Olafur Eliasson & Sammy BalojiThe art of creating new realities

Published in November 2015icon-clockTime to read: 4m45s
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Sammy Baloji’s mentoring year consisted of a series of short but intense encounters with Olafur Eliasson, mainly in Berlin, where Eliasson has his studio. The mentor declared from the start that he too wanted to learn from the process and the pair collaborated without a fixed plan, quickly building a strong rapport, combining intellectual discussion with clear advice for Baloji to develop his creativity across a spectrum of artistic media. Eliasson, known worldwide for his inventive art installations, was the ideal mentor to work with Baloji at a crucial point in the protégé’s artistic path, as he was creating his first installation for exhibition at the Venice Art Biennale.

by Stephen Moss November 2015
  • Olafur Eliasson
    The Mentor
  • Sammy Baloji
    The Protégé

Photographer and film-maker Sammy Baloji, whose stunning photomontages illuminate the past and present of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, takes a leap into installation art and brings his unique perspective with him, inspired and supported by his mentor, renowned Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson.

It is a Saturday morning in late February, at an artist's studio 10 km from Marrakech. All is peaceful; the pack of wild dogs whose howls punctuated the previous night are sleeping; the only sound is birdsong. Until the hammering begins.

The sound of mallets on copper plate means that Congolese artist Sammy Baloji is constructing his latest project. In the atelier of his friend, artist Eric van Hove, a group of Moroccan craftsmen under Baloji's supervision are fashioning a replica of the dome of a church in the Belgian city of Liège. Rarely have so many artistic tributaries converged on this Moroccan plain.

Baloji was born in 1978 in Lubumbashi, the biggest city in the mining province of Katanga in the south-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He now lives in Brussels, but his artistic heart and soul remain in the DRC. Congolese life, history and politics underpin all his work, including his dome — the exhibit he was making for the Central Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

He established himself with a series of collages juxtaposing photographs of labourers in Katanga at the turn of the 20th century, enchained (often literally) by their Belgian masters, with recent photographs of the province's decayed industrial landscape. “I felt the story of the colonial period hadn't been told.” he explained at our first meeting in Brussels in December 2014. “It was never taught in our schools. Even now you can find people in Katanga who will say the colonial period was better than the present. When I saw the archive pictures, with workers in chains, they shocked me.”

What had happened?

His photomontages are, though, as much about the present as the past. “Looking at the city in 2004, the country had been almost destroyed.” he said, “and I was asking myself why. We were independent, we were rich in minerals, what had happened?

“We could say it was the fault of Belgium, but they hadn't been there since 1960. What had we been doing since then? I was trying to show the two systems side by side. Under the Belgians there were masters and slaves, but maybe it was still the same. There are politicians and the population, and the population are slaves. Nothing has changed. You have corruption and foreign corporations that make their own rules.”

In December, Baloji was halfway through his stint as a protégé of Olafur Eliasson, the celebrated Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist. Eliasson's mentoring came at a critical moment for Baloji. He had completed the series of collages that established him as an artist. He was dividing his time between Lubumbashi and Belgium, where in 2010 he had taken a residency at Tervuren's Royal Museum for Central Africa. He now had a partner in Brussels, drawing him closer to his adopted country. Above all, he was facing the question: “What next?”

Critical juncture

Eliasson runs a large studio in Berlin with 80 staff and creates grand artistic concepts such as The weather project at London's Tate Modern in 2003 and The New York City Waterfalls in 2008. What would he have to say to an African photographer who was just making his way in the art world and had only a small office in his apartment in Brussels, suitable for retouching photos but not for producing the sort of installations involving textiles, models and screenprints which Baloji had started to develop at the Centre d'Art Picha in Lubumbashi? These installations and Baloji's move from photography to new media were to be at the centre of his exchanges with Eliasson after their initial meeting in January 2014, but how could the latter guide his protégé at this critical juncture?

“I chose Sammy [from a shortlist of possible protégés] because his idea of working was at a very early stage of gaining a formal language, but it had taken directions that I thought were inspiring.” explained Eliasson. “He had chosen certain trajectories and was still working on giving those trajectories form, but I could see that it was interesting. It was not a traditional white-cube trajectory; there was a non-careerist element to it that was fascinating. His work did not in any way suggest that the market would carry him to success, but it had the potential to be really strong with or without the market.”

Eliasson was also drawn to Baloji because he had “taken upon himself the role of communicating art, organizing exhibitions, making books, all the surrounding activities you have to engage in as a young artist”. Baloji had co-created an art biennale in Lubumbashi, and was, Eliasson said, thinking both artistically and pragmatically. “He was dealing with difficult questions of making such an event happen in a place where culture is very marginalized, and was very well balanced in his respect for both the art and the city. I thought that was very rare and important.”

An exchange

At the beginning of the mentorship, Eliasson made it clear that he wanted a non-hierarchical relationship; he was seeking an exchange. “I was not interested only in being the one who gives.” he said. “I also wanted to be the one who takes.” Nor was he looking to change Baloji. “I was not there to tell him what to do. I'm hopefully helping him to look more closely at why he is doing it. When making art we ask 'why?' and 'how?' Artists often forget the why and go directly to how, and then they become formalists. Eventually it becomes clear to everyone that the why is missing.”

