Private: The Secret Corner

Between 1987 and 1993, Johannes Cladders worked on The Secret Corner, an artwork hidden in a wooden kind of box that would open only under certain wind conditions. Originally, The Secret Corner was conceived for a specific place in the Académie de Muséologie Évocatoire in Warelwast, Normandy. Therefore, he was in close contact with Jacques Caumont and Jennifer Gough-Cooper, the Académie’s founders and guiding spirits. A few years after the Académie’s dissolution, the urgent question of what to do with its archive and collections had to be solved. Françoise Le Penven then encouraged Jacques Caumont to entrust the custody of The Secret Corner to Akademie Schloss Solitude, as Cladders was Solitude’s first jury chair.

But how might this secret project be kept alive in another place, at Solitude, without betraying its original purpose? »Making something public on the web?« asked Jacques Caumont during his first visit at Solitude, not fully aware of the scope of his question. The Secret Corner, conceived by Antoni Rayzhekov and Jean-Baptiste Joly, is the concrete answer to Caumont’s suggestion: A website, a virtual Secret Corner, with multiple entries and folders that contain interviews filmed by Hagen Betzwieser, images of original documents, texts and objects; the online Secret Corner, is also, like the original, only open to visitors when the winds are favorable.

Jean-Baptiste Joly: It is 11am, today is Tuesday, October 18, 2016, and we have just raised the white flag on the roof of the Akademie Schloss Solitude as recommended by Johannes Cladders. We are in conversation with Jacques Caumont, and for the first part of the interview we will speak about your relationship with Cladders. We’ll talk about how you met him, and about The Secret Corner, but we’ll stop at the work’s closed door, which we’ll open this afternoon with your commentary and responses to audience questions. The first part of the interview is in French. At the moment, it is a little stilted and lacking in authenticity but I should think that after a few minutes the conversation will start to flow so that we’ll have forgotten that we are surrounded by three lights, three cameras, and some microphones. So, we’ll start here. How did you meet Johannes Cladders and under what circumstances?

Jacques Caumont: It’s pretty simple. We both had a stable of artists at documenta 5. In particular, Johannes looked after George Brecht and Robert Filliou, the one with the famous box The Cedilla That Smiles. And he also took care of other artists, said to be difficult, the ones that Szeemann found it hard to look after himself. Personally, I worked in Kassel for three months. First with the catalogue of French artists and, obviously, for George Brecht and Robert Filliou. I had The Cedilla That Smiles and I was in charge of looking after everything to do with Individual Mythologies by Mario Merz, Marcel Broodthaers, Boltanski, et cetera. So that is how we met, each of us with our stable of artists that we helped. We were like exhibitor helpers, in a way, and assistants to Harald Szeemann. Also, as he knew that I’d been collecting postcards about painters for about six or seven years with palettes, greetings cards, easels, artists painting outdoors, studio love affairs et cetera. It was that section on the ground floor of the Fredericianum that Johannes loved, and that was how we had our first discussions.

JBJ: And you already knew he was an artist at that point?

JC: No, not then. He had worked with Paul Wember and had contributed to the major Yves Klein exhibition and the Yves Klein catalogue raisonné. Following that, he had a little gallery where he had hoarding panels by Raymond Hains at the time. To get hold of Raymond Hains hoarding panels! There weren’t any in any of the French galleries but there they were in the old museum at Mönchengladbach!

JBJ: And were you there when he used to come to Paris with Paul Wember and …

JC: No, not at all. I met Cladders for the first time in 1972, in Kassel.

»…when there was this sixteenth-century building at the Académie which was more or less in ruins, we started to restore it and we had an idea of doing something under a staircase. I asked Johannes and he was delighted.«Jacques Caumont

JBJ: You said just now, before we started the interview, that you had carried on the madness of documenta 5 after the Cladders documenta 5 period. What did you mean by that?

