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Interview with Jakob Mattner
by Mara Goldwyn

Berlin, Oct. 2012: The subtle relief sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints and stage design of German artist Jakob Mattner make something out of nothing. Or is it nothing out of something? He would perhaps say that it’s neither and in-between at the same time. Taking “the day, the night, and the twilight” as three points of reference, Mattner manipulates light in the most breathlessly simple way to create work that is ephemeral and timeless at once. His work will be on view at Artissima 19 in Turin with 401 Contemporary (booth 7 in the Violet Corridor). Mara Goldwyn visited Mattner last week in his Berlin-Charlottenburg studio.

Jakob Mattner, Zwielicht, 1985/2010, Glass, light, Dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist and 401contemporary.

Mara Goldwyn: What’s the newest thing in here?

Jakob Mattner: The paintings. Basically I’m interested in photography without doing photography. I make photographs as people did before the machines. I am the camera. So all these things, especially the paintings like that... I took the “shot” fifty or sixty years ago, and I am only “developing” it now. So if my brain or memory is a camera, I can develop very early material.             

MG: You talk about “being the camera” figuratively, but these paintings you’re referring to do have a photographic quality to them.

JM: Well yes, I am working with white on a black background... Is it a negative? Is it a positive?... Things like that. So it makes you a little nervous – is it a photo or a painting? The light and the shadows. Same like the camera.

MG: Could you talk a bit more specifically about your materials? Like this for example? [referring to collotype prints]

JM: That’s a print. But first let me show you this: Here is a drawing from the seventies on Japanese paper. My idea was to make a sculpture without materials. How could I do that? So then in the early eighties, I started with these sculptures, glass pieces: shadows, reflections – you can look through the material. You can see how this connects to my early drawing.

After some years... I started with glass pieces directly on the wall, so [I had the chance to custom make it for where it was being exhibited]. All the lighting is specially angled. It has an ephemeral character, like a ballet. So after this process, I took my drawings and my three-dimensional glass sculptures to a print studio in Leipzig. We developed these sorts of prints from lighting in three directions without a negative... It’s printed from glass plates, gelatin, emulsion and brome, like old style photography — from the 19th century [collotype].

MG: Are these unique one-time prints? It looks like you’re exposing the glass onto photosensitive paper.

JM: No no, it’s from printing plates. We have a group of thirty copies. But it’s an irreproducible process and unfortunately the studio in Leipzig closed just this year.

MG: For your sculptures, do you always use stationary light?

JM: Yes. Sometimes the objects they’re shining on are moving. Like objects in the universe.

MG: So you want to make a sculpture without materials. But is it also in a sense without content?  

JM: I started my career with night sculptures. After a while, I left this area and step-by-step discovered a small time between day and night: the twilight. In the US you have that big TV show [laughs], but the twilight is a very romantic idea in Germany, like the twilight described in the [19th century] poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. My feeling is that the twilight is the country for artists, the in-between – between bad and good, night and day, up and down... An area where you are free to do whatever you want. This goes together with my glass pieces. Twilight in German is Zwielicht, which means a state between two qualities: on the one hand it’s a romantic idea, and on the other very practical. I split the light.

Jakob Mattner, Schatten und Licht, 1996, Collotype print, Leipzig, 80 x 60 cm / 86,5 x 66 cm framed Edition 10; Courtesy of the artist and 401contemporary.


MG: It’s interesting that you talk about the twilight but not the grey. Like between black and white – people often rather talk about the grey.

JM: I know, yes. There a lot of poetic or terms for this time of day.

MG: So your work is a “time,” but it’s not time-based at all. I wouldn’t say it’s static though. This one that you described like a “ballet,” it does have a bit of movement to it.

JM: That one is like an angel, one second it’s there and next, gone. Some others are much more ephemeral...

MG: If you take away the light...  it’s gone.

JM: In the Louvre, if you take away the light from the Mona Lisa, it’s gone. You need the light. But these pieces are only light. The material is very reduced.

MG: I saw you recently did some work with the theater. What’s your relationship with the theater?

JM: For twelve years I’ve worked with the Berlin Literature Festival and created stage designs for the entire festival. I like to do these kinds of projects. For me it’s different than working in the studio by myself, because there’s a date, a premiere, public nights – and when it’s over, it’s over and gone. Wonderful! You can work with all the people from the stage, the actors etc., great. But this year I had a special experience with the Chinese author and musician Liao Yiwu [see:].

For that piece, all the young people were asking, where’s the beamer? There was no beamer – it was an analog piece.

MG: …and you don’t ever work with computers.

JM: Just my iPhone. But not for my art.

MG: So you heard Yiwu’s music and then created the piece?

JM: I didn’t know what I was going to do. It’s funny, when you have this sort of movement to music, it synchronizes itself. So there’s a lot of harmony. People were saying to me afterwards, “I didn’t know you were a composer.” I didn’t compose it! Yiwu had been playing the music in jail, in China, and I did the stage design in Berlin – he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him.

Jakob Mattner; Courtesy of the artist and 401contemporary.


MG: There does seem to be something cosmic  – planets or heavenly bodies – in the work. You notice a theme, they could refer to the moon, natural cycles... This is always a silly question to ask an artist, but is it intentional?

JM: If you’re interested in light, you’re always confronted with the day and the night, the twilight, the stars. As an art student, I asked myself, what should I do? In art you have big questions, Glaube, Liebe, Tod (belief, love, death). I said – OK I’m just going to forget everything they taught me and just work with the night, the twilight and the day. Three points. And that’s very broad... you can fit everything inside. That’s the bones. You can take the meat between these three bones. You can walk between these three times too…

This piece for example is a view of the sun. Maybe you saw the catalog. I did a show with astrophysicists in Potsdam. I met the astrophysicists, they showed me what they did in their observatory and I went back to my studio and created these pieces. Later they asked me, “how did you do it? We do this every day with our observatory – but how did you do it?”... I did it with coffee grounds!

I did it right before the millennium, 2000... everyone was worried about a disaster, and was talking about the visions of Erasmus of Rotterdam. So we were consulting the used coffee grounds about our future, spreading it out on a piece of paper. And I said, this looks like a picture from Mars, or when you’re flying over cracked ice and you see the black water through it – and I thought I’d make a bigger version of it.

So these are made with the same techniques. The exhibition was a juxtaposition of my work with photos taken by the astronomers. They were laughing, “we spent a lot of money to take these pictures in space every day, and you’ve gotten the same results with coffee grains!”

MG: But... in theory yours is art and theirs is science.

JM: It’s funny but they’re not so far away from one another. It’s always the case that materials are disappearing, fading away, like the coffee grounds. Every system with wind or water will bring out such sculpture, the beach, snow…


Mara Goldwyn

ArtSlant would like to thank Jakob Mattner, Ulrike Pennewitz and Dr. Ralf Hänsel for making this interview possible.

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