Thursday, March 14, 1996

Two knitting needles, one garment

"Competition begins because when you are twins . . ." Irene Hohenbuchler begins to say, before her twin, Christine, seamlessly finishes ". . . you think you are the same and you are not . . ."

The Hohenbuchler sisters have a habit of talking this way: it involves more than one twin butting in to finish the other's thoughts; it also involves the speaker withdrawing a little, leaving cherished space for an interjection, a gap for a sibling addendum. Consequently, a conversation with the pair tends to zig zag between the sound of one voice and the other, like two knitting needles working away on the same garment.

Never, however, do they drop a stitch. During an hour and a half's conversation about their work, and about the month long project they have undertaken at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, they do not once disagree.

The twins were born on October 3rd, 1964, (Christine is the elder by a minute) and grew up in the village of Eichgraben, outside Vienna. They have another sister, Heidimarie, with whom they have worked with on a previous occasion, for an exhibition at the ICA in London. Normally, however, it is just the twins who work together.

At first, although both sisters were drawn to art, there was no notion that they should work together. Christine started sculpture and Irene began working in painting, both in a very traditional way".

"It was very good for us to study different things. Because in puberty, up until we were 19 or 20, there was a lot of competition between us . . . says Irene. "It was very negative. We hated it," says Christine.

Despite specialising in different areas, when the twins began exhibiting in 1988, they did so together. These days, although the pair only show together, they live relatively separate lives. Christine has a flat in Berlin, while Irene still lives near the village in which they grew up in the area know as Wienerwald - literally the Vienna Woods - which they describe as "a bit like paradise".

Though the twins consistently work with groups of institutionalised people particularly those with learning disabilities but also prisoners and psychiatric patients, they also maintain a career on the international gallery circuit, exhibiting at home in Vienna, as well as in Berlin, London, Amsterdam.

Because they work as a pair, seldom making any distinction about who does what, their work becomes a microcosmic example of the tradition on which they draw. Often their work is made in "natural materials", using traditional skills such as sewing, knitting and weaving. Their work involves crafts in which the author is not traditionally promoted.

"For us, there is no distinction between art and craft," says Christine. "People are always trying to say that this is art and this is craft people need to make hierarchies our work is often accused of being too close to craft, of not being art. They insist that the high art is the work of a genius, somehow spiritual and intellectual and that craft is not like that. But I have problems with that idea."

"We are more interested in culture in general than in making this distinction," Irene adds. "What we do is an attempt to break through this art world which can be very narrow minded in some ways. We are completely in that scene, but I often wonder why ... I suppose we do it because it offers a certain freedom and when we work with these people it offers them a certain freedom also. We would like the kind of thing these people are doing here to be seen as art too. This kind of work is always seen as some sort of therapeutic activity, but these people have the problems that we have too. They are as disturbed as we are."

For the sisters, it seems, there is no particular need to leave behind the traditions of painting and sculpture to crawl out from under the weight of centuries of elitist tradition. These activities, they suggest, exist in popular forms as well.

The sisters are, of course, not alone in the contemporary art world in feeling this way. They say the inspiration for their practice came from a group of artists who work with people with learning disabilities at the Multiple Autorenschaft Liens in Austria.

It was here they first met an organisation of artists which attempts to turn working with people with disabilities into something far more ambitious than art therapy. Some students have been coming to Liens for the past 15 years, working regularly with artists from all disciplines, including computer and sound art, and receiving what amounts to an art school education.

"We started to work this way in 1990 but we didn't think that it was a fashionable thing to do. We just started and suddenly we found that a lot of people had started around then. I think it happened really because, in the 1980s, the art market was so tough and it was just about objects, people quickly get fed up with that. You really had the feeling that there must be something more in art than objects and money," says Irene.

According to the twins, working within this field while maintaining a commercial art practice leaves them open to criticism of exploitation. "It is very hard now to do anything. It always seems to forget suggested that we are voyeuristic but that is not the way it is. When we work with people it is a very different experience from just going to look at people. It is easy for those on the outside to say you are just using them, you're just taking their energy But in fact, if you are not giving energy back, you will find that nothing happens ... we are more the frame makers; we make the frame for people to fit their work into."

After speaking with Tim Rollins, the New York school teacher who leads his pupils in making art and then sells it in smart Soho galleries, they are learning not to take the charge too seriously. "We met him once and he has the same problems," says Christine. "But he just laughs now about it because that is all you can do ... that is his life, he works with these children, so how could he be abusing them? It is really unfair. He doesn't have five cars or anything."

"In a way, it is very fashionable to try and work and interact with groups like these within society," says Irene. "But it just happens that a lot of things appear at the same time," says Christine. "Simultaneously," says Irene.

Crios, the Hohenbuchlers' work for the Douglas Hyde Gallery, fits, squarely into the collaborative part of their oeuvre. For a month, the sisters will work with groups from the School of Occupational Therapy, TCD, and St John of God Services, Dunmore House, who work together under the title "Project Interact".

The project will last four weeks, although the sisters prefer to work over a three month period so that they can develop relationships. During this time the groups of adults with learning disabilities will work as co artists with the Hohenbuchlers, making wall drawings around the gallery, as well as creating a series of weavings on simple looms slung between the walls and the concrete of the gallery floor.

Crios, like several of the twins' earlier pieces, uses weaving as a complex metaphor, one which resonates profoundly with their ideas about why exactly they practise as artists: "Anna Freud would always weave beside her patients during therapy. Weaving is a very fine metaphor, particularly for instance when working with psychiatric patients, because it is a structure and those people have lost their structure; they're floating in a chaotic fantasy and you have to bring them back into a kind of order. They are longing for order. It is torture just to float around and find no way out."


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