«Whatever is around us is already inside us»
An interview with Florian Graf by Reto Thüring
Yesterday I met Florian Graf and asked him if he was planning to settle in Basel for a while after his stay in Berlin and the exhibition in Bellelay, and this brought us to the necessity of having a more or less fixed income, maybe finding a teaching position, any job? But that would mean being tied to a place, not to travel, or at least to curtail traveling strongly, and that’s not his thing.
Why is traveling existential for you?
Drifters move on and make experiences, the sedentary pile up possessions. I’m interested in experiences and life under extraordinary circumstances. Not being at home forces one to be open. Art should do the same: it should force one to be open or it should at least offer new perspectives. I’m not interested in traveling per se. I’m searching the freedom it brings. I want to preserve a fresh and independent outlook. I see artists as a sort of court jester who presents critical comments with wit and poetry. This way he renders things acceptable, puts into perspective what’s all too familiar and brings the unknown closer to us. In the best case he opens a dialog. But this is only possible when you take your time and are open for a new life. This is not possible in transit. Therefore I’ve always stayed in a place for at least half a year or a year, be that in London, New York or Edinburgh. Traveling around the world doesn’t lead to effortlessness, but it cuts you adrift. Therefore I’ve been yearning for a studio for years. The last few years I’ve been working in coffee shops, at friends’ homes, in the street, at the library or a museum. This showed me that your living conditions and the places in which you live have a direct impact on art. For instance I’d really love to make more sculpted objects, which is obviously not possible without a permanent residence. Therefore I’ve made the Abbatiale de Bellelay my studio and home. The large former baroque church is now exhibition space and a chance for me to live in a monument for a while.
It’s probably very quiet there, compared to London or Berlin. This twin longing for an idyll and a large city can be found in different places in your work. What’s your connection with the tranquility of a small village and what with the hectic of a city?
I’m interested in margins and edges as much as in centers. It’s often the outskirts which influence the center and not vice versa. Besides, it’s not always clear what is the center and what is the edge – what’s still part of the city and what’s already rural, or vice versa. For instance when I was living centrally in Downtown Chicago and the city emptied of people in the evening as everybody commuted out to the suburbs, I was suddenly a peripheral dweller. The hectic center of the metropolis transformed for the night into a desert-like, abandoned landscape. It was fascinating to work and live at the northern edge of Europe, in Scotland and on the Orkney Islands. This allowed great focus with simultaneous freedom. The best possible way to be! The remoteness, the hermitages and above all the gardens were always important for me. Gardens and often also works of art are often small universes, which coexist like models with the world at large around them and reflect it. The periphery or the romantic image of an idyllic bucolic landscape reverberates of course with the nostalgia for comprehensive life from which today’s society seems to be moving further and further away. With being at the edge I perceive more potential to develop new, sustainable and simply more interesting life models than in the major cities. Different models and cultures already coexist in those. This can lead to mutual inspiration.
It’s more than fair to claim that in this day and age, periphery and center come much closer together than they used to. This is very much due to the development of the media and an acceleration, which centrally means the momentum of physical and spiritual being. Such developments pull a lot with them and tear a lot down. ‘Islands’, mainly architecturally affected, keep cropping up in your work; formations seemingly floating out of time or teetering precariously, separate from their environment. Is this a firm of time criticism (anti-utopia)?
For me the moment of suspension is important in this. If you throw a ball into the air, there’s a split second during which it is suspended in mid-air motionless. During this static moment the ball is full of potential energy before it goes back to the kinetic energy of movement. I feel our society is hovering in an unclear or uncertain moment of suspension; a state which is not directed. There is no linear image of the past, nor any defined perspectives; everything is defined by simultaneousness, everything is and happens simultaneously; a fathomless, racing standstill, which feels like a sense of waiting. Generally you perceive much potential in the developments, but you also fear them; you are euphoric and skeptical at the same time, i.e. manic-depressive. The utopias of the 20th century have already crumbled into ruins, used by the world of art like quarries. You find individual building blocks as nostalgic quotes – I have Tatlin’s Tower in mind or Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. Many utopias have also turned into dystopias: former wishful fantasies have become nightmarish bogeymen, mainly in the field of technical accomplishments. There are more and more real Non-Places (U-topos) in the world, without any quality of residence or virtual systems in which we are living. I wonder sometimes if those Utopias are really life-sustaining.
