The extension of the Anatolian train line to Baghdad is supposed to make the interior of Asia Minor accessible to culture and thus to complete a task that German entrepreneurial spirit has begun successfully. (Adolf Marschall von Bieberstein, German Ambassador in Constantinople, 1899)
When Judith Raum was invited to exhibit in The Return (the gallery space of the Goethe Institut in Dublin), she proposed an installation consisting of three key elements, a sound recording, a painted fabric hanging in a sculptural form and the inclusion of reproductions of archival photographs. A lecture performance, harmless entrepreneurs, was presented in conjunction with the installation. Both works considered cultural and economic interactions between nations through alternative readings of the official histories.
For the last two years Judith Raum has collected image material and correspondence from archives in Germany, England and Turkey, which document the diffusion of capital and the language and image policy connected with German semi-colonial efforts in Anatolia during the early 20th century. The commission by the Ottoman Empire to construct a railway, crossing present day Turkey, motivated German engineers and entrepreneurs to develop grand visions for this foreign landscape. Their purposeful plans and projects, however, were juxtaposed with moments of improvisation and provisional solutions, which appear only sporadically in the files and archival photographs. Raum’s interest lies in finding out how power and its subversion appear through the materials and sites she studies. She offers alternative views of some of these histories through the way she uses the same materials and language, only to make process transparent and to highlight the provisional in the construction of sense and in the treatment of material.
For the Dublin exhibition Raum installed an extensive tent-like structure, which stretched from floor to ceiling. Voices, predominantly female, reading out reports and file entries by German and British engineers and diplomats filled the space around and between the textiles. The long pieces of cotton fabric were dyed and painted several times in overlying layers. They act as palimpsests, displaying what could be traces of time and different usage. Their patterns are derived from textile samples woven by home-weavers in Northern Bavaria and exported to the Anatolian markets. Together with the way the fabric is hung and suspended (stretched) in the gallery space with the help of strings casually wound around it, the stains and other traces of tactile contact on the textile pieces reference the improvisational nature of the home-weavers modes of expression. This ‘improvisational nature’ is starkly contrasted with the cold calculation of the imperialist’s modus operandi (the “harmless entrepreneurs” referred to in Raum’s title for her performance) as evidenced in the archival correspondences.
Raum makes certain to remove the documents from the flatness of where she found them. In the textile museum of the city of Helmbrechts, the inadequately preserved textile sample books hold the materials like pressed flowers. Raum endeavours to re-inflate, the part textiles played in the history of German economic expansion, or at least rebalance it against the better preserved history of the much sturdier Deutsche Bank and other players in this story, by suspending work away from the walls and allowing it to project into the gallery space. She hangs work where one can literally weave oneself into the narrative and connects the textiles to a moment of improvisation which has survived in photographs showing the construction of steel structures for the Anatolian railway (designed for longevity and accountability) existing alongside tents erected on the construction sites, which appropriated the traditional nomadic lifestyle and material culture that the new railway was soon to extinguish.
Deliberately placed at the back of the gallery (slightly obscured by the hanging fabric) are two reproductions of photographs lifted from archives in Newcastle and Cologne, which show railroad workers installing their temporary dwellings as they entwine their employers further and further into the fabric of the landscape. What is clear through the placement and variety of the work in the exhibition is that we are privy to the journey the artist herself has made when pursuing an idea for an artwork. Nothing comes in one clear stroke; rather, the fragments are understood at stages, refusing a definite reading. This is highlighted by the indeterminate nature of the images Raum chooses to display - it is not certain what is in fact the purpose of the textile material laid out by the railway workers in one of the photographs – and by the way the hanging fabric can be manoeuvred by the visitor.
A number of earlier artists have created work using historical archival material; Raum does not set a precedent here. Her work is, however, representative of a generation of German artists who are fully aware of their moment. Rather than be tempted by the crowded platform of post-war narratives, Raum’s generation have turned to the enormous scope of possibilities to explore the pre-history of some of the more traumatic moments of 20th century history. She avoids the over-explored histories of WWII to focus on less explored histories which allows us to not only recognize the roots of major historical events but also to imagine the possibility of a repeat in some form in the near future.
Raum playfully focuses in on the ‘soft’ technology used by the home-weavers as a mode of exploring some of the strategies inherent in the industrial exploitation that came with the introduction of the railway. Raum manages to cloak, her messages of brute exploitation and expropriation of riches from less developed countries, by a stronger nation, in the precariousness of form that she employs in her work. This she does by employing her own physique in her performances and her calm intonation while reciting archival details as she manipulates awkward bits of unpolished steel rods into impossible positions. She adds handmade military sleeves, binding them to the poles in order to fix some temporary structures. This way, the density of text in her lecture script is consistently balanced by the simpler, more ambivalent, multi-layered mode of communication of the performance. The action of unrolling, hanging, and fixing raw cotton fabric, polishing and jamming steal poles or unfolding and reversing military sleeves, are combined with alternating direct narration by the artist and pre-recorded male and female narrators. Added to this is a PowerPoint presentation with a similar mix of archival and contemporary images (including stills from the artists studio). Thus we have a dual display (through the live actions of the performance and the PowerPoint presentation) of the archival material and the process through which the material travels in her work.
The title of the exhibition even running refers to a statement by the owner of a German cotton production company founded in South-Eastern Anatolia by Deutsche Bank. In one of his monthly reports, he expresses dissatisfaction with local production methods, but reassures the board of directors that the new machines acquired will guarantee a more consistent cotton quality called even running. Overseeing Raum’s installation in The Return Gallery is the permanent inscription Cor et manus concordant, heart and hand in harmony, the motto for man’s endeavours in life and work. Not exactly the maxim of heart and hand in harmony but rather an ominous hint of the future relations between industrial needs and local tradition.