Katharina Ziemke: Paintings that Illuminate Themselves

An interview with Joseph Pearson

8 December 2016

German artist Katharina Ziemke’s exhibit »Too late. I got my Face On«, opening on 22 December 2016, inaugurates the Schaubühne’s temporary art space in the former Universum Lounge. She presents works on paper – ink drawings and illuminating pastel paintings as well as sculptures.

I ring the door to her Charlottenburg studio, located above an atelier for string instruments. »If you had been here a half hour earlier, you would have heard Bach cello suites through the floorboards«, she tells me. She is dressed in an elegant pink robe, and her cheeks are slightly rouged; there is something rococo about her today. And I tell her, »That sounds like a good way to work«.

She takes me into the bright studio, surrounded by the pieces for her show, and we talk about her career between Paris and Berlin, her subject matter, and her craft.

Joseph Pearson: You studied in Paris but returned to Germany in 2005. Could you tell us about your artistic training, and sensibility, between these two countries?

Katharina Ziemke: I arrived in Paris in 1998, entering Beaux Arts [The School of Fine Arts] in 1999, studying under Jean-Marc Bustamente and Joël Kermarrec. The French approach to visual arts is very scholarly. They want the artist not only to reflect on her work but more importantly to speak about it in a more-or-less academic way. They expect you to read a great deal and there is a really wonderful library in the school. There is an unwritten rule that certain philosophers and sociologists are important to quote. I found and still find this quite strange. It implies that these texts are helpful for every student’s research. The result is a normative education.

I never studied in a German art school, although I am German, born in Kiel [1979], and I studied there until I finished Gymnasium. German art schools are apparently quite different from those in France, with a strong relationship between the master and student, with certain painters acting like kings. I don’t want to quote names and make enemies! But today art schools, of course, have globalized, try to meet an international standard, produce artists for the global market; I know this is also harsh to say.

You see I am very critical about standardization, albeit intellectual or formal. What we need is individualism. We need strong characters and experimentation.

All your work in this exhibit is on paper. Why do you not work on canvas?

I started to work on canvas when I was in Paris. But since 2012, I work only on paper. Maybe because of the légèreté [lightness] of the surface. It’s fragile. The surface becomes more important on paper. On rice paper, you feel its materiality. It’s very sensual; it is so soft. I don’t want people to touch it! But it would be silky to the touch if you did.

When working on canvas, you see more the subject of the painting, and less the material. And with paper, you see the surfaces of the material. If I use wax pastel, it doesn’t enter into a prepared canvas, but it does enter into the fibres of the paper: another reason why I prefer it. When the pigment goes into the fibres of the paper, then something immediately happens. Once it is inside you cannot change it. Because it is something immediate, something real, that cannot be changed.

Could you tell us about the subjects of your works?

The original idea of the exhibit came from a sculpture (»Gabriel«, the archangel) and two drawings (»Jaava« and »Blac« k). I actually created the sculpture because of »Jaava«.

In »Black«, a mannequin is pictured in a shop window. She is not alive, and this fact perturbs me. I am bothered when I don’t know if something is alive or not.
That’s why I also wanted to make these sculptures or dolls that have an uncanny aura around them: they remind me of theatre puppets, voodoo dolls, wooden sculptures in churches, or religious scenes displayed in church vitrines (which are believed popularly sometimes to bleed or produce miracles). What all of these have in common is that they are uncanny. In a sense, this show in the Schaubühne is a little world of the uncanny, one reminiscent of the fun fair with its festival of oddities (such as bearded ladies, or the miracle of someone swallowing a sword).

This world is theatrical. My piece »Wig« (ink on paper) is about disguise, playing roles and theatre. But there is too the intimation of death, and also the fear of what happens after death. A wig is something not alive that nonetheless belongs to something alive. But even our hair is not alive. I think about voodoo figures which have real hair – the uncanniness of real human hair on wooden sculptures, and mixing of the living and the dead. I am interested in the religious element too – of the line between life and death – and this is where a concern with archangels, judgement and doomsday comes in. The two statues in this exhibit come from both the fun fair and the last judgement. It’s not obvious, but for me they are the kind of beings you meet at doomsday. Naturally, I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as the Last Judgement, but I am very interested in its aesthetic aspects.

