Grant Watson<I suppose that in terms of textiles, the exhibition “The Nature of the Beast” was pivotal.
Goshka Macuga<The show at the Whitechapel?
GW< Yeah. It was a work that really galvanized your practice in a political way. I’m thinking of earlier works being a little different. And what you were saying previously about questioning history and questioning the truth and the presentation of things, I felt that project brought all of this into a very powerful statement, which people could really understand. So maybe you can say a bit about the work, and how it came about?
GM< That’s like a whole story. I got invited to do the show at the Whitechapel. This was when they did the expansion and what used to be the Whitechapel Library became a commissioning space and part of the Whitechapel Gallery, which was a little sad in a way because I had great sentiments for that library. I knew the area from the very early ’90s, I think actually since 1990, when I went to do my foundation course there. And these kinds of changes already meant that the gentrification of the Whitechapel, even with its good aims, would change the place fundamentally.
GW< Which I think it has.
GM< It totally has. I remember that whole area from the Whitechapel High Street all the way back towards Shoreditch and Brick Lane, all around there it was dilapidated spaces, and the Indian community and the Jewish community were much more present than I guess they are now. So, when I went to the Whitechapel, I was curious about the history of the institution. And I looked into the archive, which was pretty great. Then I came across this show, which was not even a show, it was a political gathering in 1939 when the actual Guernica painting was traveling Europe, trying to raise awareness against fascism. This is the one Picasso painted as a response to the bombing of the Basque city. It had already been shown at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition (world fair), which was a pretty phenomenal event, between a Nazi pavilion and a Soviet pavilion—like the crazy stuff that coexisted together within that timeframe. And then this massive painting travelled all around in Europe, including London, where the trade unions and the communist party leaders managed to borrow it to come to the Whitechapel Gallery. So, they literally rented the gallery for two weeks to do this event, and the painting played the role of a political banner rather than an artwork, and everything that happened within that space was to activate support for the Spanish Civil War, which was very effective. Plus of course, it manifested the spirit of East London. I thought, this is excellent. But I also knew that any kind of attempt to bring the painting back was impossible. I thought this is really such interesting information that I would like to work with, but the question was: how do you substitute Guernica?
There is not really much you can do, but then at the same time, it’s such a strong image that you understand it even from a postcard, you know what it means and what it is. And then, when I was trying to figure this out, I came across information that there were several copies of Picasso’s Guernica made in the fifties, which were commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller with Picasso’s permission. And that one of them was on loan to the United Nations in New York. And that during US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN Security Council meeting about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, they had decided to cover the tapestry with a blue cloth, as it usually hangs almost directly behind where they usually talk to the press. Officially it was too “graphically vibrant” and they didn’t want to have such an image at Powell’s back as he spoke, which clearly was complete nonsense. They obviously thought—we’re going to war and we’re having this anti-war symbol in the background; it doesn’t work, let’s just cover it up. And lots of people saw this and really criticized it, there was lots of press about it, but it never really came to my attention at that time. And I thought, “oh my God, but that’s it: the best and the most excellent substitute for Guernica, the original painting, is this tapestry. It creates so many different layers, but also it helps me to bridge 1937 to a contemporary context and current conflicts, which obviously then was the war in Iraq. And I think that around that time, as you said, my work became increasingly political, because I genuinely felt more engaged with the whole situation.
GW< It was a turn in the culture.
GM< A massive turn.
GW< Because I remember how in the art world of the nineties, it felt like geopolitics had receded slightly and then suddenly it came back into sharp focus.
GM< And people were engaged. You remember the protests of millions going onto the streets against the invasion of Iraq, which was obviously completely dismissed, but protests continued anyway.
GW< Yes, Occupy, and all these elements that appear in your later tapestries.
GM< So, I thought that this bridge, which was the tapestry from the UN, would allow me to make a huge jump, it would be ideal. But I didn’t have confidence that I could borrow such a thing, from the UN, which still belongs to the Rockefellers. I hesitated for almost four weeks before I asked Iwona Blazwick [the director of Whitechapel Gallery], and I said, “Look, I have an idea, could you somehow find out what are the chances of borrowing this tapestry?” And she did.
GW< Good for her!
GM< And the response was positive, they basically said: “Yes, no problem. You can have it for a year.”
GW< Fucking hell, that’s unbelievable!
