Text | Conversation | Gropius Bau 2022

The Failure of Time and Healing

In conversation with Johanna Hedva

Portrait of Johanna Hedva lying surrounded by medicines and an open mouth from which flames of fire come out
Johanna Hedva, 2022
© Pamila Payne

Despite such hierarchal monikers as queen and workers, there is no top-down decision-making in the beehive. To identify a new home or to provide resilience against changing climatic conditions, for instance, bees make choices collectively, employing the intelligence of their swarm. As with honeybees, no single neuron in the human brain carries out complex decision-making alone – it’s a group endeavour. In her essay, science writer Fiona McMillan-Webster traces parallels between human and non-human forms of communal intelligence and explores how these enable them to reside “on the edge between chaos and order.”

Available from 27 October 2022

Reading time ca. 35 min

German and English

Sonja Borstner: In your practice as artist, musician and writer, you often traverse between different media and disciplines, ranging from temporal performances to drawings, sculptures, installations and text-based works; you’ve also made a video game, released albums of music and written novels, essays, poetry and plays. In The Clock is Always Wrong (2022), a new work you’ve drafted over the past year as part of the group exhibition YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal at the Gropius Bau, you also combine different elements – sculptures, drawings and audio works – with historical objects from the Wellcome Collection, which are culminating in a site-specific installation that spans the entire room. Could you talk a bit about what interests you in finding responses through different media?

HEDVA: I feel like any answer I might offer can never be as interesting as this question of why the promiscuity with form, why this or that genre. It’s the same question I ask myself when I’m making anything – why a drawing, why a poem, why reach for the guitar instead of the pen. I start with an idea or thought or feeling or dream or image or question or joke or phrase or scene, and then I wonder what will happen when I put it into this or that form: What happens to the question of, say, what a black hole feels like, if I ask it in a video game? How does it change if I ask it in a doom-metal song?

I think my primary methodology is one of hermeneutical mischief and my favorite feeling is when curiosity is driving the car, rather than expertise. I take sheer delight in shapeshifting through different forms because I myself never know what will happen to a piece. For example, one of the sculptures I made for this show started to grow mold after being on display for a few days. It’s made of water I collected from the river Vltava in Prague and I mixed it with honey and ink and I’d hoped it would come alive somehow; the piece is about my mother’s ancestral homeland and the ways it keeps living with a kind of ghostly presence. These particular Czech water microorganisms seemed to love the honey, making new life forms of a specific shape and colour that I’d never seen before, which is just so wonderful!

However, I’ve noticed that my prolificness is sometimes reduced to something I’m said to be doing to “cope” with my chronic illnesses, with my disability, rather than evidence of my ambition or talent or vision or curiosity. One strategy I have to refute that is to simply say such a reading is wrong, not true, and what’s great about truth – about meaning – is that there are so many different ones. I get kind of gleeful about trickery as a method of political refusal.

This show is the first time I’ve worked with an institutional archive, responding not only to specific historical objects in the Wellcome Collection, but also to the totality of the institution instituting its institution-ness. For many years, I was pretty “anti-object” in my art: I took a militant position against the enmeshment of art and capitalism, and I saw this primarily happening in the making of expensive collectibles for the ultra-wealthy to be trafficked and displayed by art institutions. There’s still a lot of that old punk spirit in this show – for the whole process, I just kept asking what is the anticapitalist approach to a vitrine; like, would a vitrine even exist without empire?

But when I first encountered the objects from Wellcome Collection that Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, co-curator of YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal, had selected with me – all of which were alchemical worlds unto themselves – it felt important to meet them in the same language they were speaking in. This language was one of material that’s been imbued with an immaterial power, a kind of magic that was meant for an explicit function, context and time, but which also radiates beyond it, still lives its aliveness from beyond the little coffin of its vitrine. Which means it felt crucial to me to work with objects that played similar roles in my own life; to work with and hold and feel their materiality, their bodies that bear a sense of time in themselves. So, there are objects in this room that are loud with their immaterial telos and material complexity, and others that are quiet in it. For instance, there are the most elaborate kinetic sculptures (fabricated by Leonie Ohlow, who’s a kind of magician) I could possibly dream of and have wanted to make for 15 years but never knew how, and objects that I have around the house and use every day, like my desk, where my arms have pushed the paint back as I sit there, hour by hour and work.

I also thought a lot about this conundrum of wanting to burn down all museums, while at the same time acknowledging that fragile bodies need support, that conservation and preservation can be endeavors of wonder and curiosity, rather than only extractive colonial functions. I liked thinking that a vitrine can also be a stage, or a laboratory.

