Melanie Körkemeier: Interview with Barbara Koch

I see your piece „Lab Sweets“ in the Kassenärztliche Vereinigung as a development or a new interpretation of the small wall objects of 2010. Employees of the KVWL, as the text of Thomas Loer in conversation with the employees shows, started associating different ideas with your work in the context of this special building (magnified organic microstructures, landscapes, male genitals, monuments for colleagues who died from cancer, …) – is that a problem for you?
The large work „Lab Sweets“ is, in the first place, an abstract-experimental one, as well as the small works, too. Of course those more or less amorphous elements in various forms, as well as their arrangement in connection to the colour and the material, opens up a series of associations. This is a concept, which I am using and it does not always work. In the first place, it is my own testing ground, my lab of absurdities and fantastic arrangements.
The work „ Lab Sweets“ is exceptionally large. Was your artistic dialogue with this work similar to working on the small wall objects or does this format take on different aesthetic dimensions, besides the mere enlargement? Looking at the work with a painter’s eyes: where do you see the difference – also with regard to the already predetermined space for which the piece was made?
It was I who chose the space for the piece. Originally it was not predetermined for art. However, I wanted to create a really large piece and this was the only space where something in the form I was thinking about was possible to realise. During my studies, the large paintings of Barnett Newman deeply impressed me. For me, they seemed to be overwhelming and sublime, a quiet clarity and dignity. The large wall relief was actually a wonderful possibility to develop one of the smaller trial arrangements into an extensive installation. Even the small pieces need a lot of space. While the small pieces already focus the observer’s view through a combination of unconventional form and often a strong luminosity, the large installation additionally creates a feeling as if it annexes the room. The piece sits over people’s heads and thus it breaks away from the playful experiments before which take place at eye level. In contrast to Newman’s quiet works, looking at my works, I have a feeling of boldness by the way they are interfering with the architecture. Indeed monumental but far from being dignified or even idyllic. The sculpture illuminates the room and changes the light, so that in sunny weather it is nearly not possible to look at the piece. I did not want the piece to integrate itself smoothly. The installation occupies the room, it is opulent, it screams, it forces itself on the observer, polarises and appears nearly ideological. Never before had I seen this piece as it is shown now – as a whole, much less in upright form. I was mainly only able to guess about its impact. In the end it was an experiment and a challenge. Enlargements of sketches – I see my small pieces as such – often have the same impact. Such a mass of material you cannot just put up on the wall, look at it and examine it. Although, everything is working according to plan it still remains intuitive. At first, I made a scaled digital sketch and projected it onto a large wall in the Künstlerhaus Dortmund. In addition to that, there was also a model of the foyer for which I created a miniature of the piece. Thus, I had a pretty good idea how the piece would later appear in the room.
From your answer I can read that with this experiment your point was not the mere enlargement, the change of proportions. The impact, associated with the work, the pathos of an extensive, space-defining work seems to have set free a completely new energy. Am I right?
At the moment, I am planning a new piece for a project, which will be as large. However, at the same time, it will be more reduced while being more expressive. Individual elements shall grow directly out of the wall. Exaggeration is part of my work, the idea of dramatically sprawling growth in a space is fascinating to me. Even as a child, I was daydreaming about this idea. A key moment for me was when my brother and I once enmeshed a room in our flat from top to bottom with wool threads and hooks. The thought to be lost in chaos or to cultivate it has something anarchic, uncontrollable and adventurous. This is what I like. This format and working with a certain situation or a particular space rather break from your normal working process. Is it possible for you to imagine going on from here and dealing more often with large, installation-like, thematically focused projects? This is my favourite way of working. However, there always has to be an occasion and it is also a financial question.
Your work has developed from a rather experimental field to a more concrete and through this more attackable level. You are not working with amorphous forms, which can be interpreted in different ways, any more – Now you are using ready-made materials with unambiguous references. – Here, I’m thinking of the tablets. The Lab Sweets are nearly ready trouvées, which define themselves normally through a story connected to the object. Would you confirm that your art has developed into a direction which now takes on a clearer socio-philosophical position?
It is right that my work is getting more concrete. Since 2004, I basically have been searching for new means and forms, which express what engages me strongly. It is one topic with different variations. It is the thought of helplessness in its wider sense and the feeling of powerlessness, which interest me as well as the every-day catastrophes and tragedies we hardly notice and which are virulent. My childhood was not a happy one. When I was 7 years old my mother died and my father was only physically present – a peculiar and sad family history, which has determined my life so far. I know what it means to be an outsider and it leaves a mark. As an observer, I am able to arrange things in a new order, to combine them in a new way, for example while working on the Waiting Room V installation in 2010 when I came across countless tablets in my parents’ legacy. What can you do with objects, which bring along their own history and how to go on from that point? We live with what is left behind – a pragmatic but also optimistic approach. When I find hundreds of tablets in my parents’ cupboard and start making pictures or curtains out of them, I show how absurd the belief in science and consumption propagated by society is. When I throw the objects or clothes of a dead person into trash bags, the senselessness of striving for property becomes obvious. I can use the objects in the work Bottom Flowers from 2010, which I created from my parents’ underwear, as a tribute to this senselessness. Setting in scene a retreat from the world, the defencelessness, which comes along with it, and the absorption of the people who are left behind.
Your art has developed a lot during the last years. The intellectual, artistic usage of materials and colours, a sometimes even playful process, makes more and more way for the strictly conceptual and performative. Your art burdens itself with serious topics like death or the criticism of our consumption and media-orientated society. Where is this leading? Or is it this contrast between form and content which appeals to you? The Lab Sweets still show a lot of surface, colour, form. However, you also readily accept associations with illness.
Both can stand next to each other, work together and overlap. I like the sensuality of material and colour, the artistic process of creation in the studio and the work in detail. Last traits of a painterly origin can be found in my work, which I do not want to miss. Therefore, I am only partly the type who works in a strictly conceptual way where normally the plan, the drawing, the instructions are delegated to a third party. In general, I see it as an asset to expand my work in a conceptual and performative way, if the topic needs it. Actually, I see two lines of interest in my work. On the one hand, I think, for example, about the Waiting Room Installations, which are mainly biographically triggered and more conceptual. On the other hand, the wall objects have more potential as paintings. These works got more and more sculptural over time and moved slowly from wall into space. For the future, I am thinking about abstract sculpture- and installation-concepts in which the chaos of pathological processes, strange shapes or micro- and cell-structures spreads.
Go to Work Lab Sweets 2009