Interview with Artist and Curator, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

Hessenburg, a one-street village near the German Baltic coast. Arrive in the months when the sun rises high in the sky and you might hear the cries of migrating cranes or see the region’s other summer visitors on bikes, in cars and in camper vans. At another time of year you may only meet a lone cyclist and hear the wind whistling through the leaves. On one side of the street is a black pond amongst trees, on the other side is the nineteenth century manor house that is home to the Kranich Museum, and its neighbouring restaurant. Tom Heaven spoke to Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll about how and why she became involved in the Kranich Museum.

Ich bin ein Kranich, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

Ich bin ein Kranich, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

Pick your way along the track leading to the front door and the first thing to strike your eye is the work of Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll. Neon pink text calls out from above the entrance: ‘Ich bin ein Kranich’… ‘I am a Crane’. Khadija is one of the museum’s 18 artists; she has also been central to the development of the Kranich Museum with Alex Schweder from early on. Bettina Klein, director and owner of the formerly derelict manor house, chose them to raise the Kranich Museum from wild idea to semi house-trained reality. This meant designing the museum and commissioning the artists whose works now nestle in the rooms, corridors and stairwells of the former manor house. Like the crane, Khadija has covered long distances, from Australia to Vienna, Harvard and now Cambridge University. She is an art historian and a practising artist, most recently exhibiting at the Institute of Contemporary Art London, Marrakech Biennale and National Museum of Australia.

So why Hessenburg and the Kranich Museum? Khadija says that one reason was the opportunity to build a museum from scratch, something that she had always wanted to do and explains that she has been researching ‘meta-museums, that is museums about museums’ for several years, although until the Kranich Museum she had always made installations and books about or in existing museums: ‘I was interested in what those museums that are made by artists say about the ways museums as representative institutions portray national culture, political and artistic histories’. By working in a building that has seen its function change over the years from aristocratic pleasure castle to post WWII refugee shelter, communal housing under the communist GDR, to post- unification museum, it also brought her back to the themes of her 2010 work, Embassy Embassy.

But there was also something special about the village of Hessenburg, its location, its history and its people. She recalls the former chef to the restaurant listening to Kinsky reading Rimbaud. His whistling being met by the Hausmeister, Herr Schünemann, rejoinder that ‘only the wind and the captain whistle round here and you are neither!’. Also the ‘local man who rode his bike in wide circles around the village and through the museum grounds’. In Khadija’s words ‘when nothing can be seen moving but the wind in the leaves his figure passes through the bucolic scene, an image of poetic failure’.

Wall Text

Wall Text

Khadija started the research for the new museum by exploring the literature and visual history of the crane. The figure of the crane appears the world over, from Chinese and Japanese to German literature. She worked with Sinologists and historians of Japanese art such as Beatrice Hoeller to identify many of the texts that she was to draw on, (and which can be read here, categorised by the sound or physical presence of the bird).

She identifies the way in which the idea of the crane is constructed in these texts as an important point of departure: ‘Often the cranes are animals that you don’t actually see. You go out and find them and there is this great anticipation. There is something very interesting about the whole process of people sitting on these platforms that are specially built out in that landscape, waiting for the cranes and so there was something in the literature very clearly that was about longing, death, absence, waiting, looking, all of those processes that actually have nothing to do with an actual apprehension of the crane was very much constructed in literature, in words’. She chose three of the many texts to embed letter by letter into the walls of the museum. It was a process that brought her ‘closer to the texts, but in a way much more physically than when reading’. She explains, ‘I spent a month tuckpointing the three dimensional letters cut from faux crane bones into wet, inked black mortar between the battered old stone walls’. It is a work that she links with her interest in a return to the poetic mode of ekphrasis in art historical writing. The collection ends with a haiku that Khadija wrote to the building, a building which she describes working with as being ‘a labor of love’:

exhaling its rotten interior


museum wall

the house

exhales rotten beams


the dust

of the house


Another aid in reflecting on man’s relationship with the crane and birds in general was anthropological writing; the writing of Levi-Strauss having been of particular interest. Levi-Strauss describes birds as forming…

