About                                                  Works                                             Exhibitions & Projects                                                                                                  Publishing                                      News & Links               Instagram

– Louisa Behr & Ian Waelder

Louisa Behr: Let’s begin with talking about the project that led to your current exhibition1 at L21 Gallery in Mallorca. When did you start working on it? Because it seems like you were pursuing a long research process about the history of your grandfather and your family.

Ian Waelder: Compiling the exhibition started with a sound piece from my grandfather, Federico Waelder (born Friedrich Wälder), sent to me by my father just when the first lockdown started in 2020. But I’d say the whole process began more or less when I moved to Frankfurt from Barcelona in 2017 – more as a search for a feeling of belonging. I have my US nationality from my mother, and I was born in Madrid and raised in Spain as a foreigner, since my mother is from the US and my dad from Chile. So this sort of national identity never passed. I would actually call it more of a search of belonging instead of national identity.

LB: What had changed when you were moving to Germany?

IW: Something sparked when I moved to Frankfurt, and all of this history of having a Jewish family on my father’s side that was murdered in the Holocaust felt more present to me. There was a barrier that didn’t allow me to connect to this new surrounding in Germany, despite feeling linked to it in a way. Starting with me passing as a German because of my surname, but not even being able to properly pronounce it myself. So a piece had been missing and I think that’s when I started to dig into this research about my family’s history. But not as an artist or at least not with an artistic intention, just for myself to better understand the history and to be more in contact with it.

LB: Did you talk a lot with your family about your grandfather’s history? Or more generally about your family’s history?

IW: My father would tell me some stuff, but he’s the type of person you need to ask the right questions. I mean it in a nice way: he doesn’t do it to hide something. He maybe doesn’t give things the same importance that they might have for me. All of a sudden, he told me that he has this tape with my grandfather’s piano play. I’ve been always actively searching for it and then he kind of spits the information out in bits.

I feel really at ease with asking questions and forming the puzzle because I feel this also helps him learn about our history. And it’s something continuing today, as the project will not end with this show. It’s a work with more chapters so to speak, I want to develop it because there is still so much more that I need to work through.

LB: And could you form it by digging into it?

IW: Before I started digging into it, I only knew the summarized story which was that my grandfather was Jewish and from Stuttgart, and that he was a jazz musician. Being the only one from the family that could escape the country, together with his partner at the time, and that he lived in exile in Chile. From what I knew after this, the rest of the family was taken around between Welzheim, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Riga. In Riga is where we lose track of his parents. So yes, this tape at least activated my intentions and motivated me to focus on the research that I already started collecting since I arrived in Frankfurt.

LB: How did you get more information and start that extensive research?

IW: I got most of the information from the historian Wolfgang Kress, who sadly passed away by the end of 2019. Me and my family owe him a lot because he’s the one who contacted me to tell us about the placing and inauguration of the Stolpersteine of my great-grandparents in Stuttgart and the research he did. That was the first time I even knew about their existence, until then we didn’t even know their names or what they did. And this was just in 2012, I think, and it stayed with me a lot. Then I spent at least a year filing requests to get information from archives of the Holocaust about different members of my family. All of this also came to place when I noticed that I was the first member of my family settling back in Germany after my grandfather escaped the country.


LB: It does sound like the whole process was emotionally intense. I realized that in the exhibition you are referring to a lot of details you were able to find out. I’m curious how the stills from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia documentary from 1938 connect to that?

IW: That was the result of a very particular coincidence because it was a link that I found from the notes of Wolfgang Kress about my family’shistory. Some details were really interesting. The one that caught my eye was that my grandfather’s family owned an Opel Olympia, which was named to honor the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. When he managed to leave Welzheim, he was able sell the car at a fraction of its worth, assisting him in leaving the country and saving his life. It is symbolic that I was able to get to know the exact model. I went on researching about this model and became quite obsessed and overwhelmed by all the doors it opened, one of them being the film Olympia (1938) by Leni Riefenstahl. Working with this car also connected a lot with images taken by my dad where you can see my grandfather as a fanatic of cars and the memories he has of him fixing them in Antofagasta in Chile. The importance of the use of his hands also caught my attention, from his work as a mechanic and a pianist. I wanted to honor that in the exhibition too by linking it to my father’s work as a sculptor. Recently I came across a copy of the original manual of instructions of the Opel Olympia, and it is illustrated by all these images where you see these anonymous hands holding pieces of this car. So this path continues.

