Beth Jackson in discussion with Franz Ehmann

Beth Jackson: Were you practising as an artist in Austria, before you came to Australia?

Franz Ehmann: Yes. I was taught by my father to paint. At thirteen I had my first exhibition and then I received a Young Achiever's Award from the Austrian government. Later, I became a chef and pursued my individual art practice during my young adult life doing drawings and odd pieces with boxes of matches, fire and so on.

BJ: So you've always had an intermedia practice and more, an ephemeral, installation-based practice?

FE: Yes, definitely.

BJ: Was that seen as radical in Austria at the time? Were you part of any sort of avant-garde?

FE: No, not really. I was probably too young to be part of any scene or group of artists. Then I moved away from Austria to other parts of Europe, coming to Australia in 1986. That made it even more complicated to be part of anything: not so much the fact of being a foreigner, but that you feel you don't really need to be part of anything. In 1988 I decided to do my stint at college to get a formal degree, so I studied at the Northern Territory University in Darwin. But a great deal of my education in Darwin came from Darwin itself which has a strong quality of transitiveness, an ephemeral quality in both the people and the landscape. The landscape is extreme—in the wet season there is an abundance of life because of the rain and the steaming heat, but then when the dry comes there is basically death, the land burning, and so on. Then the landscape itself regenerates and regrowth happens. Processes of change, growth and regrowth have become central to my art practice.

BJ: Were there other major reference points for your practice, in terms of art history?

FE: At one stage I was definitely influenced by Joseph Beuys, or perhaps influenced is the wrong word. I identified a social practice within his work and saw how this manifested his philosophy of the growth or development of society. Understanding this particular aspect of Beuys' art gave a direct voice to my art practice. I could then continue to the next theoretical and conceptual level. That needed to happen. it's fine to do 'good' and 'interesting art', but at some stage that has to be developed to a level where thought production comes together with the art piece. So, when you do an exhibition, thought and product co-exist as social practice—together they give form to the languages, the voices, and the materials, and to all that informs and actualises a person.

BJ: And the audience. In your practice you try to give equal weight to the conceptual basis of the work, the development of the work, and the work itself. Was that seen as unusual when you were at college in Darwin?

FE: Definitely, that was very unusual. I had all my concepts in place. They needed to manifest as practice. It wasn't good enough for me just to think about these things. They had to come physically or actively into the piece of art, even though the artwork itself disintegrates over time, or disperses, or just seeps away. The knowledge is there and needs to be regenerated all the time.

BJ: There appears to be a dialogue in your work between a concern with ephemera and regeneration and renewal on the one hand and with an institutional apparatus on the other, for instance in the titling of your works "Museum of ... ". What are you trying to do and/or say about the processes of institutionalisation? Are you attempting a process of social reinscription?

FE: Yes. I want to put another 'layer of skin' onto these institutions to make them really part of life, rather than trying to displace them or their processes. I want to build a new scheme and a new living layer onto our understanding of the social so that it becomes more human, so the human feels more a part of the institution. This in turn will allow people information about the politics of place, of art and of society.

BJ: You 're attempting to reinscribe the experience of the institutional embrace, from being that of "the docile body" (in the Foucaultian sense), to a more engaged and active body. You're addressing political notions of community and the collective self without making some sort of angry anarchistic gesture or issues-based statement.

FE: I think such gestures and statements work against whoever tries to be anarchistic, causing anarchism to become scripted into a particular mold. This leads to a debasement of both sides in play, rather than an engagement on a level of communication which actually addresses the problems or issues. It seems there are a lot of problems in this society. Recent debates on guns, land rights and so on. It seems that there is a willingness on the part of some people to come into debate and to try to bridge through understanding. The spatial quality of inbetweenness becomes the most important part in this process, in allowing both sides to move into this territory, and begin a dialogue. This necessary shift has nothing to do with its political dimension, the particular issue being debated. Hopefully there can be healing through debate. Say, for instance, in the case of Mabo or the issue of reconciliation. Aboriginal people have lost the power of the land and never receive anything back for it. Sure, they might get monetary reimbursement from mines etcetera, but the really human element to this, to an understanding on both sides, seems not to be there. We know what compassion means in our society, but when it comes to the other side of the playing field, saying to people there "I'm sorry about this history", that seems to be missing.

