Vienna-based artist Andreas Duscha has just inaugurated his first solo show at Christine König Gallery. In his exhibition, Winning hearts and minds, Duscha deals with the subject of a violence-prone culture of protest as well as with the sleeper agent.
“Winning hearts and minds” – at first sight the current show’s title sounds as if it was geared toward gaining the enthusiasm of new Instagram-followers or intended to find new fans for your work. But you actually got this slogan from US anti-terror politics. A US military strategy conceived for overseas assignments and intended to immediately win over the local population in order to reduce the risk of potential terrorist attacks. The goal of this strategy is to create a strategic advantage for oneself. In what way is this strategy, this slogan, visible in your exhibition?
I’ve of course chosen the title on purpose, because of its content, and because it sounds exaggerated. I’ve been dealing with violence-prone protest culture for a long time. In this confrontation, you come across that slogan pretty soon. It’s been used since the 60’s. The Vietnam War made it famous. The slogan “Winning hearts and minds” stands for a strategy of prevention, supposed to turn enemies into friends, in order to suffocate terrorism from its beginning. It’s only when you discover what’s hidden behind the slogan that these words acquire a bitter taste.
The show’s content is important, but it also has a humorous aspect. After all, it’s an exhibition at a gallery that always focuses on representation and sales. The potential sales create new possibilities: the clients take my subversive thinking home with them. Though my works are based on certain aesthetic paradigms, the content is very complex.
By picking the theme of terror and the sleeper agent, you’ve chosen a subject of great actuality. Besides the Paris attacks and the resulting fear, it is also closely linked to the refugee problematic. Why did you choose a theme that is currently causing so much division in our society for your first show at Christine König Gallery?
The theme is extremely up-to-date and political. However, the sleeper‘s strategy has existed since 500 BC, and therefore really isn’t new. Spreading fear is a tactic that works. The terrorists create a feeling of generalized unease. The discontents of cultures – a Freudian approach.
One of the exhibition’s works refers to Paris. However, its main focus is the media’s response. After the attacks the reporting was incessant. 10 minute footage was stretched out over 24 hours and perpetually repeated. There was more gossip than information. At such a moment, a marginal figure can easily become the focus of all reporting: suddenly this guy shows up and shares how his cell phone saved his life. The media jumped on him and interviewed him without ever checking the accuracy of his story. I took a screenshot of his cell phone display and reproduced it 1:1. On an aesthetic level, the result reminds us of a fingerprint. It also deals with the question whether his story is true or false.
The attacks’ “success” is mainly attributed to how unexpected they were. Not just timewise but also from a local point of view. Besides the outside continuity of the sleeper‘s role, his activation plays a crucial part: the codification of communication, the flip of the switch. What forms of codification did you come across while doing your research?
The ways of transmitting information are extremely diverse. Members of the Shining Path in Peru for instance have communicated by using color codes of firecrackers. Secret messages contain information that others aren’t supposed to see. I’ve created several analogies on this subject. The work with the screenshot of the cell phone is called Telephone 1. The work Telephone 2 is a mirror with an etched-in poem. This second work isn’t based on real circumstances. It’s fictitious and has been inspired by the 1977 movie Telephone. The movie tells the story of an American citizen who’s kidnapped and gets brainwashed in Russia. Robert Frost’s poem activates the sleepers. For me it isn’t important whether this happens in a fictitious movie or is based on real events. My works also show how exchangeable the image of the enemy is. In times of the Cold War, the enemy used to be “the Russian”, now it is “the Muslim” or “the person from the Middle East”.
Why did you choose the mirror as medium for the poem – and therefore for the activation code?
A mirror always has to do with a certain lack of reality. In horror movies, evil often comes out of a mirror. The idea that there is more to a mirror image has a long tradition. The mirror shows a reality that doesn’t exist as such. The seemingly three-dimensional image that it creates is in reality only two-dimensional. In this show however, the mirror works as a mediating object. The mirror glass is grey-colored and therefore seems rather gloomy, which suits the work very well.
