Tilman has stated that his art has completely moved into the three-dimensional realm, and that his use of and response to architecture requires finding a balance between various environments and the objects that he makes and situates in these environments. Inspired by everyday objects and structures, his goal is to present and represent light using color and form, which is mediated through the objects he makes, the structures in which the objects are located, and the overall integrated installation. As René Kockelkorn writes about Tilman’s exhibition F218B-BXL, at CCNOA, Brussels in 2004, “in short, this is not merely an art to look at, but a physical and psychical space of experience.”
In the following interview the reader will find the word location used several times, and there are two instances where this word is extended to locational and locationality. In reference to a pink shape he saw on the side of a building in New York which later influenced an art work of his, Tilman says, “somehow it caught my eye and I was fascinated by its awkward shape and color, and also its locational relationship.” It wasn’t merely the pink shape that mattered, but also the place where it was situated and what surrounded it. And in our discussion about site-specific and installation art, he says, “a work which is truly site-specific for me is a work which is locationally immanent, if one can say this, rather than a work which can be transported to any other location.”
In particular, I am very fond of his use of the word “immanent” here, meaning indwelling; inherent; or all-pervading, which perhaps even carries a sense of transcendence. “Locationally immanent” would mean that something is where it is meant to be, and that it can’t be anywhere else. Much of what Tilman attempts in his recent work is the use objects and color to create situations that feel natural and original, yet are structured and heightened places in which the viewer experiences form and light; one might call these immanent locations.
—Chris Ashley, June 2006
The following conversation between Tilman and Chris Ashley was conducted via email in English between April and May 2006. For further information about Chris Ashley, please visit www.chrisashley.net.
Chris Ashley: Your work F218B-BXL installed at CCNOA, Brussels in 2003 incorporated video and sound by Johan Vandermaelen. What was your thinking about including environmental sound in your installation? Is this the first time that you’ve included other media in an installation of yours, and is it something you intend to do again?
Tilman: F 218 B-BXL was the first site-specific installation; its basic aim was to create a dialogue between certain elements in my work, but also of perception itself. I found it interesting to include also various media into my process to add another layer of possible perceptive momentum. Sound, for example, became by bits an architectural structure and yet another element in these rooms on the same level as maybe a flat wall work. It definitely is not meant as an atmospheric addition.
CA: During 2006 you have three solo exhibitions scheduled in Oslo, Dusseldorf, and Sydney. Can you tell me about the work you will be showing in these different locations, how the work is different or the same, and if these different cities affect either the work you are showing or the installation?
T: Oslo is a rather involved project. The show will contain seven stacked and layered wall objects, two floor objects and one large floor/wall object. All works are made for the space, some beforehand in my Brussels studio, and the large objects here in Oslo, on-site. The other gallery space will be occupied by a large installation similar to F 218 B-BXL. This installation will also contain different media, like video and a sound piece by Belgian composer Aernoudt Jacobs, who composed this piece especially for this space and installation.
The show in Dusseldorf will be hosted by a rather small gallery, Konsortium, and in this venue I will show drawings and one wall object deriving from those drawings. The series of drawings is called Fundstueck/gridworks, and is based on an object my eyes caught in New York two years ago—a mimetic relation, maybe.
The SNO (Sydney Non Objective) show later this year will most probably be a site-specific installation, due to the location and also due to the practicality—Sydney is a bit far away. But no specific plans are made yet for this show.
In general I could say that a special location does not influence my work in particular, except that by traveling far distances to have exhibitions I got into working site-specifically and also more experimental lydue to this situation, a flexibility which I had to get acquainted with first, but now I feel very confident with this process of art-making; the post-studio thing, to maybe call it, helped me in some ways in the creative act and broadened my ways of approaching and dealing with the process of making a work of art.
CA: What was it that caught your eye in New York on which you based these drawings? Do you often get ideas like this from your environment? Is much of your work based on other objects or something in the environment?
T: That specific image I detected in New York was actually a huge pink shape consisting of isolation panels mounted on the outside brick wall of a building under construction, and somehow it caught my eye and I was fascinated by its awkward shape and color, and also its locational relationship. But it is not that I am specifically looking for images like this—they just occur, and if they are strong enough, they find their way slowly into the process. So I am trying to say that especially the architectural objects are not entirely dependent on this process of seeing. This also can happen by working on drawings and making sort of loose sketches, especially when it comes to larger artworks. But yes, I cannot deny a relationship to daily life objects, or at least the impulse I get from looking at things, objects, and my environment.
CA: Let’s talk about this idea of the “post-studio” practice, a not uncommon practice for many artists now. I see a breakdown of art that is made in the studio, or made outside the studio, or is half-and-half. There are artists who don’t have a studio beyond, say, a laptop, and who work with teams or fabricators. Can you say more about this, and how it broadens your practice? You’re still working in a studio, too, so are these approaches ever really separate, or is it more porous, something shifting back and forth?
