Eva Wollenberg

Eva Wollenberg, Video still – SILVER MINE project (The Meal)

When I was a young photography student, we learned about other photographers through books, monographs and the few magazines devoted to serious photography such as Aperture.  We hunted photography books, lapping up imagery like starving refugees.  Books are numerous now which is a good thing, but I sometimes miss that feeling of discovery stumbling upon something rare;  a new artist, someone whose images both confirmed and challenged what we thought we knew about photography, ourselves, and the world.

With increasing frequency we experience imagery on our computer screens. Through personal websites, blogs, facebook, Vimeo and Tumblr, producing an international deluge of access to artists and images.  This is also a good thing, but I sometimes find it hard to connect with imagery on the screen.  It seems I need the physical presence of an image, I crave proximity and uniqueness, which seems odd perhaps when we are talking about a mechanical / digital medium.  Yet attesting to the power of  particular images and artists, some grab our attention from the endless flood.

At some point earlier this year, Eva Wollenberg’s images began tugging at not only my eyes but my soul  as well. (I know how melodramatic that sounds).  Without going into personal details, I once experienced grief that made strange sounds come out of my body.  I was an animal, I went deep into the earth and howled.  I did not enjoy that experience but it carved out a place in my soul that sings when I encounter things I know to be true. In an age of cynicism, image glut and cheap affect, Eva Wollenberg’s utterances sing with me.

I have never met Eva Wollenberg. I have never heard her voice nor do I know what she really looks like, only hints from her enigmatic self-portraits.  In some ways she is like a phantom to me.  I believe she was born in 1982 and lives in rural France where she makes photographs, videos, objects and writes lovely poems.  She speaks French of course, but also German and English.

This conversation was conducted in English via multiple emails during the month of August of 2012.

Eva Wollenberg, Sanctuary, 2010

MAD:    What do you see when you look outside your window?

EW:      During the day I see forests on the mountains. They always balance in the wind, dark pine woods on one side of home, deciduous ones on the other. There is a medieval castle ruin, a few houses where discreet neighbors live, as well as an organic garden in which cats often rest. In the morning, clouds seem to come out of the pine forests as if they were exhaling. During the night, I see the stars and even the Milky Way, which delights me, as I wanted to become an astrophysicist at some point. Wild animals of the woods sing, call, or fight around home every night.

Eva Wollenberg, ‘Self-Portrait Calling the Soul of the Dead Child in a Well, after Kurosawa’s Akahige’, 2010

MAD:    Have you read Haruki Murakami’s book The Wind-up Bird Chronicle? I ask because of your well imagery, Murakami often puts his characters at the bottom of wells – they are sites of transformation. Passages to other worlds.

EW:       No, I haven’t read any Haruki Murakami yet, but I live and work above mines and I have always been comfortable with that idea, that if you want to find rare things, you need to dig deep, be patient, and not be afraid of the dark. I used to go down in the mines to confront my own fears and claustrophobia. The distorted and subtle otherworldly wind and water sounds, and rare beauties like frozen spiders completely covered by glistening frost were the company I found there. A miner here, during the 16th century, wrote about “the inner fruits of Pluto’s kingdom” and I find it is a wonderful expression to describe what you find in such places of metamorphosis.

MAD:    On your blog you cite many influences – I can really see Ingmar Bergman – especially in your new video Nocturnal.  The woman in your video is reminiscent of Liv Ullmann.  She has her eyes closed, as she is half-hidden amongst nocturnal flowers. A light off camera seems to be swinging slowly back and forth – creating a kind of hypnotic beam. Her eyes are closed and therefore she is unavailable to us – she is completely internal, exploring her own internal landscape. I also like how this video is so still – it creates an interstitial space between the still and moving image, which is in keeping with the woman’s enigmatic presence. Is she sleeping? Is she dreaming? Are we dreaming?

