My private languages

Katrin von Maltzahn: My private languages. In: kultur. Magazine of the Goethe-Institut Australia. Sydney/Autsralia edition 14, April 2007. P. 18

My first contact with Australia was in 1996 when I met Julie Davis and Alex Rizkalla who, by then, had the Australian artist residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. At that time I was making works based on my experiences of learning the English language. I used my old school material from the former GDR and from West Germany, where I moved to when I was a teenager.

Since I was dealing with the learning of language, Julie asked me to teach her German. Very soon we realised that this was an impossible task. It did not satisfy the curiosity on each other’s cultures and backgrounds. Then of course I am an artist and my interest in language lies in asking questions rather than in giving explanations. We soon switched to English.

In 1998 I was invited to come to Melbourne to take part in an exhibition at “h. gallery”. By then my language interest had shifted to the material of all languages – to letters and signs. Among the pieces I showed was “Searching for the perfect language”. It consisted of 94 photographs, each depicting my hands holding a letter, a number or a grammatical sign made of clay. The title of this work was inspired by Umberto Ecos’ book, "Die Suche nach einer vollkommenen Sprache.

Different reflections on sign systems led me to an interest in structures, the processing of information and the technical artefacts belonging to it. This all sounds quite dry but the starting point of my works is always based on common sense and my every day observations. In collaboration with an art historian and a designer I made a couple of artists' books in the form of inventories: One intention was to put my own works in a general form and to then observe their transformations.

In 2002 I spent some time in Sweden and realized another project based on the learning of a language. I studied at the official Swedish language school “Swedish for immigrants” and developed a Swedish learning book from a students’ perspective. “Swedish for immigrants” became the central theme of one issue of the Swedish cultural and philosophy journal GLÄNTA. My piece was printed in facsimile and surrounded by texts by different specialists on language (philosophers, linguists, writers) who dealt with similar subjects from their professional angle.

For subsequent works I used found text and typography to recycle them into drawings and paintings. For different “Spam” works I made paper and wall drawings using the subject lines of received spam e-mail messages. “Plots” is an ongoing drawing project made of letters as my working material. Each piece begins with a plot in my mind.  During the working process the story line evolves into abstract visual expressions. “Welcome to China – 2008 Beijing” is a work of paintings derived from the Chinese typography of an advertisement for the Olympic Games in China that I found in a German newspaper.

Now I’m on my second visit to Melbourne. It is connected to a residency at RMIT University School of Art. I will give a couple of lectures and make two exhibitions with recent and new works. The first is "Being the Mirror" at Ocular Lab in Melbourne; the second, "Jorge Luís Borges visited Melbourne for 10 days" is at RMIT School of Art Gallery in Melbourne.

I’m living on the fourteenth floor of a hotel on Swanston Street, facing the impressive building of the State Library of Victoria. In a conversation with a friend just after my arrival, I learned that Jorge Luís Borges stayed 10 days in Melbourne in 1938, spending much of his time in the library's domed reading room. His stories have been influencial for several of my works and I’m planning to use this surprising piece of information as starting point for a new project.

The story I heard about Borges continues like this: the strain of the long voyages to and from Australia had weakened the writer and soon after his return to Argentina a vein behind his eyes burst and he became blind. When he was finally allowed to work again he decided to test his sanity, not by composing a poem or essay but by attempting something he had never done before: to write short stories.

These soon made him world famous.

The more I’m looking for confirmation of this incredible story which would mean one of Borges’ last visual impressions were of the domed reading room in Melbourne, the more I wonder whether it is itself a fiction.

Melbourne, February 2007