Interview with artist Anne Duk Hee Jordan: “I love to create these worlds and give so much attention to them.”
Sabine Himmelsbach: Duk Hee, thanks for taking the time for answering some of our questions in the middle of installing your show here at HEK, House of Electronic Arts in Basel. Your exhibition is titled «Anne Duk Hee Jordan: I must alter myself into a life-form which can exist on this planet», claiming boldly that we need to change to make the world a better place for all species. Can you tell us more about your personal approach to developing your topics and works?
Anne Duk Hee Jordan: I thought for quite some time about the title and what would be appropriate. Then I came up with this. I took some inspiration from an old 80’s science fiction movie and from scientist, environmentalist and futurist, James Lovelock. Lovelock is a pretty smart guy who said that we have to find new ways of existing and come together to accept each-other and other forms of life. In a way, to survive we have to become smarter. These ideas were also very much based on Donna Haraway’s theories of making kin and finding symbiosis with other organisms, machines, cyborgs, etc. I don’t know what the future will bring, perhaps new bacteria and forms of life. So, I think we are approaching a future where very much is unknown and we need to think about how we can adapt more symbiotically.
SH: You mentioned ‘making kin’, Donna Haraway’s claim for symbiosis with other species, as well as the title of an installation of yours in this exhibition. Can you tell us more about what the audience should expect when visiting your installations?
ADHJ: This form of installation was like creating a different world. One can encounter new forms of robots I have been developing for many years in collaboration with technical engineer, Paki. I call them Artificial Stupidity, the opposite of artificial intelligence. This brings in the question of what intelligence actually is and how can one measure it. What we understand as intelligence is not necessarily intelligence for other forms of life. So, the audience can expect to engage with these robots and in return the robots will engage with them. What can happen is quite unpredictable. But, with this one installation, Making Kin, there is an artificial pond with a Water Crab in it which is meant to clean rivers and oceans. I came up with this idea many years ago. But, of course, this machine is too stupid to clean the rivers and the oceans, because its legs can’t even touch the surface of the pond, nor can it collect the garbage. It’s basically a story or a metaphor for the stupidity of what we are producing. Time and time again making more waste, throwing it out, producing again, throwing it out again. There is a ‘Sisyphos-Dasein’ or a ‘Sisyphos-ness’ to our actions, referring to this greek myth of rolling a boulder up a hill only to push it down again and start from the beginning.
SH: The stupidity that you are mentioning also comes with a lot of humour and fun. How does play come about in your artistic process?
ADHJ: This comes quite naturally. I can’t help myself. If you’re able to turn around a topic which is very hard and heavy and find the humour, then we are able to touch something within it. I think humour is very important in the time we live in.
SH: We are currently sitting in the exhibition room next to the installation Atmospheres of Breathing, a complex work of yours. Can you explain what it is about and how the audience can interact with it?
ADHJ: There are two screens showing videos that take a microscopic view of the ocean, specifically the adaption of life and water. We all know this planet is called the blue planet because it’s made up of something like 70% water. Essentially, we all come from the ocean. I have been a diver for many years and started when I was 12, first with tanks and later without. They were too heavy for my preference, so I became an apnoea diver, or a free-diver, with minimal equipment. It’s a lot nicer to dive like this and install cameras, because it’s less disturbing to the life down there.
When I developed this work, it was the beginning of the Corona pandemic and it was also when the murder of George Floyd happened. I was very shocked by everything and thought, what the heck is going on? Corona impacts our breathing capacity and with the murder too, the question was raised: who has the right to live and breathe? So, I had the feeling that I needed to make a statement where all of this comes out. In this state of emergency where we feel breathless for many different reasons, this installation proposes working with the 4-7-8-breathing technique. This method calms you down and reduces panic and anxiety. So the machines that you can see here in this installation are all synchronised to the 4-7-8-breathe method. When you sit down and connect with the environment in this installation, your breathing will adapt itself too.
SH: The 4-7-8-breathing technique is also used in yoga, right?
ADHJ: Exactly, yes. And so, you really calm down and forget everything. In a way, you are also quite manipulated to do this because it’s not of your own will, but after a while you start to get into a state of meditation.
SH: You’ve mentioned the microcosmos here in the ocean but also the earth. Can you talk about the processes that you’re using in your videos?
