Alexandra Leykauf in Conversation with Kathleen Rahn
Berlin, 19 February 2010
Kathleen Rahn: You use found photographs for your films, collages, and installations, which you then either copy or photograph and then rearrange. How do you actually go about finding the images you use?
Alexandra Leykauf: I spent a great deal of time in libraries and archives. I start with a vague idea, browse through the books, come across something here or there which then absorbs me. It’s not necessarily the best books on a subject that are of interest to me. Often enough it’s the superficial images or details not directly associated with the essentials in question. Whilst browsing, I’ll come across an image that catches my eye and draws me to it without my knowing why. Months later, I’ll remember it and then it turns out that the image fits perfectly into a collage or becomes the starting point for a whole series. It has something to do with intuition as well. My intuition is definitely better than my planning and my powers of imagination. Searching and finding are two entirely different categories. Sometimes I am looking for a particular motif and am disappointed when I don’t find it. Whilst searching, maybe I’ll come across an image that will find a use at a later date in another work.
KR: Your film »Uit De Bibliotheek Van Wolfgang Frommel« (2009) was shown yesterday at Forum Expanded. You used source material in this instance from the actual place to which you had been invited. It is self-evident here that you are interested in libraries. Are you often asked to take part in projects in order to work specifically with the history of a place, that is to say, with the material you find there?
AL: No, it was altogether a new framework. The poet Wolfgang Frommel left a library behind him comprising around 2,500 volumes, which was subsequently broken up and dispersed in 2009. I arranged a selection of two hundred book for the film in such a way that a new text emerged from the book titles. The books were laid out next to one another on a conveyor belt, which propelled them from right to left through the camera’s field of vision at reading speed. On the one hand, the film is based on my personal selection, as well as on any coincidental connections that may have arisen. It transcends the content of the books by using the titles as a freely disposable vocabulary. On the other, it reflects the personality of the library’s owner; it preserves an insight into his interests and preferences. Working with a previous selection made by another collector, i.e. to see the given material through a double filter as it were, was a new experience for me. It was fun visualising the initial filter—Wolfgang Frommel—whilst I was working.
KR: Another important thematic area, which crops up in your work is the theatre—the stage and the auditorium as spaces. You have compiled information in your research about several theatre fires, which you have used in different versions. Somehow, the narrated story burns down, that is to say, disintegrates into ashes. What is noticeable is that you have chosen photographs that show the totality of scene from the relatively objective, reasonably unemotional point of view of the observer. The ruin that emerges from the devastation is placed centre-stage rather than the activities of those fighting the fire and, indeed, the catastrophe itself.
AL: In reality, a theatre fire is most definitely a terrible thing in itself. However in art, it facilitates perhaps precisely those hopes and utopian projections you are talking about. There is a spark, which ignites the matter in the true sense of the word, and the viewer’s physical here and now or present, emerges from the representation in the moment of destruction. The images are, on the one hand, a documentation of a catastrophe, which occurred in the past; it is easy to read which period we are dealing with in the photographs. I tend to come across the overall view in older photographs. On the other hand, they show the moment in which the theatrical performance breaks through the status of representation and coincides with the here and now of the viewer.
I wanted to use theatre fires as a backdrop. The actual drama is taking place in front of the backdrop, that is to say in the exhibition space where the viewer is both protagonist and audience at the same time; it is not contained within the backdrop itself.
KR: You often build models made from cardboard with photocopies and photos pasted on to them, and then you take photographs of them. This gives rise to a shift in perspective. You also erect settings like this for your films, such as »Filmriss« (2006) for example, in which several models of theatre fires are placed on a stage so that ultimately what you see is the burning of the film material used to film this miniature stage.
AL: The actual event of a film tearing is similar to a theatre fire. What happens in the cinema when the film tears? The members of the audience experience the destruction of the film on the screen and become aware of themselves in the darkened auditorium. They turn to look towards the projection room, towards the projector. A new sense of space emerges. The film performance can be thought of as an inverted perspective drawing. The projector functions as the vanishing point and the screen as the image plane. Extrapolate this idea further, then the viewer is caught in the image and the tear in the film not only liberates the actors on the screen, but also the viewer.
