Lara Pan Interviews Artist Mathias Kessler

Mathias Kessler, Ilulissat 011Y, Greenland, From the series "Secluded Nights“, 2007, Dom Museum Wien, Otto Mauer Contemporary. Photo: Mathias Kessler.

Fragile Creation
Dom Museum (Vienna)
October 1, 2020 through August 28, 2021

By LARA PAN, November 14, 2020

During these unusual and challenging times I decided that I will write about the unexpected; about artists and art exhibitions that challenge us with their hidden, strange and magical appeal that has been lost in a world where everything is transparent, and where the amount of likes and attention one can get is all that matters. With the help of the virus we’ve (re)learned that the world is full of surprises, and my goal is to use this forgotten knowledge to point to places that have been unfairly left from the NYC scene radar. In a post-COVID world, unexpected is the norm.  

So I managed to sneak from Ljubljana to Vienna by car to visit my art community and particularly one exhibition in a Museum that I was not familiar with. As it turned out, I discovered a Vienna secret address or as I call it now, a hidden jewel in the mountain of art rocks. This new champion is the Dom Museum, where there’s an exhibition that opened at the end of September titled "Fragile Creation", curated by the director of the Dom Museum Johanna Schwanberg and her team co-curator Klaus Speidel.

The Dom Museum has an unusual story. Placed in the heart of Vienna, right next to the St. Stephan cathedral and a part of the Archdiocese of Vienna and a home to many cathedral treasures, the Museum manages to combine historical riches with abstract and avant-garde pieces from modern Austria. It all started with a priest Otto Mauer who fell in love with modern and contemporary art In 1950s and founded St. Stephen’s Gallery – he was one of the most important art collectors and promoters of modern art in Austria after the Second World War.  

Some 50 works (graphic art, drawings, paintings) by important Austrian and/or European artists of the 20th century, such as Kokoschka, Klimt, Schiele, Kubin, Archipenko, Fronius, Rainer, Hollergha, Kandinsky, Klee, Liebermann, Matisse and Picasso were exhibited in this unusual gem. Otto Mauer's love for art made St. Stephen’s Gallery the important  hub of the Austrian art avangarde in the second part of 20th century, and his contribution and love for art made him an art patron, maybe even the person who jump started the development of the Austrian avant garde. 

In her essay Environmental destruction and our yearning for nature, written for the exhibition in the Fragile Creation catalogue, Johanna Schwanberg explores how we as humans evolved to be closer to nature and how nature in retrospect became closely related to our understanding of life itself. By exploring the work of the 18th century thinker Alexander von Humboldt, especially his highly empirical but deeply holistic approach to various aspects of nature, Schwanberg points out how his work revolutionized the way we see and think about nature. The idea that “a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on senses and emotions“ is directly related to what Humbold’s intensely humanistic approach proposed, and what we now call the subjectivist approach to nature, where the point is to see ourselves connected with nature, and therefore care about it the same way we care about the people with whom we are connected.  

Environmental concerns for the future of our planet and us playing a role in it is omnipresent in Fragile Creation, as this Viennese exhibition is a beautiful reminder how we (have to) treat and respect our environment. Looking at Shonah Trescott’s Modern Landscapes Black Summer (2017) and Albert Bierstadt’s Eruption of Mount Vesuvius (1899) gives a feeling of what fragile creations we are in front of the harsh forces of nature. 

Fragile Creation is an exhibition that mixes old and contemporary art in a very time-loop like manner. We can see Syrian Glass Bottle (1300 BC) and Rhein Water Polluted by Joseph Beuys on loan from the Spreegold Collection, Berlin. Moreover, the selection of artists and works is perfectly executed, as this exhibition collected an impressive mix of contemporary artists such as Mark Dion, Oliver Ressler, Mathias Kessler, Bettu Beier, Dieter Roth, Joseph Beuyes, Antoni Tapies, Lois Weinberger, Regula Dettwiler, and others. We can also discover and see some master works from Karl Aigen, Alessandro Magnasco, Caspar David Friedrich, Albert Bierstadt, and others.  

