Ho: How did that start again, with the Letters of Recommendation?
Hirsch: We were in a department store in Xining buying notebooks and pencils for the children. I stumbled across these preprinted forms and thought: ”Oh, nice paper.”
Ho: Well, you must be the only one to think that the paper is pretty!
Hirsch: Don’t you? Look!
Ho: Yes, in fact it’s interesting to me too because I’m not sure whether they use it in China. I guess they do. Otherwise they wouldn’t be selling it. However, in Beijing, for instance, you wouldn’t find it anymore.
Hirsch: Right, you said this was something they probably only still have in the provinces.
Ho: Yes, they aren’t as developed as the metropolises. It used to be that way everywhere, though. You couldn’t get anywhere without a letter of recommendation.
Hirsch: In what types of situations?
Ho: A friend of mine, for example, the writer Ma Jian, traveled for a long time holding such a letter. He visited people on the countryside. Without the letter, which I believe he obtained from a magazine for which he worked, he wouldn’t have found accommodation. And he couldn’t have just asked them questions. So, one of those letters can really come in handy.
Hirsch: Do you really think it was this kind of preprint, though?
Ho: Yes. In Chinese it’s called “Dan Wei.” That’s where you work, let’s say a company. Back then it had a different name, though, as it was still during communism. And they fill this form in for you. You take a section with you and they tear off the other one and keep it. This here means ”title.” And this field is for your name. There it says comrade. Comrade Hirsch, for example. And here your employer, something public, what do you call it?
Hirsch: An institution?
Ho: Yes, you could say that. If you enter a village and the people there see, okay, he is sent by the government, then you’re legal. You have the right to go there. You are a legitimate personal introduction.
Hirsch: Where does it say institution, or where do you write it?
Ho: Here, in this box.
Hirsch: And here….
Ho: ”Introduce… ”. And this is a polite form of address. ”Zi Jie Shao”.
Hirsch: ”Zi Jie Shao…” and what does this mean?
Ho: But I’ve already translated all that!
Hirsch: Yes, but I can’t find the translations.
Ho: ”Goes to you” it says here. So, the institution suggests that you go there. Literally it says ”to your location.” And here: ”Request for assistance.” So, in case the person has a problem or a question that he or she be helped. It really means ”request for cooperation.”
Hirsch: What about this here?
Ho: ”Jing Li.” It’s a military term. You probably have that here too. But it also means something like ”Sincerely yours.” In a communist way. This whole thing is communist. It wouldn’t work here in Germany.
Hirsch: Well, it would in a way. We have the same system here. If you have a letter of recommendation that may not mean that anyone has to cooperate, but it still might have positive effects. Excuse me though, I have to ask again: What exactly does this symbol mean?
Ho: This means ”Symbol.”Written symbol, though. Character.
Ho: And another thing here: the letter’s validity period. And this is for the date when it is issued.
Hirsch: Isn’t there a field for the telephone number?
Ho: Oh, they’ll call!
Ho: Let’s say you claim that you are from China Daily….ah, the stamp is still missing! That’s very important. It goes here. Without the stamp it’s not even valid. It provides you with a kind of power. People receive you, you find accommodation. And no matter what you do, you do it as a mission. The people have to accept this then.
Hirsch: Otherwise they’ll get in trouble…
Ho: Yes. It’s quite different from a regular letter of recommendation. There’s patronizing behavior in here: Here I am, so go ahead and cooperate, don’t question me. But why did you use this as drawing paper?
Hirsch: For one thing I like its graphic quality. For another, I find the context interesting and also funny – this idea of power contained in it. The institutional and the bureaucratic element. I like undermining that, even if only on an imaginary level. I didn’t go and start any actions with it, like sending people on the way with these letters or sending out the forms myself.
Ho: They aren’t sent! You have them with you at all times. They’re your passport, a temporary identity. For a while, this piece of paper defines who you are and what you do. The writer Ma Jian had a real letter of recommendation. However, there were also forgeries and crime with them. In the early 90´s there was a lot of talk about this, and you could read about it in the papers. By the way, how do you start drawing?
Hirsch: Partly I work my way along the characters. In the ”Parking Lot” and the ”Drive-In Theatre,” for example, there are signs and screens, and they might say something like ”comrade” or ”request for help” or the other things you translated before. Then there is the drawing with the copy of the character that means ”number.” This looks a little bit like a flag. And some of them are related to what’s important to me, to things I’m connected to, completely without irony. These are things that I recommend, so to speak, the wave, for example. Some of them contain sound or music as an important part. So amplifiers appear in them. The very first drawing, which I still did in Beijing, depicted my guitar and my orange peaked hat. These are, in fact, naïve propositions.
Ho: If you show me these drawings now and I’m not familiar with these Chinese forms and their meaning, of course I’ll have other associa-tions. Have you ever shown them, and what was the feedback like?
