Alexandra Schantl – Talk with Manfred Wakolbinger - 2012

AS: Given that the exhibition currently being held in the context of ZEIT KUNST NIEDERÖSTERREICH offers an insight into the last three decades of your artistic work, I would first be interested to know what made you want to become an artist. Was there a particular moment in your life when you said, yes, that’s it, that’s what I want to do?

MW: We have to go back a bit further here, to my childhood, to 1957 in fact, when on October 4 Sputnik flew over Austria. It was the first artificial satellite to go into orbit, Russian of course. I was in Mitterkirchen at the time, where I was born in Upper Austria. We all ran outside and stared up at the sky to see Sputnik with our own eyes. Of course nobody could, but it was a strong collective experience, linked to the awareness of what man is actually capable of, namely firing something into space that flies around the Earth like a star and then comes back. In any case, in retrospect that had a major influence on me. It kind of initiated my exploration of the internal and external, the effects of human actions. For instance, I find it fascinating that Voyager II, which left our solar system in 2000, still sends images to Earth. Like the Hubble Telescope, which sends photos of galaxies we have absolutely no conception of. That said, it is shocking how many conflicts exist between people. We have a handle neither on our financial system nor our emotions or their effects. I have always been interested in such ideas. And my work reflects that. My time at the Higher Technical Institute (HTL) in Steyr also had a formative effect on me. It was the time of the hippies and Rock music, when I had just started getting interested in art. It was around then that the name Joseph Beuys first cropped up. But for me as a toolmaker, it was still inconceivable that I was making art. It was more the case that I was working as an engineer in Germany. Then, when I met my future wife, who was studying Jewelry and Metal Design at the University of Applied Arts, I became more familiar with the art world and with my technical skills initially helped some people design jewelry. Later I worked on my own designs, something that subsequently evolved into a collaboration with my wife. So for a time we designed and exhibited jewelry together, and enjoyed great success, but all of a sudden I got the feeling it was all too small. I decided to make sculptures. That was a pretty strong caesura. I basically went back to square one, because in terms of the art market that is an entirely different world. At this time I was attending Bazon Brock’s seminars at the University of Applied Arts, which gave me great inspiration. I met Hans Kupelwieser, Erwin Wurm and Markus Brüderlin there, among others. While I was making my first sculptures I kept my head above water working as an extra at the Burgtheater for a few years, until I had my first solo show at Forum Stadtpark in Graz, which was arranged by Erwin Wurm. In the course of the exhibition I met Wilfried Skreiner, and it all went from there.

AS: You made your first sculptures, which clearly contain figurative elements, in the 1980s, when the “Neue Wilde” phenomenon was being seen in painting. To what extent did this call for a new sensuality in art influence you?

MW: Naturally it influenced and occupied me. But it wasn’t entirely my thing, although I shared a studio with Alois Mosbacher, Hubert Schmalix, Erwin Wurm and others. Figuration was in the air back then. After the abstraction and conceptuality of the 1960s artists returned to the problem of the figure. That was important for me too, but not the expressive in itself. You have to be wild anyway when fighting with the materials. The way Sigi Anzinger, for instance, painted a large and really very good picture so quickly was indeed impressive, but was not how I liked to approach things.

AS: But the fundamental concerns are comparable. Both painting and sculpture were taken by a certain “renewal”, a revival …

MW:  Indeed. Yet there is always a kind of story behind my sculptures, like the story of Sputnik. It was primarily in connection with the base that I spent a great deal of time on the problematic elements of sculpture. Then it all flowed into one, meaning, the figures were part of the base, almost like applications. Ultimately the figures became increasingly abstract: then there was just a concrete form there, which could have been something like a base and which in combination with the metal parts fixed atop it suggested figural elements.

AS: So the base and the sculpture formed a whole, an inseparable unity. Do you not also simultaneously seek to achieve a contrast of various materials and forms?

