NEVILLE WAKEFIELD IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL SAILSTORFER (12/10/2007 –01/15/2008)
PUBLISHED IN REAKTOR
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD I’m wondering what you consider your first kind of material piece to be.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER I began to study at art school in November, 1999. The first piece I did there was Waldputz (Forest cleaning). It’s a sculpture in the forest, simply made by cleaning the ground and the trees, 4 meters 80 centimeters by 4 meters 80 centimeters, and 2 meters 50 centimeters high. Creating an artificial space in a natural surrounding just by taking material away is still of big interest to me, as well as working with an existing space, existing material, and working in three dimensions. For me that is the first material piece.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD And where did it exist?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER It was close to my father’s, who lives in the countryside in Bavaria, one hour outside Munich NE. In the middle of the forest there is a small path where people walk by on Sundays.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD And people would come across it by chance?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Yeah, people would come across it by chance, people taking a walk or hiking. The interesting thing about the piece is that people don’t know what happened there. Might be some kind of chemical accident or someone preparing the ground to build a house…
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Is the idea and chance of unpremeditated encounter important in your work? I’m wondering whether it’s important to you that the viewer doesn’t necessarily understand the nature of the encounter, or at least doesn’t know immediately that they are encountering a piece of art?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER In early pieces I was very interested in this moment. I’m still interested in the fact that it doesn’t look like a piece of art at first glance.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD I always liked the idea of being hijacked—experiences that don’t immediately reveal their identity as art.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Yeah... like the forest cleaning piece. I did another piece in 2001 called Wohnen mit Verkehrsanbindung (Living with transport connection). In the Bavarian countryside, it is very common that bus stops have small wooden huts for people to wait in. They all look different. I installed a door, electricity, and water in four of them, cut the grass in front, and furnished each with a kitchen, bed, table, chair, toilet and lights, like a very small house. It played on certain expectations surrounding the shift from public space to private space. It was another instance of a sculpture that people who came across it didn’t know immediately that they were waiting for their bus in a piece of art.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Often it seems you are interested in creating objects of transformed utility, such as the drum kit in which you transformed an object of utility—in this case a police van—into a musical instrument. By transforming them you provide a change of address.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER That’s true for some pieces; not all of them work like that. The reason to use something already existing, like the police van, was to open up a window. The physical sculpture is equipped with a timeline.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD I love the fact that it went from a police van to a drum kit and the reversal or translation of that authority between who is being hit and who doing to the hitting.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER That’s why it became a drum kit. I think the rhythm is very important—police, manifestations, marching music, hitting, being hit, destruction. Definitely I think it has to do with punk rock—invoking all those pictures. All the things that happen in between the police car and the drum kit and every trace of this process should be visible.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD I was going to ask you about process. Process versus the final stage. And you talk about process in terms of that transformation and obviously some of the pieces, like the wood shed, the process becomes the piece. But what is the relationship between those two conditions? How important that that process can be read through the final process?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER It is very important. The process of making the thing is the most important part of those pieces, even more important than the final object. That’s why in the end every step has to be clearly visible in the piece. It must be clear where the material is coming from as well as all the traces of making the sculpture. A piece like the drum kit looks very rough, made in two hours. All the cuts with the grinder, the scratches, the whole process of making the thing is there. It looks handmade. Then you have the whole timeline from A to B as well as the person making the thing.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD It’s interesting. You described your sculptural process as one of subtraction, of taking things away, but at the same time it’s obviously a creating process and one of assembling, which is building, and I was interested in how you maintain the tension between destruction and creation?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Well, I don’t know. I think there are pieces where it is enough just to take something away or to destroy something, That’s the final piece. Like 3 Ster mit Ausblick (3 steres with a view). The question in this case is how you show this process, what you make out of it. There are other pieces where deconstruction is only the first step, followed by assembling. In the end it is never only about deconstruction, there is always the aim to make something.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Right. The cabin to me is really one of the most beautiful images of self-cannibalization that I’ve come across for a long time. Do you see it as a hermetic work in that sense that uses the fire to consume itself. Or is it more an image of romantic entropy?