Eva Wollenberg, ‘Nocturnal’, Video Installation, 2012

EW:     The woman in the video installation is incubating; she is an actress friend of mine pregnant with her first child. Let’s say she is a whole universe, a strong, sensitive, passionate and very unique person. I think some directors try far too much to tame her powerful character on stage, maybe because they are secretly afraid of her charisma and creativity, and I don’t like to see that. It is a waste of talent and experience.

Donna Ferrato said to me, after seeing the video that it “felt like being in someone else’s dream”. Sleep is half of our life and a bridge to our subconscious so I naturally started to write my dreams down 15 years ago and use them to create. I dream sometimes of a woman glowing like a sun, seemingly impossible to perturb, a kind of Sphinx. I’ve collected pictures of sleepers (and beds) for many years. I think it helps me to deal with my own chaotic relation to sleep, as I am an insomniac, a sleepwalker and have mostly nightmares. I also daydream a lot. So, when I am awake, maybe I create visions of the peaceful sleep I wish I could have. I discovered the existence of W.M Hunt’s collection, The Unseen Eye, a few months ago and it interests me a lot.

Being mainly an introvert, I have always been attracted by eremitism and seclusion. Creative solitude and contemplative silence are my two best friends. So, obviously, the artworks also express these characteristics of their author.

Eva Wollenberg, ‘Him’ 2010

MAD:    Another video – Moon Games seems to explore related territory. A woman crawls in the darkness, shaking a twig or a feather. Her gestures seem ritualistic, shamanistic, as if she were tickling the faint greenish moonlight falling on the scene.  We eventually see that she is playing with a kitten, with which she proceeds to playfully interact with as they move from deep shadow to faint light. There is something pagan, ancient and mythological about your work. Can you comment on that?

EW:       A very ancient archetype, the black presence in the psyche, often comes to bite and attack me in my dreams. At the beginning I was afraid, then I understood after a while that it had no choice but to wake me up like that when there was some danger in my life and my instincts weakened. The danger can be a person not suitable for me or simply that my creativity is being drained, so it is a protective shadow.

But that specific video is more tender and innocent. While most people sleep, others (like Dersu Uzala, I always call animals “people”, too) feel joy when moon is full, celebrate, play and dance. I love the idea of the artist as some kind of shaman. Jim Morrison was such an artist for example; something possessed him, something archetypal, not completely human anymore. I need to progress on that road and I feel a deep need to merge with something vast, to dissolve, to let go of control absolutely. And I don’t mean drugs; drugs never interested me because I need to know what I can do without such thing. I need to reach such state of conscience with my mind, body and soul only. I find it more powerful. That year, I started to dance Butoh, initiated by Yumi Fujitani, who worked a long time with Kô Murobushi and Carlotta Ikeda, and I found many qualities you mention in that dance, also, ended thinking about the same problematics. I think Yumi changed my life forever, now I am not the same person anymore, it was a true initiation. I danced very violent things I never thought I could dance in front of an audience. Butoh brings the monster out of me and I find it liberating.

Pagan myths are legion here, in the past people also worshipped Hecate, Taranis or Vosegus. I am surrounded by places where various rites took place, and witch-hunts were particularly ferocious in the Middle Ages in the area. I grew up walking barefoot in the woods, the rivers, climbing on trees, big rocks, and eating wild plants. A beautiful black Cerberus, a Beauceron dog called “dirt” in Low Alemannic, accompanied me sometimes when I decided to get lost in the woods. Another dog called “Lux”, “light” in Latin, also raised me. They are dead now, but I feel Dirt and Light always walk by my side. So, being an osmotic person, I think I became that environment. Nature has always been my main teacher and nature is ancient. To interact with it on some meaningful level you need to embrace its qualities.

Eva Wollenberg, ‘Phoneme, Cutting the Head in Two’ 2012

MAD:    You came to making art relatively recently?

EW:      In 2010, I started to show, not to do. I started to create and study Art in 1997, aged 15, and have 15 years of experience.

