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interview by Mikkel Carl & Søren Assenholt

(word file: )

Mikkel Carl:
Who are ”the planners” and ”the searchers”?

Søren Assenholt:
If you google ”planners and searchers”, most hits will probably have got to do with developing countries. The title is very much related to this issue. When making aid-programs for the Third World most governments apply a “planner”-strategy. But in fact this strategy is very hard to implement. For nearly fifty years the West has spent billions of dollars in Africa without any significant effects.
Going out on his mission H. M. Stanley planned everything too; he wanted to write a book, he wanted to find the source of the Nile. He planned all kinds of things, and then just about everything else happened. Quite contrary to this “the searchers” basically head out to find something, which can become a project. This was exactly how I went to Congo. I decided, that I shouldn’t do anything in particular. I came there to search.
I think of this as “artists plan to think as searchers”. That is the reason why I don’t want to emphasise one strategy rather than the other. When brought together they posses a certain openness.

What is the relation between Congo and “Congo”?

That’s a tough one, but to me there are not two but actually three versions of Congo. The first “Congo” existed before it started to interest me in particular. It was a Tarzan-consciousness. But then I accidentally came across Peter Tygesens book Congo, I presume, which is an excellent introduction to both historical and contemporary issues. Having finished that I read just about everything, I could get my hands on.
This meant moving on to the second “Congo”. Quite incomprehensible artworks began popping out of the books, I was reading. Apparently Congo was well suited for the way, I had been working until then. One of my most interesting discoveries was the fact, that Congo practically has adopted a state of emergency by law. The constitution had 14 basic articles, but then president Mobutu made yet another one; article 15. It reads: take care of yourself, and this was just what the police, the military, and many public officials did resulting in raving corruption rates. And on top of that came the inflation. At a flea market in Frankfurt I met this Congolese guy, who was selling cultural artefacts from Congo, masks etc. He told me a story, which I was since able to verify, namely that Congolese embroideries act as an alternative currency, a parallel to the Congolese franc, which simply keeps dropping. If delicately woven and if the artistic expression is high quality, you can purchase a goat for no more than two or three embroideries, whereas it might cost you 10 pieces, if they are less good. Suddenly I had got my hands on something physical; an object I could connect to the story about the country’s economical situation. Basically I made a work by framing the embroidery between to heavy pieces of green glass. I was thinking; how would a bank display a100$ bill of historical importance? And next to it I placed a description, a short version of what I just told you.
The third version of “Congo” occurred, when I actually went to Congo. It deals with my very own experiences. “Lady Alice” is a piece, which could not have been made in the second phase. It’s a work about the very limits that were set up, when I was down there, limits producing a desire for transgression. Quite physically. My body was excluded, from places I wanted to go. The ethnographic museum is set on ridge high above the Congo-river. From here you can monitor the neighbour, the Republic of Congo where things, compared to the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are somewhat better. Hence the area is considered strategically important by the armed forces. I had been notified, that I would probably have to pay the guarding soldiers 10-20 dollars, but our otherwise loyal driver had paranoia. He agreed to go everywhere but for this place. Due to this invisible border I wasn’t able to go and see the boat, which I presumed and still presume is placed in the museum’s courtyard. A spot supposed to be public. I also take it to be true, when the boat is said to be in a serious state of decay. Had I read about “Lady Alice” earlier on, I would probably have built the entire boat.
Here, at this stage, I have also begun wondering about the things that actually created my first “Congo”, for instance Tarzan and the movie Coming to America. It would be quite interesting to rework the transitions between my three different versions of Congo.

What is the difference between a story and history?

There is the scholars’ concept of history as well as the histories we use to create individual and collective identity. On top of this comes the stories, narration. To me the most exciting part is, when contemporary issues activate historical artefacts. That is, when the past is being activated by the present. But then again, we are also writing history right now. We have placed ourselves in the middle of a grand narration. The hard core of “Lady Alice” is not historical facts, and that is why it belongs to my third version of “Congo”, where I have actually felt Congo upon my body. At earlier stages it would just have been something, I had been told or had read in some book. But the narration also kicks in, when you start imagining the boat and its construction, asking yourself; how do these parts fit?

What kind of framework does the museum create?

