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Thomas Schütte

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Eat a sausage, chop down trees, saw off hair: Thomas Schütte talks to Ulrich Loock about four decades of art making and the Rhineland

By Ulrich Loock
 

Ulrich Loock You studied in Düsseldorf in the mid-1970s and then settled in the city. I’d like to ask you about the significance of the Rhineland for you and your work.

Thomas Schütte More than anything else, it’s a region where people still work with material. In all of the world’s other major centres, that’s no longer the case. Here, it’s a ten-minute ride by bike or car to the foundry or whatever other workshop.

What about the artistic milieu? After all, in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, important things were happening between Cologne and Düsseldorf.

TS At the time, there were really only three academies in the world – Düsseldorf, Halifax in Nova Scotia and CalArts in Los Angeles. They had similar staff and a similar ethos. Düsseldorf was extremely good, with very fresh teachers, Gerhard Richter, Klaus Rinke, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Fritz Schwegler. Highly successful funding, grants. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of subsidized studios there are here cheaper than Berlin prices.

Is that still important for you?

TS No, it’s about institutions and art societies. Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, for example – no one goes there of course, it’s below them, people always want to go where everyone else is going. But there’s a huge range of art spaces, not even counting the private ones. I’d say there are 100 institutions devoted to contemporary art alone within a one-hour radius.

Do you see a difference between the time when you started out and now?

TS Yes, things have shifted more into the idealist realm. Reality no longer plays such a big part, it’s being abolished.

Reality and location are important in your work. What fascinates you about making pieces for permanent installation?

TS My exhibition in the Summer of 2012 at Castello di Rivoli near Turin featured all of the 18 Frauen (Women, 1998–2006) which were loaded onto five trucks. They had to drive there and back, and then there and back again. In purely economic terms, it’s not worth it. It’s much better to turn up with a box of tools and say: Let’s start building! But so far, that has only been possible by not paying myself. I do it all for nothing, for fun.
 

Let’s take the Holiday Home for Terrorists that you built near Innsbruck in 2012. Was the project shaped by the site, the surroundings?

TS The gallerist Rafael Jablonka proposed a site in the mountains, so I flew there with an architect friend of mine. The flight was delayed and we had exactly twelve minutes to look at the location, under a foot of snow, before it got dark. Then we ate a sausage and got a taxi back to Munich airport for our flight home. The plot is five-sided. That was Jablonka’s gambit, he saw that it would fit. He wanted a full-scale version, a house 20 metres long – and inhabitable. I was sceptical at first, especially concerning the cost.

Had he seen the model that was shown in 2009 at Galerie Pietro Sparta in Chagny, France?

TS No, he saw it one year later at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn and said ‘that’s exactly what I want’. Then we stretched it and reversed it and tweaked it and fitted it in. The design was ready, the materials were ready; the dimensions were ready. The basic planning was done by my architect friend.

It worked because the plot worked, the location worked, because the site could be accessed. So was it a question of logistics?

TS It was a perfect fit. We hardly had to do anything. Chop down a few trees, that was all. It was fortunate, but such good luck can also be forced, which is why everything I do looks like it’s always been there. Totally natural, why didn’t anyone think of that before?

And how do you think of it?

TS Just by doing it, with the hand and the body – the body tells you when it’s good. After just three seconds of little video images and darkened rooms and musty carpets I have to get out … I leave immediately because virtuality doesn’t interest me. I think a scratch on a copper plate or a fingerprint on clay or burned Polystyrene are just great. Precisely the kind of things that were forbidden when I was a student: artist’s hand, fingers, bodies, personal stuff.

Tradition, culture?

TS Totally forbidden. My approach was DIY craft-making. With the best will in the world, there was no way we could reinvent the square after Zero and Minimalism. How to get out of this dead end? Kiddy stuff – that did the trick. The painters dripped and blustered and surfed the wave of German Neo-Expressionism. And we tried a play school approach. Therapeutic pottery, it really works. The digital just makes you unhappy and dissatisfied. That’s obvious even to children.

Recently you’ve made a whole series of very large figures, four metres tall. Is this related to an interest in making something that cannot then be transported back and forth so easily?

TS No, the largest figures are the easiest. It takes 20 minutes to load them onto a truck, and then another 20 minutes to set them up. Maybe drill a hole. Unbelievably easy.

Nonetheless, they do seem to have an inbuilt resistance to being taken away and set up elsewhere.

TS Due to their material, steel and bronze …

Precisely, their materials and dimensions have staying power.

TS Yes, but the models are doll-sized. The large is preceded by the small, necessarily. You have to make a sketch, a model. Computers can help, or scanning, 3D scanning, 3D milling. With four-metre figures, it’s not so easy to improvise. This allows me to treat them like dolls, but big and heavy.

Which of your recent figures do you think has really found the right location?

