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Interview with Maria von Köhler
by Georgia Fee

London, Feb. 2009 - ArtSlant's Georgia Fee was in London for the opening of Maria von Köhler's site-specific installation, Maybe a Herm, at the IMT Gallery in Shoreditch.  The following excerpts come from a discussion of her current work, which is the culmination of a grant from the Henry Moore Foundation and a studio subsidised by IMT, and prior projects.

Maybe a Herm (installation view); Courtesy of ArtSlant

Georgia Fee: What influences have affected your work?  Artists, culture, ideas?? 

Maria von Köhler:  That is of course a difficult question because there is so much to say. The first piece of artwork that profoundly affected me as a young teenager was a Gerhard Richter piece at LACMA, one of the large abstract paintings. Before I encountered this piece in person I didn't realize one could ‘do' something like that; there was no need to talk about it; it was just breathtaking, confusing. At that time I felt no need to question why, but in retrospect I suppose it had a lot to do with the work's blurred boundaries and its' intelligence paralleled by its' astonishing beauty. So that opened up a world of possibilities for me.

I remember feeling almost as excited when I first was old enough (21) to heavily and repeatedly participate in all that Las Vegas has to offer, the place itself and the variety of creatures that flock to it as well as inhabit it. I see that place in itself as one of the most comprehensive and amazing artworks I have ever experienced. It continues to morph, in good ways and bad, if one looks at it as something other than a cheesy holiday destination. I would be hard pressed to think of another place in the West that is, or was, more captivating and boundary- blurring on such profoundly interesting levels and yet gives off such a superficial, cheap shine.

GF:  Your recent work appears very focused on the body -body surface, skin, fat, and mutation (headless figures, bound or suspended figures, dwarf or baby-like proportions.)  Can you discuss this a bit?

Maria von Köhler, Parrot, 2005, mixed-media; Courtesy of See Line Gallery, Los Angeles

MVK:  I have always been interested in portraiture, in creating characters. The human head and body, I suppose, is an inevitable starting point. Not that all my works have taken this form: pieces such as Parrot as well as Track are portraits, or characters, without taking this ‘human' form.

Incidentally, the human form as depicted in classical sculpture and painting have always interested me equally, if only in their representation of various ideologies. More recently, the history of mythical childlike figures, culminating in eroticized 18th-century putti, amorini and cherubs, had taken over my interest. Mainly this is because of their relationship specifically to the ‘mutation' of the body that you mention. The erotic, adult characteristics or roles attributed to the child-like figures I see as a metaphorical mutation similar to that of the physical kind. Attributing for example, said adult qualities to a child is a mutation in itself in its portrayal... just a whiff more extreme or in a slightly different direction, these attributions would be seen as monstrous or obscene.

That which one could refer to as mutation in the work however, such as a piece existing without all its limbs or its head, is part of a process of simplification. In other words the ‘missing' body parts were unnecessary for the portraits to be complete. In an earlier work, Gap, the standing figure with childlike proportions is wearing flip-flops. When modeling the piece in its earliest stage I stopped above the buttocks and morphed it with the belly because it already did what it ‘needed' to do.  Again, if you walked around the figure it morphed, (perhaps the buttocks were that of an adult woman, etc), but the addition of kids footwear added a surprisingly creepy (though some think humorous) quality, which was intensified by its' ‘mutation'. This I think has a lot to do with its' proportions. Using child-like or dwarfed proportions inspires more emotion- sympathy or disgust - towards the character upon encounter perhaps because of it's, as you say, symbolic innocence or purity; its ultimate helplessness.

Maria von Köhler, Maybe a Herm (installation view from exterior), 2009, mixed-media; Courtesy of IMT Gallery, London

GF:  How have you gotten to the current "Herm" figure?  Why the move into such radical abstraction?

MVK:  Although I see what you mean in relation to earlier work I don't feel this work is radically abstract. I see it as a portrait or a character, as mentioned above. It was important for the piece not to be literally definable on many levels; morphing both as you move around it and in the interaction between the painted surface and the overall sculptural form. By sculpturally alluding to flesh and the extremes of human-ish form, [male, female, old, undeveloped, mutated, grotesque, formless, with a bit of animal or ‘other being' present], then painting it flesh-like to heighten this, I was trying to put the focus on said interplay between its surface and its form . Neither of these are more or less importance to the piece. In earlier works, the cherub-based series for example, the sculptural dominance is very evident. Mainly this is because the pieces are of extremely recognizable form, which reads stronger upon first encounter than a delicately painted surface that one perhaps reads upon closer inspection. This relationship between the 2-d and 3-d progressively took over my interest because of its potential to exist as something vaguely recognizable yet has completely indefinable nature. When I come across this, in art, objects, in people, I find it compelling because it is exciting and challenging to be confronted with things that you can't immediately place or grasp. It provides a sort of equational purpose in a sea of banality.

