COLLIER SCHORR in conversation with THOMAS DEMAND
“How I Made Germany Mine” was the title of a recent talk given by COLLIER SCHORR at the American Academy in Berlin. The New York-born artist has been spending the summer with in-laws in Schwäbisch Gmünd for nearly two decades. This small city in the German state of Baden-Württemburg was the site of two American army bases after WWII, and Schorr’s work took on innumerable dualities there. Individualism and nationalism, history and identity, war and peace – all themes intuited and exhumed in her work. So is the tension between the photographer and her subject, of which Schorr could not be more aware: she ties up flowers with the same tentative consciousness that appears in her photographs of German teens, as unsettled in their uniforms as we are in our individual histories. The following conversation is the result of a several-week-long correspondence between Collier Schorr and German artist Thomas Demand.
THOMAS DEMAND: I’d like to start with a quote by Ettore Sottsass: “What kind of relation exists between people, thoughts, and the space in which they are? Who knows whether there is any: a real, deep relation caused by both cause and effect on which one can say, ‘If that’s like this, then it must be like this,’ instead of having to state, ‘It may be like that but could be any other way too.’” Is the relation he speaks about anything that you could apply to your situation while working in Germany? Do you think you have an understanding of what’s going on behind the walls?
COLLIER SCHORR: Each year I have spent in Germany I have had a greater understanding of what it is to be German. But to clarify, I would say that the learning curve lessened in time and that at some point I was literally at the same standstill, meaning I could only learn so much from a people who are so conflicted about experiencing their own history. I came to Germany as someone whose religion (Jewish) gave me a sense of the oppressed and whose nationality (American) gave me the sense of the occupier. All this made me a somewhat conceited, narcissistic, and fantasy-driven visitor.
When living in the States, more than when living in Britain, I always had the feeling that I would never get behind the references used in daily life, despite the fact that there might be none, or that they might be extremely trivial once I found them out. I recognized myself as the equivalent of the American at Oktoberfest, who sees the lederhosen and funny hats, but who certainly gets something out of it. But I wonder if he’ll just get his own preconceptions illustrated or if he’ll ever get close to the facets of this event, which aren’t the obvious ones.
To be American and see militarized Americans walking around might be akin to a German looking at a pastiche of a German. At some point, one does recognize that essential tie to reality. I think, as a tourist, one gravitates towards the clichés and stereotypes as a way to navigate a space one has little control over. Every day, the visitor compares what is real or viewable to what is known or referenced. As a Jew of Eastern European descent, some things were familiar to me – some words, for instance. So there is a strange sense of “Heimlich-ness” (a perfect example of my bastardized thinking) – a positive and nostalgic pull towards this picture of Germany before the War. But being in Berlin is so different than being in Schwäbisch Gmünd.
When you come here, you presumably see your patterns and assumptions about Germany and its history in details and contexts in which Germans probably wouldn’t claim that they are hidden – such as the name of a small shop on the wall and so forth. I am curious to know how much you rely on unconsciously-collected presumptions or whether you really go and do research, historical digging and so on?
I always wanted to photograph a skull in Germany. I suppose you can’t get any more rudimentary in terms of a weighted object. But I didn’t have a skull. The only skull I could find was from a deer, which was about as intimidating and loaded as a piece of strudel. And yet, I always think I have photographed a skull, but I am really referring to my still life pictures with helmets. I change the helmet to a skull in my imagination. I am often surprised it’s not there when I look at the actual pictures. But of course, that is how I work, shooting the thing that isn’t there. Creating a lighting, tone, and atmosphere of the skull, without the skull. I actually purged myself of this skull desire by shooting the shadow of a skull, so that again, it isn’t there, but would seem to be hovering. In that way, I understand the cliché of the representation without being overwhelmed by a flood of references.