ADHJ: My colleagues always say I have a special eye, like a bionic eye. They always laugh about it because it’s true, I notice the details. I see things most people don’t see, the really tiny things. I’m fascinated by making visible the invisible, so that you can really see into the microcosmos. I want to engage people that by understanding the microcosmos, you understand how the whole ecology works. I have this very special lens that’s able to capture tiny insects and life-forms so that you really think you are an insect walking through the forest. I used this technique for Brakfesten too, which is the film that I made with Pauline. For about two years, with a special lens we filmed and investigated the sex life of bugs, bacteria and the whole circle of life.
SH: Sexuality comes up in your work, although quite subtly in pieces like Clapping Clams, for example. You also recently contributed to the publication Sex Ecology. In which ways do you hope the audience engages in ideas of their own sexuality and what role does your own sexuality play in the development of the works?
ADHJ: I think sexuality has to be seen from different angles. Because, sex does not equal sex, same goes for gender. I was very much interested in the adaption of life in this area. This is also where I started with the piece Ziggy and the Starfish, which is about sexuality in the sea, all forms of sexual reproduction and queerness. For example, sea cucumbers can basically live forever and sea slugs are hermaphrodites. The sea slugs have this penis growing out of their heads and do this penis-fencing dance, whoever gets struck by the penis first is the one who has to deliver the babies. It’s quite a wonderous thing, you think, how can this even be possible? Once you get into these topics, it’s hard to stop investigating – at one point I really wanted to study marine biology. I’m really fascinated by the circle of life and sexuality. When it comes to gender, we really need to get out of this black-and-white way of thinking. Nothing is binary code, there’s so many different layers in-between. It’s important to me, to show and talk about this.
SH: You could say that the title of your show is also a political claim. What role does activism or rebellion take in the conceptualisation and realisation of your work, especially in the Artificial Stupidity series that we already discussed briefly?
ADHJ: I think every person has an opinion or statement or political engagement. Some are more activist, some are less. With my work, I’m not trying to lecture someone. I don’t want to say you have to do this or that, I’m rather trying to create these worlds so that you can make your own opinion and maybe get more engaged in these topics.
SH: What I also find interesting is that you are an artist who really creates these robotic machines and systems like the breathing machines yourself, and you are also sculpturer. How do you develop these blown-up creatures and sculpted materials, can you tell us more about this aspect of your work?
ADHJ: I have a background in sculpture. I studied first in Berlin Weissensee and then I moved to Olafur Eliasson. This ended up being a completely different approach. Sculpture has always been very close to me, I believe the analogue parts are as valuable as the digital parts to understand what we are creating. All these electronics are also like sculptures, the material itself comes from somewhere; it comes from the Earth, it comes from this planet. Batteries are essentially a fossil treasure. We have to understand what we do and what we create. I’m very much drawn to materiality and to surfaces and textures. Sea cucumbers basically shoot out latex when they protect themselves. So, I made the sea cucumbers completely out of latex. I always try to incorporate these personalities or characteristics into the sculptures.
SH: So, last question. You create new worlds in your exhibitions and so there’s a kind of mythology you build in your installations. Do you have a favourite myth?
ADHJ: I like storytelling and mythology. Like the hologram platform from Star Trek, but this isn’t really a myth. I’m also very much into David Lynch’s Dune where he created the sandworm and those spice trucks. In order to survive you have to lean further into those addictions to understand new worlds. I’m still thinking of this film and deciding if was the worst film he’s ever made or if it’s a really good one.
SH: I like the science fiction references because your work is also kind of a fictional world where we are already beyond what we experience today.
ADHJ: Yeah, it’s very important to me. I mean, I love to create these worlds and give so much attention to them. I take a lot of time, really going into the details and once it sits in your cradle, it’s manifested and it becomes a reality. I’ve never actually had a bad experience with this approach.
SH: I have to say, seeing now how the exhibition has come together, that you always create some kind of Gesamtkunstwerk out of the various elements or works that you already created.
ADHJ: I think it’s nice to think in modules, where you can take one element and place it a new piece, shifting things around. I think it’s a more sustainable approach.
SH: Thank you Duk Hee for taking the time during the set-up to speak about your work! The exhibition is open now until the 19th of March 2023, from Wednesday until Sunday, 12:00 – 18:00 at HEK in Basel. More information about the exhibition can be found here.