For the second part of the interview with Regina Frank, please click on the photo below
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Today Regina Frank, German artist, lives in a village near Lisbon and in Germany. She finds her inspiration in her connection to nature, ecology, solar energy, flowers and the beauty of nature. For the past decade, she has been exhibited internationally in windows, museums, and public spaces. Her projects are meditative, with a strong message about the world, the planet, the time in which we are living.
You have been exhibited and working on performances under the title “The Artist is Present” for more than 20 years. In 2010, Marina Abramovic held a long lasting performance in MoMA with the same title. This performance and retrospective exhibition has changed something in performance art — it was something very big. Now we have a documentary film with the same title, about Marina‘s preparations for that performance. Even though there is a book published by you, and there is a lot of information on the Internet about your ongoing life-project “The Artist is Present”, we haven’t heard anything in Marina‘s film or during the performance that connects her with your work. How do you feel about this?
To understand how this feels I have to go a bit into the past about “The Artist is Present”. I met Marina in 1990 for the first time, when she gave a lecture at UdK. As a tutor for the lecture series at UdK with the organization Interflugs, I had the honor and immense pleasure of working with great inspiring and groundbreaking artists such as Joan Jonas, Dara Birnbaum, Alfredo Jaar, Joseph Kosuth, and many more, but by far John Cage was my first and favorite. When I met Marina, I had just organized a workshop/concert/talk for students with John Cage and he just blew me away with his inner silent presence. In the garden of UdK, I sat next to him while he was speaking consonants looking at his pocket-watch timing the silence in between sounds after the IChing. There was the sound of a saw and hammering, birds and his silent words in between. It pulled the rug from underneath my feat — That was grace. My work could never be the same after that. I showed him my first version of the “The Artist is Present”, when I visited him in New York a few months later. We played chess and I photo-documented it with his permission. Being in his silent presence with the incredible noise of the fire department right down the street — I realized then and there that “The Artist is Present” has to be a permanent experience. For me it’s not just the title of a work, it’s a promise.
Later I organized and participated in a workshop with Marina. Together we set out to a really remote village and we fasted and didn’t speak and made performances inspired by the common experience. I found her very generous and inspiring, but my mind was going nuts: the gulf war was about to start and I was in a remote village without any access to news. So I made a performance about that. I lured the whole group into a bunker, read the newspaper and started the radio. The gulf war had just started! That was very powerful after a week of hunger! After that I gave some public performances “See that you don’t look!” with slides from war juxtaposed to the slides of school environment. A lot of people were deeply touched. During that time I did mostly performances involving political and economical issues. As close friends were dying of AIDS I also did some public sculptures related to that for an exhibition at NBGK but also to raise money for people with AIDS. Often I went out as my alter-ego “Frank”, impersonating a man, with a beard and went to parties and leave cards or “The Artist is Present” sticker on things or people I touched. It was also a joke, people took my card thinking it had my phone number or address but then there was only that sentence. We were a pretty crazy bunch (mainly artists but also hackers, and scientists) crashing parties, openings, performing in public spaces, even participating in exhibitions without invitation. I left Polaroid photographs in some exhibition with a sticker “The Artist is Present”. It meant look at yourself: the artist is present, as a present. Of course once search engines came into existence, one could find my name and work.
I financed myself mainly by giving private Tango lessons and performing Tango in some events, also by making wedding dresses, set design, and costumes for films. It was a strange stretch but also inspiring. All of this I basically tied together with “The Artist is Present” until 1993 when my career took a more solid turn after the exhibition at the NewMuseum. From 1993 onwards I was able to finance myself by teaching, selling and performing art, as well as some grants.
Marina and I had many deep conversations until we lost touch around 1993 or so. In 2002 I saw her again at Haus der Kulturen der Welt and gave her my book entitled “The Artist is Present” which had been published in 1999. After that she founded IPG (Independent Performance Group) and invited me to be part of it and also published my work “Hermes Mistress” 1994-1999 in “Student Body.” I did a performance “Sharing Silence” by then all over the world, starting in a Residency in SAIR, Sapporo, Japan.
