Reto Pulfer in conversation with Martina Sabbadini
This conversation was occasioned by Reto Pulfer’s solo exhibition edrerde (1 July – 11 September 2021) at Hollybush Gardens. Readers can access the conversation as a specially designed map via the following image, or read in full below. The discussion follows the structural logic which influenced Pulfer’s exhibition, with questions and answers unfolding as a tripartite tree diagram: three initial questions are followed by six new questions, two for each original answer, with the potential to expand infinitely. The structure is a simple figure in which one can discern the essence of hyperbolic geometry.
MS: I’ve been reading about the history of hyperbolic geometry. It is so bizarre that after almost two thousand years of attempts to prove the fifth postulate of Euclid from the first four, three different mathematicians in different countries discovered it was impossible, and constructed hyperbolic geometry. One of them, János Bolyai, wrote to his father: ‘When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower.’
This could be a letter in which you describe your work to your father. I imagine it could apply to many artists, but in your case, with your previous installations, performances, languages and science fiction novels in mind, I feel the connection with hyperbolic geometry is particularly fitting. I have the impression that, similarly to the relation of hyperbolic geometry to Euclidean geometry, you attempt to create a universe with its own rules that are as consistent as our universe, but stranger. In any case, can you tell me how your interest in hyperbolic geometry started, and how it has developed? When and how did you decide to give it a central place in these recent works?
RP: On one hand, it started with observing plants in my garden like kale and heirloom salads which have twisted leaves. A leaf of kale has a lot of surface and can actually hide a caterpillar. On the other hand, I think my work has always been hyperbolic as the fabrics I use cannot be pressed into a flat surface. My fabric installations have always taken odd shapes when suspended in air. Hence, in each re-installation, the works become different. I also remember my father, who is a scientist, showing me as a child a hyperbolic roof (a ‘saddle’) in a Swiss landscape park and telling me that its surface is difficult to calculate. Once I became aware of the term and its history, it felt appropriate for my writing practice. At the same time, I started to work with tilings in flat space (Euclidian, not hyperbolic). Sometimes, I wonder whether those are all just problems appearing from our way to think in dimensions. Like Bergson said, we only perceive states because of our inability to fully conceive temporality.
MS: Your tent-like installations invite us to enter into, hide, and rest within them like a caterpillar within a kale leaf. Scientists seem to debate why leaves are hyperbolic: some consider it a geometric consequence of the growth process (which is both necessary and accidental), others argue there are energetic reasons to develop hyperbolic leaves, essentially a strategy to maximise sunlight exposure. Why are your fabric works hyperbolic, do you lean towards a geometric or energetic explanation?
RP: When I sew the fabrics in my studio, I work on the floor, which is flat. I then extend the fabrics in all dimensions; the hanging in the exhibition is usually the first time I install the works. I am tempted to be surprised by the unique unfolding of the works.
MS: Many of your works are subject to temporality, each in constant metamorphosis and changing radically with every new installation. As a son of a scientist and a science fiction writer yourself, you must have fantasised as a child with inventing a time-machine, did you? Can you imagine a machine to fully understand temporality rather than travelling into the past or into the future?
RP: Doesn’t every child build a time-machine out of large cardboard boxes? I think I wanted to be an inventor. The first way to understand temporality is by means of ephemerality, and for me this exists both in exhibitions and in the garden. The second way is to think in parallel worlds, that an artwork can be installed or used differently. The third way is to think in perpetual cycles like the seasons where each cycle is different from the previous.
MS: I see that you are trying to transform this tree into a more complicated structure by referring to perpetual cycles, unstable times and spirals in a separate branch, but I want to keep the hyperbolic geometry of this tree, so I will pretend that those connections are not there.
RP: But doesn’t hyperbolic geometry allow parallel lines to cross, thus making connections that are not there?
MS: I have always been impressed by the way your works feel somehow like large, children’s time-machines and at the same time they achieve a characteristic formal maturity. Do you have any insight on how you manage to achieve both of these at once?
RP: I guess things are always plural. I compose the installations like paintings, they should immediately speak to you. For instance, the tent installation ZR Blechschubladen (2009–2011) was included in a group exhibition on DIY methods and was installed next to a geodesic dome at Stroom Den Hague. It then travelled to an exhibition of paintings and tableaux at Le Magasin, Grenoble; later a mattress was included with a curated video program at Mein Blau, Berlin. Writing on the work, Anselm Franke noted: ‘We cannot look directly, at eye level, at signs and see them signifying. In order to see them signifying one does need that detour.’
MS: For your project hyperbolisch ratlos ortlos inhaltslos (2015–2021) presented on the occasion of the 2021 Liverpool Biennial, textile works are suspended with ribbons and ropes, allowing them to oscillate with the circulation of air and the passage of visitors. For your exhibition, edrerde (2021) at Hollybush Gardens, you covered the exhibition floor with a thick layer of woodchips that makes the ground unstable, implying visitors’ constant reorientation while viewing your paintings. It seems that you don’t want things to be too stable, or that you are looking for a fragile balance; simultaneously, your work feels to me rather strong like a good camping knot. Are these conscious objectives in your work, to find a balance that feels at times fragile and at others robust?
