Magazine article Artforum International

1,000 Words: Pawel Althamer Talks about Fairy Tale

Magazine article Artforum International

1,000 Words: Pawel Althamer Talks about Fairy Tale

Article excerpt

At first glance, Pawel Althamer's Fairy Tale, 2006--perhaps the most iconoclastic work in the current Berlin Biennial--is an activist project: the artist leveraging the power of institutions (in this instance, the biennial, with its visibility and prestige) for social change. Entering a run-down former stable in the courtyard of a disused post office, viewers find themselves in a room that's empty except for a single sneaker. On the door is a photocopied text on biennial stationery: a letter from Althamer to Berlin's interior minister, Erhart Korting, pleading with him to grant a residence permit to an eighteen-year-old boy, Besir Oclay. The letter reveals that Oclay, who moved to Germany from Turkey when he was a baby, is being threatened with deportation (just as his younger siblings will be when they turn eighteen and lose the protections due them as minors). Severely depressed, he is under suicide watch at a local hospital.

But Fairy Tale is more subtle and complex than such a results-oriented summary would suggest. In Althamer's work, social collaboration follows from a mode of self-portraiture in which the artist replays, or "corrects," his own experience, often through identification with so-called outsiders. The project is also a performance in real time: As works like The Motion Picture, 2000 (for which he hired actors to perform everyday activities in one of Ljubljana's public squares) attest, Althamer is interested in directing reality, constructing narratives that develop without his knowing their outcome. This impulse is acutely apparent in Fairy Tale, which began as a proposal to find a person who could not legally be part of German society and to change that person's life--to make someone "feel like a princess/prince." The implementation of this proposal proved extremely complicated and fraught with difficulties, a journey more reminiscent of an epic quest like "The Lord of the Rings" than the fast-track magic of "Cinderella."--CLAIRE BISHOP

IN GERMANY, you can't simply be an "immigrant." There are all these different status levels--legal, half-legal, 30 percent legal--craziness! I first came here as a black-market worker. I remember the immigration office--I met a lot of very depressed people. With Fairy Tale, I was hoping to find a person and say, "Come on, let's go, I have money and a flat and a lawyer for you; we can change things."

But I discovered very quickly that although you design the fairy tale, you're also designed by it. We arrived in Berlin on March 14, and on the 15th we visited the immigration office. The idea was for me and my assistant, Matea, to go there with Zdravka Bajovic, the assistant curator of the biennial. We wanted to find a princess--a woman, because females are particularly discriminated against. The first person we found was a beautiful gypsy girl, by herself, very sad. We followed her around the office for more than two hours, thinking of how to bring up the subject, and then she disappeared.

It really was like a fairy tale: How did she disappear? Someone told me there was a little-used door leading to the adjacent building. So we went next door, and we finally found her, but before we'd introduced ourselves two boys came up to her and started talking in Polish! For me it was a sign--okay, that's not the person we're looking for. I'd already decided that the protagonist would not be Polish, because then it would look as if I was helping the person because of our shared nationality, which I would be totally against. …

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