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER It’s difficult to explain, especially in English. I really like that the piece, it is that simple and hermetic in itself. I think a quality of the piece is that it can be read in many different ways. It’s not only the image. I think it’s both.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD In a lot of your pieces you use an open circuit to create a closed condition. Were there witnesses to that piece? Were the people watching the cabin burn?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER There was the photographer, Jürgen Heinert—we realized the project together—and me.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD I am also interested in how you switch between the monumental and the domestic and also to some extent, town versus country or culture versus nature, site-specific versus gallery-based works?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER That’s a difficult thing. Every piece is a new problem. I did not have the chance to do shows in gallery or museum spaces when I started to do art as a student. I wanted to do things, and to try things out I developed pieces for outside. That’s why a lot of early pieces are installed in the countryside. On the one hand, also because I was interested in the reaction of people that have nothing to do with art, on the other hand because I think it worked perfect for some of the sculptures. Its is best when there is as much contrast as possible in between the piece and the place where it is installed. That’s why I decided to install pieces made from urban material, like car parts, airplane parts, lampposts, etc., in the countryside. When it began that I was invited to do shows in galleries, confronted with the white cube, it became difficult, because I wanted to have a similar quality like the outdoor pieces. For me it was not enough just to show the photo or video documentation of the outdoor pieces in the galleries. I had to change my way of working because I really want to make something for this space with a physical impact. That’s when I started to develop pieces like the tire or sound pieces—works that introduce elements like smells and sounds that are normally kept outside—into interior gallery spaces. For example, the tire you install on the wall…
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD And they start to contaminate the space…
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Exactly. And it spreads out and everything starts to smell like it. In this sense I think a lot of pieces are very personal portraits of people actually...
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD I was aware of that in terms of the Sternschnuppe (Shooting star) piece which is dedicated to your girlfriend.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER I did that piece for a show in Italy in 2002, and there I met a journalist who did not want to understand the piece, and I told him this story and he liked it somehow so that’s how that story came to be. At the time I didn’t even have a girlfriend.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD So it’s mythology.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Definitely.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD How does this process of contamination take place with the sound pieces? Can you tell me bit about the reactor works?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER I’m really interested in what sculpture can be and how a sculpture can spread out and use much more space than it physically has. I like the idea that a small piece of art can fill huge museum spaces—that’s very economic. Modell – Reaktor (Model – Reactor), for example, is a cube of concrete. It’s quite small—21 x 22.5 x 22.5 cm—and there’s a microphone embedded into the concrete that’s connected to an active speaker. What happens is that the piece picks up the vibration of the floor. If there are a lot of people walking through the space, a truck passing by outside, or actually a subway running below the building, then it just amplifies the vibration of the building. It creates a sonic image of an architectural space. Reaktor (Reactor) is the piece I made for my degree show at art school in Munich in 2005. It was positioned in the staircase next to the entrance. The sound it made was very low frequency, you could really feel it in your stomach throughout the whole big building.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Was the ambition to make the invisible visible by amplifying ambience?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER I think so. Important is to make the connection between the occupants of the building and the structure itself, between the soft and hard architectures—if you want form and content. I wanted to make that connection in some way tangible.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD It reminds me in some way of what so-called drone metal and brown sound bands such as Sunn O))) are trying to achieve with very low frequency sound. I was talking to Steven O’Malley of Sunn who was describing the sound they are creating in terms of the specific frequency of organs and how by understanding these wavelengths they create music that can address the interior condition of the body. In some ways it seems that you are doing something similar with architecture and creating out of its resonance a new poetics of space.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Yeah, definitely. I’m really interested in this moment where actually architecture becomes sound or space becomes sound, and the interesting thing is that I installed Modell – Reaktor in different spaces and the frequency of the piece is always different—sometimes it’s quite high and sometimes it’s quite low. So it’s really changing with the space it is installed in. And the sound is becoming really physical so you can really feel it in your stomach. You feel it more than you actually hear it.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD In Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard wrote about the ways in which architecture exists in two forms—in a physical form and in a phenomenological form that’s recorded through our bodies and our emotional responses to its geometry—and I was wondering the extent to which you’re trying to register the building, the architecture, as an emotional space with the reactor pieces.