T: “The world becomes the studio”—this is a line used by a New Zealand-based art critic, and I can definitely relate to this quote. So in my case, this became an issue after being invited to places like Australia, or in cases of working with art-spaces that run on a low budget. The works I execute then are usually made site-specific, or I find a place where I can continue the regular studio practice, so in this case I can set up a temporary studio wherever I want. Maybe the idea of working in one place—the studio—is a very romantic idea in these times and days, and then may be one day it becomes important again. The intimacy of the studio is still important, so to say, but also the flexibility of location, time and space are a big part of my working process, without interfering with the essential idea of my work.
CA: The literature about your work and your own statements emphasize your interest in color and light. Your realization that light and color were your main concerns came over time, and through painting, and in some ways you are still involved in painting, but also sculpture. I’m curious to know about why and how you make solid colored objects in order to get at the effects of light. What result are you after in setting up for the viewer a situation where light is made with objects?
T: I guess my early interests in light stem from my concern for photography, which developed very young, also always painting at the same time. Working with photography ended basically in doing very experimental photos about movement of light. Photography seemed not the right tool for me then, and I turned to painting to explore light and its essential visual quality. Sure, for a long time I literally painted and tried to paint/catch light, and through years of working and researching in different modes and styles (bad word, I know), I arrived very slowly at a much-reduced form to give light its platform. So in this term, I understand my works of art as more carriers for existing light, and they can be flat, three dimensional art arranged in an installation. A strong point in this mode of working is to invite the viewer to participate in this physical experience, to look and understand the subtleties of light and the objects and, in general, I think this can also spur more philosophical or even psychological points of understanding than the work of art might offer at first sight.
CA: What do you see as the philosophical and psychological aspects of experiencing and understanding your work? Perception of light and color are primary experiences in your work, and these take place through certain forms. These forms are hung or installed in specific ways, and may be integral to an architectural setting, perhaps bearing the influence of architecture. We are all familiar with and can deeply experience architectural spaces—we move through them, live in them, work in them. Our experience of space, and much of our lives, is shaped by architecture, and color and light. In “The Poetics of Space,” Gaston Bachelard applies the method of Phenomenology to examine our experience of architecture, looking closely at various kinds of shapes and spaces. Some of our experience is less conscious, even automatic, but at some point we become more aware of our interactions with various kinds of spaces. Our reactions are at first physical, gradually turning to awareness and meaning—which might be a psychological recognition—and then as we process this it becomes an idea or an ideal, entering the realm of philosophy. Our looking translates into an intellectual process and vice-versa, and it can be a very interesting process. How does your art act in the continuum from the physical, to the psychological, to the philosophical?
T: I find your reference to Bachelard`s book very interesting. Once I bought this book, about a half a year ago, but didn’t yet find time to focus on it. The short rundown on Bachelard`s thoughts and ideas definitely reflects some subjects I am dealing with in my work, although I am missing subjects like personal physicality, sensuality and above all the factors of time, but, well, I haven’t read it yet. Also, he is maybe more referring to the architectural space compared to the architectural/intimate space of a work of art. For me, those questions evolved over a period of time, and the observations I made regarding the viewer’s act of seeing. Once my works developed into three-dimensional objects I observed that most of the viewers still perceived those works as two-dimensional works, which deeply irritated me and raised a lot of questions about perception. I then introduced those rather small boxes, called Volumina, and besides their own autonomy as works of art they also helped to seduce the viewer into another act of seeing and perception. The viewer all of a sudden understood the three-dimensionality of the other works—looking behind, creating a curiosity—and once being three-dimensional those works created also a physicality within the viewer, which led to questions of psychology and, last but not least, philosophy. There is sure more to say towards that subject, but maybe you get an idea of what I am aiming for.
CA: There are other artists with a strong psychological and philosophical foundation, who also deal with light and color. How do you see your work in terms of the history of other artists for whom pure color and light are central, for example Robert Irwin, Dan Flavin, or James Turrell?
T: Well, I think history is long and there are many artists I am interested in from Renaissance to today, and I think this is a quite complex question. The three names you mention are sort of tied into Minimalism, and sure I respect their work in their own form of dealing with the phenomena of light, but I do not understand myself as a Minimalist. There are certainly thoughts which I am very interested in, and also a certain aesthetic, but I wouldn’t nail down my approach to them. A very strong influence was a rather unknown artist who died recently, Robert Fosdick, and maybe also Belgian artist Marthe Wéry, who also died last year. I can definitely say that there is a tradition in my language of art starting more precisely maybe with De Stijl and Bauhaus, for example.
CA: Can you say a little more about Fosdick and Wéry, their work, and their influence?
T: As for my friend Robert Fosdick, I have to say that it wasn’t necessarily the actuality of his individual works, it was the ideas he gave me about, let’s say, possibilities for understanding the subtleties of light. Deeply embedded in the dialogue between the realistic, scientific understanding of the natural phenomena of light itself, and on the other side a philosophical, spiritual approach towards it, the conversations with him supported my own development and triggered a manifold of questions in me.
