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Stories from our Programme

Dust and absence: Claudia Kübler contemplates deep time in the Cradle of Humankind

Claudia Kübler

was an artist in residence at Nirox Foundation in Kromdraai, South Africa from April to June 2021. In this interview she shares insights, experiences and work developed during her residency.

Read more about Claudia’s residency

Artist website

Residencies offer artists time and space for concentration and dedicated work away from the distractions and commitments of normal life. They provide the opportunity to experience a new environment, culture and creative scene and to foster engagement and connects between contexts. “The artist residency confronts you with your own understanding of art and culture,” says Zurich-based artist Claudia Kübler. A temporary “home” away from home, a residency can give new perspectives to what is most familiar. The “foreign sharpens the gaze,” Claudia tells us in this interview about her recent residency at the Nirox Foundation in the Cradle of Humankind outside Johannesburg, South Africa. 

What were your initial impressions of South Africa and the area of Kromdraai where you were based for your residency?

I think I have rarely experienced a country with such drastic contrasts, clearly visible social inequalities and resulting tensions. South Africa’s history, the collective trauma of colonialism and apartheid and a feeling of lurking potential danger were very present. People are in a subtle, but constant state of alert or readiness when they move outside. At the same time, the people we encountered were extremely friendly, helpful and far more relaxed than many other people I met who live in safer conditions. In contrast, the Nirox Foundation in Maropeng, where we lived and worked, was a bubble: beautiful, safe and isolated, it seemed to have little to do with the everyday realities of this country. The nature of this region, which was right on our doorstep and only 45 minutes from the centre of Johannesburg, was extremely impressive. We met giraffes, zebras and antelopes on our walks and heard the jackals barking in the night. Maybe it was just the knowledge of the special significance of this region, but the area seemed soaked in history and there was an amazing peace and vastness in the landscape.

In what ways did your time in the Cradle of Humankind add to and influence your general interest in the phenomenon of time and especially supra-human timescales in your work?

In the laborious and somewhat pointless manual work of crushing stones, I often thought about speed. From a human perspective, the work was slow, inefficient and therefore somewhat questionable (someone once remarked if there wasn’t a machine that would do the job for me quickly!). From a geological perspective, my work was racy – erosion would take decades to achieve the same result.

Maybe it’s just the knowledge of what has been found in this region, but it puts things into perspective, as it so often does when you consider the grand geological scales. The conversations about a specifically South African understanding of time, but also the observation of how people handle, manage and shape time, made it clear to me once more how strongly I am influenced by a Western, linear, progressive and monochronic understanding of time. Time here was, according to my first impression, handled more fluidly and flexibly; understood closer to the periodic, cyclical, closer to a time as it appears in natural processes. Time here seemed also more interpenetrated and interwoven. This was visible to me, for example, in the care, awareness and relationship to the past, to the Ancestors.

The huge desire to set a beginning, to determine the origin, to locate oneself as human beings in time and place, is exemplified in the self-definition of this region as the “cradle of humankind”. But it is, as so often, more complicated and complex. Far across the region, hominin fossils of the same age, or in some cases even older, have been found and it is not always clear to distinguish the human from other species. Donna Haraway’s quote that I read at the Origin Centre in Joburg resonates a lot with me:

“The human story is never finished, neither in the direction of the future, nor of the past… The origin(…)is ever receding, not only because new fossils are found and reconstructed, but also because the origin is precisely what can never really be found; it must remain a virtual point, ever reanimating the desire for the whole.”

In the “Cradle of Humankind”, I also often asked myself the question of what a non-human perspective of the concept of deep time carries. And even though this remains speculative, I am fascinated by the question of what a stone or termite mound’s perception of time would be.

Did you have any encounters with palaeontologists during your residency as hoped for? How did reflecting on our most distant past influence your perception of the present?

No, the multiple contacts came to nothing – my interest in their work seemed bigger than the other way round. But I did discover other leads, which was great. I came across the South African expression “now now” and was fascinated by its ambiguous use and elasticity. I asked various South Africans about the definition and context of the term and each time I got a slightly different answer. Inspired by this, I developed a drawing for a “now now” neon. I think I still haven’t fully understood the term.

I have made this experience in another studio residency as well – you come across the unpredictable, the unexpected. I think that’s part of the magic of travelling – you discover – if you knew exactly what to expect and what would interest you in a place, maybe you wouldn’t need to go there at all.

