PELES EMPIRE: The Empire of New Dimensions
It all started with a coincidence. Katharina Stöver and Barbara Wolff, the Berlin-based artistic duo known as Peles Empire, first met when studying together in Städelschule in 2004. Soon after they became room-mates, they launched their first collective project inside their home: an illegal bar that functioned as a walk-in installation, amalgamating the public and private.
The work of Peles Empire brings together superficially oxymoronic schemas, different architectural styles and historical eras while tracing the relations between original and copy. Their installations mix together precious materials treated in an ungracious way, re-arranging the linearity of time, chronology, and history. Their fragmentary approach to the narrative derives from the architecture and inner decoration of Peleș Castle built in the 19th century in the Carpathian mountains, in Romania. Through this approach, they manage to create a haptic, physical dynamic inside the space; sculptures become two dimensional works, wallpaper and A3 paper turn into three dimensional objects. The byproduct manifests as a work itself; the handmade is placed alongside the industrially produced.
Ioanna Gerakidi speaks to Peles Empire about the ways of looking at mimicry as an everyday life attitude, when an artwork is considered finished, and freedoms and limitations that arise when working as a duo. For Peles Empire, collectivity emerges as a method that holds power when trusting each other’s instincts and reconsiders the presence of egos.
Ioanna Gerakidi: Can you tell us how you met and decided to work on this collective together?
Peles Empire: We met during our studies at Städelschule and coincidentally became room-mates in 2004. Both of us originally studied painting and realized that our work had a lot in common, such as experimenting with different materials and photographic elements in paintings. But we felt like experimenting beyond painting. When another person in the apartment moved out in 2005, we decided to collaborate. We initially opened an illegal bar in our home. It was a sort of walk-in installation that allowed mixing public and private. For the installation we used a photograph of the Princess’ bedroom inside Peleș Castle in the form of wallpaper, very fitting to Frankfurt’s red light district where we lived at that moment.
IG: Jannis Kounellis once said that space is its chasms; you can only experience it through its fragments, otherwise you only see rooms. In your practice, the fragmental — both in spatial and historical terms — seems to play a significant role. What does it mean to create and/or recreate a spatial narrative based on the inconsistencies of a space?
PE: The starting point of our practice is the Romanian Historicism castle Peleș, built in the late 19th century. We were initially fascinated by the crude mash-up of copies of different architectural styles and epochs that were placed next to each other without any hierarchical order. In the castle, all elements seem to be treated without consideration of their 'origin.' Energy saving light bulbs in glass chandeliers next to hand-carved Indian tables and a copy of a Michelangelo’s Medici tomb serving as mantle pieces over the fireplace. The narrative we are interested in lies within the gain and loss of ‘information,’ from one copy to the next. From the ‘original’ style to the reinterpretation of it. This very gap is what we are interested in.
IG: How do materials as mediums for your installations operate within this very context?
PE: We've been working with A3 paper copies since 2005. These copies are glued together in order to create large wallpapers. This is a fragmentation that through the combination of digital print and manual manipulation naturally produces glitches, translational ‘mistakes’ so to say. Starting from the idea of a single paper being abstracted from its context, we have arrived at different materials mimicking this effect. We also like to use standard formats and building materials juxtaposed with precious Ming porcelain, which in our work is treated ordinarily.
IG: During the summer of 2017, a sculpture of yours was exhibited in a carpark in Münster. Can you tell us a bit more about this work, as well as about the challenges that might have generated for your practice when generally being exposed to unsafe conditions?
PE: Our work for Skulptur Projekte Münster took its cue from the city’s architecture, ornamental and intricate facades are held up by thin metal rods which are only visible from the side. This had an obvious relationship to a foundational element of our work, namely exploring the transition from 2D to 3D. The houses in the old city center were destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in the 1950s. Their design was based on copies of the old facades that sometimes only loosely related to the original.
Visiting Münster after receiving the invitation to participate had an influence on how we experienced different parts of the city. The impression previous editions of Skulptur Projekte has left on the city is still there and we spent a long time in search for an area where our sculpture could be placed, which in turn would also influence the final piece itself. We were looking for a kind of ‘in-between’ space within the city centre. The parking lot was perfect in the sense that it was close to the rebuilt center. But it was also surrounded by a mix of architectural styles, such as post-modern, 70's and functional housing buildings.
