Quietly Dangerous: A Conversation Between Aura Rosenberg and Veronica Gonzalez Peña
By Veronica Gonzalez PeñaAugust 25, 2023
On the eve of a retrospective of Rosenberg’s work spread over two venues, Pioneer Works and Mishkin Gallery, the two women sat down to discuss their film, and Rosenberg’s work, more deeply.
VERONICA GONZALEZ PEÑA: When I began seriously thinking about collaboration some 20-plus years ago, I turned to the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s theories of play and of the transitional space as a way to think more deeply about the elusiveness of creativity. He states that things must remain fully open, fully equal, in play: no one side can dominate because as soon as that happens the play stops, and it becomes a different kind of relationship. Can you share your thoughts on this, and how it is that you approach your collaborations with other artists? How it is that you keep things in this state of play, or flow?
AURA ROSENBERG: That’s an interesting question because the word collaboration is always so positive. It implies a special relationship where we put aside our desire for control. I don’t know Winnicott’s theories of play, but I wonder if things actually do remain fully open and equal in play. And if not, does that undo the play, which is vital for making art? In my photo series Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?, I invited artists and children to take portraits of children in what I hoped would be a three-way collaboration. Essentially, I offered adult artists a chance to play with a child and offered a child the opportunity to help shape the game of masquerade. Yet the children weren’t merely blank slates; for each, their enactment of the artists’ ideas was unique. Of course, the camera was there, and everyone understood a performance was underway. So, there was play, but it was also work, and we had to navigate the balance of power between the players. Does this invalidate the play? I don’t think so. Openness to your collaborators is what’s essential. I understand that what we’re making is—and should be—something that might even feel a bit foreign. I love getting away from the tyranny of me when I collaborate.
Recently you brought an idea to me for the beginning of our film The Bull and the Girl, and after we spoke about it a bit, you let me know that you had been a bit wary of bringing it to me because I might think it was silly. You shared a Mike Kelley quote: “I have always appreciated complexity in artworks; the fact that works are high-minded or silly is less important than their complexity. That’s the true content of the work—its structure.” This was a great way for us to move into a discussion about what the complexity was that lay below what may have been initially perceived as silliness. Can you discuss this relationship between the high and low in your work, as well as the pushing through the initial resistance of a silly idea?
That’s right. I suggested that we start the film with the camera moving through a labyrinth, then go to a shot/countershot between Arturo Di Modica’s sculpture Charging Bull and Kristen Visbal’s statue Fearless Girl. But you wanted to open starkly with a black screen and a voiceover. I worried that my idea would seem too much like a cartoon. The subject of our movie, an imaginary relationship between the two statues facing off in the Financial District, is sort of silly anyway. I am attracted to ideas like these because they can accrue unexpected meanings and complexity. The Bull and Girl are two unsolicited statues that are basically emblems of capitalism. Tourists love them. When they faced each other at Bowling Green, they seemed to create a force field that immersed tourists into ancient taboos and desires.
Trying to articulate this led me to the myth of the Minotaur, a creature born of lust, taking the form somewhere between a man and a bull. Of course, the Minotaur was seen as a monster who was contained by its father, Minos, in a labyrinth. Picasso identified with the Minotaur, especially during his relationship with the young girl Marie-Thérèse. Instinctively, I rebelled against demonizing the creature and found some stories by Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar that present the Minotaur more as the victim of a tyrannical father. If we imagine the labyrinth as our mind, the Minotaur is a repressed part of our psyche. Your script for our movie and the way you envisioned the cinematography bring out the classical underpinnings of this drama. In the end, we opted to start with a black screen with voiceover and then cut to the animated labyrinth and clips of the statues.
As for my attraction to working between high and low, it’s something that threads through almost all my work. In Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I?, for example, I took children’s face painting seriously as art. My recent ongoing series Statues Also Fall in Love includes lenticular prints where classical marble statues transform into contemporary porn actors in the same pose. It’s a joke, but these “flip” images bring Apollonian idealism and Dionysian eroticism and baseness together—as Laura López Paniagua discusses in her essay “Passions Set in Stone.” In short, I wanted to recall something about the eroticism of classical figures that the propriety of the museum tends to minimize.