GM< A member of the Rockefeller family was quite enthusiastic. Even came to see the show. So, it was like, wow, that’s it, I can build from this. And it really was a question of luck and a good idea. And also, the duration—that was initially a big anxiety for me, having a show open for a year—was why for the first time I did something interactive, where I allowed the public to use the show for meetings, etc.
In a way the work was designed almost as a prop, which facilitated participation, but I couldn’t really foresee how people would use it then; I thought that they would follow my interests and the current critical discourse. And it was interesting to observe because there was a huge amount of sincerity. And what you said about the accessibility of this work to different generations of people is right. There were moments when you would have people who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War having gatherings there to commemorate that, like the last living members of the group, the brigadiers who travelled from East London to fight in Spain, who would come with their flags and gather, to young people discussing issues of importance to the community, and then too, people proposing something that was completely against what I intended this work to do. But nevertheless, there was a very exciting vibrant one year of events that happened, which really activated the work and gave it a completely different content. And I accumulated all of the notes from the meetings and the photographic documentation and different ephemera collected from those events.
GW< For me the next phase I was aware of was when I curated the exhibition “Textiles – Art and the Social Fabric,” and I invited you to make a work at MuHKA. You came up with the idea to make a photographic tapestry, On the Nature of the Beast (2009), which was a comment on the Whitechapel project, based on the fact that some of those activities you just described seemed to be antithetical to the spirit of the project.
GM< Yes, in a very direct way, like a pro-war meeting.
GW< Maybe you could that unpack that a bit?
GM< Yes, well, because it was such a big deal, the whole reopening of the Whitechapel, there was a series of openings, and the openings themselves were already starting off with the visit of Prince William, and I was asked to give him a tour around my show but was told not to ask him any questions. And he then informed me that he was the first member of the royal family that had really officially visited East London in I think twenty-five years. And in order to go to the Whitechapel, he was flown in a helicopter that landed on the Whitechapel hospital roof. And then he was driven from the hospital to the Whitechapel gallery just for this opening. It was ridiculous. He was kind of sweet, and obviously trained to deal with this sort of situation very well. But then in a kind of naive way, he went on to give a speech, because of course there were always several speeches during these events, and he wanted to impress all of us with his knowledge of art, and so he said that his real name was Banksy.
GW< But why? As a joke?
GM< As a joke, with the Guernica (which has a republican sentiment) behind him. You know, flying with a helicopter landing on the hospital and then coming to the gallery, and then just turning this into a circus with all of those different people who were in the audience, starting off with like, arms dealers. It’s interesting because all of these things that already bothered me then have become so much more on the agenda recently. You’ve heard about this Zabludowicz scandal?
GW< Which one?
GM< Well recently, when there was the bombardment of Gaza, somebody initiated this action encouraging artists to officially cancel the authorship of any artworks that they sold to their collection.
GW< It’s tragic how the Guernica motif is repeated over and over again. You have the Guernica tapestry, and its depiction of the bombing of civilians. Then the bombing of cities like Fallujah in Iraq, which you refer to in the installation, and then you have the bombardments of Gaza, that you just mentioned, another aerial raid on civilians.
GM< Yes, and in Fallujah they were using weapons that are not even normal ammunition, but incendiary bombs that had some kind of chemical, which affected survivors.
GW< Can you say something about the figures who appear in On the Nature of the Beast?’
GM< Well, you had Prince William and I think there was the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, and then a whole mix, but it was really representing the art world, how it mixes the dirt and the good together into one soup. And how we are all fine with it, to the extent that some people almost find it naive to be critical towards any kind of institutional association with these problematic figures. I had a commentary from a collector in the US, who said to me that it’s quite naive to think that any money can be clean, because money essentially is dirty, or it’s being cleaned by investing in the support of cultural institutions, by becoming a patron. If you want anybody to consider themselves refined, the easiest way to do it and to clean their consciousness is to start investing in support of art institutions and artists.
GW< That work pointed the finger at the art world and its hypocrisy. But maybe you could say something about the use of tapestry in your work more generally?