The other thing I want to note is that I’ve always worked very site-specifically, site-responsively, but so far, my sites have been un-traditional: a hallway in a school, a van on the LA freeway, the ruins of a 13th century monastery. In The Clock is Always Wrong, the site I was responding to was the Gropius Bau itself, a very “museumy-feeling” exhibition hall. I was trying to speak the language of museumography as an outsider, to show how that encounter felt to someone like me; what it felt to be invited into and to bear, all this institutionality, as someone – a disabled genderqueer Korean-American – who looks at institutions warily and with skepticism. It’s why, at some point, I decided to throw 22 knives at the wall.

  • An installation view with various images attached to a wall with black knives.
    YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal, Johanna Hedva: The Clock Is Always Wrong, Installation view, Gropius Bau (2022
    photo: Laura Fiorio

„Würde eine Vitrine ohne das Imperium überhaupt existieren?“

— Johanna Hedva

Sonja Borstner: When seeing these large knives that so accurately cut through the thick wall of the exhibition space while simultaneously attaching a series of layered paper works on its surface, a sort of frictional correspondence to the history of this very space emerges. The Gropius Bau is permeated with and through injuries from the Second World War and while the most severe damage has been reconstructed between 1978–1981, some areas were deliberately left “unrepaired”. Embodying a somewhat anachronistic container that resists linear readings of time – and eventually repair – The Clock is Always Wrong also speaks to an understanding of healing as a cyclical, continuous process, repelling the idiom that “time heals all wounds”. Holding space with and for injuries/wounds/scars rather than concealing them, seems to be at the core of your thinking and I was wondering if you could speak a bit about finding artistic responses to a collection that bears, archives, sets, collects and maintains time in an institutional context?

HEDVA: Time and healing are conundrums. They can’t be measured, or defined, or contained in any monolithic or reliably stable way and I don’t think it behooves us to consider time or healing as immutable entities that can articulate our universe in any ways other than poetic, anagogic. So, this is where I started – the conundrum, the failure of time and healing, how they shapeshift – with this new body of work. I wanted to make work about time: the different kinds, how we understand those differences and the question of what it means to “tell” time; the slipperiness and valency of that verb. And I wanted to work with time, to make objects with and about and through time, and to foreground the time instantiated and embedded in the Wellcome’s objects as well as my own; I wanted time to be felt in the room more than space, but I wanted it to be eerie time, magic time, uncanny and witty and weird.

I am antagonistic to the implied causality of time that heals because of its chronological linearity; to the idea that healing happens because time accumulates quantitatively, which seems to be the proposal in the adage “time heals all wounds,” as well as in some of the themes of this exhibition. Even though the word “time” is not in the exhibition’s title, it is assumed as a necessary ingredient that each of those three things needs to work. I guess I’m being dialectical about this, but when presented with three words as thorny and cryptic and vague as care, repair and healing, my first response is not to trust it, like, what actually are they, and what do they mean and how do they operate within an institutional context?

After years of participating in disability justice activism, I don’t buy that care, repair and healing are possible if only, like, the right intention is there, if we just “care” enough. Because what are we talking about when we talk about care – what is that in practice? The word care is used a lot as some inherent, general “good”. But I never know what people actually mean when they use that word. Like, what values are presumed in it? What is the goal? What are the means to get there? Is it to get back to some fantastical wholeness; or purity; or condition without damage; to arrive at a horizon of happiness and total health forever and always where nothing snags or tears or breaks or deviates or needs? Fuck no.

However, there’s one thing I realised over the process of working on this show which I think might just be the single most important element to ensure an anti-ableist, anti-capitalist working condition: enough time.

“I realised over the process of working on this show which I think might just be the single most important element to ensure an anti-ableist, anti-capitalist working condition: enough time.”

— Johanna Hedva

Robert Maharajh: Certainly related to this question of time: in an ordinary language sense, we might know what care is, but many modalities of caring, repairing or simply existing in the world are so complex, profound and intimate they’re almost impossible to theorise or even to discern. For example, in the Gropius Bau Journal, we published  a contribution by the Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson which contains the following passage:

“Seeing it in Akinbiyi’s photographs – and here, again, I mean “hearing” – swung me back to my childhood in Port Antonio, a small coastal port in eastern Jamaica. Every weekend the beaches were a frenzy of bodies. The air thrummed with waves, music and voices. And yet, what I recall, by way of recognition in Akinbiyi’s photographs, is a suspended stillness in the midst of all that joy-making. Such quietude was not melancholy; it did not counter the weekend’s joy-making. Rather, it anchored something unanticipated and inexpressible to most outsider’s gaze: survival. Not just surviving the middle passage and all its ensuing pain but, most profoundly, how those bodies I was raised with and by bore a collective remaking of losses. The levity of those beach gatherings – so common to the Caribbean, not just at weekends – was weighted by quietude, so each instance felt like a ceremony of remembrance.”