It’s never easy to describe the whole palette of emotions that we have when we see an exhibition that has a large number of works that provoke us and pose a challenge to our existing world view and life as we know it. Following this, I decided to invite and to conduct a short interview with the artist who has been participating in this exhibition. I believe that through this interview the reader will get to experience the deeper and more visceral layers of this exhibition. That being said, I would like to thank Mathias Kessler to be a part of this interview. 

Lara Pan: You’re one of the artists featured in the Fragile Creation exhibition at the Dom Museum in Vienna. What are your favorite works by some of the other artists in the exhibition? 

Mathias Kessler: Hey Lara, there are many great works in the show so it’s a hard pick just one. Personally, this exhibition intertwines so much with my practice that I think of it as a work of art in itself, particularly the way it juxtaposes deep history with very contemporary statements on ecology and permanence. The Kasper David Friedrich in the exhibition room with Mark Dion’s Game Bird Group (Tar and Feathers), the "Eruption of Vesuvius" by Albert Bierstadt (1899), and the painted postcards depicting wildfires in Australia, from Shonah Trescott, are all addressing existential and ecological problems that evidence civilization’s complex relationship with nature, as an eternal flux between creation, dependency, exploitation, and destruction. 

Another aspect I am fascinated with is the contrast between the plastic flowers from Regula Dettwiler, from her series Die Naturgeschichte der artifiziellen Welt/ Florilegium, 2008 and the traditional plant drawings of Marzellin Stoppel from the 19th Century, while in the same room hangs a wonderful, splendidly embroidered chasuble, a liturgical robe. It’s like a portable still life, it is lavishly decorated with flowers - nature to wear for worship.

Also the artist as an activist room with Oliver Ressler’s movie “Everything's coming together while everything's falling apart: COP21”, of an anti-coal demonstration in Germany. The activists are dressed in hazmat suits and masks (most likely against teargas and to prevent identification from the police) against a wonderful poetic photograph of Nilbar Güres called Head Standing Totem.

Albert Bierstadt, Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 1899. OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH, Photo: OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH.

Pan: Nature is central to much of your work, and you have two such pieces included in the Fragile Creation exhibition at the Dom Museum. Can you talk a little bit about these works and how they fit into the greater context of the exhibition?

Kessler: The natural world has been very important to me. I grew up in an Austrian ski resort, which allowed me to witness the creation of this “stage” where people performed skiing on a groomed ski piste, during the day and special events at night, illuminated with artificial lights. My grandfather was involved in developing it, on one side he started his photo studio and photo lab in 1907 and the same year founded the Ski Club, developing tourism and doing the advertising via postcards for tourists. 

For me his romantic black and white postcards with fluffy white mountain tips, against the 1970’s reality of ski lifts, cable cars, ski rentals (and later in the 90s a ski bar in front of my house) allowed me to experience early on how a community loses their own culture, language and way of life at the hands of turbo-capitalism. What remains is the restaging of culture in some bizarre performance ritual of “traditional music” in traditional outfits so tourists can “experience” the exoticness of the Alps.

It was like witnessing the sacrifice of a 500+-year-old culture (Die freien Walser), in favor of a very short-lived spectacle, to make money, fast, with no compromise. It’s like burning your house to the ground to make some extra money with no backup plan. Now you got all this money but nothing left.

I recognize that when I photographed floating icebergs (for my series Staging Nature) with movie lights in the arctic at night I wanted to highlight this phenomenon of nature as a backdrop where we enact and materialize capitalist fantasies of escapism and joy. 

The skull here also speaks to our ability to externalize uncomfortable realities that we can’t grasp. The work requires ongoing care, the owner must help and maintain the condition for the coral reef to survive. The skull deteriorates in the saltwater and becomes a source of calcium for the corals, a process that we usually do not witness because it is underwater and occurring over a long period. I think of my work as performative, the skull has to be maintained, and for the iceberg, I had to travel to Ilulissat in the middle of the arctic winter in February 2004 with endless winter storms and -40 degrees. It was so cold that the camera kept freezing and so did the fuel in the generator. The act of lighting up a landscape, for me, is ultimately performative, while very few people witnessed it; my gaffers, me, and the captain of the boat, I see the photographs as a document to that performative action.