For Winnicott, play always occurs in the magical place between things—never fully mine nor yours, nor even ours, for it lies in a place of nonownership. These concepts come from his theories of the transitional space, a space first inhabited by the breast (or bottle), and later by transitional objects (a blanket, a toy) that aid in the child’s maneuvering from the internal world to the external. The transitional space, represented by these transitional objects, is a tertiary space that is the space of creativity and of coming together. I think about this in regard to your work, and the generative space that I see as quite playful in your work (and things seem always to be at play). For example, in regard to your and John’s first trip to Berlin in 1991 and your worry before the fact at what this trip might bring up for you—your father had fled Germany during the war—you ended up taking Walter Benjamin’s memoir, Berlin Childhood Around 1900, and turning it into a new set of works, Berlin Childhood. As in Winnicott, the work you are generating is neither fully yours—your personal family history and their set of experiences—nor fully Benjamin’s as found in his memoir, but rather it’s a transitional space, both in that it is between you and Benjamin but also in that it is in constant play, or process. Can you talk a bit about this project—was it an investigation?
I knew very little about Benjamin when we arrived in Berlin. And I certainly had no plans to make work about Berlin and even less so about my family’s history there. My father had been so imprinted by the trauma of growing up in Nazi Germany that, if anything, I wanted to get away from it. When John received the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program residency in 1989, I didn’t want to go—was even afraid—and we put it off until 1991. In the space of that year and a half, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and we had a baby girl, Carmen—two circumstances that radically shaped our relationship to the city. The DAAD settled us in a luxurious apartment in Charlottenburg, a haute bourgeois district where, unbeknownst to me, Benjamin had grown up.
After the war, the United States, Britain, and France helped rebuild the western part of the city, and it was filled with a melancholy beauty that drew me in. After John’s residency was finished, we moved to an apartment in the east, in a district called Mitte, where we still live. I don’t remember why I started making the black-and-white photos of Carmen’s kindergarten class. Maybe I wanted to do something for the Evangelical Kindergarten, which had kindly taken her in when so few spaces were available. Klaus Biesenbach, then a young curator just starting out, said he wanted to do a show of the photos and call it Berlin Childhood because people would connect it with Benjamin’s chronicle of growing up in turn-of-the-century Berlin. That made me curious about this collection of 42 texts. Benjamin began writing these in 1932 after fleeing Berlin with the intuition that he might never return. In 1991, nobody had made a good English translation of them yet. Coincidentally, our German tutor assigned one of these texts, which was practically impossible for us to understand. They were written using a montage technique, jumping from one thought to the next, and included lots of wordplay. So I struggled to understand them.
To me, the misunderstandings represented my distorted comprehension of a language and way of life that had been lost to me. Finally, I asked Ise Kössendrup, the mother of Carmen’s best friend Julie, to read them with me. Ise wasn’t comfortable speaking English, so we discussed the texts in German. She’s always been my best German teacher. I realized that Benjamin’s writing is filled with images, and it suggested to me the possibility of turning it into actual images by shooting photos to illustrate each of the 42 texts. Because they’re written as a montage, each text suggests many possible images. I began by visiting places Benjamin describes and shooting Carmen and her friends reliving some of his experiences. When my father visited Berlin, I included him in the project. Ise brought great insights to the readings, and her familiarity with the city helped me scout places to photograph.
