'Transplant - Hanging Gardens'                                         
A conversation between Ilka Meyer and Stefan Rabanus


Ilka and Stefan are jogging through a park. In the background you can hear a little traffic-noise and you can imagine grey building blocks and red brick industrial ruins.

Stefan: Ilka, let’s talk about art before I’m out of breath. About your art.

Ilka (grinning): O.K.

Stefan: At the Gwangju Biennale you want to present an artwork with the title “Hanging Gardens”. That sounds a little like you attended a humanistic high school. Are you really into myths?

Ilka: No, actually not.

Stefan: So how did you come to this title then? What is fascinating to you about this old story?

Ilka: The full title is Transplant – Hanging Gardens, bur first there was the second part of the title, that is true. The hanging gardens came to my mind through a detour. I had thought a lot about the dry Zen-Gardens. I was deeply fascinated by the fact that these gardens in a landscape are a very abstract image of another landscape.

So they present in our reality an image of a possible utopian world. This has a very strong imaginative character which I have never seen in this way in our European gardens. I had even considered to make a work on the bases of these dry gardens. But I dropped it. If you want to approach such a topic as European you should know more about it than I do.

But then the Hanging Gardens came to my mind, which belong to the seven wonders of the ancient world in Europe. One reason why I especially like the story about the Hanging Gardens is, that it is not even sure if they ever really existed. Despite of that, the stories of the Hanging Gardens are taught in school and they belong to our reality. There are many stories in this world where the degree of truth is quite relative. In any way, they are there and forming our realities.

In the story of the origin of the Hanging Gardens it is said, that Nebudkadnezar (between 700 to 600 B.C.) had these gardens made in the hot sandy plains of Babylon for his wife Medes, who was missing her green mountainous homeland. The historical part doesn't matter to me too much. Important is only that here we have a truth that was designed after an image, an idea, and that is clearly shown by this story I a wonderful way.

The park ends at a small square where at the moment a big and noisy construction site is located. A fork-lift truck drives past with a bunch of stones for the sidewalk. Ilka and Stefan turn into a narrow street, which runs between buildings with their facades slowly coming off.

Stefan: Your installation consists of huge bags filled with sand and stones. How did you get this idea?

Ilka: Actually, the bags are not that big; they are usual stone-bags, which every stone-dealer would find perfectly normal. But the nice thing about them is actually that they look like oversized shopping bags, which is especially interesting in the context of the Biennale. Relatively cheap and light plastic bags contain stones and earth, things that are usually fixed in some place. But in this case it is the other way around. That which is considered heavey and place-creating is portable. On the other side it has an architectural character. The bags are towering like houses next to me. It is almost like in this street.

Stefan: (looks up at the facades with an uneasy feeling) What keeps my mind busy with these bags, what makes me think, is the strange feeling of irrationality, they rigger in me. I know this kind of bags, from IKEA for example, where I use them to carry candles or glasses or small stuff to the counter. But your bags are much too large! I could never move them.

Ilka: Yes, carrying bags, which can take city-likes features, - I find that pretty bizarre myself. The “Big Bags” with the stones are variable single parts in the installation Tranplant – Hanging Gardens, which allow different positions and might even be seen as an invitation, on a thought-level, to this kind of game. Containers in uniform, designed to carry away and exchange things, like at IKEA, and at the same time form house-like structures. The material of these bags is by the way almost the same like the ones from IKEA.

Stefan: Aren’t they kind of misplaced in the halls of the Biennale?

Ilka: Sure. They are alien elements in many ways. As raw industrial products and with their similarity to oversized shopping bags, they might be disturbing. But I think they are very beautiful, too. It is beautiful how this monstrous heavy content becomes light and plyful through these white plastic bags. The installation Transplant – Hanging Gardens is an unfinished and moving but in itself completed world.

Stefan: (waving his hand at atramp that has all his belongings in three plastic bags next to him on a bench) This is a very interesting thought. But I want to linger a bit on the bags. Bags are made to carry things. What does this aspect of transportation mean to your work, is it important?

Ilka: It is for me the most important thing of all; it influences the present more than anything else. I mean the transport systems are clearly shown in the world of trade. And trade is in this way also beautiful metaphor for exchange of knowledge. I find it very fascinating, to see the various modes of transportations on all levels that we have created around us.

Stefan: I know you work with plants.

Ilka: Yes. Plants are for me the most interesting “work-material” for this topic of transportation, if you want. They present exactly that with their growth, multiplication and metabolism in a wonderful way. On top of that, plants, depending on the way you look at them, can be really natural or highly artificial. Sometimes you just have to put them in the right position to put the artificiality in question. I always find plants really spaced out and weird.

Stefan: With the Installation “Transplant – Hanging Gardens” you also work with industrial containers made out of plastic and plants. Though this installation is less green than for example your “Pflanzstück” (“Plantpiece”) that you, in 2003 brought on stage in the custom-harbour of Mainz.

Ilka (evading a dandelion that pushes up through the cobblestone of the street): Brought on the stage is a good way of expressing it. In the “Planzstück” the plants had a central role. The plants have - in their pots there in the custom harbour - shown how much transport is going on around them. Also due to the height of the plants, most of them were tall as a man or higher, a piece of wilderness in this strongly coordinated logistic appeared. That by the way smelled quite a bit. I only used plants with a strong scent. So then again, also my work for the Gwangju Biennale has its origin in the idea of plants, which are spread through trading activities. But for Gwangju I wanted different containers, some that are related to the comings and goings at a Biennale.

Ilka and Stefan pass a weekly market, where the people carry bags filled with vegetables and flowers, look curiously at them.