He felt Baloji had a “strong instinctive or intuitive relationship with why”, but that their relationship might deepen it, not least by encouraging him to experiment. “Art is about being precise.” he said, “but how does one measure precision and how does one measure quality?” In other words, what is the science of art? Though Eliasson saw himself as partner rather than teacher, it was evident he would subject Baloji's aesthetic to serious scrutiny.

Three months later in Marrakech, after a series of meetings in Berlin and Copenhagen, the partnership seemed to be having an effect. Baloji had winnowed down a range of possibilities he had been considering in late 2014, and embarked on the copper dome that he would show in Venice. The dome was his first installation, and it was very ambitious, constructed from more than 50 copper panels. On each he superimposed the image of a “scarified” body taken from a book he had unearthed during his extensive research of the Congo during the colonial period.

Different time frames

The way he was using scarification — the etching of a pattern on to the body, a practice common in Africa in the first half of the 20th century — was complex. “In my artwork, I often adopt a multilayered approach.” he explained. “In my photocollages, there are several stories with different time frames set in a fictional context that I have created. I have used the same process with the dome.”

Scarification, which was widely used in initiation rites, was a key cultural signifier in African communities, amounting almost to a map of an individual's identity. The church in Liège, a memorial to the Western dead of the First World War, had been built in the 1930s with copper brought from Katanga. By building a small-scale replica with copper panels decorated with images of scarified bodies, Baloji was engaging in an act of reclamation, almost a reverse colonization. “There are seven memorials to the Western war dead in Liège.” he said. “This will be an eighth memorial to the African war dead.”

Baloji also showed related work, including another set of copper bas-reliefs using images of scarification, in the Belgian Pavilion at Venice. Taken together, these works reflect on the power struggle between colonizers and colonized. That struggle was evident even in the ways in which they built their separate districts in Lubumbashi — a subject that fascinates Baloji and underlies much of his thinking. While the Belgian colonizers preferred regimented streets, set well away from the African part of the city for fear of disease, the indigenous population kept to the geometric forms — echoing patterns common in scarification — of traditional villages. A cultural war was being waged between oppressors and oppressed, and half a century after that war ended Baloji is trying to untangle its meanings.

No rules

How did Eliasson influence him? “He didn't tell me which direction I should go in.” said Baloji. “Instead, he showed me how he worked, and encouraged me to find my own way through. He said there was no rule: you had to try, to experiment. He told me I had to find ways of bringing my research material into the art field. I had to be both artist and archivist, but the research shouldn't overwhelm the art. It's not a historical document. I am using things that belong to the past, but it's about now. I am looking for traces of power relationships in society. My work is intellectual but I have to be careful not to make it too boring [he laughed as he said this]. It's art, not a history lesson. He pushed me to be an artist rather than a documentarist, to explore and to work without self-imposed restrictions. Maybe the time I spent with Olafur was my art school.”

Eliasson divides his time between Copenhagen and Berlin, where his main studio is housed in a former brewery in Prenzlauer Berg, a mecca for artists, designers and fashionistas. There, in April 2015, a month before the opening of the Venice Biennale, Eliasson and Baloji met to pore over photographs of the completed dome, which was then about to undertake its journey by land and sea from Morocco to Venice, and to assess how far they had come together on their own artistic odyssey.

A forced marriage

“Our encounters have been short but intense.” said Eliasson. “The more often you meet, the better you get to know each other and the better sense we get of each other's language. It's a little bit like a forced marriage.” He was anxious to downplay his contribution to Baloji's evolution, and the latter's willingness to leap from photography to installation, but Baloji was having none of it. “He showed me other approaches.” he said. “It was not just a case of listening.”

Eliasson has no doubts about the power of art. To him, conceptual art is about remaking the world. “Being an artist is a responsibility that stretches through everything one does.” he said emphatically. “Sammy's work is not about something, it is the something. Art is a reality machine, and making an exhibition introduces critical tools to the world.” The breadth of Eliasson's vision, his urge to reimagine the world, was infectious. Baloji had always evinced a quiet determination and steeliness. During his time with Eliasson he'd added a layer of ambition and was working with greater confidence — almost abandon.

In reclaiming past lives and past identifies, Eliasson argued, Baloji was not just creating provocative artworks but forcing the viewer to rethink history. Art was not just an aesthetic statement; it was a revolutionary act. At the end of our session in Berlin, Eliasson picked up his longbow — he likes the concentration archery demands — and started firing arrows at a target on the other side of the studio, narrowly missing expensive artworks en route. “When I hit the bullseye.” he said as the arrows peppered the target, “I always put it on Instagram“. If this was Baloji's art school, it had been a wonderfully bracing and challenging — if occasionally dangerous — one.

Stephen Moss is a staff writer on London's The Guardian newspaper. He writes widely about theatre, opera, film and literature.

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