JC: At one point, Pontus Hulten had arrived in Paris. He’d landed the Duchamp exhibition. I built a Norman market hall on the fifth floor of the Beaubourg centre but, actually, as well, the first link between Hulten and Cladders, was when the documenta postcards were shown, two years later at the Mönchengladbach gallery. There was a box marked »postcards,« which was a matching game, and when I showed it to Hulten he wanted to convert the show into a traveling exhibition to go around cultural centers in France. That was about 30 different sites. I had the various décors done for the traveling exhibition by a theater decorator from my father’s village: The curiosity cabinet, the gallery of the grand masters, et cetera. And it was when that was done that Johannes came to see the installations and he came to talk to the painter and it was very funny. Back then I wasn’t living here yet, and he stayed the night at my father’s place. There is that famous photo of Johannes playing dominoes with my father in the pose of the Card Players by Cézanne.

JBJ: And you still didn’t know that he was an artist?

JC: No, no, I found out that he was an artist only … because we did exchanges. We would go to Krefeld, he came to Warelwast. When I went to Krefeld, to his home, he showed me what he was doing. And it is because he showed me what he was doing that in spring 1984, when there was this sixteenth-century building at the Académie which was more or less in ruins, we started to restore it and we had an idea of doing something under a staircase. I asked Johannes and he was delighted. There were drawings that he showed me, of artist palettes etc., of making incisions in the plaster and then, well, I realized … I wouldn’t have asked him for The Secret Corner if I hadn’t known that he was an artist.

JBJ: And then, because you knew him over such a long period, do you think that his activities as an artist were kept hidden from the public that knew him as a museum director?

JC: Yes, his activities were hidden. I did something indiscreet when Johannes retired. There was a commemorative publication, and in this Festschrift, I invented a four-way conversation about art with Johannes under another first name. Raymond Hains, with a different first name, was one of the others. So, to illustrate the article, I had asked Wilhelma if she couldn’t get her hands on etc. … So in Prosopopées, the review edited at the time by the Académie de Muséologie Evocatoire, there was this minor indiscretion with me saying here are these four drawings with one at the top, it’s a standard, with Johannes’s handwriting. It was the first indiscretion and Johannes didn’t know and he saw it when he got the publication and he did say to me that it was, after all, perhaps a little bit too … personal. But what was done was done and then one thing led to another.

»But what is in The Secret Corner? Flags, medals, medals, trophies.«Jacques Caumont

JBJ: So, the thing with the flag, the standard, how do you interpret it? Because in everything that we see of Cladders’ works, the standard is there. Half an hour ago, we went to raise a white flag. For you, what is this standard in symbolic terms? And then we can discuss the other symbols that appear in the work of Cladders.

JC: It isn’t a symbol. It is the illustration of a play on words, I mean »being art« in French (étant d’art) sounds like »standard« (étandard). It is also, possibly, Marcel Duchamp’s Given (which is étant donné in French) and perhaps Art Lake (étang d’art in French). The duck pond, the lake where Johannes practiced sending a bottle out to sea and then the standard, the flag, the banner. You mustn’t forget that almost all the things that are in The Secret Corner, it’s like in war. Tomorrow we are going to go and see the exhibition The Brawl at Austerlitz, which is in the Stuttgart Gallery, and which Duchamp made large-scale to mark the centenary of the Napoleon’s death. That is another story. But what is in The Secret Corner? Flags, medals, medals, trophies.

JBJ: Coming back to the flags: in one of Cladders’s writings, he explains that the flag is at the same time itself in its materiality, and that it has a meaning, and that this link between materiality and meaning is the definition of art.

JC: First of all, I have to say that the double meaning that I was talking about just now for the standard is in the flag. Because if you look at a flag it is a symbolic weathervane, it is double-sided. Double meanings are one of the major keys to The Secret Corner.

JBJ: And the white flag? Did you already know Cladders when he raised it in Jerusalem for the first time?