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER I think that’s an important element of my work. I was just reading this book Der Raum by Franz Xaver Baier. I don’t know if you heard about it—he’s a philosopher and architect, teaching architecture design at the Fachhochschule in Munich. I am very fascinated by his phenomenological view on architecture and life. It is very much about the personal experience of space (Raum). For example a soldier and a tourist arriving at the same beach both sample totally different realities because of the disparate missions they have in their heads. The tourist is there to relax and hang out, the soldier to conquer the country. It’s also about how people create their own space. An extroverted person uses a big space while a shy person uses very little space, sometimes even less than he physically measures. There is this quote by Andy Warhol in the book in which he says he’s a very shy person, looking for possibilities to use bigger spaces than he actually physically occupies. So one possibility is the use of television to reach a big crowd. Another possibility is the use of a lot and strong perfumes. And I think the reactor pieces are doing something very similar. So actually though it’s small in physical size, it’s not in this metaphysical way.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Right, and funnily enough, in terms of Warhol and the perfume, the tire piece might be the same.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Yes. I’m always interested into this moment where a person and character extend outward into the physical architecture—in extending the link between these two architectures: the hard physical architecture, and the soft human architecture.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD I was also looking at Anna, your piece from 2004, which consists of a hair dryer, microphone, and speaker, and was wondering how that worked, and whether that was a precursor to the reactor pieces?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Anna was made one year before and in any case a pre-stage of the reactor pieces. Anna is a portrait of a girl.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD You’ve talked a lot about portraiture and how all these works in some way relate to people and descriptions of people. Is that true of the reactor pieces as well, albeit in a metaphysical sense?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER I think it can be seen as both. I like that it can stand for a person as well as being a portrait of the space where it’s installed. I like it that it keeps that moment open, and so I am into the fact that it’s essentially abstract. What we said about making the invisible visible is also my description of the piece.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD I was also thinking about it in terms of the connections, or trying to make the connection between science, if you want, and poetry, or science and art, or architecture and art, and how much you see the work as trying to bridge those two disciplines. Or whether, in fact, you don’t see them as separate entities at all.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER It probably reflects an interest in both. I don’t know if I really bring one to bear on the other. I don’t think I’m aware, when I’m doing a piece, that there is possibly a gap between those two fields. I’m just very impartial (boyish) and like to play around with things—scientific or otherwise.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Do you think about—when you’re conceptualizing a piece—do you think about the results? Are they done as experiments? Or do you know what you are trying to achieve?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER It really depends. Sometimes I know, sometimes not. When I made, for example, the reactor piece, I didn’t know what was happening at all. I was casting another piece, and had some leftovers of concrete and also a microphone in the studio, and put the microphone into the concrete because I simply thought it looked good. Half a year later I found the cube with the concrete and the microphone in it again, and I connected it to a speaker. That’s how this piece came up. So, it’s really a lot of playing around with materials and also with ideas, and, of course, mixing up—but I’m not always aware about the results, how it’s going to end up, finally.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Were you surprised by the results when you hooked the microphone up?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER I was very surprised, because I didn’t expect anything to come out of it. It was a very deep drone and then I decided to walk around and jumped around on the floor, and it started to change.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Right. And then, I was thinking about this link between phenomenology and metaphysics and was wondering whether that applies to the underwater pieces and whether you could speak about them a little bit. How did they come about?
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER It was during my studies at Goldsmiths College and after, a time when I tried a lot of different things out and after a while I was very unhappy with some of the results of my production, so I thought the best thing to do was probably to destroy everything. This freed me up and meant that I could just throw the pieces overboard—literally—and then it became another piece. The second thing that I really liked about the idea was that the pieces were spread out all over the globe—lost in the oceans like pieces of a pirate treasure sunken on the bottom of the sea. So I would throw the sculptures overboard, and right after, I sent the diver down and he takes documentation but the sculptures remain installed on the ocean floor in the place that they landed, and the only thing remaining is actually the documentation of the pieces and the GPS data of where the pieces are.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Which sounded interesting. In a way, it seems to be doing maybe what the reactor pieces are doing, but in a slightly different way. Recording the effects of ambiance on a sculptural body.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Yea, actually, you are right. There are similarities to the reactor piece. I did not think about the underwater sculptures in that way.
NEVILLE WAKEFIELD Where one is about vision and sight and what can’t be seen, and the other is about sound and acoustics and what can’t be heard.
MICHAEL SAILSTORFER Yes, in a way that’s exactly how they make sense.