Anneli Ketterer in an interview with Helga Filter, 2015
in memoriam H.W. Morsbach, Chicago
H.F. An intercontinental selection of your works is on permanent view at your DECRUSTATE showroom in Berlin. DECRUSTATES of sand dunes, industrial wasteland, dry riverbeds from Africa, America, Europe and Asia, mounted on glas. Also a piece of the former death zone in Berlin. You call your works DECRUSTATES. What are they?
A.K. DECRUSTATES are objects of earth, more precisely: objects of original surfaces of earth. Etymologically the word derives from the Latin verb ‚decrustare‘, to peel. I was looking for a descriptive name for these new works. I lived in the Namib desert of Southern Africa since 1992. In 2000 I started to develop a technique to fix the upper layers of earth surfaces on site and remove these from their places of origin. Thus I capture ground (in)formation shaped by the elements, mainly by wind and water. I also capture imprints of flora and fauna: of grass, spiders, elephants and humans. Closely observing the natural phenomena of fog occurring in the desert, I discovered that fog water binds earth surfaces without changing them. Of course this bond is only temporary, it is gone with the sun evaporating in no time. I learned to imitate the fog, but I use a special glue to bind selected surfaces permanently. The same year I also worked in America in the Northern Chihuahua Desert, the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau. I searched for a long time to find suitable glues. Today I work together with the chemical laboratory of an adhesive producing company. I continually develop the technique to be able to bind diverse earth materials in diverse circumstances. By now I can peel off very thin crusts, three to five millimeters thick, enabling me to produce and transport bigger works of 12 m² plus. It is important to place unchanged, original works of nature in the foreground. I make use of their unmatched aesthetics. There is nothing to add to the originality and truthfulness of creation. I take very small amounts from a source that never runs dry. You could say, with a smile, that I am involved in a small mining venture.
Soil is completely taken for granted, its fundamental significance for life on earth completely overlooked most of the time. To bring earth back to needed attention is a great challenge. I facilitate close encounters by raising it to eye level. We need this direct contact, the physical contact to earth. The first question of people around the globe is ‚May I touch?‘ Everywhere, everybody wants to get in contact, satisfy the tactile urge, to grasp…
Over the years I was able to learn a lot about the impact DECRUSTATES have on the beholder. It is exciting to watch what happens when you lift things to eye-level which people usually take for granted being below their feet. You just have to change the viewing angle of 90°, uplift the ground, bring it to the foreground. The four elements wind, water, fire and earth work similarly all around the world. Thus DECRUSTATES speak a universal language every human being can understand. They touch us deeply and sooth our senses but simultaneously stimulate the brain. I often call the works ‚mirrors‘ since the patterns and structures of the earth’s skin are visible also on our own skin. In your iris is the universe. The cosmic principle of analogy ‚From the very large to the very small‘ is a topic that naturally runs throughout my work.
H.F. An accurate study of nature was the starting point of your art work. From 1989 to 1992 you studied Multimedia at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich at the same time you received visual material of natural objects of your specific interest from the Max Planck Institute in Seewiesen where Konrad Lorenz studied his wild geese. How did this interest develop?
A.K. The natural environment of my early childhood, the Starnberg Lake in Bavaria, was definitely of strong influence. I often played all by myself there. A stunning, captivating region! The elements and seasons were always changing, exciting! Amongst other things the violent demonstrations at Wackersdorf (uranium recycling plant in Bavaria) in the early 1980 and the catastrophe of Tschernobyl in 1986 during my high school graduation had lasting effects on me. The human capacity to destroy themselves and the planet occupied my mind already at an early stage. After that I lived for one year at sea, on board an old sailing vessel in constant contact with the elements water and wind. Back on land I started studying fine arts. Searching for artistic expression, my interest revolved around form and function and micro-macro structures in nature. I spent my last semester mainly working in nature itself, doing land art related works.
The cradle of the DECRUSTATE work, however, lies in the Namib desert in Namibia. In 1992 the Max Plank Institute sent me to the ecological desert research center Gobabeb as a scientific illustrator and assistant. Life in the desert strengthened my connection to myself and my environment. I stood in awe, and I stayed and learned. The desert is a strong and at the same time a very sensitive environment, always extreme, always breath-taking. So you live the extremes, play with them. I became aware of deep connections that changed me fundamentally. The ground under my feet talks to me when walking barefoot in the desert. Soil became my second skin. A protective layer. I started to experiment with earth materials. It took many years of experience, of becoming more aware and of sharpening the senses: Eight years later I started to fix pieces of dune surfaces to remove and exhibit them as natural ready-mades. ground truth.
