Transparency and composition in space. Maria Abramenko in conversation with Berlin based conceptual artist Mikael Christian Strøbek. Talking about his minimal large scale installations and inspirations.
How and when have you decided to become an artist?
The realisation of being an artist came when I started to shed functionality and concentrate solely on expressive aspects. I have been circling this for quite some years until it was clear that neither my studies in architecture at the Danish Royal Academy, furniture design at the Danish School of Design, nor the years as working as a photographer were fulfilling or giving answers to what I was searching for. These, as well as my apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker, nevertheless built the foundation upon which I could unfold my artistic practice. In 2010 I had a stress-related complete burnout. It was like being reset as a person, everything needed to be rebuilt; language, social abilities, physical constitution – to heal, I isolated myself and started experimentations which dealt with trompe-l’œil and perception through photographic installations. In 2011 I decided to uproot myself, start afresh and move to Berlin and dedicate myself completely to art.
Where do you find inspiration for your works?
It has become evident for me that my process is still anchored in some form of solitude or isolation – it gives me a possibility to „digest“ whatever lingering impressions are present in my mind. At some point in the past, my „inner“ life became more extensive than my outer one and in the unspecific nothingness of thoughts there is always something that wants out. There are generally two different scenarios that let me get a hold of the fleeting themes and ideas; one is the clearing of my head – I daily find myself staring into empty space for hours on end, turning the appearing around in my head to inspect and jotting it down or letting it pass by. The other one is my daily sketching, which for the past couple of years, has been on a background of an empty white-walled, evenly lit unnamed gallery space. This gives me the possibility to creatively work with scale, materials, and the distribution of an artwork in a space, albeit an abstract one. Generally speaking, I try to let each of my ideas spread to new ideas, making my practice serial, systemic and sequential in nature – they are all part of the same and are meant to be absolutely independent but intrinsically connected, not because they are of my hand or thought, but because they all orbit communal questions.
Name 3 artists you’d like to be compared to.
I don‘t really compare myself and my work with others as such, but I do see communality in focus points, interests or similar perspectives with some artists. Three artists that I both admire and to some extent share visual and contentual aspects with, would be: Lee Ufan, for his poetic works on nature and culture, and the clarity with which his art transcends and sublimates each of the specific physical pieces that constitute the artwork. There are absolutely spectacular possibilities if one speaks in a quiet and determined voice, with intent, purpose and no hesitation – be it audibly or visually. Secondly, I would name Rachel Whiteread and her work with „negative“ space. Her vast oeuvre underlines the fact, which Samuel Beckett so precisely coined in Waiting for Godot, „There‘s no lack of void“. To be able to show the ephemeral but ever-present „in-between“, demands a great deal of perceptive clarity especially in the manifestation of it. Even though her more monumental work has a somewhat brutalist side to it, it is being balanced out by the fact that it is more or less displaced air, making her work essential as it confronts us with the very core of perception. Lastly, Donald Judd, for his on one hand uncompromising and extremely focused approach to materiality within the artwork, and on the other hand for his tirelessly involvement in fundamental discussions about the definitions of art. Although controversial in many ways, the heritage he left behind has given many a vocabulary with which not just a new visual language is apparent, but also a new intellectual perspective into art itself. The duality of his practice emphasises the fact, that what sometimes on the surface appears to be the simplest of things, can hold a vast and complex substructure that can exist without obfuscating the communicative properties of a piece.
What is your opinion on Berlin’s contemporary art scene?
That is a difficult question for me as I am a bit of a recluse. I rarely go to openings and don‘t really partake in the hustle and bustle side of the arts. One could say that I have a somewhat ascetic approach to the arts and the scene. At this point in time, I feel that the progression of uninterrupted focus heightens both my perception and sensibility, two immensely important aspects for me in my work and creative process. The downside, I guess, is that I am not really „present“ on the art scene, other than the occasional studio visits, which I really enjoy. The private nature of these talks gives me the possibility to dive into intellectual aspects, in a more intimate and personal way, and I often have a very productive and at times inspiring discussion about my art and practice with the interested party. But from the talks with mostly curators, collectors and art historians, it seems that the Berlin art scene is very much alive and kicking.
What are you working on these days?
At the moment I am preparing for exhibiting at Art Biesenthal opening this summer. The frame of the exhibition spills out from the main house into the surrounding countryside and makes it possible for me to further explore working under the open sky. Something, that I have only recently begun investigating. As I touched on earlier, my way of working involves a significant amount of sketching. To dive a bit further into my process; as mentioned before, I have a digital photograph of a space onto which I then do a classical two-dimensional perspective drawing of the project. The result of this work is what one would call a visualisation or conceptual rendering. At the moment I keep these on my Instagram account as a creative diary for myself, but they are nevertheless publicly accessible. These preliminary drawings give me the possibility to present the core concept of a project to an interested client, as an architect would, and enter into a dialogue about different facets of the work, e.g. scale, placement and in some cases materials. This also allows me to further refine the chosen project before it is being inserted into a given architectural context. Through which each of my pieces is being given a “birthplace”. That means that the physical manifestation of a project is being directly dictated by an outside wish for a work to come into existence. In a way this is „holding the reins“ and is keeping me from producing only for the sake of production and binds my physical work to the world it enters. Seeing that this is an unknown art practice, astonishingly enough, some galleries, collectors, curators, and fellow artists, are mostly displaying a confused reactionary attitude, which sadly reveals lack of vision, risk willingness and understanding of this new and unexplored way of dealing with art and its production. It is nevertheless a fight that I am willing to take, as I strongly believe in a more sustainable artist practice in which production is not based on selfish gratification and concepts reminiscent of industrial era principles, but rather links itself directly to the outside‘s need for the artistic work to physically exist. All resources should be treated as gems and we as artists need to incorporate sustainable thinking not only in the subject matter but also in our production of the work itself. Even though the art business is credited as being one of the most liberal thinking environments, I worry that it is still un-agile and conservative, and adheres to old stagnant patterns of monetary profit and is neglecting both the responsibility to investigate new themes and tendencies in connection with different art practices, and also to lead the way not for a profitable today, but for a sustainable tomorrow.
Mikael Christian Strøbek
Artist: Mikael Christian Strøbek / @mikaelchristianstrobek
Interview by Maria Abramenko / @mariabramenko