Sunday, February 20, 2011

e-terview with Wolfgang Stiller

Wolfgang Stiller is presently based in Berlin. His art works encompass sculpture, drawing and installation, displaying a complicated but subtle interest in bodies and organisms, human and otherwise, via scale, subject and materiality. Stiller's artworks have been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions throughout the US, in Austria, England, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Turkey, China and Japan. His upcoming solo exhibition will take place at the  Kalos&Klio Showroom in collaboration with LoLa Nikolaou Gallery, in Thessaloniki, Greece, May 2011.

1- One of the first things I noticed about your installation work was the implied presence of the human figure. In some of your early works, which assumed the appearance of laboratories, or experimentation rooms, the space between the objects and furnishings, as well as their quasi-similarity to spaces most people have been to, brought forth the absence of someone or something. There is also a feeling that what we see are remnants and residues, or the waste of something else (rather than the things themselves). What is your intention with these spaces? Are viewers allowed to transit and interact within these environments?

The presence of the human figure is relatively new in my installation work. The “matchstick men” installations are actually the first series of installation that show the actual human figure. It was back in 1989 that I started developing my “ Laboratory series” of installations. My motives were various. First I wanted to exploit the idea on a metaphorical level, because I see science as a mirror of society’s moral values. Second I am fascinated by science. In fact, I considered my studio a laboratory for artistic research, a sort of alternative science lab. The very first laboratory “creatures” was a sort of abandoned Lab. I was interested in creating a situation, which implied the presence of human beings through absence of the same. I played with the idea of a laboratory, which was abandoned by its scientists and left by itself. Looking at those “creatures” it seems difficult to determine whether they are in a state of decay or “come to being”. All those creatures are made from industrial metal waste, leftovers, one could say, which get recycled later on. They are like repetitive patterns. All of them look very organic.

I normally work with simple, man-made forms. I never create organic objects; that wouldn’t be a challenge. It strikes me as useless to compete with nature – to try to copy it. It is the “unnatural” that interests me: the hidden charms we can find in ugly, industrial objects. Trying to define what is natural and what is artificial was one of my favorite subjects, although I have still found no definitive answer. The latex installations, which I made in the early 90s have a similar approach.

During the ‘90s our attitude toward life became increasingly superficial. Appearances were valued above everything else. People paid more attention to how elegantly something was packaged than its content. Or, on a broader scale ”concept” outweighed “substance.” Contemplating this trend led me to start examining the surface of things. I wanted to try and rediscover the inside by exploring the outside. I made casts of objects to isolate their “skin”(latex proved to be the perfect material for this process).

Peeling off the surfaces of humble, every day objects revealed a strange beauty that we are unable to appreciate, precisely because we use them every day. I like to display these “skins” as though they are in the conservation department of a natural history museum. It’s like taking a peep behind the scenes. Drying is often used as a method of conservation, so I decided to adopt it for my purpose. By twisting and deforming this rather dull, simple skins they became something “organic-looking” and unique – something natural. I have always been fascinated, though in a very amateur way, by the insect and butterfly collections displayed in natural history museums. I see collecting as one of man’s basic activities; those displays of insects reflect this in its most beautiful way. My collections are really anthologies of nonsense. Presenting them in a scientific manner, however, gives them an aura of importance.

When people look at my work, I want them to feel they are standing in front of something that merits careful contemplation, something to be experienced with all the senses. It is more important to create real experiences than amass knowledge, which nowadays amounts to nothing more than information anyway. People are welcome to transit through those labs but there is no space for interaction. I like to create the impression that they entered a world they are not allowed to.

2- Another prevalent element is the one-of-a-kindness quality the objects you create have, even if they are extensively repeated. This attention to details at times is almost imperceptible. Along with the scale of your works, this approach indicates a great amount of time spent with each piece. What is the role of labor in your work? Do you aim to equate the studio as a production space, much similar to that of an industrial site or scientific laboratory? Is your work in any way a reflection of your creative process, meaning do you believe that your work is a metaphor for an artist's thinking and working space/mind? 

I spend a lot of time in the studio working on many different things at the same time. As you mentioned before I have a broad scale on different works and many of them are very time consuming, since they involve a lot of labor. I don't have an assistant so I need to do almost every thing by myself. This is sometimes a disadvantage but very often I make astonishing discoveries while working in the studio. I start out with a certain idea (or shall I say imagination), of how the work will look like. But during the process of doing it I discover something which turns out to be much better than the original idea.

