BETTINA POUSTTCHI with Barry Schwabsky
Bettina Pousttchi is a Berlin-based artist who works with photography and sculpture. This month, she has two exhibitions opening in Washington, D.C.: World Time Clock at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (June 9, 2016 – January 2017), and Double Monuments at the Phillips Collection (June 9, 2016 – October 2, 2016). Barry Schwabsky sat down with her in New York to find out more.
Barry Schwabsky (Rail): I’d like to start by asking you a little bit about yourself and your background. You were born in Berlin?
Bettina Pousttchi: I was born in Mainz, Germany. It’s a small town close to Frankfurt and I grew up there until, at the end of high school, I moved to Paris to study art.
Rail: How did you become interested in art? Was your family interested? What drew you to it?
Pousttchi: There are artists in my family, but my parents weren’t very much interested in art. I was starting to go to museums on my own in Frankfurt with friends that shared my interest.
Rail: And so you went to Paris to study.
Rail: Germany has such famous art schools. Why Paris?
Pousttchi: I was very young, nineteen years old, and I was very much fascinated by Paris as a multicultural place. So I wanted to live there and I wanted to study art.
Rail: What was that like? What was the art education?
Pousttchi: I went to the University of Paris VIII in Saint-Denis. The art education there was very theory-based, which meant that at the same time we were learning all different kinds of art practices we also got familiar with all kinds of theory, from anthropology to semiology.
Rail: What were the big names in theory when you were there? Who were the people who were cited a lot?
Pousttchi: The University was known for having Lacan, Deleuze and Rancière and a lot of psychoanalysis. The ones we were reading there were Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, the poststructuralists.
Rail: It’s always interesting to know who people are reading. It tells you a lot about the ethos of a place. When I was teaching at Goldsmiths College in London, all the students were talking Bergson and I had never read him. So I had to start reading him to catch up with the students because in the United States no one that I knew talked about him. Were you focusing on photography at this time?
Pousttchi: In art school I learned painting from step one and I did sculpture with all kinds of material. As I had been doing photography already for seven, eight years at that point, developing my own prints in the dark room, I wanted to learn other techniques.
Rail: And then you returned to Germany?
Pousttchi: I went on to the art academy in Düsseldorf, where I ended up studying with Rosemarie Trockel.
Rail: What was she like as a teacher?
Pousttchi: Very thoughtful, very helpful. She was open to all mediums; she opened up everyone’s practice.
Rail: When I first got to know your work, it was, again, photography. Did you gradually work your way back to that?
Pousttchi: It was still an ongoing practice. After those art school years, I continued with photography and took my experience from the other practices into it. I was fascinated early on by the new technical possibilities when many photographers were still denying it. There was a strong movement against digital technologies in the ’90s; it was the “death of photography.” It was really strong in Germany, this anxiety toward the digital.
Rail: It was a big change, probably very hard to come to terms with for people who had already not only just established their own practice but established their own understanding of how that practice related to a whole hundred-plus years of the tradition of photography.
Pousttchi: This tradition defined their ontology. There were a lot of conceptual problems as well as technical ones. The medium was defined through a certain practice. In the beginning the image quality of digital cameras was really bad and that seemed to be a strong argument against using them, as if good or bad image quality would decide whether it is good or bad art or no art at all. A technically bad painting would not necessarily be bad art or no art all, it’s just a technically bad painting.
Rail: It was really very traditionalist in a way that painting already wasn’t.
Pousttchi: Exactly. Interestingly.
Rail: That didn’t put you off?
Pousttchi: I was fascinated by those new means and embraced them. I saw a huge potential. The works that you first encountered, the series Parachutes, some people wouldn’t even consider this photography. I think now with Instagram, we’re so familiar with filters that nobody would ever question it again.
Rail: These new technologies have also enabled you to work on an architectural scale with photography, which is something quite unusual.
Pousttchi: In my photographic approach I am experimenting with new ways: from the production of the photographic image, meaning literal cameras, to the post-production, meaning the use of various software, to the realization of the digital file, meaning printing on new materials and presenting it in a different way: in public space on building facades.
Rail: How did that start, where did that thought of the photo-façade come from?
Pousttchi: In Berlin, we had a new institution for two years called the Temporäre Kunsthalle. On this temporary structure art was not only supposed to be shown on the inside of the building, but also on the façade. There where three façade projects planned, one with painting, one with photography, and one with sculpture. I was asked to come up with a proposal for the photo façade. It was an opportunity to consider the challenge of how to place a photograph on a scale that is not just blown up, but that enters a dialogue with the city, and that’s on four sides of a building, without being a photo series, but something three-dimensional. I also had to deal with the fact that the spectator would see this photograph from very, very close but also from very, very far—from two inches to one mile away. There were a lot of challenges and problems to consider.
