An Interview with David Jablonowski

by Sophia Marisa Lucas, August 2011

The task of moving towards a global art world is a considerable one, where art history collides with the contemporary moment, and our fraught relationship with technology, persistent concerns about national identity and worldwide economic shifts are at the fore. Many scholars and artists have begun to parse out the inherent obstacles and piece together pathways for change.

David Jablonowski is a German artist who lives and works in the Netherlands and is currently on residency at the ISCP (International Studio & Curatorial Program) in New York. He sat down with Artwrit to talk about his work and how its primary concerns correspond and intersect with some of the imperative questions of the global art discussion.

SML: Can you speak generally on the way you work?
DJ: I would say my work changed in 2007, when I began to realize that a lot of my questioning comes from the history of sculpture and the sense that all sculpture was often used as a device for some kind of communication. Eventually tracing that history leads you into the history of media. I was born in 1982, so I am of this generation that was introduced to the Internet while still young, but at a comfortable and familiar point with the analog. I think I have this strong impulse to translate the digital into the analog because it is still my primary way of understanding. The way I do that is in utilizing the Internet in the sense that it can be a nonhierarchical system of information. I did not get my first laptop until 2005, and yet, now, about 60% of my work is done at the computer. The images and ideas that I work with come from the daily experience of work—of random ads that pop up, or things I see in searches.

You are participating in an upcoming group show that will open in September at the ZKM (Center for Art and Media) in Germany. It’s called The Global Contemporary. To me, the general framework of your practice brings a lot to bear on the theoretical concerns of the global art discourse in the sense that it has been precipitated by these mediated modes of communication that can now travel distances. Can you tell me about the work you will include in the exhibition?
I will be showing a piece called­­­ Kelly en Perls 3D in Cooperation with a Cameroonian Artist. It is an actual Hermès scarf that was made in 1997 for Hermès’s “Africa Year.” They invited an artist to design a scarf that incorporates their signature Kelly bag. My work is literally the scarf itself, not the original, but one that was manufactured for sale with a pattern mimicking the 3-D embroidering on the original scarf with shading. From behind the scarf I included a sound element of the African tribal music that played on the Hermès website when you clicked on the scarf. The scarf was identified as made by an artist in Cameroon, and I made several attempts but was unable to find out the name of artist from the people at Hermès. But, in the end it doesn’t matter for them if it’s true or not. So the work deals with this practice of incorporating a language, but then not really making the link to where it’s coming from. It’s really about very weird misunderstandings that happen this way. I also considered the fact that Cameroon is a former colony of France, which was this other layer to it.

This can be a challenge to establishing a global art world, that the kind of work this real or imagined artist in Cameroon makes is not widely recognized in a fine art context, even though in this case Hermès has emphasized its value as art for the company’s purposes. You have made several works that similarly reveal the way aesthetics are usurped and decontextualized in commerce.
Yes, this idea of distribution has been on my mind for the last half year, actually. All of the works I showed at Liste Basel were about the way you come up with a summary, but also how objects themselves tell a story about their origins.  The scarf is similar to the way I’ve used the idea of copies versus signatures: I combine unique, handmade fired clay sculptures with scanners or copying machines, which speak to the contrast of digital and analog, non-materiality or materiality, as well as 2-D versus 3-D. I simply combine elements to use the paradox of the materials.

You were also in a show entitled Monumentalism last year in the Netherlands, which was about national identity, in which many of the artists, like you, were not from the Netherlands, but lived and worked there. How do you feel about the question of national identity in art, the way it’s displayed in fairs or in biennials? Do you feel a sense of national identity in you own work?
I have been living in the Netherlands for seven years, and I suppose in a sense I definitely have a German background, but because the study system in the Netherlands is so different, it has really impacted my career. The study is more open. But it is an interesting discussion. I agree with that there is a strange sense of national identity in those contexts, and the fact that work is selected in that way and that curators are trained to specialize along those lines, seems limited. I even thought for a while, what would it be like to work through the eyes of an African artist for maybe a half year, just to play with that very sense of identity and breaking down that signature.

Yes, but I think you can’t divorce it from the market. There’s the government funding that is involved, and then there is the sense of your own immediate economy. In relation to this topic, the recent budget cuts for arts in the Netherlands were pretty alarming. What was your reaction to the advertisement in the New York Times?
I thought it was great actually. I think that it was exactly the level that the awareness needed to be brought to. Politicians in the Netherlands don’t have a sense or care about how this will impact things internationally, or the extent that it will affect the Netherlands internally. The Netherlands in part were able to join the international art community because of the education system and the funding that embraced international artists.

There was a statement made by the same Dutch protesters about the “trans-border value of Dutch arts.” How do you interpret this? Is it a nationalistic statement? Who are these artists?
I think they are definitely not all Dutch artists, and the comment is about how this is really what the Netherlands have been famous for in the arts, and the institutes there are really great for artists and also curators. It will really impact the future of the Dutch involvement in the art world.