Rory MacLean meets Gloria Zein
Zein’s background is in both architecture and fine art. She was born in Hannover, trained in Darmstadt, Vienna and Paris (where she lived for nine years) and holds a Fine Art MA from the Chelsea College of Art and Design. Last year her sculpture TH.I.W.H. (This is What Happened) – which was inspired by the dark history of the Chelsea college site - was co-winner of the prestigious Cass Prize for emerging artists.
‘In architecture one creates a building which meets certain functional criteria,’ Zein told me when we met at her studio atop Funkhaus Berlin, a vast artists’ colony inside East Germany’s former radio headquarters. ‘The architect asks many questions of course but, after a time, he or she must stop and build the building. I find that I never finish asking the questions.’
‘While I was studying architecture, I made things which didn’t fit - performances, installations, videos – and which questioned the architect’s role,’ she explained. ‘After university, I created my first major project by asking fifty men to send me a published image of a woman who they found particularly attractive, beautiful or desirable. I then re-enacted those images – inserting myself in them - and asked the men for their reactions.’
According to the NY Arts Magazine, her work Vorspiel(e) staked out ‘the public and private space of fantasy in the male imagination through a distinct “advertisement” from the male mind.’
After this phase of appropriation, Zein moved on to develop her own unique visual language in both sculpture and installations, while maintaining a focus on dialogue and process. She dreamed up philosophers’ beds/bedding philosophers, a series of objects which evolved from talking to philosophers about reality, dreams and belonging. Zein created a bed for each philospher, based on their discussions, and then toured those beds from Berlin to Connecticut and Tehran. Jean Luc Nancy’s bed for example was a neat rectangle of soil covered by a transparent hemisphere engraved with asterisks. Christian Ruby’s bed was a multicoloured Perspex model for an open pavilion. Iranian Simon Farid O’Liai’s bed was a woven black mesh of cable and electric wires.
Zein also created The Breathing Project, a radio programme which invited listeners to imagine themselves walking through a city at night, listening to the buildings softly breathing. Variations of this imaginative, hugely enjoyable work were broadcast in places as far apart as Madrid, Antwerp and New York.
‘My work is often created with the viewer in mind,’ she confirmed. ‘I think about how people will move around, or through, my pieces. Motion is important to me, as is the viewer’s changing perspective. This relates to my scepticism of the “factual” world. What does it mean to know an object, an image or a person? Every individual viewpoint is unique. Hence my interest in night, in sleep, in the subconscious; in the times and places where we are less in control, perhaps more open to unusual ideas of reality and comprehension.’
Zein is enthusiastic about the Goethe-Institut London commission, for which she was given complete creative freedom. Her three-part intervention will involve large parts of the building, responding to its architecture as well as to the Institut’s structure and identity.
The first part will be in the main stairway which connects the different departments to the outside world. A painted mural will rise in the stairwell, its bold colours determined by a nine-sided dice, linking the nine institutes of the North-Western Europe region to their regional headquarters in London. Viewers will ‘complete’ the work as they climb the stairs, as if into a sculpture, in keeping with the traditional ceremonial ‘walk up’ to the bel-étage.
On the rear terrace Zein’s second creation will be a pair of flowing sculptures, drawing attention to the cultural and promotional work which flows out of the Institut's building. The third element - inspired by interviews with 30 of the Institut’s staff members - will be a series of miniature sculptures at different work stations, some of which will be in public areas.
‘My intention was to create something specific for the place, and especially for the people who work in or use the building. It’s an experiment at infiltrating the Institut’s everyday life with my own artistic world. The aim is to contrive an environment of sensuous alertness, one that dramatises the building to the point where the visitor becomes a performer.’
Today Zein is at home in both Berlin and London. ‘I love London, especially on a bicycle,’ she said. ‘I love its speed and density, and the shift of architectural styles from terraced houses to high-rises. London has had an impact on my visual language. Berlin on the other hand is like a big village, but the facilities and working space is luxurious in comparison.’