When I started to create, I also had to take the responsibility to amputate my abusive and violent father from my life. It has been a radical turning point.  He considered artists to be failures for society. I didn’t feel a worthy person and even an artist for a long time because of that.  I internalized these words, my own harsh inner judge constantly repeating them to me. I also think that to live in a place where there is such a large amount of support for the far-right hasn’t helped; I am a duck with three legs on many levels here. I studied visual arts for 7 years; even training as an art teacher but my studies frustrated me enormously, absolutely hating school. Conceptual Art was the big trend and they said I was too much of a Romantic, a maverick; I was fired and didn’t finish some exams. I created what I needed without showing for nearly 12 years. I lived a complete parallel and hidden life. To show the artworks was the least of my concerns. I met printer Dominique Granier, who learnt his craft with Georges Fèvre, and he started to print my work in 2010 when I slowly came out of my burrow. I immediately met wonderful, creative and supportive people. This is the first interview I have accepted to give.

Eva Wollenberg, Untitled, 2012


MAD:    What drew you to photography? Are there photographers whom you think of as your ancestors?

EW:      I have been a perturbed child and found solace in light, classifying stars according to their magnitude, drawing constellations everywhere. Light was a peaceful nest. When my grandfather died, I inherited his Rollei camera and realized all that beauty could be kept trapped in silver. I felt some kind of witch, I was amazed. The darkroom world, the red safe light and black walls, the chemicals, increased that feeling. I’m a completely self-taught photographer, but one thing I remember from art school, was a technician who was extremely supportive and helpful for the small period I was there. We often left school together one hour before midnight, after much hard work. His extreme kindness will stay with me forever. While being relatively shy, art makes me feel more powerful. Photography also helps me to stop punishing myself for existing, cope with life, and bond on a more meaningful level with my environment and understand more deeply the uncanny layers of the world I live in.

Photographers whose body of work interests me especially are, Christer Strömholm, Eikoh Hosoe, Masahisa Fukase, Roger Ballen, Ana Mendieta, Mark Steinmetz, Harry Callahan, Emmet Gowin, Graciela Iturbide and Arnulf Rainer. But I never thought, “I have to imitate them”, that would make no sense at all. I had no photographic culture until 3 years ago, part of me wanting to protect my “noble savage” in order not to be influenced. I work in a synesthetic way and generally oscillate between two main needs, which are expressionism, and contemplation. I belong to the family of artists who are more like octopi or fog, don’t limit my creative impulses and believe in synthesis of the arts, the Gesamtkunstwerk’s principle.

Eva Wollenberg, ‘Anonymous Grave of a Child Covered with Wild Strawberries’, 2011

MAD:    On your Tumblr page there is some verse:

“And I dreamt of a woman suspended upside-down

over a lava lake at the end of a rope.

She had to go down, to collect magma.”

Whose words are these?

EW:     These words are from a small text of mine and describe a dream I had. I was the woman. I recently thought about the Hanged Man symbolism, often associated with Odin hung upside down from Yggdrasil to reach sacred knowledge kept in Uroarbrunnr, as mentioned in the Poetic Edda. What you find down is like tamahagane, it has to be refined and beaten a lot to create a sharp sword. Magma is a symbol of the prima materia in my psyche. I love it, would like to be able to eat it, the vision of its glow and its movements are very relaxing.

MAD:   The image these words evoke is powerful and its force feels very connected to your photographs and videos. It is reminiscent of some of the great women Surrealists such as Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo. I have always been struck by the fierce and strange power of their imagery. The Surrealist movement was of course attempting to discover new landscapes, new images that would undermine logic and certainty. But much of the work made by male surrealists seems tame compared to the fierce and strange images made by women Surrealists. It was if the women were less afraid to discover what Breton called ‘terrible beauty’. Does that observation resonate with you and your work at all?

Eva Wollenberg, ‘Phoenix (Pregnant Julie Wearing Fire)’, 2012

EW:     I always refused the category “female artist” considering myself a person first. My mind is androgynous, I feel male and female alternately despite having the body of a woman. Man, or woman, when you become fierce, you enter the purple plains of “terrible beauty”.

