A bird-like sound currently fills the exhibition space of MUSA, the museum for contemporary art owned by the city of Vienna. This bird-like choir beams out of Gabriele Rothemann’s 24-channel video installation QUIRE. 24 Vogelkäfige [bird cages]. During the past two decades, the 56-year-old German conceptual artist has time and again preoccupied herself with the theme of living and dead animals in her work. Originally trained as a photographer in Kassel, she decided to continue her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf in the painting class of Fritz Schwegler in the mid-1980s to explore art making that does not primarily aim at reproducing the pictures that are generated within our world through a camera.
Her current show QUIRE provides a well-curated insight into her multilayered and varied artistic practice that brings black-and-white new media work, delicate colour aquarelles, and two round looking glasses that mirror one another (onto which a UV print depicting a budgerigar and a water surface are attached). This interview provides an insight into how Rothemann’s engagement with some of her student fellows, who now belong to the Becher School of photography has, amongst others influenced her body of work and what has particularly interested her about the singing voices of these winged, siren-like creatures.
Lisa Moravec: Mrs Rothemann, your current exhibition brings a selection of your works from two decades together. Twenty-four moving and singing birds are the primary subjects of your video-sound installation QUIRE. How did the exhibition come about?
Gabriele Rothemann: Two of my works are in the collection of MUSA. One is the 3.5 meter high photographic work DNA (1997) that hangs next to the reception of the gallery, and the other is this video-sound installation that I made in 2009, which was bought by the museum in 2013. For the latter, I filmed especially bred canary birds inside the original cages in which they had been raised and sold at a pet shop. These sound-videos have never been exhibited in this format before. I had the tracks on DVD and showed it twice (Fig. below): one evening, as a black-and-white wall projection outside at the Museumsquartier in Vienna and the second time, as a minimal sculpture with twenty-four monitor arranged in the form of a housing block inside the Zacherlfabrik in Vienna. The latter was about minimal sculpture, dealing with linearity, the serial image, and chance. For this show, we produced twenty-four individual metal stands of different heights and placed the monitors showing the singing birds on top of them. Then, we allocated the single monitors within one room of the museum space.
Lisa Moravec: In a way, the monitors and their pedestals create a hierarchical order between the individually kept birds inside the space. Each of your metal stands has an additional platform on the same level just above the ground. Why is that?
Gabriele Rothemann: All of these platforms have wooden boxes underneath, and inside these are the video boxes to which the cables of each monitor are connected. The cables become visible, thereby turning the installation, in a way, into an ornament.
Lisa Moravec: And what do the different heights demonstrate?
Gabriele Rothemann: I used the average height of a person as a scale for the pedestals and placed the monitors onto five different heights, with about 20 cm difference in between them. I didn’t want to predetermine on what height the viewer should engage with the monitors. Positioning the work inside the space, they can lift their heads, lower them again, or turn their ears to follow the birdsongs.
Lisa Moravec: In what way does the element of chance play into this work and into the genesis of this exhibition?
Gabriele Rothemann: By using the movements and voices of living birds, it was possible to extend the serial image. The video-sound recordings of the work had already existed since 2009, but the way I intended it to be exhibited – with twenty-four HANTAREX monitors – never took place until now. In this sense, the work is now finished for the first time. It was only through the incredible energy of the museum, which has provided its entire exhibition space (and that does not happen often), that the work has finally been realized.
For this space, especially, we welded the pedestals together so that they form a unity with the grey ceiling of the room. Each monitor shows one bird, which has its own voice as a single unit that forms a unity with the other birds – resulting in a choir or quire. That was the idea.
Lisa Moravec: Going back to what you’ve just said, namely that the moving birds demonstrate the unpredictable inside this enclosed space, I am wondering in what sense can one actually speak of the principle of contingency here, considering that the visual-sound installation of the bird calls is purposefully projected onto the viewers from twenty-four particular angles…
Gabriele Rothemann: The conditions are determined, yes - pedestals, monitors, sound-films - but how these elements come together, and how the viewers perceive them, is always depending on chance.
