‘I always wanted to listen to what the Earth has to tell me’
This interview was conducted by Ulrike Dörner and Michaela Kischning from the “Kulturnetzwerk Neukölln e.V.” (cultural network Neukölln) in autumn of 2010.
Li Koelan was born in the Netherlands. She studied painting and sculpture at the University of Fine Arts St. Joost in Breda from 1981 till 1986.
Li Koelan lived and worked nine years in Antwerp and since 1999 she has considered Berlin more or less her “home”. She says about herself: “My life is a page in an immensely huge book. I just cannot stop reading, or rather, deciphering this page. Although I know each letter by now, the sentences are still like fragile threads in an inaccessible woven fabric.”
She tries to bring this chaos into a form and her profession as an artist plays a main part in this. In the end, Li Koelan often makes her works and projects part of a more specific collection.
She runs the small gallery “Kunstraum Art-Uhr” in the Weichselstraße 52 in Neukölln (which has become the Erdemuseum in 2015).
Li Koelan, apart from the fact that you are a Dutchwoman yourself, who has lived mainly in Berlin for nine years now, your project “The Earth is indivisible” has a lot to do with integration. Before we start talking about the project itself, let me ask you: What is it like for you to live in Berlin with a migratory background and what do you understand by the word “integration”?
Li Koelan: My migration started in 1982. I studied at the Academy of Arts in the Netherlands and had an exhibition in Berlin. After a short time I already had the feeling: “Wow, that’s where I live! That’s where I feel at home!” Paradoxically, this had a lot to do with the war, because my family had kept talking a lot about war and I had always been interested in it. Here in Berlin it was very definite: that was no longer a movie or a book – the bullet holes in the walls were plain reality. The war was still to be seen, it frightened me, but at the same time, it gave me the feeling that I belong here. It had taken me quite a while, then, till I actually moved to Berlin. In the Netherlands I also studied sculpture and my final project was about the Berlin Wall. My former professor already told me back then: “Li, the Wall is going to fall!” I returned: “That is never going to happen!”, and three years later it was gone. I finally moved to Berlin in 1999 and my first impression was that the Berliners behaved quite cheeky. It was a contrast to the Netherlands, and at first I was not quite sure if I was really going to like it here. I had a lot of problems with that kind of behavior. Now, I have got used to it and I can react. I have noticed that there is a great difference between just visiting Berlin or living here.
Speaking about differences: You have developed a project called “Haar” (hair) and you had a lot of trouble with it here. What kind of problems did you have?
Li Koelan: I exhibited the project at various places including Antwerp and Brussels. It was an interesting project because it was not just about hair but about its concept. Of course, I wanted to exhibit the project also in Berlin but I never intended to establish a connection to war with it. I only got aware of it here in Berlin and it was quite a shock to me. In the Netherlands the word “hair” is connected to femininity and that was the main guideline within my project. “The hair in my hands” or “to tear the hair of oneself” (which is a common metaphor for “to be very worried or upset”), that was a very personal matter, something that had to do with myself. I showed the exhibition to some curators in Berlin and they rejected it with the words “this has nothing to do with arts at all!” I discussed with various art historians about it, one of which a Jewish curator, who claimed this to be the best exhibition she had ever seen. That surprised me but also made me happy. When I had
rented the rooms here in the Weichselstraße, I wanted to see the reactions on the exhibition. I exhibited “Haar” and I received only positive resonance, also in the press.
We have strayed a bit from the topic, so let us get back to the question: What do you understand by “integration”?
Li Koelan: Well, I have looked it up at Wikipedia before the interview, because that term causes a lot of confusion. The original Greek term “integer” is the most important part of “integration” to me. That means “unaffected”, “pure”, “unspoiled” but also “honest”. In Latin it becomes “integro” which means “restoration”. So something happened to this word. I prefer the Greek meaning, because it is more sovereign. Surely, it has to do with me being an artist, so to me it means being connected to everything and being merged to a whole. So, not to restore because it is all there already. To sum it up: “The Earth is indivisible”. And this Earth is what we have in common and it is in principle our connection. That is why I designed the project “The Earth is indivisible” and it subsists on the “Earth Carriers”.
That brings us directly to the next question: Can you give us a short description of the project “The Earth is indivisible” and tell what you have experienced with it during the last two years?
Li Koelan: I have a very deep connection to Earth myself. That is to be understood first. When I was a child, I already laid my ear on the Earth to listen to what the Earth had to tell me. My grandparents were farmers, maybe that is also a reason for my connection to the Earth. And then, in 2008 the motto of 48 hours Neukölln (an annual arts festivals which takes place in many showrooms, galleries, coffee bars and other places all over the district Neukölln for two days in summer) was “Humus”. Then, with Neukölln being home to people from so many different nations I came up with the idea to collect earth from all those nations. First I asked in the office of statistics how many nations were represented in Neukölln. There, they were very cooperative. Not did I only receive the information that there were people from circa 160 countries living in Neukölln, but also how many people originated from each country. Okay, but how to get the earth? I contacted migrants’ associations and sent letters to the ambassadors explaining them my idea of collecting and exhibiting earth from all those countries, telling them how many people represent their country in Neukölln and that I searched for so-called “Earth Carriers”. To say it precisely: I wanted to exhibit jars with the earth brought by people from visits to their home countries. In addition to that I asked them to bring a daily newspaper. The first reaction came from the embassy of Estonia: They found the idea lovely. But I had sent the letters in March and so they kindly asked for postponement, since the earth in Estonia is frozen in March. They would be pleased to send earth in summer. As time passed I panicked more and more because the date of the art festival (48 hours Neukölln) was set and I wanted to show at least 20 or 30 jars of earth. I also contacted the Goethe Institutes and I got a great resonance from them because the directors of those institutes travel a lot, or visit Berlin. There were Goethe Institutes from Mali and Jakarta among those who responded. When the exhibition opened I had 33 jars of earth and many newspapers as well. For the installation I had two big racks built that contained around 160 slots, so that you could see which countries where still missing. I placed the 33 jars of earth into the racks, and in addition I placed little plates on a table, on each of which there was a spoon with earth, to point out how different the various soils are. Among the visitors there were many members of the institutes who then saw immediately from which countries there was still no earth. In a nutshell: The reactions were overwhelming and I am still sent earth to complete the exhibition.
Which aspect of this action was and is especially important to you?
Li Koelan: To feel the connection to Earth and that everyone feels the connection back. That the Earth is the mother and life energy of us all, this is important to me. And also, that you don’t have to explain a thing like that much. And with all these jars near me, I get something like a desire for other countries. Through this earth I establish a very special relation to the people of those countries. For that reason it is one of my favorite projects, too.
Final question: The Netherlands are in a similar situation as we are, there is also a public swing to the right. a Dutchwoman, how do you see the recent debate about integration in our country?
Li Koelan: Surely, they are trying a lot in many ways which to recognize is very important. In the Netherlands, too, with Mr. Wilders, I think we all can’t imagine just how extreme right-wing he is. It is unbelievable! You can’t just limit it to Neukölln, or Berlin. It appears to me that many European countries are confronted with the same problem. I think those are the last cramps of a system that is going to break down. It goes along with the financial crisis, the whole system is collapsing. Anyway, we have to find a way to deal with it responsibly and also find alternatives. I, myself, try to invest as little energy as possible in that ancient system, but gather strength for new ways.
That was a powerful final sentence and we thank you very much for the interview.