GM< My interest in tapestry in a way starts there, with first having this amazing object which is the tapestry reproduction of Guernica, highly charged politically, also really big, almost as big as the actual painting, and with this amazing presence. But, you can wrap it up like a carpet and take it elsewhere, which is in essence why Rockefeller wanted to make several reproductions of big works by artists. To be able to use them more freely and exhibit them and give access to people. And then of course you invited me to do the piece for your show about textiles as social fabric. And I thought okay, this is a really good opportunity to exercise a potential way of working. And as you said, I decided to make a work that was a critique of my own work, The Nature of the Beast. I called it On the Nature of the Beast and it consisted of two parts, one was a critical text written about my intentions for the piece by Dieter Roelstraete, in a way pointing out the naiveté of the intentions, and how it met a kind of a completely different response in some cases. And then the second part was the large tapestry, I think a similar size to the original Guernica again, in black and a white, which was essentially a collage of all these different events from the Whitechapel and different people coming together taken from press photographs. But clearly not looking like a real event; I mean you can recognize that it’s a constructed image.
GW< It’s a political collage.
GM< Exactly. And this was then woven by Flanders Tapestries in Belgium.
GW< I seem to remember some interest or reference to sixteenth-century Flemish tapestry.
GM< Absolutely. Because this wasn’t the first tapestry that I had made. Previously I did a work for Venice Biennale called Plus Ultra (2009), a color tapestry. I haven’t made many, and it was based on an artwork rather than photographic material. It links partly to the context of Venice, the colonial history of Europe, to the history of the shipyards and of the naval past of Europe. It also deals with the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, so, first of all, the actual medium of tapestry which was developed during Charles V’s reign, and the purpose of these works then, was again, to be like a political propaganda banner that you take with you while you’re going off to conquer, to decorate your temporary accommodation.
GW< Talking of tapestry as both a kind of journalism and as propaganda tool, reminds me of the work you made for documenta 13. Maybe you can say something about your experience of how going to Afghanistan was part of the genesis of that project?
GM< Yes, of course looking at that whole journey now from the perspective of today, it’s even more interesting because of what has happened in Afghanistan in recent weeks. And I feel very lucky that I had that experience, but what I see now on the news about Kabul reminds me a little bit of the fears that I had when I was there.
There was always the fear of Taliban bombings, but there was also a great fear of the American military based there, and having any interactions with those people, both sides were equally scary. And all of the issues that we’re discussing now, that was what I was dealing with then. And the big question was again about art as an institution in general terms engaging with different political scenarios. Specifically, it was about documenta, an institution that is so much rooted in the postwar history of European art, as the show of shows. When [Arnold] Bode organized the first documenta in 1955, it was manifesting what art was then, and it’s kind of repressed potential post-fascism. And it led every five years to the construction of a document of where things are in the art world. And with this heritage, documenta was more and more aspiring to move beyond Europe and go elsewhere, almost colonizing new cultures and new territories. So, the decision to go to a war zone and do it in Afghanistan then, in 2011, 2012, was pretty shocking to me. Of course, I was pretty scared about actually physically going there. Because my usual tendency is to go and somehow examine the context and find things that fit to the work, so it’s essential for me to go to a place. And I went to Afghanistan twice during that time, and the experience of being in a war zone, there is nothing you can compare it to, even if nothing happens to you.
GW< You see the infrastructure of war.
GM< Yes, and it’s similar in a way to what happened with COVID, the life of individuals doesn’t matter, it just happens. This is the essence of it. And you really feel it. And I mean the poverty of the Afghans, the levels of it, the destruction of the country, the nature of the occupiers, the British army, or the German military, or American military, their presence there, the kind of impact on how they make you feel, which is totally terrifying, because they look literally like psychopaths on drugs who go around with this heavy military gear. And you’ll find yourself stuck in traffic in Kabul, with a psychopath pointing a machine gun at you, and you don’t know if he’s sane or insane. There are so many stories that you hear about these people.
GW< They shoot up the cars?
GM< Yeah, exactly. If there’s any movement or any suspicion that there might be something, you’re dead. So, I was there really absorbing this and thinking, this is crazy that I am here. But then you think, okay, so this show is for us, this show is a symbolic gesture, but there are the logistics that are essential in organizing this. And with what does this entangle? And without the involvement of the government, with the military, this was impossible.
And then of course I started asking questions, asking myself about these dynamics which were basically to do with the economy created by war that documenta fed into. So, you would have the huge poverty of the Afghans, like really severe—you would see children in minus 20 C, hardly dressed, in the traffic with snot frozen onto their faces, begging for money—people living on the edge of life and death. And then you’ve got the NGOs, the military, this whole business, all of these people there, the industries, which create a completely different economy, where you rent flats in Kabul for the same price (or even more) as you would in London. Where you can come to this war, let’s say as some representative of a charitable organization, or even to take photographs. And there is any kind of sum you can ask to be paid as a fee, which you would never been able to ask in the context of working in London. So, it’s a completely different world that is created around the war. And then we were there as part of that deal.
