Interview, Editorial
Accessing collective memory through shared knowledge: an interview with Jasmin Werner.


Jasmin Werner (*1987, Troisdorf) is an artist living and working in Cologne. She studied Media Art and Photography at Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, as well as Fine Art at Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and Städelschule Frankfurt. 

This conversation took place over email with the Berlin-based writer and art critic Chloe Stead. 

Jasmin Werner: We’ve already known each other for some time now, but I’ve never had the chance to ask you what you think about my work. 

Chloe Stead: The first time I saw your work was before we met. I was at the Städelschule Rundgang and went into a little room and found two sets of oversized wooden keys. What surprised me about these works – and this is going to sound strange – is that they were very well made. I went to a different German art school, so this could be my unintended bias speaking, but everything else I saw that day felt so self-consciously flimsy and shabby, like people were too cool to care, and here was you with these beautiful objects that you’d had hand carved in the Philippines. It wasn’t the skill that interested me; it was, I suppose, a certain seriousness and commitment that I sensed in you, even as a student.

JW: The work, forever 21 (defect), took me forever to develop and produce. Having purchased the wooden keys first in New Zealand – where they are sold as gifts to celebrate turning 21 and used as wall decorations – I then shipped them to my uncle’s wood workshop in Paete in the Philippines. When at the workshop, they carved a distorted version of the front side on the back. 

CS: By getting this work manufactured you obviously had to let go of some of the control over what the final outcome would be. Do you find this process interesting, or is it important for you to make work with your own two hands? 

JW: I see skilled work and craft as a reference system, alluding to traditions and stories that are connected to the objects and their making. A collective memory is being addressed through a knowledge which is shared – as if I am sitting in the passenger seat helping with directions. Interpretations and translations introduce an element of chance, but that doesn’t mean I am not producing work myself. Most of the time, my untrained hands are less costly then trained ones. 

CS: That’s very true! Up until a certain point, an artist’s hands are only worth as much as what they’re getting paid at whatever part-time job they’re doing at the time. It’s interesting that you should mention the element of chance, though, because your sculpture series ‘Ambivalent Ladders’  – which you’ve been working on since 2016 – look like they had to be very meticulously planned. 

JW: Yeah, but translating the characteristics and proportions of prominent, flamboyant staircases into foldable ladders brought up unanticipated forms. The inner conflict of these objects – ladders wanting to be a grand staircases – shaped their character. 

CS: You developed what you call a “modular system” for this series, which means the works can be easily taken apart and put back together. Was this just a practical decision on your part?

JW: When shipping and traveling budgets are small the modular concept allows me to expand beyond the size of a suitcase, like IKEA flat packs. But I also just like the look of the butterfly bolts and nuts, they look fun and cheeky and make me think of internal bone fixation or bracelets. 

CS: What were some of the “flamboyant” staircases you chose to work from? 

JW: The outdoor staircase at Sanssouci Potsdam by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, for example, which has a red carpet-like design that leads out into a vineyard. In another piece, I referenced the Cascade in Yerevan, Armenia, which has a temple-like structure. The architectural style is an interesting mix of soviet brutalist and art deco and encompasses a modern art museum beneath its steps. I experienced both of these staircases firsthand, but the other works refer to the collection and publications from the Scalalogy Institute Regensburg (the institute of staircase science), which was very inspirational.

CS: Wow that’s quite niche! Can you tell me a little bit more about what the Institute actually do? 

JW: I know! The Scalalogy Institute is also called Friedrich Mielke Institute, after the founder of the discipline. Friedrich Mielke dedicated his life to the scientific research of staircases within technical, artistic, historic and philosophic means. The institute is part of the architecture faculty of the Ostbayerischen Technischen Hochschule Regensburg and located in the field of preservation of historical monuments. I guess they’re doing a lot of cataloguing and archiving, but Mielke also built staircases himself, which played with traditional standards and the rhythms of our steps.

CS: What came first: the interest in ladders or the book? 

JW: The interest in ladders came first. In the final month prior to the opening of my graduation exhibition, I decided to discard an idea that at the time I felt I had been talked into. I was thinking a lot about leaving the comforts of the institution but also about this grouping of ambitious artists. Ladders were a great symbol for that. I liked the idea of two ladder sculptures creating portals through the room as well as being portable grand entrances, which you could take with you wherever you wanted to go. 

I found out about the Scalalogia Institute while researching stairs in the library of the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt. I came across Rem Koolhaas’s Elements catalog, which he made for the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2014. One element that he focuses on are stairs, and that chapter is jointly written by the Scalalogie Institute of the OTH Regensburg and Koolhaas. I have since got in touch with the institute, and I am very excited to be collaborating with them for a show coming up at the Kunstverein in Braunschweig opening on the 7th of December.  

CS: What shape will your collaboration take? 

JW: For the show the Scalalogy institute will lend me architectural models from their collection, which I will integrate into an installation, and we’re also going to collaborate on the catalogue. The topics in the Scalalogia books made by the institute vary: they look at historic staircases, staircase in art and the psychological influence of staircases. The layout of these books are mostly the same – an image on the one side next to a scientific description of the depicted object on the other. We’re going to copy this approach and have a scientist contribute descriptions of my previous and upcoming sculptures. 

CS:I know you’re still in the middle of the process of preparing for the Braunschweig show, but can you tell us a bit more about how you envisage these architectural models will fit into an installation? 

JW: This is a tough question to give an exact answer to at the moment because it’s still a work in progress. When putting together the show ‘Status Faux’ at Gillmeier Rech in 2017, I envisioned a utopian construction site including the ‘Ambivalent Ladders’ and small maquettes which are like office desk sculptures symbolising our desires and ideas of status. In Braunschweig this sense will evolve into a production line of aspirations – tainted by slothfulness, and our longing for individuality. 

CS: How much are these objects referencing the art world, or more specifically, the idea of pursuing a career as an artist? 

JW: A lot; the other day I saw a boy whose T-shirt said, “You were born an original. Don’t die a copy”. I kept thinking about this phrase all day; how ironic to feel like an individual when the message is mass produced. It’s not only about the art world for me, though, but the feeling that cultural production is a machine wanting to be fed. I really like Byung-Chul Han’s book Müdigkeitgesellschaft (Fatigue Society) in which he reflects on the changed appearance of violence. He argues that it’s no longer exterior threats like wars that we battle but a new internal form of violence: free individuality, which causes self-exploitation. 

CS: Finally, what about the glass pieces you’re working on?

JW: It is a commissioned work by the Bischofskonferenz (Bishop’s conference) Bonn. They asked me and four other artist to contribute a piece to their conference rooms. I worked on sculptures of sunglasses made out of stained glass. It was amazing to learn that technique from the glass master Pedro Schröder in Cologne. The title of the work is Tageslichtstudie (slim shadies) which refers to the Bischofskonferenz’s recent “Tageslichtstudie” (daylight study) on sexual abuse in the catholic church, which only focused on cases that had already come to light.

Pictures by Neven Allgeier for KubaParis