HUO: We were about to talk about Lund and you were telling me about your new project.GM: Yes. I think we might go back to the exhibition which was in the autumn of 2005 at the Cubitt Gallery. The work was entitled ‘Eichmann and the Angel’. On literally the last day of the exhibition, Adam Szymczyk, the director of Basel Kunsthalle, came by and more or less immediately decided to take it over.
HUO: Can you tell me about the show? It had to do with a moveable structure, didn’t it?GM: Yes. Based on a kind of reconstruction of the structure in which Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem in 1961. It wasn’t a copy but we came pretty close. So that was the central item and then we had one wall, the end wall, literally covered with Guardian newspaper, which was stacked. And the third big element was a contraption, a metal rolling system, which is used for rolling anything like boxes of beer or bundles of newspapers. So these are visually the three key elements. On one wall we had a reproduction of Paul Klee’s ‘Angel’.
HUO: ‘Angelus Novus’.GM: Yes, the work that was owned by Walter Benjamin. And it was Walter Benjamin who was at the centre of this whole concept. I felt the need to make a kind of homage to Benjamin and to the thousands and thousands of other intellectuals, writers, musicians, artists, politicians, Jews, exiles from Germany and Austria and wherever in Europe they had to flee from. I had a very strong urge to do that and so Benjamin became the centre for me of this whole concept. And the other key figure is Hannah Arendt, who knew Benjamin and had manuscripts given to her by him and who wrote this major book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which, as you know, started as five articles in The New Yorker . We had a table, a kind of reading area with one or two chairs where we had copied pages from the original publication of her articles in The New Yorker . It’s quite impressive. Nobody has seen these articles except the people at the time of their publication.
HUO: So you had the original issues from that time.GM: We had photocopies of the opening pages of each article. And on the left-hand wall we had three texts starting with New York and then in the middle of the wall Port Bou and towards the end, Jerusalem. So these are the places which are most relevant to the concept: New York, where Hannah Arendt lived, and where she published these articles; Port Bou where Benjamin died; and Jerusalem where Eichmann was tried and eventually killed.
HUO: So it is very much an installation about place.GM: Yes.
HUO: About displacement and place.GM: Yes, yes. And what the aim was, and I think, for me certainly, to interlink these key elements and get as much meaning out of them in interaction and, again, keep referring to Benjamin. A key activity was we asked people to participate by going into what we called ‘the cage’, the structure in which Eichmann was tried. There was a chair in there and they could go in and sit down or stand and that was one interaction that we offered the public. The other was we invited people to take sheets of newspaper, put them on the roller and let them roll along. The roller itself made a sort of humming noise, which to us was the noise of the carriages taking Jews to the concentration camps.
HUO: And that happened…GM: Continuously. The rollers were always on; when there were visitors to the gallery they would be rolling. As the papers rolled along they would fall off and end up underneath the Klee image and there we would be building up a chaotic pile. At the end of the gallery you had relatively ordered Guardians and after they have travelled on the metal they would be opened up.
HUO: So it is order and disorder.GM: Yes, yes. These are some aspects.
HUO: So this big installation, which was in Cubitt and then in Basel, happened after your retrospective in Vienna.GM: Oh, yes, indeed. These were new works. The invitation came from the then curator, David Bussell, then I had a letter in late spring to do something for the autumn, and we had wonderful collaboration with him and with his gallery manager, Charlotte Nourse. So this Cubitt work went to Basel Kunsthalle, where it would be part of a three-person exhibition. There was a young Palestinian photographer, Ahlam Shibli, and a young ex-Cuban artist, Diango Hernández, and we shared the whole building. But as we started planning the exhibition I was told there were two more rooms free for me to use, adjacent to the room that was suitable for the ‘Eichmann and the Angel’. I had a very short time to come up with an idea and I thought I would never make it. One of these rooms is, as you know, very, very big; it is on the ground floor, the end room, with top light; it is enormous. I started designing something and the design is based on a kind of Kleenex box and I realised that this could be enlarged six times and we would end up with a very powerful form which connects with the Eisenmann work in Berlin; these linked in different ways with Eisenmann.
HUO: It’s a blow-up basically.GM: Yes. And they ended up 1 metre 85 cm. I went there and started working on this show for a few days and one young assistant was asked on the second day I was there to enlarge this original, which she did within a few hours and it was absolutely amazing. It was a perfect form and in cardboard and the cardboard was ribbed, which reminded me of the Rillen (grooves) in the Nazi architecture; the quality of the cardboard which she had used reminded me immediately of the architecture of the Nazi period.