LB: The Opel Olympia caught your eye and you saw some symbol in it, which then led you to the Olympic games in 1936 and Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film. From this you continued finding connections like a red thread that stretches through the project.

IW: Yes, and it also felt like a hint from the historian. I found out some very interesting information about the car, for example, I discovered that Opel, owned by General Motors, was practically one of the sponsors of the NS-regime because of their shared antisemitism. Also, the Opel Olympia was the first car that was mass-produced with monocoque technology. So it was an important car in terms of innovation and the industry at the time. The car was presented first in 1935 and the Olympic Games were taking place in 1936. It was a way to lead the way to this event.

LB: And then?

IW: That was my starting point to connect this as a sort of metaphor for something that was taking place at the same time that my grandfather and his family were suffering from all of the discriminative laws. He was captured by the SS in the Kristallnacht and that took place in 1938, the same year the Olympia movie by Leni Riefenstahl was premiered. For me, it is quite significant how these things relate. How the NS-regime would use the event to build up this huge propaganda for their ideology and their future, which seemed so bright to them. But behind that ridiculous facade, everything was already trembling and falling apart while everyone watched. This is expressed through the cropping and close-ups of the stills where you see the athletes right in the exact moment of acknowledging defeat, or before and after a decision ends in failure. This is juxtaposed with the statements painted on top with oil paint, that sweat the fat on top of the raw linen, which are excerpts of descriptions of the Opel Olympia that I’ve taken from different sources.

LB: There are a lot of connections and they also create links between the artworks in the exhibition. I think by using the film stills and this image of the Opel Olympia you’re reflecting a lot on those parallel narratives going on at the same time.

IW: It was really narrative-wise. I was careful when linking myself to the Holocaust trauma, as it is something I didn’t want to use explicitly as I can’t relate as a victim. What I was able to do was to put myself in as a kind of narrator, and tell a story and how I do relate to it from a personal narration. There is of course a connection to our present and the rise of fascism. Another thing I was interested in, as I mentioned earlier, is the haptics of the hands because in all of this research there was something really present of my grandfather being a mechanic and a pianist. Then my father is a sculptor who uses his hands a lot and the use of clay in his work, which is of course very physical. And I wanted to make the audience part of this by making them participate in this ritual which consists of turning the vinyl record and pressing the play button in the middle of the show. To let the visitor be able to flip sides between side A and B, and make the passing of time a form of matter as the song and speaking of my grandfather plays until the end, expanding through the space too.


LB: And now you’re again working a lot with sound and you were collaborating with your father for the work “The Car Of Our Time (Grandpa’s Olympia)” (2021).

IW: Exactly. It started with the idea of doing the reproduction of the Opel Olympia by eye and involving my father. We were doing a work together and it was quite fascinating because he was even more excited than I was. He was suggesting materials and we discussed a lot about how to approach them. It felt like a very healthy process and also a nice excuse to just spend time together. We spent two weeks day after day doing this car in clay. Later we made a mold and for the next month we created three sculptures for the show having the car in different stages, which were later placed on top of plinths the height of his shoulder.

LB: I think it’s a beautiful collaboration and a way of connecting to all of this and then including the result in the exhibition.

IW: I felt like it was too much to just go on with this alone and I needed to make him part of it. Also, I’m dealing with the history of his father, someone I never met. I felt a need to involve him and to also know until where I was able to reach without tensing the cord too much. The project has to do a lot with the search, as well as heritage and genealogy because my grandfather is also active in the exhibition as a pianist. As I said, the project of the exhibition started with the sound piece since the first encounter with his voice and music motivated me to go more into this and get to know more about it.

LB: So that is the sound piece you were talking about in the beginning?

