The Hug Move

Käthe Kollwitz, ›Die Mütter‹, sheet 6 from the series ›Krieg‹, 1921/1922 © Käthe Kollwitz

Artist Isaac Chong Wai in conversation about his new performance that will premiere at Klosterruine during Berlin Art Week.

Isaac Chong Wai is known for his conceptual, political, and poetically performative practice, and during Berlin Art Week 2022 the Berlin- and Hong Kong-based artist will debut a performance based on and in homage to ›Die Mütter‹ (›the mothers‹), a woodcut by Käthe Kollwitz. The original piece, created in 1921—22, shows a group of women huddled together and is part of a series titled ›Krieg‹ (›war‹), which was published as a portfolio with seven woodcuts in 1923 and focuses on those left behind during and after World War I: mothers, widows, and children. This year, Chong Wai translated Kollwitz’s historic work into a moving choreography—first in a video and now in a live performance, also titled ›Die Mütter‹. Here, he speaks about why Kollwitz’s woodcut captured his interest, how he transformed it into a performance, and the significance of the location where it will debut: Berlin’s iconic Klosterruine.

You recently developed the video and performance ›Die Mütter‹ based on Käthe Kollwitz’s woodcut of the same name. Can you briefly introduce this project and how it came about?

The whole thing started as part of the exhibition ›Spheres of Interest*‹, curated by Inka Gressel and Susanne Weiß at ifa-Galerie Berlin, who invited the participating artists to make new works in response to the ifa’s [the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen] collection. Some artists selected a specific artwork. Some selected a catalogue. My focus was on Käthe Kollwitz because I’d done several works that connected to her before. For example, in 2015 at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin, I showed a work called ›Neue Wache‹ [›the new guard‹] in the building of the same name. In the video, I was using my breath to cover the image of Neue Wache in the window. And inside there was the sculpture ›Mutter mit totem Sohn‹ [1937—38; ›mother with dead son‹] by Käthe Kollwitz. That was the very first connection I had with Kollwitz. And when I looked into the ifa collection, I was very caught by ›Die Mütter‹. I was so captivated by the work—the expression, the emotion, all these things. I was also thinking, »This looks so much like a performance, like a choreography.« So, I decided to produce a new work, which first came out as a two-channel video piece, now on view at ifa-Galerie Berlin, and secondly as a performance.

Why did you decide to make a video and performance?
I made a video installation in which two screens are installed back to back. And, the two video screens show the front and back of the group hug respectively in loop. In the performance, the work gets closer to the audience and interacts with the space with larger choreography. When developing both works, I was focused on the choreography of a big group hug, because in ›Die Mütter‹, the figures are posed in a kind of a group hug. It’s a group of mothers, hugging together, creating a kind of shelter. There are also some children in the print that are hugging. I wanted to make the hug move. So, in my work, the group hug is constantly moving while everyone is also singing.

Performance: Die Mütter, Isaac Chong Wai, Courtesy by the artist

What are the performers singing? How did you select the songs to be sung?

I worked with the musician Dagmar Aigner, who has been working with mourners in a singing group in Munich for over ten years. She directed all of the music, and the music includes different things—some songs are really dedicated to mourning, and some are more like chanting. There are sometimes just melodies without lyrics, and sometimes they are improvised. We also asked the performers if there were songs they’d like to contribute, and one African American singer, Zaki Hagins, suggested the song ›Deep River‹, which is a very famous gospel mourning song. There are also songs like the mantra ›Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu‹ in Sanskrit and ›Ruhn in Frieden alle Seelen‹ by Franz Schubert. So, there are different songs, but we never really sing a full song: we always pick certain fragments. I also tend to avoid religious contexts, so I’m choosing words which are not directly connected to religions. For example, ›Deep River‹ is a gospel song, but when we sing it, we skip the part talking about the Jordan in the lyrics.

You say that you try to avoid religious contexts, but the performance will take place in the Klosterruine, which was a monastery. So how do you think about this history in relation to the work and your avoidance of religious contexts?

I made sure it wasn’t performed only at Klosterruine; the performance will also be traveling to different locations. At the same time, though, you’re right: of course, there is a religious presence; it is a broken church. But during the Second World War, it got bombed, and when I was talking to people there, they said the space also represents the birth of Berlin. When it comes to ›Die Mütter‹, as well as destruction and mourning, I think a lot about birth and death, so that’s why I think Klosterruine is a very interesting space. To be honest, I don’t think I would do it in a normal chapel, but Klosterruine is very special. It isn’t only religious; it is important and significant to the heritage of Berlin.

Isaac Chong Wai feat. Käthe Kollwitz ›Die Mütter‹
15 and 16 SEP 5—7 pm

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