Just to get this idea of the cliché of reference a bit clearer: what do you think of Luc Tuymans’ way of revisiting German iconography, and more importantly, his play with our presumption that the imagery he uses is both evil and innocent? He surfs on the edge between pretending not to know and having a complete knowledge of who or what he is depicting – Albert Speer skiing, or a gas chamber, for instance. In the last few years he seems to have become more and more convinced that he’s actually gained a moralist competence and can judge what people do and deserve.
Who was it that first introduced the innocuous image that foreshadowed death or suffering? I’m not much of an art historian. Géricault?
Oh, right. Well, to be honest, I don’t trust painting any more than I trust make-believe. Whenever photographers deal with history they have to deal with the obvious critique of staging. That has been an issue for me: how can one make a kind of document of the past in photography without inviting the theatrical? In painting, it is always fiction/paint, so the painter is already playing fast and loose. Also, paint makes nostalgia too palatable. The lack of specificity merged with icons disturbs me as much as it attracts me. Whenever I see satellite dishes in Germany I think of Tuymans’ paintings. Is that weird? I guess I see some of those types of washy, gauzy paintings as the basis of communications, but sorely missing the specific communiqués. I love to look at his work sometimes, but … I feel something of a guilty feeling. What about you?
I think it’s very appealing and obviously my generation profited from a few of the liberties he took, such as, can you actually make a flimsy painting with such a heavily loaded undercurrent? Or, how can you constantly look back at things rather than produce something constructive in aiming at things to come? He has a nearly cynical attitude. On the other hand he has the heaviest chain smoker’s cough you can imagine. I wonder if he ever painted an x-ray of his lung. You smoke?
That is the luxury painting is afforded. The medium allows for thinness, for the veil. I think we enter into troubled water when we feel our works must cloak content; either you’re interested in saying something or not. Then the job is to figure out how to stage that thought, rather than how to avoid looking too much like one is thinking. I smoked for ten years. I made myself take it up because I was obsessed by the writer Fran Lebowitz when I was 19. I was a very good smoker, loved smoking, but at some point the desire to look young replaced the desire to look cool and I was never that cool-looking to begin with. Ironically, the cover of the catalogue I am doing for my project at the Deutsche Guggenheim shows me at 26 smoking, and I have to say, I look both young and cool.
I brought up Tuymans for a reason: I wonder to what extent certain topics demand a carefulness by the user – that is, a responsibility to suffering, etc. – the tabloid level of discussion. I think he refuses it, and maybe I do too; I think it’s a picture of something, not that something in fact. But at times I have the impression that might just be a rhetorical trick, copyrighted by Magritte (“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”). One day someone kicks your ass and shows you how a gas chamber really feels, or in your case a Schwäbisch Gmündian fella knocks you over.
No Gmünder has ever knocked me down. That’s a funny thought. But I do remember that I once befriended a Vespa rider and copped his look for a while. As you know, Scooter boys have a similar look to skinheads, so I was in red Doc Martens, a nylon army flight jacket, tight jeans rolled up. And I had very short hair at the time. I realized once, as I was walking home, that I was scaring people. They actually thought I was a neo-Nazi. I immediately found it more horrifying to scare than to be scared. I stopped wearing that look soon after. In my state of dress I would worry more about the “loadedness” of objects; in my artwork, not so much. Responsibility to suffering seems to me a worry for others. I’m not worried about it as much as I’m worried that any one picture is only about the subject; rather, a picture of a Nazi youth is also about the other youth of the day – it is also about the old person looking back and about the history of who might have taken that photo, or about who may have such a similar photo, or who feels okay about displaying that photo. It’s interesting that you bring up mortality twice within the discussion of Tuymans. Who was it that first introduced the innocuous image that foreshadowed death or suffering? I’m not much of an art historian. Géricault? When I think of a knapsack I always think of Jeff Wall’s photo of the boy with the huge pack on his back. I did a drawing based on a photo taken by a friend of my father’s when he was a soldier in Vietnam. The picture is a still life that he either made or found, of a skull next to his backpack and bedroll. Of course it is the ultimate example of foreshadowing – he only lasted four weeks in Vietnam before he was killed. In the present, I would think Richter’s record player in the October 18, 1977 painting would be a precursor to the object as weight. The Nivea can in Kippenberger’s “Dear Painter, Paint Me” series always feels like it is trying to say something more. When I started making flower pictures I wanted to make portraits of something that escaped nationality and identity, but that kept an idea of the “pose” and a kind of struggle between the subject and the photographer – so I uprooted the flowers and transported them to another location, tied them and watched them die. But they’re just flower pictures.
