How the Dutch artist created a fabled parallel reality with the help of a book, a bird and cyber-goth hair extensions
It started in the 1930s. German philosopher Eugen Herrigel was living in Japan and studying traditional Japanese archery under the eccentric master Awa Kenzô. Neither man spoke each other's language, so they always had a translator present - always, except for the moment when the master shot at the target in the dark and successfully split the first arrow in half with a second one, all before exclaiming: “It, the Divine, has shot!” This weird occurrence led up to the creation of Herrigel’s book ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’, a cult read in post-war Europe and, years later, to the inception of Saskia Olde Wolbers’ 'Pareidolia', now showing at the Maureen Paley gallery. There, the story morphs into a reflection on hunting, Zen archery and the creation of the book, moving on to question subjectivity, translation and belief, all from the fictional point of view of the absent translator and his alter ego, a bird.
The narrative is a fictional but interspersed with hints to experiences from real life, odd scientific or geographical facts and psychological syndromes
Since the mid-1990s Olde Wolbers has been perfecting her own genre of video art through loosely fact-based fiction, creating remote and abstract imaginary, hallucinatory urban myths and fake legends where wonderfully odd, sci-fi looking submerged scenarios meet monotone audiobook-like narratives, diverging and blurring into a dreamlike stream-of-consciousness. Here, we talk to the artist about her miniature alien worlds and where stories come from.
Dazed Digital: How did you come up with the idea of fictional documentaries?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: I never really did, that is what one could call them in hindsight. It so happened that I started to work in a documentary style first person fictional narration combined with images that are slightly removed from the spoken text.
DD: Your work is fictional, yet most of your work is based around facts, is there a reason behind this?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: The narrative is a fictional but interspersed with hints to experiences from real life, odd scientific or geographical facts and psychological syndromes. The reason for these different strands to end up in the narrative is often guided by coincidence.
DD: You've said before you start your art with your ideas for stories. Is there a particular story, fact, fiction or urban legend, that you would love to construct a film around one day?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: It takes a lot of time to decide what context to construct a film around, often they are a combination of different situations and the story evolves while I am working on the piece.
I heard a woman tell a shopkeeper in a shop in Soho about a woman who moved into a haunted house - sharing her surname with the ghost - and she, just like the ghost got shot on a walk in the countryside
DD: What does the word 'Pareidolia' mean? Why should one have caution when stories are involved?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: The word pareidolia refers to the tendency of human perception to discover meaning in random structures often of a religious nature. I am very interested in subjectivity and people’s perceptions and this phenomena is a good illustration of the idea that there is no such thing as a singular truth.
DD: Why do you think 'Zen in the Art of Archery' became such a cult book in Europe? What is your personal connection to the book and why did you decide to base your work on an episode surrounding its creation?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: I work on a story in a very intuitive way. While I was working on the sets for Pareidolia the story and its research kept changing. I heard a woman tell a shopkeeper in a shop in Soho about a woman who moved into a haunted house - sharing her surname with the ghost - and she, just like the ghost got shot on a walk in the countryside. Then I was also looking at bird hunting in Malta and then myself got shot by an arrow while following my stepfather through a vertical archery field in Belgium. I then came upon Shoji Yamada’s text, The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery and this particular situation and its ambiguity interested me.
DD: Why did you chose to tell the story from the point of view of the translator? Was it because he wasn't present at all in the original scene, or was it because sometimes things get lost in translation?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: I thought it interesting that the translator had the difficult task of translating and explaining the vague words of the eccentric archery master to the German professor. So the story from the point of view of the translator became more about the absence of translation and Herrigal’s own translation of a probably coincidental action into a religion.
DD: What is the longest it took you to create a set, and what was the strangest material you used?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: The cinema in Trailer took four months. It is created from small parts of mineral water bottles. For Deadline I made a yellow beaded curtain set out of transparent amber cod-liver oil capsules. All materials I use are somewhat odd but it is usually getting hold of the material that is the strangest part of the process... the animatronic birds in Pareidolia are made from a polyester woven crin from a cyber-goth hair extension shop in Ohio.
DD: You have filmed upside down and underwater - why is that?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: I film underwater as perspective get oddly squashed and combined with the paint it gives an image that is not reality but at the same time completely analogue so not computer generated imagery. I film upside down as that is logical to the process and inverted gravity that a tank has.
DD: Are there any movies that influenced your aesthetic?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: No not really but I suppose you can call a lava lamp, which was relevant to me when I started working in this way a movie of sorts. I am very influenced by the ‘essay film’, where the imagery has a slight remove from the voice-over.
DD: What is the one thing that inspires you the most?
Saskia Olde Wolbers: Literature.
All photos are courtesy of Maureen Paley, London