There was something uncanny about the city; it reminded me of the New York City neighborhood where I grew up, nicknamed “Frankfurt on the Hudson” because of all the German Jewish refugees who settled there. So, Benjamin inserted himself into my life in an unexpected, almost mystical way. I felt his presence as I followed his path, and the city opened itself to me. I was surprised to find that his elementary school was right across the street from Ise’s apartment. Without knowing, I had been photographing it all along. I literally occupied the transitional or tertiary space you’re describing. During that time, I began to see the city in layers. There was Benjamin’s Berlin, mainly in the old West around Charlottenburg, Tiergarten, and Grunewald. It was a space of melancholy and ghosts. Then, there was the contemporary city, just awakening from the trauma of war and division. In Mitte, where I lived, the buildings had crumbling facades still riddled with bullet holes from the war—there hadn’t been money in the DDR to maintain them. Now they’re almost all renovated and gentrified. My Berlin Childhood project inhabited the tertiary place where these two cities overlapped.
My feeling of a mystical relationship to Benjamin made more sense as I learned about his strong theological streak. Then his granddaughter Chantal moved to Berlin to learn about her grandfather and saw my work and contacted me; when we started filming her and her daughter Lais reliving his childhood experiences, I felt he’d brought us together.
Can you speak a bit more directly about your relationship to history? Here I’m also thinking about the Victory Column that you turned into a souvenir. Did you also bake it? I love the idea of your turning Benjamin’s metaphor into a literal manifestation.
In German, the Victory Column is called Die Siegessaüle. Kaiser Wilhelm I unveiled the monument in 1873 to celebrate the creation of the German state after its victories in the Franco-Prussian War. It stands in the Tiergarten, the big park in the center of Berlin that also houses the zoo. Every year Benjamin’s parents took him to a parade at the Victory Column celebrating this event. He disliked both the monument and the parade intensely. Berlin Childhood begins with the inscription “O brown-baked victory column with winter sugar from the days of childhood.” I thought his mother must have baked a gingerbread version of the monument for him.
In 1999, I received a DAAD grant to produce this work and publish a book of photos. I decided to bake a Victory Column for the entrance of my show at the daadgalerie. I found a baker who could do this using salt batter dough, which is a very durable material. So I went looking for a souvenir of the monument that he could use as a model. To my surprise, there were none—even at the Victory Column, where they sold figures of the golden angel at its top. I bought the angel for the baker and gave him an old architectural diagram for scale. The absence of replicas brought to light the monument’s difficult history. In 1939, Hitler and Albert Speer added an extra section, making the column taller. They also broadened its base and moved it from where it stood in front of the Reichstag to the Tiergarten along an east/west axis that runs through the city. Victorious German troops were meant to march along this route after returning from Russia. I think this compromised history is one reason why there are no souvenirs. It’s a repressed memory.
In addition to the baked column, I produced a small edition of souvenirs for my DAAD show. I made it in its original proportions, before Hitler’s alterations; in that way, it’s truly a souvenir, a memory. Later, for the Third Berlin Biennale, we made 1,000, which continue to be sold and are still virtually the only souvenirs of the Victory Column available. The baked column, which ended up being about six feet tall, is now in the collection of Lenbachhaus in Munich. My desire to produce the souvenir was not a celebration of the monument but a way to confront its traumatic history.
I want to talk about the series Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I? and motherhood a bit. This is the work in which you asked artists to do face painting on either their own children or on your daughter, Carmen. Carmen has said that she enjoyed working with Dan Graham because he was so playful and had such an interest in children. But she has also said that, on the Mike Kelley photos, in which he made her up like a goth, she felt “like [her] identity had been completely erased.” When asked about that work recently, you responded that, in that moment, you had to decide if you were the mom or the photographer. And in that instance, photographer won out. I’m thinking about Constance Debré’s incredible 2022 book from Semiotext(e), Love Me Tender, which asks why we can’t look at motherhood as a relationship like any other, with conflicts and ruptures and mending and variation. Motherhood can feel like a straitjacket, both for the mother and the child, with idealized roles that seem both impossible to uphold and unchallengeable; if you do challenge them, you are easily seen as abject to the point of vilification, as Debré herself experienced when she came out as lesbian and her child was taken from her in family court. You yourself were roundly criticized for this series. Yet I imagine that if a male artist/father had said, “In that moment I was a photographer,” there might instead have been general agreement and a deep acknowledgment that, for the (male) artist, to be an artist always comes first.
