Interview w/ Steph Wade (SW) and Mikael Christian Strøbek (MCS) for ignant, Berlin 26 August 2021
SW [ Steph Wade ] When and why did you decide to move to Berlin? Can you talk a little about your professional background and how it’s led you to this moment?
MCS [ Mikael Strøbek] As for my background it consists of different educations and jobs that in the end have provided me with the tools and insights that I now use in my practice; I have studied architecture for 2 1/2 years at the Royal Danish Academy, shifted over to furniture design at the Danish School of Design for a year, went into apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker for close to four years after which I worked as a photographer for roughly five years. After a stress-related burnout, which took the better part of three years to overcome, I decided to start anew - I came to Berlin in 2010 and kept coming back and stayed for longer and longer periods until I asked myself why I was actually going back to Copenhagen at all. I guess one could say I fell in love with the city, its pulse and its possibilities.
SW You’ve said, “I see my practice as being layered with a multitude of different progressional themes, which all live side by side in both my theoretical and my practical work.” Can you talk a little about what these themes are, and how you seek to portray them through sculpture and installation?
MCS The different layers that I work with represent mostly theoretical aspects that lie “behind” the art pieces. And it is important for me, when dealing with these, that they so to say stay out of sight so as not to create a premise for seeing and perceiving a piece. I try very hard to keep my work as neutral as possible and my subjectivity out of the way. But the layers which I often implement are for example classical elements such as how one applies foreground, middleground and background, though mostly in connection with Josef Albers’ Farbenlehre - the darker the colour or hue the more it retracts into the background. In many of my works where I use colour as a layer on top of a material, I use black. One of the reasons why it is so present in my work is that black as a colour, abstractly speaking, inherently describes the background and when one pulls it out into the room, a certain kind of innate energy arises - as one tries to perceive the form, it constantly fights to become a shape, a silhouette, two- dimensional. This constant “pull” is for me like the visual equivalent to magnetism or gravity and also brings liminality - the realization of being between two states, or transitioning - into the physical world and work.
Another layer is perception. Recently I have revived a theme that was my starting point as an artist - Trompe-l’œil or the deceiving of the eye; a Renaissance theme that, through realistic paintings, sought to question the viewer’s perception of what was real or existing. Often it was fabricating perspective illusions and played with spacial definitions. An example of this theme is my wall drawing ’Four Circles (v)’. There is a point in the space from where it seems that four black circles are stacked neatly in the corner of the room - and when moving away from this point, the perceived circles start to deconstruct themselves and warp, showing that it is compiled of half-circles painted onto angular meeting walls. It is more pragmatic in nature than its Renaissance predecessors, it is less abstract than the realistic paintings of yore - more concretely put; a circle is a circle, if cut in wood or painted on the wall.
Seriality, systemic progression and repetition are also cornerstones in my art. Because my work revolves around geometry and the three basic shapes - circle, square, triangle - I often implement a concept to all three, which gives me insight and perspective into some of the themes which I want to address. You will more often than not find three different versions of a work. The interesting part of these variations is, that it gives me the possibility to underline a specific theme much clearer than just in a singular piece; one is like a point, two a direction, and three finally show intent - roughly put, beginning, middle and end.
SW You work with a lot of digital visualization. Can you tell us about your creation process and how you see the interaction between digital imaging and sculpture/installation?
MCS There are themes and overarching concepts that for me are best found in tranquil moments of reflection and solitude. It feels a bit like letting go of my surroundings, forgetting time, place and reason - and drifting away, sometimes for hours on end. It is re-searching in the truest sense of the word, consciously or subconsciously processing and digesting previous input. I jot down notes or sketches which, at a later point in time, I start to visualise on my iPad. I use a recurring picture of a neutrally lit white space upon which I then do a classical two- point perspective drawing of the project. In a way this digital „white cube“ is what comes closest to my headspace, and is very much my own sandbox to experiment in. Through the drawing the projects take on scale and materiality, albeit in digital form. What I find truly fascinating is that even if they are only consisting of pixels on a screen at this stage in my creative process, these visualisations give a clear idea of volume and space, and underline some of the essential themes I work with in regards to liminality and perception.
