I am also still unsure about how beauty and violence can come together again.
Fragments of a conversation between Bart Rutten and Anne Wenzel that took place in her studio.
BR: I would like to talk to you about inspiration. Previously, we spoke at length about the painter Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873). Could you tell me something about, for instance, the disasters that you've represented?
AW: I have some photos here of the trip I made to the terminal of the Madrid Airport, to see the consequences of the bomb attack. I am interested in the question: what makes a disaster a disaster? How does this kind of dilapidation differentiate itself from ordinary demolition? Everyone knows that the devastation was caused by a bomb blast, but at the same time this is barely visible.
BR: Are you seeking the sensational? Are you not simply a disaster tourist?
AW: In a certain sense I am. I wanted to see how it looked in real life, instead of from the safe distance of a photo in the newspaper, or from the armchair in front of the television. As I was in Madrid at the time anyway, I went to see it in reality.
BR: Is disaster tourism not reprehensible?
AW: I deliberately adopt no position on that. I am oblivious to the disaster, it's more about the pining, melancholy and longing, these are the subjects I address.
BR: This disaster occurred, in fact, after your first disaster pieces. Was this the first time you actually visited a disaster location?
AW: No, my first experience was of the firework disaster in Enschede (May 2000). I had already graduated and moved away from Enschede, but a friend of mine was killed in the disaster. The studio complex in which I was working in those days was just completely swept away. Even so, I don't regard the firework disaster as a subject for my work.
The thing that interests me about disasters is how we deal with them as people, the fact that it is more than a spectacular picture. The way in which we experience disaster areas is determined to a huge extent by the media.
BR: There are currently a great many artists who concern themselves with the mediafication of disaster areas. Can you explain the fact that this has now become such a widely adopted subject?
AW: Yes indeed. I believe it's the result of the World Trade Center disaster in New York. It has made such a mark on our society. The crucial fact here is that everything had always been going fine for us, so until that moment we were able to lead a carefree life. That is over now, an aspect has been added: the permanent threat that disaster can strike even when you lead a carefree life. But the climate catastrophe also has an impact. For me, this is highly perceptible in the Netherlands, because the Netherlands is actually not the best place to be in that respect. Sometimes you walk down a street and suddenly notice that a couple of paving stones have subsided. Everyone here finds that quite normal, but I don't think it's normal. I've had nightmares about that.
BR: Are those the same fears as the fear of terrorism?
AW: The basis is the same, in fact it has nothing to do with the disaster as such; it is far more about the abstract idea of the disaster. We have our secure lives, but at the same time disasters seem so nearby. The fascination with disaster is nothing new: people have always been enthralled by disasters. We love to look at horror.
BR: And if we look, what is more attractive? The horror of reality or fictional horror?
AW: In my opinion there is scarcely any difference on TV. Nobody calls the news a reality spectacle, but that is essentially what it is. We don't call it that because it has been approved. The framework in which it appears is correct. It is the place where, apparently, it is actually a part of the culture.
BR: You speak of the invisible threat that constantly pervades society. At the same time, in your work you address the outward appearance of violence, perhaps even leaning towards the kitschy. Could you say something about the relationship between violence and kitsch?
AW: For me, the disaster is a metaphor for the fears that everyone has (...) In that respect, the way I incorporate it into my work is all very sweet. Besides the violence, sweetness is also something of a constant in my work. In my old work, for example, I tried to evoke a feeling of suffocation through an overabundance of lovely Delft blue decoration. Since then, my themes have become more horrific events. Although my work has a more sombre appearance, it is still, in a certain sense, cloyingly sweet. When, for example, I am modelling little cars for Heaven, the act has something terribly fussy. It is actually because I am aware of this discrepancy that I am also able to derive enormous enjoyment from it.
BR: You once said that it is important for you to be able to determine the appearance of the disaster.
AW: I have tried sometimes, departing from the material, to allow the clay to actually fail, to collapse of its own accord, but that was entirely unsuccessful. Through this, I discovered that it is necessary for me to design it myself; otherwise there remains no tension in the piece at all.