RP: I believe in the instability of things and that all is in constant change. It may sound stupid but looking at the broader scope, our solar system is changing and in the geological timeline human beings are liminal. When I was twenty years old I exhibited Instabile Konstruktion (2001) a sculpture which randomly falls apart through wind, when touching it, or simply by itself. I made it in Indonesia where I experienced an earthquake, a political coup as well as personal instability when travelling and making art while coming of age.
MS: The work that you are describing (Instabile Konstruktion) is almost eponymous of Instabile Konstruktion (Erbsenzaun), produced between 2020 and 2021 for the Liverpool Biennial. If I understand correctly, the new word that you add in parenthesis to the title is a ‘pea fence’, a trellis on which climbing plants like peas can grow. It is interesting that these Instabile Konstruktionen appear in your work in such historically charged years. Did you intend to draw a connection between these two installations?
RP: Technically, the two works are very similar. They are made from elements to create an unstable structure (Gestell) that falls apart. Like a fusible plug in the electric system, there is built in weakness. On the other hand, political and economical systems are unstable, without a fusible plug.
MS: You often work with mnemonics, fictional stories that secretly structure your ever-changing installations and performances. For your recent series of paintings presented at Hollybush Gardens, you used oil, a very classic and reliable medium. However, the final result has a similar fluidity to your previous work. Did you use some version of your mnemonic method to produce these paintings?
RP: There is a painting, for instance, about the Chenopodium (goosefoots) plant family. The work features several elements and motifs which refer to differing meanings of ‘goosefoot’: four leaves (spinach, beet, chard, a weed) are composed in particular goosefeet shapes; a depiction of a goose’s foot (the bird) extends from the centre; quotation marks are also included (known as goosefeet in German). I use mnemonics for the purpose of concentration needed during the actual painting process. Unlike acrylics or watercolours, oil paint gives you a lot of time in the studio and the colours are more intense.
MS: Did the mnemonics become mantras during the painting process?
RP: Yes, they are as they are in performances.
MS: Plants are often the protagonists of your sci-fi novels. In your work they mark the alignment with stars, in others their fibres are woven to create fabrics, or cooked to become pigments for your textile installations. Ipomoea, nettles, chilis, ferns, thymes, tea, madders … plants are chosen for their symbology, properties and characteristics, and they keep growing, adapting and transforming in your works. Could you describe the plants and gardens populating this last series of paintings and tell me a little about them, or why you think they became part of these works?
RP: These are plants I have a personal relationship with because I live with them (as individuals) and see them growing and changing. My knowledge derives from direct observation. For instance, the painting Pentatonic Mallow (2021) merges pentagonal tiling with the five-petaled mallow flower. I grow plants from the mallow family for their health benefiting mucus which is important for softening joints and keeping the body fluid (again sidestepping any stiff stability).
MS: In Pentatonic Mallow, a flower is associated with stars: the structure you have drawn starts from a petal and repeats itself infinitely. This painting reminds me of two installations in which you invite us to look at plants from a cosmological perspective. In Antares-Mulde LS (Star-Rise Alignment) (2017), a group of wild plants and stones marks the alignment with the rising star Antares from the Vassivière Island. In the work Ipomoea baignoirensis (2019), hops grow in a spiral that turns following the movement of the sun while the ipomoea grow in a spiral that turns against the sun. Should we regard the connection between the small and the large, the local and the distant, the living and the non-living, an invitation to put everything, including the artist and the viewer, on the same ontological level? Do you see plants as collaborators in these works?
RP: Thank you, yes the plants are collaborators. My aim is to work with them and see them as individuals with respect rather than beautiful flowers we trash after blooming. Plants are more cosmological than contemporary humans since they feed from sunlight and eat minerals (star debris) from earth. Galaxies are spiral-shaped and those movements I imitated in the performance with hops/ipomoea. However this is not about infinity: even though Antares is very far away, and much larger than our sun, it can still be measured.
MS: In a previous interview, you defined yourself as the gardener of an imaginary garden. You have recently moved your home and studio to a rural region of Germany. How does Reto the imaginary gardener compare to Reto the gardener?
RP: What is a metaphor and what is a practice? Is my garden an artwork, although temporary? Are all gardeners artists by now? I don’t seem to be able to answer these questions I am asking myself.
MS: How do you compare plants to humans as collaborators? They are closer to the stars yet they have lighter egos, however one could also characterise them as more stubborn …
RP: When I look at this dying apple tree I see every day and how each year a small set of new twigs grow from it I wonder if the meaning of life is not life itself.
MS: Can you tell me a bit about Gina, the nettle-creature protagonist of your last book?
RP: Once the book was published people compared it to Donna Haraway’s thinking, of which I was previously unaware. Gina is a post-human-plant-being that adapts to a post-apocalyptic scenario by becoming a new plant species. I worked on the plot in painting, installation, music and writing.
MS: If you ask me, gardeners were always artists, all artworks are temporary, like a practice. Metaphors however, cannot be invented, they just wait to be rediscovered.
RP: I had several discussions with fellow artists who also said they are not the inventors of artworks, rather the work just appears to them as if it already existed. When I work in the garden with plants, I cannot force them to be like this or like that. Rather I learn from them and become an aid to their needs. I can look at the harvest as some reward. Conversely, I also serve them: lettuce is a pretty successful species because of humans! And weeds have adapted to our way of gardening.