HUO: That was one of these incredible analogies, as with your ‘Styropor Après Paolozzi’ piece, an analogy from a found architecture. GM: I was completely knocked out and so we decided that this was what we were going to do: we would fill these two rooms with these structures.
HUO: So it went from London to Basel. What is the link to Lund?GM: A man you perhaps know called Pontus Kyander, who lives in Lund. He is Finnish, and for two years had asked me to work on an exhibition, which I was very reluctant to do. He used a bit of me in a BBC television film and then wanted to arrange an exhibition of my work and young artists who in some way might relate to me. Eventually we agreed that there would be a one-man show in the Lunds Konsthall. So that is how it came about. Pontus came to the opening in Basel by which time we had agreed to make an exhibition. I think he had already seen the ‘Angel’ at the show in London and wanted it for this exhibition. When he came to Basel and he saw the other work with the 110 cardboard pieces, he said: ‘We’ll have that as well in Lund.’
HUO: I heard you are also working on a realisation of your unrealised documenta  car. GM: That is now in Lund. Yes. He managed to do that.
HUO: In our last interview you mentioned that as your big unrealised project. It was a project for Harold Szeemann, where basically the car was to be an anti-car monument.GM: Yes, it was actually made. I don’t know if you know the Lunds Konsthall?
HUO: Yes.GM: You do. In the middle there is an open space; in there they built—I didn’t do anything, that was all done before I arrived – they built a three metre cube of metal pieces and just managed to put four cars at the corner and once an hour, I believe, there is an automatic starter which starts the motor running for one minute. So it has actually been realised.
HUO: So the motor creates pollution?GM: It creates pollution but it is so minimal for one minute that it escapes at the top; there are holes at the top and it escapes. They have discussed it with the health authorities and they have agreed on that, there is no problem. The people are usually out in the gallery watching through the glass walls.
HUO: So the cube becomes a smoking booth.GM: Yes. It pumps the fumes slowly, though of course in documenta it would have been running all day, that was the idea. So bit by bit works are being realised. Do you know a German critic Eva Scharrer?
HUO: Yes, absolutely.GM: She came to the private view in Basel and we more or less by chance happened to sit next to each other at the dinner. There is always a big dinner at these events. [laughs] Then I came back to London and soon after I had a letter from her which said the day after the private view she was invited to be co-curator for the Sharjah Biennal, which she has become… So she got this letter and wrote that she immediately thought of putting on in the Biennal either the documenta piece or the 120-car piece. Well, we have since been in communication and she came to the private view at Lund. We have decided that we will do everything possible to do the 120 cars in the Biennal, if only for one day.
HUO: How would this function with the 120 cars? Can you describe it?GM: Well, we would have as a structure this shape which would be big enough for 30 cars on each side. The structure would be basically metal rods or, as I now favour, pneumatic rods, rods where air is pumped in because it is not a very heavy structure. Having got a structure we cover it with transparent plastic. I would be satisfied—it’s all a question of getting permission. If we don’t get permission to pump 120 cars into the structure I would be quite happy if we build it and photographed it from the air with a helicopter. It would make amazing images. So that is the most important project that I am working on now.
HUO: A grand-scale project.GM: Yes, trying to realise that with her and with all the people involved with the show at Sharjah.
HUO: The unrealised works you told me about in the last interview are becoming realised. Are there still unrealised works? Are there still big projects for the future?GM: [laughs] There are two projects which I am also working on and that all connects with Basel. I went to Basel twice and the director said: ‘Every so often we change the rear wall.’ At the moment, as you probably know, on that wall which is 37.5 metres long and five and a half metres high. He said we are going to take these off and we want you to make a proposal to fill that wall. So again I went back to London, started designing that wall and submitted a proposal. That was all done at great speed. My proposal, which has been accepted by Basel Kunsthalle, is to use refrigerators and put them on that wall. The refrigerators are to indicate the loss of the ozone layer through the chemicals that are expelled from the refrigerators.
HUO: So it’s a chemicals focus, basically.GM: Yes, the chemicals that are taken out or not taken out. The project is fairly simple and in fact I emphasised it should be simple because I want quite young people to somehow enter this idea without too great a difficulty. So we have five…
GM: The design goes like this: we start on the left side of the wall with one line of refrigerators; we have three or four refrigerators which will be fixed on the wall above or below each other like this and they would be at an angle.
