17 August 2021
17 August 2021
Raphaela and Elisa are talking about Raphaela's sculpture while strolling in a shopping mall in Berlin.
E: On top of two used refrigerators, one bright red and half open, one closed and papered with dog postcards, stand two bronze giraffes. Their mouths hold a garland of letters: “THERE ARE INDEED MEDIUM-SIZED NARRATIVES”.
It almost seems as if the giraffes are appealing to passersby like a misplaced entrance gate to a Coney Island-style amusement park, behind which ultimately nothing but sand and skyscrapers pile up?
R: Yes, it has a bit of stacked bulky waste that is somehow out of place, doesn't belong anywhere, and almost has a pathetic connotation: so directly by the sea.
E: The giraffes made me think of Zarafa, who was brought from Egypt across the Mediterranean to Paris in 1826, one of the first living giraffes given as a gift from Muhammad Ali of Egypt to King Charles X in France and later becoming an "exotic" gimmick—similar to Peter Friedl's stuffed giraffe named Brownie at documenta 12.
R: Animals have a long tradition when it comes to symbolic representations of values and ideas. I had actually planned a work with horses and heraldry, which have played a role in my work for a long time, as well as lions. In the course of the process, I ended up with giraffes, because I needed a quasi-heraldic animal for this margin of Europe, this coast from which the continent was being left for good, but mostly for not so good reasons. Thus, I needed an animal that does not stand for Europe and also because other animals cannot be put on the pedestal of representation so easily.
E: That means you were concerned here with the conventions, heritage, and aspirations of heraldry, how such "wild creatures" are stylized into proud beasts?
R: Some of these animals are undomesticatible. This is not only about a kind of worship, but above all about exploitation: the ambivalence of how we deal with animals, how civilizations, groups and individuals represent themselves through animals and use them as gestures of triumph. Think of giraffe or zebra heads decorating living rooms as wall trophies.
For example, I found it interesting that during the colonization of Africa, people tried to interbreed zebras with horses in order to domesticate them and be able to use more robust and stronger working animals in areas where there are actually no horses. However, the chimera-like crossing of zebra and horse created a new working animal which failed to procreate. So the idea of creating a “power animal” from a wild animal failed. Then the Europeans invented the car, measuring its power in horsepower.
E: I still remember that as a child it was often whispered to one that the giraffe is a cross between a camel and a leopard because of its physique and fur pattern. Are your giraffes female or male and does their sex matter at all?
R: This is actually a couple that is already fully grown. You can recognize this, for example, by the testicles of the male animal. The giraffes are neither life-size nor miniature. They are medium-sized, so to speak.
E: Medium-sized can sometimes sound like a compromise…
R: Yes. The grand narratives are over. The garland of letters here also refers to a well-known thought by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, which has become something of a postmodern slogan. On the one hand, it described the failure of the project of modernity. On the other hand, it was interpreted as that micro-politics could now take over.
E: That means the sculpture also resonates with a kind of idea of extinction?
R: Exactly. But also the idea that in parallel there are medium-sized stories that are more than just micro-politics—anti-racism or feminism, for example —but that are also not encompassing everything. These are stories in the sense of interpretations. The giraffes become spokespeople and carry the phrase in front of them, beyond being working animals. They have a certain authority by communicating the sentence from above… almost like smart alecks.
E: With the phrase “THERE ARE INDEED MEDIUM-SIZED NARRATIVES”, you can't help but feel like you've missed the beginning of a conversation, like you're a bystander stumbling into the middle of a discussion or speech.
R: That's right. The sentence is intentionally ripped out of context, an argument. It's a dialogue between advocates of large and very small initiatives. You just pick up scraps of words and wonder what "indeed" and "but" refer to. Did you feel the same way?
E: Yes. I immediately tried to look at these "medium-sized narratives" under a magnifying glass and tried to grasp them—in vain, because although the lettering and the giraffes supposedly speak directly to an audience, something is obfuscating here and neither the story itself nor its scale become concrete.