H.F. You are a founding member of the first grass-roots environmental center in Namibia, in the Namib desert. Social engagement within environmental projects and close co-operation with local people, also later in North America, belong to your work. How did this develop and what was important to you?
A.K. At Gobabeb, the Namibian research institute, I got to know locals with the same interest in people and environmental work in the desert. We later founded the first non-governmental environmental center named GECCO and the community-based GECCO Foundation, the first of its kind in Namibia. In a country that was still strongly influenced by apartheid, our priorities were the facilitation of self-initiatives of local people and of course creative environmental awareness projects. I was responsible for the creative, awareness-raising side of GECCO (Group for Environmental and Creative COnsciousness). We built animals in the desert from collected rubbish, went on desert survival trips with Namibian township youth to bring them as close to nature as possible. Nature is the best teacher … the closer to reality the better…
Later we were active members of the initiative NEEN (Namibian Environmental Education Network). From 1995 I continued my creative environmental projects on a mobile basis. More and more I lived a nomadic lifestyle. Living with animals, especially with desert elephants, and with the people of the Namib desert was the strongest influence in my life. In the South West of the USA, I also worked close together with indigenous people, the Diné (Navajo). During a three month DECRUSTATION phase I lived in a hogan, a traditional roundhouse, on reservation land. The Diné allowed me to take soil from their holy land. Working on and with the ground you are inevitably confronted with pressing social and political aspects of land issues. Land ownership and land distribution became immanent topics of my work, especially after the exhibition earth for sale in Windhoek, Namibia, 2002. According to a tradition of the San (the first nation of the sub-saharan continent) you can only possess what you can carry on your own shoulders. Accordingly, I offer my work as a real-estate agent as the only land or property you can actually own. With this presentation I also took part at the Earth Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2003.
Meeting local people on-site is essential and has direct influence on my work. Being asked to select a piece of earth to represent them in exhibitions, artist colleagues from Palestine decided that the frame should stay empty and that speaks volumes…
Thus I see DECRUSTATES as messengers of the respective regions and their creatures.
I was able to learn so much, intensive learning! Also spiritually…
H.F. What exactly do you mean by spiritually?
A.K. Deep involvements within myself in nature, especially being alone for weeks, is part of the work. These often are highly energetic experiences. The desert, for example, constantly holds a mirror up to you, you cannot escape from yourself. Being alone means constant self-reflection. For good reason, some world religions, especially the Abrahamitic, being Judaism, Christianity and Islam are shaped by desert life. I learned so much from the desert: to subordinate to nature in order to understand oneness. And respect towards life, acute awareness, humility, also gratitude, humanity, the right giving and taking… During the fieldwork on DECRUSTATES I am not ‚the master‘ or rather ‚the mistress of the situation‘ within the play of the elements wind, water and sun – great! I take what is present in space and time. Living with the extremes of nature, I do not miss any entertainment, the production of adrenaline is naturally stimulated. I live ‚first-hand‘, not second-hand, I live in the moment. I am reduced to the essentials in life. That is why reality and truth is so very important in my art. I sense a complex connection and I got to know a special connection to the ground. My job as artist is to visualize this connection, to visualize this inner connection of human beings with their environment.
H.F. Since 1996 you have learned animistic dance with Koffi Koko, a founder of modern African dance. Is dance also a spiritual part of your work?
A.K. Of course dancing supports the body’s sensitivity and agility, in order to find balance and a conscious posture. The DECRUSTATION process is very challenging also for the body: I carry very heavy and fragile earth works on my head through rough elements, often for many kilometers back to camp. It’s good to find a rhythm for that… But only the connection of body, spirit and soul makes me happy, truly content! Dance is definitely the connection between these three aspects, beautiful! Bodily sensation becomes more and more important today, also in art. Koffi knows about people being very top-heavy here: The head may step aside… In African dance grounding plays a vital, carrying role, and is an important source of energy. You are not pushing yourself away from earth, but go into it like a spring to use bodily tension to transform it into movement. Grounding through dance is part of my interdisciplinary approach to the matter.
H.F. Back to your objects once more. You call them ready-mades after Marcel Duchamps, broadening the term to ready-mades of natural origin. How do you make the selection? And why don’t you give specifics about countries of origin but longitudes and latitudes of the origins of the works as title?
