Wolfgang Stiller is a fantastic installation artist who resides in Berlin, Germany. He's also a friend of mine. He has a great website www.wolfgangstiller.com He's disarmingly direct and has a razor sharp wit. I enjoy visiting art galleries with him because he isn't easy to impress and spots things most people would miss. He's created a profound installation series called, "Matchstick Men." I chatted with Wolf about that ... got his thoughts on how people should view his work ... and he told me why he thinks some folks in the art world today aren't really interested in art.
MICHAEL: Hey Wolfgang. Thanks for chatting with me. I really love your "Matchstick Men." How did you come up with that concept? Is that a travelling exhibition?
WOLFGANG: In general, I have two different ways to approach a new series of works: One is that an idea - concept -comes to my mind and I'm looking for the right material to transform the idea into a three dimensional work. The other approach comes through materials I find.
MICHAEL: Where do you find your materials?
WOLFGANG: Sometimes I discover random things sitting in my studio or somewhere else outside and I get an idea for a new work. Maybe I need to say that I'm an artist who doesn't start from scratch. I don't consider myself a classical sculptor since I've never been tempted to take wood or stone and try to do anything with it. I like to work with prefabricated things I run into ... changing the character or original purpose by using them in a different context or simply using them as an initial element.
MICHAEL: You definitely used that concept to great effect with Matchstick Men.
WOLFGANG: The Matchstick Men belong to the second category. I had some head molds sitting in my studio which were a kind of left over from a mannequin production I did for a movie in China. Back then, I was living in Beijing. I also had some pieces of thick bamboo wood lying around from another installation that I had done. I was playing around with those two elements and after awhile the heads ended up on the bamboo sticks. The first Matchstick Men I did were round and less readable as Matchsticks. Luckily the bamboo was bad quality and started cracking after awhile so I exchanged it with square lumber which is the final result you can see now.
MICHAEL: They're so cool to me. To see them on display, there's such a great uniformity to them. The heads are all burned and brutal looking. They look almost military.
WOLFGAING: Since I am mainly interested in installation and especially in site specific ones, I started to develop an entire installation out of the single Matchstick Men. I built matchboxes and created different sizes of Matchstick Men. The meaning and content of a work grows while I'm in the process of doing the physical work and it leads to more concrete directions about what the work is going to look like. I really like the literal aspect of Matchstick head in German that's called, "Streichholzkopf". It's refers to an actual head that is stronger in the German language for matchstick head.
MICHAEL: So what would you say is the meaning behind them?
WOLFGANG: This is the more playful and fun aspect of this installation. One could read those burned matches as worn out - or burned out human beings. The installation can appear like a battlefield or just like some playground where someone played around with matches and dropped them. All the heads I've used so far are from Chinese people. This sometimes leads to the assumption that this is a criticism of the Chinese government. One can read it that way, but I think this metaphor could be used for any western system as well. The matchboxes could be simply seen as formal elements within the installation, as coffins or simply as matchboxes. I actually like to keep it open since I don't like art that leaves no space for one's own imagination. This is not a travelling exhibition. Right now, I am having lots of exhibitions and it's exciting to create different installations with the Matchstick Men. Every new space has its own character and asks for a different approach. I always get new ideas for new works with the Matchstick Men
and I'll continue as long as I come up with something fresh.
MICHAEL: When I first saw Matchstick Men on your website, I interpreted them as men who are so full of conviction that they're "fired up" for a cause. They're burning with conviction, so much so that they stand in unity, unbroken regardless of the cause or their nationality. It's interesting to me that you say you like to leave room for the viewer's own interpretation, but what if their interpretation is totally off the wall and makes no sense?
WOLFGANG: As an artist, I have a reason why I'm doing what I'm doing. I need a motivation or initial reason for doing it. I am interested, inspired, disturbed, excited by many things I see in life. My work is "my way" of reflecting those things. Sure, I have a certain intention, but there are also aspects of my work that eve I am not aware of. I don't think an artwork is a kind of riddle with just one possible solution. Everyone has his or her own commentary while watching and trying to read an art work. There are works that leave absolutely no space for one's own interpretation, but again, I find them rather boring.
