If all that remained was to archive nature
A conversation between Gabriela Oberkofler and Werner Meyer

Werner Meyer: At the centre of the exhibition Schwarz ist die Nacht nie (The night is never black) in the exhibition space of Kunsthalle Göppingen stands the Weihnachtsbaumarchiv (Christmas Tree Archive) installation (see pp. 8 – 10, 14, 17), which is a participatory scene dealing with the annual fate of Christmas trees. Approximately 60 trees, all cut to suit domestic size, stand densely packed in a wooden framework. Most of them are off-the-shelf Nordmann firs, but also other types of fir trees are amongst them. Here and there can be found the last vestiges of the decorations with which the Christmas trees once glitteringly composed the heart of the family celebrations and the rituals centred in the birth of Jesus. But now they are anonymous, shedding their needles, allowing their mortality to be felt. Arranged in this way it becomes clear that these trees, which but a short time ago were chosen with so much love, diligence and festivity to be the symbolic centre of one of the most important celebrations of Christendom, have had their day. On the other hand these few exemplary fir trees have been “rescued” for the moment from going without a song to the compost heap, and have received a chance to end their exceptional narrative and days in a different way.

Gabriela Oberkofler: Yes, I have “rescued” them from meaninglessness, even if I cannot reverse the natural process of their exploitation. Crucial to my exhibition is the melancholic sight, sometimes of enormous piles of discarded Christmas trees, which I witness every year after the 6th of January, after the Feast of the Epiphany that is, which is the celebration of the arrival of the Three Wise Men from the Orient. These tossed out Christmas trees which land by the wayside on these cold, grey wintry days, and have obviously, seen from afar, left their glory days behind them, were all picked up by me in a van and resurrected in the exhibition space of the Kunsthalle Göppingen. Thanks to the wooden framework that serves as a support, the trees have once again become a forest and an image, reminiscent of organised and efficient agricultural reafforestation, in which the trees obediently await their destiny, not ordained to them by nature but by human culture instead.

WM: Here the trees don’t land in a shredder to be turned to humous, as our installation is on the contrary an archive in which their existence as an arranged image has been preserved, moreover in two senses: first of all they have been raised up from the ground and safeguarded, and then their nature-given tree form experiences a metamorphosis, and apotheosis in a state of arranged dissolution …

GO: … just as an archive for Christmas trees. First of all the forest is resurrected as a continuation of a landscape image in view. And then, little by little, we began in cooperation with the employees of the Kunsthalle Göppingen and with the exhibition visitors, to dismantle each tree one by one. Each tree was allotted its own storage system, a large carton for the whole tree, inside of which are smaller boxes for its parts. Due to the dismantling of the trees and the investment of so much time – it took a week for each tree – the tree becomes venerated. The icon of the Christmas tree dissolves. With great care and meticulousness the separate components of the tree are sorted according to the different sizes of the branches, whereas the needles and the seeds are preserved in different boxes. A new image, a different image to the separate trees arises, corresponding to the image in my perception of how these trees really are.

WM: The public is challenged to participate in this process of transformation. Placed upon a table carpentered from the same modules as the support, are the scissors needed to lend a hand yourself in order to cut the trees up into their smallest elements, ready for sorting them into the cartons relevant to their size, which will go on surviving after our exhibition is over. 

GO: Within my artistic approach, sorting into basic elements signifies intense affection and devotion.

I grew up in a village in the South Tyrolean Alps. When I was a child, my father took me and my brothers and sisters into the forest. We sought out a tree, chopped it down and brought it home. This can no longer be done today, because our forests would be killed off. The production of Christmas trees takes place today using industrial agricultural methods. With enormous amounts of energy and logistical expenditure, the Christmas markets, where the trees are sold, are opened just in time. The actual Christmas tree period lasts for a mere three weeks, first of all in the context of the idyllic Christmas market, which in Göppingen is known as “Waldweihnacht” or Forest Christmas, and afterwards during the Christmas celebration time in the living rooms of the families, during which phase the fir trees, together with all of their decorations, gain in meaning and mutate into a pivotal image, and then it’s time’s up. The Christmas trees are banished once again from the living rooms and disposed of.

I wanted to work against all this. I wanted to interrupt this cycle! Stop! Bring the trees back in again! And in this instance into the exhibition space, where art mirrors our life.

The forest is almost, but not quite, there again! Unfortunately this cannot be done so easily. The trunks have been cut off, the wounds are already visible.

