Alicja Kwade

STUDIO VISIT & INTERVIEW

It is a busy day when we arrive at Alicja Kwade’s studio in Oberschöneweide, not far outside of Berlin, a city where landlords are continuously increasing the rents since the “Who’s Who” of Berlin’s contemporary art scene settled. This situation is forcing a new generation of artists to move even further outside of what shouldn’t be called “city” anymore. The studio conglomerate in Oberschöneweide proves that Berlin’s efforts to keep artist studio rents low turned out to be hot air.

We enter the former three-story factory, today home of Alicja’s team, a team that sometimes includes more than a dozen of people—as is currently the case, where a group of young assistants are sitting around two tables, threading white beads on meter-long strings and preparing a piece for her show at MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We hear the sound of vacuum cleaners, polishing machines and saws purring from the second room. We look up and spot an umbrella between the glass roof and ourselves. The architects working for Alicja created their own little oasis in the middle of the studio: high in the sky, overlooking the hustle and bustle on the ground. This is the place where the magic happens!

We dip into Alicja’s artistic chaos—or paradise; whatever you prefer to call it. A collection of materials of all kinds: from stones and metal to wood and mirrors, marble and even more delicate objects are spread all over the place. There are huge trees in one corner and rocks in various sizes, all labeled with names, dimensions and weight. It slightly feels like following the white rabbit: wandering around, discovering a tree trunk, only to realize that it is not real but casted—a perfect copy of nature. We look up to the roof again and find an immense disco ball, and we were wondering if it is a bland reference to Berlin as a party city or part of a new piece, until her studio assistant assures us: there has been a party in the studio only once, one for the books though.

For an upcoming exhibition in Voorlinden, Netherlands, Alicja has collected pieces on site: among them a bell and a butter churn barrel. In the studio we find these originals next to their reproductions in various sizes and materials—experiments that might make their way into the white cube or, ultimately, the public space. Like the towering sculpture ParaPivot, a site-specific installation commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for their roof garden: a paradigmatic piece for her “expansive view of the history of art and science,” as Max Hollein, director of the New York institution, phrases Alicja’s oeuvre. And there are many more solo exhibitions and art fair participations around the world lining up. They are meticulously planned and prepared in the last room of the studio.

A narrow staircase leads from the kitchen one floor up to the model room: the space where Alicja spends her time usually in solitude. This is where she creates small-scale models of all of her pieces to place them in miniature sets of future exhibition spaces. Nothing is left to chance, in case it hasn’t been clear until now when contemplating her artworks— Alicja is an absolute perfectionist. As we walk back to leave the studio,
we spot a statue, and for some reason, it seems unusually familiar, but definitely uncanny for this place. It is a modified version of Bavaria, the 18-meter high colossus standing in Munich’s Theresienwiese. The piece represents the federal state’s female patron and symbol of its former emperor’s megalomania, as Ludwig I compared her construction with similarly large sculptures in ancient Rome. But this one is smaller, shrunken to Alicja’s studio size, and the pose is not as glorious as the original. Given Alicja Kwade’s status in today’s art world, maybe it is an ironic statement, or perhaps a sign of humility.

HELLO, MS. KWADE. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TAKING THE TIME TO GIVE US THIS INTERVIEW. IT IS A PLEASURE AND AN HONOUR!

Thank you, my pleasure.

WITHOUT TRYING TO CLASSIFY YOUR OEUVRE INTO CATEGORIES, IT SEEMS YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT UNIVERSAL AND HISTORICAL ISSUES SUCH AS TIME AND SPACE, MATTER AND ENERGY. WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO FIND AESTHETIC ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS?

These are just parts/excerpts of my interest, or where my interest is naturally leading me in my work. When you start to question your existence and the order of this planet, and finally the planet itself, it automatically leads you there. It’s like a zoom away from my desk: while for example, typing numbers to transfer something called “money”, taking a sip of water from something which I call “glass”, but which actually is sand, to the last corner of the universe of which shape we try to find and describe; constantly observing myself spinning around in the universal nowhere. This is all absurd in itself, because we will never understand it. So, matter, time, and space are just three of a lot of “matters” which we observe, map, and name. I am interested in the whole thing. Every aspect of the description of this “world” or reality we perceive, from the micro to the macro scale—from a daily life agreement/social convention to the top view on to the universe.

