Vampire Facelift
Teodora Talhoș in conversation with Daniela Kneip Velescu
Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim
by Teodora Talhoș

Our editor Teodora Talhoș sat down with visual artist Daniela Kneip Velescu to discuss her solo-exhibition Vampire Facelift at the Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim.

Daniela Kneip Velescu, Vampire Facelift, Installation view, Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim, 2024. Photography: Roman Mensing

Teodora Talhoș:
Daniela, we first met in Timișoara last year at an exhibition opening. Timișoara, or rather Satchinez, a village not very far away, was the end destination of a longer journey you were completing. It was a research travel, and also the starting point of your exhibition Vampire Facelift at Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim. Could you tell us a little about this journey?

Daniela Kneip Velescu: I knew I wanted to travel down the Danube from Ulm to Apatin, a town in Serbia, to explore the journey my ancestors undertook 250 years ago. The trip was supported by a grant from the Stiftung Kunstfonds Bonn. My forebearers were Swabians who emigrated from what is now Germany to territories in southeastern Europe, now Romania, which have been devastated and depopulated by the Ottoman wars, so that the Habsburgs, who came out on top, repopulated the lands around the Danube with German-speaking settlers.

I wanted to follow their path on the water as closely as possible and look at nowadays Europe from the perspective of the river, which often acts as a border, but can also connect territories. I wanted to immerse myself in something that no longer exists, because change is constant. The countries and territories have changed their names and borders after all the wars, bearing new problems and systems. Partly as a result, my parents ended up in almost the same original place on the map just a few generations later.

Most of the time I traveled by water, but unlike in the 18th century, it is not possible to travel by boat all the way down, so sometimes I had to take the bus instead or just walk. The journey took two months in total. I also wanted to stop in the small towns to get a better understanding of how the communities there see Europe as a whole, especially in relation to Western Europe.

Many of the people in these small Eastern and Southern European towns work in Western Europe and are constantly moving back and forth. I also encountered a lot of skepticism about Germany's relatively liberal policies towards non-European migrants. It was strange for me to hear these hostile opinions towards BIPOC, especially in Hungary, because many Hungarians work in Western Europe to have a better life. So there is a double standard at play. Ironically, my itinerary often ran parallel to what is now known as the Balkan Route – only in the opposite direction.

Daniela Kneip Velescu, Gliedertaxe, Mixed media, 2024. Photography: Roman Mensing

The site-specific floor installation Gliedertaxe – Limb Tax (2024), which you compare to a river, perhaps the Danube, appears to guide the visitor from one room to another and is, to me, a very good metaphor for migration. It suggests what it means to leave one's home, to embark on a long and sometimes difficult and dangerous journey made of obstacles. In this case, the plastic letter trays, stacked precariously like skyscrapers, are a reminder of the complicated paperwork involved in moving – willingly or not – to another country. I would love to know more about the objects scattered around the installation, and their meaning for you and your journey.

DKV: First of all, I would like to explain the title of the work in a little more detail. The word "Gliedertaxe" is a very German word for me. There are insurances for all sorts of things here, and my father chose some for me that he thought were necessary when I was growing up. When I started studying fine arts, he paid a disability insurance for me. Later, when I wanted to cancel it because of the fees, I was astonished to call the company and find out that there is an exact amount of compensation for each part of the body in the event of loss. It was a very absurd moment, listening to fictitious amputations on the phone. This kind of insurance is no longer offered to artists, it no longer seemed like good business. So, in the end, I was just persuaded to keep it.

The objects in the letter trays are documents related to our migration. On my immigration papers from when I moved to Germany with my family, it says that I was ''unmarried''. I was one and a half years old! What is striking here is that they used the vocabulary of "Volkszugehörigkeit" to describe the ethnicity of each of the family members, which makes me shudder because it resembles Nazi vocabulary and logic. Especially with regard to the role of Romania in World War II, as well as the Banat Swabians in particular, who were sometimes forcibly, but mostly out of enthusiasm, part of the Waffen-SS or other organizations of the Third Reich.

In my installation I also included photos of family members and their friends, whom I never met, who stayed behind in Romania. Sometimes there are selfies of myself in between. It was a challenge for me because I don't usually take selfies. Maybe because photos always imply death in the sense of Roland Barthes, or I'm just a bit shy. At the same time, I wanted to capture the fact that I was on this journey alone.

All of these documents are copies so that visitors can easily interact with them – actually I don't mind if they are touched. But on the other hand, I don't want to encourage people to do that, I want to keep them in that ambivalent moment, to do it secretly and with a little thrill. There are also sculptures in the installation that I wanted to throw away but could never bring myself to do so. They lie around like discarded limbs. 

In the performance that German-Hungarian writer Thomas Perle gave here last week, he added to my installation some pages of his artistic text, some of which quoted his immigration documents from Romania to Nuremberg. [1]

The text Perle performed was written especially for the event and was inspired by my installation. It dealt with his own memories from the time of the migration, because that was the moment his memory kicked in (he was 4 years old). I don't remember anything, I just have photos. I didn't know the country or the language – I was too young when we came to Germany. So my memory only begins with the West German kindergarten. His text fragments will remain in my installation until the end of the exhibition. In fact, I could see them becoming an integral part of my installation piece, because they're such a valuable artistic perspective.

You didn't reconnect with your roots until later in life. You told me that you didn't grow up speaking Romanian and that you and your parents didn't go back to Romania very often. Is this an absence you will continue to explore in your artistic practice?