JC: Oh yes, of course, because Johannes had met Iona Fisher. They were both members of the Académie. They were obviously going to meet one day. Afterwards, Iona wanted straightaway to invite Johannes and Wilhelma to Jerusalem. You have to say that there is the white flag, the flag of peace, but we all had our own flag too. There was Marcel Duchamp’s flag, Daniel Buren’s flag …

JBJ: What were those flags like?

JC: You will see them in The Secret Corner!

JBJ: Mind you, he doesn’t say that the white flag is a symbol of peace. He says it is a symbol of freedom.

JC: Yes, that is true, but we only have freedom if we have peace.

JBJ: Freedom if we have peace? I thought that we only had peace if we have security?

JC: As you wish …

JBJ: And what about the flags of different colors? (indicating the Cladders flag object on the table)

JC: Johannes had his three colors, the equivalent of the complementary colors for other artists. In the barn that he had created in his son’s house in northern Germany, where his son, an organ builder, had made the cabinet for The Secret Corner, there was this color scheme everywhere.

JBJ: The colors were …

JC: Yellow, blue …

JBJ: The primary colors.

JC: Yes, the primary colors, plus the red that you have there.

JBJ: Plus black and white.

JC: Black and white, that’s something else.

JBJ: What is that?

JC: White, you know what that is. Black, I don’t know.

JBJ: I didn’t say black on one side and white on the other. I said black-and-white, as in photography, as in …

JC: Well, black-and-white is drawing. Before he made things in color, almost everything by Johannes was black-and-white: his labyrinth drawings, everything is in black-and-white, since it all still exists, I was going to say »was« − it was a slip.

JBJ: The flag as the symbol of peace on the one hand and a piece of art by Cladders on the other: It’s perhaps typical of the work of Cladders, for whom the boundary between life and art is not as clear as all that. You mentioned the »difficult« artists, the ones he looked after for documenta 5: Filliou and Brecht, for whom this notion of the passage from art to daily life, or from life to art, was not marked by a clear boundary. How did you experience that with Cladders – what was private activity, leisure, artistic reflection, exchange, a game for artists?

JC: Everything was mixed up at every stage in the day. In the evening, we grilled food or we smoked a little cigar. There were evenings when he used the same grill where we barbecued the fish or meat to cook his first medals. They got a bit burned, but afterward he had them made in Germany, by an artisan. But the first medals were made like that. As far as Robert Filliou was concerned, coming back to the double meaning, because we were talking just now about trophies. But do the trophies actually have anything to do with Filliou? Are they well made, badly made, not made at all? Well made, badly made, not made, it is all a mix, not of artistic influences, but of references! For example, we see another drawing, Daniel Buren’s stripes that Johannes made with impeccable precision, then, underneath, stripes cross over other stripes, crossing over other stripes, it becomes a chessboard. Then there is a tribute to Malevich, because it is not only Marcel Duchamp’s chessboard, but these are black squares, white squares. Then, from time to time, we went to play dominoes or to feed the goats. There are some great photos, incidentally, of Johannes with the goats. In fact, once he came and the mama goat had just given birth to two kids, Nestor and Agamemnon. And what did he do, Johannes, as he happened to be there? He made two medals, one medal for Nestor and one medal for Agamemnon to celebrate their birth, just as he did later when he gave one to each guest at the dinner for the Marcel Duchamp centenary. So, the trophies, the medals, it was just as much for people as for … Once he came and he won three chickens in the village fête raffle. One of those chickens he called Thusnelda. That rings a bell for you, Thusnelda, in Germany, doesn’t it?

»The flag as the symbol of peace on the one hand and a piece of art by Cladders on the other: It’s perhaps typical of the work of Cladders, for whom the boundary between life and art is not as clear as all that.«Jean-Baptiste Joly

JBJ: And when you founded a collection for the Académie de Muséologie Evocatoire, did you ask artists to contribute or did they bring along their own contributions?

JC: It has always been the artists who have wanted to give something or make something for what I called the academic enclave. For example, Jean Le Gac, as he had a garden that Jennifer Gough-Cooper had designed around his house. In this garden there were these magnificent lupins. Jean Le Gac wanted to pay tribute to Maurice Leblanc, with this little plaque. Once, also, at Warelwast, Harald Szeemann and Markus Raetz met and they concocted something together, because Markus wanted to have an anamorphosis in the courtyard of the academy. For Marcel Duchamp’s centenary, Christian Boltanski arrived with a little Milky Way cut out of corrugated iron and a candle ready to do a projection in one of the windowless barns. No, we didn’t order anything.

JBJ: You got to know all those artists via the documenta in 1972?

JC: I knew some of them before, because, before the documenta, I worked at the

Fluxus happening at Cologne with Harald Szeemann at the turn of 1969/70. Then I was a director at Gaumont News for six or seven years, where I made news magazines for a number of artists, for example Etienne-Martin, Miro, Calder, Dali. So, I was immersed in the world of artists.

JBJ: And you were able to invite them privately?

JC: Yes, many of the artists wanted to come to the country, because for one thing Bernadette was a remarkable cook. There was the famous trou normand, because we made cider and then calva, calvados. That was a real mix of art and life. There was no separation.

JBJ: The idea of The Secret Corner, was it Cladders who brought it or you who asked him?

JC: I didn’t ask for The Secret Corner, I asked Cladders if he wanted to do something in this big old building that we were restoring, and there was a staircase that needed to be built and he went for the underside of the staircase. Later, for architectural reasons, we built the staircase elsewhere in the end. So, there was no secret anymore. He took down these panels, just like that. And these panels, really the archaeology of Johannes’s first collaboration at Warelwast, they are in the bottom drawer. So, there are these panels in the bottom drawer that had been taken off the wall and which show the archaeology of that first space.

JBJ: Once he could no longer go underneath the stairs and having taken out the pieces …

JC: In the same room there was an electric meter for all the buildings on the premises. And Johannes liked having that electricity meter so close, he liked it as a readymade. So, we closed off a room, and in this closed room there was the electricity meter, right opposite, when you opened the door, and on the left, there was The Secret Corner. So, what I would say, coming back to the flag, I think that the flag was also: »Look it’s me! Johannes, I’m here!« And on the weathervane, that we’ll talk about later, he wrote TSC, The Secret Corner, it was at the same time a standard made of zinc that was the sign of the Académie and of The Secret Corner. There are two things for Johannes: the flag, and the copyright. As you know, signature, C in a circle, like copyright. Always the ambiguity, always the double meaning.

JBJ: And César.

JC: Pardon?

JBJ: César, it was his name.

JC: Yes, still C. Since he signed Cladders with a C in a circle, it was normal, when he took a pseudonym that he had to stay with the C, otherwise it would ruin everything.

JBJ: But the C, for César, it’s how the alphabet is spelled out in different languages. In German one says »C as in Caesar«. It’s the first proper noun used as a word to help recognize the letter.

JC: But that was after The Secret Corner. César didn’t exist at the time of The Secret Corner.

JBJ: The Secret Corner is a strange shaped box, it’s not a parallelepiped …

JC: It is a cube, a perfect cube, almost, with the back a bit pushed out because that went with the architecture of the space. So, creating that little corner like that, he could have an oblong drawer in which he could put more things than if the cube had been perfect. So, it’s a cube with a kind of extension.

JBJ: And the relation between the extension and the cube creates the real Secret Corner? That’s The Secret Corner!

JC: The actual Secret Corner is the wooden framework. Before he got there, we had made a brick base to be able to have The Secret Corner at the height of the opening.

»He was still an exhibitor of artists, there was a boundary that we couldn’t cross and so it was normal that he hid his activity as an artist, which was in conflict, or almost, with his job. It wasn’t me who invented the Secret, it was Johannes who one day said The Secret CornerJacques Caumont

JBJ: And what is this idea about hiding it? The object is hidden, the fact that one is an artist is hidden? Hidden from whom?

JC: At that time, he hid the fact that he was an artist. Because, well, he was Professor Doctor Johannes Cladders, Director of the Mönchengladbach Museum. He wasn’t César.

JBJ: Now it is known, more or less, in the world of German art, for those who are familiar with the story, that Cladders was an artist and probably first and foremost an artist. The Secret Corner is hiding something rather than someone.

JC: It is hiding the way his brain works.

JBJ: But it is as if you are taking away from The Secret Corner the fact of its being an object that contains art, independently of its maker.

JC: Yes, but at the time, he was still an exhibitor of artists, there was a boundary that we couldn’t cross and so it was normal that he hid his activity as an artist, which was in conflict, or almost, with his job. It wasn’t me who invented the Secret, it was Johannes who one day said The Secret Corner. So, we were in agreement, and, actually, we liked it. Because it was in this corner, you can come to Warelwast, if no one told you where it was, if no one said that the weathervane controlled it, you would have known nothing.

JBJ: That is what we need to come back to. There’s a weathervane on top, easy to see from far away. It’s the standard of the Académie, and then there’s something hidden underneath. What is the relationship between the two?

JC: The relationship is a relationship of opening. Johannes gave me one of his artworks from 1964, for example. It is a box, just so, for cigars or cigarettes, I don’t remember. He wrote on it »Here«. There is an arrow, you open it and there’s the end of the sentence: »Here is the story«. He was happy to show me that he had been an artist forever, as you might say. So, he told me that he had had an idea for an artwork that would be controlled by wind. When we had a chance to discuss it, I reminded him about that idea and I said maybe we could put it together and that was the start of it all. Because, from being able to realize a thought from 20 or 30 years previously, where the elements would make an artwork visible, to where I offered him a space and a technician to take care of it, from that moment on, there was a real two-way exchange between Johannes and me about The Secret Corner.

JBJ: And how did it work, technically?

JC: Technically it’s pretty involved, because the weathervane was originally made of cardboard. There is this famous photo where Wilhelma is carrying the cardboard weathervane. So, we took this cardboard weathervane to a zinc specialist and he made it in zinc at Fécamp. He remade the cardboard model in zinc. You mustn’t forget that there was a kind of ring which also has a double meaning. Because if you look at it like this you might think that it is two palettes that are doing the waltz together. Then there is also the Chinese yin and yang. So, the double meaning was already there, when we get to the academic enclave. And so, this weathervane, which had a ball bearing action, had a handle, like this, that turned and there was a band with a copper foot. When there was a wind from the south-east, which was extremely rare at Vert à Val – because, as I was saying, 300 days a year it is the Norois wind from the West – at that moment the contact was made, and between the contact made and The Secret Corner, which was two buildings further on, there was an electric cable, which powered a low voltage motor. This low voltage motor controlled, by means of a belt, a door with a vertical shutter. And the shutter was simply a wooden frame and a chicken wire grill. So what happened was that, if the wind wasn’t favorable, well, you could pull the handle and see the door of the Secret Corner but you couldn’t open it. And so, when the wind was favorable, the shutter was raised and you could unhook the door to see The Secret Corner, and when the wind changed the shutter came down and The Secret Corner would go back to sleep for I don’t know how long, weeks or months.

JBJ: And have you seen it open and have you been able to open the door?

JC: Yes, absolutely. It was really simple, I just had to go out, look at the weathervane, and the weathervane told me whether to go and look or not.

JBJ: And how often did it happen per year?

JC: Two or three times, maybe.

JBJ: And what does this inaccessibility of an artistic project mean? What does it mean, this waiting for the wind? How do you understand it?

JC: I think it’s really pure Cladders.

JBJ: Yes, but take it further. Is it the response of Cladders the artist to Cladders the museum director?

JC: No, I think it is to tease art lovers by saying to them: »Yes, you could have seen it but, sorry, you can’t see it because, not my fault, but it’s the fault of the wind, Eolo, the god of the winds, is not favorable.«

JBJ: I remember a conversation with Cladders when he contrasted the way Picasso saw art and the way Duchamp saw art. Duchamp believed that looking at art was a constituent part of the art itself, and Picasso said that if his artworks were buried for years and no one saw them they were still works of art. He distinguished between the act of looking at art as constituent or not of the artwork. Something that is not accessible, like his Secret Corner, is not art when it isn’t seen, for Duchamp, or else it is waiting to be discovered, if you see it the way Picasso did.

JC: I’m not going to even go there!

JBJ: But I would like you to go there!

JC: I’m going to put out to sea in my own boat. You’ll see, in The Secret Corner, there are signatures, signatures, signatures, it’s a bit like Duchamp, who signed anything and everything. He signs, he signs, he puts the little C for Cladders, he puts the date, and from time to time he puts a little rider that he has cut out of a packet of cigars. And each time he came to Vert à Val, he brought some of these little cigars and in the evenings we used to smoke those little cigars, talking about this and that. Anyway, what was the brand of the little Dutch cigars? Caballero. And maybe, in fact, because he had a certain number of artists that he was representing, these artists had actually heard the message from Duchamp – the others hadn’t heard it – perhaps he saw himself – I don’t know, it’s a thought – as a hero of this cabal against the traditionalists?

»[…]when I saw the box, I thought rather about the relationship between art and ritual, and about the fact that in ritual there is magic, the divine event happens or doesn’t happen, we see it or we don’t see it…«Jean-Baptiste Joly

JBJ: Yes, it’s a nice answer. For me, when he told me about that and I saw the box, I thought rather about the relationship between art and ritual, and about the fact that in ritual there is magic, the divine event happens or doesn’t happen, we see it or we don’t see it, if we wait and finally nothing happens that day, or something happens but we had been looking away at that moment. I see the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Poland like that, or …

JC: I’m going to stop you there, because on the door of the Secret Corner there was going to be a shield which we were to have made in bronze, we had the idea, just like that. There had been a multitude of drawings of this shield that didn’t happen, and what was it about mainly? There was an allusion to an apparition, because we went to Kevelaer together, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it correctly, which is one of the places famous for apparitions in Germany. And still the double meaning, and again the double meaning, when he writes on the door of the Secret Corner: Kevelaer, in quotes he adds OQ, just like that, so it becomes qu’evOQue l’art? And »What does art evoke« was one of the principal mottos of the Académie de Muséologie Evocatoire.

JBJ: Perhaps to conclude …

JC: No, I don’t want to conclude. I want to say one more thing. I attach a lot of importance to the double meaning, because at Warelwast, Raymond Roussel was important. Not only Raymond Roussel, I was talking earlier about Raymond Hains, and Raymond Hains was the living portrait of the Marquis of Bièvre. As it happened, the Marquis of Bièvre, it was he who wrote the entry for the word for pun in Diderot’s encyclopedia, calembour. You mustn’t forget that I went to Ornbau with Johannes to the tomb of the Marquis of Bièvre, where there was an obelisk because it was the Marquis of Bièvre who wrote the famous letter to Madame the Comtesse Tation (contestation), as the dissenter that he never was, since in 1789, instead of being on the list of those »to be guillotined,« he went off and died of smallpox, over there in Bavaria. So, I think that one of the greatest things we had in common, Johannes and me, was indeed this double meaning, the double meaning of The Secret Corner, to show and to hide.

JBJ: And how could you communicate about the notion of double meaning and puns, if you only spoke English when you were together?

JC: Johannes had some gift from a guardian angel …, from some divinity…, that allowed him to make puns in French.

JBJ: We’ll stop there, thank you. Great! We really are about to get cut off.