MICHAEL: Given that, I would imagine people have a lot to say about Matchstick Men.
WOLFGANG: They create diverse reactions and emotions. Some people are really disturbed by the burned faces since their focus is just there while other people enjoy the fact that the matches have human heads. You interpreted them as "men who are so full of conviction that they are fired up for a cause" while someone else simply thinks of decapitated heads on poles. So ... how is one's interpretation off the wall? This group of work evokes a more open interpretation. It shows how we approach or look at things. Is the glass half full or half empty? I think both positions are reasonable. As I mentioned earlier, I see my work as reflections on
subjects that I'm interested in. They're not answers, but thoughts that I offer and once they're out, they start to have a dialogue on their own which I am not able and not willing to control.
MICHAEL: Wow, that's great Wolf. Do you keep up with what's happening in the art world or do you focus on doing your own thing?
WOLFGANG: Yes ... sure. I try to keep up and go to see some exhibitions once in a while, but not so much when I am in Berlin since I prefer to work instead of going to openings. When I'm travelling, I enjoy going to museums and galleries. There are so many fairs, galleries and artists these days. It's really hard to cover it all and I pick very carefully what I am going to see.
MICHAEL: So how do you pick?
WOLFGANG: It might sound conservative, but I'm much more interested in matured artists and not so much into really young artists. Nowadays artists start showing right after graduating or even during their studies. The art world became a bit like the pop industry. One has to be "young and fresh." No one wants to miss the newest trend. I really don't care for that. An artist needs time to develop his or her own language and to be quite frank, I think someone who is 23 rarely has anything substantial to offer.
MICHAEL: Yeah, a fresh approach is great, but you have to have the experience to even know that what you're doing is fresh.
WOLFGANG: There might be some rare exceptions. Art fairs are also tricky since they don't really represent what's really out there, but mainly works that represent or serve contemporary taste in art. There are so many works that make me think they are just made for the sole purpose of covering the needs of this market. So
I am actually very happy when I find new artists who don't deliver what is asked for but do what they really want to do. It still happens.
MICHAEL: Many people today are disillusioned by their careers. So many people are just going to work like robots and doing what's required because so much today is about money rather than the noble calling of being a doctor, lawyer or whatever. Artists remain unique in that they can still remain true to their own voice by creating whatever they wish in their "off" time.
WOLFGANG: It's funny that you are saying this right after what I said before. You certainly have a very romantic attitude towards artists. Why would you assume that artists are not affected by the very same things? Artists are not different from those people you mention. So many artists are seduced by money and play along with the market to get their share of the cake. I think Damien Hirst is a perfect example for instance. I don't want to put him down as an artist, but whenever I read something about him it is never about his art ... the content. It is just about how many millions he's made or how expensive his diamond skull was. I didn't read anything about the quality of his skull as an artwork. Nobody seems to care about the art itself. Many young artists are fascinated and tempted by the fact that art can gather such an enormous amount of money. In China, where I lived for two years, the dream profession was to become an artist since it seemed like an easy way to become very rich in a very short time. Sure, one can still find artists who "remain true to their own voice" like you say, but the same counts for some doctors, lawyers or whatever. Gallery owners have too much power over artists these days and if one doesn't play along, there will be hundreds waiting in line willing to do so. When I studied art, there was still the postulate that an artist has a social responsibility. If I look around today, I feel like art has become a tiger without teeth ... pretty to look at, but no impact at all. The good news is there are always exceptions and always will be ... people who really follow their own voice no matter if they're lawyers, doctors, artists or whatever. Just yesterday, I met a younger artist who does great work. Finding precious little treasures like this always reminds me why I'm still doing what I'm doing. I guess I still share a little bit of your romantic enthusiasm.
