A visual artist who takes down notes instead of doing sketches, Jenny Michel sees herself as someone who writes. There is good reason for that. “My art is text based”, she says. Having started with a pseudo-scientific approach to her art only to move on to more of a philosophical one, here is a person intent on meticulously exploring the unexplored sides of whatever we take for granted. Hers is a truly and refreshingly unconventional glance at the world.
I recently saw an exhibition of your work. It was part of a project called Paradise and the impression I got was that your view of the place is quite unorthodox. So, how do you imagine paradise?
I wanted to approach the subject of paradise in a more critical way than is usually done. Paradise has always been seen as unquestioningly wonderful. Most of the time it is connected with religious beliefs or used as a metaphor for faraway lands that have been untouched by western civilization and are still out there for us to discover and enjoy. One often hears about the South Seas paradise, for instance. But I wished to go beyond these contexts. What attracted my personal interest was as much the philosophers’ writings on it, as its negative aspects.
So you have been experimenting with different versions of paradise?
Yes, kind of. I looked beyond what we think of it and the ways we envision it. And, in a way, I started searching for paradise, going through different stages in the process. I first saw it as a cabinet of curiosities for human thoughts. When looking into paradise, the first theme you have to deal with is that of consciousness VS innocence. Which is a contradiction because our society is based on knowledge and thus consciousness. How could we ever return to a state of ignorance and innocence?
Ignorance does not sound appealing, anyway, does it? What are the other negative aspects of paradise that you have been exploring?
The idea of paradise as prison, to begin with. It is very interesting because you can imagine the place as a Panopticon. In paradise you are constantly under observation, but you cannot see your observer. That’s an example. I then went through different stages and gradually arrived to the topic of paradise with trash.
What kind of trash does one find in the paradise that you envision?
Thoughts; the trash are thoughts. Paradise is full of them. It is a very old imaginary place in the history of mankind and as such, it is filled up with our thoughts and perceptions of it. So you can’t have an unobstructed view to it anymore, your prejudices will always stand in the way. All these ideas, thoughts, writings and theories will pile up as trash. And looking at this pile, I imagine there to be Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History. In Benjamin’s famous text, the Angel is looking at this pile of human artifacts.
At what stage are you now with this project?
I will be leaving Paradise soon. It functioned as a vehicle for me to start dealing with the issue of trash; this pile of thoughts and artifacts. I needed a topic that would help me explore where I really want to go. During the recent years I have worked with different topics that somehow all come together in the theme of trash; trash that is thoughts and conventions. I have done works that explore the issue of dust, I have worked with the idea of thoughts as separate entities, I have done pieces that research sleep. What has consistently been underlying all these different projects, is me questioning the conventional thinking that I find is prevailing in the field of science.
Still, one can discern a kind of pseudoscientific approach in many of your past projects.
Well, in my older projects my approach was in a way pseudoscientific, yes. With time, though, it has evolved into what I would now call more of a philosophical approach. I am now more interested in finding analogies between different kinds of scientific and cultural fields. I guess it’s a kind of philosophical approach without the rules that a philosopher or researcher has to follow.
Could you give me an example?
Let’s take the example of the project of Paradise. I placed Sisyphus in Paradise. He is of course carrying his huge stone, which in this case is made of thoughts. And then Francis Bacon’s Idola –which in turn stem from Cicero’s theory about masks- come into the project: one such Idol is obstructing Sisyphus’ view inside Paradise. And finally, I have put many vehicles in Paradise – they recall the ships that the 19th century explorers used in order to carry their loot. Because they actually looted the lands they explored. So this is how I approach a theme, by bringing together different ideas and thoughts.
Do you set out to make drawings and then work your way to sculptures, installations, photographs, video…
…but no paintings. At least not in the traditional way. But actually I’d say my work is text based. If you would have a look in my sketch books, you’d find that they are in fact notebooks. I do no sketches; I write down notes. The drawings come later.
Among your older projects, there is one that explores the human soul, by the tile of Animlab. Would you describe this laboratory of the soul?
My intention was to look at the soul more or less the way a scientist would study an object. I wanted to extract the soul from its usual context and especially exclude all the religious connotations, which is a bit tricky because what was once the domain of religion has down the centuries become our shared culture that we take for granted. I wanted to dig a little deeper than that. I wanted to do away with all the conventional thinking about the soul and come up with something completely unique.
How did you go about it?
Again I started by asking myself what a negative image of the soul would be. And I came up with the idea of the soul as a parasite that inhabits the human body. Following from that idea, I began to create images of this parasite according to how the soul features in the writings of different philosophers and writers, like Plato and Aristotle but also Dante, Freud and C.G. Jung. The piece that came out of this is a Soul Atlas, which shows the soul in all its possible forms.
You earlier mentioned that you wanted to “come up with something completely unique”. Does this mean that your artworks elaborate on theories that you have first drawn up?
It is not that I am drawing up my own theories, no. I rather see myself as a transformation station. By this I mean that I take in a lot of stuff that interests me, I stir it up and bring it all out in a different way. In essence, I am interested in discovering the flipping point of the subject that I am working on, to study it extensively, mix the contents and stir accordingly. What is produced, is the same stuff but in different analogies. It’s about showing the possibility of seeing things in different ways; with different connections. It’s about opening the mind; mine as well as the viewer’s.
How did you arrive at this method of working?
The starting point was my project by the title of Flying. Now, we have all heard about levitation, right? Nobody knows if it really happens or not and I for one have never witnessed such a phenomenon, but there was this friend who claimed she had seen a man levitate; a guy from Tibet. And according to her, he had said that you just have to mount a lot of mass, flip it around and put it on your head. I found it such an interesting idea. I thought yes, we have to shift our minds a little, to think differently. And that is how the project Flying was created. It was more of a mind game, it didn’t have to do with the body that much.