BJ: It seems to me that what you're talking about is an inscription of an ethical space which is beyond the political. You're talking about an ethical or even a poetical-ethical space which is different from political discourse but is necessary for effective political discourse—and currently is missing from that discourse. It seems that both conservative and radical politics deal in the same frameworks, or if you like, authorised categories of experience. And yet essentially what they're not acknowledging is the fact that there needs to be another space which is experience itself, which is the space before the category happens.

FE: In a way there should never be these categories anyway. Change should be an ongoing process, like a wax block. Because through heat (debate is heat) people are re-informed about a problem, and the (wax) mass which is society is shifted and reordered again. This is where real discourse or social discourse happens and where we move constantly to a direction of which we were not aware, but which somehow is always positive for society as a whole. If we have a negativity, or a debasement which comes from the top of politics, it comes all the way through the social body, and no one respects the authoritative voice on a particular issue—it doesn't matter from what side it comes. The issues or problems are then shoved aside, pushed off the table.

BJ: It is in this sense that I've read your art as being extremely political, although there is no issue-based content in your work. There are no didactic statements being made, but a melting pot or fluid ground which is a territory that's essential to the political.

FE: Particularly the works that I make with milk and those with honey. They all refer to the political, but on the other side of that there is always the sublime. I try to flip-side everything so the viewer sees the artwork as something very positive and very beautiful in the aesthetic sense, while being located within the political, and reinscribing dominant expressions of the political. I want to marry this sublime or spiritual dimension with the political because the highest form of politics is sublime.

BJ: Is spiritual, is ethical. It is the ethical space between representation and reality, or between art and life, or between language and experience. Can you talk about the exhibition space that you're creating and the audience's relationship to that space, its incorporation into your space. I see it as quite a different relationship to that operating in other exhibition spaces: it is not a seductive relationship nor an objectifying one. What words would you use?

FE: Probably living space, "lebensraum …", which is quite a terrible word in the German language, because of the Nazi past. In relation to them, the whole idea "lebensraum..." was the expansion to the East and the conquering of the East, and the destruction of the whole living space. I'm looking at the living space, how that informs people, how people are constantly moving and never really understanding that everything in their space is transitory. Within living space and through movement that has a certain speed, people occupy space, and I don't mean merely in the scientific sense. The body moves with a certain beat of time when it comes into particular types of space, such as the immense expansiveness of a country like Australia. Such particularity informs people's movement and their physical interaction, which in turn informs social structures such as languages. I am interested in the role space has played in the formation of the many languages which have formed in Australia and also in the questions of how we develop knowledge of this space and how we immerse everyone within it rather than thinking we need to build barriers in order to co-habit. When that occurs, we can never move to the space of dialogue. In my artwork I talk about my experience, as a migrant, of encountering what is already in the space, and also about what people bring to the space. I'm also attempting to determine how fast such a relationship will develop, how fast people are able to communicate with certain elements within that living space which is the exhibition. Hopefully a social dialogue will start to take place, though nothing at all, or possibly even damage, might occur.

BJ: The physical body plays a central role in your work—your own body, those of your audience, and the social/collective body. Nature and natural materials, wax, honey, milk and so on, also play a central role. Is there any place or role for technology here? Do you use technology in your work? And if so do you use the organic in a critical relationship to technology?

FE: I have used it, most often in the crude form of a light bulb, which I see as the first step towards technology. There's a light bulb involved in just about every one of my installations. It's the crudest technological advancement of the last century which has come into the industrial age and now to our 'post-chip' age. In reality, I have absolutely nothing against incorporating technology, but a lot of the high-end technology I would be after is out of my reach practically and financially. I would like to look at technology in total sensory systems; for instance at how machines interact with people—how we can switch each other on—rather than the simple linear model of going to a machine, switching it on, then interacting with it. The interaction should be both ways really, which I think is what Stelarc is saying in his work.

BJ: So you're not setting up a realm in opposition to the technological. I'm wondering if you're valorising the natural as opposed to the cultural. I think that can be a misleading reading of your work.

FE: No, definitely not. I'm not against technology because technology, in itself, informs us of the next step and is the means by which we actually speed up the next level of communication. Today we can speak to somebody in Tokyo, in Berlin, and in Paris, and at the same time if we want to. That's the most positive step forward in our work with global communication. I don't believe it will shrink the world, it will expand the world. I think there's too much negativity in the talk of superhighways and how they just plough their way through our living rooms and leave people alienated. Again there's the speed element—the question of how fast we move through that technology and how fast it will enable us to do many more and greater things.