HUO: They are slanted.GM: They are slanted, yes. Then more or less five metres further along we have two lines of refrigerators and so we have then three, four, we end up with five sets of refrigerators next to each other and below each other. And then on top of the first, next to the first line of refrigerators, we have a disc made of reflective metal to indicate the sun, the sun’s heat/intensity changes and at each step the sun comes down, down, down, until in the last set of refrigerators it is down at the level of the bottom of the refrigerators. The idea is again the changing relationship of ourselves to the sun. What we are talking about is that the more refrigerators we use, the more chemicals, the more the sun changes in relation to earth. That is the principle.
HUO: Very interesting. So that will be realised this year.
GM: It is intended to be realised. We are certainly working towards that this year.
HUO: There is a direct link from Schwitters to your early cardboard sculptures.
HUO: And even now if one thinks about your work, there is often a Schwitters link. We never spoke about why Schwitters is important and if the Merzbau (Merz Building) was important for you. The idea of the Merzbau as a shrine of friendship.GM: Frankly, I have been far more interested in his collages. I have never seen the Merzbau in the north of England. I should have seen it by now. I have only seen reproductions of the earlier one that was destroyed. But it is his art work. Dada and Surrealism and Constructivism and Futurism—all the ‘isms’—are elements I came onto when I was very, very young, especially when I came to London. I would have been 19, so I immediately started going round the art bookshops in Charing Cross Road and started actually buying books, although you could imagine there was very little money, but you could buy Wyndham Lewis publications for one shilling. Zwemmers had a cellar with hundreds of Wyndham Lewis which were beginning to—not rot—but dampness came into them, so they sold them for a shilling.
HUO: So Wyndham Lewis was an influence on you also.GM: Oh yes. Certainly, I had these publications. It’s an ‘ism’—isn’t it, Vorticism, you see, any ‘ism’. Bauhaus, avant garde, and this was the starting point, and Schwitters would be mixed in. He would always turn up in Constructivism.
HUO: What interested you about Wyndham Lewis? Was it the idea of the manifesto? It was a moment when artists were producing manifestos of some kind.GM: Certainly manifesto, yes, the Vorticist manifesto. What we need to remember there is that Bomberg, who became my teacher in the autumn of 1945, a few months after I came to study in London, knew Wyndham Lewis and he would tell us stories. Wyndham Lewis, he would tell us, was a bit of an anti-Semite, so was Gautier Pucheska in particular, and there was a real fight between Gautier and Bomberg, actually physical at some time, some kind of fight, and that is one reason for my interest. Bomberg himself had been avant garde. He was, at a very early age, a leading figure in the British avant garde and of course he remained interested in all that. So there was a direct link between the pre- and post-WWI through Bomberg.
HUO: It was the neo-avant garde, which you were, in relation to the avant garde in some kind of way; Buchloh talks about the neo-avant garde.GM: Can I just quickly come back to Bomberg? Bomberg would tell us stories of these people and he would particularly tell us stories how Wyndham Lewis wanted him to sign the Vorticist Manifesto and Bomberg refused. He said again, he tended to repeat these stories, he didn’t want to be fixed to this and that. He was always on the edge.
HUO: The teaching of Bomberg was also a certain scepticism about the movements.
GM: That’s right.
HUO: That was my next question. The early 20th century avant garde has also been the avant garde related to utopias and I think your generation had a very different relationship to utopias than somebody might have had in the twenties. I am curious, because you participated in Utopia Station, if you could talk a little bit about your relationship to utopia.GM: As you know, I wanted to become an actual revolutionary at the age of 18. I seriously considered it from the age of 17 and, well, that’s utopia, isn’t it? Rightly or wrongly, as we know looking back on it, that was definitely utopia. Change the world, yes?
HUO: A kind of anarchist utopia?GM: I was more communist, and Lenin, I think, was the key figure for me. At that time I would be communist revolutionary rather than an anarchist revolutionary. I lived in a community in Bristol where you had Trotskyists and anarchists, who were close to communists. That was in 1944 for six or seven months and it was there that I realised that that utopia wasn’t for me and then I chose the way of art and sculpture. It was a clear decision. I had to make a choice and in the late summer I made that choice. But for me art would be a continuation of the political ideals that I had between the ages of 16, 17 and 18. It wasn’t that I abandoned the idea of change. I would change the world, change art; I would work in art to make changes of some kind.