Rail: For instance, for the spectator who saw it from a distance, was it illusionistic or was it apparent that it was a kind of fiction, an artwork?
Pousttchi: Well, I always avoid this illusionistic approach but nevertheless, I think there were quite a few people who took it as real. My imagery for Echo was taken from the Palast der Republik, the former East German parliament building, and although my version was one-fifth the size, in black and white, they told their friends that were visiting, “Oh by the way, this is the palace.” It’s surprising how perception works, and although I try to steer clear of this, it always remains because a photograph has the potential for incredible effects on memory.
Rail: And because also I think people (this is true also in the political realm) don’t actually question their own perceptions or misperceptions. If something is presented to them they tend to take it at face value, even if everything seems to contradict it.
Pousttchi: That’s a good and important point. I am always editing the images in a way that doesn’t hide that very process. I chose from the beginning to make the fiction as clear and visible as possible, to show the pixels, and so on.
Rail: Tell me a little bit about your series of work with the time clocks, how did that come about?
Pousttchi: In 2006 I did the photo series called “Take Off”at Tempelhof airport in Berlin. I was fascinated by this building and its history, from being a Nazi “super-vision” to becoming the heart of the Berlin air bridge, rescuing people, and, these days a refugee camp for Syrians. A photo of the clock there at five to two became my favorite image of the series. There was something special about a photograph of a clock that doesn’t move. It spoke about time and the potential of photography, this illusion of “capturing the moment.” “World Time Clock” is a photo series that I have made over the last eight years and just recently completed. It shows photographs of public clocks from different time zones around the world showing the same time, five minutes to two.
Rail: Do you have this expression in German that we have in English, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day?”
Pousttchi: Not really.
Rail: It’s something that you use when you’re talking about someone who is always wrong or always lying, but they have to be right by accident sometimes, so you say, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
Pousttchi: I like it!
Rail: So in a way, a photograph of a clock is also right twice a day.
Pousttchi: Exactly. “World Time Clock” started on February 29th, 2008 when I was living in London for a residency. That special day that only exists every four years made me think about the structuring of time and the calendar system. Initially there was just the concept to photograph a clock, a public clock, in different time zones of the world at always the same time throughout my life, as a long-term project.
I started with Big Ben. In the beginning, the project proceeded very slowly, but later on it accelerated. There was a moment I had to decide if I would actively travel to all these places to photograph a public clock and that was a decisive moment. I had to figure out how to do that, I had no funding behind it, it was just myself. In the beginning, for instance, I went to Mexico City on purpose for the clock project, but I was away for ten days and I only came back with one new clock. It was really not very efficient. Then I found out that there is this around-the-world ticket which is the most economical way to go to faraway places. So I did one and later another one where I traveled to several distant places all in one trip. So the project accelerated but also my travel accelerated, most of the time I was at these places for forty-eight hours only and then I moved on to the next location. Initally I thought it would be a long-term life project but now it’s completed.
Rail: You could find one of those clocks in every time zone? There are time zones that are primarily ocean.
Pousttchi: There are some full-hour time zones in the middle of the Atlantic and the middle of the Pacific, where there is just no land, so it is impossible to find a public clock. “World Time Clock” shows twenty-four different time zones, including half ones and quarter ones. For example, India has a time zone that differs by five and a half hours from London, and Myanmar has its own time zone that is six and a half hours off the zero meridian. World Time Clock at the Hirshhorn Museum shows photographs taken in places like Mumbai, Tashkent, Sydney, Yangon, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, Berlin, Anchorage, and Cape Town amongst others.
Rail: Somehow it’s funny to me that with everything we spoke of in terms of new technology, digital photography and so on, you still have to travel in person. You come up with a project that requires you to go in person just like a nineteenth century cartographer on an expedition. And of course the clocks themselves are analog mechanisms.
Pousttchi: There is something very analog about this project. There would have been other ways to produce this faster, easier, cheaper, but I decided to travel to all those places myself. I took trains and planes and buses and taxis and did an extensive physical displacement. In this digital age, where so much information is online and so much of it is wrong, I wanted to physically experience the distance and the place. I was choosing, on location, the clock in every city—they had to be iconic clocks, public clocks, and they had to be working—and I was taking the picture. It was almost performative.
Rail: I think that’s somehow an aspect of art that can never be lost, the performative. Even if you had gone the other way and had this operation commissioning people at each place to do it for you, that would have been a different performance, so to speak.
Pousttchi: In that sense every art practice is a performance.
Rail: I think sometimes we downplay that; you can see it very much in music, it’s been a paradoxical effect of the digital era, that now musicians can’t live by recorded music anymore, they can only live by live music.