If you hire other people to do your work they just follow exactly your instructions and there is no space for experiments and accidents. I guess in that aspect I consider my studio a laboratory of a different kind: the space where I explore and research. When I started my laboratory series I thought about using the artist studio as a kind of research facility and present it later in the same manner- that was always a very important aspect of the original concept.

Repetition was another important issue of those lab series. If a scientist wants to prove a hypothesis he has to repeat one and the same thing over and over to make sure he gets the expected result. In my first lab with those creatures I used those metal waste parts that were industrial manufactured and looked completely identical. I would use the exact same parts over and over again to create little insect-like looking creatures, which were later displayed in boxes. At first glance they all looked alike. But by looking more carefully, all of them were slightly different because they are all handmade. The differences are not significant from one piece to another but as a whole it leaves a very organic impression that somehow contradicts the original material.

Spending so much time on details becomes almost contemplative while doing it – it allows me to reflect about other things. I am very attracted to all kinds of materials, their physical presence. It is wonderful to explore the possibilities one and the same material has to offer. My love and patience for details always gets rewarded. When I showed the creatures lab in Japan, people would spend sometimes up to 3 hours in the show since there were so many things to watch and explore.  To be honest - sometimes I would love to have at least one or two assistants to do some of the very boring repetitive works which are anything but creative - but still needed to be done. There will be always enough opportunities left for creative accidents.

3- For lack of a better word, I am very drawn to your drawings. At first they almost seem to be completely unrelated to your other works, but upon closer observation, it is easy to correlate the repetition, the abjectness, and the gestalt in them. Some of them have however, a more immediate quality to them, because they seem so gestural. How do you engage with different mediums? Do you work simultaneously with different materials and subjects, and later assemble them together (in drawing or otherwise), or is everything carefully planned beforehand? How do you incorporate the drawings with other media in exhibitions? Are you inspired by the space in which you show your work (meaning do you make work to fit into a space), or do you make the work already made fit within the space given?

I do very different types of drawings. The motivation for doing them varies as well. Sometimes I just sit down and make a couple of drawings- absolutely not thinking about the outcome. Those drawings are very spontaneous and mostly unrelated to my 3 dimensional works. They are more like gestures, as you mentioned, and allow me to react to a certain feeling, emotion or thought that pops up in my mind. They reflect very often a subconscious side of myself.

Then I do whole series of drawings which explore specific subjects, as well as possibilities of drawing itself. Take for instance the Jellyfish series. Those drawings are related to my general interest in scientific subjects that occur in my installation works. One aspect in those drawings is the transformation of the negative/positive (black and white). Using black lines on white paper demand a different approach from its opposite - using white on a black background. Jellyfish have this wonderful transparent quality. If I used pencil on white paper I could never reach this quality of transparency and this feeling for floating in an endless space.  I spend many hours on those drawings. If the shape of the jellyfish is just a little bit off, they will look dull and without any charm. I do them every once in a while to keep a fresh quality. 

Another series of drawings are the Aspect of Life. They are done on paint chips I collected from a paint store in New York. I lived there from 2000 to 2007. In 2004 I became seriously ill and couldn't do any hard physical labor. So I made more than 2,500 of those little drawings over the years, with very different subjects and styles to reach a broad spectrum of themes. I showed them several times all on one wall. From far away they look like a very pretty colorful pattern or decoration. Getting close, one could get lost in an endless world of details. That is something they have in common with the laboratory works. 

I do drawings, sketches, for my sculptural and installation works. But I have never showed them in an exhibition yet. I can't tell exactly why, but somehow they don't seem to be complete without the actual realized 3D work. But I don't like to combine or include them when I show my installations. I am not interested in exhibiting the process of finding an idea when I show an installation. I want to create a certain atmosphere one can get sucked in. Combining those 2 different elements would prevent this experience. It would have a very didactic aspect, which I try to avoid in my work. 

As I mentioned before, I work on a lot of different subjects and themes at the same time. There is a simple reason for that. I get bored when I work only with one material. After a while one develops a certain virtuosity, which is deadly and leads into mannerism. It is so much fun to try out different materials and explore what is possible to do with them. I always feel sorry for artists who get stuck with one and the same thing for their entire life. I know it is not a very smart decision in terms of the art market, but it guarantees maximum pleasure in the studio.