I fell in love with Schwäbisch Gmünd’s cityscape before anything else. The idea of a Marktplatz, where one could sit and drink coffee outdoors, smoke, read the Herald Tribune, watch people milling about – that correlated more to European fantasy. I didn’t really notice or engage with the landscape the first summer I visited. I thought I knew the landscape from Gursky and Struth but it looked so different; so much riper, greener, sensual. My first project, shooting a teenage boy in jeans wearing makeup, posing in his grandfather’s garden, was about trying to tease out the seduction of landscape. People refer to those portraits as a boy dressed like a girl, but that is incorrect. He was dressed very much like the boy he was, but his face was painted, to make it prettier, more flirtatious and more adorned. He was a physical representation of the call of that nature. Maybe it’s a south/north thing, but the Germany I found was different than the one I saw in pictures and so that is how I began to approach the land. Much later I read Simon Schama’s Landscape as Memory and I felt as though he was addressing the concerns or observations I had – that is, essentially, when one is looking for history, one can see everything that once happened on a piece of land in the present time. I would say that the figure exists in my pictures primarily to jog that landscape. Maybe my gesture is like a farm machine, turning the soil. I’m constantly trying to turn the soil. The idea that farmers, when ploughing their fields have been known to upturn a helmet or belt buckle makes me extremely jealous: One, because I want those items, and two, because it is such a literal description of my interests. But getting back to the landscape, Gmünd has mountains, forests, fields, and lakes, so there really is an abundance of places to shoot. There are also factories and farms, old military installations and a women’s prison. Every time I think I have exhausted its terrain something new comes up. Now that the Americans have left, they’ve left behind a shell – an untended baseball field, a gigantic flagpole. The flagpoles in Germany are very small, as patriotism is too close to nationalism to allow for a massive flagpole. I just found out that there are the remnants of a border wall built to separate Germania from the Romans. There is something refreshing about a German war pre-Stahlhelm.
Your most recent project seems to dive into journalistic behavior, research and puzzling along. Did that give you the chills? Have you been surprised to find so much/so little? Do you think this focusing on an all-American fate was closer to what you know, so in a way did it feel more trivial or more familiar?
When I was in a college journalism program, one of our assignments was to cover a trial involving a journalist from the news program “60 Minutes.” Mike Wallace and the program were being sued by Ret. General Westmorland. They had done a segment that accused him of altering the body count in Vietnam – upping the North Vietnamese death tole and underestimating the US one. I would say that probably informed much of what I do today – the idea that from every level of a war, from a soldier killing a civilian or accidentally killing a fellow soldier to a top-ranking official manufacturing numbers to keep the American public in the dark. In my earliest work, I was learning about a place simultaneous to recreating or documenting it. It was only mine due to the American occupation – meaning I felt entitled as an American Jew to take whatever I wanted and to make it mine. The more I developed ties to the town, the less I was interested in my fantasies of its history. The last years, shooting at a factory or a prison, or making portraits of an infirm SS officer with his family, that would clearly point more towards a kind of journalism. But I would never suppose that my work there would veer too far from a personal relationship between who I was the first day I stepped foot in Germany. Because my background is in journalism, not art, everything I do entails some kind of investigation or interview. But if I were such a journalist, I would have found out years ago that there was a thriving Jewish community in Schwäbisch Gmünd before the war. Shooting in the hull of the Nazi submarine that was used to film Das Boot is probably the best approximation of how my work functions. The sub was real, but it was used as a set and now it exists at Bavaria Film Studios as a tourist attraction. But what does it mean to tour a Nazi sub used in a film as part of a day of fun? Everything was pinned, glued, or nailed down, but I managed to take something off the sub as a souvenir of the strange territories between fear and fetish and the notion that victors, villains, and victims are constantly occupying the same space together.