Pousttchi: All of the sudden their physical presence is revalued.
Rail: At what point did sculpture come back as a major part of your work? Or were you always doing that alongside the—
Pousttchi: I started with sculpture very late in my practice. From photography I moved to the moving image and did videos that developed into video installations. That was the first step towards the third dimension. After all those years working behind screens the physical aspect of sculpture is very appealing. I always had an interest in public space so my first sculptures used objects from the street, from public space—street bollards and crowd barriers.
Rail: It seems that when I first saw them you were staying much closer to the readymade, but as things have gone on you’ve begun to manipulate objects and handle them in more the traditional sculptural sense.
Pousttchi: My sculptural approach very much starts from the readymade. I use extant objects as material that I then transform. The sculpture series Squeezers is made out of regular street bollards that you see a lot in Berlin. I change their form as well as their surface and arrange them to new sculptural entities. For several sculpture series I have used crowd barriers, for example the series Blackout as well as Double Monuments for Flavin and Tatlin, which will be on view at the Phillips Collection this summer.
Rail: Given all that, what will we see in Washington in June?
Pousttchi: The two solo exhibitions in two different institutions developed separately from each other. There is no conceptual connection. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden will show the premiere of the completed World Time Clock photo series on the entire inner ring gallery in a 360-degree presentation. The Phillips Collection will present my sculpture series Double Monuments for Flavin and Tatlin as part of their Intersections Series in dialogue with the collection. There will be five of these sculptures made out of transformed crowd barriers and fluorescent light tubes. My sculptures will be in dialogue with their Naum Gabo sculpture Linear Construction in Space No. 1 from 1943 and with early twentieth-century photography—Berenice Abbott, Brett Weston, Louis Faurer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, and Gjon Mili .
Rail: In terms of that juxtaposition of your work with the collection, were you actively involved in which works your works would interact with or was this the curator’s choice?
Pousttchi: It was a dialogue with the curator.
Rail: Tell me a little about that, about some of the choices that the two of you made.
Pousttchi: The Phillips Collection is a museum that has a fantastic collection with a large photography section. I have an affinity for early twentieth-century black-and-white photography and I was choosing pictures that relate to my work.
The Gabo sculpture connects very well to the Double Monuments for Flavin and Tatlin.
The works from the collection will get a special presentation in the adjacent space to the room where my five light sculptures will be presented. I am looking forward to the dialogue between those two spaces.
This exhibition at the Phillips Collection will be a very different experience from the presentation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where the completed World Time Clock will be on view for the first time. The architecture of their round Gordon Bunshaft building corresponds so well with this body of work. The 24 large-scale black-and-white photographs will be presented in one horizontal line along the full circle of the third-floor inner ring gallery. It is a loop and so the way the spectator can physically experience World Time Clock resembles the movement of a clock or the movement around the globe.
Rail: And you have the important choice, whether to walk clockwise or counterclockwise.
Pousttchi: Exactly! [Laughter.] Yes, that is a choice to make, but either way you will not walk around the globe in the geographically correct order. I decided to show the clocks in a geographic zigzag, so you switch from Sydney to Anchorage to London to Bangkok.
Rail: Which I suppose is probably closer to what happens when we travel in our lives—when we get off we get off the plane it’s not a linear connection to the last place that you were.
Pousttchi: It also is closer to how this work was produced. Another interesting aspect about showing World Time Clock at the Hirshhorn Museum is that it’s in Washington, D.C., where the international time zone system as we have it today was established. In 1884 the International Meridian Conference, took place in D.C. where many nations came together and decided about the unified time system that we still have today. It was decided during that conference in Washington. They also had to decide on the zero point, and there were different cities in play, London and Paris amongst them. The French were so disappointed at not getting it that they didn’t accept that system for almost thirty years.
Rail: The French have the official meter, so it’s fair.
Pousttchi: It’s fair! [Laughter.] Did you go to the prime meridian, to Greenwich ?
Rail: I lived in London! Of course.
Pousttchi: I also visited Greenwich during my stay in London, it’s a very special place. They welcomed me with the words “Welcome to the center of time and space.” At a time when no place can any longer claim to be the center of the world, that was somehow a striking sentence. I only discovered during the process how much this project related to the history of colonialism. When I was looking for clocks in all these places, it was very decisive. If a place was a former British colony it would have many more clocks, and they would have much more resemblance to Big Ben than in other places.
Historically the knowledge of time was a privilege. Watches were very expensive and only noble people had them. Setting up public clocks was a way to give everybody this knowledge of time. So, public clocks were also a sign of democracy.
BARRY SCHWABSKY is the art critic of The Nation.