As a nominee of the BC21 Boston Consulting & Belvedere Contemporary Art Awards you also worked with mirrors. These works were shown at the group exhibition at the 21er Haus in Vienna. How did you end up making your own mirrors? Was there a moment of origin?
I actually started to work with mirrors because of a problem of availability. I was an artist-in-residence in Slovakia and I was looking for old mirrors for a project. I couldn’t find any and ended up making the mirrors myself. To manufacture the mirrors, I used a recipe from the late 19th century. My mirrors are made out of silver. By mixing certain chemicals, I created the reflecting surface that now constitutes the poem’s background.
Your mirrors are paradigmatic for the production of your work: you do everything yourself instead of delegating those sometimes complicated activities to professionals. What was the procedure you used to write the poem on the mirror?
I wanted to etch the poem into the mirror, but working with fluorohydric acid is dangerous. The American queen of “Home-deco” – Martha Stewart – offers an etching cream to do handicrafts with. That is what I used to etch this poem into the mirror. I could of course have hired a professional glazier, but it was very important to me to be involved in the process. A process that is always a battle against myself and with the object.
To what extent is it a battle against yourself?
Photographic lab processes are an important part of my work. They’re based on precision. And that’s something that doesn’t go with my personality. That’s the battle against myself. The more complex it gets, the harder the battle. That’s what happened with the safe in the first exhibition room: grinding off its surface was a struggle that lasted several days.
I subscribe to a classic idea of art: I manufacture everything myself. Handicraft plays an important role, even if I’m not good at it. It’s extremely important to have certain skills so that the result looks good.
You searched nature for the inactive sleeper‘s role, for the best possible camouflage. And you found something…
The cuckoo is a fascinating bird. He’s a brood parasite. Instead of sitting on his eggs, he lays them in foreign nests. He’s also able to imitate up to nine different host eggs. There is this moment of mimicry – he imitates something that he isn’t. When the birds hatch, the others are killed. The cuckoo really is a bad motherfucker. I liked this idea. There’s also something sinister about the egg: inside its closed form, it conceals something. What ends up hatching in this case is the devil.
Nowadays, cuckoo eggs are under conservation. I went to the Museum of Natural History in Vienna to take pictures of eggs from the 19th century. When I look at the individual eggs, they always remind me of little planets. We never know what’s happening there. I generally refer to the time span from 1870 to 1920, because that’s where I see the origin of modernism. Those years continue to influence us.
With your safe, you once again refer to this moment of surprise…
I’m not a sculptor, but I experiment with objects of strong content. A safe is a closed system. We don’t know anything about it’s content, and that makes it perfect for my concept. The purpose of a safe is to prevent people from finding out what’s inside. It’s like an egg with a particularly hard shell. Only a key enables us to discover what’s inside. The safe in this exhibition is also a moment of climax: the moment it is opened, its content is destroyed. Having a key alone is therefore insufficient.
The safe is mirrored on the outside and photosensitive on the inside. Every time the flap in front of the keyhole is moved, light penetrates and leaves traces on the photo paper. If we take the content out, the light destroys all traces, and everything turns black. At least unless the heavy safe is transported to a dark room before it is opened.
You keep on referring to the aesthetics of your works. This aspect plays a crucial role during the process of production. Are there specific aesthetic criteria that you use for your works?
That depends on the work. The work’s content dominates its form. Form follows function. The origin is an idea allowed by its realization. Aesthetics helps me to give further shape to the idea. Just as a painter has a gamut of colors, I have a gamut of contents. For me, the quote is part of aesthetic creation.
What do you consider aesthetic?
That’s hard to say. There are things that simply appeal to me. That’s just the way it is and it doesn’t matter why. The idea of the safe as a real object just came up. Of course I could also have taken pictures of safes. But I knew at once that it had to be a real object. I needed an effect, with no need for the object to be completely perfect.
Interview by Sabrina Möller
Winning hearts and minds
Exhibition: 15. January – 05. March 2016
Christine König Galerie • Schleifmühlgasse 1A • 1040 Vienna • Austria