René Char, a favorite poet of mine, wrote these lines in Furor and Mystery: “In our darkness, there is no place for Beauty. The whole place is for Beauty.” That is the “terrible beauty” I love. What we call gender can often look in reality like a fog castle full of paradoxes. Paradox defying logic and certainty, it is interesting, still. Unica Zürn is one of my favorite Surrealists, she was a genius. I noticed that intense feelings are more taboo when expressed by a woman, you’re immediately labeled “hysterical” (Louise Bourgeois’s Arch of Hysteria was an interesting answer to that). When you don’t compromise, you’re “stubborn” while a man is seen as “full of integrity”, with a “strong character” and a “powerful vision”. A multi-disciplined man is seen as an “artistic genius with multiple talents”, while a woman “lacks in consistency and doesn’t know how to choose”. It is very rare that the body of work of a male artist is seen as influenced by a more well-known female artist, while the opposite is often true. You’re also expected to remain a docile object waiting to be rescued and enlightened by a Pygmalion, rather than a subject. Maybe some women become fierce lions because they have to deal with a global misogynist art world? I love men in touch with their anima, and women in touch with their animus.

Eva Wollenberg, ‘The Sleep’, Video Installation, 2012

MAD:    There is a short story by another female Surrealist, Leonora Carrington; it’s in her wonderful collection The Seventh Horse and Other Tales. The story is called ‘My Mother is a Cow’ in which Carrington evokes a mythic tale of a long dormant pagan matriarchy – there are so many remarkable moments in those 5 short pages – but here is one

“Why am I human? I asked. Now the Goddess has no mouth, no tongue, no vocal cords. Her presence defies description but is absolute. Therefore I must pretend the following communication was in human speech. This was her reply:

To be one human creature is to be a legion of mannequins. These mannequins can become animated according to the choice of the individual creature. He or she may have as many mannequins as they please. When the creature steps into the mannequin he immediately believes it to be real and alive and as long as he believes this he is trapped inside a dead image, which moves in ever-increasing circles away from Great Nature. Every individual gives names to his mannequins and nearly all these names begin with “I am” and are followed by a long stream of lies.”

I am not sure what exactly to say about this except that on some deep fundamental level I believe its true. And somehow I think it is connected to your images. What do you think?

EW:     “Suffering is the death or disintegration of one or more of these mannequins. However, the more dead mannequins a creature leaves behind, the nearer she or he comes to leaving the human condition forever.”

We can understand that tale in various ways. “I’m looking for the face I had. Before the world was made.” Yeats said.  That is nearly a Zen koan. The “I” in “I am”, followed by lies, could refer to the impossibility of the human mind to understand the mysteries of life, and the “mannequins” represent all our illusions of separateness or personae. To define an identity you need to feel a mental skin that is drawing a limit between you and others as well as the world. What remains unchanged since my birth is nothing to do with the identity other humans gave me, a surname, forename, all the details people project on me and think are me, that small “I”. It has to do with the emotional connection and feeling of wholeness I feel when I am alone in the Great Nature she mentions. Not only do I feel an absence of lies there, but I also feel an absence of that small “I”. It could also refer to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, the “mannequins” and “all the names” beginning with “I am” are the shadows on the walls of the cave. The problem is that we try to name things. The Goddess of the tale “has no mouth, no tongue, no vocal cords”. Human language and our perception of the world are both too limited. William Blake, in Marriage of Heaven and Hell, wrote “How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?” Trapped, we are. And the ones who question the commonly accepted reality, are called “mad”, “mystic”, or “irrational”. And it also makes me think to a poet friend of mine, Saul Smaragd, who wrote once “one day the mysteries of the alphabet will speak to our skin and we will taste invisible lights – our words will be devoured by the secret Source.” I will think about Carrington’s tale for a few months, thank you.

Eva Wollenberg, ‘The Lost Art of Facing Anguish / Portrait of my Mother Aged 60″, 2010

MAD:    On your site evawollenberg.com you include images, videos, and texts. Some of those texts deal directly with what I assume is your family’s complicated history in 20th century Europe. Without being totally explicit you suggest a complex web in which individuals are caught and formed by the larger political and cultural forces. Do you think of your work as specifically European?

