Peles Empire shows in Asia for the first time at Barakat Contemporary, Seoul

On-site installations by German artists duo take viewers on an immersive journey from ancient Korean ceramics to a pastoral utopia as they explore the show Even here, I exist.

by Darshana Ramdev Published on : Apr 15, 2020

The floors at Barakat Contemporary, made of resin-covered concrete, caught the imagination of Peles Empire the moment they set eyes on it. Although they only saw it through photographs and videos, this "painterly but also 3D feeling of the floor" became the inspiration for the wallpaper that covers the large wall in the main space, as part of Even Here, I Exist. This is Peles Empire's first show in Asia, inspired by traditional Korean ceramics, including the glorious celadon wares that reached their zenith during the 12th century Goryeo (Koryo) period.

On the floor of the main space, green-glazed black, grogged clay and Ming porcelain objects are combined with rope and / or paper, say Katharina Stoever and Barbara Wolff, who together, are Peles Empire, in an email interview with STIR. On the walls are paintings and prints on Jesmonite panels. These include elements like a photograph of a French etching of a Romanian shepherd and side products from the studio.

Artele 1, 'artele focului (moon jar 1), 2019| Even here, I exist| Peles Empire | Barakat Contemporary | STIRworld
Artele 1, 'artele focului (moon jar 1), 2019 Image Credit: Courtesy of Peles Empire

The juxtaposition of the old and the new and removing accepted hierarchies is at the essence of the work of Peles Empire. Comprising Stoever and Wolff, the story begins back in 2005, when as students at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany, they happened to move into the same flat. "We realised that we shared this interest in experimenting with different materials and mixing elements that were not necessarily painting related," say the artists. They decided to use the opportunity to collaborate.

That's when Wolff, who is from Romania, remembered a ‘strange castle’ back home. An apparently innocuous recollection, that would result in Peles Empire (the artists) creating their own form of living art. And an exhibition space, first tucked away in Frankfurt's red-light district, that has doubled as art installation in many cities around the world.

Sculpture, 2017, made from dibond, ceramic tiles, galvanised steel and Jesmonite| Even Here, I Exist | Peles Empire | Barakat Contemporary | STIRworld
‘Sculpture’ 2017, made from dibond, ceramic tiles, galvanised steel and Jesmonite Image Credit: Courtesy of Peles Empire and Henning Rogge

Peles Castle, a Neo-Renaissance structure is celebrated for its vast collections of treasures from around the world. "We were initially fascinated by the crude mash-up of different architectural styles and epochs, all placed next to each other, without any hierarchical order," say the artists.

So, they decided to create their own. Working with printed photographs of the castle, they re-created, in their flat, an installation that blurred the lines between old and new, original and copy, abstract and defined. They turned the space into a salon and eventually, into an exhibition space. Inviting artists to show their works has always been part of the Peles Empire practice, something they have done in London, Los Angeles, Cluj, Istanbul and, since 2016, Berlin.

Even Here, I Exist is Peles Empire's first exhibition in Asia, but not their first association with ancient ceramics. These they have worked on before and the exhibition includes pieces shown in Timisoara as well as those that were of Cleopatre in Bucharest.

Cleopatre 12, 2019 | Even Here, I Exist | Peles Empire | Barakat Contemporary | STIRworld
Cleopatre 12, 2019; painting and print on pigmented Jesmonite Image Credit: Courtesy of Peles Empire and Trevor Good

Peles Empire have made ceramics from black clay, inspired by the ancient Korean form, Black Comb Pottery, and have also worked with Ming porcelain. This time, they swapped comb method (named after the comb-like pattern on the surface), for a rope, in keeping with ancient European techniques.

Interestingly, for Even Here, I Exist, they fired the ceramics only after they had been partially destroyed.

As they researched celadon, the jade-green, ‘glazed’ material used in high-end ceramics in East Asia, they stumbled upon what they call the ‘key element’ of the exhibition idea. One thing led to another - and they found Arcadia, a utopia that envisioned a life lived in harmony with nature. And the threads do exist, much to the fascination of Stoever and Wolff, for whom the fluidity of meaning and questioning accepted explanations form a core part of their artistic pursuits. The Arcadian motto, Et in Arcadia ego, or, Even here, I (Death) Exist, seemed to say that “Humans must accept that the ideal cannot be reached and that everything has to end”. It led them, they say, “into a wormhole”, not knowing where the idea would carry them.

Celadon, famous for its similarity to jade, originated in China and was adopted by the Goryeo dynasty in Korea, which became famous for its translucent-green glazes | Even Here, I Exist | Peles Empire | Barakat Contemporary | STIRworld
Celadon, famous for its similarity to jade, originated in China and was adopted by the Goryeo dynasty in Korea, which became famous for its translucent-green glazes Image Credit: Courtesy of Barakat Contemporary, Seoul, 2020

As it happened, they went "from Korean traditional ceramics to a French novel, into Arcadia and back to Cleopatre. Incredibly, we discovered that all of these things are connected. Threads are everywhere!"

Philosophical questions are densely interwoven into the work of Peles Empire, finding expression in abstract, on-site, ‘culturally-hybridized’ installations. Stoever and Wolff’s creative approach, which began at ‘copying’, has evolved into working with cultural and historical elements to "question the status quo of seeing.” Answers arrive as they "explore the process, the gains and losses that emerge, the constant masking and unmasking of the modus operandi”.

“What is the original, where does it begin where does it end, even in regards of an artwork,” ask artists Wolff and Stoever of Peles Empire | Even Here, I Exist | Peles Empire | Barakat Contemporary | STIRworld
“What is the original, where does it begin where does it end, even in regards of an artwork,” ask artists Wolff and Stoever of Peles Empire Image Credit: Courtesy of Barakat Contemporary, Seoul, 2020

(As per the information on Barakat Contemporary’s website, the exhibition ‘Even here, I exist’ will be only accessible to visitors who have made a reservation in advance. They have been advised to wear a mask during their visit.) 

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About Author

Darshana Ramdev

Darshana Ramdev

She has been a journalist for over a decade and has written about science and technology, urban policy, theatre, music and art. She loves yoga, politics, literature, history, architecture, and writing songs with her guitar. In 2020, she intends to spend more time at her estate in the Western Ghats, and acquaint herself with the magnificent biodiversity that makes up the Indian subcontinent.

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