Kate­ri­na Oiko­no­ma­k­ou: Albert Coers, ”Libra­ries offer the pro­mi­se of sud­den discoveries”

Inter­view con­duc­ted at Café Are­ma, Ber­lin-Moa­bit, Octo­ber 2014

His sculp­tures and instal­la­ti­ons are a bibliophile’s dream. Art­works that are liter­al­ly con­struc­ted out of pages and pages of writ­ten text, that invi­te the view­er to pon­der  that make up the visu­al uni­ver­se which Albert Coers pain­sta­kin­gly con­structs, book by book.

I guess ever­yo­ne asks you the same thing – why do you use books?

Yes, I have had to ans­wer this one a lot. In retro­spect you end up con­struc­ting your own sto­ry of how all this came about, so the sto­ry goes some­thing like this: I grew up in a house­hold which was full, cram­med even, with books. My father belongs to a genera­ti­on — born in the 1930s — that saw collec­tions as some­thing one builds so as to have some­thing to rela­te upon in the years to come.

Did he only collect books?

He collec­ted pic­tures, too. He has a per­so­nal art histo­ry archi­ve, which inclu­ded all sorts of prin­ted pic­tures of art­works, even pages from calen­dars, cut­tings from maga­zi­nes or news­pa­pers. He was an art tea­cher and inten­ded to use this for his clas­ses. Books were part of this collec­tion. But you have to ima­gi­ne all the­se books and prints sta­cked one upon the other, inters­per­sed with a varie­ty of objects and mate­ri­als, for instance ordi­na­ry house­hold essen­ti­als one buys from the super­mar­ket, laye­red upon one ano­t­her. So, life and art were blen­ded together. 

So the­re could be a stack of books and boxes of washing powder?

And then, on top of tho­se, the­re could be a box of wine bot­t­les re-used as con­tai­ner for works by van Gogh, with the artist’s name care­ful­ly writ­ten on it… I was fasci­na­ted from the mate­ri­al and the misap­pro­pria­ti­on of things, their com­bi­na­ti­on and the acci­den­tal sculp­tu­ral struc­tu­re all had taken. For my first pro­ject I emp­tied a room in our cel­lar whe­re the core of my father’s collec­tion was loca­ted, and trans­fer­red ever­ything to a gallery.

Was your father collec­ting rare, or antique books? Were all the­se books that he had first read or that he aspi­red to read, eventually?

I think the­re was more the desi­re to collect, to pos­sess, sim­ply to have it “in case” at hand than the aspi­ra­ti­on to read or, gene­ral­ly, to use them, as the­re were many works of refe­rence like cata­lo­gues and encyclopedias.

The­re was not much of value in anti­qua­ri­an sen­se, nor in the books — many of them came from second hand books­to­res — neit­her in the pic­tures. When I enti­t­led the show “col­le­zio­ne pri­va­ta”, I play­ed with the expec­ta­ti­ons one might have of a pre­cious, well orde­red collec­tion of art.

How did it feel gro­wing up in a place cram­med with things? Was it like a tre­a­su­re tro­ve? Did it ever feel like a burden? 

Nowa­days it appears qui­te hea­vy a bur­den. At the time, though, I was expe­ri­en­cing it as an exci­ting site and as a hiding place. I was always ama­zed by any num­ber of things who­se exact func­tion was a mys­te­ry to me. And I guess I was uncon­scious­ly taking this atmo­s­phe­re in. Cer­tain­ly the­re was a fee­ling of being sur­roun­ded by stuff from all sides. Over my sister’s bed, for instance, the­re was balan­ced a cur­ving scaf­fol­ding loa­ded with books … Things were occu­p­y­ing the house. But to me, it was fun.

Did you like to read as a child?

No ques­ti­on! I was an avid rea­der, devou­ring sto­ries. Qui­te often I would be found rea­ding with the help of a flash­light, under the blan­ket, when I was sup­po­sed to be slee­ping. I loved to read adven­tures, sure, and books about explo­rers tra­ve­ling in the fur­ther­most pla­ces on earth. I dis­co­ve­r­ed sci­ence fic­tion and comic books. Loo­king back, the­se rea­dings were dri­ven by mere curio­si­ty and plea­su­re; they were qui­te diver­se, some­ti­mes crappy.