As for Marthe Wéry, I guess we met just like that, a deep understanding in what we were both after in terms of physicality and intellect, the relationship between an art object and its function in architectural space, the importance of light as a mending plate between those entities, an almost sensoround experience, the questions of one’s own physicality, one’s own physical position—where do we stand?
CA: Going back to Minimalism, in his well-known essay “Art and Objecthood,” first published in “Artforum” in June 1967, Michael Fried used the word “theatricality” to describe, and criticize, Minimalism’s phenomenon of an object or form in real space experienced in real time. This attribute eventually came to have many positive connotations. When I mentioned Irwin, Flavin, and Turrell, I wasn’t really thinking of your work as Minimalism; I asked about them because light and perception are central to your work. But now, given your use of installation, I’m wondering whether or not you incorporate this “theatrical” aspect of installation into your work.
T: I think the term “theatrical” in this respect is theatrical in itself, and also maybe the term “installation” is wrong to describe those spaces I create. They are clearly site-specific in their nature, which I think installation art is not. The spaces I create are clearly connected to its location. They never can be set up again in the same manner once they are standing in an important dialogue with its architectural environment and the existing light conditions. I do not understand the architectural environment as a setting or stage in that sense.
CA: How is it possible that an installation is not site-specific? I wonder if what you mean is that installation art doesn’t have to be site-specific. It is dependent on the location, which can change each time the work is installed, in different conditions. Regarding your work, do you mean that the architectural environment in which you install your work is not a backdrop or a platform, but is integrated into something larger— the entire work would include your objects or interventions, plus the environment?
T: Sure, all installations are in some way site-specific; I just wanted to draw a line there between installation and site-specific, which you actually answered with the second part of your question regarding this subject. A work which is truly site-specific for me is a work which is locationally immanent, if one can say this, rather than a work which can be transported to any other location and re-installed in a maybe slightly different configuration within any given space.
CA: Much of your work certainly shares the essential characteristics of de Stijl: pure abstraction; a reduction to essential form and color; an emphasis on vertical and horizontal, and individual, discrete works. The Bauhaus’ key characteristics are architecture and function, and the philosophy that the practice of art is situated in a greater totality. How do you see your work in relation to this?
T: I guess there is definitely a relation to those thoughts. Josef Alber’s quote that “art shall open eyes” is also very important in the bigger picture to make art accessible. And I truly believe that the idea of reduction and the search for the subtleties in reductive art can open doors for understanding the bigger picture in a visual, physical, intellectual way. This art is not aiming to be self-contained; it wants to relate, to give, to breathe.
CA: Do you arrive at the format and sizes of your work intuitively, or are proportion and numbers important drivers for your work?
T: My process of working is usually a very loose one, very intuitive. I seldom work on proper sketches although, sure, when it comes to large-scale works I have to sort of plan them out.
But there’s no math or any relation to math involved. I could say more that there is a definite relationship to architecture and building and creating spaces. The objects actually could be described as micro-architectures, and I also believe there’s a sort of architecture, or maybe better structure, in the chaotic, incidental appearance of things which constantly find their way into our eyes.
CA: The idea of micro- and incidental architecture is interesting. For example, a work like 4103, which is a small box open on the top and bottom hung high on a wall near the ceiling could be initially taken for a sign, or a fire alarm, or some kind of sensor or detector. What look like large colored sheets of fiberboard in E472C-BSL lean against the wall or are propped up off the floor on small planks, like sections of wall waiting to be installed. The stacked pieces in F218B-BXL are placed like construction materials that have just been delivered to a site, ready to be used. Elements : Squares are like colorful aluminum window frames on display at a home design convention. Besides the forms you use, I think I see in your use of color a connection to very contemporary, popular architecture.
T: I think there is definitely a connection in my works to architectural space in general, as a physical space in relation to one’s own physicality and its relation to it: what do we see, where are we standing, what is going on? There are those kinds of thing around us, those relationships, to discover and see. Things that look awry are the concerns of this work. As for the use of color, I don’t really know whether there is a direct connection to architecture. In architecture, yes, color gets used in many different aspects—as form, as decoration, etc. In my work color functions under a very different umbrella—it is light.
CA: The color is material, first. It could be the natural color of the material, or painted, or printed, or the color is applied in some way. It’s a property of the object. Of course, color is made possible by light, but how does the color move from being a physical thing to being simply light?
T: In early Greek philosophy, light is described as the fourth element, the ether; they called it Olkas, a carrier which holds all together. That’s what I am trying to say with simply light, making a reference to this thought. So color, yes, as a material it becomes a carrier of thought, something essential, so to say.
CA: After all of these exhibitions, what next?
T: Well, first of all I need a break, but in general I might say that I haven’t played out all the possibilities which my work process offers. After all, it is slow, art, and I cannot just produce, period. So I guess I will keep on researching my own possibilities.