We were somehow within the system and I found this very problematic already, then of course at the opening it became even more transparent. You would have the Minister of Information giving a speech, you would have huge amount of presence of military inside the opening, bad treatment towards Afghan artists, actual fear. We were totally terrified. There was this whole other part of the opening, which happened at another location, where we were all in a garden, but we had military standing with machine guns on the terrace above where we were—I mean, crazy scenarios. But already then, I felt that this is a far-fetched attempt to introduce this kind of western model of an art exhibition into Afghanistan, that these two contexts don’t mirror at all. Even if Kassel is having such a history of real suffering during the Second World War.
GW< What’s interesting to think of actually, it occurs to me now, is that in the case of Germany you had the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Germany after the Second World War, but what do you have in the case of Afghanistan? I mean you have a trillion dollars put into that war, but there doesn’t seem to have been a proper plan for reconstruction.
GM< Yes, those trillions were put into the war, not into the recovery from the war.
GW< Clearly, it’s not happened. Afghanistan is still poor and it has gone back to being run by the Taliban.
GM< And of course, there was the money that was put into setting up documenta there, which was an astronomical sum. I can’t remember now, but it was something crazy—millions. Plus, that show wasn’t really accessible for anyone to view, because no one could really go to Afghanistan at that time. So, if it was for Afghans as an inspirational gesture, an inclusive gesture, then you know, there is the question of what has happened since to keep that going? What do we see now?
GW< Documenta pulled out.
GM< Documenta pulls out, the American military pulls out, and women can no longer be involved in anything. There were a lot of women and girls who were involved in making art then, even students. I kept thinking recently, what happened to those people?
GW< And then in terms of the decisions around the making of the tapestry, maybe you could just give a synopsis. I think your text Half Truth, which was part of the documenta work, is also really important here, right? But maybe start by saying something about the tapestries themselves.
GM< So, in Kassel, I built a special space for the work, which was installed in what is normally a void in the air on the second floor of the Fridericianum, so people who knew the building had a feeling of uncertainty about being in that room because the floor was completely fabricated. But then I decided to make a work consisting of two parts and show one part in Kassel and one part in Afghanistan and switch the context. So, the work that I made in Kassel was shown in Afghanistan and the work that I made in Afghanistan was shown in Kassel. That’s why the two works are also different sizes because they were site specific. First I organized two simple events. One in Afghanistan, which was a little bit of a fiasco because to get to Afghanistan in the winter was so difficult and there was snowfall which didn’t allow any planes to land in Kabul. And I had an event organized that united lots of people, political people, NGOs, like a big gathering outside, and I brought a photographer from Germany to document it. And from this, I was going to assemble the image, but of course, because we couldn’t get there on time, the event had to be cancelled. And I had to do the event again when I finally arrived in Kabul. But by then, lots of people couldn’t attend. Still there were enough people, including western intellectuals living in Kabul, people doing different educational projects, people involved from the Afghan side, the Minister of Culture, museum people, etc., etc. People still attended and we took lots of pictures. For the one in Kassel, I also used an event that was quite significant personally, the giving of the Arnold Bode Prize, which was awarded to me in a ceremony in Kassel in October 2011. Of course, there were a lot of people who attended, including Bertram Hilgen, the mayor of Kassel. We did the prize giving, we recorded it in photographs, and then I asked the mayor if we could do it again in order to have more photographs. So we re-enacted the whole prize giving again; already it became more performative. And then I basically used those images in the work, with a lot of other material that I collected that was significant to me. And I worked on these two very large files, which were then woven into big tapestries, and one of these was sent to Kabul. But I thought, since people can’t access the two works, I have to somehow do what artists don’t always like to do. I need to actually make a statement about this work.
So, I found a bit more money to publish a newspaper, which was nicely designed by Fraser Muggeridge, and which had two works on opposite pages. You could actually assemble almost a full picture from the different pages of the newspaper, with an insert page where I talk about my whole attitude towards the event taking place in Afghanistan, about the concerns that I had towards it, about the decisions that I made about the work, and the research that I did for it, which linked not only to politics and culture, but also to science, and an understanding of the truth, and how this is interpreted in different ways by scientists, or by artists, or by journalists. It wasn’t a theoretical text. It wasn’t fiction. It was a quite a sincere statement.