I started doing my own research to a much more engaged degree. Standing in front of a place where, two months ago, the most wanted man in Italy, a Mafiosi by the way, was hiding for a year or so, gave me the chills. But when you find a pan in the grass (the godfather’s pan, not pen) then the scenery really deflates into the trivial. This was all hugely exciting of course, but within a second it can all disappear.
You are clearly a historian/journalist/re-stager in your work, too. I love the subtleties – the anonymity of spaces that were used for such extreme activities. The women’s prison in town looks like a set from a Disney movie about Germany. Originally it was a monastery that partially burned down. America has much fewer special reincarnations. I suppose you and I both expect that people will bring more than a surface reading to the works. But that also supposes that people are engaged by all history, which I think is not always the case. Memory as well as attention is a selective thing.
I can’t really claim to dependably report on factual matters, anyway – I think that’s pretty clear when one sees my work. Instead I am aiming for that weak spot in the factuality, when things get turned around so often that they become more fictional than they should – when they dissolve into literature. When I look at your work, I see an overburdening imagination and symbolism, in which everything becomes meaningful to your plot. You mentioned Walter Abish’s How German Is It, which I dutifully read, and I found it so twisted and sinister. But it’s really instructive to help understand what you seem to think of us. Is it fair to say that you have an unwritten novel in mind for which you are looking for illustrations? Can you say something about your current state of mind in terms of literature and your own plans for writing again? You mentioned years ago that you wanted to write a novel …
Saying one will write a novel is a bit like saying one will be beautiful. If it hasn’t happened yet, it probably never will. But I am intent on writing a screenplay, which I suppose inevitably leads to directing a movie. Perhaps, in my mind, I already have the film stills and I fancy writing the screenplay so that the pictures have more ground. When you say what you think of “us,” you suggest there is such a collective “you” in Germany. Don’t you know that Germany isn’t an “us” anymore? I love Abish’s book because he is imagining a state of mind where generations are so broken apart; the German landscape, rebuilt, echoes this disjunction. The screenplay or the movie I want to make takes place in Norway between 1945 and 1950. It is entirely in Norwegian and German. I love the idea of writing a foreign film. Structurally of course, one has a lot of leeway in a foreign film versus a Hollywood film – room to meander a bit, caress the landscape. I’m a big fan of Bergman, and I have the idea to shoot in November because the light shows an unforgiving coldness. Art is not the place to look for historical proof, but then neither are written histories or political speeches. But through art, viewers may see accurate perceptions of a time period and that may be enough. I love being the third party or the third wheel in my endeavors. The first artist I worked for or even really knew was Richard Prince, so using him as a guide it’s fair to say that appropriation is always at large. There’s a sense that one can lift the past.
What does it mean to tour a Nazi sub used in a film as part of a day of fun? Everything was pinned, glued, or nailed down, but I managed to take something off the sub as a souvenir of the strange territories between fear and fetish and the notion that victors, villains, and victims are constantly occupying the same space together.
Photography, and to a certain degree yours especially, makes things so appealing. Do you work on that aspect, or is everything you do blessed with this magic? I am not being ironic, by the way. I think your pictures (and I haven’t seen the drawings yet) are full of this glance; I realize I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe it.
