A household name in Berlin since 2005, German-Iranian artist Bettina Pousttchi is no stranger to sensation. Her provocative 2009 piece dedicated to the newly demolished GDR Palast der Republik proved a career-defining moment and cemented her reputation as an artist not afraid to make a point. The same approach is evident in her current show, In recent Years at Berlinische Galerie, where a huge installation wraps around the museum’s façade, while the works inside include imposing, bright-coloured sculptures made of urban furniture and photographic series “World Time Clock”, a globe-trotting project questioning the fluidity of national boundaries. We met Pousttchi on the exhibition floor to talk the motivation behind her latest works, what inspiration she takes from the Hauptstadt and how her mixed background comes through in her art.
Your exhibition starts outside the Berlinische Galerie with an artwork shaped around the building’s façade, in effect turning the gallery into a sculpture. What did you mean to communicate with this?
Berlin Window brings two different architectural languages together to what I call a transnational pattern. It is an approach I have been developing for several years, and for the first time here the pattern is white. It incorporates a photographic print on a vinyl surface that has been mounted directly on the glass of the façade. The base is made up of photographs I took in Frankfurt of timber frame houses, a signifier for something typically German. I use this German signifier and rearrange it in a way that eludes to a pattern more common in Middle Eastern countries. I really like this idea of bringing together two cultures and making a third thing with it that opens the door to be a signifier of a transnational society.
You were born in Germany, and you also have Iranian roots. Is your upbringing the reason for your interest in drawing on and mixing different cultural influences in your work?
My mother is from Eastern Germany and my father is from Iran. So yes, I’m a mix. I cannot say this is why I use it in my art. I think I just received through my upbringing multiple perspectives on things and it has shaped my perception. For example, patterns are often considered in the West as something decorative, superficial, but in fact, where they come from it’s not at all decorative. It has a meaning; it has its depths. I was always surprised by this misunderstanding between the different cultures.
I was very often asked whether my work was activism against the Schloss.”
You’ve lived in Berlin since 2005, to what extent is your art connected to the city?
Since I arrived in Berlin, I’ve always made work that has a starting point here and I’ve been inspired by everyday objects and situations. The public clock series “World Time Clock”, which is being exhibited here, for example, had been inspired by the Weltzeituhr on Alexanderplatz. I live very near there and I was always surprised that this sculpture was built in the GDR to show the time zones of the world, but the people who were going to look at it were not supposed to travel to many of those destinations. It’s a very strange thing!
You’re certainly no stranger to travel. In that series, you feature clocks in 24 time zones.
Now we live in a unified Berlin, in a unified Europe, and we have the possibility to travel. I always considered this freedom as a gift to my generation and the ones after. I thought we should do something with it, and not take this freedom for granted. The piece is as much about this as it is about the experience of time and public clocks of the world. It was almost a performance itself to travel to all these places over the course of eight years. At some point I had to take a world tour ticket that would enable me to go to the most distant locations. Circling the globe in only 27 days was an interesting, but very intense experience!
Not only are the clocks all showing the same time, but the whole representation makes them seem more uniform. You align them, present them in a square, in black and white. Why?
When the time zone system was implemented, it was the initiative of the British Empire. During the Meridian Conference in Washington D.C. in 1884 it was decided zero Meridian is London. Paris was applying too, and they were so disappointed that they didn’t accept the system for 15 years. As you can see, it’s something extremely political. Then the British brought not only their time, but also their clocks to their colonies. Very often, the clocks were built in Britain and then brought on a ship to those countries. I think my work is an answer to that, or a contemporary statement to it. “World Time Clock” shows 24 places and 24 time zones, but all at 1.55pm. There is no centre, no place. It’s equal parts that come together.
Your sculpture on the Berlinische Galerie is reminiscent of your 2009 work “Echo”, also a photographic installation, on the façade of the Temporäre Kunsthalle, the exhibition hall that stood a few meters away from the dismembered Palast between 2008 and 2010. That piece represented the Palast der Republik (GDR recreactional hall cum parliament), which was controversially torn down and replaced by a new Berliner Schloss. Why did you fix on the GDR building after it was destroyed?
For me, the summer of 2008 was very special. The deconstruction, as they call it, of the Palast der Republik had just ended. I had been living here for three years and I saw this process, as I was also shooting some video material. It was not only physically, but also emotionally painful for many people. Suddenly the building was gone; there was this void in the middle in the city. That was really special and striking. Somehow you were there, on this green lawn that had appeared, but you still had the building on your eye. I wanted to mirror this after-image. I used archive material from the Palast der Repubik, but I also made my own piece with it. It was never a 100 percent documentary photograph. It was a montage and I changed a few things. For example, I integrated this clock that was never there that I developed by using elements from the GDR coat of arms. On one side it showed five to two, the other side showed five to one, as if there was a time zone or a border in between the building. But I think it really resonated with the city at that time. It was a very controversial building, and it couldn’t just disappear without a comment.
What were the reactions? Did anyone accuse you of Ostalgie?
No, not at all, that’s interesting! (laughs) I think because it was clearly my piece, it was also black and white and the former palace was bronze… I think for most people it was clear that it was an artwork as a comment, an after-image of what was there. Everybody had an opinion on it. I was very often asked whether it was activism against the Schloss. But I always said it wasn’t. It’s a comment on the time. It’s certainly a work against forgetting, for memory. Not only for this special building, but in general. I think especially in Berlin, we have to work against forgetting history, against the rewriting of history, where important parts are taken out. Might it be the GDR, or Nazi Germany, or whatever.
Are you currently working on new exhibitions in Berlin?
Yes, for the Gallery Weekend (May 1-3) I will have an exhibition at Buchmann Galerie, which will be a continuation of what has been here at the Berlinische Galerie. I’m also finishing a book for this exhibition that will come out in early May, a substantial monograph on my recent work. And I am, as always, working on new artwork.
Does being a household name in Berlin influence the way you work on new projects? Do you feel you have to fulfill expectations, or do you still feel free?
I feel free to do whatever I feel like. But I have to match my own expectations, and that can be hard. (laughs)
In Recent Years | Berlinische Galerie, Kreuzberg. Through Apr 6.