Hutchinson sees the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing socio-economic problems of the Caribbean. But he also sees/hears something that’s resistant to an outside gaze: lived processes of remaking, based on bodily survival. And surely there is a power in that, perhaps the inverse or negation of the types of power you’ve outlined above?

HEDVA: I love what Hutchinson is talking about here. And reading his description of quietude, it shows how it’s possible to insist on modes of being that are both a kind of survival, but also forms of living that aren’t predicated on being granted permission from those in power. The operative definition of power is power-over: the enforcement of making others do what you want without their consent; to dominate, exploit, extract. But there are other kinds of power, and even though they are not the same as this dominant kind, they are not nothing. I agree with those who’ve theorised these kinds of power to be found in remaining undisciplined and undefinable – that is, un-dominated – by the systems of meaning put onto you by external forces. You may be dominated materially and politically, but there’s something in refusing or evading what the hegemonic symbolic, narrative and hermeneutical systems of meaning have determined about you and your worth.

This is the other part of what I was speaking about in terms of the tenuity of taking something that ought to have political and material consequence – like care, repair and healing – and making it symbolic, abstracting the guts of its demand into a vibe for a thematic group show. Like, rather than taking a strategy that thins and reduces and extracts, what if we move toward the capacious, the multiplicitous? What happens when we see what is politically and materially possible within the space of the symbolic, to take imagination, speculation, poetics and inquiry seriously as political acts, capable of producing political change as much as new hermeneutics?

Another way to say this is to talk about the undercommons type of power, which redefines power from the bottom, from the position of beneath, that can be found in the sly dexterity of misreading, misinterpreting, or just plain refusing what the dominant norms say is true about you. This was propelling what I was trying to do with the juxtapositions of the works in the room: putting, say, Ancient Roman fertility talismans, of a uterus and a penis, next to my mother’s fabric scissors that are as long as a forearm (I made sure the blades were pointed toward the cock, lol) felt like a way to fractalise the historicity in that vitrine, to slip into a museumological language and push it somewhere it wouldn’t normally go. The vitrine ended up being part of this hermeneutically mischievous vocabulary I was working with. I was surprised to find that it could be poetic, it could be a fractured little proposal of a thought.

This simultaneous quietude and revelry that Hutchinson is speaking about, the social convenings that evidence both the weight and pain of his community as well as their moments of joy and fun at the beach – what’s so powerful about this as a modality of resistance is that it is not what the white settler-colonial gaze would say is happening there. It’s something else. It doesn’t just “reclaim” power, but refutes the premise of the claim, of being claimed, at all. It insists on another meaning, another truth and thus produces it. When we do this, we’re telling a story about ourselves that is different from the one told about us. I felt like a lot of the Wellcome Collection’s objects were doing this too: they were tools used in secret, against the law in some cases (the medieval birthing girdle was banned during the Reformation, but women kept using them in secret), and that is a kind of power that you can feel in their presence, their disobedience.

  • An installation view with two historical illustrations hanging from the ceiling and various other exhibits in glass cases.
    YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal, Johanna Hedva: The Clock Is Always Wrong, Installation view, Gropius Bau (2022)
    photo: Laura Fiorio

Sonja Borstner: Reclaiming the narrative put upon oneself, finding words, finding volume, finding a voice is something I’ve reencountered in many of your works and especially in your writings, such as Sick Woman Theory or in your recent album Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House. For the recording of this album, you, for example, have trained in breathing and singing techniques that go back to the Korean genre of epic and musical narration of drama called P’ansoriP’ansori singers practice singing for hours until their vocal cords begin to bleed, eventually developing calluses to obtain the typical hoarse or husky vocal timbre. Listening to the record, fierce guitar riffs and echoing distortions create a sort of undertone through which your voice cuts and takes up space. What drew you towards this specific technique and the process of finding a voice outside the normative mold, not only in your music but also in your writings?

HEDVA: Maybe some of this connects back to what we’ve been discussing in relation to healing and the impossibility of it from within the dominant ideological value systems of the “west”, that one tactic here is to refuse and refute what is being said about us, to decline whatever pathology is said to belong to us. Just to declare, like, “no, that’s not mine.” From a western musical point of view, P’ansori singers are “damaging” their voices by singing in that style, by not allowing their voices to “heal” or pushing their bodies “too far”. But the aesthetic value in P’ansori is precisely this quality that evidences the wear, tear, age and life lived within a singer’s voice, which is to say, within their body. The point is that this deterioration sounds more beautiful because it is not something that can be cheated or faked; it requires the singer’s body to actually be changed by the craft, by how the singer uses it, to endure through time and to show the material consequence of that, and such consequence is not thought of as “damage”, but evidence of life lived and the choice to commit oneself to the craft.

