Wolfgang Stiller Guides Us Through His Reflective And Poetic Installations

Wolfgang Stiller

It is always a great pleasure when discovering that a man of illustrious tactual talents is also a profound thinker. I’m unaware if you’ve been granted the opportunity to fully discuss your personal philosophy or concerns with life’s relation to human impermanence in interviews past, but it would be a delight if you could do so here. What is it about the limitations of a materialistic worldview that has so engaged your senses over the years? How is your work a conversation about the same or concerns related?

I don’t think I can claim it as my personal philosophy. It is more a result of my search for answers to certain aspects of our human existence. When I was younger I was really interested and inspired by natural science, especially in biology. Since 5 years or so I got interested in Buddhism after 2 very close friends of mine died at a very young age. Death is something we all have to face sooner or later, but until it happens we think it has nothing to do with us. We live relatively carefree in terms of our own death even though it could happen at any moment. When I was a student I was working as a gravedigger. I buried quite some people and the subject of death became familiar in a certain way. For a while, my early works were dealing with the subject of different ways of burying the dead, different ways of dealing with the dead human body in different cultures, and so on. Many years later when my friends died this interest in our impermanent human existence, the fact that we all have to die, and questions on how to relate to it surfaced again. In Buddhist philosophy, or maybe I should say view, I found answers to those questions. Especially today the fact of our limited lifespan is consequently denied. There are whole industries making sure that we believe in the forever young philosophy. Most people think this life is all we got and therefore they try to get as much as possible, sometimes at a very high cost for other sentient beings. To think that when this body dies everything is gone fits perfectly in our materialistic worldview today how is this related to my work. The matchstick men series for instance are a metaphor for our limited life span. A reminder of the fact that this human existence, this body will vanish one day. Some people see it as a threat, but to me, it has a clearly positive meaning since facing this inevitable could remind us to make the most out of every moment.

Beginning in Berlin before its laurels as a modern-day fine art hub, you were also there before its wall fell. How was creative expression impacted in Berlin (or in Germany generally) before and after the wall? Having this question in sight, do you see any current cultural trends that might be striving to limit or control artistic freedoms? If even just as a thought experiment, how would one avoid acquiescing to such forces?

I lived in Berlin from 1988 until early 2000 when I went abroad for 10 years. Berlin was an exciting city on the one hand, but also a kind of provincial on the other hand, I felt. That’s just my opinion. Besides Edward Kienholz there was almost no international artist living in Berlin before the wall came down. There was no healthy competition in regards to the rest of Germany. The art scene in Cologne was the one that was important. When I left in 2000 it was partly because I was bored of the city since one could tell what’s going to happen within the next half year and artistic-wise it was not very important. I am talking about fine arts. When I came back in 2009 the city had changed quite some. It was more open, more international, and also more interesting in terms of art. Many artists from other countries moved here since it was still very affordable to find a nice studio. That changed drastically within the last 4 or 5 years. In my opinion, the biggest challenge for art right now is this new political correctness which is absolutely scary and deadly for the free expression in art. It is important to raise awareness, but unfortunately modern momentum very often takes a turn to another extreme without the use of keen differentiation. I see actors apologizing publicly because they are now judged for taking certain roles, but does one need to commit murder in order to play a murderer? Today language is also crippled in most ridiculous ways in order to please momentary moral thoughts. To me this is just a new form of censorship. I‘m aware that even some people will be furious reading this from me, but in my opinion even having a different opinion breaks these new rules and creates shitstorms. For the arts this is just horrific and we will have to see where this is leading. When I see an artwork I don’t care who has made it, all I care about is if it‘s a good work of art. For the sake of art I hope we will find a healthy balance.

Wolfgang Stiller

I understand that your creative capacities are used to ruminate, investigate and provide life to matters determined to be worthy by you, but what advantages do visual communications have over text or speech? Being a cogent writer yourself based on what I’ve read of your words, is art a superior medium for inwardly examining then sharing conclusions, concerns, or ideas? Please discuss.

No, I don’t think fine art is a superior medium at all. I love to read, watch movies and listen to music a lot. There are different types of people and they have preferences of their sensory faculties. I have no talent for music even though I love music very much and always listening to it while I am working. I am a very visual type and get attracted by form. I love materials and always look for new ways of using them. Every medium has its very unique qualities which can only be expressed with this specific medium. I always envy the ability of music and movies to create emotions in the audience in such a direct way. Fine art is a more distant and reflective medium. If the audience is not making an effort it is very hard for them to get an emotional connection to the work.

Commercialism to many world-renown artists has been colored with a negative hue mostly because of how it seeks to homogenize everything, and how it stifles norm-shaking novel discovery. But on the flip-side, one can also argue that commercialism, when looking at it from its research and development frame does aid in the progress of art generally (think award-winning ads or acclaimed visual effects in film and their impact on the creative zeitgeist). In seeing that commercialism contains a contradictory essence, what do you see as its worst trait, and how can fine artists overcome it?