R: "Medium-sized narratives" is here, in a way, also a nonsense phrase. After all, no comparison is drawn to similar objects or ideas, which could serve as a guide for its definition. So one has to look for this comparison oneself.
E: Yes, "medium-sized" has almost something unsatisfying as an adjective, it is neither fish nor fowl, somehow "lukewarm." However, some absolute superlatives aren't more meaningful—like "oberfaul" (very fishy), for example.
R: Or: "ultranackt” (ultra naked).
E: That sums it up even better. That was the title of your exhibition in Basel, right?
E: The aesthetics of the garland pick up on this latent contradiction with its robust engraved letters that one might expect to find on a memorial plaque. And yet they seem—so isolated, attached to a thin string and jingling when set in motion by gusts of wind—a little frail. What was the inspiration for the material and typeface?
R: I actually made an attempt to not choose a neutral or technical font—such as Arial or a squiggly one like old German—from the font palette that was available at the tombstone dealer. Instead, I chose one that was in between and not immediately recognizable. Do you have a particular association with the font?
E: Although my stepbrother runs one of Berlin's oldest funeral homes, I've somehow missed diving into tombstone inscriptions until now. The font doesn't really have any pre-assigned connotations for me, but it still feels familiar because of its subtle 3D comic-like character. I somehow had to think of the Stone Age flair of the "Yabba Dabba Doo" lettering that adorns the lawn of the infamous “Flintstone house” in California. That may not be a coincidence.
R: Yes, but the Flintstones represent a very big story. Or actually not. Nuclear family forever, from the beginning to the present day. With the letter garland, I had thought of an inscription, as one knows it from gravestones. The starting point for the sculpture was the meaning and function of monumental sculpture in public space today, which also suggests bronze as a material. The function of monumental monuments no longer exists in this sense, and yet it was important to me to work out elements of it. In the past, people put what was always already big, the dominant, on a pedestal and made it even bigger. The giraffes are considered big, but they are only medium-sized. They do not rule. However, that they are not nothing either, one sees only when they stand on a pedestal: you can then imagine that they have not been placed on it, but have climbed it. Like at Speaker's Corner in London. Only instead of a box, they have placed themselves on the refrigerators of the economic miracle, to then talk about the slogans of the following epoch—postmodernism. They thus find themselves in a historical temporality in which regimes follow regimes…
E: Even statues can die. Recently, in light of revived debates about colonialism and racism, monuments have been violently torn down. One might think also of Leninopad (literally "Leninfall"), a pun that arose from the massive wave of grotesque demolitions of Lenin monuments in the wake of decommunization in Kiev. Can your sculpture be interpreted as an attempt to negotiate the role of monuments and their transformation over time—the fact that during upheavals, public space is actually always reordered in terms of political remembrance?
R: However, this is also true: the statues can die to the same extent as the concrete or generic things or persons they represent live on.
E: Did you think about this sculpture in public space in a substantially different way than you think about sculptures that you develop for exhibition spaces?
R: Yes, certainly. This is my first sculpture in public space, which is fundamentally different from the gallery space and new territory for me.
E: Especially from the 1960s on, art in urban space went hand in hand with having an effect beyond the cult of the expert, reaching an audience beyond the museum walls on the street, and using sculptures (mostly created by male artists) as a disruptive factor in the bourgeois ideas of public space.
One is reminded of Vostell's "concrete Cadillacs" on Rathenauplatz in 1987, which drew fierce citizen protests. By the end of the 1990s, things got a bit more pragmatic. In his 1997 published book, aptly titled Die Kunst im öffentlichen Raum oder Ein Gemeinplatz und sein Elend (Art in Public Space or a Commonplace and its Misery), the psychologist and art historian F. W. Heubach wrote about the "subjugation of art to the demand, hitherto directed more at post offices, urinals and stores for daily needs, namely: to be accessible within walking distance.” Would you agree with that in light of "medium-sized narratives"?
