just portraits, maybe in pencil or charcoal. Even if people know you are using the subject’s ashes, some get stuck at that initial surprise.
Hatry: Adorno, among others, has spoken of kitsch as “the bad conscience of art.” Art’s complicity, often even at its highest peaks, in a system of oppression, is revealed in this mode of self-deception. A lot of art of serious purpose is going to look like kitsch at some point—though it can look like art again, depending on historical factors—just because certain scales have fallen from our eyes. And all art continues to exist alongside other work that has superseded it or even discredited it, again not necessarily permanently, while art viewers straggle along at various differential levels of sophistication. A realism of some sort remains the default presentation of art on a larger social scale, and it offers a reliable default position for visual expectation: for the unsophisticated viewer, it presents as what it purports to be and for the sophisticated viewer, it presents as what she preconceives it to be. In other words, both see it without any particular inclination to question it, which is why I found the flower “portraits” to be such an optimal subject to test, and then to challenge, visual prejudice. In the current project, my intentions are quite different, though I certainly want to awaken the viewer as she becomes aware of the material of which they have been made. I suppose that in both cases, in different ways, I am hoping to provoke self-examination, to engender thought, and ideally, the kind of visceral/philosophical experience I had described as being throttled by the art. You might say that, if I was investigating how knowledge changes perception in Not a Rose, in Icons in Ash I am most interested in how art changes a person.
Pedro: That sequence—initial perception, supplemental knowledge, modified reception—requires a particular amount of time and attention. As Thyrza said, it destabilizes the experience of art at a glance. Then there is the fact that the mediums used are not—to revisit the dreaded word—“gimmicks,” but rather materials that are heavily freighted with cultural, superstitious, and historical weight, which adds a subsequent level of modified perception: the work requires the viewer to grapple with her own reaction. And, as you say, to remain receptive to unexpected spaces of beauty.
Hatry: The problem is that art rarely speaks of anything so fundamental in such a stark way—part of being art is artifice, after all—and it is embarrassing to have to address such issues in a context where they are seen as old-fashioned, or too direct, or emotional, or whatever. Here, although the reception of the work is more relevant than critique, its presentation is implicitly a critique of the way we engage not just art, but the most important things in life. So, the work is definitely about reception, about our relationship to art, but more importantly, it is about our relationship to people, to love, to community, to the fact of death.
Goodeve: It is a thinking project; which all of your work is.
- Thomas W. Laqueur, “The Matter of Ashes,” Heide Hatry: Icons in Ash (Station Hill of Barrytown, 2017), 168.
- George Quasha, “Dead Talk,” Heide Hatry: Icons in Ash, 205.
- Heide Hatry, “Icons in Ash: From Art Object to Art Subject,” Heide Hatry: Icons in Ash, 9.
ContributorsThyrza Nichols Goodeve
THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is a writer living in New York. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California in Santa Cruz under Donna Haraway and James Clifford. She is faculty and thesis director of the MFA in Art Practice at the School of Visual Arts, and Program Coordinator for the MICA summer intensive inDUMBO.Laila Pedro
LAILA PEDRO is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. She is a scholar and translator, and holds a PhD in French from the Graduate Center, CUNY.