Purple Magazine
— The Island Issue #35

miriam cahn

ART

all artwork by MIRIAM CAHN
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by LUKAS WASSMANN

from the isolated bunker studio she created for herself in a swiss valley near italy, the cult second-wave feminist artist is still fighting for the truth. her visceral paintings and installations are a corporeal performative act, blurring genders and sexual categories, screaming for justice, and attacking masculine toxicity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve lived through several different periods of contemporary art since the 1970s. And at this stage of your life, you’re based in a mountain valley in the Southern Alps, and I have the impression — tell me if I’m mistaken — that you live in a kind of autarky.
MIRIAM CAHN — It’s Val Bregaglia, on the Swiss side, on the border with Italy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell me about this place, and your decision to live and work in relative isolation.
MIRIAM CAHN — For me, it’s no different from the city. I’ve lived in a lot of cities — Paris for a year, then four years in Berlin, six months in London. I also lived in Basel. There’s no real difference because wherever I am, I always work and live in my studio. But I do go out walking a lot. These days, I enjoy walking in Val Bregaglia because it’s very beautiful. But it’s just as great to walk around Berlin.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, is your studio like a monastic cell, an isolation zone?
MIRIAM CAHN — No, it’s just a workplace. It’s not monastic, it’s not a cell. The space that I’ve made here, along the roadside, is huge. It’s the best possible setup for working. Besides, it’s not completely isolated here. It’s not the idyllic cliché of a valley in the Southern Alps. Don’t forget that Alberto Giacometti was born here, for example. But it’s different from working in the city, that’s for sure.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a very cool studio — modernist and brutalist.
MIRIAM CAHN — I designed it with the architect Armando Ruinelli, who’s a typical Alpine architect but internationally renowned, like Herzog & de Meuron. He’s one of those architects who combine contemporary architecture with the specificities of life in the Alps.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a Suprematist concrete block, placed in a world of stone and vegetation.
MIRIAM CAHN — I also like the idea, now that I’m older and have rented a lot of studios and traveled a lot, that this should be the last home and the last studio.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do the mountains influence you? Do you feel a special energy?
MIRIAM CAHN — Because of my family and my childhood, I have always known the mountains. We used to go for epic walks. For me, it’s normal that the mountain should be there, facing me. And I do still walk a lot in the mountains. I’m over 70 years old, and I don’t walk like I used to, but today, for example, I went for a short wander in my snowshoes. I love it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Regarding your work, I get the impression that the human or animal figures that feature in your paintings — whichever sex or nondefinition of sex they depict — are very isolated, as if they’re at the center of their own solitude. Each of your representations of living beings is like an appeal to the other, for contact…
MIRIAM CAHN — Yes, contact is important. That’s why my figures are often the same size as the person looking at them. But what you’re saying is a personal interpretation. I wouldn’t comment on that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You once said, “To sleep, to eat, to cook, to paint is all the same: it’s life.” So, you don’t separate painting from everyday life?
MIRIAM CAHN — Those words are exactly right. First of all, I don’t just do painting. I’m not a painter — I’m an artist. I also do drawings, photos, etc. I even make texts. In any case, a small drawing is the same as a big painting. And, as I say in that sentence, my life is all one — painting well, cooking well. It’s the same.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re against the hierarchy of values imposed by the art market?
MIRIAM CAHN — There’s nothing I can do if a big oil painting sells for a lot more than a drawing. It’s good for me because I make more money, but it’s just the market. For me, everything has the same value: painting, everyday life, drawings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the sun? You’re someone who works with bright colors — do you get enough sun in the valley?
MIRIAM CAHN — I’m at the lowest point in the valley, and I haven’t had sun for four months now. But on a day like today, when it’s lovely and very cold…
I don’t know how much the sun influences my work. I don’t think it does, in fact. Well, maybe a little. But television influences me, too, and what I’m reading. Everything influences me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you stay informed on social media?
MIRIAM CAHN — I’m very well informed. I read four local and international newspapers every day. I watch TV, and I listen to the radio. I’m not on social media. I don’t want to know what everyone is saying about everyone else. Maybe people get their information like that nowadays, but not me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — No Facebook, Instagram, Twitter?
MIRIAM CAHN — No.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Melanie Klein said, “The world is round.” She went into that roundness, and she made a book. So, what is the world, according to Miriam Cahn? And are you angry or optimistic about the state of the world?
MIRIAM CAHN — Of course, I’m angry. When I read, for example, what happened at the Capitol in Washington, with all those people from the far right, naturally it makes me mad. It’s only normal. I come from a family that has always been very concerned about politics. So, yes, politics can make me mad. And what’s even more serious for me, I think, is the way people here, in Europe — and in Switzerland, even if it’s not in Europe — are closing themselves off. That, too, is in my paintings, in my drawings, in everything. I don’t understand why they don’t let people who want to work here in, why they leave them to drown in the Mediterranean. We can’t say both that we have the Rights of Man, that human dignity matters, etc., and then act like that. It’s getting really difficult to manage our democracies. It’s not working any more.