Lisa Moravec: Considering that your filmed canary birds are caged and trained to sing, it becomes clearer that your work is rather about the viewers and their connection to the moving images and the sounds than about an inter-species engagement with physical birds in a room.
Gabriele Rothemann: It is a multilayered abstraction. One has to imagine that canaries are living beings that have a long cultural history, going back a couple of hundred years. The birds were caught by chance on the Canary Islands and people experienced that they could become excellent singers. That is how people started to catch and breed them. They have developed methods to make them sing even better. In this way, they were forced by the will of the humans these birds to go through the same development as humans themselves. They are shoe-horned into tiny cages and are left there for a certain amount of time because that’s a way to help classify them and to find out which bird has the potential to become a professional singer – this moment is called “Singing School”.
Lisa Moravec: Where did you film them?
Gabriele Rothemann: I filmed them at a pet shop of a Viennese canary breeder, who comes from a family tradition that goes back about 200 years and served as the k. u. k. [Imperial] canary breeder. The more beautiful their birdsong is, the more popular they were as presents. These bird singers were treasured, delivered, and presented as presents to many other European courts in the past century. The representative of the bird breeder family still uses the cages of his great-grandparents, and I have filmed the birds inside these cages.
Lisa Moravec: You have just brought up that the proportions of your work were especially tailored to a 3:4 HANTAREX monitor. If I compare this work to our contemporary digital world, in which digital images, film and voices appear to be flattened out, hyper-circulating, and co-existing in a completely different time-space confirmation, I would say that your work demonstrates a beautifully patient play with the living animal through a, by now, obsolete visual-sound device.
Gabriele Rothemann: The cages have the same proportions as the monitors. I caught the birds as moving images and now they are again turning into boxes that have the same proportions as the camera image. They are closed in themselves but open up when one moves around the twenty-four monitors to follow the sound. I wanted to incorporate beauty in this work. Keeping that in mind, it would be technically inappropriate to show this work on flat screens. But. as the monitors are not produced anymore, it took some effort to get hold of twenty-four HANTAREX monitors. The current unavailability of TV monitors in general is troublesome because it is not possible to imagine a museum without them anymore.
Lisa Moravec: The birds are caged behind bars inside these TV monitors. Their moving pictures form a unity in such a way that one could believe that there is something happening on the inside - but that’s an illusion. The bars hold this illusion together - the relationship that operates between reality and fiction.
Gabriele Rothemann: The steadily abstraction and transformation of my original encounters with caged singing birds constitutes the process of mediatisation. This was part of the idea to make the work, and reflecting upon it now, after it's been finished, it has become even more important. For example, the exhibition of this video-sound installation has led to a vivid discussion between art historians, the canary breeder, artists, and the public.
Lisa Moravec: The attempt to mediate the body of a moving being realistically is a complex task; and you manage to create a discussion about it in public. To me, your work does this really well and reminds me of Jannis Kounellis’ twelve flesh-and-blood horses that he repeatedly tethered onto the walls of many exhibition spaces, such as Bik Van der Bol and Liesbeth Bik’s show Speechless that consisted of four real parrots that greeted the paying museum visitors at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami last year, and, of course, let us not forget Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay’s exhibition Une Autre Voix that provided an insight into the singing voice of a grown-up choirboy earlier this year at the Kunstpavillon in Innsbruck. All of these works explore the nature of moving and sometimes even speaking or singing beings.
Gabriele Rothemann: Yes, for similar reasons, I set up a live event at the museum, at which the voice of a professional countertenor harmonized with the twenty-four voices of the canaries. The composer André Werner composed a specific musical score for the birds. All that has added another element of chance to the work, resulting in the voices of Kai Wessel and the birds merging into one temporary quire or choir of 25 voices at the live event.
Featured images: Exhibition View, GABRIELE ROTHEMANN, QUIRE. Vierundzwanzig Vogelkäfige [24 bird cages], 2017, MUSA, Vienna © eSel.at — Lorenz Seidler; Gabriele Rothemann, Detail, Vierundzwanzig Vogelkäfige [24 bird cages], Installation, 2009 © Gabriele Rothemann.