Hirsch: I exhibited them once in Marseille, but I don’t know much about the feedback as they were hanging on the wall while I was gone again. It is a thing I always try to communicate though – by making the background slightly transparent, either across the title or sometimes accross a brief text passage. However, for many it probably remains a graphic thing in the first place. Nevertheless I find it important what kind of motivation is behind something or how an idea develops.
Ho: I wonder what a Chinese might think. When you think of draw-ings you first think of a drawing on white paper. If you start with a preprint that’s almost like children in school who draw on their books, on a something that isn’t made for that purpose. Misuse takes place. It’s interesting to me who looks at it and what happens in the process. Chinese people would probably know. The misuse would be clear. For the people over here the first moment is probably the same way it was to you before I explained the background.
Hirsch: When you read the title you read ”Letter of Recommendation,” and here you see a number. I like these huge digits. You can ask yourself what would be your number. That may also be interesting in connection with communism or other types of ”mass management,” which you try to counteract with something personal. The titles con-tinue with ”Rails ‘n’ Roll” or similar things. I believe that gives you the opportunity to get into it. Anyway, you just mentioned two interesting points. One was misuse. That’s interesting…it’s generally interesting for art.
Ho: Yes, there are many examples throughout art history.
Hirsch: … the other was this phenomenon that you draw on something else, such as books. I find it easier to draw when there is already something there. White paper is much more difficult. That’s why I often make copies of drawings, draw over them again, and so forth. Like this I can relate to something. It may be the same way with the found negatives.
Ho: Is that misuse? It’s not, is it?
Hirsch: That is the question….
Ho: Not really, because the negatives are made to be enlarged. But the location and the context are shifted. I wonder why no Chinese artist works with these preprints and with abandoned negatives, why you as a stranger take up these things even though there is a historic background that you don’t know very well. I mean, these things are related to the time of change in China. In the Letters of Recommendation it’s communism. And in Mr. Double Double it’s organized tourism and the free economy, which have become more powerful since the 80´s. So the people came up with an attraction for the tourists. They only pay 5 Yuan, and an hour later they get a photograph, and they hang it up on the wall. They don’t need the negative anymore, nor does the photographer. Capture the moment, reel in the cash and throw away the remains. And a month later we happen to pass by there, nobody is there anymore, and you take it all with you. The role you play here… for someone Chinese there would be a rich context here.
Hirsch: Are you saying a Chinese artist could give more meaning to this?
Ho: Yes, if a Chinese artist were in your place there would be a lot to be told. However, what’s interesting is the fact that you are the one who came across this and that you found your own approach with it. And that’s an interesting impulse for me, also in Mr. Double Double, because there are many stories behind the meanings of these negatives. If a Chinese artist had made this piece and if one were to describe the photographs in the art context this whole historic background would surface and the break in China would be projected into it.
Hirsch: Quite possible. I guess that’s something I can’t provide.
Ho: That’s why I keep getting back to this point of identity. You as a stranger in this place. For you it is really a discovery. How did you actually come up with the idea to continue using the negatives for art? Is it found footage? After all, you have that often in art from the West….
Hirsch: After I had taken them they lay around untouched for a while. Only after scanning them did I know: this is interesting. They seemed so strange to me that I thought: they have to be shown here!
Ho: What was interesting about them to you?
Hirsch: These processes of disintegration, the double and triple exposures, all on the same negative. Then the fact that I myself had been there, at this beach, which the photographs depict, and also where the negatives came from. That they had a purpose, which was to be bought by the people who are on them. And I like the connection with the mountain pictures from the year before. I thought, now I wasn’t in China once and made pictures anyway, something like counter pictures. And in 2002 I was there after all, taking lots of pictures. But none of all this is as weird and as strangely displaced as the stuff that was lying on the beach.
Ho: Well, there are many double exposures in art here too.
Hirsch: Yes, there are the Lumos, but I think they always expose a whole negative at a time, albeit in four parts. There is no time gap between the exposures of the different areas, or only a fraction of a second. At least not long enough so you could treat them the same way as in „Mr. Double Double“. There must have been some kind of construction that always covered a part of the negative during exposure. You must have seen pictures like these before, right?
Ho: Yes, it’s been ages. Like I said, for the Chinese there is a long history of this. It came with tourism. And this is really a brilliant sales idea, you’re not just on it once but twice. Being on it only once would be a little sparse. For you too, after all.
Hirsch: What do you mean?
Ho: The fascination of doubling. If, during the journey, you had found negatives with only one Chinese person in front of a landscape and with a few ”time traces,” it wouldn’t be as interesting to the viewers, nor to you. So the trick with the double exposure worked twice!
Cologne, Restaurant Lakshmi, January 2008