Power to the people

Since the beginning of the year the German artist Jochen Gerz has been persuading the people of Ballymun to buy trees

Since the beginning of the year the German artist Jochen Gerz has been persuading the people of Ballymun to buy trees. Gerz is an artist, but the tools of his trade are not paint and brushes or chisels and mallets, writes Aidan Dunne

Words are his primary medium. He goes to work with a briefcase, his mobile phone is always close to hand and he looks rather like a businessman: smart clothes, closely cropped hair, glasses, a conventional if subdued, almost ascetic appearance.

More than anything he is a persuader. A measured, patient talker, he is used to explaining things over and over again to any audience. At Ballymun he has been explaining the project, called A Map To Care, to the local community, to art professionals, to politicians, bureaucrats and journalists and to the group of students from the National College of Art and Design who are working with him.

He wants people to donate half of the cost of a tree of their choice (Dublin City Council will match their donations and help with planting and maintenance), to be planted in Ballymun. The cheapest tree is €50. He's looking at having businesses and individuals sponsor donations for people who cannot afford to donate themselves. Anyone who would like to donate a tree is welcome to do so. Currently about 100 people have pledged involvement.

"It's not a landscaping project per se. If you look around, poor places have no trees, rich places have trees. I don't know why." There are significant additional elements. He is asking each donor a question: "If the tree could speak, what would it say about me? In the same way that you could ask of a person who buys a painting, what does the painting say about them? I'm like a medieval scribe. I write down in a nice way what they say to me. Something of what they say will be recorded on a lectern beside each tree."

At the new plaza in Ballymun, the names of the donors will be inscribed, and the locations of the trees will be marked by lights on a spectacular map of the locality laid into the ground. The plaza will be opened in June next year. "I want to bring the authorship of the people back into Ballymun," he says.

The concept of authorship is central to his thinking. "Look at any town. You can be in a lousy situation, living in a problematic area, then someone comes and says they're going to save you. Identity is not the sum of your advantages, it's also the sum of your traumas.Traumatised people have a stronger sense of identity than privileged, wealthy people. Change means intervention, hassle - which doesn't mean it's not good and necessary."

He's looked at the huge transformation of the Ballymun landscape that is under way. "You can have a well-meaning regenerative programme and it can be . . ." He pauses. "I don't mean this in a simplistic sense, I . . ." He laughs briefly. "It can be totally useless, not through ill will on either side but because it doesn't produce a psychological drama that fulfils the expectations of the participants." In effect: "People can react to good things as if they're bad. They can't identify the enemy. The situation can make people authorless . . . . The degree of abstraction of the situation they're in doesn't fit with the degree of presence they experience.

"I mean that democracy can have the disadvantage of being abstract. When you're dealing with a dictator you know who to blame. In a democracy it can seem that if you're poor the advantages you get are a kind of compensation for being poor. You're the object of donations, grants.

"A funny thing happens. People can't appreciate what they have or what they get. I know that in the past Ballymun had a stigma about it, which has to do partly with this not caring for the thing that's offered. I wanted to do something that wasn't about receiving. I wanted to ask the people to give something."

He's heard about the perception that the Irish, and Dubliners in particular, are aggressive towards public art. "I think there's a lot of trauma, a lot of memory that is not treated in contemporary culture here. And the relation of the citizens to the public domain is an unresolved issue." In contrast to other European cities, for example, people tend not to regard public spaces as their own. Gerz has just been through a comparable process in Coventry, where two linked projects were unveiled two weeks ago.

The Future Monument and The Public Bench entailed contributions from more than 5,000 people. They were asked one of two questions: Who were the enemies of the past? or Do you have a friend? Their responses make up the texts on a 45-metre bench and a five-metre illuminated glass obelisk. Characteristically, throughout the years-long process, Gerz gradually won around initial opponents to create a genuinely public monument, an anthology of personal and public history.

