Kristen Pieroth


In her recent works, the young Berlin-based artist Kirsten Pieroth is concerned with invention—in particular, with the most famous inventor of them all, Thomas Alva Edison. The long title of Pieroth’s Berlin exhibition, “I regret that a previous engagement prevents me from accepting your kind invitation to dinner at your home, on Thursday evening, September seventeenth,” is taken from the inventor’s correspondence. But is the reason Edison gives for declining the invitation true? Or is it merely an invention? The artist put this question to the scholar in charge of Edison’s papers, who thought an invention likely; a great-grandson of the inventor concurred. Pieroth therefore asked a patent attorney about registering Edison’s probably invented reason for his nonappearance. Unsuccessfully, of course. But why? It was, after all, another invention by a man to whom more than a thousand patents were awarded. Pieroth presented her correspondence in a display case, with Edison’s original letter framed on the wall nearby, under the title Letter of an Inventor (all works 2003).

A photograph of Edison asleep on a workbench (he famously slept only four hours a day and used every opportunity to make up for lost time) bearing a forged signature inspired Pieroth to produce a wooden workbench likewise bearing the signature of the inventor, this time forged by the artist. Next to Edison’s Workbench Pieroth placed Edison’s Restbench, this time a reproduction of a bench in Edison’s garden but decked out with small, sharp nails that rob it of its function. As a nonutilitarian object it becomes, in allusion to Surrealist objects like Man Ray’s iron with nails, an artistic “invention.” By contrast, the safe exhibited in the space is no invention: It was found behind a hollow wall during a remodeling of the gallery. Knowing, however, that a safe was also discovered in the course of a recent excavation of the cellar of Edison’s first laboratory lends this object a level of fictional association not entirely alien to the properties of invention or free of the element of chance. But can there be invention without accident? Is not invention, including artistic invention, a contingent coincidence of associative processes?

“From the Laboratory of Thomas A. Edison” was the title of the exhibition in Frankfurt. It consisted of two works. One was simply a blank piece of stationery from the inventor’s laboratory hung in a frame on the wall. Alongside this were a pair of photographs of a wooden shed, known as Building #11, which was used as a chemical lab at Edison’s Research Center in West Orange, New Jersey. In 1940 this shed was left to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum broke it down into individual pieces and reconstructed it in Michigan. There it stood until 2002, when it was transported back to West Orange, where it stands again today. The shed has long since lost its function as a chemical laboratory to become an exhibit that suddenly finds itself, in its original location, as a replica, if not as new invention. Taking the photographs of Building #11 as her model, Pieroth reproduced the lathes, boards, and window and door frames that would presumably be necessary for a reconstruction of the laboratory shed. They were piled on the floor of the exhibition space and stacked along the walls. One is free to produce a copy of the laboratory shed. But what will this reconstructed shed then be? A copy, a forgery, or an invented art object?

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Diana Reese.