Maria von Köhler, Spoilt for Choice ll, mixed-media; Courtesy of See Line Gallery, Los Angeles

GF:  You have such a sense of playfulness and humor.  Is this for you? the viewer?  Are these like toys to you? Companions?  How does humor ameliorate the experience?

MVK:  I do try to entertain myself during the long slog that is making the work... So if a sense of humor is detected then that can't be a bad thing. Also I really can't stand people who don't have a sense of humor about what they do or, indeed, themselves. Essentially though I see these characters (the works) as being pitiful. Having said that - we all are to some extent, and in my experience most obviously so when trying to live up to a seedy, desperately coveted yet sinisterly unattainable, non-existent ideology. In other words the stuff one is told to be, everywhere one looks, if one pays attention to such things.

GF:  You produce "objects" that tend to stand alone very much in the sculptural tradition.  What is your attraction to sculpture?  How does objecthood serve you as an artist?

MVK:  I am interested in the way that a viewer can interact with a lot of sculpture and the potential that its' three-dimensionality provides. Having said that I am equally consumed by painting, and would say that I am above all interested in the interaction between the two, as mentioned in the description of the Herm. I believe it was also my attraction to Richter's work very early on, as mentioned in question 1.

GF:  During our interview we talked about your interest in Las Vegas.  I found this quite interesting, especially when looking at your work.  Is there something in the Las Vegas myth that relates to your work?

MVK:  My interest in Vegas has definitely cooled in recent years as the city continues to morph into a ‘proper' place to live (for example the multitude of proper vacation flats being built at the North end of the strip), but, yes, I feel an affinity with the place for sure.  I can't disregard the first time walking through the Desert Passage, with its sky and cloud painted ceiling, passing several ‘mall' like entities, casino floors, pretend Disney-esque villages and cheesy themed bars, only to eventually emerge at the pseudo-romantically night-time lit Seine-side of the Bellagio, to the soundtrack of Frank Sinatra; bellowing from speakers hidden inside the fake Paris lampposts. Not far across the road, naturally, stands the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Casino. One could go on and on... not to mention the absurdity or contrast in general when in Vegas-  but that of its' actual geographical location in the middle of the high desert, very close to one the ‘wonders of the world' that is the Grand Canyon.

To get to the point - this interests me most of all:

1)The fact that if you want it to be, it is always dusk.

2) The overlapping of outside/inside artificial atmospheric paraphernalia is as world class as you could ever hope it to be, on so many levels. (Not ‘good' but ingeniously situated.)

3) It's been the fastest growing city in the US for a few years now; the streets are named after the casinos as they are built or re-named as they are blown up, not by virtue of something more ‘historical' or ‘advanced' as a discovery - this is it! The city is being constantly torn down and rebuilt, constantly morphing. That fact in itself is probably an entire thesis that several people have already written.

4) It is important not to fly directly to Vegas to understand the full magnitude of its' context... The best time to drive over the summit from LA on the I-15 is dusk, so that you can witness the transformation from day to night first hand. I can't write it down because there is no doing it justice. One just has to see for oneself. 

5) If you don't want to emerge from it all, 24hrs a day- for however many days/weeks/whatever, you don't have to. There is a way to exist within the myth; that is what is so ridiculous and so refreshing at the same time.

GF:  What do you do when you are not in the studio - who is Maria then?

MVK:  In London I most often find myself at gigs or in the pub, and very occasionally at gallery openings, when I am not in the studio. When I am in Los Angeles, Sweden or elsewhere I tend to spend weeks at a time traveling and looking at different places or people. I am inclined to spend a great deal of time engaged in physical outdoor activity: hiking, swimming; absorbing all the diverse natural resources at hand. It occurs to me that my life in London outside of the studio is hugely social and extremely debaucherous by comparison to any other. Yet when I spend large quantities of time in the supposed ‘party' cities of the world; LA, Vegas; etc, my life seems to revolve mainly around a solitary, observational sort of existence that always involves adapting to the lifestyles of others, or at least watching them. I have never adhered to the idea that one's entire life is just in the studio - quite the contrary, I can work for a concentrated period of time, all hours, but after that I need to go and look, or experience, move. I find it almost impossible when I am physically working on something to engage with anything other than what I am working on, I talk incessantly about myself, my work, etc, until I have concluded something. Only then I can look or possibly listen to something else, which it why it is a good time to ‘go' and be open to possibilities.

ArtSlant wishes to thank Maria von Köhler & IMT, London for  their assistance in making this interview  possible.

--Georgia Fee

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