MW: The forms I repeatedly turn to are very org

anic, like flowers, sections of trees or bodies. I am interested in the special quality of a form, which I appropriate in a different way. What is most important for me is the duality of things, materials and thoughts. And that is again connected to Sputnik. Sputnik means “companion” and marked the outermost limit of the human sphere of influence at the time. I had another, similarly inspiring experience when I saw inside my body during a gastro-intestinal examination. That was a crazy experience, seeing the caverns and cavities you carry inside you. It was probably this experience that led to the sculpture fusing into the base, as it were. Then the whole thing became a mysterious vessel with openings, through which you could look, but only saw a small part of the whole. So what I am interested in are the contrasts between inside and outside, hard and soft, glowing and lusterless. That is something very specific for me.

AS: From the very beginning you preferred to work with copper. What is it about this material that fascinates you?

MW: I can work just as well with iron, Nirosta, steel etc. — I learned that during my training. Copper has the advantage that you yourself can shape it — bend it, polish or solder it etc. You don’t need huge machines, which is very important for me. There is no better suited material. With iron, in contrast, you are limited. And it is very complicated to work aluminum. Moreover, copper fascinates me because it is so carnal and sensual. It calls to mind the insides of our bodies. Sometimes it is pink like delicate skin. It is also patchy, because time leaves ist marks. I love this patina. At the same time it protects the material itself. It implies a certain transience. You can see time taking its effect on it. Nonetheless it doesn’t decay like other metals.

AS: In the late 1980s you started encasing your copper sculptures in transparent glass cubes. What inspired you to do that?

MW: First I combined copper with surface plaster. It was important to me that these objects visually resemble concrete, this having to do with the fact that I was always attracted by the Brutalism of bunker structures. Take the Atlantic Wall bunkers in France, for example, which look like giant bugs lying on their backs, the sand underneath having been washed away.The peculiar ridiculousness inherent in these relics of Fascism impressed me in a way, formally too. That inspired me to create the surface plaster works. The interior is made of copper and is surrounded by a Styrofoam casing in a different shape. The plaster is applied to the outer form. These bunkers ultimately led me to Paul Virilio, who was likewise interested in such structures. Yet what I found particularly informative was his essay Negative Horizon. This refers to the form of the space occupied by the air. Thus the negative space is that which emerges between things and people. Precisely this is the focus of my glass and copper sculptures, which look like display cases only at first glance. In reality the glass cubes are containers that actually provide the basis enabling the sculptures to stand. Which brings us back to the topic of the base. In other words the copper, shaped into undulating and seemingly freestanding forms, is in such an instable position here that without the glass it would fall over. A noteworthy detail at the edge suggests that the aggregate states have been swapped, i. e. the solid, yet undulating material copper is held by glass, whichis actually a liquid. At the same time the glass cube in a way serves to delimit the negative space, which, however, we could imagine stretches to the observer or the next wall. Accordingly the sculpture itself would also expand and virtually consume the entire space. Moreover, the reflections in the glass integrate the real space and the observer into the sculpture. Thus the observer is part of the sculpture, although that said I am not interested in reflection alone. Indeed, there are also works in which I have used gray glass, almost making the inner form disappear, while the outer form seems much stronger owing to the reflection. Ultimately the observer loses all orientation in the sculpture. Engaging with the inner space is very important to me. That was the case even with the surface plaster and copper works. At first glance they seem somewhat nondescript or even unapproachable and require special attention. The observer first has to conquer these sculptures, so to speak, for the universe hidden within to open up to him.

AS: Then there was a phase in your work when the sculptures virtually fused with the architecture. What is the relevance of that?

MW: That was in the early 1990s, when the theme of disappearance was emerging in art. At that time I was integrating my sculptures into their surroundings. They are built into the wall and the glass appears only on the front side. I deliberately sought out niches, for instance at an exhibition held in St. Mark’s Square in Venice as part of the Biennale. I integrated my sculptures into the wall jambs under the windows of the exhibition hall and encased them in glass. When the square flooded one day, the white ceiling of the hall reflected the glittering of the surface of the water so strongly that it was also reflected in the sculpture. Thus a space became visible that was located far beyond the reality defined by the sculpture.