»Filmriss« is a film about just that, a tear in the film. It is the document of an unrepeatable process, namely a self-destructing film performance.
KR: We are witnesses to a fire, to destruction . . .
AL: Destruction or liberation? In order to reach a new condition, first of all the old one has to melt away, disintegrate. Whether this experience of transition is perceived metaphysically or not, it nevertheless crops up metaphorically in very different ways. Be it divine illumination, ecstasy, existential experience during wartime, or a lacerated screen.
KR: The viewer becomes a witness to an ending and a beginning. At the same time, you make the visitor walk a bit, i.e. you arrange your installation in such a way that you walk around it because you project the films onto the backs of display boards, which are then arranged as perspective compositions.
AL: My works revolve around the search for an individual standpoint, the standpoint of the viewer in front of an image, but also in general about one’s individual standpoint in the world. I am attracted to the theatre because it is a condensed form of reality. Where am I exactly in relation to what is being enacted? Can I glimpse behind the scenes or am I stuck in my seat in the auditorium? How does my perspective change if I leave my seat? Does the space outside the constructed reality of a play or a film have other qualities that touch upon the period, character, and meaning of the space? Is there a direct experience, an immediate view, a possibility to disrupt the representation? And what remains then when the representation—that is to say a depiction of something attached to a medium—suddenly falls away?
KR: In your work you often depict places, spaces—for example baroque gardens—that represent particular emotions and a drifting off into other states.
AL: Geometrically laid out gardens have something rational about them for me. They are perspective drawings that you can actually walk around; they are meant to be representational stages. Just like any other staging, they are most convincing when the viewer takes up the ideal viewing point and thus can disrupt the power of this staging by a change of perspective. A firmly rooted position always engenders an »off«, an invisible space beyond the image. It is this »beyond« that attracts me.
KR: I discern a questioning of given perspectives in all your work; for example, via the fact that you create perspective arrangements from many standpoints or that you bring hitherto concealed entities to the fore once more, such as colour from beneath the black surface layer. What role do joins and layering have in your work? Where does this aspect come from?
AL: I am fundamentally interested in things concealed in joins, in the curvature of space, the element of the unknown behind it . . .
It all started when I was a student. I photographed images in books at that time that were printed across double pages and so inevitable were interrupted, disjointed. Part of the motif disappears in the join between the pages. The join disrupts the image and shows the surface of the reproduction as a surface; it prevents entry into the pictorial space by making it apparent that one is dealing with a book that has been photographed and no longer a landscape. However, in my selection, the join alters and extends it at the same time as a motif. Sometimes the join produces a concealed place out of which details of the image seem to emerge, but also disappear at the same time; sometimes the join has an extremely graphic compositional effect.
KR: The assembling of images recurs in all your work, be it the poster books, the films, but also in this book. Similarly, as I asked you at the outset, I am interested in your search criteria, the way you determine the sequence of images?
AL: This book is derived from a slide show in which I re-sorted and exchanged individual images. I arranged the sequence of images formally, but also associatively, that is to say, certain forms run through a sequence of images and through different epochs and contexts from which the images derive. However, I also arrange motifs in relation to one another in terms of their content. A psychological test, comprising a handful of wooden triangles (to be ordered by test subjects) is juxtaposed with triangular segments of a gothic arch, a building by Walter Gropius alongside stage scenery for Rheingold, an image from a paper activities book can also be placed side by side with a page from a book I have folded, despite the dissimilarity of the forms. I consider the totality of the images to be a kaleidoscope; the individual facets stand as equals side by side and constantly generate new points of contact. There is no development, no narrative—for example, nothing which might chart an architectural history. The kaleidoscope image or indeed, that of a round dance, sums it up very nicely!
English translation: Timothy Connell
Alexandra Leykauf, Chateau de Bagatelle
Musée d'art Moderne de la ville de Paris, Galerie Martin van Zomeren,
Verlag für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2010