OLIVIER ZAHM — A lot of your paintings are about those migrants who are adrift, whom we allow to drown at sea.
MIRIAM CAHN — Yes. You asked me about that impression of solitude in my paintings. This is what it’s really about: we’re always alone, we’re left alone, we leave them alone, and then we let them drown, we leave them in the cold snow at customs on their way here. That’s what interests me, and it’s an existential thing. Perhaps, one day, it’ll be our turn, highly privileged people like me and you, not to be able to move, or to have to leave. We’re already seeing this in our restricted movements in everyday life with the Covid-19 crisis.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your painting has a political center, a political heart?
MIRIAM CAHN — There is no center because I’m just as happy to paint animals or plants, say. There is no center with me — it’s all one thing. With my work,
I provide commentaries on the world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And these commentaries are channeled by your power of empathy?
MIRIAM CAHN — I don’t agree with this kind of distinction between ideas and emotions. It’s the same thing. If you don’t have any emotions, you can’t do politics. If you don’t have any empathy, you can’t think politically. And then, we must stop saying that artists, and women in particular, do everything out of their emotions, their intuition. The thing that matters is work. And work has certain rules, daily rules; you need technical knowledge, ideas. Intuition annoys me. If you look carefully at my paintings, you can see it’s much more complicated than intuition and emotion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m with you there — that art can’t be reduced to a precise source.
MIRIAM CAHN — Just drop this idea of art having a source, this idea about some source that artists have and others don’t. One thing is certain, which is that it changes every minute. I’m not going to specify the source. You have to look at my works, my art. You have to read my books. If they interest you, if they speak to you, then that’s because something is happening, and that’s what interests me about art. You can never specify what you’re doing. The artists who do that are bad artists.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I still think that you keep a purity of inspiration, beyond the violence of certain paintings. Whether it’s a flower, a house, or a couple.
MIRIAM CAHN — That’s what happens every day. It’s not pure — it’s what happens.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Keeping the door open, you could say, to humanity, to revelations.
MIRIAM CAHN — Always with the big words. I don’t use them. These big words don’t say anything. Humanity: that doesn’t mean anything.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, a flower painted by you is not a symbol of humanity?
MIRIAM CAHN — No, it definitely is not a symbol. It’s a flower, not a symbol. And everyone sees what they want to see. If you want to see it as a symbol of humanity, that’s your business. It’s your own thoughts that make you say that. For me, a flower is a flower, and it stays a flower.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, if a flower is a flower…
MIRIAM CAHN — It can’t be a pipe. But what if it wasn’t a flower, though? In any case, it’s not a symbol of something else, or an idea. That’s a lousy idea. It’s always a bit complicated to look at art like that because it tries to define something that is not defined, and that you can’t define, and that shouldn’t be defined.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, if the flower, or the woman, or the couple, or the house in a work by Miriam Cahn is a flower, a woman, a couple, or a house, then perhaps we could say that you are trying to paint the world in the most direct, essential, innocent way.
MIRIAM CAHN — No, it’s not innocent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Life, the immediacy of life.
MIRIAM CAHN — My works are like words. That’s why it’s important that, as often as possible, I install my own exhibitions myself. It’s always very quick, very performative. I always go very fast, and it’s always finished very soon. I use my own works, my drawings or oil paintings, as contents, as words. And these contents — house, flower, woman, man, defined or undefined — I combine them like a writer or a poet. I combine words that already exist. That’s the way I work, and the interpretation is open, free.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, that means the installation of your paintings is like a commentary preceding the experience of the exhibition?
MIRIAM CAHN — Yes, the exhibition is the place, the space that gives the works an almost performative aspect, that makes the whole thing a kind of commentary on the now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, painting, as such — just the frame of the picture — is not enough for you?
MIRIAM CAHN — I’d rather you didn’t use the word “painting” for my work. I prefer to talk about my works, which can be drawing, photography, texts, too. It’s no use thinking in a framework — it’s not necessary.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s no framework.
MIRIAM CAHN — No, no frame. You don’t have to think about painting, oil painting, as a priority, to make it into framework. There are thoughts, there is the installation, there’s me who is the center of the installation, which I put in place in a physical, corporeal way when I’m the one who makes my installations, in my way. That exists, but it’s not the framework of my painting. I stopped being interested in that a long time ago.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I also noticed that, in your videos and in the photos you made for Purple, you like to move around with your pictures.
MIRIAM CAHN — Ah, yes, I like that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s as if they became mobile.
MIRIAM CAHN — They have to be light, even the big formats. That’s why I build my own frames. Even a painting that is 10 feet by 13 feet — I have to be able to carry it myself. That’s why you see me carrying these pictures in the photos or videos. It’s that: the corporeal, performative content of my installations. I don’t take preliminary measurements, I don’t work with plans or models. I intervene in space and move the works. I come down, and we install.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s always a bit of a 1970s performance aspect to your work?
MIRIAM CAHN — Yes. When I was a young artist, performance art had a big effect on me. There was a lot of it in Basel. There were lots of artists who came from Germany, Austria, Italy, and the US. These were new ideas and new forms of art that were very important to me, absolutely!