I am not sure I can follow you here. In which way is an award-winning ad or some special effects aiding progress in art? Ads are made for the sole purpose that people buy certain products. They can be cleverly done, but in which way do they ad anything to art? Same for special effects. Do Marvel movies really add anything to the development of art? I would say quite the opposite. All those effects are establishing a new form of perception and destroying the ability to follow a movie that is slow and takes its time to develop the story. Both examples you mentioned here have the sole purpose to make a lot of money. A lot of big names in art these days don’t have much skill, they have a little idea and give it to some company who creates and realizes them. Mostly they are just huge meaningless toys for the super rich. They all look alike since there are only a few companies who produce them and it is their specific aesthetic signature. Art changed so much since it became so easy to get rich by producing some easy-to-understand objects. Young artists those days see those art superstars and want to become as rich and famous as them. So no I don’t think commercialism is doing anything good for fine arts. It has corrupted it to its core. I honestly don’t know how to get out of this trap. For a young artist who works quietly with small formats, it is very hard to get attention these days. We like everything big and noisy. I really don’t know what to tell young people who want to become an artist. I see a couple of young artists who really focus on their work and hopefully, they will continue to do so without selling out their artistic ideas for fame and money.

Wolfgang Stiller

Because of the requirements of the design process, material selection being one, artifact development can bring with it the joys of ease or consternation’s of difficulty. Taking mind of this, does a piece cast in bronze become more, less, or equally as fulfilling as making a piece crafted for latex? To ask in another way, does the ease or difficulty of creation ever make a piece seem more or less meaningful to you?

I like materials in general and have no strong preference for a specific one. When I am starting a new work it can start either with an idea I want to realize or I find a material that gives me an idea for an artwork. If it starts with an idea for an artwork I am looking for the material which can express it best. If the material is the starting point the material is dictating the outcome in a way. Latex vs. Bronze. There is no difference for me in terms of significance, but a collector who buys a bronze will definitely enjoy the work much longer. Latex is a very sensitive material but it has qualities no other material has and therefore it offers very specific possibilities to create works one can’t do with a casted bronze for instance. I always enjoy trying to use materials in different ways, discovering new ways of how to use and display them. Most often we associate very concrete ideas with certain materials and I enjoy contradicting them. If a piece is fulfilling is not a matter of the materials I use. It rather depends on my ability to create a work that comes as close as possible to express my original idea and is interesting in itself besides the meaning or reason why I created it in the first place.

From many decades of acquired wisdom, how would you suggest artists with a clear and highly developed language, identity or voice, successfully weather storms of feeling belittled or forced to align with epoch-defining trends that glamorize acceptance-seeking behavior at the price of maintaining authenticity?

I think that is quite easy to answer. Just ignore and keep on doing what you do. Especially artists who developed their own language over years. Why should they bend to trends? Bacon and Giacometti didn’t care at all that abstract was the thing to do while they were just following their own visions. Besides the quality of their work, this was another strong reason why they have been a huge influence for me when I was young. In the end, it all comes down to why artists do what they do. If it is for the money then bending to trends and what collectors want is the right thing to do. If one wants to develop a kind of unique language of art and has a vision trends should be absolutely irrelevant.

Wolfgang Stiller

In the meta-verse such as social media, town square originating negative commentary is often created by individuals projecting critical personal readings onto artworks by which artists are then castigated for things that their work may or may not entail. What does caustic social reaction towards art say about modern society? What does it say about art’s place as a location for unified differences?

Every week or so I get called a racist for doing the matchstick men since they have blackened heads, which mimic the nature of a burned match. I have people telling me I can’t communicate certain ideas because I am a German. Women sometimes complain because my heads aren‘t female. In the beginning I tried to discuss my work with those critical but almost all of them were not interested in dialogue or even to get to know my intention, they just wanted to throw out insult. I don’t think it is something that is especially hitting the art community. It is the internet culture itself. I am always amazed when I read comments on some articles or posts on social media. People who are totally strangers to each other jumping each other’s throats within seconds. I often wonder if this ugliness in people was always there or if it is a fairly new thing that was born from the opportunity which the internet created. Discussions can be very heated in the german culture, but this kind of really nasty insult is a new dimension. The downside of freedom of speech one could say. I am not sure what this says about our society today but it doesn’t sound too promising.

I’ve read about how you have adapted to new technological forums across time to better reach audiences. If anything, what is your view on the new NFT digital art craze? Do you think you will ever create in the purely digital space?

Social media is a very good opportunity to make one’s work available all over the world in a very easy way. I never post anything private. As an artist one doesn’t have to, which is good. The internet and especially social media definitely helped to make my work known to a wider audience around the globe which I really appreciate. The new hype about NFT is difficult for me to understand. For the moment I will stick to the old way. I like to touch and experience sculptures for real. Call it old-fashioned, but I think one doesn’t have to go with every new trend. If people want to spend millions to own a digital code. So be it. I guess this is a new generation of collectors who made their money on the crypto market. I don’t see myself doing some NFT work any time soon.

Wolfgang Stiller


All images with courtesy of Wolfgang Stiller


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