Berlin, Aug. 2009 : Despite the chaotic appearance of his sculptures, installations and paintings, Kenno Apatrida strives to make sense of our fragmented society and creates works of profundity from our cultural debris. Individual sculptures contain dolls, puppets, phonographs, antique ceramic tiles, tear-outs from political magazines and propaganda from the Third Reich, old stamps, vintage family photographs, warped canvases clotted with paint, clusters of framed paintings, devotional icons and burning candles dripping red and cream-colored wax. In the following conversation, Ana Finel Honigman discusses the origins and meaning of the shamanistic totems that the Peruvian-born and Berlin-artist creates in his massive industrial studio in the cellar of one of Berlin's oldest breweries.
Kenno Apatrida in studio, 2009; Photo credit: Maxime Ballesteros / Courtesy of the artist and Wilde Gallery, Berlin
Ana Finel Homigman: Visually, your installations often resemble shrines. Is there a direct religious or spiritual component to your work?
Kenno Apatrida: What is a shrine to you?
AFH: Let me reword that: would you consider these sculptures as receptacles for sacred relics, either in a spiritual or historical sense?
KA: It is a bit difficult to discuss because art tends to ritualize life. For me, the divisions between art and life have almost melted. Art is integated into my whole life. I could say that my whole life is represented in each figure. In this sense, intensity could be like a form of religiosity.
AFH: How are you conscious of that manifesting itself in your work?
KA: I am working with things that are invisible to me; they are components of my psychology. They are ideas and symbols. I am interested in how they relate to people. If I take a very practical, almost mechanical, approach to the idea of religion, then I will say that my work has to do with religion. But only in that sense. I am not making a cult of my figures.
Kenno Apatrida, Exhumation (installation view), 2009, Mixed media; Photo credit: Maxime Ballesteros / Courtesy of the artist and Wilde Gallery, Berlin
AFH: How do you conceive of your sculptures?
KA: I work with a partial conscious and partially trance approach. Or, I can say that I approach my work in both rational and instinctual ways. It is a breakthrough when I make a piece. It is not a portrait or projection of my rational mind. It is a process that does not take me in one direction. It takes me in all directions. Religion is not necessarily one.
AFH: Yet, you overtly reference religious iconography when you appropriate or pay homage to artists like Durer and Bosch.
KA: Hieronymus Bosch was working for the church but at the same time he was part of a sect in the Middle Ages. They had a very paganistic approach to religion. The open source was the church but there was a secret church to which he was also a member. His work was more about a natural, rebellious, shamanistic approach to faith.
AFH: That sounds exactly like your work.
KA: In a way, I see myself relating to that way of addressing reality rather than to an analytical or commercial approach.
Kenno Apatrida, Solve et Coagula (installation view) 2008, Mixed media; Photo credit: Maxime Ballesteros / Courtesy of the artist and Wilde Gallery, Berlin
AFH: When working, do you have set goals or a pre-conceived image of how you want a work to appear when it is complete?
KA: No. These thing are, in a way, using me to build up themselves. I am a medium of this process.
AFH: How do you know when to stop?
KA: I do not know when it has come to an end. I could keep on working with these sculptures until they expand to overtake the whole space. But after that point, I try to work through it all with thoughts and words. It is always a process. I make installations from other installations that I have destroyed. That way, they can be reincarnated as new forms and the possibilities remain open until someone comes and removes me, or it, from the space. Sometimes events or people need to separate me from the pieces.
AFH: Do you feel protective toward them when you're working on them or after they are finished?
KA: The way that one relates to their works is an evolving process. I will say that my relationship always changes. Sometimes, I feel very closely related to them and other times I feel cooler towards them. I was previously totally isolated when working. Then I was extremely tied to my work. I was very sensitive to how they would be interpreted and in what context they would be shown. That furthered my isolation. But at other points, I start to think "fuck off" and instead I focus less on the physical presence of the things and more on the process of making them and letting go a little to get my work better known.
Kenno Apatrida, Exhumation (installation at Wilde Gallery) 2009, Mixed media; Photo credit: Maxime Ballesteros / Courtesy of the artist and Wilde Gallery, Berlin
AFH: It must still be unnerving to see how radically different your work looks here in your studio than in a clean, white, gallery space. In a gallery your pieces appear almost like souvenirs of this extraordinary massive creation you've made.