As for the second part of the question: I believe that in the attempt to perceive deep time processes, on the one hand there is a sensitisation and appreciation for all possible life forms, existences, developments and conditions of this planet. On the other hand, of course, there is a relativisation of the human era (it is only so young!) and above all of our own existence in the face of such aeons of time. One becomes extremely small through these considerations. The danger then perhaps lies in the fact that in the awareness and foreshadow of supra-human timescales, one can lose courage and the drive to act – it might be hard to still find something important, worth fighting for.

The work you created while in residence replicates quasi-geomorphological processes of erosion and seems to engage with themes of temporality and permanence – being lost and found, displaced and located. Can you tell us more about You Are Here and the concept and creation of this work?

Yes, these are exactly the aspects you mention which interest me in the work. The installation You Are Here consists of red sedimentary rock that I found in the “Cradle of Humankind” and ground up by hand. With this stone powder I formed the icon of online maps, which claims “you are here”. The work is conceived of to be ephemeral and cyclical, it is distributed around the space by the visitors movement and reformed by me from time to time. This fragile baseline of the installation questions the claim of “You are here / This is here” and the accompanying longing for (self-)location. The work is heterochronous, the rock refers to and stores an immense past, the icon represents our digital age. Currently, the installation You Are Here is exhibited with the neon Now Now at Helmhaus Zurich, in the installation hic et nunc. Now Now does not mean now, but rather “soon”, it refers to the future, although this “soon” is not precisely defined. So “Here and now” erode, expand.

I was also interested in transferring a symbol of the virtual space into physical space, playing with size and orientation. Observing what it becomes, in the new context.

In classical sculpture production, the use of stone has an old tradition – it guarantees the sculpture a quasi-eternal life. In my work, the stone is chiselled until it becomes ephemeral. Is this an iconoclastic act? Perhaps just an interrogation of duration, presence and absence. From a stratigraphic point of view, any sign, no matter how carved in stone, is ephemeral. In my research I have read that the era of man inscribes itself rather through the pollen of monoculture farming, through the displacement and extinction of species than through urbanism, for example. Dust and absence will remain of us, what fragile witnesses of our era.

What role do you see residencies providing artists for their work and careers?

First and foremost, they allow for a time of concentration and dedication. The sometimes familiar, narrow context of home recedes into the background, making space for the new, the undiscovered. This can lead to new tracks in one’s practice, to new knowledge and sometimes to new friends. The foreign sharpens the gaze. I’m not sure how much you really understand about a country in such a short time, but you certainly return with a different view on your own homeland. That’s perhaps true of all big journeys. The artist residency confronts you with your own understanding of art and culture, expands your network and, in the best case, your horizon.

Please share with us some interesting encounters or experiences you had during your residency either personally or in relation to your work.

Due to the pandemic, the encounters were rather sparse. I greatly appreciated the exchange with the other artists in residence at Nirox and their practices. Seeing how the complex history of the country almost inevitably finds its way into their work. Another good encounter was a geologist, who happened to be passing by. He gave me valuable info about the stone I was grinding and assured me that it was not particularly precious in any way…

Do you imagine any future projects developing out of the research or experience you had during your residency? What do you think the will be the lasting impact of your time in the Cradle of Humankind?

This trip made me realise once again that I cannot travel light-heartedly to a country in the Southern hemisphere. Too often I asked myself: aren’t you just repeating another colonial gesture, isn’t this the same imposing attitude again? At the same time, I find it extremely important to face and deal with global conditions of the now, the past and present that have brought these about. While I did have some knowledge, spending time in South Africa allowed me to understand in a more direct, concrete and raw way how we are implicated. Besides the problematic and sad nature of this, I also see a potential of dialogue and renewal in it.

As far as my artistic work is concerned, I would be interested in further researching and discovering what constitutes this South African understanding of time, and perhaps in a next step, to seek out other understandings of time on the continent. A catalogue of criteria that I found, questionable at least to me, with the characteristics that make us human and distinguish us from all other species, also stuck in my mind.

But maybe it is also these instantaneous, sensual experiences in connection with nature that remain: the calls of the animals, the crazy beautiful light, the peace and vastness that spread inside when we climbed up to the small plateau of the nature reserve.

All photos courtesy Claudia Kübler and David Knuckey unless otherwise stated. 

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