German artist Michael Sailstorfer extends and escapes the traditional definition of sculpture by imbuing everyday urban objects with new physical and functional dimensions. At the Artist for Frescobaldi Award celebrations we caught up with the extraordinary talent to discuss the intricacies of working in public space and reshaping urban staples.
Let’s start with the essence of your artistic approach: What defines your work the most?
I hold a fine art degree in sculpture, i. e. I always work with actual, physical materials. If I had to boil my approach down to a few phrases, it would be about focusing on creating good works in the most economical and efficient way. My approach is quite pragmatic. In addition, I only target aspects that seem worth my time and commitment.
As far as we know, you hail from a small Bavarian village and started working in public at a fairly young age. Do you still remember your most interesting encounter or experience during these public outings?
I love working in public space. Confronting an audience that is unfamiliar with contemporary art can be a challenging experience. Just picture a jogger in a park who suddenly realizes that all of the surrounding trees have been painted black. At this point, the jogger and his invariable double-take become part of the art itself. Any audience can – involuntarily and unwittingly – become part of the sculpture through observation. Unlike a traditional gallery or museum set-up, art in public opens up an entirely new spectrum and scope for interpretation. When I transformed bus stops all over Bavaria into small apartments, the reactions were quite strong – ranging from positive surprise to outright anger and frustration. When working in public, you become much more vulnerable to all kind of reactions. But the result can be an authentic dialog on art. That is what I truly like about it.
You seem to enjoy changing the nature of everyday objects – once you even turned a police vehicle into a drum kit. Or take your Shooting Star, a mobile launch platform for street lights. Where do you get your ideas and inspirations?
The transformative theme has been something that I have pursued since the beginning of my studies. In a way, it is like a game where you reimagine everything around you. Somehow, this moment of transformation is my sculptures’ primal instinct and raison d’être. But this goes beyond changing an object’s look or shape – it leads all the way down to its basic function. Transforming the essence of an object is what epitomizes my work.
Upscaling your approach, you sometimes even tackle entire buildings. One of your most famous works involves a morphed Statue of Liberty. Why did you pick such an architectural icon? What were you trying to say or achieve?
Actually, the Statue of Liberty project was a complete exception – I discovered this 2.5 meter DIY reproduction in an East German farm house on the outskirts of Berlin. I think it was from the 1970s or 1980s, i. e. back when this area was still part of the GDR. When I first spotted it, I simply knew that I wanted to work with this object, no matter what. This was the first time an object preceded the concept. In the end, I turned the Statue of Liberty into an electric drill that perforates a wall. In terms of politics, freedom remains a perennial theme. Here, the statue breaking through a wall embodies the most obvious and direct expression of freedom.
Did your life in Berlin influence this quest for transformation? Is the ever-changing city a source of inspiration?
A city invariably influences the artist. I have always wondered why this city intrigues me so much and if I could create the same works in Munich or elsewhere, for example. I still haven’t found an answer to that.
So, maybe you could share what you love about city life in general? What would be your urban ideal?
Well, for artists Berlin is pretty close to perfect. You can rent amazingly large studios, enjoy a lively exchange with other artists and get spurred on by the gentle competition. But I also enjoy exploring other cities to find out what is going on around the world – and then return home with plenty of new ideas on my mind.
What are you working on right now? Any exciting exhibitions on your schedule?
I am looking forward to my next big show in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the Contemporary Arts Center – a museum planned by the architectural genius Zaha Hadid. Entitled Every piece is a new problem, the show will run from March 29 to July 6, 2014.
Thanks a lot for sharing your insights, Michael!
Interview: Frank R. Schröder
Header image: “Wohnen mit Verkehrsanbindung” (Living with transport connection), photo: Michael Sailstorfer