Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger on their 25-year-long collaboration

Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger share details about works like COPAIN (2021), and an examination of the history of bread, revealing insightful cultural commentaries.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Mar 02, 2022

Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger are Swiss artists who have been working in collaboration since the year 1997. This is almost as many years as I have been alive on this magical planet! Since then both Steiner and Lenzlinger have been creating in-situ immersive installations which wholly embrace the magic as well as darkness of our world. Their art installations often conflate the natural and man-made to create thoughtful juxtapositions. The artists are based in Langenbruck, Switzerland, and their work has been showcased at a number of notable locations like Museum Tinguely, Venice Biennale, Moscow Biennale, Museum Kunstpalast and others. Now that’s the standard summary of their work. However, as I delved deeper into understanding the duo’s artistic inquiry via an email interview, I began to notice that Steiner and Lenzlinger embody a unique combination of humour, curiosity and a nuanced understanding of the “bigger picture”. This might sound vague but read on, and you might intuitively pick up on the same.

Nationalpark, 2013, Installation | STIRworld
Nationalpark, 2013, Installation Image: Courtesy of Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger

When I asked them about how they met and began working together (collaborating for over 25 years is no joke!), they shared a quirky anecdote saying, “We met at the carnival. Gerda was (dressed as) a potato and Jörg was (dressed as) a bottle of vodka. It is well known, you make vodka from potatoes. That made us drink two bottles of vodka and from then on, we worked together!” I probed further, asking about the values which drive their practice, to which they responded by saying, “Purpose, mission and values alignment starts with understanding the difference between these terms. When artists understand the difference between purpose and mission, and how values can support either, they can leverage these elements effectively to move their exhibitions in the optimal direction for success”. Their shared understanding of these concepts allows them to work seamlessly with each other, while encouraging creativity and joy. Their practice grows with and through each other, and they continue to pursue individual projects which give them happiness. Lenzlinger is fascinated by the process of growing crystals, and Steiner enjoys lifting people up by surprise, and has even compiled a series of more than 70 photographs of her doing so, taken by Lenzlinger.

Falling Garden, 2013, Installation | STIRworld
Falling Garden, 2013, Installation Image: Courtesy of Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger

The sculptural installation which really caught my eye was, Falling Garden, an immersive, large-scale installation art set up in 17th century San Stae church in Venice for the Biennale in 2003. The artwork takes the form of a widespread range of botanical objects hanging from the ceiling, sort of like an exquisite mobile. Imagine Alexander Calder except the forest version… Falling Garden exhibits tokens from across the globe, including seaweed from South Korea, beech and elder branches from Switzerland as well as boabab seeds from Australia and silk buds from Sweden. The interactive installation embodied ephemerality and a playful whimsy which stood out in stark contrast against the massive, permanent structural aesthetic of the church.

The Conference, 2010, Installation | STIRworld
The Conference, 2010, Installation Image: Courtesy of Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger

Another exceptionally unique work of art by the duo is a more recent installation titled Cockaigne, a 2014 project which functioned as an alternative model to the current battery hen farming industry which we find so widespread. Personally, I have undergone the process of witnessing the cruelty of the poultry industry and as a consequence gave up on hormone-filled, inhumanely grown “food”. For this reason, Cockaigne struck me as both relevant and necessary, which is seemingly a difficult ask for contemporary artists today. In this work, the artists create an open space with an abundance of exotic foods for hens to feast upon. The video shared below shows hens pecking away at an array of delicacies. The commentary underscored here is focused on our food habits and the abundant culture of animal cruelty, an outspoken and radical stance against the existing system which Lenzlinger and Steiner do not hide from.

10 mins watch Cockaigne (2014) a commentary on battery hen farming, Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger | STIRworld
Cockaigne (2014) a commentary on battery hen farming Video: Courtesy of Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger

Continuing their examination of the culture of food, their most recent work titled COPAIN looks at wheat and its most commonly produced food - bread. Contemporary society has dissolved a diverse palette of bread making, reducing it to white bread - an unhealthy and relatively tasteless rendition of an age-old culture. The artistic approach of the two artists develops links through partnerships, with farmers, mills, the network of professionals, art students, the Regional Chamber of Trades and Crafts, and with the collaboration of artist-designer, Philipp Kolmann. The project presents varieties of bread to the viewer, an edible sculpture. In addition to traditional breads such as the famous Navette de Marseille and les mains de Nice, one will also discover invented breads, thrown away breads, ritual breads, artificial breads, industrial breads, fertiliser breads, stone breads, sprouted breads, soul, burnt breads, Tirggel, star breads, stuffed breads, cloud breads, braided breads, insect breads, the hardest breads in the world, caramel ammonium sulphite breads, salty breads. The artists share their process saying, “We make a field of wheat in the cemetery, let it grow and flourish, harvest it in late summer, take it to the mill, have it milled, make breads from the flour and offer the breads as gifts. Some of the bread goes back to the cemetery as a gratitude and bird food for the birds that live there. From the air we go more and more into the ground, the living earth.”

A portrait of the artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger | STIRworld
A portrait of the artists, by the artists Image: Courtesy of Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger

Steiner and Lenzlinger bring together immersive visual surrealism with forward-thinking cultural commentary in an exceptional, alchemical combination. The Regional Contemporary Art Fund (FRAC) of Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur (PACA) showcased COPAIN in an exhibition which closed recently, on January 16, 2022.

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