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In conversation with Johanna Hedva.

  • Review
  • Dec 02 2022
  • Sonja Borstner
    is a writer, curator, and editor whose research is focused on the body, sickness, and vulnerability. She is assistant editor at the Gropius Bau and editor-at-large of the online art magazine PASSE-AVANT. Her recent writings have been published in frieze magazine, Gropius Bau Journal, TAZ, Berliner Zeitung and with Revolver Publishing and Distanz Verlag, among others.

In the frame of the exhibition YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal on view at Gropius Bau, AWC publishes an excerpt from the conversation between curator and writer Sonja Borstner and artist Johanna Hedva on the Western relationship between time and healing, and how capitalism instrumentalizes failures and injuries as a way to “make one stronger and successful”.

The Gropius Bau is permeated with and through injuries from the Second World War. While the most severe damage has been reconstructed between 1978-1981, some areas were deliberately left “unrepaired.” Embodying a somewhat anachronistic container that resists linear readings of time – and eventually repair – The Clock is Always Wrong, your work in the frame of YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal, speaks to an understanding of healing as a cyclical, continuous process, repelling the idiom that “time heals all wounds.” Holding space with and for injuries/wounds/scars rather than concealing them seems to be at the core of your thinking as an artist, musician, and writer which unfolds in different media and disciplines, ranging from temporal performances to drawings, sculptures, installations, video games, music and text-based works. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about finding artistic responses to a collection that bears, archives, sets, collects, and maintains time in an institutional context?

Time and healing are conundrums. They can’t be measured, or defined, or contained in any monolithic or reliably stable way, and I don’t think it behooves us to consider time or healing as immutable entities that can articulate our universe in any ways other than poetic, anagogic. With this new body of work, I wanted to reflect about time: on what it means to “tell” time; the slipperiness and valency of that verb. And I wanted to work with time, to make objects with and about and through it. I wanted time to be felt in the room more than space, but I wanted it to be an eerie time, magic time, uncanny and witty and weird. 

I am antagonistic to the implied causality of time that heals because of its chronological linearity; to the idea that healing happens because time accumulates quantitatively, which seems to be the proposal in the adage “time heals all wounds,” as well as in some of the themes of this exhibition. Even though the word “time” is not in the exhibition’s title, it is assumed as a necessary ingredient that each of those three things needs to work. The idea that this show is somehow caring, repairing, and healing seems to operate on the premise that such things are possible – but it is not clear to me exactly how that’s supposed to happen, upon what exactly that premise relies. I guess I’m being dialectical about this, but when presented with three words as thorny and cryptic and vague as care, repair, and healing, my first response is not to trust it, like, what actually are they, and what do they mean, and how do they operate within an institutional context? 

After years of participating in disability justice activism, I don’t buy that care, repair, and healing are possible if only, like, the right intention is there, if we just “care” enough. Because what are we talking about when we talk about care – what is that in practice? The word care is used a lot as some inherent, general “good.” But I never know what people actually mean when they use that word. Like, what values are presumed in it? What is the goal? What are the means to get there? Is it to get back to some fantastical wholeness, or purity, or condition without damage; to arrive at a horizon of happiness and total health forever and always where nothing snags or tears or breaks or deviates or needs? Fuck no. 

However, there’s one thing I realized over the process of working on this show, which I think might just be the single most important element to ensure an anti-ableist, anti-capitalist working condition: enough time. 

Reclaiming the narrative put upon oneself, finding words, finding volume, finding a voice is something I’ve encountered in many of your works, and especially in your writings, such as Sick Woman Theory or in your recent album Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House (2021). For the recording of this album, you, for example, have trained in breathing and singing techniques that go back to the Korean genre of epic and musical narration of drama called P’ansori. P’ansori singers practice singing for hours until their vocal cords begin to bleed, eventually developing calluses to obtain the typical hoarse or husky vocal timbre. Listening to the record, fierce guitar riffs and echoing distortions create a sort of undertone through which your voice cuts and takes up space. Could you share some thoughts on the process of finding a voice outside the normative mold, not only in your music, but also in your writings?