MANY WRITERS AND PHILOSOPHERS LIKE HANNAH ARENDT, WALTER BENJAMIN, JORGE LUIS BORGES, AND MARCEL PROUST TRIED TO DEFINE THE NOTION OF TIME THROUGH METAPHORS. WHAT DOES TIME MEAN FOR ALICJA KWADE?

From all the systems surrounding us, mankind likes to deal with time, because it matters to us in a very selfish way. We are limited to a certain section in time and a certain amount of the same. And somehow along with gravitation and self-existential poisons, it seems to do something to us that finally causes our end—we call that “time”, but I do not want to make it visible by using a metaphor. I think time is also overrated. We take ourselves very seriously and that’s why we take time so important. But actually, I believe that we are pretty unimportant and time is such a huge, long, and incomprehensible dimension that our idea of it is quite far from being sufficient to comprehend it—probably its quite ridiculous... But even though I am fully aware of this fact, of course, I can’t escape it. I feel the same way—it is getting to me. I am aware of the vainness of my existence. I try what we all try: to escape somehow and to give a sense to my short existence. (Classic case of midlife crisis, haha!) Anyway, but what I do is my work, so it is probably also taking away the threatening part of this: to look at it as numbers and a system interacting with other systems..., to unfold it somehow, to give it other directions and options. I just find “time” interesting in terms of what it is, what it does, and even more interesting how we measure and use it, how we agree on it, how it changes in society, and how unable we are to understand it—and how we all try to escape it and how ironic this all is.

IT IS COMMON TO BELIEVE THAT TIME FLOWS FROM PAST TO FUTURE, BUT THE OTHER WAY IS NO LESS RATIONAL. HOW DOES TIME FLOW FOR YOU?

I do not think that there is a direction. Even though this is hard to belief when you look at yourself in the mirror and you realise that broken shards on the floor will never fall back into intact glass. But I think there must be a bigger scale, which we cannot observe for some reason—it’s just a very persistent and persuasive illusion and deception of our senses.

IN PASCAL’S SPHERE, BORGES SUGGESTS, AFTER SUMMARISING VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF THE SPHERE THROUGHOUT HISTORY, THAT THIS SHAPE HAS NOT ONLY BEEN A METAPHOR FOR DEFINING THE UNIVERSE OR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD BUT ALSO TIME, HISTORY AND THE NOTION OF ETERNITY.

Sure, it is the only form with no end and beginning. This is why it stands for the named things. It’s very logical for me, it’s a mathematically fascinating object—and here we are, living on one, so I agree there must be something to it.

WHAT DOES “THE MOST PERFECT AND MOST UNIFORM SHAPE”—IN PLATO’S WORDS—MEAN TO YOU AND YOUR WORK?

I use it a lot because of the before named reasons. As far as we can see for now, we are always ending up with the form of a “sphere”: we can see atoms..., we know there is more..., we even assume vibrating strings, but what we actually see is spheres. We are living on one—and I like this...

YOU’RE MOST KNOWN FOR YOUR SCULPTURES OR SITE-SPECIFIC INSTALLATIONS, BUT WE’VE ALSO SEEN MEDIUM MEDIAN AT LONDON’S WHITECHAPEL GALLERY ORDER TAG OHNE GESTERN IN BERLIN’S SAMMLUNG BOROS, WHERE VIDEO AND SOUND HAVE BEEN INVOLVED. COMPARED TO YOUR SCULPTURES THAT ARE OFTEN TOO HEAVY FOR A HUMAN TO CARRY, VIDEO AND SOUND ARE ALMOST UNUSUALLY “DYNAMIC” AND MOVING. IS IT ABOUT ADDRESSING OTHER SENSES THAN SEEING OR WHAT IS YOUR MAIN INTEREST IN EXPANDING INTO THESE CHANNELS?

Actually, my purpose is not so much to explore different media—and I don’t really consciously address different human senses. That’s not the main intention. Although I consciously use sound to form a structure in exhibitions and to form a whole through sound because you can’t escape it and it penetrates us and immediately touches us emotionally. At best, there is a (conceptual) need for a medium. I always try to “distil” what is necessary as straightforwardly as possible from a concept. This helps me to clearly formulate the statement or formal decision and helps to avoid arbitrariness. And if then sound or video is the best or “most honest” solution, then it results from the concept’s necessity. At the same time I’m also very familiar with the mentioned media. I couldn’t demand the “honesty” of a formal statement if I didn’t know the medium very well—I don’t dare to do that either. But at the beginning I worked a lot with video, sound and photography—simply because of the lack of financial means and space. Especially during my time at the Academy (Berlin University of the Arts) where materials were accessible and free of charge. Nevertheless, my video works and sound installations remain very sculptural. It’s always about the material and the thing in itself. When I use sound I usually use it as rhythm, clock, counter—and in order to achieve this I often amplify the objects’ own sounds.