A.K. I refer to the earth objects as ready-mades of natural origin in contrast to the industrially made objects that Duchamps proclaimed as works of art. Found in space and time, I only fix and remove these pieces of earth to be able to exhibit them as DECRUSTATES in art exhibitions. Placing these global earth objects in a different, new context, they receive broader meaning, a value that allows for a wider view going beyond my own personal experiences. The spectator is asked to be part of the work, becomes part of the work. I learn from the feedback that inspires me to new projects. The topic of ground itself is quite complex. It is as complex as life itself that takes place on and in the ground, including the processes, the cycle of emerging and passing away. How do I select? I initially select specific DECRUSTATION regions that I call ‚my natural studios‘ according to concept, often knowledge and science driven. I thoroughly study satellite images, mainly using Google Earth. By now I have learned to interpret specific images of ground surfaces and formations. But I am open: often I follow regional recommendations, additionally commissioned work has presented me with new studios that I would have never considered. Finally on-site I get to do my ‚ground truthing‘, a scientific term that I am using as subtitle for the DECRUSTATE work: I explore the area, come down to earth, face to face with reality. On-site I naturally choose existing surfaces according to the situation. But often I choose intuitively, as I learned to trust my intuition being part of survival. Part of my concept is to work intercontinental to bring together various regions‘ DECRUSTATES and integrate them under a specific topic into exhibitions. Most of the ground surfaces I decrusted in Africa were of very old material, beige-brown to red in color. In North America I worked at White Sands National Monument:. Here I was allowed to take very young, white sand surfaces of Selenite, the crystalline form of gypsum. As Artist in the Park I was recommended further to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. On 3000 meters I found a dune field with a high content of black Magnitite sand. Working at this altitude with strong winds, high humidity and sudden snow storms was the biggest physical and technical challenge so far. I learned that extremes like that produce the most incredible earth surfaces! On reservation land of the Diné (Navajos) close to Monument Valley Tribal Park I took surfaces of red silt. That is extremely fine sand material and thus very difficult to decrust. Inspired by the philosophy of the First Nation people, the first round-shaped DECRUSTATES took shape. In Europe I decrust mother soils, industrial grounds, or pieces of earth that are connected to my own European background, like the former death zone of the Berlin wall. And then I take earth of a UNESCO world heritage site, of eroded walls of fallen empires in West Africa, the kingdom of Dahomé. The kings sold their prisoners of war to European traders who then brought them to the slave ships at the Slave Coast. And I take a piece of these prisoners‘ last walk on African soil, today a UNESCO world cultural heritage site.
The works‘ titles are their respective figures of longitudes and latitudes. They are abstract, neutral, rather objective, scientific descriptions of places. I do not use names of countries. National borders often are arbitrary results and results of economic interest. The four creating forces of nature do not know these borders.
H.F. What projects were important to you in recent years?
A.K. Coming to Berlin was quite an important step. I opened the permanent base of my mobile endeavor. I have storage facilities and my permanent exhibition here that I gladly open to interested people. Berlin is good to me, my neighborhood is just great!
2009 I was invited to present my work in the United Arab Emirates, a very exciting event. For the first time I went into the desert with a taxi and in high heels. I am very interested in the desert land of the Near and Middle East, the origin of the three Abrahamitic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In future I would like to focus on showing the similarities within humans worldwide instead of working out their differences.
In October 2011 Bernd Dreßen organised a highly moving working visit to Israel and Palestine, also meeting with artists in Ramallah for the first time. The socio-political side of my work came to the fore again. Occupation, taking possession of land, land-grabbing are naturally topics I am confronted with when working on the ground. I literally bring them up in form of the original matter from that space and that time.
The combination of art and science is dear to me. In the German Technical Museum in Berlin my so far biggest DECRUSTATE ‚red carpet‘ (8,0 m x 1,5 m) was on show in a special exhibition with the focus on wind. And I am exhibiting at various scientific venues and initiatives, like the annual ‚Long night of the Sciences‘ or the Global Soil Week in Berlin.
In 2011 I started a film cooperation with Fips Fischer, Arteminent from Munich. We took first film material of the DECRUSTATION process on industrial wastelands in Franconia, Germany and of a dune area south of Berlin that was kept without vegetation through constant military missile exercises. A year later, with a 7,5 t truck full of goods with the destination Mali, we went on a DECRUSTATION trip from Germany via Spain, Morocco, West Sahara and Mauretania. DECRUSTATES from North Africa, the Saharan- and Sub-Saharan regions. What a trip! We collected great material, earth and film footage. Some material can be seen on Youtube or my website!