This is antipodal to the Western classical opera tradition, where voices should sound crystalline, pure, empyreal, untouched by the body or terrestrial time. Have you ever noticed how opera singers don’t sound human? I don’t perform live often, but when I do, I can feel that my voice is a little bit different after every show, a little more used, and there’s something quite thrilling in that. There is something elemental about a desire to fuck the body up, to make it feel pain, to make permanent marks on it, indeed, to push it too far – but the transgressive meaning of that of course comes from there being a binary opposite of purity. It’s how the value of purity gets its heft – the danger of dirt, mess, scars, scabs, marks – and vice versa. They feed each other as a binary.

However, this binary of purity/defilement gets at the root of the ways that “healing” as an ideological regime provides cover for domination and pathologisation; it privileges purity, that this is the thing to stay close to, to try to return to, and asserts that to move away from it is dangerous. If singing in the style of European classical music is taken as the norm, then using one’s voice to do something else becomes not just a matter of taste or tradition, but a matter of “health” and “safety”: you’re in danger of hurting yourself, you’re messing something up that used to be clean, you’ll do irrevocable destruction. Artistic traditions that defy or ignore the European standard are recast as acts of harm and violence, if not deviant and alien. But, of course, there are an abundance of musical traditions and vocal styles from all over the world that foreground the voice as an instrument that is itself a body and embodied within a body, and that these bodies express their materiality. The singers of pop and rock music, and hardcore and metal as well, sing in and against the throat as much as P’ansori does – and this is part of why they signify a certain rebellion against the norm. And this is also why, for example, when the voices of rock singers age, the general critique from the pop music press is that the singer has “lost” their voice or range. This is how Joni Mitchell is talked about now, as are Robert Plant, Courtney Love, Marianne Faithfull, Odetta, etc. But I love the way these singers sound now, I love all the ways their voices break, croak, cough.

“I’m not interested in smoothing away or hiding the fractures, wounds, and fragmentations.”

— Johanna Hedva

I’m not interested in smoothing away or hiding the fractures, wounds, and fragmentations that occur, whether vocally like we’re discussing, or narratively in the sense of what stories are told about healing, recovery and overcoming/surviving. In the capitalist storyline, failures and injuries are necessary hurdles that “make you stronger” on your way to normative success. Things that would fall under the umbrella of weakness – vulnerability, frailty, deficiency, debility, but also this wear and tear on the body as it persists through time – are never read as qualities in and of themselves, instead they have to be leveraged in service of their assumed binary opposite of strength. I’m not saying we should be celebrating or increasing our weaknesses as such – I’m saying we should redefine this whole binary, and remake the values ascribed to it. Maybe it’s not a binary at all.

Part of the project of my work is to reverse these value judgments and show that there are other ways of thinking and being that do not need to be divided into weaknesses and strengths, survival and thriving, pure and healthy versus fucked up and damaged. Like, what if someone croaking their way through a song is not evidence that they’ve lost what they used to have? What if instead it’s showing what they’ve gained? In my essay   Notes on Need (2021), the ideas of which became the argument of   Why It’s Taking So Long, a text I’ve read during the event series   Ámà: 4 Days on Caring, Repairing and Healing at the Gropius Bau, I started to think through this kind of inversion, redefining something that has been determined to be an indicator of weakness, of deficit: “I want to know why we have built our world and afflicted ourselves with the law that a body should not need too much, indeed, that it should need hardly at all, when we could have built the world according to the law that a body’s needs will be there always, that they are everywhere, forever, and so, isn’t that a kind of luxury? A bounty?” If need, vulnerability and fragility are boundless and self-sufficiency, wellness, health, individual sovereignty and control are insecure and temporary, perhaps we should be curious about how to re-value those things that are abundant and unceasing. Why have we cast them as deficiencies when they are in fact plenitudes?

Johanna Hedva (they/them) is a Korean-American writer, artist and musician, who was raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches, and now lives between Los Angeles and Berlin. Hedva is the author of Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain, a collection of poems, performances and essays, and the novel On Hell. Their albums are Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House and The Sun and the Moon. Their work The Clock is Always Wrong (2022) is part of the group exhibition YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal at the Gropius Bau.

Sonja Borstner (she/her) is a writer, curator, and editor whose research is focused on the body, sickness and vulnerability. She is editor at the Gropius Bau and Editor-at-Large of the online art magazine PASSE-AVANT. Her recent writings have been published in frieze magazineGropius Bau JournalTAZBerliner Zeitung and with Revolver Publishing and Distanz Verlag, among others.

Robert Maharajh (he/him) is a writer and curator who grew up between London and the Caribbean. He studied literature and philosophy in the UK. He was co-founder and curator of the artist-run east London-based gallery T12 and worked on the 2020 Biennale of Sydney and is Editor at Large at the Gropius Bau.