Stefan: You used before the term shopping-bustle. What is the relation between the Biennale and consumer behaviour?

Ilka: A Biennale is like a beehive or a shopping mall. Many people are looking for something that they would like to take with them. And everything goes really quickly, just because there are so many things that you encounter. This was one of the reasons that fascinated me in filling these bags with heavy things and giving them an architectural impression. The stone-bags with heavy things eye when I was looking for limestone at a naturestone-dealer for my video installation “Möwen” (“Seagulls”). That time I was standing dazzled in front of these huge bags and wondered how this thin plastic fibre could hold these heavy stones and even mount them up.

Stefan: The other day, I saw two of your works in another exhibition I Wiesbaden that seemed at first glance totally different from your “Tranplant – Hanging Gardens” and the other plant-orks. “1001” is a giant picture, 360 x 660 cm, which shows the disturbance that result from copies and that reminds on of galaxies. “Möwen” is the video installation you just mentioned: There the abstracted images of swimming and flying seagulls are projected in a limestone wall. Now are you just so versatile…?

Ilka: Sure! (grinning)

Stefan: …or is there something connecting these works? Like a red thread?

Ilka: The thread of Ariadne (laughing), another myth. I like the mage of a net, that’s how I see my work. Or even better, like the thrown up hairball of cats who licked their fur clean. Hairballs, this was once the title of one of my works. Whatever. What connects all the works in the exhibition you just mentioned, is in principle easily summarized: It is a mistake, something not quite fitting, that creates something new. At “1001” it is maybe best visible, but in “Ladung” (“Load”) with its oncoming flying and everywhere growing street-side plants - and the “Möwen”, that appear to the left and right out of the cracks from a piece of the wall, there you can find a similar scheme. I relocate or push around contexts and let mistakes come to pass and then see what happens. Most of the time I use very common things that in the context of my work get a new face: Buckets, herbs, copy mistakes. I am always happy when the beholder feels quite safe and secure and thinks that he is in a familiar environment, but through the fact that something is a little different, that the whole scenario is somehow out of place, the audience is irritated and starts to think.

Stefan: That spontaneously reminds me of the scene from the film The Matrix, where the hero Neo sees the same black cats crossing his way twice and through that notices that the programming of the matrix has been altered and that his companions are in great danger.

Ilka: Of course you can very well transfer this in a medial way. The cracks and fissures of a series of movements were the bases for the installation “Möwen” (Seagulls). Seagulls rush as dots or lines from one crack across the stone into the next. Whoever looks closely can see that in fact they are seagulls, but it only gets really obvious at one point in the loop when one of the seagulls flies up.

Stefan: So you are concerned with our perception. That is a very basic and theoretical point, which reaches beyond art into the realm of philosophy.

Ilka: I don't think it is that theoretical. It is about the way I see the world around me. That is something I do every day more or less. How do I constitute my world and how does my neighbour see it? And most of all, what do I do with the means and senses that are given to me to built this world? Interesting to me is what reality can mean and how it comes to that, Most important is, however, the next step is to rearrange this reality, to renew it and let i continue to grow. That is where you are amazed, where you are interested, where you walk the streets with open eyes. That is the point, where we start to find our humanness and where we extend it. The human being has the task to continuously invent his reality anew, because he can't do anything else.

The streets ends in front of an old almost completely run down factory building that is surrounded by a wall. Behind it you can see the ocean shore. Stefan climbs over the wall and Ilka follows. From the left a black cat crosses their way – and then another...

Stefan: (gasping) You are concerned with the fundamental questions of our perception of truth. Do we need a degree from university to understand and digest your art?

Ilka: University doesn't really make you that clever. It is more about not believing to have seen everything and to know everything and most of all not to be content with that. That you don't stop to see things in everyday life in a new way!

Stefan: Under aesthetics one usually understands in philosophy the law of perception of the senses. But today “aesthetically” is mostly understood as “beautiful”, They touch me and my senses in a pleasant way.

Ilka: Okay, now you touched a couple of topics at once. First of all, I hope of course that my works are beautiful. Beautiful means mostly though that you are attracted to them. But something beautiful always also contains something disturbing, something unfamiliar and even a slight horror for example., other wise it is just boring. You stop and look at it for a while. And if you can make the people stop, even though you work with common objects, this is quite a step. Some part of you feels at home and comfortable and some part of you feels strange and doesn't want anything to do with it. That is beautiful. There is nothing more beautiful than something like that weed on the roadside. Sometimes I am really exited if I discover a new or special one. (Ilka points at a plant creeping up the factory wall.)

Stefan: (looks and then continues on the path around the building) Let us talk one more time about Gwangju, the location for the Biennale. You especially created concentrates on the communication aspect. Communication of the artist with the beholder, but also inter cultural communication between Asia and the West. Is there a special connection between your work and Gwangju, Korea or to Asia at all?

Ilka: My younger brother lived for quite some time in Taiwan and I myself travelled for two months in China and Asia. From what I gathered there, the people there often have a very different approach to life. That is very interesting, but I still haven't really figured out it yet. It is very difficult though when you don't speak any Asian languages. But it really helps for example when for some time you eat other food and use public transportation and go shopping some vegetables on the market or wherever. This is a good start for communication. I would really like to learn more about plants and gardens mean to Koreans, how people see and act with nature. The Biennale is the occasion where that has been made possible for me. A few thoughts and associations already found their way in the work 'Transplant — Hanging Gardens'. At another spot in Europe this world surely would not have grown into this form.

Stefan: (at the shore) Thank you for this talk.



Stefan Rabanus
Associate Professor at the Department of Germanic and Slawic Studies at the University of Verona, Italy.