15 July 2021

INTERVIEW: MARIANA HAHN

Mariana Hahn, photo © Philippe Chancel

Through photography, video, installation and imprinting Mariana Hahn investigates the modes of image making, the processes of archiving and transmission. Mariana digs the memory of her body, of her own genealogy and she depicts the transfer of knowledge from one body to another, from a woman to another. But she also tracks the recurrences and survivals (Nachleben) of collective memories and traumas. "Eros and Thanatos Made a Child" is a multifaceted installation by Mariana Hahn presented by Display, Berlin, at the photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, from July 4 to August 29, 2021. In that framework, it was shortlisted for the Prix Découverte Louis Roederer curated this year by Sonia Voss.

Marie DuPasquier: As a start, could you describe the elements of your installation presented in the very atypical exhibition space l’Eglise des Frères Prêcheurs in Arles?

Mariana Hahn: As you walk into the church, you will be walking around this wooden skeletal structure part of the scenography of Amanda Antunes. Quite suddenly, in the middle of the church, at the center of the nave, you start to see the installation. 

You are first confronted with a series of small glass cases, five boxes with assemblages of materials and objects. They all contain a story or something I wanted to archive. But most of them gather materials that are still living, that are still in process in a way. One box contains potatoes covered with salt, or another one holds an imprint of my face made with wax and then covered with copper leaves. I saw lately that – in the church – it started to change a bit and the copper slowly got attacked by humidity. That’s exactly what I’m looking for! Right after this table of glass cases, there is an ektachrome hold in a double glazed frame that sits on a pedestal at the center of the installation. The image is that of a 'calco of Pompeii', a human figure caught by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79. 

Mariana Hahn, Glass case with archive. Photo © Philippe Chancel, 2021

Behind or through the slide, you can first guess and then wander around two long copper plates of 10m rolled in their extremities to 3m, directly lying on the floor of the church. They each carry a large tumulus of salt. With time, with my voice and movements, but also the humidity and heat of the place, the activity around, the visitors passing by with their sweat and backgrounds – it all starts to inscribe in the salt and mark the copper plates. Now, already after a few days of exhibition, the salt starts to interact with the copper. 

On the right side of the installation, integrated to the exhibition design structure, there is a series of black and white small semi-format analog photographs of natural elements that I captured over time. It is a collection of shapes and marks, of anthropomorphic forms that I see in my environment. And sometimes I include my hand or my silhouette in the field of vision, as a kind of signifier. To conclude the installation, there is a super 8 video I made from a fisherman. He appears as a moving shadow and a regular muffled beat is diffusing softly through the whole installation and even through the whole church. 

MD: What was the starting point of the installation?

MH: The slide was a starting point and is also at the center of the installation to connect all elements and diffuse its light on them. Wherever you are, you can see the slide and you can see through. It is the photograph of an archeological find, a human figure captioned 'Imprint of a Young Woman, Print of a young woman Empreinte d’une jeune femme Abdruck einer jungen Frau'. The human being was caught by the lava and the ashes of the eruption of Mount Vesuvio, like frozen in her last gesture, like a snapshot of death. But time transformed the remains kept under earth into a void. And this body 'in hollow' was fulfilled with gesso by archeologists in the 19th century in order to keep it into materiality. It became a musealia, contained in a large glass box – at least at the time the photograph was taken. They made a sculpture, an image, out of a natural mold, out of an intangible body so to say. 

Mariana Hahn, Glass case with archive. Photo © Philippe Chancel, 2021

MD: There are different bodies of works, but somehow they seem to respond to each other and they hold in one coherent installation. How do you develop your installation, rich in information, so that it becomes this coherent ensemble? 

MH: This slide is the starting point, but also the connector, or better say its captured body. It says a lot about what a representation is. It is a void, which has become an image. It speaks for my whole process: the image-making and the archive-making processes. It is about transformation, about memories falling apart and coming back again, into other shapes. It says a lot about the body and its imprint, informing about its absence and presence at the same time, about the impermanence of things, the confrontation between materiality and the invisibility of narratives. This precise tension, which is also a strong bond, between Eros and Thanatos. A cycle. The salt follows the same kind of process on the copper. It inscribes and creates through the corrosion process. 

But in the end, it is also my own corporeality connecting it all, as all my gestures and words are passing through all elements to move on under the transformation processes. In the salt and copper when I whisper the tales; in the photographs, when I capture the fragments, when the fisherman is teaching me how to catch stories. The installation is about finding something that we can’t see, finding the hidden wound and passing it over, but it also calls out our relationship to immortality and the illusionary wish to leave eternal traces. 