AS: That reminds me of another example, a work you realized in 1995 in the office building of the company Wienerberger. The sculpture clings to the wall, steps out from it. Is this the start of something new?

MW: Yes, that was the moment when the sculpture broke free of all forms of containment. That was also when I started on my hanging objects, sculptures fixed to the ceiling with chains. In the course of this my formal vocabulary developed further — towards machine-like or prosthetic forms. Moreover, I wanted evidence of the design process to show, unlike the cleanly cut and polished metal in the glass and copper sculptures. I worked with my hands and used soldering grease etc. to fuse, bend and cut the material, and also made use of chemical reactions. These traces have the quality of scars, like those, be they physical or mental, that every one of us accumulates over the course of our lives. The surfaces of the sculptures change over time. They become darker, patchier and start to shimmer with the formation of the patina. This factor is very important. Hanging on chains, they are both stationary and moveable. So in a way, they communicate.

AS: These works have sometimes been compared to joints of meat hanging in abattoirs. Does this image correlate with your intentions?

MW: Yes, I once saw an impressive exhibition by Chaim Soutine, who painted pictures of cuts of meat from slaughtered animals. They are about physicality, the vulnerability of the body. Yet my hanging sculptures are also reminiscent of machine parts. This has to do with the fact that I found certain movies fascinating, like David Cronenberg’s Crash, whose protagonists are sexually aroused by car accidents.

AS: So film and other artistic genres are significant sources of inspiration for your own work?

MW: There are films that have been with me for decades. Interestingly they are almost always films that were not particularly successful, and more or less doomed to failure. Nonetheless they are incredibly significant, especially as it is well known that success does not automatically guarantee artistic quality. For instance, as a young man I thought Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider was a revelation, whereas today I consider his subsequent film The Last Movie, which was repeatedly slammed by critics, infinitely more important. It was filmed in a small town in Peru and is about the fictional world of film, which for its part inspired the local people to reproduce the scenes with dummies made of bamboo, which is worth seeing in itself. However, I was made aware of how very few others share my enthusiasm when I organized a showing of this masterpiece when Dennis Hopper died and after the movie saw only a sea of puzzled faces. It is a similar story with Alejandro Jodorowsky, who in the 1970s made an absolute cult movie with El Topo that even garnered the attention of John Lennon and also financed his next film, Montana Sacra. George Harrison was intended for the lead role, but when he refused to shoot a scene in which his asshole was to be shown in close-up, Jodorowsky no longer wanted him on board. That led to a break with the producer, who had this fantastic movie bogged down for decades which meant that Jodorowsky was not able to realize his next project, namely filming Dune, in which he had already invested a great deal of time and energy. Years later David Lynch tried his hand at Dune and the result was one of the greatest flops in movie history. I also find visual artists very inspirational. I highly regard the work of English sculptors in the 1980s, such as my friend Richard Deacon or Julian Opie and Anish Kapoor, who also repeatedly focus on the internal/external dilemma. There are often amazing parallels in the solutions used. Another, for me very significant artist — although he works very differently — is Vito Acconci. He did a performance in the 1970s in New York, for instance, which involved him wanting to tell a personal secret to every person who was willing to meet him at midnight at a highly dubious location. He had not counted on there being so many people there. For when he appeared at midnight, there was already a long line of people, all of whom he had to tell a secret. Approaches like that appeal to me. I also want to tell secrets with my sculptures, the difference being I don’t always tell them. I also want to mention Carlo Mollino, who despite the current hype is completely underestimated in my opinion, and finally James Turrell, with his fascinating spaces of color and light. He once told me that he drew his inspiration for them from his student job as a mail pilot in California, as every day he was overwhelmed anew by the interplay of color and light in the sunrise. Anselm Kiefer’s monumental and uncompromising work is also influential for me, as are his diaries and conversations with him.