Born in Berlin in 1940, he studied languages, literature and, later, palaeontology at university. He worked as a literary translator. Having spent time in London he seemed to find his spiritual home in Paris, where he has been based since 1966. His early conceptual pieces, witty interventions in public spaces, were very much in keeping with the revolutionary optimism of 1968. They took the form of video, installation and performance, but his most consistent medium has been photo-text. He has never left the public arena since 1968, and in many ways his work has been an exploration of strategies of engagement with and involvement of the public, transforming them, as he says, from audience to authors.

Almost by the way, he owns up to a sojourn in Ireland decades back. "I spent six months in Ennistymon." Doing what? He hesitates, a little abashed, and finally says with a wry smile that he "was trying to write poetry. I was to be a writer, making texts". But he earned his living as a translator. "I'd been translating Yeats, Aldrich, Eliot and Pound." It's not something he wants to elaborate on, yet one can see the logic of his wanting to write poetry. He works with words all the time. He writes a great deal. The major part of his time is given over to words in one form or another.

"Words are always present in the work," he says. "Words are written down, and then the writing travels through speech and different media, different stages. In everything I do, in public works, photo-texts, installations, I'm still taking words on a journey with me. More and more I exclusively make people speak. I try to get the public into a position of authorship."

In effect this is a redistribution of the balance of power in the transaction between artist and viewer, a change from the production-consumption model. Gerz smiles wryly. "The viewer pushes me around a bit. The so-called object of the work, the art object, is pushed around a bit." It is not an overstatement to say that he has been pivotal in redefining the nature of public monuments and public art. A number of his projects have proved controversial, which is surprising given that there is a consistently and deliberately self-effacing quality to his work. His proposal for the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square, in London, was that it be planted with turfs from whatever football team happened to be the current champions.

In one of his most celebrated pieces, in Saarbrücken in Germany, the work literally disappeared as it was made. For 2146 Stones - Monument Against Racism the names of Jewish cemeteries in Germany before the second World War were engraved on the underside of paving stones temporarily removed from, then relaid on, the town square. Remarkably, this project, undertaken with local students, was at first unofficial and only later became a commission. In fact the square was eventually renamed to become the Square of the Invisible Monument.

Gerz devised another renowned disappearing monument in collaboration with his wife, Esther Shalev-Gerz in 1985, a lead-covered, incrementally sinking pillar at Hamburg-Harburg, onto which people were invited to inscribe their thoughts and feelings. Unexpectedly - though not, perhaps, to Gerz - people grasped the opportunity to express themselves. Ten years or so later, at Biron, in France, he replaced an existing concrete obelisk with a replica carved in local stone but then embellished it with plates bearing locals' responses to an unpublicised question posed by the artist.

In another project, The Witnesses, again made in France, in Cahors in 1998, he interviewed and made photographic portraits of 48 women who had lived through the Vichy regime, women of the same generation as Maurice Papon, at the time awaiting the verdict of his trial for his part in the deportation of Jews in the Bordeaux region. Texts edited from their statements accompanied the portraits, which were exhibited throughout Cahors and in newspapers.

Gerz asked the women about the relationship between the truths of private life and the truths of public, social life. What emerges, in a remarkably raw, intense way, is how each is an aspect of the other, although they had not necessarily been talked about in those terms before. That is what Grez means by shifting authorship. "Creativity is not my private process, my personal property that the viewer has to like or not. Sculpture is not what's sitting on a plinth, it's the time spent in doing it. People do the work. We need an art that catches up with our time - that is to say, we need to bring art to the position of being able to help make sense out of our presence, not only our past, to make sense of democracy.

"Aesthetics is about making sense out of what you see around you. What do I see? What I see is my world. Art can be something that makes a time worthwhile, it can define a period, an epoch. Art helps us to live in a balance between past and future, to live in a fragility of presence, making sense out of what's going on, out of maybe a lot of nonsense. It's an expression not of an artist but of a society."

If you would like to be involved in A Map To Care, Jochen Gerz is based at the Axis Centre, Main Street, Ballymun, Dublin 9 (01-8832110, e-mail amaptocare @ hotmail.com)