IW: Yes, this feeling was activated when I listened to the recording because it was the first time that I ever heard my grandfather’s voice and music. I knew of him for so long as a pianist and this sort of funny character, and I was reading about him in articles when I was researching but I never got to listen to anything. So for one year, I started to play his piano improv on Radio X Frankfurt from TOWN, the radio show I’m part of with some students from Städelschule once a month. This was the first act on bringing back his music to Germany. And for the exhibition, I decided we will also do a collaboration or a duet, as I did with my father, and create a vinyl record from it.

LB: How did you do that?

IW: I play the drums quite terribly, but my idea was to follow his improvisation in jazz, but I could never do so. I was not at the same level obviously, but I still needed to develop something. It felt too weak or lazy to just transport the content of the original tape to the vinyl format. The tape already existed, so I did an effort to take part in the song that would evolve for the record and create something new. I felt it makes sense for me to also be part of it, so I managed to bring in this sound piece that I did three years ago, and use it as a percussion accompaniment.

LB: What was that?

IW: It’s the repetition of a moment where all of my shoes fell from a box during a moving, resulting in this random percussion rhythm. I turned it into a piece, which I just literally placed on top of the piano recording from my grandfather. It really felt genuinely like an accompaniment of the rhythms that he was playing. It was such a coincidence, so it felt effortless but still quite beautiful. Then there is the other side of the vinyl: it is a speech in Spanish that my grandfather did when the model Cecilia Bolocco won Miss Universe representing Chile, and it has a lot of humor involved. His approach is surprisingly feminist but from this point of view, that is manly protective but with good intentions. On the other hand, it also speaks to this idea of beauty and national identities. When you hear this throughout the show seeing all those stills from the Olympia propaganda movie by Leni Riefenstahl it really changes its meaning in a way. It is quite ironic also. On the other hand, it creates a link from the starting point of the story which is his escape from Germany, and this recording that takes place a few years before he passed away, right in the last years of the military regime by Augusto Pinochet in Chile. I’ve always been surprised how he escaped fascism in Europe but ended his days under another fascist regime in Chile. In this piece, my voice is in the background dubbing the whole speech in German.

LB: How did you decide to place it in the show and to release the record as a vinyl published by a record label?

IW: I decided to install the record player in the last room, as the last item that you activate. Therefore, you first walk around the exhibition in silence, and once you get to the end and play the record, the whole show changes with the aura that the sound adds. It also speaks to the idea of this situation I wish to happen, which is that once the EP is distributed in record shops in Germany, there’s this moment of intimacy between the person who buys the record and decides to play it in their home. How the piano will invade that living space, in a place my grandfather probably thought his music would not reach. The record is registered legally as his piece of music, with the intention to distribute it as a sort of fictional posthumous album. And in part that’s why I also decided to create a fiction record label to release it, called Heutigen Records, which comes from the title of one of the paintings in the show. My wish is that this record label can properly exist in the future and release and give light to sound works that have in common similar stories like the one by my grandfather.

LB: It’s interesting because I’m thinking about your practice as an artist in general and I feel like these thoughts about traces play a role. I have this quote in my mind, that you use as your statement: “The noise, the traces and marks are the results of an activity that did not necessarily expect to produce them.” It’s a beautiful connection to your current project because it’s a lot about tracing history and in a way to see what is left.

IW: I didn’t have that sentence present while doing this but now that you’re saying it, it’s totally true. I decided to use that phrase years ago as a statement because I kept coming to the same conclusions about the idea of dealing with memory, traces, and gestures, that are generating something but didn’t intend to amplify in such a way. So, I came across this sentence and it really spoke to my practice and how I see things. I can imagine my grandfather would never have thought that this recording he did playing the piano would end up being a vinyl and being played in Radio X during a year in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. I guess he would have never expected his music and his history to be shared in this kind of way. Or maybe yes. How could I know.

Photo documentation on this website by:
John Forest, Natasha Lebedeva, Lúa Oliver, Ivan Murzin, Iain Emaline, Juan David Cortés, Paul Levack, Jiyoon Chung, Augustine Paredes, Juande Jarillo, Eva Carasol, Sebastiano Luciano, Nick Ash
© Ian Waelder, 2024