But I do not wish to present too complete of an interpretation: I’d rather say that this composite of ideas – the ambiguity of whether something is alive or dead, animate or inanimate – is where my inspiration comes from. The presentation of these ambiguous idols – for example in church vitrines – is, of course, also related to the question of exhibition in museums or galleries.

There are strong links between the works on display, and almost all of them were produced together in the last year, and most of them in the past six months. Without saying too much: you might notice that the angel is formally linked by the stripes on his skirt to the costume of the drawing of the »Clown«, and that there is a reason for this. Or that, in the series »Strangers«, each figure is a foreigner in some way: the elephant in the hotel, or the memento mori of the dandelion that is almost dead, and is a vanity.

Why then are you obsessed with the uncanny, the undead?

Maybe because art comes from this. The first humans created these idols and little fetish objects for religious purposes and for power. In voodoo, if you create something you have power over something else. You control the uncanny: fears, illusions, or what is going to happen in the future, by representing it. Maybe that’s the power of it. But I’m not sure.

Could you tell us a little about your creative process: when and how you work, what makes you want to work or not?

I work almost every day. It’s also an urge to work. I always only work on one piece at one time until it is finished. The process is always that I have an idea, a very vague picture. It is through working that I discover how it will develop.
For example, when beginning a work with pastels, it is when I choose my first colour that the choice of the following colours is suddenly limited. I have to react to what is already there, and I have to adjust my work. It’s the work itself that rules the process.

What does the show’s title tell us about the pieces?

I wanted a title that would illustrate the question of theatre spectacle, of roles and wigs, and this is how I came to masks. I came across this colloquial expression in English, spoken purposely ungrammatically, »I got my face on«. We are all role-playing, and we put a face on. But this is only the first level of intrigue. You come into this show, and you see sculptures with their faces already on. You cannot change the; you have to face this problem and deal with it. It’s too late. You have to get through it. Yes, we can change our faces, but in this show you have to deal with the faces you see.

Your work accompanies the plays of Thomas Ostermeier, and at times you paint during the performances. Could you tell us about this collaboration?

We met through a collector of my work, and I invited Thomas to my studio. He was very enthusiastic and bought one piece. Since then, we have met and I have seen many of his plays. One day, he told me that he was preparing a piece where he wanted something drawn on the walls and asked if I would do it. This was for »An Enemy of the People«. Since then, I have also painted for »The Seagull« and »Professor Bernhardi«. In the first, I develop a mountain landscape over the course of the performance. In »Bernhardi«, I write words on a hospital wall, which are cancelled, then replaced with new words, until there are layers of effacements, layers of mental spaces, abstract spaces that become an abstract painting.

Tell us a little about your life when you are not painting? What do you read, listen to, what inspires you?

I read a lot, and mostly philosophy. My reading is eclectic: French philosophy from the 17th and 18th centuries, especially Descartes. Nietzsche has been important because he helps me live: to understand the world is not made for me to live in, but you must welcome it, and cannot complain, even if it is cruel. I read Kierkegaard, and he is one reason I am interested in religion, despite never having had a religious education and my parents being atheists. Perhaps I am so fascinated by religion because I had no experience of it growing up. And then, in more contemporary readings, I am interested in the analytic school, not so much Wittgenstein, but rather Davidson and Quine. I am intrigued by their understanding of the world and how we can know it, because artists too are trying to deal with knowing the world, to make sense of it. Philosophy gives me that opportunity.

Is that also why do you paint?

Painting for me is a necessity.

Ausstellung: Too late. I got my face on

Ausstellung von Katharina Ziemke
Eröffnung am 22. Dezember um 18 Uhr
Laufzeit von 23. Dezember 2016 bis 27. Januar 2017
Täglich von 16 bis 20 Uhr geöffnet
Eintritt frei

Premiered on 22 December 2016