Before his death in 2012, Chicago gallerist Donald Young commissioned nine artists for an exhibition series of projects responding to the work of Swiss writer Robert Walser (1878–1956). Tacita Dean’s contribution, Berlin and the Artist (2012), is a series of collaged images using found postcards and drawings from around Walser’s time. The book In The Spirit of Walser is based on the exhibition series. Released this spring by New Directions Press, New York, it includes Dean’s essay Sluggardizing and illustrations from her project alongside stories by Walser himself.
PABLO LARIOS I’ve been reading your essay Sluggardizing .
TACITA DEAN Robert Walser uses that word in his story, Berlin and the Artist (1910). It refers to the hermetic element of an artistic life. What I love about the story is Walser’s intimation that you can effectively be doing work while seeming passive – when you’re lying in bed or staring at the ceiling. Walser understands something about the artistic process that is so often misunderstood or mischaracterized. Working on the images for this project, Berlin and the Artist, I was lying on my bed gazing up at a turn-of-the-century ceiling. To the outside world it would have looked like I was being lazy but, in fact, I was ‘sluggardizing’.
Walser’s story is also an account of artistic life in Berlin, where he lived from 1905 before returning to Switzerland a century ago in 1913 (in his words, as a ‘ridiculed and unsuccessful author’). The suggestion – in both of your texts – is that there’s something unique about artistic life in this city. How did your project come about?
TD Donald Young, who died three days before the exhibition opened in his gallery last year, had sent me a copy of Microscripts, a compilation of Walser’s coded texts that were translated into English in 2010. The miniscule notes had fascinated Donald. Some time after reading this book, I went with Lynne Cooke to a flea market in Berlin. Very strangely, we came upon hundreds of pencil drawings by an artist called Martin Stekker. It was a remarkable discovery: Berlin observations from a century ago.
In your story, you tell the flea market sellers that these drawings should be in the Kupferstichkabinett. You still purchased some though, and even gave one to Lynne Cooke.
TD Well, they were beautiful and I knew I was working on this project for Donald, and Walser was already on my mind. I later researched Stekker to find only one reference to him on the Internet and discovered he was born in the same year as Walser. Just after that I bought another newly translated collection of Walser’s writing, Berlin Stories (2012) where I read Berlin and the Artist. Immediately I saw a connection between Stekker’s drawings and Walser’s stories, both observations of Berlin life from the same time.
Do you see parallels between Walser’s Berlin and your own?
TD When I arrived in 2000, Berlin was still quite an unformed city. Now, it’s becoming normalized. Berlin in 2000 was another place and time. The feeling of excitement at the discovery of a city I describe in my text is similar to Walser’s, and my experience then definitely had some relationship to the apartment I first lived in (and still live in), which was built in 1902. In 1905, Walser came to Berlin to stay with his brother Karl, quite a famous book illustrator and set designer. Karl was quite integrated, so Robert wasn’t just an interloper. He had a lot of contacts, mixing with a lot of people. It was highly likely he probably knew Martin Stekker. You feel it in a story like Tiergarten , both men observing the Tiergarten in their own way. And then later in the postcards I found from that time and used in the work.
Both texts – yours and Walser’s – have the intimation of a sort of crisis or shock: Walser refers to the city’s ‘disagreeable attack against complacency’; you refer to the ‘brutal obliteration of everything’.
TD If you think about it, 1913 was the year before havoc hit Europe, which still continues if we trace the repercussions of World War I to now. You think about life then, the details, the quality of life, and the destruc‑tion to come. It’s incredible. I think there are parallels to what’s going on in 2013. Like we’re all sitting on the brink of something, even if we don’t yet have access to what it is.
The postcards you found here – the end-of-the-rack postcard, say, with an ‘X’ drawn over a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich – place the viewer in a position of receivership. To look at any such document is to become a kind of surrogate conversational partner, albeit a conversation we don’t really have access to, like a code. Another one here I’m looking at contains a dense mass of writing and numbers. It almost looks like one of Walser’s microscripts.
TD Yes, that was a very, very early postcard find – some kind of code.
Could you imagine what the code is used for? It almost seems personal, even if it’s codified – one can make out the word ‘Liebe’.
TD You never know. Was it a code between two people or something more generally understood at the time, or was it important that it had to be written in code, or was it just a game? You really never know.
First published in Issue 9