Our work, titled ‘Sculpture,’ merged the architecture of the city of Münster with the architecture of Peles Castle. The outline of the front was the means of the facades that have existed before the war. On the front was a tiled image of the castle’s terrace that is propped up by a wooden scaffold. The body of the sculpture was structurally-based on the Münster roofs, and the steps, made in dibond, were based on the A3 Format which we often use in other works and room installations. The surface image was based on photographs of the Jesmonite bar that stood inside the sculpture. The pattern outside imitated effects that appear during the photocopying process. The front and the body of the sculpture were in black and white. The inside part of the sculpture’s character operates as a structure made of metal. At the bar, diagonally placed inside, artist talks were held with artists that have previously exhibited in the exhibition space we have been running in London, Cluj and Berlin. During these talks we served a Romanian plum spirit named Tuica.
We did not feel that our piece was exposed to unprotected or unsafe conditions as it was made especially for that — to be part of a very public space.
IG: In your work, there is also a rearrangement of time; I feel like it is not perceived as linear framework. What are your thoughts about that? How does your work deal with time?
PE: We have adapted the attitude of the Peles castle, where chronology bares no relation to the sequencing of rooms. For example, an Art Deco room placed next to a Rococo room, or a Florentine music chamber leading into an Elizabethan dance hall. We often revisit older works of ours, photographs of them or photographs of the castle, and rework them. Sculptures become two-dimensional works, and vice versa. This doesn’t only shift works into a different time, but also into a different dimension. Something is lost and perhaps gained within the new ‘original.’ We also like to question the moment an artwork is considered finished. A series we are currently working on are printed carpets of scenes from the studio, a trompe l’oeil effect of arrangements stopped in mid-production, the by-product of making an artwork becomes the integral part, as well as a work in itself.
IG: What does it take to work as a duo, to work collectively, besides this aspect of implementation that you’ve just mentioned? I mean more in terms of erasing or re-arranging the presence, absence and semantics of egos or subjectivities, of bringing together two characters.
The theoretical concept of an ego is unimportant for our work. We care about what we do and how we do it — more so than who does it. Ideas evolve through an ongoing conversation. The outcome or the works could not have been thought of by one of us. So throwing all we have into one pot and trusting each other's instincts is our most powerful tool.
IG: You also run your own space in Berlin. It seems this initiative is a substantial element of your practice as a whole. Could you tell us a bit more about the way you deal with the space, the artists you choose to invite, your role as curators, as organizers?
PE: We have been running an exhibition space since moving to London in 2005. Our flat at the time, in the basement of an old building near Brick Lane, could not only function as a salon, but also host exhibitions. We were always very interested in other artists, the way they work. Over the years, the bar/salon element was more or less taken out, and since 2009 we’ve focused principally on exhibitions. We do not consider ourselves curators as the exhibition invitations are always very open and artists are free to deal with the space in whichever way they choose.
Opening our permanent installation - the wallpaper - to other artists has taught us a lot about the way we see both our work and the work of others. Our collaboration with other artists is not neutral, but does open new kinds of freedom and opportunities for experimentation. We think of the exhibition space as a somewhat ‘static’ element to our practice. It is an installation that changes through the inclusion of other artists work, whereas our other works are more ‘dynamic’ in the sense of dealing with the core idea of the castle´s method of reproduction.
Both strands of our practice influence each other by impacting, for example, the way we exhibit our own works. We are very interested in connecting different art communities, not only virtually but also in the form of ‘real’ exhibitions. This was one reason for opening an exhibition space in the beginning of 2010 in Cluj, Romania, the home country of Peles Castle. We are still very interested in keeping these connections open by exhibiting artists from cities where we have lived and/or worked before.
IG: In one of his essays Jacques Lacan says that, “Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind. The effect of mimicry is camouflage. It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled.” How do you approach imitation as a (Western) concept when it comes to the relationship created between the original and its copy?
PE: The fascinating thing about mimicry is that even if an insect looks like a twig, it is something entirely different. This really makes us question the way we look at stuff. Also, once something is copied, or remade, it already exists in a completely different context of time and space. We are also interested in a critical examination of the status quo. For example, the local architecture in Münster — which was the basis for our sculpture for Skulptur Projekte 2017 — is perceived as medieval and the original city centre, where in reality it had been built in the 1950’s and in most cases is only loosely based on the original. So, the concept of copy or mimicry is also very present in our everyday life without us noticing it.
IG: There’s something very somatic, very physical about the way you look at structure, the deconstruction and reconstruction of space. Is this hapticality, this tangibility an element you are aiming for?
PE: We like to work with — and perhaps highlight — the difference between the handmade and industrially produced, so we use both those elements. Maybe this tangibility you mention, makes us question how something is made. Also, being two people, we like to produce works that can only be made by two. Sometimes this has to do with weight one person couldn’t lift, sometimes it is about balancing two things that require four hands, or something that would be unnatural to build with only two hands.
Interview by Ioanna Gerakidi
Photography: Christoph Mack for Collecteurs