My biggest problem with photography is its tendency to aggrandize the things it is critiquing. Its very nature as a scientific or mechanical product means that it can make something bigger, better and more beautiful than it really is. Scale is so important and I think it is really misused at times. Photos do not need to be as big as they can be. A lot of my portraits have gone down in scale, because I’m interested less in making an icon and more in creating a sense of community. I remember seeing your picture of the bomb makers’ studio (Attempt, 2005) at MoMA. For me, it might be one of the most successful of your pictures, precisely because it wasn’t sly. One could only consume it along with its meaning or history. There was no chance of escape. I don’t remember it as being iconic even though it was large – its size only made it feel more dangerous and aptly real. Using scale to impress or overwhelm is like hunting with a machine gun. When I make most pictures I don’t set out to seduce, but I think I am seduced by the proximity to another person, the magic trick of catching them. With the flowers I really wanted to make something stunning and emotional – memorials with a teasing manner. I’m curious if you have wanted to work with objects that carry weight but have then decided against representing them.
Often, but I kind of hesitate if I have the feeling the topic or the channels through which they came to my attention overwhelmed my possible reactions. In the beginning, and with my Düsseldorf background, I thought the more opaque and uncommitted, the better, until I realized while studying in London that that was just some kind of dialect, which they perpetuated since Beuys, like a lazy cockney or something.
I think we both operate in and outside of the Düsseldorf history, taking different approaches while maintaining a relationship, be it a historical acuity or certain formal echoes. But as you know, Germany does not allow foreigners German status so easily. For myself, I think I pull more from Sander than the Bechers. I wonder how you feel about this idea of lineage, how you think our work relates to one another’s and to Düsseldorf policies.
See, the weird thing is that I never counted myself as one of them. I studied sculpture and that is still my point of departure. I really take it seriously that the whole photo- graphic apparatus is supposed to fabricate an imprint of what’s standing in front of it – so I am taking care of that first and somehow I always want to change the three- dimensional object, rather than the image. I am kind of useless in the lab, because I lack the necessary knowledge. So I would always claim that I am more aligned to Schütte or someone called Schwegler, maybe even Broodthaers, even if this may seem like pissing on a very tall tree. I also never had any contact with them when we were students, most of them still don’t even say “Guten Tag”, besides Gursky, who is a really close friend. But there is a fundamental difference in how he talks about a picture and how I do that. That might be the topic of another talk, though.
I cut a wide swath in terms of interest or those who have influenced me. Maybe it is easier to pick and chose when I never had to occupy a generational relationship to German art making. Therefore, I am equally compelled by reading German through the works of Baselitz and Kiefer as well as Kippenberger and Trockel. The histories of Arcadia to Himmler’s obsession with Tacitus’s Germania are just as instructional as looking at works by artists dealing with the politics of terrorism in the 70s. I am less interested in the personal iconography of those artists. The posture of the German male artist for instance is another longer story. There is a famous story of the wrestler Dan Gable getting off a plane after winning the gold medal in the Olympics in Munich. All the reporters surrounded him to talk about the massacre, but he had left after winning and had no idea what had happened – he was on a plane while the assassinations took place.
One last word on Berlin; you came briefly and got sick. No trust in doctors here? What made you feel uneasy? Do you think Berlin is to Schwäbisch Gmünd what New York City is to Wyoming or do both places feel like Hoboken West and Hoboken Central?
Ha! But you know I was always very conflicted about leaving Schwabisch Gmünd and thereby breaking the spell that I am from that town. To leave would reveal that I was a stranger, an Ausländer. But seriously, getting sick in Berlin was perfect in a way. Maybe I have been altogether too comfortable in Germany all these years. To be sick in a city that wears its pain so plainly is to keep it company in its misery. I did see a German dentist as I had a root canal in addition to the gripe. It reminded me of a scene from Marathon Man, where Lawrence Olivier plays that crazy dentist digging around in Dustin Hoffman’s mouth. Which reminds me that Olivier is the perfect example for me of a historical play-acting confluence – playing both a Dr. Mengele character in The Boys From Brazil and a Nazi-hunting Jew in The Simon Wiesenthal Story. That is me in a nutshell.