BJ: Are you trying to make people aware of the speed at which things are happening?

FE: Yes, speed always plays a crucial role if only to illuminate its absence—stillness or slowness. The heart-rate is a pre-given speed. Then there are our muscle movements and movement in many other ways—cars, aeroplanes, and so on. We have freely attached ourselves to these speed machines to actually reach the next level where we overcome distance. This is discussed in the writings of Paul Virilio.

BJ: Virilio equates speed with violence and relates the pervasive aesthetic of speed to the saturation of violence within Western culture. He locates technological developments within the United States military and paints quite a sinister view, arguing that violence has been 'built into' technological advancement through the military, and has in turn pervaded globalised Western popular culture.

FE: I belive that is the case. At the same time, if we only look at that negatively, believing that only the military will ever have the power to develop that type of speed, then we will never engage with a new discourse in that area. The development of military actions and the aesthetics of speed have been seen ultimately as totally negative, because from the Industrial Revolution onwards, everything was developed to further the kind of violence that ploughed through the landscapes and devastated whole areas and, of course, we had many wars over raw materials used to develop speed. It's quite commonplace to look at technology this way. However, what we require is to have an ongoing dialogue with technology, an ethical space where we can engage with the organic part of our existence, and hopefully envelop all the dialogues that are around us, and from there move with a directness towards something else. We can never be sure how positive or how negative the outcome will be, because everything is in the future, is moving or pointing towards the future, and we can't know what is ahead of us. We only know what is in the past. We forget so much that has been done in the last one hundred years!

BJ: In the development of post-modern discourse, there was a strong critique of notions of the self and of a unique identity, or individuality, directed principally at the romantic, modernist visions of the artist and individual. This in turn valorised an antiromantic space where everything was text, everything was coded, everything was language and which created a nihilistic politics. Now we seem to have come to another point where there is a desire for regeneration or to make a positive step forward, to synthesise an holistic understanding. That's not necessarily against a post-modern understanding—in order to have an holistic view, you need to understand that the self operates on a number of discursive levels and is inscribed in a number of social formations. However the desire which is synthesising such an understanding seems to be a renewed concern for ethics. Would you agree with that, and do you see yourself as operating in this 'new' area?

FE: In terms of art practice, I'm always experimenting with the possibilities of my materials and looking at how I can actually develop them in accordance with my own rhythm in an holistic approach. This involves taking my own identity and history into consideration, such as the fact that I'm from Austria. Such a fact brings to bear upon me the entire post-war dilemma of the Holocaust. I can't forget that it took Austria until 1993 to actually apologise for what it had done to the Jewish people. This informs me constantly, wherever I move. I would never forget this past, but at the same time, the only way forward is to turn against history and simply to move forward. However, to be able to do that, a healing process is first necessary—a process whereby trust can be rebuilt. That might not be totally Utopian or altruistic in thinking.

BJ: Again, that comes back to the ethico-spiritual space that you were describing earlier, which is necessarily Utopian. Would you agree?

FE: I really haven't found any answers to that. The ways in which we are able inform ourselves, or the means of communication, are very often based on propaganda. So in a way, the Utopian ideas of egalitarianism or altruistic notions of society collapse under the weight of propaganda, because in economic terms it's seen as more important to have a shopping mall. There are thousands of signs and signifiers out there that inform you of the advancement of the economy (signs in the mall, an arcade full of merchandise, and so on). Therefore the idea of the social becomes a shopping centre, rather than a broadly informed idea of society. So there is no room anymore for Utopia. Utopia has turned itself into a shopping mall!

BJ: What role does biography play in your work? Do you ever try to valorise your practice through your own personal history or identity? I'm interested in this because you don't use figuration in your work, it is very abstract, yet there is a strong bodily presence in it, a physicality and a performative dimension. So it's very concerned with the self, but there doesn't seem to be any heavy text of self-portraiture. I'm wondering how this operates in your imaginative space.

FE: I don't ever think in these terms really. Personally, I think everything that I do is what I am. And then also the materials that I use are part of my being alive. The material is alive—the milk and honey and so on, are the nutrients which keep one healthy, in a living condition; in other words "I am" and these things are again "I am". In my performances it is totally important that the body moves with that—within the constraints of the performance's space and speed and in interaction with certain materials. For instance, when I wash certain parts of my body or cover them with honey, these actions create another layer of living material upon me and they're the nourishment for future development. It is probably at this point where Stelarc would use a computer or his 'third' arm. I think in terms of microbiology, the next step into the future will be through molecular chains, and through how we molecularise our own structures. But as soon as we get into contact with certain 'building blocks of life', we would simply rebuild as what we are. So that we would be immediately again humans. Maybe that's a step forward rather than attaching ourselves to a bionic form of moving parts which can fail anyway in time, or whenever you pull the plug.