You are saying that you would like to flip around and explore the possible other sides of given concepts and ideas that we take for granted?
Yes, because I think that there is nothing one can be absolutely sure about. We live as though that’s the case. Moreover, we live in a culture where it is impossible not to be sure, it is impossible to doubt things. I think that this probably has to do with death, in the sense that people need certainties in an effort to fight the fragility of things in our world. I see this especially happening in the filed of science.
And you find that limiting?
Definitely. It leads to a certain kind of approach to science, that is after all defining everybody’s life. To me, the most obvious thing is the conventional side of science and its claim to absoluteness. I know that there are a lot of unconventional thinkers, even whole unconventional scientific fields – I’m not talking about those. I rather mean a general tendency of conventional thinking especially in connection with human vanity, that to me is most striking in the field of science – and is responsible for these phenomena like the “mad scientist”, who does whatever it takes in order to prove the validity of a theory that he’s convinced of. I would say that the German scientist Ernst Haeckel was somewhat of a mad scientist. In order to prove his recapitulation theory, he apparently changed some of his scientific drawings to make them agree with his theory. His case makes obvious that the need to be right, can create problems.I wish we could be a little more accepting of the lack of certainty and the fragility of life. And that we could more often say “Oh, I am not sure, what do you think?”
You still are rather fond of researchers, right? There is one you have created, your alter ego, the “Phantom Particle Researcher”.
He is one of my alter egos. I used different ones at different times. The Phantom Particle researcher, is this mad scientist who goes out in search of his phantom particle and everything goes wrong. Actually he came to life as an homage to Ernst Haeckel.
Is he still around?
He could come up again, but at the moment I’m going with Sisyphus. It’s interesting because as I move from science to philosophy, my alter egos change accordingly.
Why did you choose Sisyphus as your current alter ego?
It has to do with Albert Camus’s Sisyphus. Camus saw Sisyphus as an alter ego for the modern working man. I take this thought a step further and believe that he is the alter ego for us people in the western societies, which are filled with so much stuff. We have to deal with these masses of information, thoughts, images, all sorts of stuff, which in the end constitute Sisyphus’ stone.
It seems we are coming full circle to the point we set off from. And specifically, to the issue of trash.
That’s right, to the pile of trash that is piling up. To me Sisyphus is the Angel of History looking at this pile. And it was very interesting to place him inside Paradise.
Why is that?
Because after Camus, Sisyphus has been defining himself through his work. He needs his stone. So what would he do without the stone, in Paradise, for instance? Can he –and can we- live with nothing? Do we have to have an aim? That’s how I understand Camus’s Sisyphus: he needs this stone. We need it. It is not necessarily a burden. It is simply something that one has to deal with.
What do you see as your stone?
I am wondering how our existence would be with nothing; or in nothingness. Which could be a pretty accurate description of paradise. My current project is about trash and masses of all sorts of stuff piling up around us. Masses of information, thoughts, pictures, movies… Ours is a world where there are no simple answers, everything is complicated. As we go deeper and deeper into detail, the gaps become bigger and bigger. It is inevitable.
Do you expect of the people who appreciate your work to be familiar with the philosophers’ writings that you have been doing background research on?
No, there is no such need. Of course there may be terms or words that don’t sound familiar to many people. For instance, I have used the word palimpsest and I don’t expect that everyone knows it. It has a meaning and I use it within this meaning, but the viewer can use it to contemplate something personal. To me a word is already a piece of visual art. So I use it. I don’t have to explain it, it is just there. I call it a text fragment. A text fragment that can be visualized in the viewer’s mind.
Which artists that you count among your influences
I really like the work of Matt Mullican, and also Mike Kelley – after having seen a huge show of him in Vienna during my studies there. Besides I see myself a bit in the tradition of the Fluxus movement, even if this might not look obvious at a glance.
Did you come to Berlin right after finishing your studies?
I finished my studies in 2005, in Kassel, from where I went straight to Vienna. I had a grant and I was going to stay there for a year. But I didn’t. Do you know how it is when you go somewhere and you get into a chain of negative things happening? Like water pipes breaking and flooding your place? Well, that was more or less the case…So eventually I left and in early 2006 I came to Berlin where I felt immediately comfortable. I think a big advantage of Berlin over other cities is its openness and flexibility. Structures are less hermetic which makes it easier to integrate as a stranger. And besides I really like it here, it’s a great place.
When did you realize that you wanted to lead the life of an artist?
I started studying art to become a teacher, but I hated it, so I went through a huge crisis for a couple of years. I finally decided to study applied arts, but more and more I realized that I was already too interested in art and that my approach to a subject was often too conceptual. But I did follow through with the initial plan and concluded my studies. And two years later, I had finished my studies in fine arts. Even then, at first I was ready to give up a few times, but every time I was on the brink of doing so, something good would happen. A scholarship, or a grant, something that would keep me going.
May I ask you one last thing – what is it about dust that you find so exciting? You have worked a lot with pieces associated with it. And you even wrote a Dust Manifesto. And in the Berlinische Galerie, one may see your Pulvarium, a meticulous collection of small balls of dust.
The manifesto consists of two A4 pages that explain why dust is important for us. This manifesto comes along with a collection of circa 500 drawings, collages and texts about dust. Dust describes us humans. In the dust of a house, for example, you can read a lot about the person living in it. I see it as the other side of existence, in a way. It is like a failed universe. I wanted to explore what I can do with it. As for the Pulvarium it’s about categorizing dust fluffs: putting them on needles in insect boxes, like is usually done with bugs. This is crazy, of course, but in the same way science is crazy. What I tried to do was to categorize the dust of the world. This is no worse than categorizing all the bugs.