When I began my job as a curator at the Skirball in summer 2012 I was asked to rethink the exhibition program in the Ruby Gallery, which is not only an exhibition space, but also the most communicative and communal space at the Skirball. I thought that we should find ways to work with these parameters and not against them. When I began to reflect on my own experiences at the Skirball, I remembered that I immediately felt welcome and, to my surprise, I found out that the notion of welcoming is an important part of the Skirball’s mission statement. So it seemed like a perfect first idea—to create a large piece about welcoming as seen through the eyes of insiders and outsiders. By “insiders,” I mean everyone who works here (staff, docents, volunteers) and by “outsiders,” I mean artists that weren’t familiar with the Skirball. I had already worked with Antje Schiffers and Thomas Sprenger a few times before in Germany and knew they would be a perfect fit for such an open yet specific idea. So I contacted them and asked if they could imagine developing a project about the idea of welcoming that includes all the people who work here. They were excited about the idea. Antje and Thomas spent two weeks in residency at the Skirball, interviewing the “insiders,” and then they returned home to process everything they’d learned. The final result is a smile, they said, a mural consisting of wall painting, text, and paintings on wood, now up in the Ruby Gallery through September 1. The exhibition has been up for a few months now, so I felt it was time to catch up with Antje and Thomas, and reflect on the fascinating process that led to this wonderful mural.
Let’s start by talking a bit about the process, about how this project gained shape.
Thinking about the Ruby Gallery, our first impulse was to work with its functions, not to insist on it being just an exhibition space. We knew very quickly that we wanted a big mural. And it was clear that we would include the voices of all the insiders—all the people who work here—in that mural.
We talked to people from the security department and administration as well as to Museum curators, docents, and volunteers. For that purpose we opened a ‘welcoming office,’ which most of the time was a physical office in the Museum department. But it also was a traveling office; we met the kitchen staff in the kitchen, we talked to volunteers in the lobby, we met [Skirball Founding President and CEO] Uri Herscher in his office.
In our little brown book we collected the ideas we were given. Some immediately became drawings which we used to decorate the welcoming office. The little brown book starts with [the biblical] Abraham in his tent welcoming the strangers. It not only includes thoughts about how much guidance and liberty is necessary to feel welcome, but it also includes very different wishes, such as for penguins and unicorns, for reclining chairs and drinks, for waterfalls, tropical birds, and piles of food. Some wanted the mural to be serene and light while others wished it to be vibrant and colorful. Most of our guests had the idea of ‘hugs and smiles.’
You had eighty different people participate in the project. Can you talk about the challenges of consolidating that many distinct voices into one mural?
We did not come into the project with a master plan to synthesize the distinct ideas. One thing we found out pretty soon was that we wanted the work to be more of a kind of setting for the actual welcoming at the Skirball. The Ruby Gallery is very much in the center of the building, there are a lot of ways leading through it. There is a lot of social interaction and physical welcoming happening there; visitors and staff are eating there and often they are smiling. So, we thought that the mural should be the stage for these hugs and smiles.
We tried to condense abstract and more representational ideas into the images. Images that allude to a roof of palm leaves, including concepts of shelter, of nature, and the roof of a sukkah open enough to see the stars—with a certain pop art style, a bit wild and strong. The different parts of the piece also belong to different traditions. For example, the big branch of a tree refers to an oriental ink painting, the food still-lifes come from a European tradition. In doing so, we wanted the diversity of people, countries, religions, and beliefs included in our mural.
The most composed part of the mural is the section with penguins, waterfalls, and chairs. That includes a big variety of ideas. Put together, they might make you smile. We would not have been able to invent this just on our own. One of the components is a garland with fruit and corncobs that we found in a photo we were given of a real sukkah. This photo showed paintings on the wall of the sukkah so we got the idea to include the still-life paintings.
What interested you as artists about this project?
We do not only like to draw from our own minds all the time. We have been working collaboratively for almost fifteen years now, working with different voices, always in dialogue. We did and continue to do barter trades with farmers as well as with strategy consultants. At the Skirball it was the first time to make a mural from a dialogic process. We liked that a lot. We pretended that our welcoming office was a method that was tried and tested, but the truth is that it was an experiment—an experiment that worked well.
Through the process we learned a lot about the idea of welcoming and we came to think about it more profoundly than we could ever have done on our own. In return, we discovered that the issues of welcoming and hospitality are prominent in a lot of our works already.
Collaboration is often a part of your artistic practice. What are the biggest joys and the biggest headaches when you work collaboratively?
The biggest headache: nothing happens. When everything people say and do is too smooth and clean, without any contradictions and differences, without anything personal; when language and ideas are uniform, too corporate. The biggest joy: the collaborations fill our lives with an abundance of experiences. It’s a bit as if we have more than one life to live.