BJ: That seems to resonate with your model of politics. Rather than a politics of intervention, or opposition, or a top-down construction, you seem to be saying something which is quite the opposite, that we should actually add layers, a model of incorporation.

FE: The major outcome of the industrial revolution, is the segregation from nature. We haven't actually achieved that completely because we are still having this debate over the environment, the Green Party and so on. We are arguing very heavily that we are destroying ourselves by severing more and more umbilical cords in our understanding of nature. The debate will linger until we acknowledge that we are actually part of this environment and not segregated from it.

BJ: Art practice has shifted from the modernist disciplines of painting and sculpture and the static art object to a more processed-based intermedia practice capable of creating an environmental sensibility. Are you trying to create such a sensibility in your work, say an ecology of art practice?

FE: Yes. That's why I keep it mostly organic in nature.

BJ: And ephemeral?

FE: Yes. And even with other materials and objects that I use. I use powdered pigments because I am fascinated with aspects of dust and particles and with how a layer of pigment resonates, so that when you move into the space the motion and emotion that comes from this simple rectangle is immense. Like encountering an image and finding it magical.

BJ: To me, your use of pigment is a treatment of colour as though it were a material substance in and of itself.

FE: I never want colour to become a decoration. I think that's horrendous. Colour informs and is always alive. It's stupid to say painting is dead, it will always go on, but we, as practising artists, have to compete with painting to reinform people of the possibilities of colour operating in different forms. It can be just simply on the floor: it doesn't have to be solid and sterilised and made into a shrine like the Mona Lisa, which if it were not in a shrine and sterilised, would fall apart. This is my argument in the pigment pictures. I can sweep them up, but they are still a picture—even if it is in a plastic bag, it is still the same picture, only now in a different form. This picture came out of a jar, but it's the same material substance from there I try to inform people that there are other modes and other ideas of what a picture can be.

BJ: You're stripping things into their elemental state, elements presented as part of their necessary role in life, if you like, their functions in and of themselves. Your act of bringing them together is one of balancing their own intrinsic values.

FE: This aspect of modernism is important to me—the idea that you use materials as a means for forming ideas about what materiality is. And of course I have to say since Duchamp, since Beuys, and since Warhol, the ideas of the material have totally changed. It would be stupid for me to argue against these things, but I can question them. I can recognise that there's a totally new generation of artists and thinkers here that reinscribe the ways of communicating how art is made today.

BJ: There is a constant impetus in your work for growth and change and you talk about remembering and forgetting.

FE: Everything around us tells us of certain elements, knowledges, ways of communicating, which in turn informs how we live right here and now. From that perspective there's always a lot of forgetting going on. We have embraced the culture of forgetting, rather than the culture of memory. I think alienation really comes from not remembering that there are other people here and failing to understand that people have different ideas when they come from a different country or that information undergoes changes when it moves from one culture into another, such as the shift from an Australian space to a multicultural one. The way I work with my materials is a metaphor for the balance between memory and forgetting which is part of being human—because milk goes sour, we have to refill the milk constantly. In the act of refilling the milk table that I have, comes the refilling of memory. It is an act of mediation, a balancing of forgetting and remembering, which I think is the positivity of my art practice. Wax is very stable, but it is also easily changed by heat, it becomes fluid and that's again a living process. How is our living memory making us 'sculpture', how does it calcify us into rigid people?

Franz Ehmann, Memos for the Next Millenium, 1996. 

Franz Ehmann, Votlschöpfung des tchs, 1994. Milk, chalk, honey. 8m x 5m.

Franz Ehmann, From the Human Museum of Laughter: Aporia, 1994. Eggshells, blue wax light bulb. Diameter 4m.

Franz Ehmann, From the Human Museum of Forgiveness: For the Unknown Farmer, 1996. Sunflowers, spade, blue pigment, light bulb. 

notes: 

For more on the work of Franz Ehmann click here.

Franz Ehmann lives and works in Brisbane. At the time of writing Beth Jackson was Curator, Griffith University Art Collection.