So to me it was extremely surprising, that an artist of her caliber, success and fame would knowingly take this title, which I had used for 21 years, for such an important show to commemorate her career after all my solo exhibitions had that title. When you used to type: “The Artist is Present” it was connected to my name and website immediately in all the search engines as first entry. I used to distribute cards with that title, sort of like a reminder for people. It was almost like a brand name, on my stationary, my website, back then on my slide-labels. Within a matter of days on the Internet my connection to “The Artist is Present” was almost erased. It was almost as if she was calling me back by erasing my connection to that title.
Then “On the Issues” magazine featured my work and gave it the title “Regina Frank is Present” and they didn’t change it even after I insisted that this felt totally wrong. That hurt. For me the artist is nothing personal. The artist is a bigger entity, it is the gift of the present, it is creation itself, it refers to the divine creator within us, to true inspiration and the truth, which can only be fully present if personal identification is absent. That is what I meant when I said the real presence is an absent one in 1999 in my book.
No one can take away what’s truly yours, and on a deep level I was thankful to witness this, as it took me deeper into the artist’s present and way deeper into what is really important — my life’s purpose became so clear. When she shared this title without asking or referring to my work it made me sad, mainly for her. For me it is a question of integrity and consciousness. So I went and thanked her anyway. I went to MOMA on my way to give a lecture in Chicago; I stood in line for a few hours and sat across from her for an hour or so until I found that thankfulness, that space. I came to peace with it in that hour and I knew in the end it would be good. Online there is a clip that has been seen by millions of people. Ulay is making peace with her, holding her hand and she cries. Ironically here you see me first at 0:33-0:39 and then again at 1:05 or so. Its so funny, you see me twice but you don’t recognize me unless you know me. This is what the artist is present is all about. It is that impersonal existence. People want to put a name and face to it, but “THAT” has many faces, many forms, why would you limit yourself to one.
What is really important is that the artist is present within all of us, that we are present in each moment. All of this confirmed my path. I trust that in the end even this was a gift from the universe. Love works in very strange ways and I trust in abundance and love for all of us. In the end it is all about love, and I am deeply in love, even with things or people I don’t even like. (laughs)
On the last page of my book “The Artist is Present” it shows us together.
May the artist be present within all of us!
And what does it mean when you say “The Artist is Present”?
When that bigger entity is present, that which I call the Artist, that which is infinite and limitless, that which has no definition, then there is no one there anymore. If this artist is present, I am you and You are me. Then there is only that one which is everywhere, which means you are nowhere. This is grace, this is the present (gift) of the present (moment).
Is the Artist always present in our fast and ephemeral world?
In reality there is only the present. It is your birthright to receive this gift. We mess up that gift with material distractions. We mix up gift with material gift and we often destroy that gift that needs nothing, with something material. This is how we spoil our birthday. Instead of reflecting on the big gift we are in this world we focus on the gifts we receive or don’t.(laughs).
Does the artist have an obligation to be present in his/her time?
In reality there is no time, it is just an illusion. The only obligation is to be true to yourself. The only obligation for me is to transcend space and time and we can do that simply by being in the present.
I have withdrawn from the art-world for some time in order to have time for my child. It was also easier for me to live and create new work with an extremely simple life, away from the public eye and the temptations to take life personally. I even lost my name for most people that I came in contact with on a daily basis and became the mother of Sofia (my daughter), (laughs) mother of Sofia. I just needed to disappear. I still worked, created settings for babies to explore colors and painting with food, created software, (Dreamweaving), and researched alternative energies and environmental issues. It is not about physical presence at all for me, it is about reaction to current issues and the presence within you.
To act, to show the social and political problems of the world, to react to certain problems of the time?
If that is your nature, then there is no power in the world that can change that. Then action is required, yes, otherwise there is imbalance, and prolonged imbalance often leads to disease. If you are lucky you can enjoy a few years of bliss, get used to it and keep the gift within you. If action is required you will act, but it is like a brush that doesn’t really know what it’s writing.
In the text for the piece “What is black? What is White?” you mention this as well: the brush that doesn’t really know what it’s writing. What do you mean by that.