“… a community which is independent of our own but, precisely because of this independence, appears to us like another society, homologous to that in which we live: birds love freedom; they build themselves homes in which they live in a family life and nurture their young; they often engage in social relations with other members of their species; and they communicate with them by acoustic means recalling articulate language.” The Savage Mind (1962)

Khadija describes her work ‘Ich bin ein Kranich’ as the culmination of the reading that she undertook in which the crane is time and time again a metaphor for the human. The theme is also very evident in her work ‘Birds with One Stone’, a fictional collection of scholars’ rocks from the ancient geology swept over from Sweden to the region around the Museum. ‘These ancient crane stones came from a myth that this bird is most sharply aware- hence the name Grus Vigilanis-  which is why they hold a stone in one claw so if they were to relax their muscles by falling asleep the sound of the stone dropping would wake them up. The typographer that I commissioned to design the Kranich Museum font, Camille Boulouis, then told me French school children do this when they are studying. I’ve been fascinated by such cases of entangled and mimetic performances, that’s in part what Art in the Time of Colony, my forthcoming book is about.’

This human-crane relationship was a key theme that Khadija drew on when choosing artists for the museum. To begin with, a larger group of artists than those finally commissioned was selected to help in developing the Kranich Museum idea. This group was made up of artists that had already produced works on cranes in the past or whose work lent itself to the theme of the crane. The artists met at Khadija’s studio in Berlin and discussed the ideas they were developing to ensure that the museum became a Gesamtkunstwerk and not just a series of galleries with random, unrelated works about the crane. There were debates about human’s relationships to animals, to representations, to totems, the culture of ‘nature’, and how to translate ideas across time and space. These discussions between the artists then continued in multiple site visits and residencies in the museum house where each developed their work in close relation to the ideas and context. The outcome is in Khadija’s words ‘a series of different artists responses, a flock all departing from different points but flying a great distance to the same destination’.

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

The artists that were finally chosen were those that had made proposals that were most at home in the Kranich Museum. According to Khadija, ‘there was something very mysterious and fragile about that building, so the light touch that was taken by those artists seemed more appropriate than bombastic gestures’. The works that were chosen were ‘gestures within the building and at the same time the works represented different aspects of crane history’.

As examples of the different aspects of crane history represented in the museum, Khadija takes Ward Shelley’s ‘Cranes Timeline’ and the works of Hadley and Maxwell. Ward Shelley’s work, one of the first works the visitor encounters on the first floor, is a genealogical diagram of cranes across time and geography.

In contrast, Hadley and Maxwell’s appropriation of the stories that the director, Bettina, told them and their illustrations printed as historical toile fabric and on found materials from around the site, ‘remix’ local crane narratives. So at the same time as there being a very local crane history, there is an expansive perspective on the pervasive theme of the crane.

Working with dancer Emma Howes and actor Kai Meyer was ‘a particular pleasure’, Khadija recounts, ‘performers who in thinking about how to embody the crane parody the very process… There was a lot of humor in those artists’ works, which was important for us dealing with a potentially kitsch, pop science, or spiritually esoteric trope’.

Alex Schweder’s (the Kranich Museum’s architect and one of the 18 artists) vision for the building and field of corn the size of the building’s footprint planted to attract cranes was at the heart of the project. Khadija explains: ‘Alex had, from the beginning, the sense of how the ruin could be restored to a point where it was functional but not restored to some former glory. Instead all of its scars became features of the museum’. Hadley and Maxwell even added to the GDR era children’s drawings on the walls with more figures that blended with the existing marks. ‘The walls of the museum are so rich in themselves there was really no desire to use them as a surface for hanging illusions on. All illusions had gone from this ruin’.

In a couple of months’ time, like the cranes that begin to fill surrounding skies and neighbouring fields, the Kranich Museum returns for another summer season and neon pink text will once again call out from above its entrance ‘Ich bin ein Kranich’. As you pick your way down the track to its front door, beneath the call of the crane, the roll of a bicycle and the rustling of leaves, you might just catch the sound of an old building, a young museum: exhaling, inhaling, exhaling.

To download a copy of the museum catalogue, click here.

Birds with One Stone, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

Birds with One Stone, Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll

One comment

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