WM: As a child in a certain way you developed a naive, direct and seamless relationship to nature initially. As an artist you live and work in the city. You create pictures which have our cultural relationship to nature as their theme. The cultivation and consumption of nature are bound up with images, into which we project romantic idylls and utopias, at the same time perceiving fissures in between nature and art. The strength of your pictures is that we find a palpable closeness to the subject matter once more, and simultaneously recognise our unmediated distance from nature, when we act intimately with it. 

GO: As an artist I develop what you might call an empathy with the objects and visual motifs present in my images. This involves having the eye for beauty, for that which cannot be prized from nature, for example the form, or independent existence, and in the last analysis even for the death and decay of a tree or a forest. And here the sense that this cannot (any longer) be seen solely as a natural process, but as having also to do with appropriation and utilisation, continues to develop today. We go in search and find nature for example in the wood, in the trees, in actual fact we are seeking and finding a romantic depiction, which maintains its significance up until the Christmas markets and the stalls where Christmas trees are sold. There is no other tree that reigns so far into urban, private and familial life as the fir tree and its metamorphosis into the Christmas tree. But this narrative is perhaps not being told far enough.

WM: Again and again in your pictures I find dissolution and deconstruction leading towards other forms and hence to new pictures, as the general theme. The large format drawing titled Baum (Blätter, Blüten, Stengel) [Tree (leaves, buds, shoots)], 2014, (see pp. 59 – 61) appears to demonstrate this distinctly.

GO: I grew up very traditionally within a buoyant South Tyrolean culture. It does me good and isn’t destructive in my case, if I completely dismantle the motif from all sides. My Baum (Blätter, Blüten, Stengel) [Tree (leaves, buds, shoots)], is a good example. It’s only in this way that possible understanding can take place. I can well nigh hear it rustling through my thoughts now, you see it is almost possible to comprehend change with your body on its own. In my mind it is still a tree (I see it standing there in the wood), but which has changed into something else because of the process. Changed into something that has experienced the transformations of our times just as much. It’s about the daily intercourse with nature bound up in civilisation, in which not only the mythos of nature as such, but also our knowledge and ways of exploitation reciprocally condition our sense of nature.

WM: In my opinion the drawing entitled Latschenkiefer (Mountain pine), 2015 (see pp. 49 – 53) comes closer to your Christmas tree archive. In the process you have obviously been influenced by the classical tradition of botanic drawing. Simultaneously you have set up a monument to the mountain pine so germane to your childhood homeland.

GO: I discovered the mountain pine, which is a shrub shaped tree, in the Sarntal Alps. This mountain pine grows just below the treeline in great profusion integrated into the landscape of stone and lichens. A totality arises which took me aback in terms of colour: dark green, neon green, grey, black and smaller red dots, and in fair weather the blue of the sky.

This tree is in fact small and it grows bowed close to the ground. All of its parts are valuable. The wood from its branches serves for the manufacture of the popular mountain pine oil, which is used in medicine and the cosmetics industry. This plant interested me as well because of its unusual habitat, directly on the treeline, 1,800 to 2,500 metres above sea level, on volcanic soil.

Taking early botanic and scientific drawings drawings as the starting point (e.g. those of Maria Sybilla Merian) I divide up the plant according to my interpretation not only into its components, but also into its elements connected with differing seasons and at different phases of development.

The pine cones occur very often in my drawings. As female or male blossoms, as green or yellow shoots, as red ripened pine cones, as seeds. Broken down into its component parts these appear as little red scales, or like green dots. I draw them in cross section and in symbiosis with the lichen. Red scales with black dots or green longish, millimetre sized, yellow entities with pink middles. I’m interested in the same things with the needles, the branches etcetera. An inexhaustible cosmos opens up, allowing the beauty and individuality of this medicinal plant to
be revealed.

Simultaneously the drawing shows the circular flow of exploitability and utility of a plant.

The manufacture of the oil is a laborious process inevitably entailing the decimation and cutting up of the plant. Profuse growth and simultaneous complete absence of decimation is not even possible in the secluded Sarntal Alps.

WM: If one approaches the drawings close enough, at best as close as you are to the drawings when you’re making them, then one perceives just how the motifs arise out of a profusion of small autonomous strokes and patterns. That which has the appearance of being impressionistic and near to nature if viewed at a distance, is disclosed from close up as being a process of abstraction, which proceeds from the assumption that the drawing consists of countless little strokes. One can recognise this at best, if one holds ones eyes at the same distance as you do whilst drawing.

GO: Exactly. This drawing technique of mine has developed over the course of time. I changed over from felt tip pens to watercolours from the tube, applied with the brush held in my hand in the same manner as the pen. Such marker pens or now the fine brushes both give rise to such special strokes. By the very accumulation of the many strokes or the dots these special structures arise, there is a differentiated interplay of these fine lines, and of the pattern which emerges one to one from the flow of the drawing.