It is from a poem by Rumi. I used to carry Fernando Pessoa in my purse, now I have Rumi in my head: “Do you think that I know what I’m doing? That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself? As much as a pen knows what it’s writing, or the ball can guess where it’s going next. “ It means that you follow your inspiration without knowing.
I often use a video-camera installed on the ceiling to create a view from above as a distant view, as a detached view that overlooks everything. From here it looks like hardly anything moves but you have the whole picture. This is the divine perspective. The view from the brush, or the detail, is mainly our identified human perspective, where all movement seems extreme.
Whiteness in Decay, (2003, Video-Still) Detail, Frank’s cracking off the plaster, from her body, transforming her sculptural shell back into human skin.
In Whiteness in Decay I used this set-up as well. For me visually the contrast between an extreme close up and an extreme total is very challenging and inspiring. In Whiteness in Decay all the close ups are so colorful and joyful while the distant view is white in white until the end. When we look at the earth from a satellite perspective, it looks mainly like blue and white with fields of green and brown, but the closer we get to earth the more colors and shapes we see and from our perspective we detect all kinds of colors and forms. As an artist I am really fascinated by that and at the moment I work with this and began to paint again. I try to really let nature determine shape and color, in order to find a new approach for myself.
Could art be a medium for a social and global conversation?
It already is. I mean look at this musician Klavierkunst, just last week who came to Taksim square in Istanbul, and with his concert restored the morals of the people where there had been so much violence before. Suddenly there was a concert, and the piano brought peace. Or look at Theaster Gates who changes houses and with it whole communities. Look at all the artists that travel the world and exchange with the people. Look at Yayoi Kusama’s older work, look at Tanja Bruguera, Regina José Galindo, Kim Sooja, Ai Wei Wei, just to give you a few names that pop up in my mind spontaneously: all so different, these artists processed their cultures and bring the perception of their home countries to a completely different level. Things like that make me happy, even though what they digest in their works sometimes burns under my fingernails.
Your works are very meditative, and explore inner and outer networks, connections between us and our planet, nature, East and West?
Yes, for me it feels most important to be centered and with my work to integrate the opposites, thus bridge the old and new, traditional and modern, text and textile, tangible and digital, and to give my work sensual and spiritual qualities. I try to tempt people into sometimes quite heavy content through beauty. Just recently a big commission was cancelled because my work was too political, too risky in election season. I see that as a confirmation and compliment. I try to learn from everyone and everything and often luckily only silence remains. I have to listen to that silence. The answer is in that silence.
One of your projects was titled “Hermes’s Mistress”. Hermes is a messenger of the Gods in Greek mythology. The performance was very seductive. Your dress was like a red island and you were sitting in the middle of the island with your laptop, downloading text from the Internet by hand, and letter by letter, sewing the words with alphabet beads. You were materializing the information and were you slowing down time?
It had to do with the beginning of the Internet when only a few people could yet grasp the potential of the speed of information the Internet would bring. It was in 1994 when my Powerbook had a maximum of 8MB RAM. Today I have 3GB, that is 375000 times more. As time and space are a relative illusion we can only grasp it if we hold on. This is the creativity of slowing down. When we slow down so much that time stops the artist is present. In the beginning the circles were so big because I started from outside to inside, and as the internet grew vast I had so little space to sew on sentences and to make it rich heavy and beautiful by what I learned.
You use a computer and the Internet as a part of your works; you said once that the Internet in its beginning was a great place to find information and ideas. Is the Internet like some new Hermes, a messenger of Gods?
Maybe. You can find everything in it and everything is relative to the question you ask. It is a place of non-judgment. I love technology and I’ve been fascinated by it since the beginning. It is a gateway for many good things I consider important: freedom of thought, transparency, democracy, global exchange, the peace process, connection, and so much more. It is a source of hope for me and I believe we can use it to make this world better. The Internet gives me, and many others, information for my work, my healing, my spiritual growth. It is like that with money. Money is a good servant but a hard master. The Internet is a good servant but a hard master.
Where is creativity in 21st century?
Within the truth, within silence, within the present. There are so many good artists out there producing great work, some of them known, some of them not. Any medium is fine, inspired by science, literature, politics, economy. Today everything goes, so it comes closer to that un-definable space that we are looking for.
The end of the first part. To be continued…