EW:       I would say, no, even if, of course, it contains elements of local history as I work on my immediate environment. Many domestic abuse survivors and also war survivors wrote to me to say it helped them to deal with their own demons, to start to face them with courage. So an important goal has been reached. It is a human work, not only European, because the whole planet is full of individuals who feel crushed under large political and cultural forces. Another point is that I am still unable to talk about that work in French, my native language. The pain is still very deep. It is a necessary humiliation to work on it, to feel vulnerable, the origin of deep healing being the same as the origin of the deep wound. I don’t want to be an artistic coward.

MAD:    To this point of the inability to speak of certain things in your native tongue reminds me of Paul Celan’s insistence that he write in German because it was the language of his tormentors.

EW:       Language itself is a minefield, the more foggy and cryptic my sentences are, the freer I feel. Silence being peace. Words can equally heal and kill but I have issues with explicative language in general. Depending on the interlocutor, it can feel like emotional rape and real communication is rare like an eclipse. It happens when both persons feel a warm empowering feeling in their chest. When it is a void instead that I feel, I run away and amputate. It is like a compass.

Eva Wollenberg, ‘My Milk Teeth, My Cat’s Milk Tooth, My Dog’s Milk Tooth’, 2010

MAD:    You work in photography, video, text and collage and depending on the context or site of the work, the form can change or adapt. I am thinking of how you transformed your still imagery into a kind of slide show / video called Seismogram. Can you talk about reshaping your still photographs for a time-based presentation?

EW:       The curiosity and need to expand the limits of the “Renaissance polymath” is a creative impulse I need to express. Keeping the nectar, I also destroy in autumn and rebuild anew in spring. In 2011, Jason Eskenazi invited me to project on screen an introduction to that body of work during Bursa Photo Fest in Turkey. There were many works exploring the theme of “Home” and that video was created especially for the event. It is always hard to explain how I work as it is the exact opposite of rational. That video, for example, is a closed fist; it is a gesture and a sentence. It is a breath under layers of winter snow and there is mostly a complete absence of love. The piano is repetitive because my mind has a tendency to loop, I balance and hypnotize myself. Distorted deep cello symbolizes the part of us, which never gives up, and no matter how deprived, is able to survive and rebuild anew from scratch. It is what makes us show our teeth when we’ve had enough. The sentence “Somewhere, in my head, you disappeared” that I sing in the end, relates to traumatic amnesia. It is a real blessing in some cases to be able to forget. The video starts inside of a pillbox and ends outside of a tomb. The central section is like ocean tides or a nymph moving in a cocoon.

MAD:    One thinks of Chris Marker’s La Jetee of course, although Seismogram is much less narrative. La Jetee’s world is post-apocalyptic and yours might be described as post-traumatic, but one of the sympathies between the two works has to do with a kind tragic redemption. His final image is the death of the protagonist; Seismogram ends with an image of a child’s grave covered in wild strawberries.

EW:       Recently, scientists found out that traumatic events leave genetic scars in our DNA. These scars are passed on to the next generation, increasing in size in spite of the fact the new scar carrier didn’t experience the initial trauma. We possess strange ancestor ghosts in our DNA and it could explain some compulsive patterns. This leaves me with huge existential questions about how generations of people who experience non-stop wars and cannot build resilience, will evolve, it is possibly part of why we keep repeating same errors despite the lessons of the past. Edvard Munch wrote, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.” We have our whole life to learn how to accept one of the great transitions, Death, with dignity. Every single moment we die, we learn to let go. Nothing is permanent, all what I create will be erased by time, the little piece of existence called “Eva Wollenberg” will be erased completely and I am fine with that idea. When I don’t, I usually make an arrogant mistake and open a door to dangerous illusions and fears accompanied by pain and frustration. Cycles of deaths and rebirths are sometimes directly used in my works. The photograph below, which is part of a body of work called Silver Mine, went though such metamorphosis for example.