To come back to the drawing entitled Baum (Blätter, Blüten, Stengel) [Tree (leaves, buds, shoots)]: From very close up on can recognise the drawn structures even in the individual leaves, blossoms and twiglets. Seen further away it is the abstract, coloured hills standing next to each other, which most distinguish the image. Perception has two possibilities, either close at hand and analytically, whereas it is only from a certain distance that the detachment bound up with a more abstract and self-sufficient image arises. These are two radically different worlds or two ways in which we can perceive nature, both of which make sense. 

WM: In the Schaf (Sheep), 2014, drawing there are also two motifs simultaneously conditioning your view of nature. On the one hand there is the expressive form of the sheep, so that one could almost suspect this is a portrait. At the same time a grid structure materialises in the pattern of the drawing and in the creature’s body, which we easily associate with the mesh in a wire fence. In its turn we link this up with the limitations imposed on living spaces and our captivity within them, as well as the protection, fostering and care of animals. Culture comes from cultivation. This is not only a surface phenomena, but is written into the very body of the sheep, as part of his existence.

GO: The sheep carries the fence structure inside of him. I don’t think this animal has it very easy in our society. It is subject to many tortures. We only have to think of factory farming. In the constellation of relationships between man, animal and nature it becomes continually apparent that mankind wants to control and rule over nature. Respect and empathy are lost on the way. This leads to maladjusted relations and exploitation. A change is only then possible when the relations become displaced once more and a renewed balance chimes in. Transformation of the structures is a prerequisite. The individual ought to play an equally central role for animal as well as man, through more life quality given to animals we will understand nature and ourselves much better. In times of large scale agricultural exploitation and continued maximisation of profit, images can soon turn subversive, if they demand more empathy for nature and respect towards other living creatures and thematise that which I find so exceptional in nature.

WM: When an artist such as yourself quite literally speaking makes images of animals and plants, then the form corresponds to thinking in representations. Dissolving into many fine strokes, by means of which a graphic inner structure is built up, is formative in your image. Your drawing of the Heuballen (Hay bails), 2014, in which you have summarised the harvesting of grass, makes me think of Claude Monet’s haystacks from the late 19th century. You concentrate solely on the motif consciously leaving out the landscape context.

GO: Yes I concentrate on the essentials, on the gigantic rolling hay bails. In 2014 I spent an extended period in France, amongst other regions in Normandy, which is the bread basket of France. Endless fields with enormous machines working on them. The human figure is barely present in this landscape. In my hay bails the landscape is also contained, rolling like an avalanche towards the observer, without any hope of stopping it.

Seen purely in terms of drawing, I fastidiously noted the contents down, in this case the structure of the dried grass, within the larger form over a period of months using an ink brush. It is of paramount importance that the natural motifs become graphic figments, by way of the investment of large amounts of time into my drawings, so that in the last analysis it is about much more than just two hay bails, lying somewhere in the fields in Autumn just waiting for a giant machine to suck them up.

WM: In the exhibition we show your latest video work: Mr. Nobel, 2016 (see pp. 1 – 6). Here you set up a memorial to a dog who has been set to by old age and rheumatism. He belongs to the Wagenhallen or Waggon Halls in Stuttgart, where your studio can be found, and where he ghosts about at night, apparently aimlessly, appearing and disappearing again into the nocturnal video image you’ve created. Here you’ve captured a melancholic atmosphere, opening a view into the nighttime goings on at a site where more than 80 other male and female artists currently work, but where tranquillity settles in at night, or else just faint nocturnal sounds can be heard, and where languidness becomes more meaningful, where time itself becomes irrelevant, whilst to the opposite degree the old hound Mr. Nobel emerges, becoming momentarily significant, then disappearing once more into the shadows…

GO: I made the film quite intentionally at night. Mr. Nobel goes on his irrational rounds in the Waggon Halls during the day too. Sometimes there is a lot going on and sometimes the halls are empty of all human souls. There are special days: for instance when it snows or on holidays. And somewhere, quite unexpectedly Mr. Nobel will be standing simply watching or slowly pitterpattering on his rounds. Even though he is very old and frail, he still has an incredible presence. He’s part and parcel of the scene. He thus influences the shared image of the Waggon Halls, so at some time in the future he will be missing for all of us. In order to capture Mr. Nobel’s mysterious appearance, I scheduled my camera work for the nighttime. Nothing much occurs really, Mr. Nobel does what he always does; he stands there, walks rather heavily for a while and then freezes, sniffs, appears to be searching for something, reacts and meets his girlfriend, which is a white cat. I always place him on purpose centrally in the screen. He is the leading actor in this melancholic night.