Maybe some of this connects back to what we’ve been discussing in relation to healing and the impossibility of it from within the dominant ideological value systems of the “West”, that one tactic here is to refuse and refute what is being said about us, to decline whatever pathology is said to belong to us. Just to declare, like, “No, that’s not mine.” From a Western musical point of view, P’ansori singers are “damaging” their voices by singing in that style, by not allowing their voices to “heal” or pushing their bodies “too far.” But the aesthetic value in P’ansori is precisely this quality that evidences the wear, tear, age, and life lived within a singer’s voice, which is to say, within their body. The point is that this deterioration sounds more beautiful because it is not something that can be cheated or faked; it requires the singer’s body to actually be changed by the craft, by how the singer uses it, to endure through time and to show the material consequence of that, and such consequence is not thought of as “damage,” but evidence of life lived and the choice to commit oneself to the craft. 

This is antipodal to the Western classical opera tradition, where voices should sound crystalline, pure, empyreal, untouched by the body or terrestrial time. When I perform live, I can feel that my voice is a little bit different after every show, a little more used, and there’s something quite thrilling in that. 

However, this binary of purity/defilement gets at the root of the ways that “healing” as an ideological regime provides cover for domination and pathologization; it privileges purity, that this is the thing to stay close to, to try to return to, and asserts that to move away from it is dangerous. If singing in the style of European classical music is taken as the norm, then using one’s voice to do something else becomes not just a matter of taste or tradition, but a matter of “health” and “safety”: you’re in danger of hurting yourself, you’re messing something up that used to be clean, you’ll do irrevocable destruction. Artistic traditions that defy or ignore the European standard are recast as acts of harm and violence, if not deviant and alien. 

I’m not interested in smoothing away or hiding the fractures, wounds, and fragmentations that occur, whether vocally like we’re discussing, or narratively, in the sense of what stories are told about healing, recovery and overcoming/surviving. In the capitalist storyline, failures and injuries are necessary hurdles that “make you stronger” on your way to normative success. Things that would fall under the umbrella of weakness – vulnerability, frailty, deficiency, debility, but also this wear and tear on the body as it persists through time – are never read as qualities in and of themselves. Instead, they have to be leveraged in service of their assumed binary opposite of strength. I’m not saying we should be celebrating or increasing our weaknesses as such – I’m saying we should redefine this whole binary, and remake the values ascribed to it. Maybe it’s not a binary at all.

Part of the project of my work is to reverse these value judgments and show that there are other ways of thinking and being that do not need to be divided into weaknesses and strengths, survival and thriving, pure and healthy versus fucked up and damaged. Like, what if someone croaking their way through a song is not evidence that they’ve lost what they used to have? What if, instead, it’s showing what they’ve gained? In my essay Notes on Need (2021), the ideas of which became the argument of Why It’s Taking So Long, a text I’ve read during Ámà: 4 Days on Caring, Repairing and Healing at the Gropius Bau in 2021, I started to think through this kind of inversion, redefining something that has been determined to be an indicator of weakness, of deficit: “I want to know why we have built our world and afflicted ourselves with the law that a body should not need too much, indeed, that it should need hardly at all, when we could have built the world according to the law that a body’s needs will be there always, that they are everywhere, forever, and so, isn’t that a kind of luxury? A bounty?” If need, vulnerability, and fragility are boundless, and self-sufficiency, wellness, health, individual sovereignty, and control are insecure and temporary, perhaps we should be curious about how to revalue those things that are abundant and unceasing. Why have we cast them as deficiencies when they are, in fact, plenitudes?

Take, for instance, the snakes coming out of the huge vaginas of the demons on my textile pieces in The Clock is Always Wrong. The serpent is a symbol of sin in the Christian world because it is a symbol of knowledge – and this is because in the ancient pre-Christian pantheons, the serpent was considered the most divine animal, because it was believed to have the most shapeshifting capacities, which was a function of the gods. What I mean is, I always like to think about how something called disobedient, deviant, disabled, negated can also be called capacious; liberatory.


An extended version of this conversation is published at the Gropius Bau Journal, which can be accessed via:

YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal is on view at the Gropius Bau, Berlin until 15 January, 2023. 

    Cover: YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal, Johanna Hedva: The Clock Is Always Wrong, Installation view, Gropius Bau (2022)
    photo: Laura Fior

    fig. 1: Johanna Hedva (they/them) is a Korean-American writer, artist, and musician, who was raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches, and now lives between Los Angeles and Berlin. Hedva is the author of Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain, a collection of poems, performances, and essays, and the novel On Hell. Their albums are Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House and The Sun and the Moon. Their work The Clock is Always Wrong (2022) is part of the group exhibition YOYI! Care, Repair, Heal at the Gropius Bau in 2022.



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