Do you think of your assertion, that in that moment you were artist first, as a political position in regard to yourself as a woman artist? Can you talk about the tension between motherhood and artist?
Honestly, I’m not sure about my decision to be the photographer at that moment. I knew that if I didn’t shoot the pictures, I simply wouldn’t have them, and that made me feel a deep regret. Especially now, with Mike gone, I’m happy we went ahead. Carmen described her ambivalence about the shoot for her college entrance essay, which I included in my book. Both Mike and I were astonished to hear her point of view. We had no idea how much was going on inside of that little person. In the end, I’ve always trusted my instincts. I didn’t feel I was capable of doing harm to a child. And I believe that children are stronger than we think—all the ones I worked with got something out of the experience. Lena Dunham said the photo we shot with her mother, Laurie Simmons, was empowering her to be part of the process she saw her mother involved in every day, empowering through the act of creating together. She said her mother showed her that she could be an artist, but I showed her that she had a subject. Lena said it was the happiest day of her life.
But, of course, I’m not her mom. The mother-daughter relationship is fraught. I’ve learned a lot from Carmen—first and foremost that I have to really listen to her. When I look at some of the photos we shot together, my heart goes out to that little girl. I see that she was trying to help me, and the depth of her feelings touches me. Carmen became an art historian. She has a real sense of what it means to make art. In fact, she often gives me ideas for work—and good titles for shows.
I also loved working with your daughter, Penelope, on our movie. I saw the same desire in her to give us something real. But I could see that it was easier for me than for you while we were filming.
Robert Mahoney, writing for Time Out, was the harshest critic of Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I? When I first showed it at Wooster Gardens Gallery in 1998, he wrote, “If you’re tormented by the kid taking time away from your art, why not make the kid your art? Problem solved for the art, but what this strategy says about the state of motherhood these days is another matter. […] [W]hat mother would let Mike Kelley anywhere near her daughter?” He implied that I should be in therapy. You notice he didn’t question the state of fatherhood. I never responded to Mahoney nor tried to defend myself; I didn’t want to be put on the defensive. It was the children who responded. Dennis Kardon’s daughter Julia wrote Time Out to say that Mahoney had no understanding of contemporary children. Years later, I was invited to a show called double bind in Berlin, curated by Signe Theill. It explored the tension between being a mother and being an artist. For my entry to the show, I made a photo diptych. One side was a large print of Mahoney’s review. The review featured the photo Carmen and I made with Dan Graham, where he styled her like a German girl. She looks very innocent, like Pippi Longstocking. For the second part, I made a large print of the photo Carmen and I did with Mike. I wasn’t trying to let myself off the hook, but I wanted to confront people with precisely what Mahoney was criticizing. I left it to the viewer whether they agreed with Mahoney or not.
You’ve said that your work is “good natured” and that it almost inadvertently often exposes underlying tensions. I believe it also challenges and subverts given modes and relations: motherhood for one, as we’ve just discussed. You’ve spoken about your desire in the late 1980s to make transgressive work, like some of the male artists you loved and admired at the time. Yet I feel your work is not transgressive in an affrontive, easily identifiable way; rather, it is quietly dangerous. It turns things upside down, the gaze as in Head Shots, in which a woman—you—is bearing witness to a man’s orgasm, and allowing the rest of us to do so through you. This relationship disrupts expectations, as does the series Dialectical Porn Rock, in which you decoupage porn images onto rocks, which you then term readymade figurative sculpture. Your work is historical, or is constantly thinking about and in relation to history—the rocks, for example, through which you investigate the long history of figurative stone statues. You take on the nude in marble statues more directly once you move to images of Renaissance sculpture, which you then decoupage onto marble. And this led to another series, out of which our film grew, Statues Also Fall in Love. You seem to be constantly challenging existing modes of looking and being looked at, and allowing the work to grow out of itself in ways that feel quite organic.