How do you choo­se which books you will use for your sculp­tures and instal­la­ti­ons? Do you pick them accord­ing to size and colour? How important is the subject?

I work with mate­ri­al I have some con­nec­tion to and that inte­rests me, be it the bio­gra­phi­cal rela­ti­on, the tit­les, the sub­ject, cer­tain for­mal qua­li­ties. In a second moment, it is rear­ran­ged, often in reac­tion to the space. I star­ted with books that belon­ged to my father, and until a cer­tain peri­od I would use my own books. Then I began working with books bor­ro­wed in public libra­ries; I wan­ted the pie­ces to be, in one respect, inter­ac­ti­ve, so I asked peop­le to bor­row books that they would then lend me in order to crea­te a new collec­ti­ve library.

In both cases how do you choo­se the books – accord­ing to sub­ject, size, colour?

That depends. First time when I invol­ved my own books to crea­te an instal­la­ti­on, I sim­ply used all of them, to fill the only win­dow of the room in which I lived at the time. As it hap­pen­ed, the size of the win­dow was such that I nee­ded to use all of them to clo­se the room, to iso­la­te it from the outside.

Why did you use books to repli­ca­te the fee­ling of isolation?

It was a peri­od during which I was sur­roun­ded by books, going through the last peri­od of my stu­dies, wri­ting my the­sis. So by working on this instal­la­ti­on I wis­hed to put some distance bet­ween me and the prin­ted mate­ri­al, to use it in a way other than it was all inten­ded for, as sculp­tu­re mate­ri­al, to do some­thing visual­ly pro­duc­ti­ve with it. Cer­tain­ly, I was trans­forming it also in a picture.

And when you asked peop­le to bor­row and bring you books from a public libra­ry, what were the gui­de­li­nes? What were you loo­king for?

That was a more con­cep­tu­al approach. For “Biblio­te­ca Col­let­ti­va” in 2005, I cho­se the the­me of “Geschich­te”, which means Histo­ry in Ger­man. I thought it was working well, as the con­cept con­tai­ned the word, “Schich­ten”, which means lay­ers, which was the way I arran­ged the books. And Histo­ry is some­thing that lea­ves wide room for dif­fe­rent inter­pre­ta­ti­ons by each one of us. So that work was a kind of expe­ri­ment whe­ther one would pos­si­b­ly be able to guess what the initi­al the­me had been.

How did it turn out?

More than 40 peop­le took part in the pro­cess and brought in books that were very dif­fe­rent from each other. Some of them had cho­sen books that bore the actu­al word “Geschich­te” in their tit­le, so the inter­pre­ta­ti­on was qui­te lite­ral. Others cho­se bio­gra­phies, which of cour­se con­sti­tu­te one way of wri­ting histo­ry. And then the­re were books that were nar­ra­ting histo­ry, but not in an expli­cit man­ner and not by sta­ting it. So loo­king at the end result, a view­er was able to tell in which direc­tion it all went to, but one could still not be sure.

What do you find so enga­ging in books as mate­ri­al for instal­la­ti­ons and sculptures ?

It’s both the qua­li­ty and the cubic form of a book that makes it apt as buil­ding mate­ri­al, which appeals to me. And then, the­re is the con­tent its­elf, which pro­vi­des amp­le oppor­tu­nities to play with, the con­text the books come from, their histo­ry, that of their users and owners …

When you visit someone’s home, do you tend to go take a look at their library?

In fact I am so inte­res­ted in it, that I used the con­cept of the per­so­nal libra­ry several times, for examp­le in my exhi­bi­ti­on in the Kunst­ver­ein Ber­lin Tier­gar­ten, in 2012, whe­re I had asked mem­bers of the Kunst­ver­ein to bring me books that I would arran­ge in reac­tion to the mate­ri­al. For examp­le, one of them, the direc­tor, was an expert on 19th cen­tu­ry archi­tec­tu­re, so for this instal­la­ti­on I used the books in an expli­ci­tly archi­tec­to­ni­cal way, like pillars.

