How are images constructed? Whose interests manifest in them? What codes do they contain, and what political implications can we trace? How do images circulate, and how do they become the battleground for various claims of power and narrative agency? Sculptor Zuzanna Czebatul addresses these and many other questions in her solo show The Lunatic Fringe that was presented at the Parisian gallery sans titre in the Fall of 2023. In the large-scale tapestries displayed there, she reflects on their period-specific function and symbolism as well as cultural and national attributions.
For our ongoing thematic cluster on “crafts,” Theresa Roessler spoke to Czebatul at her studio in a former farmhouse in the countryside of Brandenburg, Germany, about the construction of images and different traditional crafts such as weaving (and its proximity to programming) and the ancient technique of opus sectile. The interview is accompanied by a series of photos taken by Spyros Rennt in the enchanting winter landscape of Brandenburg as well as installation shots of The Lunatic Fringe.
THERESA ROESSLER Zuzanna, we only recently met in Paris on the occasion of your solo show , which will also be the subject of our conversation today. First though, I’d like to establish the context of this conversation: Where are we and how does this place relate to your artistic practice?
ZUZANNA CZEBATUL We’re in Brandenburg, on a former farm that I’ve been renovating since spring and that will feature different workshops in the future. I also store most of my works here.
TR You’ve worked with an impressive range of materials and techniques over the past years. Following the two room-spanning carpet pieces “Higher Than the Sun” (2018) and “Des Wahnsinns schöne Kinder” (2020; literally: insanity’s beautiful children), you return to textile in the Paris exhibition, presenting tapestries for the first time. Thinking about tapestries as a medium of representation and interpretive sovereignty as well as your interest in excavating hegemonic power structures, I could easily find a common denominator. But let’s take a step back: In what contexts do you encounter tapestries, and what about them fascinates you?
ZC Like carpets, tapestries are deeply connected to their surroundings. They are fascinating art-historical objects given the mixture of function, decoration, and symbolics. I’m particularly interested in the fact that you can sketch out a temporal and geographical map of European power centers by tracing the development of weaving between the 11th and 19th century. The spaces featuring these valuable artefacts usually were those in which political and social power aggregated, be it religious, monarchical, or later also federal.
TR The tapestries in the exhibition are selected pieces from a considerably larger collection. What were the contexts of your research, and were there criteria or principles according to which you chose your exhibits?
ZC One crucial feature of many of the motifs is drapery. Clothing, the frame of the human body, is both an expression of status and fashion as well as the technical possibilities of a period. The patterns preferred by Belgian merchants differ drastically from those preferred by the Italian aristocracy. It’s interesting, from the perspective of a sculptor, to give these material manifestations a three-dimensional form in textile: The tapestry is less of an image than an analogue construction, both in its formal and symbolic quality. That’s why I collected tapestries that included special presentations of textiles. The originals of the seven motifs in the exhibition are taken from various centers of European weaving. If one considers them in terms of art history, they raise questions that often remain unanswered: Who commissioned the piece? Who is represented? What was the purpose of the tapestry – was it a wedding gift or meant to strengthen diplomatic ties? These secrets woven into the tapestries are particularly interesting for us now because they once again function as national and cultural symbols from which hegemonic claims are spun. It’s a tendency most obvious in the reconstruction of historical architecture, such as the former Berlin Palace, now housing the Humboldt Forum, or Notre Dame, but can also be seen in the many cultural treasures in national museums.
TR This brings me to the political and ideological dimension of remembrance and its identity effect. You’ve repeatedly engaged with public memorial symbols and spaces in your work, particularly where these were concerned with the “creation” of national memory. I’m specifically thinking of “Siegfried’s Departure” (2018), for which you made a cast of the foot of Siegfried, who forges the imperial sword at the base of the Bismarck memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten. Interestingly, you did not reproduce entire scenes in the tapestries either but confined yourself to singular feet flashing beneath the heavy draperies. How does this reflect the role of the foot as a motif, symbol, or metaphor?
ZC In my work feet symbolize mobility and resolve. In “Siegfried’s Departure” the foot alludes to the continuously changing reception of the memorial, which also is attested by the repeated relocation of the memorial within Berlin. It’s similar for the tapestries, but there’s also the relation between drapery and the body: You can trace how much skin was deemed acceptable in which time in the scenes and motifs of the tapestries and paintings of an era. Revealing and veiling as an expression of power dynamics is an integral part of the series. The analysis of the tapestry as a symbol of prosperity and sovereignty also unveils its relevance for the individual and the political in the time of its creation. The female leg is an especially moving subject in art history.