DKV: Yes! My mother, a Banat Swabian (ethnic German) born in Satchinez, Romania, used to be a fashion designer. Her diploma project was to take the traditional fabrics of local Swabian clothing and combine them with contemporary fashion. This was in the 70s in Bucharest. Unfortunately she couldn't take the results with her to Germany, because we only had one piece of luggage per person, I only have two shaky photos of it. I would like to find out more about this on my next trip to Romania, perhaps in the archives of the art school.

Thomas Perle also dealt with the question of the topicality of traditions in a text he wrote during his residency in Timișoara last year, and he managed to upset many of the ethnic Germans there. I liked his text, it was poetic and it also talked about the folk costumes of the Banat Swabians. Then I realized that my mother had done something similar, and I thought it would be interesting to pursue this theme. When she was a girl, she used to dress up in a boy's traditional costume on special occasions to mock the divisions and expectations of being a girl at that time. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2012, so I cannot ask her what was on her mind.

Daniela Kneip Velescu, Designklassiker, 2024. Photography: Roman Mensing

Daniela Kneip Velescu, Vampire Facelift, Installation view, Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim, 2024. Photography: Roman Mensing

Coming back to the installation: In the next room we come across a large, used Ikea couch. In front of it is a coffee table with a video showing a wooden boat, the Ulmer Schachtel, used by the first German-speaking settlers to transport them to their final destinations: places in Hungary, Serbia, Romania, to name but a few. This tells us a lot about migration routes within Europe and how they have changed over the centuries. What does it mean to you as an artist to have a multifaceted identity, and what was it like for you at first to live in Germany as a person of German descent, born in communist Romania?


DKV: So my parents didn't talk much about their past in the Ceaușescu dictatorship in Romania, and of course I was too young to remember anything. They never expressed strong political thoughts. The most important thing for them was that I did well at school and got good grades. In the end, my mother still missed Bucharest.


I became interested in the communist period in Romania, actually starting with the history of the GDR. I never asked my parents about it. Whenever my parents talked about their past, it was about their childhood or their time as art students in Bucharest, always in funny anecdotes.


They never complained, they only saw the good. My mother, for example, was lucky enough to be able to study and wasn't forced to become a farmer like her family. I think they were just tired of hopes and utopias, I mean they were able to study thanks to the relatively liberal 70s in Romania and then they were forced to flee just because of the same people who turned into crazy dictators over time, only to arrive in the West and see that their university degrees were completely null and void. In the end, they didn't belong anywhere.


This also applied to the very private: my parents' relationship with their families was too painful because they had cut ties with them and their friends in order to start a new life. I think they just wanted to protect me from painful information. For a long time I tried to hide the part of my identity that was Romanian. I even hid my second surname, Velescu. People are often so confused by my second surname that they spell it wrong or not at all, and it took me a while to get it back.

Daniela Kneip Velescu, Vampire Facelift, Installation view, Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim, 2024. Photography: Roman Mensing

And that brings us to the title of the exhibition, “Vampire Facelift”. What made you decide on this title?


DKV: "Vampire Facelift" is a new cosmetic procedure that uses your own blood to rejuvenate your face. The choice of title has to do with dealing with getting older. What is it like to be an artist at this age? How do major decisions affect your life and career, like choosing not to have children? Sometimes I have accepted to just not give a shit. Maybe it's okay not to live your whole life according to society's expectations.


While most of the exhibition is about my Swabian roots, I didn't want to ignore my Romanian part, so I included it in the title. The vampires were the first figures that came out of Romania and were considered cool when I was a kid. Whenever my classmates bullied me because of my origins, I would remind them that vampires were also Romanians.


TT: What is the role of humor in your artistic practice?


For me, humor is a tool to get through difficult situations. It's a way to empower yourself, to reclaim yourself, to distance yourself from the uncomfortable situations that other people put you in. When you are humorous, you become active instead of passive. Humor is also an easy way to sensitize others to rather unpleasant topics.


As an immigrant, you often have to feign happiness so as not to appear ungrateful. You shouldn't complain, you always have to smile. Over time, this becomes a mask that you unconsciously wear, but under which all the suppressed frustration and anger still accumulates. These people usually spend a lot of energy trying to put things right. The children are also under a lot of pressure because they are often told or suggested in the family that they are the reason for this big change, that the family has moved to another country so that the children can have a better life. For example, I was always afraid of getting involved in radical politics or getting into trouble with all kinds of authorities for fear of getting my parents into trouble.


TT: Would you like to share your upcoming plans and exhibitions?


DKV: I'm part of a group exhibition called Kunst Gegen Rechts in Gera, a town known for its violent right-wing extremist scene. This is a follow-up to my participation in a fundraising campaign for a fine art print edition of the folder DRUCK GEGEN RECHTS. At the end of May I will be exhibiting at The Tip in Frankfurt with a small show entitled Clithanger, which I see as a tongue-in-cheek summary of my recent exhibitions Hyaluron and Vampire Facelift. In the title I want to play with the idea of the female body by shifting the gaze to the clitoris and the narrative device of the cliffhanger, hinting at future exhibitions or ongoing narratives to keep the audience in suspense and curiosity of what will unfold next, even if it might be nothing at all – haha.

[1] Thomas Perle is a German-Hungarian writer born in Romania and currently based in Vienna.

Daniela Kneip Velescu, born in 1982 in Bucharest, graduated from the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main. Through her installation-based practice, she playfully explores complex narratives of social relations and morality in a post-migrant society. Kneip Velescu deftly questions foreign attributions and her own identity while maintaining a light-hearted approach. Wrapped in a kaleidoscopic veil of autofiction, Kneip Velescu's art creates new narrative dimensions of identity and belonging.