Your work in gene­ral betrays an affi­ni­ty for archi­tec­tu­re – or am I get­ting wrong, maybe?

Actual­ly my grand­f­a­ther on my mother’s side was an architect.

So he was an influence?

Indi­rect­ly. His name was Hans Beckers, he desi­gned qui­te a few buil­dings, most­ly church­es in the 1950s and 1960s in Bava­ria. The fami­ly orga­ni­zed a small exhi­bi­ti­on with pic­tures and blue­prints, floor plans on his cen­ten­a­ry in 2002, so I once again went through all the pic­tures and sketches.

You had a sort of infor­mal edu­ca­ti­on in archi­tec­tu­re, then?

More a sur­roun­ding and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to look and obser­ve. We were going in pla­ces whe­re my grand­f­a­ther had desi­gned buil­dings, for examp­le a litt­le holi­day house in Aus­tria, and we would pay more atten­ti­on to the details than some­whe­re else.

Many artists –visu­al artists but most­ly wri­ters, the most pro­mi­nent among whom might be Jor­ge Luis Bor­ges, share a fasci­na­ti­on with the con­cept of the libra­ry. How do you exp­lain this?

Inte­res­tin­g­ly I think I came upon Bor­ges only after having alrea­dy been working on my book instal­la­ti­ons. I was doing rese­arch, a pos­te­rio­ri, upon the motif of the libra­ry. I like his idea of the end­less libra­ry. I think this fasci­na­ti­on is it stems as much from the con­struc­tion and the form, as from what lays insi­de of it, as it is the orga­niz­a­ti­on of know­ledge. The spa­ti­al sys­tem of a big libra­ry, with the scaf­folds, the dif­fe­rent levels, the several cor­ri­dors, resem­bles a laby­rinth in which you can get lost. It is the pro­mi­se of sur­pri­se, of unplan­ned dis­co­ve­ries, whe­re you sud­den­ly stumb­le upon some­thing that you were not sear­ching for. The libra­ry as a sys­tem that invi­tes for devia­ti­ons and cir­cles and then the libra­ry as a tre­a­su­re tro­ve – this sums up its appeal.

Did you have this fee­ling as a child, stumb­ling upon some­thing that was more exci­ting than what you had been loo­king for?

This was a fee­ling I would usual­ly get in the place whe­re my father was working; it was more like a stu­dio, with hid­den sto­rage pla­ces. The stu­dio its­elf was kind of a restric­ted area whe­re I was nor­mal­ly not sup­po­sed to go. But when he was not the­re I would sneak in, and it had this all­u­re of the for­bid­den place, even if it was not open­ly declared.

You first stu­di­ed Lite­ra­tu­re and Histo­ry of Art and only later did you turn to Art – what drew you to Literature?

Actual­ly in school, in the last years, I had two main cour­ses, one was Art, which I lik­ed very much, and the other was Latin. I was qui­te good at that and enjoy­ed it, too. At that point I did not have enough self-con­fi­dence in order to app­ly to an Art Aca­de­my, becau­se I saw that other stu­dents were bet­ter than me in rea­listic drawing – which I thought to be essen­ti­al. So I deci­ded to pur­sue my inte­rest in Lite­ra­tu­re and Art Histo­ry. But then after 2–3 years, while I was in Pisa doing some time abroad, I rea­li­zed that I wan­ted to do some­thing else. It pro­bab­ly had to do with the fact that the sys­tem of tea­ching Lite­ra­tu­re was more rigid the­re than it had been in Ger­ma­ny. So the­re I was, sit­ting insi­de a libra­ry, loo­king at all tho­se young peop­le around me who were ben­ding over their books, shaking ner­vous­ly with their legs and thin­king to mys­elf that the­re are other qua­li­ties of mine that I need to develop.