The deconstruction of the material qualities of antique works is one way for me to uncover the hidden meanings of cultural symbols.
TR Thinking about the construction of such images, I’m also reminded of their mediality, particularly with regard to the transfer from an analogue to a digital medium and vice versa. I’d like to talk more about the actual production of the tapestries and the practice of weaving, which intersects with and paves the ways for the practice of programming.
ZC The excerpts are taken from different tapestries I found in books or online. If the resolution was good enough, the next step was to reduce the color spectrum to 20 colors in accordance with the number of strands of the weave. Then a textile developer prepared the image for the loom. This transition from the second to the third dimension, from analogue to digital, is a reminder that each image has a material structure and is materially produced, be it at the hands of craftspeople of the past or by present-day machinery. The deconstruction of the material qualities of antique works is one way for me to uncover the hidden meanings of cultural symbols.
Zuzanna Czebatul, The Lunatic Fringe, 2023, sans titre, Paris. Photography: Aurélien Mole & Thomas Krüger
TR I find it interesting that you add another technique with the steel rods without really positioning them as a counterpart; rather, they stand in conjunction with the creative work associated with weaving and programming. The filigree of hard steel is juxtaposed with the rich detail of lavish drapery. Could you tell me more about this type of framing as well as the change of material?
ZC The images of flowers and blossoms, some of which were forged by hand, offer a contrastive frame to the tapestries. I was taken by the idea to juxtapose softness and familiarity with something hard and cold. Additionally, the ancient-looking images conjure a sense of permanence that is further amplified by the plants that seem to be in the process of growing. This artificial vivacity of the “support structure” also hints at the constantly changing reception of images at the same time as it emphasizes the decorative function of tapestries and Gobelins: aside from suppressing sound and improving the feel of the space, they also make it more beautiful. It simply made sense to connect these sensual aspects with the different meanings, and the primarily functional framing structure seemed like a good way to convey this.
Presumably nobody would have a randomly assembled design cast in concrete or cut from stone, but this examination of opulence seemed like a good addition to the controlled presentation of the tapestries.
TR In the exhibition space there is another material juxtaposition, that is, another technique, that also presupposes a certain amount of planning and calculation. On the floor we find different types of marble trompe l’oeil from your new series “Concrete Shapes of a Random Mosaic” (2023). What technique did you use here, and how did these forms come about?
ZC I’ve always been working with this concrete-mixing technique in combination with opus sectile (literally: cut work). The latter refers to an artistic technique mainly practiced in ancient Rome to decorate floors with marble, mother-of-pearl, or sanded glass. In contrast to a mosaic, the stones of an opus sectile are cut into generous slabs that then are put together to form a motif. For The Lunatic Fringe I created forms that are derived from their materiality and mode of production, comparable to Jean Arp’s Composition series; as Arp did with his paper shreds, I followed the flux of the materials that almost naturally lead me to these forms. Presumably nobody would have a randomly assembled design cast in concrete or cut from stone, but this examination of opulence seemed like a good addition to the controlled presentation of the tapestries. Together they create a space in which all these dynamics unravel: the instrumentalization of cultural goods and their origins (primarily museums, of course), which are used as armatures around which to construct increasingly spurious, often nationalist and right-wing arguments. Furthermore, it provided a ground for the returning motif of the foot.
TR I’m struck by how much dedication and intensity you can muster for certain materials and craft techniques only to turn to something completely different in your next project. You provide temporary access to circulating knowledge; you draw it out of the stream of our present and connect different geographies, politics, temporalities, and the concomitant conceptions of the human. Is this place in Brandenburg and the village as well as the people living here a source of knowledge for you that you’d like to return to in the future?
ZC I initially decided to add workshops in the outer reaches of Berlin for purely practical reasons, but it turns out to offer more advantages than I originally thought. In my Berlin studio the different materials blocked each other up; here they have their own spaces. That allows me to think about them in a completely new way. Having said that, the fact that I now also experience a rural reality aside from an urban one will also shed new light on my work. In Berlin I can’t look at anything without comparing it. Here in Brandenburg things can stand for themselves until they are finished and ready to be picked up. I really like the calm. At the same time, I’m hoping to give back something concrete to this metaphysical place. What form this might take is yet to be decided, but I’ve got quite a few ideas.