Most of my 3 dimensional works need to be planned beforehand - when one works with wood and metal one has to make a decision before starting to cut the materials. First I get an idea for an installation - motivated by a certain subject I am interested in. The next step is to figure out which materials can deliver the best possible result. I have absolutely no restrictions of media, but I will always make sure to master it. Nowadays there are too many works out there showing an incredible discrepancy between the concept and the actual skills of the artist. Pure concept is way too overrated these days. I admire works with a strong concept, and the ability to transform this concept into skillful artistic language.

Take for instance the installation Industrial Deposits. I wanted to create an environment reminiscent to a dripstone cave. I was looking for a material that could both reproduce an icy atmosphere and embody the passing of time. I decided to use wax to create a cozy, soft work with a cold, remote air. When we think of wax, we normally summon up images of warmth, melting and glowing candlelight. The way I used it, however, evoked something icy and frozen, giving it qualities exactly opposite to its common associations. I like to surprise and challenge people's notions about how particular media can be used. I want to test and push materials to their limits, adding new dimensions through an unorthodox approach.

I always prefer to see the exhibition space beforehand, which allows me to take its unique atmosphere into consideration. Sometimes I react to a given situation, like in a show in Beijing, where i showed the installation Killing Fields. At that time I was living in Beijing and just found some left over helmet inlays in an abandoned factory. I was totally fascinated by that material that looked like a human skull. There was a fragile air to it - something that is supposed to protect the human head was somehow transformed into the thing it was suppose to protect. When I saw the recessed floor in the exhibition space, I knew right away that this was the perfect place for that installation.

Other installations can't react that flexible to a certain space situation but I always try to use the space as part of an installation. So one and the same installation has a very different face depending on the space. That is one of the most important aspects of an installation. I want people to forget they are in a museum or art show.

4- In more recent works, such as the Matchstickmen, there is almost a reversal of the use of space from the earlier works, where the figure takes central stage and we imagine their surroundings. What is the relationship between the work you produce and the culture you find yourself immersed in? Was this particular work in any way related to your experiences while living in China? Do you mean to represent the massive amount of people living there, as well as the fleeting quality of life, of individuality? Or is this work a commentary on violence, on human rights, and so forth? 

The installation Matchstickmen focuses for the first time on the actual human figure. It is hard to say if I did the work because I was living in China. Normally I don't really react to my cultural surroundings - even though they might have some influence in the long run. The idea for the Matchstickmen started with playing around with things I had in my studio. Most of the time I have a subject I am interested in, which leads to a new body of work. Sometimes I find materials that offer an idea I hadn't thought of before. I would even go as far to say that without finding a certain material I would have never thought of this work at all. These rare occasions are like an unexpected gift and therefore very precious and exciting. While playing around with new possibilities my brain starts to think about a context where I can embed such materials.

Matchstickmen has two aspects. It is certainly a commentary on society - the way we treat ourselves and other human beings.  To be "burned out" is a term we can find quite often in magazines those days. I don't want to see it only as a critique on the Chinese system. Any other system in the world has the same problem. Big companies exploit their employees to make larger profits, all over the world. As long as we have affordable T-shirts or sneakers, we don't really want to know whether they are made by children in India or not. Large societies like China or India have definitely a different view on the importance of the individual. That comes with a huge population. I think the West deals with the same issues just on a smaller scale. So I like to see this work more as a general commentary about the waste of  human resources.

The West likes to forget that they exploited China in the most disgusting way for an entire century. England made China almost entirely dependent on opium to avoid paying their debts for silk and tea they bought from them. Right now Western countries complain about human rights in China, while looking for cheap labor forces in the very same country. I don't think we should close our eyes to violation of human rights, but we should also keep these facts in mind when we point our fingers on other countries. The fact that all my Matchstick-men have Asian faces is just a result of being in China when I started with this work.


The other aspect of the work is a more playful and humorous one. Streichholzkopf, the German word for matchsticks, refers much stronger to the human head in a literal way (kopf=head). When I set up this installation, each time differently, I like to make them look like someone played with matches and tossed them around. I always hope that people get both aspects - the enjoyable, light one, as well as the more serious meaning behind it.

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