AS: Parallel to your sculptures, you also work in photography. Is there an artistically relevant interaction between these two forms of expression?

MW: I have always taken photos, especially when traveling. Then there came a point when I started treating the pictures of things that caught my attention like sketches. Initially I took pictures in black and white and developed them on my own. I arranged the photos I found particularly inspiring in sketchbooks of a kind. I also presented my photographic works in exhibitions together with my sculptures. The two media enrich each other. When I develop something new in sculpture, my view of the world changes and vice versa. With photography I can capture this subjective view and show it to others. In the early 1990s I started using color photography and collages, meaning, I used my own pictures as backgrounds and added in found photo material to tell ironic or cynical stories. Subsequently I started designing sculptures on the computer using a 3D program, which has the advantage that you can view them from all angles before even making them. I planted these computer-generated sculptures in more or less obscure places and landscapes I photographed on my travels. I call these works Placements. They exist on the one hand as real sculptures in various, somewhat model-like dimensions and on the other in the virtual reality of the computer as giant monuments in expansive landscapes. The Placements are in a way answers to questions I asked myself in a psychoanalytical context. Indeed, the furniture-like character of these objects has to do with my conviction that thoughts are independent of the places we are in. I believe that thoughts vary depending on where or how we sit or lie on something. The African Ashanti tribe has a tradition that illustrates this very well: Every member of the tribe owns their own stool, carved especially for them, which they take with them everywhere and consequently is also called “close one” — true to the saying, “Nobody knows you as well as your chair”. After the death of its owner, the stool is considered the seat of his/her soul, the materialization of his/her spirit. Correspondingly the deceased’s stools are kept in a specially built house, while their bodies are buried somewhere. My sculptures are not least about the chains of associations that result when the observer engages with the objects physically and mentally. Indeed, some are so large that you can use them as a sofa, which, as I repeatedly hear, triggers a very positive feeling.

AS: Looking at your work on the steps leading up to the state government building in Linz, what role does the formal correspondence play between sculpture and its environment?

MW: The environment is one of the most important criteria regarding works in the public space. The work in Linz actually has three parts. On the one hand it calls to mind a figure draped over the steps and on the other there is a mirrored sculpture on the square at the top that very slowly, almost imperceptibly, spins and reflects its surroundings. It is based on the idea that going into the building always has a specific purpose and the reflections are intended to symbolize that change. Thus I differentiate between real, site-specific Placements and purely virtual ones that only exist in the form of photographs.

AS: Your Placements are followed by your Travelers. What’s the story here?

MW: The Travelers are a further development of the Placements — insofar as they have got legs. In evolution legs always mark a pretty significant leap. Meaning, the Travelers are more mobile; I no longer position them, they travel independently. So, after the highly abstract exploration of the interior and exterior and furniture-like Placements I suddenly returned to the figure, which in truth surprised me. To understand why, I turned to Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the concept of the body. Not inthe conventional sense, but a significantly more involved concept than just the physical state. It encompasses everything, everything that in the end constitutes our identity. This is in a way an invisible part of the body, something that extends beyond it and is constantly changing. We can experience it, for example, in that state between sleep and awake or when we lie in the bathtub and have the feeling we are floating in the water. It is these aspects that interest me in Travelers. They are portraits of this extended concept of the body, so to speak, and consequently often very large. By installing them in photographs and films, they wind up in the desert or among the lizards and seals on the Galapagos Islands.

AS: So can your Travelers also be seen as visualizations of bodily „states“ la Maria Lassnig?