KA: Yes, that was true when I showed at the Wilde Gallery. But every other time that I exhibited, I asked for the keys to the gallery and the gallery let me take over the space. I always created an atmosphere like the one I make in my studio. But I feel like I have now reached a point where I need more than one way to show my work and have new people come see and buy it. My first idea with the Wilde gallery was to make it wild. But that was too wild.
AFH: Yes, but Oscar Wilde was still a dandy.
KA: The gallery people are really nice and they are helping me move out of just working on the level of squats. That is all disappearing anyway.
AFH: You mean in Berlin?
KA: Yes, in Berlin it is all disappearing now. The places were I was working were all totally free and now I need to change with the time. I want to expand and accept different forms of presentation; this is good for me. Squats are something very special that are only possible in "rich countries". Empty houses were no one wants to live and where you can do what you want - these are luxuries. Mountains of stuff that no one wants and can be taken and recycled exist in rich societies. After the wall fell, half of Berlin seemed empty as people went West. Everything that represented Communism was smashed and left in the garbage. So, those of us who came here and found these fascinating objects in the trash, we were happy to take them and use them.
Kenno Apatrida, Crying Elk, 2008, Mixed media; Photo credit: Maxime Ballesteros / Courtesy of the artist and Wilde Gallery, Berlin
AFH: Do the objects become symbols for some and stay objects to others?
KA: They have a magnetic attraction for me. Every squat in Europe is full of found objects. I was living in squats for eighteen years and I was working constantly without money. I was collecting things that I could not buy and I did not have to. I knew people who were going crazy and collecting rooms worth of stuff from the WWII era.
AFH: Have you incorporated most of your finds into your work?
KA: I sold a lot of what I found in flea markets. But what I didn’t sell became part of my art.
AFH: So instead of being "homeless," when you were without a legal home, you were making homes for these orphaned objects.
KA: I was in some raids even when the police really took care of the art. But I would say that I was making a home for these things. I am making metaphors for the world. It all gets built up into big metaphors for the world as a whole. In this way, I can integrate everything. It is like alchemy. These are things that were made to be one thing in one context. But then they are brought into another context and they change. They become something new with a new substance and power.
AFH: As Berlin changes and evolves, how much do you think your work reflects that?
KA: It mirrors society. People get fascinated with these things but they are ugly. Ugly yet fascinating. The ugliness is so intense and ironic yet still fascinating. In this sense, it is like life. We are destroying ourselves yet still smashing coal into the machine to keep going. It is a metaphor for technique, the world and nature. It is not just for a gallery.
AFH: What a gallery can offer is the opportunity to entice, without intimidating or over-stimulating, potential collectors.
KA: I see perfect separations between images and the content in each work, but I understand that other people cannot see them separately when in my studio. They see a whorl. They see mess. It is very intense and supports their idea of a "passionate artist." But they cannot imagine how this would fit into their homes, salons or apartments. That is why they need a white cube space.
Kenno Apatrida, Skull 1, 2009, Mixed media; Photo credit: Maxime Ballesteros / Courtesy of the artist and Wilde Gallery, Berlin
AFH: It also serves as a showcase for your work, so that each piece can be contemplated and addressed.
KA: I find it disappointing that I need that surrounding context for people to access my work.
AFH: Are you comfortable embodying the image of a renegade artist?
KA: It is not a pose. I was not in a position to pick an identity. I was a South American immigrant with no other options. The situation was what it was. And I made the best possible work out of it. I realize that I fulfill the image of an "outsider artist" really intensely. But for me, it was not a decision.
AFH: Yet, are you comfortable with what circumstance has produced?
KA: I believe that people have 50% of their identities made by choice and the rest by destiny. These forces and this process are telling me where to go with my work. But it is the same with life itself. The principle of art, of making art, is philosophically close to the guiding principles of life.
AFH: Isn't that a bit passive?
KA: No. You need a balance. I want to use chaos in my art, in the forms of drippings, smashings, cracks and breaks because it is a metaphor for this balance. You need to accept that destiny will put you in situations under which you have no control. But when you don't have what you want, then you get fucked. You need to have a 50% idea of what you want. Then you can make an arrangement with destiny.
ArtSlant would like to thank Kenno Apatrida for his assistance in making this inteview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman