Layers of Absence

»My photographs of spaces have a lot to do with the presence of the absent. I guide the visual experience through omissions, through something which is not obviously identifiable.« – Johanna Diehl

Since January 2015, the fine artist and resident of Berlin Johanna Diehl has lived and worked in Studio #14 at Solitude. Two steps separate her studio from the extensive fields and forests which once belonged to one of the biggest Baroque gardens in Europe. In Johanna’s studio, a creative chaos prevails: The walls are full of photographs. Prints, boxes, books, paper everywhere. A model for her exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, which she is currently working on, stands on the drying rack. In addition, Johanna is planning an exhibition in the Oldenburger Kunstverein; a new comprehensive project with the working title Kassel; and not to mention the book project Ukraine Series with texts by Juri Andruchowytsch, which Johanna is working on at the moment together with the Sieveking publishing house in Munich.

Marte Kräher: Do you prefer being a guest or a host at Solitude?

Johanna Diehl: It’s inspiring that you are here for a limited time and have an empty room which is unfamiliar and becomes your own during this time period. I purposefully invite people over, such as the publisher, graphic designer, artist or curator, to work on certain subjects. I like inviting people to the library and being a host in this semi-public space. I find working in these large spaces gives me a certain concentration for these conversations and work.

MK: At the moment, you are working solidly on a big exhibition and a book project which is dedicated to converted synagogues in Ukraine, a country in which there is currently a war going on…

JD: I took photographs in Ukraine in 2012 and 2013 in the time before the crisis. A few years ago, I worked with Boris Mikhailov and a group of other artists in Odessa, where I photographed women in this city in which the beautiful and the brittle, the light and the broken co-exist simultaneously – ever since then I have been intrigued by that country at the border of Europe. Ukraine Series presents the premises of former synagogues in Ukraine, which were converted into theaters, cinemas, factories, sports halls, or assembly rooms after their destruction in the Second World War and under the Soviet regime. Only a few of them were restituted. The images deal with the history of the synagogues in Ukraine as specific cultural spaces in which the authorities established their stance to the themes from the prevailing ideologies of the time. Under the Soviets, they became places in which the body, spirit, and everyday life were to be shaped in the form of sport, work, film, and cultural education. Today, a global reality is presented in the former synagogues; goods are produced and sold in them. In others, the Soviet legacy is preserved, repainted in garish colors. Some are no longer used.

To me, these spaces reflect on the struggle with identity, the handling of memory, the interaction of Europe with its past and present. The work is not about a melancholic view; it is much more about the present. I am very happy that the writer and poet Juri Andruchowytsch, who is one of his country’s leading cultural and intellectual voices, has written text miniatures for the book and will read at the opening in Munich.

MK: In the other works, you also show sites devoid of human life, where the present often joins the past. For example, Eurotopians deals with visionary buildings which emerged in the ’60s for an alternative living, whereas Borgo shows ideal villages built under Mussolini, which are today mostly abandoned. Is there a unifying theme to your works?

JD: My work is not about deserted sites. Eurotopians deals with the question how one could live today in 2015, looking at Utopists that still live within their Utopia. The trilogy Borgo Romanità Alleanza shows the handling of present day Italy with its fascist past, also showing the image programs of active institutions in Rome.

In general, I would say that my focus on external material and different places have at their core a subjective quest: my own »writing« of history. My quests have something to do with presence of the absent. In retrospect, the film Vater – consisting of fixed camera shots of a landscape with a voice-over telling fragments of memory – has become for me more and more a type of »silent« key component for this unidentifiable element. It’s not about the accumulation of historical layers. The type of material which results from analog photography – the appropriation of material, so to speak – becomes its own story. It’s not about documentation, but rather a form of re-writing, where a new quality enters the process. Without this, it would only be engaged photography.

MK: How do you approach photography?

JD: I find photography as a means can transport something very specific in its arrangement and omission, which is only possible in this medium. Firstly, there’s a long research process and collecting phase, in which I compile material and references. It’s a lengthy process, in which I only have an inkling at the beginning where it will lead me to. In this process, I consolidate the strands of material until I can create a work from it. I find images which for me present a specific essence I want to transport. For this, my presence as a photographer on location; spending time there; and working with a large-format analog camera, which requires a certain form of concentration, are essential. I usually only take one image of each motif and consider exactly how the image will be composed.

MK: Back to Solitude: What goals did you have in mind for your time here?

JD: There are various projects I brought with me, which are all at different stages. The Ukraine Series has a very definite form with the exhibition and book project, which is also a very exciting process. In addition to this, I am working on Eurotopians, a book project which came about in cooperation with the journalist and author Niklas Maak. An excerpt of this will be shown this fall at the Oldenburger Kunstverein as well as at Akademie Schloss Solitude next year. It deals with Utopians of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Yona Friedman, Claude Parent, Dante Bini, or Antti Lovag, whose designs fundamentally question the standard ideas of »living,« »building,« and »housing.« Many of these building are ruins today, the architects forgotten, some of whom – often over 90 years old – still live in their utopias. I’m currently in the process of planning trips to other Utopians to photograph there. The new, large-scale work Kassel is in an early stage and has a lot to do with my own biography. I’m currently working with letters, photographs, and diaries left over from 1937-2010 from my grandmother.

One part of the large-scale work will be an album she left behind with the title Unser Heim – Weihnachten 1937 (Our Home – Christmas 1937), which features photographs of my grandparents’ dining room with a Hitler Portrait, heavy armoires, and a dark dining table and chairs made of mahogany. In her later home, a modern open-plan house of the ’60s, she re-introduced the same dining table and chairs, now repainted white. I’m interested in this break which took place in the public and private biography and which is mirrored in the world of objects: the modernity of the ’50s and ’60s, which turns towards a modern, liberal future, in front of the background of the suppressed past. The inner emptiness and inability to love, which is instead filled with consumption, American films, jewelry, fur coats, cars, Valium, and modern architecture.

MK: How are you working here at Solitude? Do you have a fixed daily routine?

JD: The distances are so short here that you can start to work straightaway in the morning. My daily routine normally entails the following: work in the morning, communicating around midday, work in the afternoon, events and input in the evening. I find this intensive work without distraction very stimulating. In my studio in Berlin, everything is always simultaneously present, but here I only have a few books and works which I limit myself to. At the same time, I converse with other artists without having to arrange anything. It really inspires me that there are people around me reading, composing, designing, that there are artists here who go about their work in a completely different manner and work towards something with intense concentration. It gives the time at Solitude a certain quality.

MK: What plans do you have for your time after Solitude?

JD: Alongside the planned exhibition and book and extensive work on Kassel, I want to work on a new project on music machines from studios for electronic music. In the 1960s, there was a lot of experimentation with electronic sounds, for example under the leadership of Karlheinz Stockhausen. I would like to turn this utopian thought, this new discovery in music, and the architecture of these machines into images. I have already researched this in Cologne. It would be good if I could expand on my work Eurotopians with this. So, there’s a lot to do after Solitude.