Was it then that you deci­ded to lead the life of an artist or had you always plan­ned to do so?

I think it was in Ita­ly. Becau­se it was the­re that I very deter­mi­ned­ly said I would app­ly to the stu­dy Art. That time it was qui­te strong a fee­ling that had beco­me all the more inten­se by this pres­su­re I expe­ri­en­ced in Pisa to final­ly do some­thing. So I app­lied at the Art Aca­de­my in Munich and got accep­ted. The time of pre­pa­ra­ti­on was a very exci­ting and pro­duc­ti­ve one. I lived in a small room in the stu­dents’ dorms and I trans­for­med it into a stu­dio using up every cen­ti­me­ter of the place, for examp­le I pul­led open the dra­wers of the cup­boards and put a board on it. In fact what I did was crea­te an instal­la­ti­on. Loo­king back, this use and trans­for­ma­ti­on of the space is some­thing that inte­rests me to this day.

How did it feel to be final­ly doing what you wanted?

Para­do­xi­cal­ly, I fell like into a hole, after the effort of the app­li­ca­ti­on. The pedago­gi­cal con­cept of the class was to con­front the stu­dents with a kind of emp­ti­ness. So in the begin­ning the­re was nobo­dy clo­se­ly fol­lowing your work; you were more or less left on your own. It was qui­te dif­fe­rent from school whe­re you were told what to do. You had to deve­lop your own pro­ject and get to know what you were real­ly inte­res­ted in.

How much of the com­ple­ted art­work do you know befo­re you start? Do you visua­li­ze the com­ple­ted pie­ce or do you rather like to sur­pri­se yourself?

A bit of both. For me it is important to let things hap­pen, to react on the site and often some­thing comes out in the pro­cess. But while pre­pa­ring an exhi­bi­ti­on some visu­al con­cept has to be the­re, even if no image of the com­ple­ted work; so I make sket­ches, built models of the exhi­bi­ti­on space …

I think you would pro­bab­ly agree that a gre­at many artists revi­sit their child­hood expe­ri­en­ces – what’s your explanation?

It pro­bab­ly has to do with a wish to return to a sta­te of nai­ve­ty, which we enjoy­ed as child­ren, whe­re the func­tion of things was not so deter­mi­ned. And in my case it still is extre­me­ly appe­aling to do a sort of child’s archi­tec­tu­re: basic con­struc­tions, using blan­kets, paper boxes, a bed… I think this wish to crea­te a space, a litt­le world, out of things that are nor­mal­ly inten­ded for other uses altog­e­ther is a way to recap­tu­re that per­spec­ti­ve of a child – and it is what con­sti­tu­tes the con­nec­tion to the approach of the artist.

Which artists’ work do you like to go back to and look at it again, or have influ­en­ced the way you see art?

Among con­tem­pora­ry artists, I am very fond of the work of Tho­mas Demand, who is doing archi­tec­tu­re or set­tings from paper, after pic­tures out of his own or the collec­ti­ve memo­ry, and then takes pho­tos befo­re des­troy­ing the set­tings. The tem­pora­ry use and trans­for­ma­ti­on of ordi­na­ry mate­ri­al, the sculp­tu­ral approach, the use of pre­exis­ting pic­tures, this is qui­te intriguing.

Do you make a point of see­ing a lot of exhi­bi­ti­ons? Are you the kind of artist that tri­es to not miss new things?

If someo­ne inte­rests me, yes. OK, the­re are peri­ods whe­re you are immer­sed in your own work and don’t pay much atten­ti­on, but gene­ral­ly I like to fol­low the work of anyo­ne I like. I also go to muse­ums qui­te a lot.

Which Ber­lin muse­ums do you visit more often? 

The Ham­bur­ger Bahn­hof, for instance, becau­se they have inte­res­ting tem­pora­ry exhi­bi­ti­ons, but also gre­at collec­tions. And then the Neue Nationalgalerie.

What was the last exhi­bi­ti­on in Ber­lin that you real­ly loved?