I recently did five installations for a group show and a large-scale outdoor sculpture for a private residence in Mexico, and what hit me was the fact that, through both digital studies and in these two cases additional scaled model building, there was no difference whatsoever between the finished works and their preliminary visualisations and models. The production of the art piece becomes in a certain sense a formality, because practical and structural questions have already been addressed within the visualisation process through my academically and practically gained knowledge.
In addition, there is another equally important part of why I do these visualisations, which is that I want my work to come into existence not because of, let’s say „selfish“ reasons, but because there is an outside need or wish for it to exist. The artworks will be made in synergy with the space in which they will be placed in, be it in connection with a client’s commission or an exhibition, thereby sublimating the interplay between the work and its physical framing, the room. By doing this, I give each of my artworks both a birthplace, that in a certain sense integrates the idea of Genius Loci, as well as semi site-specificity.
My studies show intent, direction and purpose and should ideally be seen as one would a painter’s study before the finished work - they give insight to the artist and perspective for the viewer or possible client.
SW You work with geometry because it shuns ideological or visual references. Can you elaborate on this a bit? What makes you so drawn to geometry?
MCS One of the most fascinating aspects of dealing with geometry is, that on one hand it is precisely describable and on the other hand it is abstract beyond comprehension; a circle can be infinitesimally small, or endlessly big - it is still a circle. Another inherent aspect is that the fundamental geometric shapes do not refer to anything else than what they are. This lack of references makes them extremely interesting to work with as they permit me to deal with a certain kind of neutrality. With this neutrality I try to address not what makes individuals different, but what ties us all together no matter religion, gender, ethnicity, political standing etc.
SW What materials do you work with? How do the contexts of the objects and materials you use affect the works that you create?
MCS The main material that I work with is actually the immaterial, the space, the in-between or the „void“. I see my works as a painter would see a frame or the boarder of the canvas. Think of it as when one goes into an empty white room; one doesn't define the space by looking at the blank walls or the concrete floor, one defines it by looking at the corners - where the ceiling and walls meet, where the walls and floor come together and so on. In manifesting these „voids“, I mostly use what I call „primary materials“ such as steel, stone, cardboard, glass, etc. I have a predilection for materials that are instantly recognizable and somewhat industrialized. I try, when using these materials, to elevate the commonplace into something else in order to underline the preciousness of all.
SW Olafur Eliasson once said, ‘Art is not the object but what the object does to the world’. What makes something art?
MCS I see what he is getting at but for me it also sounds a bit like he ascribes an omnipresent quality to the object, making it exude some kind of transcendental influence to its surroundings. Generally speaking there are two facets that come into play when dealing with the definition of what makes something art; context and sensibility (meant here as the pragmatic ability to sense devoid of emotions). As Duchamp made clear in 1917 with his ’Fountain’ piece, and then again later with the Warhol Brillo boxes, everything can be regarded as art as long as it has a „supporting“ setting and context, but essentially it comes down to the sensibility of the viewer or one could say subjectivity. One of the obstacles with especially more modern art is, that it can be overly intellectually driven and exceptionally demanding of one’s knowledge of certain themes, theories and referential framework. For me, this quickly becomes both taxing and excluding and opens up a dialogue only with the initiated. Metaphorically speaking, the work is hidden behind a library of necessary information, and needed knowledge to “understand” it. What I vehemently try to implement in my practice is to rid each piece from such obfuscating layers, and so to say place the library behind the work, and thereby not dictate or limit how and what should be seen. If art is about communication I prefer to speak as clearly and comprehensibly as possible and let the viewer define what the work is about. The short of what makes something art - it is for you to decide, no matter the matter, we are all subjective beings walking around with our privately collected references, emotions and unspoken thoughts, what for some are windows to strange and unintelligible views are for others mirrors that let them gaze deeply and profoundly into themselves. We cannot pass judgement on behalf of others when it comes to art, and we should not.
SW Art often provokes introspection and reflection in the viewer. What does art mean to you?
MCS Art means the world to me, nothing less.