The ethnographic museum is interesting because time keeps changing the objects. Suddenly some of the artefacts can become active or suddenly they cease to be. There are about 45.000 artefacts in the museum in Kinshasa, and simply the fact that Congo is going to hell just activated most them. Stanley’s boat for instance, it has been activated, because we nowadays in general believe theories connecting the western colonisation of Africa with the continent’s present critical situation. Besides this I wonder a lot about the object’s status as witness. The accompanying text is clearly some kind of falsification. It is suppose to describe the object, so if we discover something new, clearly the text will be rewritten. But what kind of witness is the object in itself? Take for instance a cup missing its lower part. If you produce a new piece meticulously made to fit the original, it is a restoration. But what happens if you take away the original piece? What is left, a reconstruction? Prosthesis? Is there some authenticity left, does it still bear witness?
Seen from a technical point of view “Lady Alice” is presented as if it is an original. When you enter the room, what you see appears to be approximately two percent remaining from the original boat, the way you would display it at a Vikings museum. In a way my “Lady Alice” is equally authentic, even though it is based on a fiction. You might even say that this version will be just as authentic, even to a Congolese visitor, as the real but inaccessible boat in Congo.
While installing the work here at Pladsen I asked myself a lot of questions. Why should the text not be put at the podium at an angled board? The way it is placed now, up there on the wall, the text is an integrated part of “the white cube”. What would happen if I blacked out this type of institution and instead staged the room with spotlights? Now the light is a modification of the present apparatus. By switching off almost all of the neon tubes, I succeeded in mimicking the soft light so typical of ethnographic museums. All together it is a negotiation, a disposal of the two archetypical types of display. Thereby it is also a negotiation concerning the degrees of alienation on behalf of the beholder. It would be interesting to see this project exhibited at the National Museum, where the negotiation between “the white cube” and the ethnographic museum would have to be so much different.
All in all the difference between the art institution and the ethnographic museums is narrowing down. At the moment an ethnographic museum in Frankfurt is exhibiting an ethnographic expedition to Papua New Guinea from the 1960s.They go over the explicit methods, index-cards etc. They actually exhibit “a museum in a museum”. The new ways, in which the exhibition architects install the objects rather roughly, are quite similar to something, I could have done.

What is instead of the “the absence of past and present”?

Mythology. The stories people put instead of something inaccessible. I often use Mærsk as an example. At one time the company got a new strategy for its public relations. It said; “Well, we all know Mærsk to be a company where no news is good news. But the problem is that it creates an information-vacuum. People start telling their own stories instead. We must put forward our own positive stories.”
What would have happened, if I had actually been able to get into the museum and see the boat? I would definitely not have made this piece. I began coming up with stories myself, filling the gab generated by the fact, that I couldn’t inspect the boat. How is the boat’s condition? Where and how does it actually rot? I am much interested in its preservation. Quite a paradox when people are dying by numbers in the very same country. But that is a privilege I have, to ask that kind of questions. When I talk about activating the past through the present it has got a lot to do with the things happening in eastern Congo right now. I have actually been there, but for me it is impossible to operate directly in this field. This creates an absence of presence; something so infected that I really can’t touch it but only make an approach through history. For instance, in 1877 Denmark had nearly a thousand mercenaries and sailors in Congo helping King Leopold II colonising the country. The present state of the Congolese people is a question, which must be kept open. I have difficulties justifying my interest in these matters, so I have to modulate my work to be all about my very own specific optics. A rather abstract point of view if I may say so. I don’t think, I am the last part in the food chain of information, devouring what the journalists have come up with. As an artist I was present in Congo on a parallel track.

Do you know anywhere exotic?

I did, but not anymore.

What is your relationship with wood?

It was actually the trigger. I have worked with wood most of my life, and often even with wood from Congo. It had nothing to do with art, but at one time I started asking myself, what it implicates, when some kinds of wood are considered “exotic”. Initially I used this general question to vindicate my endeavours as an artist, and it might have been the reason why I bought Tygesens book in the first place. Now it has gone from exotic to problematic. At the lumberyard they still advertise for “exotic wood”. This indicates, that the wood is from a strange place and thereby possesses qualities different from the ones, we already know. But we have stopped calling the banana an exotic fruit.
In relation to “Lady Alice” I thought; “What the hell am I going do?” At first I wanted to use some pieces of Congolese wood, I have had at home for nearly 10 years. But why? Why make the parts in bubinga-wood, in Denmark, when the boat originally was made in Spanish cedar wood in England? Then I talked to my mom and dad and it turned out, that they some time ago had cut a cedar nearly my age and just where I grew up. I had to think over the consequences, but I ended up using this Danish cedar wood. In a way it testifies to my identity.
We ought to talk about labour, hands working with wood. I still find the body interesting. As a beholder you can acknowledge bodily experiences imbedded in wood in ways very different from, lets say, in the video-media. Something is transmitted from one body to the other. But wood itself is loaded with symbolism. The whole anthropomorphic idea about its natural growth makes it a contaminated material. “Lady Alice” is made with a rather industrial finish, for instance the boat’s railing. It is not rounded and therefore seems unnaturally acute. Quite deliberately I have not tried to smoothen the small errors machines make, and you can therefore see tiny marks from the plane here and there. That, I think, is a strange yet exciting intermediate result from the story behind the work; that it was in fact my body, which was unable to enter the museum in Kinshasa.