MICHAEL: As we both know, many if not most people want fame, money and success more than anything. Our lust for them clouds everything. I think that it's the chasing after these things that has actually created more discontent. This has certainly created a huge gulf between the art world (the art business) and the general public. The "art world" isn't interested in the general public, but artists ARE the general public. It's funny.
WOLFGANG: I think there's nothing wrong with wanting to be famous and successful. I guess this desire has been around since the beginning. The problem is that we bend ourselves to get those things we desire instead of doing what we really want to do. Art used to be more an elite thing for the last 70 years or so and now it's getting more popular among a wider audience. Unfortunately, not because more people are interested in art, but because of the fact that we're living in a time when everyone wants to be creative and thinks that everyone can be an artist.
MICHAEL: Hmm. That's certainly true. You hear a lot of people talking about being more "creative," but the bottom line is always money and success.
WOLFGANG: This is pathetic. No one would claim to be a scientist or have an understanding without a proper education. The same counts for gallery owners. Few of them have a proper background. It's just cooler to sell art instead of carpets or used cars. It's cool to invite a gallery owner to your dinner party, but who wants to sit next to a used car dealer? Someone who studied art history and opens a gallery will most likely have a hard time surviving since their approach might be too intellectual - content is a hard sell these days. Art has become a social event. So has collecting and buying art. Almost everyone with a 6 figure income is buying art these days. It has become an obligation rather than a passion.
MICHAEL: Yeah, for many people, it's the cool thing to do.
WOLFGANG: Very few of those buyers actually have or trust their own taste. They go to galleries which are hip right now. Gagosian, Deitch, etc., are the brand names equivalent to Gucci, Prada and Armani. With a constantly growing demand, art has become a billion dollar market and this has definitely influenced the quality of art production and its reception. Nowadays, a lot of people appreciate that art is less of an elite thing that it used to be. Plenty of curators speculate that the idea counts and not the way it's executed. This attitude encourages lots of completely untalented people to become "artists." That was definitely not what Joseph Beuys meant when he said "Every human being is an artist." I guess it's important to see that there's the art market with all its players and then there is serious ART ... people who try to make a difference and don't care about wide acceptance . However, this doesn't exclude the dream to become famous one day.
MICHAEL: As an artist, do you feel pressure to work in different mediums or is your work simply a natural expression from one medium to another? Is it better to have a specialty?
WOLFGANG: Personally I have very high standards for myself. Therefore, I don't try out every medium. I am not interested in doing paintings. For instance, I love movies. So I would feel embarrassed to make a crappy video and show it in an exhibition. Video is a form of movie and just because it's cheaper to produce, it doesn't mean one doesn't have to learn the skills like photography, lighting or editing. Since I watch a lot of movies, I can hardly stand low quality videos that I find boring as hell. I don't care about the concept if the quality sucks. I know I'll have ten angry curators on my back. Give them crappy, boring videos, but I will go to see a nice movie. Every medium needs experience and skill. Some come easier to me, some others don't. I stick with the things that come naturally. Yes, I think specialty is definitely something I prefer since one can develop skills and become a master. I'm not talking about plain virtuosity, which is pretty boring as well, but sometimes I see great sculptors showing some poor paintings or some painters showing some poor sculptures. I don't think they're doing themselves any favors.
MICHAEL: So, is it wrong for artists to try to branch out?
WOLFGANG: It's great to try out all kinds of things, but that doesn't mean one needs to show them if they are not high quality. For a while, there was this thing where artists would show some videos, drawings, paintings and sculptures in the same show. None of it was good and I guess they hoped everything together would make up for it. Those kinds of shows bore the hell out of me. I admire people who really know what they're doing ... for instance Gerhard Richter. I am not a fan of his work, but he's a real master at what he's doing and that's what counts for me. I think he's an amazing artist who spent his whole life pursuing this quality. He has all my respect.
MICHAEL: Thanks for chatting Wolf. This has been great.
WOLFGANG: The pleasure was on my side Michael.
To find out more about Wolfgang Stiller and Matchstick Men, along with his eclectic art work, check out his website at www.wolfgangstiller.com