In many ways, my work reflects on art history and my interest in deep history. For the Staging Nature series, the highly aesthetic image of the iceberg exists in direct conversation with the romantic landscape images of the 18th century, like the Caspar David Friedrich next to it. It examines how nature is still an 18th-century fantasy that seems to have been burned in our consciousness and is still being exploited in advertising for tourism or economic gain, and highlights the role that art has played in this commodification of nature by generating images of the natural world that are further exploited for advertising or products. In the 19th century, Audubon‘s drawings of birds created a feather craze that almost ended the life of several species. 

Nowhere to Be Found (the skull in the aquarium) examines how our relationship to the experience of death in modern life has been completely sanitized. We no longer bear witness to the process of death, our loved ones die alone in hospital beds. The memento mori itself is an image, not an event, so I try to bring back the event of life and death in the gallery.

Pan: I find this exhibition to be particularly relevant in the context of COVID-19 and our present, quite unique historical moment. It seems like a gentle reminder of our fragility as human beings, and how deeply connected we are with nature. What are your thoughts about this crisis that we’ve been collectively reckoning with?

Kessler: believe this crisis is a true reminder of how our human bodies are entangled with nature, how we as humans cannot escape the natural world. And I agree with you, this is a “gentle” reminder, we should brace ourselves for bigger problems, ones that will not be solved under capitalism. Our lack of global collective agreement and action guarantees our failure. Not only do we have a climate catastrophe happening, but we also have massive amounts of species dying that are needed for a balance in the natural world. If we lose the same biomass of insects in the next 20 years as we have since the 60’s we can start thinking of ways to hand pollinate plants, which is possible, but you see to what extent it will disrupt our lives.

Meanwhile, we are still focusing on homeopathic treatments, like electro cars and moon landings... these are not the solutions that will help get us out of this crisis.  

Ten years ago I started using institutions to host events under the conceptual frame of extreme locality, by generating an open call and bringing people into the museum to create think tanks that would allow direct community involvement in addressing eco-political problems. I did that in Boulder at the Contemporary Museum and in the Kuenstlerhaus Bregenz and invited to an open call.

Mathias Kessler, Nowhere to Be Found, 2010, Galerie Heike Strelow, Frankfurt am Main, Courtesy of Galerie Heike Strelow and the Artist, Photo: Mathias Kessler.

Pan: You’re from Austria, but you’ve been working and living in New York City for a long time now. What is the next exhibition you have planned in the United States? And if you had to pick your favorite place in the States, what would it be and why?

Kessler: Yes, since the mid 90’s I have been in NY, and in the last decade I have had several shows outside NYC, like Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence Kansas, which is a University Museum with amazing programming. I have learned by doing projects in Grand Rapids Michigan or Columbia Ohio and Boulder / Denver Colorado, that those seemingly far away from institutions sometimes develop a more radical program because they exist outside of the “art cities” and are not directly controlled by their markets. They don’t cater too hard to the art market, so they are a lot more independent in their decision, that’s how I experienced it. For me the west is also very intriguing, it is an excellent mix of coast people and old sort of American wild west characters, and of course, the nature is wide open.

Pan: And finally, tell me about what you’re working on now. What’s coming up for you?

Kessler: I have been working largely on new ways of printing and drawing from my performances. I figured out that with a laser cutter you can burn images into standard graphic paper.  During the 2000s with the awareness of the melting caps, I started to look for new means of production that always reflect in my body of work (e.g. Staging Nature; light up landscape at night). With that in mind I started to develop a new printing method, I hacked the software of the laser cutter and instructed it to burn little dots and with that, I created a “bitmap” image similar to a newspaper print. 

This new method for image production aims to reflect on the ways that new technologies shape our understanding of the world. The Gutenberg printing process created an easy way of distribution and with it a major change in history, just like the internet and social media of today. So this work deals with the subject itself (burning an image into a paper) and also with distribution and how news travels. In the process I started to realize that both the riots and uprising are fitting themes, so now it’s twofold, environmental crisis and images of the uprising. Like Andy Warhol’s newspaper cycle, I try to find iconic images that connect to our western pop culture.

The title I borrowed from Goya, After Goya, Disaster of Wars. I like that this work was printed and distributed and therefore shifted the view of the people on war. WM  

Lara Pan

Lara Pan is an independent curator and writer based in New York City.

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