HUO: How would you define utopia now? Ernst Bloch, when he was pushed against the wall by Adorno to define utopia, said: ‘Something is missing’. The whole notion of ‘something is missing’ as a definition of utopia. What would be your definition of utopia? GM: I will be quite frank with you. It’s not a concept that I am concerned with. I am concerned with the ongoing discussion. I read a fair amount, not so much books now, but papers and listening to discussions on the radio where these subjects come up again and again on the Third Programme [Radio 3]. On Night Waves, for example, you get this again and again on art and politics, so I follow the discussion. I am very, very interested. But for me utopia is a fremd [foreign] word; it is not a word that is for me in common usage and I am quite frankly suspicious of its use. We have been knocked on the head so many times now. I am now repeating the ongoing discussion but the ongoing discussions have a basis, haven’t they? They are not purely in the wind. We have been disillusioned; we have gone the wrong way; we have followed paths that didn’t go anywhere and so we have had our fingers burnt in relation to utopia and I have had my fingers burnt. I try not to use it, actually. I had a lot of hesitation before taking part in the Venice Biennale Utopia Project for these reasons.
HUO: Maybe you can tell me about the image you submitted because it was actually an exhibition from 2003. It was a sort of a destroyed archive; it was part of the 100,000-newspaper installation, wasn’t it? It went to Lyon afterwards, also. GM: That’s right. The image actually does, you know, in the most weird way, relate to utopia because you have chaos and if you had been in that installation the chaos was far greater than what you see here. There were piles of things disintegrating within the installation, newspaper almost turning to dust and…
***ST enters the room.HUO: Gustav was about to explain this image.GM: Yes, that’s right. So it’s this twisting form, which to me relates to utopia, this turning in on itself and going up into the future, so it’s like a finger pointing into the future. This is the most amazing photograph but it was an extraordinary set-up. You have probably seen this.
HUO: Of course the show was A Hundred Thousand Newspapers, wasn’t it? GM: Yes. We didn’t have that many but we had at least ten thousand.
HUO: But you have many newspapers at your house.
GM: I have thousands and I still buy them but haven’t bought so many this last two years as before because I did buy a lot. S: Where are they in your house?GM: In the ground floor, which is a concrete floor, and they are paved with their own girders, but the newspapers are all over the place. There are two floors above and there are newspapers everywhere.
HUO: But it’s not a piece, it’s your own archive.GM: Well, it could be seen as an archive.
S: It’s becoming a piece.GM: It’s an accumulation. One day I might exhibit it, yes.
S: Great! In your house?GM: Don’t say my house; I am inhabiting a building which belongs to Hackney Town Hall.
HUO: It’s interesting, the notion of a packed city. You made this piece called ‘Power to the People’ in 2003. Can you tell us about that?
GM: Yes, well that was quite an extraordinary event. The war was declared.
HUO: In Iraq.GM: Yes. And I was in the city… in the Strand… Coming towards me from the east were young people almost marching and I thought, ‘What is going on?’ They said, ‘We are going to a demo.’ They had left school and they were going to this demo. I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a few more things to do then I’ll go and look at it.’ So I did, and between 12 and one I was there, and I was so amazed by what I saw. Hundreds of these young people. Then I went back the next day and I saw it again. On the next day there was a turning point which led into the vigil, which was that young people rushed into the street… and occupied [bits of] the street… Exactly opposite where they were occupying, was the Ministry of Defence, where in 1961 Bertrand Russell, with the Committee of One Hundred, including myself, made the first sit-down… So this juxtaposition was for me unbelievable. That we had been there on a similar issue, against war, in February 1961… Then… a woman of about 30 came with a megaphone and she began to chant. She chanted, ‘Power to the people’. All the people sitting there said, ‘Power to the people.’ And she chanted, ‘The people have the power. The people have the power. Power. Power. Power.’ And this went on for about 20 minutes or more and it was an unbelievable experience. I was so moved.
HUO: I think that’s more or less what I wanted to ask you. It’s a fantastic new chapter in our evolutive interview, and then we will definitely continue in July and now that we are in the same city I hope the frequency of our meeting will increase. It would be nice.GM: I hope so. If you want a good Indian restaurant then I recommend in Denman Street, Chowki; it’s a good-looking restaurant and it’s very reasonable. If you go there, especially in the afternoon, it is almost completely empty and they serve all day, so a place to meet for a quiet talk, try that.
HUO: So we are going to try to do our next interview there.GM: Let’s do that. Let’s meet there.
HUO: Fantastic. Thank you very much, Gustav.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director, exhibitions and programmes, and director of international projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London