It was the exhi­bi­ti­on by Mar­tin Honert at the Ham­bur­ger Bahn­hof. I was com­ple­te­ly hap­py after having been the­re. It was also the the­me of child­hood that I am inte­res­ted in and then as sculp­tu­re it worked so well.

What’s your defi­ni­ti­on of a bad or unsuc­cess­ful piece?

A pie­ce is too sim­plistic, too easy, if it has only one lay­er of mea­ning. The­re would also be the cri­te­ri­um of red­un­dan­cy. Then one has to be care­ful that an art­work is not exclu­si­ve­ly visual­ly appealing.

Let’s go back to books – what are you rea­ding the­se days?

I’m always car­ry­ing around a book with me, some­ti­mes I read it. Recent­ly I bought a antho­lo­gy of Eng­lish short sto­ries, which I have with me. Bes­i­des that, I was rea­ding a novel by Botho Strauß, “Die Wid­mung” [The Dedi­ca­ti­on]. I took it a few days ago at the book stalls out­side the Bode­mu­se­um while wai­t­ing for someo­ne. But then, I rea­li­zed I had a copy yet and had read it years befo­re. This time I couldn’t get into it and left it in the wai­t­ing room in the sta­ti­on of Bolo­gna. Pro­bab­ly it’s still there.

How long have you been living in Berlin?

I came in 2010, but befo­re that I had visi­ted the city on several occa­si­ons. The first time was in 1985. I was still a boy and the trip with a friend to West Ber­lin had the all­u­re of an adventure.

Did you go to East Berlin?

Yes, and the dif­fe­ren­ces were very stark. It felt like swit­ching from colour TV to black & white. Then the­re was a lack of adver­ti­sing in East Ber­lin, which I noti­ced right away, and a huge dif­fe­rence regar­ding the cost of ever­ything. I recall us going to a big depart­ment store in the Alex­an­der­platz and things were so easy to buy with our West­mark chan­ged in Ost­mark, We bought loads of sketch­books and pen­cils. One other thing I remem­ber very clear­ly was the Palast der Repu­blik. It was impres­si­ve, with tho­se win­dows with the red­dish metal­lic glow.

Do you think that it should have been pre­ser­ved and still stan­ding there?

Yes, I would have pre­fer­red it. Espe­cial­ly now that I see the con­struc­tion site. I mean, I like con­struc­tion sites, as they look always bet­ter than the finis­hed buil­ding, but this one is so mas­si­ve. When it is going to be recon­struc­ted as a palace, it will be qui­te impo­sing upon the city. The­re used to be this huge empty space behind the Palast and all the way to Alex­an­der­platz; I rather pre­fer­red it that way. And I think the­re should be some­thing as a remin­der of that peri­od, even if it was not gre­at architecture.

Do you think the­re are fewer remin­ders of that period?

Yes, I do. Sure, you have to think of the func­tio­n­a­li­ty of things – but then the func­tion of that new palace is not clear either.

If you could ask peop­le who come to Ber­lin to read one book or see one film about this city, which would it be?

Wim Wen­ders’ “Wings of Desi­re” [Der Him­mel über Ber­lin], even if it has a kind of pathos that pro­bab­ly feels a litt­le out­da­ted. I would still recom­mend it. And the text by Peter Hand­ke is qui­te poe­tic. I like it as a docu­ment of the time, of the image of Ber­lin in the ‘80s.

Kate­ri­na Oiko­no­ma­k­ou is the initia­tor and aut­hor of the berlininterviews.com which fea­tures inter­views with artists and aut­hors. She has worked for many years as a jour­na­list for the Greek dai­ly press. Along with her jour­na­lism work, she has been acti­ve in the area of arts admi­nis­tra­ti­on. Bet­ween 2010 and 2012, she was pro­ject mana­ger and coor­di­na­tor of the “Talks and Thoughts” Pro­gram of the Onas­sis Cul­tu­ral Cen­ter in Athens. Kate­ri­na splits her time bet­ween Ber­lin and Athens.