OLIVIER ZAHM — The Viennese Actionists, for example?
MIRIAM CAHN — Yes. They were new forms that got away from the idea of the frame, of oil painting, of composition, etc. This was something new. Naturally, it had to do with the use of video. That was important for a young artist like me, but I never wanted to do performance or video. I wanted to keep the practice of drawing and painting, but I wanted to do it in a way that was intellectually like them.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What have you kept from performance art, today?
MIRIAM CAHN — Thought, the conceptual approach to art, but also the possibility of using your body as an instrument.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The body is not just in the picture, in the pictorial gesture.
MIRIAM CAHN — No, it’s the instrument. We have to put pictorial gesture behind us — it’s hopeless, really hopeless. It serves no purpose. It’s the whole body that is the instrument, and the result is what it is.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Right. Let’s talk about the body and sexuality. One of the things that makes your work extremely relevant today is this impression we have of gender fluidity, that non-binarity. To be more precise, the genital organs — phallus and vagina — cannot be attributed to a defined gender. Is that something you think about, or does it come out spontaneously?
MIRIAM CAHN — It’s a mixture. There are figures or characters where it’s not clear if they’re men or women, or in between, or something like that, but there are lots where it’s very clear. You can see the penis or the clitoris very clearly. The clitoris is something you never see in painting or drawing; it’s something that, for a very long time, didn’t exist, and that has now started to exist. It’s important for me to be specific on that point. Today, I really want diversity to be recognized: there are men and women, and there are people who don’t recognize themselves in a gender, who don’t know if they’re men or women, who refuse to define themselves as one gender or another, not to mention the ones who get an operation. Today, that’s how it is. And I’m very happy it’s like that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — One can sense that, with you — beyond gender positions, beyond sexual organs, the individual with his phallus, the other with her clitoris — there is this possibility of exchange, that in the end, we’re all the same, getting beyond this imposition of gender. Do you agree?
MIRIAM CAHN — Naturally, we are all the same, and that is sexuality! But not in the history of art. If you look at how women are shown,
I mean, these individuals with a clitoris and a vagina, I really like what men did, but then, that’s the thing — it was done mainly by men! That’s why, in art, woman is reduced to sexualized, even pornographic representations. Her identity is also reduced to the mother figure, to the Virgin Mary, or model, or muse. This is changing hugely at the moment, and I think it’s really very interesting. I’m a feminist, and as women artists, we have the opportunity to invent new images. New images, not new paintings, and all that shit. With these images, you have to start showing true sexuality. And I do it from my own point of view, with my body as my instrument. This is my commentary on sexuality and on how it can be shown nowadays.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a combat for you, as a woman, against representations of the female that are imposed by men.
MIRIAM CAHN — But that’s not enough. If women and men really are equal in life, like in art, and also in the art world, you have to start doing a lot more as a woman artist. And that is highly political. I wouldn’t like to be a man artist because they’ve done it all from their point of view already.