If the classical Utopia is a Non-Place you probably have to answer the question of livability with a no. On the other hand, it’s characteristic of a Utopia as an image of our wishes and desires (or also as a horror scenario) that it is not totally out of and beyond our reach and thus impossible; it’s this which makes for the lasting fascination with utopias, maybe also their necessity. Therefore the question can’t be answered unequivocally. Your sculptural interventions also have this trait: they seem accessible but yet remain inaccessible, livable but abandoned.
They’re containers; they contain or retain a lot. Basically they are like pictures. We enter them in our imagination to dwell in them and at the same time they reside within us – like thoughts. It’s the same as with the so-called environment: whatever is around us is also already inside us. Perception is like an organ inside our bodies. I have always doubted that something or someone can only be one thing. Life is more multi-layered and very often it is elsewhere, to speak in the words of Rimbaud. Absence and presence, reminiscence and present, they often find together in art. In Bruegel the Elder’s picture of the building of the Tower of Babel there is diligent building going on one side and people are moving in, whereas the other side has already been abandoned and given over to dilapidation and ruin. This is also an image, and a very strong one, which has been present in my mind ever since I first saw it.
Nevertheless pictures and sculptures demand different ways of reception. Thus it makes a difference whether buildings, containers, architectural structures etc. have been conceived as images or as spatial interventions.
Of course it does. Very often though my pictures are also interventions, just in the virtual image-space. Strangely enough, you can very easily work out spatial questions in a picture. It’s no coincidence that you speak of design, disegno; this is a graphics term and develops spatial solutions in a two-dimensional medium. Short movies I made together with a friend about the artist Graphenheim deal with spatial topics. But again they function in a different medium, the chronological format, very similar to music, which in turn comes very close to our perception of architecture. But what has been built also has a physical presence, which triggers a totally difference effect on the viewer. For instance you can bark your shin on it, and that hurts.
In Bellelay you will realize fairly large spatial installations. Moreover, the church will become your studio for some time. Since time immemorial artists have built and worked inside churches. But which role will you assume if you don’t only work inside the church, but also live there?
First and foremost I assume the role of an artist – or of a squatter or of a host? I don’t know if those are roles. Primarily I give myself over to a situation totally. As a squatter I beat down open doors and organize an ‚Open House’, to which everybody is invited. Western art and music have been at home in churches for centuries. Sometimes art gives me a home. Since I’m now living in a church I don’t know if I’ll occupy the church or vice versa. It’s mutual appropriation; it’s a form of rivalry or a harmonious interplay, where the sacred and the profane mingle, where poetry sneaks into every day routine. And the way they didn’t try to exhibit art inside churches, but to create a sort of comprehensive staging, I’d rather create living space than to exhibit the final product of a process of creation. Thus it’s the format of a moment in time with potential for development, a starting point rather than the destination. In other words, I put on the robe of an architect again for a change. Be that roles or games, there’s an inherent risk – this can all go haywire pretty badly ... thus I have no clue how the role will end; what will happen. An actor knows how the story ends.
Language plays a decisive role in your creations. Can you say anything about the interplay between the linguistic level and the concrete level of your works, on which language can usually only be experienced as a subtext?
I have a fairly ambivalent relationship with language. On the one hand it is a wonderful means with which we can communicate. On the other hand language can deaden the multiple layers and the nuances of association, for instance by pressing everything into a linear system, most of all so when it becomes written text. Then you’re suddenly facing a rigid construction, which no longer sounds spoken or imagined. In the English translation of the bible it says: At the beginning there was the WORD. The Greek word ‚logos’, however, means so much more than just ‘word’, as it also stands for sense and sensibility, and our English word ‘logic’ is derived from it. Nevertheless we talk about a worldVIEW. The imagination and the world of feelings and sensations are not put into words for most people. But still we want to grasp our thoughts and feelings somehow or express them. Language can be a way, or music, or visual arts. These media complement each other. For me language is a living system with which and in which I float all the time. It’s best to play with it. My textual works are quasi capriccios, in case you want to use this strongly coined term from the history of art.
You often cross boundaries between genres in your work. You blend many things. Instead of a hierarchic one on top of the other you often present something like a democratic side by side and with each other; of ideas, media, stages of development and so on. You derive from this a specific image of your own existence as an artist, don’t you?
Like language, art is also a system, and a pretty conservative one at that. You have to reserve the liberty in it to experiment. The artistic process is a quest; you have to make space for ideas and coincidences. You mustn’t barricade off the opportunity to make mistakes. My projects are attempts, essays. And like the essays of Montaigne, they are also attempts at self-awareness, which are hopefully catching.
Reto Thüring is Associate Curator for Contemporary Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art