OPEN SKY Kunstmuseum Thun – Curated by Helen Hirsh
WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots). In the interview with the artist, they tell about their dream of flying, their fascination for airplanes and the situatin of women in the Air Force. At the same time, their later life is also thematised. As in many other countries, the women pilots were discharged from military duty after the war and had no more opportunity to serve as fighter pilots.
Sisters of the Red Star, 1999-2007, continues with the researches Simone Aaberg Kærn had begun with Sisters in the Sky. In this one, three women pilots of the Russian Air Force during the Second World War are at the centre. The video-collage combines documentary scenes of the aerial warfare with the interviews of the artist with the pilots. Unlike in America, there were numerous women pilots also serving in the air force before the Second World War. Due to the communist doctrine, after all, men and women were put on a par with each other.
In 2002, Simone Aaberg Kærn read in a Danish daily about the 17-year old Afghani girl who dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot. Aaberg Kærn resolved upon flying to Kabul in her Piper Colt, a 1962 model two-seater, to give Farial her first flying lessons.
The journey should be a kind of micro-global performance and an attempt to capture the open sky. At the same time, the journey was to become Aaberg Kærn’s mission in the scope of a “sisterhood” of women pilots, which she had begun with the video works Sisters in the Sky and Sisters of the Red Star.
After a long preparation, the artist took off with her then husband Magnus Bejmar on September 4, 2002, from a grass runway near Copenhagen and reached Kabul 100 days later. In the process, she had to overcome numerous hurdles, be it organisational, technical or topographical. She obtained permission to fly over countries like Iran only by means of personal relations to the military high command, and in some cases she obtained no permission at all, as was the case in Afghanistan.
No trace of open sky! In Afghanistan ultimately there was only the mountainous massif of the Hindukush between Farial and her. With peaks of over 6,000 metres above sea level, she reached the limits of the potentials of her small plane which was not designed for flying at such altitudes.
In Kabul, Aaberg Kærn met Farial in her school and tried to convince her parents and numerous government officials to go along with her plan. Finally, Aaberg Kærn could take off on her first flight with Farial and the fears were quelled by simple joy.
The artist named her 40-year old plane “Rip” after one of the three nephews of Dagobert Duck who in Danish are called not Tick, Trick and Track, but Rip, Rup and Rap. The Emmy award-nominated documentary film, Smiling in a War Zone, 2005, documents the entire mission around Farial.
More stories and information are obtained in Crossing line (Compass), an installation with an oversize compass and eight films which deepen the transnational character of Aaberg Kærn’s mission. On the one hand you see all about her flight and the organisational problems associated with it, like the efforts to obtain permission to fly from Graz to Sarajevo, or to meet the women fighter pilots at the military aerodrome in Konya in Turkey. On the other hand, in films such as The legend of love, 12 Afghan cartoons or Pie from the sky, Aaberg Kærn looks deeper into the culture and history of Afghanistan.
The legend of love shows the consequences of the Taliban regime which burnt all kinds of pictures stemming from the Afghani culture: The huge Buddha statues in the Bamiyan valley were destroyed and lorry loads of film rolls of the Afghan Film Institute were burnt. In Pie from the sky, the almost absurd link between the dropping of bombs and the dropping of “food bombs” (food packets) for the miserable victims is explored, starting with packets which the American armed forces dropped over Berlin during the Second World War till the dropping in Afghanistan in 2001.
In the same room, photographs and a video work entitled Sisters of Mazar-i-Sharif are exhibited. On her journey to meet Farial in Kabul, Simone Aaberg Kærn learnt about two women helicopter pilots who served in the Afghan Air Force, but nobody could give them any information about where the two sisters,
Liloma and Latifa, lived and whether they fled the country and sought refuge abroad before the Taliban regime came to power. In Kabul, the artist found not only Farial but also the two sisters and had the opportunity to make their portraits. These women could train to become Mi-17 helicopter pilots after the withdrawal of the Russians and the establishment of fundamentalism in Afghanistan, but had to flee and lived in exile for several years.
The 2008 work, Spider Sisters, has been newly created for the exhibition at Kunstmuseum Thun. In the run-up to the exhibition, Simone Aaberg Kærn approached three women helicopter pilots of the Air Transport Squadron 6 of the Swiss Air Force. Equipped with helicopters of the types Super Cougar, Super Puma and Alouette 3, the principle task of the Squadron is to undertake transport missions for the army and the civil population. The artist has captured one of the civil missions, the removal of tree trunks, in her photo collage. In the video work Show me how to fly spider! the women pilots execute the typical hand movements involved in the preparation and simulation of a flight.
The Swiss Air Force admitted women into the service after the Second World War, but it was only in 1995 that four women were employed as pilots for the first time.
In contrast to the Swiss helicopter pilots, the Turkish women portrayed in Freedom Fighters / Fighter Pilots fly fighter jets and have also taken part in combat operations. Our image of the women in Turkey does not at all agree with the reality in the Turkish Air Force, where they are accepted absolutely and even encouraged. In the past years the Turkish Air Force has once again begun to augment its women force, wooing and inviting suitable candidates directly from school campuses, which was the case of the women pilots portrayed by Aaberg Kærn. The artist shows the women pilots not only in their professional environment, and not only as fighter pilots who could have directly emerged from the film Top Gun, but she also meets them privately in their flat for a meal. Here the artist doesn’t resort to the age-old, woman-at-the-hearth cliché, it was important for the pilots to present themselves as women in a vastly feminine role.
A Turkish woman, Sabiha Göckçen, is moreover the first woman fighter pilot in the world. She was an adopted child of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who gave the name Göckçen to her (“Göck” means “sky” or “heavens”). Sabiha Göckçen could realise her dream of flying in 1935 as she visited the civil flying school in Ankara and joined the Turkish Air Force the very next year. She took part in combat missions and since then is considered as a heroine in Turkey and a symbol of the modern Turkish woman. Therewith, she levelled the way for the women pilots portrayed in Aaberg Kærn’s works to enter the Turkish Air Force.
A publication has been released by the Christoph Merian Verlag with texts (D/E) by Helen Hirsch and Maria Osietski on the occasion of the exhibition, Open Sky – Simone Aaberg Kærn.
Works on display at Thun:
Sisters Hero Remix (video only)
Sisters of the red star
a micro-global performance
the sisters from Mazar
Smiling in a War Zone