R: What would be the opposite of "daily needs"? "Sunday needs"? Church? Art at sites of pilgrimage? Public space is neither the salvation nor the downfall of art. But Mail Art, Duchamp and Broodthaers have already taken care of post offices, urinals and small stores…
In a courtyard next to a trailer:
E: A trailer as a container is my personal nightmare—similar to a tent. How does it work in winter? Their standardized dimensions don't necessarily adapt to the human body and its needs at all, but sometimes squeeze it into an idealistic geometric shape. Where were we?
R: Gravestones and refrigerators.
E: As a preserving container, the refrigerator probably epitomizes the fetish of modernity like no other. Of all the objects in the standard kitchen, the refrigerator is probably the most relationship-intensive device. On average, you open it about ten times a day. Michael Fried even attributed a "great presence" to this anthropomorphic figure of a box. The giraffes seem to go to the barricades against this anthropomorphic presence?
R: The idea was, as I said, a counter-reaction to Lyotard's "grand narratives," which should be understood on a humorous level. In the refrigerator there are more or less "natural" animal and plant products that have become commodities. But instead of using them immediately, we preserve them, keep house. This is also about the question of how to take care of one’s "own front garden": how to eat and with what things to fill their body, but also in terms of fundamental moral-ethical issues.
E: Art is almost removed from the pedestal here, although you also offer the giraffes a pedestal at the same time. That could be read as a satire on the pedestal itself?
R: That's right. On the one hand you have a pedestal, on the other hand it doesn't take itself so seriously. Also, I was thinking about how to elevate the giraffes a bit, because they're not that big. I wanted to transport them out of the real world, so that they visually achieve the size they actually are.
E: From a distance, it looks as if the giraffes are standing independently and loosely on the refrigerators. Again, appearances are deceiving. The giraffes are actually attached?
R: They are bolted to the refrigerator via the hooves. I only put them on one refrigerator in my studio, which was a precarious constellation. Especially outdoors, they have to be statically bombproof.
E: Perhaps also in order to avoid doing too much justice to the time-honored art-philosophical credo—“is this art or can it go away”?
R: When I thought of the sculpture, I also had "refrigerator art" in mind, as Thomas Rentmeister does, for example. Although for me the sculpture is not about continuing a Minimalist tradition, on the contrary. One sometimes reads it as a violent intrusion of everyday cultural "trash" into the exhibition space: as resistance against a certain auratization that often exists in the gallery space.
E: Yes. The refrigerator is obviously not new, but used and almost grid-like pasted with various postcards, all depicting Chinese Shar-Pei dogs (a so-called torture breed). In addition to its "inferiority," is there a certain emotional affect that has been stored in the object from its past owner?
R: The refrigerator is from a friend's aunt, which I had for years in the studio and also in use. But then the fuses tripped every now and then, so I finally threw it out. I found the larger red refrigerator on the street in the Berlin district of Neukölln.
E: The red fridge is slightly open and you can see a kind of skeleton structure. It reminds me a bit of Jindrich Polák's Ikarie XB 1, the interior of a spaceship…
R: Yes, the interior of the refrigerator looks futuristic, alienating and a bit terse. The frame looks like a rocket spaceport to me.
E: The refrigerator: after all, an unpredictable quasi-subject and "incarnation" of totalitarian modernist visions? I should have brought a fork for the cake.
R: Maybe ask the people in the trailer. Just say we're from Interzone.
Elisa goes to the trailer and gets a fork and sits down next to Raphaela again.
E: We're about to get pelted with rain here.
R: But it could move on. Look, the sky is getting brighter again…
This conversation between Raphaela Vogel and Elisa R. Linn took place in Berlin and was translated and edited by Sofia Leiby.
Elisa R. Linn is a curator, writer and educator based in Berlin and New York.
Raphaela Vogel is a Berlin-based artist who made the sculpture There Are Indeed Medium-Sized Narratives for Beaufort 21 in Middelkerke.