TS Mann im Matsch (Man in the Mud, 2009) in Oldenburg was made for this open courtyard at the headquarter of a savings bank. I never saw an architectural model, I just drew it into the plan. He’s rather tragic, this little man in his short coat, up to his knees in mud – an idea from 1982. A large savings bank took the risk of erecting a this rather critical monument, very surprising. In the middle of the banking crisis, the only trick I pulled was to add a dowsing rod. I had to cut open the whole structure, insert steel into the Polystyrene model, and then put the rod in his hands. The previous models were all highly dramatic, and he got calmer and calmer. There’s also a biographical link: my grandmother lived 150 metres away. You could almost see the bank from her house. As a child, I used to visit her there in the summer holidays.

Do you think that globalization and changing ways of life have had an effect on the relation to place, ultimately also the place of sculpture?

TS I can’t say. I’ve never been to China or Dubai; I’m not at all interested in going.

All of your fellow artists have already been there.

TS When I see photographs from Asia, of the mega-cities there, I always think it’s like a play school master plan put together by students. Chunks of Polystyrene scaled up and turned into buildings, which is great. But who’s going to demolish it all? There’ll be an awful fuss. As I see it, really good art comes through all of that totally unscathed, it has parameters of its own, at its own place.

You’ve marked various places with standing figures. Near Punta della Dogana in Venice, your sculpture Vater Staat (Father State, 2010) stands between Santa Maria della Salute and the Pinault Collection building. And in Berlin, the United Enemies – two bronze figures bound together, larger than life – are due to be installed at the Berggruen Museum in May 2013.

TS In Berlin, it’s a discrete little backyard park. The Punta della Dogana is interesting because for years they were behind schedule with their construction work. I was there the day they dismantled the scaffolding in the background. It looks totally different now. As if the figure has been installed afresh. But it’s only been like that for about ten days.

And a reclining figure is not suited to being installed in a public place?

TS Oh yes, they exist all over the place. There’s one in Winterthur …

Standing next to the museum, not occupying the same kind of prominent position.

TS In Cologne there’s one standing outside the back entrance of the Ludwig Museum, on a Henry Moore pedestal. I’m not sure what to think of it. There are figures that are exclamation marks – and others that are question marks.

Would it be overly crude of me to conclude that your male figures are exclamation marks and your female figures are question marks?

TS I wouldn’t argue with that. Such a monument is really a matter of consensus, which is why it works so well in the UK. There’s still a culture of public sculpture, and there’s a whole museum just for portraits. And then there’s the Royal Watercolour Society. A few million people at home painting the chaffinch and the street corner, the prince and the head of state; everyone making watercolours. The English have a boundless sense of tradition. More than anyone else.

In this context, it’s interesting that you erected an architectural model on Trafalgar Square in 2007, Model for a Hotel. You had the chance to set up a monumental standing figure – and the plinth was already there. A model implies it’s not finished. It points to something that is yet to come.

TS No, that’s too clever. I’ve got no business putting a figure up there, especially as a German. I had the model more or less finished, I just rebuilt it in glass. My original model from 1981 was called Beckmann Building. No sooner had Model for a Hotel been inaugurated than the complaints started pouring in, saying it lacked humour, wasn’t funny, not at all scandalous. The object itself is of no consequence, but the debate, the book, the media commotion seems to be the important thing. So I’m not entirely sure what it was all about. No idea. It was some kind of apparition, and now it’s in storage. I didn’t feel too great afterwards either, and we don’t have a single decent photograph of the thing.

It’s revealing that you’re now thinking of creating a space for the 18 female figures you’ve made. It’s supposed to be closed, but not a rectangular space, something introverted and private. You’re planning a permanent location, also for future female figures, but one that is protected and intimate.

TS Yes, it’s in the planning phase. Whether it ever happens is another matter. We’ll have to wait and see what it costs and whether it’s viable. In fact, it’s a stadium whose centre isn’t empty, there’s no boxing ring and no basketball court, but a closed architectural volume for small works. A thousand square metres is hardly intimate.

What do you make of the fact that under the header of Jarla Partilager an extensive collection of your work from different periods has been put together, and on display in Berlin?

TS It’s great. At first, everyone thought there were three or four Scandinavian collectors, but it’s one and the same person. A very nice man. He’ll stand for hours at an art fair looking at drawings. He had one of the Frauen that he no longer liked. But he didn’t want to sell her. So we swapped. He got the head [Walser’s Wife, 2011] and the eleven drawings [Life of a Flower, 2012] now in the entrance to the exhibition space. I only wanted to give him something beautiful, something positive. The head is a sister to the reclining figure with a flower in her hair. I’ve since sawn off the hair, creating a third sister. This way, three or four different versions can be made out of a single dummy. It never stops.

For me, the most surprising was the Torso from 2005, related to the Frauen series. Is it a man, is it a woman? A sculpture close to a state of dissolution.

TS Many years ago, my Paris gallerist Philip Nelson came to see me with a frequent flyer, and they wanted a design for the headquarters of a fashion company. While we were drinking coffee, I downloaded a Großer Geist of 1997 and chopped off its arms and legs. You can have this, I told them, but they didn’t want it. I made it anyway, but just one. The leftovers, the arms. legs and heads, became the Zombies (2007). A sequel to the Frauen – I guess there has to be a place in the oeuvre where I myself appear.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

ULRICH LOOCK