Can you speak to the underlying seriousness below the good-natured exterior of your work and the tension between these impulses?
My work often starts as a joke and runs the risk of seeming like a one-liner—for example, a lenticular photo of a classical marble statue seamlessly transforming into a porn actor. To make that flip happen, you have to move your body back and forth. When my show Statues Also Fall in Love was up at Martos Gallery, the director at that time, Ebony Haynes, told me how much she enjoyed watching visitors in the show. Everybody was doing a kind of dance in front of the work. So it was fun, but if you spent time with the work, it might get you thinking about the supposed idealism of classicism, or Johann Winckelmann’s argument for its “whiteness,” or the way that statues come alive through our projections.
Head Shots was a simple idea to show men in the throes of ecstasy. I wanted to offer them a glimpse of their emotions and vulnerability that I thought were being repressed by mainstream representations of masculinity. I thought of it as a gift to men. It felt empowering to be able to offer rather than ask for something.
I think there’s always a critique in my work. As you say, I like to turn things on their head. But I don’t want to be pedantic. I want to leave room for you.
To get back to the subject of motherhood, we both work with our daughters; our film on Ariadne and the Minotaur (which stems from your fascination with the Bull and Girl statues) stars my daughter Penelope Pardo as the Ariadne character. In a way, it was an honor when you told me you wanted her to be in the film because in asking Penelope you were not only acknowledging her talent but also referencing her acting in my own films, and there was also something like an extension of this investigation of motherhood through me. It’s as if you are continuing to play with this relationship through us, as much as making a film with us—the process of working with a mother and daughter in such close relation for an extended period of time feels significant to me, and I certainly feel much closer to you through this project.
You’re right, working on this film together extends my investigation of motherhood through you. What a beautiful way to look at our collaboration. And, somehow, it brings not only us closer but also our daughters. I noticed this when we sat together with them at Dan Graham’s memorial dinner. Carmen hadn’t planned on staying, but she enjoyed talking with you and Penelope so much that she stayed the entire evening.
I loved your film Cordelia (2016), which featured Penelope. After you agreed to write the script, I knew Penelope had to be the Fearless Girl. She has the right mix of beauty, vulnerability, and self-assurance for the role. You told me to call Penelope and ask if she’d work with us. She told me she’d have to think about it before committing. For the most part, I believe her caution had to do with working with her mom. She knew about those tensions and didn’t want to wreck the film. I remembered so many of those kinds of shoots with Carmen. But the role of Fearless Girl appealed to Penelope, and fortunately she agreed. We had an incredible time shooting on the North Fork on Long Island with its moody locations on the water and in the woods. You shot Cordelia there, and it’s one of the places where you’ve lived for many years. It’s also where Jose Martos, my dealer, has a home. Jose, too, was central to the film in his multiple personas as the Minotaur, as Picasso, and finally as himself. He and Penelope already have a unique relationship. She stands up to him, and they enjoy one another’s banter. The film ends in the East Marion graveyard where Mark Rothko happens to be buried.
Your daughter Carmen and I sat together for a long time at Dan Graham’s memorial recently, and I found her very brilliant and charming. She holds a PhD in art history from Princeton, and we spoke a bit about her research interests and her teaching. She’s presently teaching a course at Princeton titled “Artists and Their Subjects,” which examines these relationships in the period between the French Revolution and the turn of the 19th century. I found this fascinating given that, as a child, she was a subject of so much of your work, in that somehow that early work she did with you has extended into her own research and investigations in her adult life, through the experience of the subject. It seems to have been foundational for her. Her interiority and sense of self must have certainly been shaped by it to an extent. Can you speak to this, the ways that you as mother and she as daughter have been deeply and variously affected by the relationship of artist/subject? Was Carmen a collaborator, as Lena Dunham has stated she was in your work with her own mother, Laurie Simmons? Can you say something about the idea of child as collaborator?