With Bernd Dreßen, dramatic advisor and project manager, I developed a concept for a festival of art and earth. We want to explore peoples‘ complex and many-faceted relationships to earth not only within the arts but also on interdisciplinary, trans-cultural and participative levels. Many highly interesting people are coming together, e.g. Alexandra Toland who just completed her interdisciplinary thesis on art and soil. In the process, Alex has initiated art/soil projects, e.g. a poster exhibition at the World Congress of Soil Science in Jeju, Korea or a book production for the UN 2015 International Year of Soils where globally works of soil artists come together with the work of soil scientists.
Finally the completion of the DECRUSTATE website last year was an important step towards global communication.
It was great fun and honor recently to celebrate the 25th Independence Day of Namibia with the Embassy of Namibia here in Berlin. A group of Namibian earth surfaces was present on stage, ground that also the Embassy is responsible for.
H.F. What are you busy with right now? And what is planned for the future?
A.K. It would take seven lives, several patrons and a world wide web to develop and realize all existing ideas. The project DECRUSTATES has quite some potential that I will not be able to set free myself. Luckily I meet more and more people who link themselves to our activities and become active members. In this year, 2015, the UN International Year of Soils, the art and earth festival has developed into a concept of a nomadic, on-site producing, exhibiting and performing communication platform to develop and share art and earth awareness projects world-wide. This platform carries the name ORIGIN. To create an entire room of big DECRUSTATES has always been a vision of mine and a great challenge. At the moment we work on the technical development of 5m x 5m DECRUSTATES. Five of these DECRUSTATES form the core of ORIGIN being exhibited within urban public spaces in three phases: in the first phase the works are positioned as advertising billboards to attract attention. The five DECRUSTATES then come together to become the performance stage for trans-cultural, inter-disciplinary and participative earth related projects. Finally they will be joined to form a complete cube, a room of contemplation. ORIGIN is designed to be a nomadic production, exhibition and performance platform, a highly complex and ambitious undertaking and important cultural contribution to the current situation of humans on planet earth. We want to pass on the DECRUSTATION technique to interested artists world-wide, to develop an art open source in order to globally prepare the ground to inspire further activities – a fascinating and internally ‚eco-logical‘ thing to do! We are proud to collaborate with quite a collection of great people and organizations like the UNCCD ((United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification), international soil scientists, the Berlin Senate (e.g. town-partnerships), architects, the event specialists BLT and Schloss Bröllin International Art Research Location to name but a few. Additionally we are contacting other important organizations, like the Goethe Institute. This year our focus is on securing starting capital to finance the organizational team and the acquisition of the DECRUSTATE mobile studio (an off-road truck) and to start the prototype production of the 5m x 5m DECRUSTATES. Next year ORIGIN will, for the first time, be completed in Namibia. The initiating festival will take place in Windhoek. The next place of production and performance will be Berlin, Germany. ORIGIN will then be able to accept international invitations to prepare global ground to bundle initiatives for the next local earth festival.
In the process of ORIGIN’s financial development we are strengthening co-operation with architects, interior designers and detailers to realise art and architectural projects. ORIGIN should be able to finance itself through selling DECRUSTATES: There are internationally working architectural firms that we need to contact.
And there are many other interesting concepts in the pipeline that work with larger sized DECRUSTATES. We especially want to address the ecological corporate social responsibility of businesses that draw their resources from the ground.
Myself, I would like to concentrate on historically interesting grounds, for example to bring to light soils of the Berlin underground where not much has changed over the decades while above ground States were coming and going. For 2021 a very demanding project is in the pipeline: a multi-media performance parallel on seven European stages commemorating the end of the First World War. I was asked to bring war grounds onto the stage, to me they are the last surviving witnesses of that time.
H.F. At the end of our conversation I would like to come back to the term ground truth in connection with your works. It seems to be essential. Max Ernst comes to my mind. He said that truth is on the surface, is lying open and is therefore often invisible. What do you connect with ground truth?
A.K. Ground truth became the sub-title for my work. Originally it is a scientific term describing the necessity to verify scientific data on-site especially when you use satellite images. I do not take the light, means I do not take photographs, but take the original material itself that I find on-site. Accordingly there are no images that come closer to reality then DECRUSTATES. They are what they are. I contrast the truthfulness of my objects with the virtual and medial products of today – an important lesson from my time living in the desert. I want to live first-hand, not second-hand, I need more truth and less fiction in my life.
H.F. Thank you for the conversation. I wish you all the best with your inimitable work!
A.K. I thank you!
…. and at the very end, for science orientated minds, a little mathematical formula of a work of art :
1 m² earth surface x 1 second of universal time = 1 DECRUSTATE