I was in the pine woods during some winter night, in the fog, the snow and absolute silence, trying to satisfy some creative urges. The plan was to burn a print that didn’t pass the test of time and film the scene. The photograph represented the face of a woman dissolving into light. The day after, I went out for a walk with a composer friend, found the black paper ashes on the ground, and created that new photograph. He is wearing as a mask, the ashes of the burnt woman who once dissolved in light. All these events surrounding the births of my artworks are very important to me. They are like groundwater or icebergs, a lot is hidden.

Eva Wollenberg, Untitled 2012

MAD:    I want to ask you about titling photographs. As vivid as many of your images are, you give them titles that are very forceful or evocative. I am speaking about images such as ‘My Milk Teeth, My Cat’s Milk Tooth, My Dog’s Milk Tooth” or “First Flowers of Spring Blossoming in my Shadow in Mental Hospital after Therapy Session” or “The Lost Art of Facing Anguish / Self-Portrait”. I love the image ‘Shelter Created by a Stranger”, but with the title it makes the image more mysterious. Even if it’s not true, it speaks to the point that photographic images are so susceptible to language. Can you speak to your need for both strong images and provocative titles?

EW:      Titles appear, sometimes, for practical reasons when I begin to show a work. The choice of title is an alienating moment; I still see them as some kind of problem, discovering a title phobia I already suspected. “Shelter Created by a Stranger” is actually a real shelter created by an unknown person in the woods not far away from my home. It is also an archetypal protective space, very primitive, ancient, for emotional asylum seekers. My paradoxical relation to words is that once I need mystery and what the viewer can imagine becomes an important part of the artwork, once I feel the urge to throw raw reality in the teeth of the audience, which leaves no space for any subtle interpretation or taboo. This characteristic is also what makes me love Bergman or Pasolini, the dialogues in the movies are razor sharp, splitting you in two and you hang there on some existential meat hook, wondering how and if you will rescue your lost illusions.

Eva Wollenberg, ‘Shelter Created by a Stranger’ 2010

MAD:    Do you know the documentary In the Garden of Sounds? It is about a Swiss music therapist who works with severely autistic children. So many terrific things about this film including the fact that you don’t realize that he is blind until 20 minutes in. One of his therapeutic processes involves listening carefully and recording sounds in nature that he can use to try to open up the closed off inner worlds of the autistic children. He also constructed a kind of piano bench that the children lie down upon; he strums the strings, which are on the underside of the bench causing the sound and vibrations to pass directly into their bodies.

EW:      Thank you very much for the discovery. Being mostly socially inept without art, I agree it is an amazing bridge between realities. In such a normative and judgmental society, to have a severe or less severe autistic personality is difficult because extroversion is more valued. Your example is beautiful, he embodies the “wounded healer” archetype and I imagine a symphony composed by sounds going through the bodies and minds of these children, it is a powerful and very pure vision. One year ago I started teaching in an organization for handicapped children and I used my own bad experiences to try to develop a method adapted to the young girl I was supporting. She felt stupid and had huge self-esteem issues, so it was essential to understand how SHE perceives things rather than trying to push my reality on her. She felt “less” than other people, while she was just a different kind of being with plenty of unique qualities she shouldn’t be ashamed of. Emilio Reggia teaching method interests me, French educative system would definitely benefit from opening to such experiences.

MAD:    I ask because I am thinking about making art as a therapeutic act, the idea of which some people are critical. But I think there are degrees of nuance in using art as a tool of healing in the process of coming to terms with one’s history. Certainly no one would accuse Joseph Beuys of mere self-indulgence when he fashioned himself the shamanistic figure for the transformative power of art.

EW:      Catharsis is an important need of the soul, and each artwork contains a tomb and a womb. It is transformation and evolution in equal measure. I occasionally photograph or film close friends who are having a difficult time in their lives in order to initiate healing. Art is an alchemic process; it can truly turn lead into gold. As art is one of the only free territories left in our society full of many suffocating rules, it is important not to burden and pollute such sacred space with constant critics about what it has to be or not. Refreshing chaos is fine; there is no reason to fear it.

Eva Wollenberg, Self-Portrait, 2009