The subject of Carmen’s dissertation was the 19th-century late-realist painter Jean-François Raffaëlli. His philosophy of art centered on what he called “Caractérisme.” This concept describes his endeavor as an artist to empathize with his subjects, many of whom were the poor ragpickers of Paris. Raffaëlli tried to capture their individual personalities in his work. I never connected Carmen’s attraction to Raffaëlli and her own experience as the subject of my work. I showed her your question and asked if she could respond. Here is what she wrote:
My experience working together [with my mother] made me acutely sensitive to the possibilities, limitations, and permutations of expression from different positions. As a scholar, I’m interested in the idea of artwork as an encounter through which identity is artistically understood, defined, and challenged. This is particularly charged for the child subject whose identity is still coming into being. As for the question of collaboration, I believe the subject is always a collaborator to a greater or lesser extent, just as the artist is always, to some degree, the subject. The works that most interest me make space for the artist and the subject as well as the beholder.
Do you think your decision to become an artist was influenced by your trip to meet Rothko with your father when you were a child? I imagine Rothko was presented to you as a great man, perhaps even discussed as such before the fact. How would your father’s view of him have affected you, and do you think there might then have been something of a desire sparked in you to be like someone whom your father admired, in order to please your father? How deeply do you think your own relationship with a parent influenced the choices you later made in regard to life and career?
My father made custom upholstered furniture. He was very proud of working for top designers and interior decorators. I don’t know how he met Rothko, but he made some furniture for him. Later, he worked for Theodoros Stamos too, and we visited him in his studio. I believe I was already a student at the High School of Music & Art when my father took me to Rothko’s townhouse. After they finished discussing the furniture, he told Rothko I was interested in becoming an artist—so my father already saw me on that path. Stamos gave me a small canvas remnant that he’d painted on and said, “Only angels could paint like this.” My dad and I often laughed about his words when we recalled that visit.
My father always wanted me to take over his business, and I worked for him for a while after graduating college. He would have preferred if I had done that rather than becoming an artist. That was a big disappointment for him. I dedicated my book Berlin Childhood to him and Carmen. So, he was proud of me, but conflicted.
My mom loved to draw and joined a painting class. When she was dying, I took walks with her and kept a notebook of drawings. I told her that I thought I might have become an artist for her sake. She told me she wished I hadn’t. That was painful to hear, but she was very concerned about me being able to take care of myself. I became an artist nevertheless in the face of their ambivalence. I never pushed Carmen to become an artist or art historian. Ironically, she initially wanted to go into medicine so she wouldn’t have to write.
Interestingly, the house I lived in for a long time on Long Island, and in which I shot Cordelia, was Theodoros Stamos’s and was built by him when he moved out of the house Tony Smith had previously built for him out there. Rothko, as you mention, is buried in East Marion, in a graveyard only a mile or so from the Stamos house. I wrote this graveyard into both Cordelia and our film, so somehow Stamos and Rothko lie at the far reaches not only of your childhood but also of our project, and this brings me back to this idea of the force field of history with which we opened this discussion. The two statues facing off, and the animation of a labyrinth with which you want to open our film, carry the idea that, whether we are aware of it or not, history, myth, and other types of stories, familial and otherwise, surround us, are always acting upon and influencing us, like a force field, as you say.
Aura Rosenberg received a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, completed the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1971, and received an MA from Hunter College in 1974. She currently lives and works in New York and Berlin.
Veronica Gonzalez Peña is a writer and filmmaker, and also the founder of rockypoint Press, a series of artist/writer collaborative prints, books, and films, as well as rockypoint Productions. Her latest film, Pat Steir: Artist (2020), is an intimate and poetic first-person, character-driven documentary.
Veronica Gonzalez Peña is a writer and filmmaker. She is also the founder of rockypoint Press, a series of artist/writer collaborative prints, books, and films, as well as rockypoint Productions. Her latest film, Pat Steir: Artist (2020), is an intimate and poetic first-person, character-driven documentary.
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