GW< It’s a very good text.
GM< So, that was the full presentation of the piece.
GW< I want to finish by discussing Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite (2013) because in a way it takes us back to the beginning. And it’s the piece I don’t know so much about. I do know that it’s based on the work of an obscure photographer, but I am more concerned with the title. I was wondering if the piece has something to do with the patriarchal and the authoritative in Marxism, versus a universal feminism?
GM< I mean in a way it puts the two together. So, the whole story with Miroslav Tichý (1926–2011) is a pretty long one. Tichý was a very interesting photographer who lived in Czechoslovakia in a village called Kyjov, but with some artistic training in his early life. Then he literally lost the plot and went a bit mad and lived as an outsider, very passionate and very skillful and knowledgeable about photography, but without any aspiration to have a public presence. He probably didn’t even consider himself an artist or a photographer, but spent his whole life up to probably the age of 80-something living such a lifestyle, in a small kind of hut with a floor made of sand, with rats and mice, and really surviving without any means because he never worked. And going around this town with this camera that he made out toilet roll, with the thing to wind the film made of beer bottle corks and tops. And the people in the village probably didn’t even think that he was really taking photographs. They just thought that he was a crazy guy with something that resembled a camera walking around every day. And for years and years, pretty much daily, he would have taken maybe ninety photographs and these photographs were then processed and developed by him and printed by him in these really poor conditions. And the films and the photographs were all there, in their thousands, but not looked after. It was more about the gesture of taking the picture, and the actual printing of the best of those shots. And then even some attempt at framing and presentation, because he also made a lot of frames for his photos, the favorite ones, and these would have been made out of packaging, with some little drawings or something. And so, this was his world, without an exchange with anyone else, but what was the most problematic part of this is that all these photos were taken of women.
GW< Yes. It’s creepy.
GM< It was completely creepy, voyeuristic, and mad. I didn’t know if I wanted to do anything, but the invitation was for me to make a work on the basis of Tichý’s stuff and so I went to Zurich and met this guy who was in charge of the foundation and then he started showing me the material, and it was pretty amazing because the photographs, and the girls that were photographed, were like from my childhood—it was me, the same fashion, the same hairdos, the same vibe as in my youth. So, there was an immediate familiarity with these people. And then this whole mystery of this mentally ill pervert that clearly went crazy, I think because of the overwhelming repression of the system he was living in, that totally cracked him up. So it was a nice mixture of things that I thought I can actually find myself within.
And there were two images that struck a chord, that I thought maybe I should look into, because there was this presence of women standing against communist monuments, being in a swimming pool, or all of these other, sort of social spaces from the Soviet period. And then you had these individuals that were not necessarily the kind of heroines represented in the socialist realist style from the Soviet Union. They were sensual, beautiful women living within that time. And also, representations of women that were so much removed from what one would know of that time. One image was of a girl standing against a monument of Lenin somewhere in the town, and the other one was like a picnic blanket laid on the grass with no girls on the blanket, but you almost sensed that they had just left. You had their books, you had their underwear, you had their dresses, like they had just undressed and gone for a swim. It was loaded with their presence, without them being there. And I thought this is interesting. So, I decided to use some of this material, restructure the scenario of this empty space that so much indicates their presence. And then I brought in the grave of Karl Marx that I had photographed in Highgate Cemetery in London. And the slogan that came from that grave was twisted to become the title of the work. Also, the images of women that were present in this work were partly from Tichý, but also from my images, including of myself. And then I extended the work to function as a wall piece but also as a floor piece, that is almost asking for participation, that you can become part of the work. And later on, I indicated this possibility by actually including women performers within this work, wearing costumes based on Tichý’s drawings.
GW< But in what way does the title Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite function?
GM< It’s a kind of encouragement. It’s a call for action in a way. That even if you have so much imagery of women within socialist realism, this would be for the use of propaganda and political messaging. So, you would have women on tractors, women working on building sites, you somehow claim that you are giving women a place in society equal to men, this what communism did, and to a large extent it was the case. But in fact, the leading figures were always male. So, in my piece it’s asking for some sort of a revised relationship to this history of patriarchy. And of course, when we look at this from the perspective of now, we have an essential need to revise even the history of feminism in relationship to the other important questions we’re facing today.