MW: There is an affinity, but what matters to me most is the materialization of a “state”, the manifestation of the “internal” in a form perceptible from the outside. The process of transformation from one state to another is key here, as becomes evident not least in my current, egg-shaped copper sculptures. The story of the divine birds, which I happened to come across in an essay by Peter Sloterdijk, sums it up. There are also films accompanying these sculptures, in which such egg-shaped forms fly through landscapes. The exhibition title Up From the Skies also refers to this, and is taken from the eponymous song by Jimi Hendrix. Being an avid Hendrix fan I recently read Klaus Theweleit and Rainer Höltschl’s biography. Now I know that Jimi Hendrix was a skydiver, and he repeatedly talks about supernatural phenomena in his song texts. In his mind he was always on “spaceships”. When you listen to his music playing really loudly, whether lying down or moving around, it seems as though something detaches from us, something we could perhaps call the soul. And it becomes a separate entity in the space, a process that occurs with every intense artistic experience. These are truly happy moments, moments when you are really connected. Sigmund Freud noted something similar in relation to the state of being in love. You need a form of madness to be able to experience that. You could also call it a trance, enabling you to forget the inveterate body to the extent that transformation becomes possible. With Hendrix this takes place via transistors. Meaning, he fused his body with the amplifier and guitar to create a new form of existence and thus was able to float away into Electric Skies. In any case such considerations were decisive when choosing the exhibition title — especially as specifically it is about a church and thus a space that is predestined for a special, a spiritual experience.

AS: Yet being an avid diver, other “spaceships” also feature in your works, i. e., under water. What is it that fascinates you about this “other” world?

MW: For me as a sculptor the fascination with diving is above all the fact that you can experience threedimensional space in a zero-gravity environment. There is no top or bottom and you are connected so much more closely with the element of water than air. This has to do with the fact that the human body is roughly 60 percent water and also explain  our longing for the sea. We want to return to our primordial home, so to speak. Although I caught the diving bug as a child (just from watching a TV series) I only really started diving in 1992. Soon I planned all my trips around diving, apart from cultural and business trips. I also soon came to underwater photography, which evolved into another branch of my artistic work and ultimately found expression in the exhibition and book project Bottomtime. Pelagic sea squirts, which belong to the class thaliacea and are found only in the open sea, are very special motifs. Divers encounter them only very rarely. They are highly interesting animals that initially live in colonies in their thousands and then form chains up to 40 meters long. When they are older they separate and become filigree, defenseless individual creatures that, eaten alive and torn to shreds, ultimately vaporize. What is remarkable is that, like vertebrates and therefore humans, they belong to the phylum chordates and in the larval stage display great similarities to a certain human embryonic state. To photograph these creatures I dive in the open sea at night, when conditions allow. I initially produced a photo series of these sea squirts that I called Galaxies, because I associate infinite expanse with the word. Whereas in the Travelers I was interested in the materialization of something intangible, in Galaxies I wanted to show precisely the opposite, namely the gradual process of the disintegration of material. In a next step I made the film Galaxies 1—3 using these photographs, to demonstrate that this world en miniature is something truly great. This film is dedicated to the Toraja people, who live in the highlands of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Partly because I took the underwater shots in the sea there and partly because according to ancestral myth the Toraja were brought to Earth in a spaceship, with which they will travel back to their home in outer space when their earthly life ends. And indeed, their houses resemble spaceships. The Toraja believe that when someone dies their soul leaves the body and remains close by until the time comes to start the journey home. The actual burial rituals last several days and can financially ruin the relatives of the deceased, as valuable objects are placed in the grave and, depending on status, numerous buffalo sacrificed. While the mortal remains are placed in wooden coffins and hung on rock faces to be weathered away, the wooden figurines affixed to the entrances to these rock tombs preserve the memory of the deceased. This story takes us back to the atmospheric Dominican church, where the Galaxies films, as a central part of the exhibition, can perhaps offer a vague idea of this primordial home of the Toraja that can only be reached via spaceship. What I find particularly great about these films is the brilliant sound, created by Christian Fennesz. And last but not least, the metal tube installation conceived especially for the exhibition makes direct reference to Jimi Hendrix’ Up From the Skies. Starting in the nave and continuing into the choir, by encompassing the full height of the ceiling it in a way links the earth with the sky.