WE CAN SOMEHOW SEE A CHANGE IN THE CHOICE OF MATERIALS YOU WORK WITH. FOR A QUITE OLD ONE, BORDSTEINJUWELEN, YOU CUT AND POLISHED SMALL STONES FROM THE STREET IN A CLASSICAL FACETED BRILLIANT-STYLE. OR 500 PULVERIZED CHAMPAGNE BOTTLES FOR 1979 LEERE LITER BIS ZUM ANFANG, BOTH PIECES PART OF YOUR SOLO EXHIBITION AT HAMBURGER BAHNHOF IN 2008. THEY WERE MORE THAN READYMADES, BUT THERE WAS A CERTAIN BANALITY IN THIS CHOICE OF MATERIALS. LATELY, YOU STARTED WORKING MORE WITH MASSIVE STONES, MARBLE—MAYBE IT’S NOT EVEN ABOUT THE MATERIAL ITSELF BUT THE SIZE. DO YOU THINK THAT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE JUST NOW—AS A WELL-ESTABLISHED ARTIST COMMISSIONED BY MUSEUMS AROUND THE WORLD—IN THE LUCKY SITUATION TO BE ABLE TO PRODUCE THESE OVERSIZED WORKS AT ALL, LIKE THE ONE ON THE ROOF OF NEW YORK’S MET?

Yes, of course it also has to do with means and new possibilities. But above all with my need to go more into public space. I am deeply convinced of the social necessity of public works of art, especially in public spaces outdoors. And this environment naturally requires different materials than the protected and regulated gallery or museum space. It is the only way to bring people to art and to create identification through culture. This is important and necessary! It’s also a challenge for me that drives me to learn from my need and pushes my limits—and finally I have the right team! People who help me to implement this more and more often! But still, the smaller, with different means realized works are just as important to me.

YOUR SOLO EXHIBITION MONOLOG AUS DEM 11TEN STOCK AT HAUS AM WALDSEE WAS THE ONE WE SAW FIRST. WE WERE INTRIGUED BY THE LOVE FOR DETAILS, THE OVERALL CONCEPT, ESPECIALLY HOW THE PIECES INTER- ACTED WITH THE BUILDING, BUT ALSO—AND WE STILL REMEMBER MOST OF THEM—THE WORKS’ TITLES. THEY OFTEN HAVE A POETIC NOTION, THEY’RE ALSO ALMOST ALWAYS IN GERMAN. VOM ZUKÜNFTIGEN HINTERGRUND UNTER ANDERER BEDINGUNG BETRACHTET FOR EXAMPLE, A SERIES OF SIX BENT MIRRORS. IT ALMOST SEEMS LIKE AS IF YOU WOULD SPEND AS MUCH TIME ON COMING UP WITH THE PERFECT NAME AS CREATING THE PIECE ITSELF—OR IS THE NAMING PROCESS ACTUALLY SOMETHING VERY INTUITIVE FOR YOU?

I wish titles would pop up intuitively! But no, unfortunately not. In fact, sometimes I spend as much or even more time working on the title as I do on the artwork itself. It’s hard for me and I often need many nights to find something that seems right and fitting. Unfortunately for me this is an intensive process, which requires a lot of time and quiet—which I am missing more and more. I find titles are that important because they can be a key to the work. Titles can at least point the viewer in the direction I wish and to be able to pass on beyond that.

YOUR WORK HYPOTHETISCHES GEBILDE FROM 2015, ALSO PART OF THE HAUS AM WALDSEE EXHIBITION AND INSPIRED BY WORMHOLES, IS WITHOUT ANY DOUBT A SITE-SPECIFIC MASTERPIECE: INTERWEAVING AND PUSHING TO THE FURTHEST CORNER OF THE BUILDING. WHAT DOES THE PROCESS OF A PIECE LIKE THIS LOOK LIKE?