05_Photo by Philippe Chancel_DSF5588 Print of a young woman, Empreinte d’une jeune femme, Abdruck einer jungen Frau Kodak film, anonymous, undated. Photo by Philippe Chancel, 2021

MD: Observing this multitude of stories crossing each other through the installation, I thought you really are a gatherer of narratives and a storyteller. What are these stories you collect and how do you become the vehicle to convey them further? 

MH: The stories come from different sources to me, but they are all very archaic voices that pass through different bodies, civilizations and materials. A lot of these stories were untold. Stories from women in China carrying from generation to generation the history of their ancestors through hair. Hair, in this case, is also conveying stories about women, about female bodies to which I relate. 

It is then also my story that I transmit, and sometimes more directly. I did this research with the potatoes in Pomerania, which is associated to my family’s story for example. In my family, there is so much unsaid. And even if there is something to be said, it was never expressed but it rather found other ways to be communicated and passed on. A silenced memory still inscribes into the flesh and has the power to spread for generations. So the concrete stories or the facts I wanted to tell were not tangible anymore, and I had to find ways to uncover them, like the potatoes. I had to find other transmitters. 

MD: These stories, you have your own manner to transmit them further, into and through materiality. You’re often working with organic materials such as hair, copper and salt that can act as intermediaries, notably for your own voice and body. How is this transmission happening? 

MH: Here I could again come with the example of the potatoes. They come out of the earth with their load of memories. And then, coating them with salt is a way to petrify them, but they also go on with their own process. The salt dries them, preserves them or slows down their decomposition, but depending on the surrounding conditions, they transform in a way that I cannot control. I can also speak about the salt and copper works. In some cases, I inscribe the language directly into the copper plate, and through this repetitive gesture I overprint the scriptures; it becomes a kind of palimpsest. Sometimes, like in Arles, I blow on the salt and whisper to imprint the copper of my presence. So one cannot decipher the words anymore, even if they are still present, with the intentions implied by my gesture. And then the salt eats and attacks the hold knowledge. I like very much the idea of the corruption happening between the substances and materials, which changes and transforms. It takes the knowledge into something, which is not linguistic anymore, it comes back to a more archaic form of transmission. 

Mariana Hahn, copper and salt. Photo © Chroma, 2019

MD: Among materials such as hair or copper, salt is a central element in your installation and in general in your work. Could you tell me more about this fascination for salt. How did you start being interested in it?

MH: My interest in salt started probably before I was aware of it. I grew up in Schwäbisch-Hall in the South of Germany, that was a salt mine city in the Middle Ages. And the city is still very proud of this history because it made it a rich city and a free and imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire (Freie Reichsstadt). It is still very beautiful with the Half-timbered house architecture. I can’t remember being fascinated by salt directly, but I remember going to the salt museum and that salt was the central element of the city and the major element of this community’s pride. So I guess it made more than an impression on me. Later, there are other elements that came step by step into my artistic practice. Around 7 years ago, I researched about a sisterhood of the 18th century in Southern China that, in reaction to Confucianism, built its own independent community and developed its own economic system through the silk work. These women were very powerful. I wanted to meet the last members of this sisterhood, but never found them directly, so again, I had to find other ways to get to their stories. I would immerge myself with dresses that I would then let float into the sea in order to let water and salt impregnate and mark them. I believed that the dresses would catch the stories. When I came back to Berlin, I started to work with salt. I started to bath all kind of objects and materials into salt, experimenting, again and again. It became a method to archive and transmit invisible narratives. Never archive in a way that it would be static but more into something moving and transforming. Since I’m interested in orality, I didn’t want to imprison the tales nor the object’s charges. 

Mariana Hahn, Analog photographs (half format) analog, b/w, Photo by Philippe Chancel, 2021

MD: In your work, it is a lot about archive-making but also image-making processes, like when you select and build your collection of anthropomorphic forms and shapes in the nature. Could you tell me more about this series of photographs that is also exhibited in Arles?

MH: It is actually a collection of marks or better said of wounded fleshes that I find in the nature over time during my walks. It is not absolutely conscious, but I relate with my own physicality to these forms. Therefore, I often also include my own organs in the frame. There is definitely a kind of image making, already just by seeing and choosing them. But it also constitutes a collection, like a diary or a book of reason, which components inform on my own relationship with the natural surroundings. And honestly, I also like to relay on this repertoire to think and work further on new works. 

MD: "Les Rencontres d’Arles" is one of the major international photography festivals and of course you are including photography in your installations, but you are coming from another background. How do you feel in that context?

MH: I never really thought about my work through the lens of photography. So in that context, here in Arles, I’m discovering every day new perspectives, just by seeing people walking through my work, looking at how visitors observe, get in contact with the installation or question it and give direct feedbacks. I relate with the practice of photography with a primary desire of making an image, to create an encounter and to transmit. 

Interview by Marie DuPasquier


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