in Features | 06 JUN 04
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Issue 84

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Kirsten Pieroth

in Features | 06 JUN 04

Past histories, alternative identities and subtle alterations are concealed beneath the ordinary-looking surface of Kirsten Pieroth's objects and installations, sometimes hinted at only by a title.

The murky pool of water on the floor of a gallery in Berlin-Mitte, for instance, is significantly enhanced by its title, Kreuzberger Pfütze (Kreuzberg Puddle, 2001), which not only reveals its origins as a genuine puddle from a distinctly different Berlin neighbourhood, but also hints at the absurd effort involved in removing it from its original site, transporting it in canisters across Berlin and re-creating it here, as faithfully as possible, in this clean indoor setting. 'It assimilates, but at the same time it is local', Pieroth has observed about Berliner Pfütze (Berlin Puddle), a version she made for the Tirana Biennale in 2001. For this piece she delivered a puddle from a muddy roadside on the outskirts of Berlin to the National Gallery in Albania.

Water, as banal as a puddle or as spectacular as an ocean, a nameless drop or a well-known body; it's a medium that appears in Pieroth's work in various incarnations, exemplifying the potential redefinition of the everyday. Die Farbe der Meere (The Colour of the Seas, 2002), a deceptively simple work, consists of nothing more than four plastic bottles half full of water. The distinguishing factor, however, is that each bottle contains a sample of a famous body of water: the Red Sea, the White Sea, the Black Sea and the Yellow Sea. Of course, each is colourless and more or less identical. It requires a healthy stretch of the imagination to believe that they do in fact come from these four far-flung seas, but the local mineral water bottles in which the samples were delivered and exhibited testify to their journey. Each has a different script on its label - Arabic, Cyrillic, Latin and Korean - creating a kind of synaesthetic relationship between each alphabet and its corresponding sea colour, thus turning the prosaic visual evidence into a trigger for larger ideas of local and cultural diversity.

This overlapping of the real and the imaginary is a recurrent feature of Pieroth's work, which she pinpoints in relation to Yoko Ono. In a conversation between Pieroth and Danish artist Henrik Olesen, an instruction piece by Ono appears like an unexpected interjection into their dialogue:

'Draw an imaginary map. Put a goal mark on the map where you want to go. Go walking on an actual street according to your map. If there is no street where it should be according to the map, make one by putting the obstacles aside ...'1

Such a vision, where the power of thought is so strong it can overcome the inconveniences of our physical environment, resonates deeply in Pieroth's work. A similar overlaying of geographical reality with an invented order is apparent in 'Atlas' (2000), a series of 60 small collages Pieroth created by cutting up the pages of a children's atlas and rearranging the lands and seas according to her own invented systems of classification. The islands of Indonesia, for example, are lined up in alphabetical order; a map of South America shows only the coastal states (the two neighbouring land-locked countries of Bolivia and Paraguay are cropped out, leaving a hole in the middle like a missing organ); and the deepest parts of the north Atlantic Ocean are little blue lozenges left floating in a white void. Taking as many cartographical liberties as a Golden Age explorer, Pieroth sees the world as her raw material, its landlines to be redrawn at will. There is something determinedly retrogressive about her tactics, wilfully ignoring the convenience of the global village that can connect you to a foreign land with the click of a mouse. But the parallel world Pieroth is interested in has nothing to do with virtual reality; it exists in literature, myth, anecdote and daydream, where fact and fiction have been flowing into each other for aeons.

In 2001 Pieroth began collecting postcards from second-hand stores of faraway places she'd never been to: Postkarten aus Berlin (Postcards from Berlin, 2001-2). Reversing the accepted conventions of postcard sending, she sent them back to their place of origin, to people she'd never met, picked out of the international directory. She asked these people, from Guadeloupe to Urbino, to return the postcards to her in Berlin, together with a description of the place, saving herself the trouble of visiting by finding someone there already to act as a proxy and give her a taste of it. It was something of a Paul Auster set-up, where complete strangers become implicated in convoluted storylines by chance meetings or twists of fate. There is indeed a fine line here between fiction and fact and a deliberate literariness, as well as a conscious loss of control that leaves the direction of the piece in the hands of a number of unknown collaborators (of over 100 postcards sent out, 45 were actually returned).

In a further coincidence that wouldn't be out of place in an Auster short story, Pieroth's search for authenticity took a historical spin when she found and purchased a letter signed by inventor extraordinaire Thomas Edison. The letter itself bore little relation to his countless scientific inventions, containing only the following sentence: 'I regret that a previous engagement prevents me from accepting your kind invitation to dinner at your home.' None the less, Pieroth took it as the cue for her own scientific inquiry and set out to discover if Edison himself had 'invented' the excuse, writing to various experts for their opinions and even approaching the Patent Office in an attempt to patent it. All of this is slippery ground - the authority of Edison experts, the truth of Edison's historical identity, the syntactic slippage of the word 'invent', not to mention to factual veracity of the excuse itself - but Pieroth treads it nimbly and weaves a complex study of the nature of invention. Of course, it was impossible to determine the status of Edison's excuse, and in the end it became Pieroth's own excuse to get her foot in the door of the relevant authorities. The original Edison letter, the letters she sent out and the replies she received were displayed together in a vitrine in Berlin's Klosterfelde (Letter of an Inventor, 2003), alongside a number of other works investigating the myths around Edison: witty transferrals of small details of personal ephemera, such as a signed photograph of him asleep on his workbench shown together with a re-creation of the table, with the signature on the photograph copied straight on to the table itself (Edison's Workbench, 2003). The dumb literalness of this mistake is a sly comment on the minute misinterpretations that get written into history, and is, incidentally, further complicated by the fact that the 'original' signature is itself a fake.

Pieroth delights in discrepancies where truth and fakery are jumbled together to form an 'authorized' version, but she can also get lost in the fine details. Her show at Portikus in 2003, which traced the bizarre history of one of Edison's original laboratory buildings, consisted of a collection of all the materials needed to reconstruct the building (Building #11, 2003) and had a dry, academic appearance, at odds with the story she was telling. Certainly both her Edison-related exhibitions owe their strength more to the generation of an 'imaginary' idea than a 'visual' one. But the fluidity between fact and fiction that Pieroth's work articulates can also occur on a purely visual level. For Reaktion von grauen Tauben auf graue Socken während der Futterung, Humboldthain (Reaction of Grey Pigeons to Grey Socks during Feeding, Humboldthain Park, 2000), an almost absurd socio-biological experiment, Pieroth scattered several bundled-up grey socks on the ground among a flock of feeding pigeons to see how they would react. Although plainly ridiculous, it was an incredibly light, almost haiku-like gesture that spotlights visual ambiguity between the fat grey birds and the lumpy grey socks, once again unravelling vivid trails of imagination from the most unexpected of things.

1. Quoted in A Conversation Between Four Artists on the Occasion of the Exhibition by Kirsten Pieroth and Henrik Olesen, Galleria Franco Nero, Turin, 20 February 2002.