I have read a lot about the possible forms of the universe, as well as about connections between time and space. The most indescribable forms there are, that we will never be able to observe, they remain pure thought and must stay in the realm of the non-imagery and abstraction. And yet, I have stumbled upon how even in scientific specialist literature a form comprehensible for us humans is made out of it in order to make something incomprehensible, at least halfway comprehensible—which, of course, is nonsense, since it is completely impossible. During my research I have made sketches and from them these very structures have become: as the title just reveals, “hypothetical” structures... However, I have always imposed ground rules to myself in order not to digress into arbitrariness. The pipes always change their direction at a 90° angle. There are three different sizes of “funnels” and they always have to describe all the spatial directions we can perceive, as on the axes of an x-y-z coordinate system.

ALSO, FOLLOWING WHAT’S HYPED ON NETFLIX & CO. THERE’S OBVIOUSLY AN INCREASING INTEREST IN WHAT’S HAPPENING IN OTHER WORLDS, FOR EXAMPLE STRANGER THINGS’ UPSIDE DOWN OR THE TIME TRAVELS IN THE GERMAN PRODUCTION DARK, AN ALTERNATE DIMENSION. IT’S ALSO AN ESSENTIAL PART OF YOUR WORK: DIFFERENT REALITIES, PARALLEL WORLDS. THAT’S SOMEHOW INTERESTING, AS IN EVERYDAY LIFE WE BECOME MORE EGOCENTRIC AND SELF-DRIVEN—BUT THEN, THERE’S THIS INTEREST IN THE OTHER; BUT IT’S NOT THE INTEREST IN THE ONE SITTING NEXT TO US ON THE METRO, BUT IN WHAT WE DON’T KNOW IF IT EVEN EXISTS AT ALL. ALMOST DIAMETRICAL, ISN’T?

Yes, but I think that the social reason is quite obvious: we are developing more and more into a dematerialized information society that is losing its references to the subject. Everything becomes replaceable, exchangeable, and simultaneously available. You find yourself in multiple realities—I don’t judge that, but the development is clearly there.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF IN THE LAST MINUTES OF YOUR DAY?

Mostly what I want or have to do the next day. Sometimes that’s good, and sometimes I find very good solutions half-asleep, especially for technical problems. It’s certainly not particularly healthy and good, but that’s the way it is at the moment.

YOUR WORKS SHOW A SUBSTANTIAL INTEREST IN HOW THE WORLD WORKS AND THINGS EXIST. IT’S ALMOST THAT KIND OF CURIOSITY WE SEE IN CHILDREN CONTINUOUSLY ASKING “WHY?” NO MATTER WHAT THE PREVIOUS ANSWER WAS. IS THIS CURIOSITY SOMETHING YOU NEVER UNLEARNED OR DID YOU DEVELOP IT BY TIME?

I am not sure when this started, or if it was always there. But I remember that even as a child I didn’t like to believe anything, which didn’t necessarily meet with understanding in Catholic Poland. And still, yes I am an absolute “unbeliever”. I ask why something is the way it is. I constantly ask myself this and I try to find answers by investigating things down to the smallest unit and taking them apart in order to find out somehow why things are the way they are.

LOOKING BACK AT ALL THE WORKS YOU’VE DONE SO FAR: WHAT IS THE MOST “IMPORTANT” ONE? ONE THAT MAYBE CHANGED YOUR ARTISTIC PRACTICE.

I don’t know yet. It changes all the time. I also like my handwriting work very much, which very few people know, but I consider it important. I cannot yet judge works that are still too close in time to the present.

IT’S HARD—AND ALSO NOT REALLY NECESSARY—TO ATTRIBUTE YOUR WORK TO A CERTAIN GENRE, BUT IF WE’D NEED TO, WOULD YOU SAY YOU FEEL AT HOME IN CONCRETE ART? DO YOU SEE MORELLET OR OTHER CONCRETE ARTISTS AS AN INSPIRATION OR INFLUENCE ON HOW TO APPROACH THINGS?

I think this is probably due to a partial interest in the same questions. And there are probably similar formal solutions for that—but I wouldn’t classify my work as “concrete art”, a specific formal attitude is not important enough for me.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST: WHAT IS SOMETHING EVERYBODY SHOULD KNOW ABOUT YOU OR YOUR WORK, BUT NOBODY HAS EVER ASKED SO FAR?

If I knew, I wouldn’t reveal it.

THANKS A LOT FOR YOUR TIME!

Arctic Ocean (Northwest off the coast of Ellesmere Island, CAN) 83° 19’ 44.976"N, 79° 18’ 22.957"W, July 17th, 2017
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