BR: Which tension?
AW: The tension between abstraction and detailing. In every sculpture that I've made, the abstraction, the mass remains an important feature. How can I bring these two aspects together, the abstraction of the whole and the representation? I still don't know how much knowledge I need in order to model something in clay. I read, for instance, the book by Mike Davis on the history of the car bomb. I noticed that this was only distracting me from what I was doing. It appears that it's not about the facts but about the feeling. I try to remove as many specific details of an event as possible in order to be left with only its essence. Too much knowledge and too many facts distract from this.
BR: Your answer is rather technical, concerning the image. Is there also an emotional component? Is this desire to design one's own disaster not also about the desire to be able to cope with that which is constantly served up to us? About co-determining the shape of disasters in order to make us less powerless?
AW: No, no, that's your own concoction. I don't see the disaster as a concrete concept. I can see it separately from all the drama and focus purely on the appearance. I am also still unsure about how beauty and violence can come together again. In that regard, I really see my work far more in relation to the great questions of the sculptural tradition: how do I make a good composition, which directions do I give the piece? In fact it's also about the primary question: how does a sculpture come into being? The abstraction of the actual image of the disaster introduces tranquillity (...)
Because I leave the piece open, by not working everything out in minute detail, this gives the observer the chance to fill it in personally. It creates a space for the observer; he or she makes the piece their own, and thus the effect is also more intense than it would be if it were just an abstract, and therefore a detached story.
BR: Do you see a similarity between the kitsch of Landseer and disaster tourism? Could they both be regarded as popular entertainment?
AW: Yes indeed, I think that disasters also become kitsch through their representation in the media. That's also my objection to many artists working with the theme of disasters. Many of their approaches are so banal. Striving for effect then gains the upper hand, which causes them to diminish the meaning. Consequently, the piece is similarly kitschy (...)
Actually I really have no love of kitsch or disasters. I look at them, pass no judgement and convert them into my sculptures.
Sometimes it is also tempting to pursue a big scandal in my work, with all the attendant publicity. I think that I know exactly how to achieve this, but I don't do it. Otherwise it would be so banal.
BR: There are certain risks that aspects of your imagery might be perceived as striving for effect: the drips, the use of black. These characteristics make your sculptures very recognizable but also, therefore, predictable.
AW: That's right, it is a pitfall, I have to look out for both so that they don't themselves become clichés. And particularly prevent my work from becoming kitsch by making the sculpture too sweet or to explicitly violent. In that respect, it remains poised on a balance beam. You can fall off either side. Incidentally, I can quite well imagine that after all these more apocalyptic sculptures; I might suddenly produce a piece that actually has a white appearance. Every new work reacts to the previous one.
BR: There are a good few people who relate your work to your German background, to the romantic spirit and romantic tradition. What are your thoughts on this?
AW: Perhaps, mainly in my love of drama, of the theatrical. But I feel more of a connection with the Catholicism of someone like Pieter Paul Rubens than with the strict romanticism à la Casper David Friedrich. It's not the case that I deliberately seek out the romantic tradition, but apparently it plays a role in my work. It is an upbringing, a way of thinking that I've received. Although we also need to put that into perspective. After all, I'm a German who has been living in the Netherlands since 1992.
BR: During the creative process, are you already aware of the art-historical references in your work?
AW: I do feel strongly connected to the history of art. It is overwhelming to be able to experience that you have some affinity with Rubens, for example, but simultaneously are still able to create something that is emphatically from the time in which you live.
BR: To what extent is working with clay important to you? Clay as a traditional medium?
AW: I disregard the medium-specific aspects of clay completely. I even find it very hard to stomach the tradition of ceramics; I have never been able to relate to it. I simply make visual art. The fact that I do so with clay is of no further importance. I am aware that it determines the imagery to a large extent. I just wanted to make things, and the only way in which I could do that was with clay. The fact is that modelling with clay has a certain directness that appeals to me.
What I do find fascinating to see is that the weight of the clay can be shed. In many of my sculptures I no longer see the actual weight in the piece itself.