OLIVIER ZAHM — All they’re doing is redoing, replaying their fantasies.
MIRIAM CAHN — That’s what interests me in art: you’re always looking for new images, and you can make some very interesting images about sexuality. The result is that people like you don’t always know what to think about the sexuality in my work. I’m exploring. In fact, there are more images of sexuality in my work than in Picasso’s, say.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you exploring, more particularly, female sexuality? Supposing, of course, that such a thing exists outside the relation between genders and their plurality.
MIRIAM CAHN — I don’t know. Things have to be left open. You can’t say, “Ah women’s sexuality, it’s like this or like that.” You can’t with men’s sexuality, either, for that matter. I talk about sexuality as a whole.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But there is less representation of women’s sexuality. It isn’t translated into images as much as male sexuality is.
MIRIAM CAHN — Exactly. But should they be separated? It’s just that, up to now, artists were mainly men. They made magnificent works about sexuality, and I have no problem with that. Today, though, people are trying to look again, to see what is there, in front of us, afresh. That’s why performance in the 1970s was so interesting. It was something else, something totally new, and there were a lot of women in those movements!

OLIVIER ZAHM — There were a lot of women doing performances, more than in other artistic practices.
MIRIAM CAHN — Yes, because you could forget, just a little, what men had done. And you had your woman’s body — you made art with your body. What I’m saying is very simple, but that was the reality, and it was new. And that produced other kinds of images. Now, things are changing, and we women artists are part of the…

OLIVIER ZAHM — The game?
MIRIAM CAHN — Yes, not completely there yet, but let’s say it’s going in the right direction.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you aware that your work represents something very current for recent transfeminist movements?
MIRIAM CAHN — Yes, I hope so! But what you’re saying remains an interpretation of my work. I hope that it’s not illustrative, that it’s still open to interpretation, like all art worthy of the name. That said, if you ask me if I’m a feminist, yes, I still am. When they asked Pipilotti Rist that question, she replied that it was a matter of honor. I think that’s a very good answer. It’s a matter of honor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Your work reflects the present, I’m sure of that, but how do you see the future? How do you think the world will evolve?
MIRIAM CAHN — I’m 72 years old, so how do I picture the future? Personally, the future doesn’t really interest me because I don’t even know myself what I’m going to do tomorrow. I don’t know if tomorrow I’ll make an animal, a drawing, or a city. We’ll see tomorrow.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Seventy-two, but with a punk spirit of revolt and rebellion.
MIRIAM CAHN — You can’t not be in revolt mode if you’re an artist. It may be old school to think that, but it’s right.

END

MIRIAM CAHN, EREIGNIS, 2021, OIL ON CANVAS, 31 1/10 X 45 2/5 INCHES, COPYRIGHT AND COURTESY OF THE ARTIST MIRIAM CAHN, O.T., 26.04.2012 + 7.3.19, OIL ON CANVAS, 78 3/4 X 63 INCHES, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALERIE JOCELYN WOLFF MIRIAM CAHN, UNKLAR, 1997, OIL ON CANVAS, 39 4/5 X 27 1/2 INCHES, COPYRIGHT AND COURTESY OF THE ARTIST MIRIAM CAHN, ORGASM, 5.12.19, DETAIL, COLOR PENCIL AND PASTEL ON PAPER, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALERIE JOCELYN WOLFF MIRIAM CAHN, SOLDAT, 16.12.2010, OIL ON CANVAS, 51 1/8 X 31 1/2 INCHES, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALERIE JOCELYN WOLFF MIRIAM CAHN, ORGASM, 5.12.19, DETAIL, COLOR PENCIL AND PASTEL ON PAPER, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALERIE JOCELYN WOLFF MIRIAM CAHN, ORGASM, 5.12.19, DETAIL, COLOR PENCIL AND PASTEL ON PAPER, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALERIE JOCELYN WOLFF MIRIAM CAHN, MARE NOSTRUM, 2020, OIL ON CANVAS, 27 1/2 X 45 1/3 INCHES, COPYRIGHT AND COURTESY OF THE ARTIST MIRIAM CAHN, WAS MICH ANSCHAUT, 2020, OIL ON CANVAS, 55 1/10 X 39 3/10 INCHES, COPYRIGHT AND COURTESY OF THE ARTIST MIRIAM CAHN, O.T., 12.2.99, OIL ON CANVAS, 19 5/8 X 14 1/8 INCHES, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GALERIE JOCELYN WOLFF

[Table of contents]

The Island Issue #35

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