Practicing artist, emeritus professor of sculpture at Kunsthochschule Weißensee, and most recently founder of The Stallmuseum, Inge Mahn turns 70 this autumn. To mark the event, how does this prolific creative force choose to celebrate? With an exhibition, of course!
Inge Mahn’s fourth solo exhibition at Emerson Gallery Berlin, entitled “Canon” serves as a comprehensive retrospective of four decades of her artistic output. Unbroken by walls and doors, the airy single exhibition hall of Emerson Gallery Berlin, on the banks of the river Spree provides ample space for long unseen works of art to appear in a discourse with new pieces created specifically for this retrospective. Stefanie Tendler talked to Inge Mahn and gallerist Russell Radzinski.
S2S: In the exhibition “Canon“ hosted by Emerson Gallery Berlin you are combining art works from four different eras of your career?
Inge Mahn: It actually doesn’t quite involve four eras, as it is more important to me that every piece of work can speak for itself. I didn’t want to overload the room or create a hodgepodge. My intention is an exhibition that is in harmony. Yet, it is still in the context of a canon and polyphony. The role of the observer is very important to me and my work. The magnum opus shows an official banquet, a table set with cakes that is being guarded by soldiers, that have a stern expression, even though they don’t even have a facial expression at all. However, it results in the funny absurdity of guarding cakes, yet it has a serious context reminding of authoritarian systems.
Russell Radzinski, Gallery Director, Emerson Gallery Berlin : Emmet Williams named this absurdity cosmological humor.
Inge Mahn: Yes, it has something to do with humor, that’s true, but it’s not the kind of humor that let’s you giggle. It’s rather a kind of black humor.
Inge Mahn: I designed the pillars you can see in the opus magnum in Hamburg and they refer to the room I used them in that had pillars of the same height and dimension. My pillars however are wearing hats and I positioned them in between the pillars that were already present. I wanted to break with the purism of Minimal Art. Furthermore, I wanted to change the dimension of the room. An artist actually asked me if I was aware of the fact that my pillars had exactly the same size as the ones already there. I just asked her- Really?
S2S: How important is the perception of the viewer for you?
Inge Mahn: I find it highly important that you can encounter art as a naïve contemplator, to wander around it whilst trying to find access or even an entrance. I want to create a bridge between the observer and the art. While Minimal Art was an art movement that tried to eliminate any inherent meaning, I came to realize that it is impossible to exclude any personal cognition. I also find the logic of structural engineering, physics and metaphysics very exciting. There is a wonderful passage in the bible: “Carry each other’s burden, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.“ The meaning is not only a religious or moral one, but it also has to do with philosophy and physics. I was so fascinated by this powerful meaning that I used it in one of my art works, that consists of two chairs leaning against each other, holding each other’s weight.
S2S.: As a very young artist, when you were around 30 you had the opportunity to be part of the documenta 5, one of the most influential exhibitions of Modern Art after World War II. How would you describe this experience? Which art work did you personally present?
Inge Mahn: I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time. During the 70s the University of Düsseldorf was at the center of attention. At that time, I was always working publicly in the halls of the University and somehow I was able to draw attention to my work. I was asked if I wanted to be part of the documenta with my final project “Class” – Schulklasse, that consisted of ten desks and chairs made of gypsum. It was a wonderful experience, as I was able to exhibit with famous artists such as Claes Oldenburg, and the best thing was that everyone was so friendly and down to earth. At that time I didn’t quite understand the importance of documenta and didn’t use it to market myself. But my work and the creative process have always been more important to me.
S2S: What is your personal connection to New York?
Inge Mahn: I came to New York in 1981 when I received a stipend from PS1. One Sunday, with little money in my pocket, I took a stroll around Wall Street and discovered a few plastic buckets on the side of the road that I took. I walked around the whole city with these buckets and nobody seemed to notice. It was no issue. In any other city, like Düsseldorf for example, people would have looked at me in a funny and condescending way. When I think back at those times, I only have very pleasant memories. Even though there were some people who had lots of problems. But I very much enjoyed my time there. Years later when I was already teaching, I regularly returned to NYC to work and exhibit with Diane Brown Gallery. At that time, the New York Times also showed some interest and wrote an article about my work. New York was a city for doers, for people willing to work hard. The city was a center for great music, theater and excellent exhibitions.
Russell Radzinski: Now it is a city for people who let others work hard!
Inge Mahn: I met many artist who desperately want to live in NYC and take on a slew of well paying jobs that allow them to hire art students to do their art. For me personally it is important to create the work myself. Unfortunately, that has lost some importance. Those changes in the city were the reason I left New York.
S2S: How was your experience teaching at Kunsthochschule Weißensee?
Inge Mahn: East Berlin made sense to me since my family is originally from Silesia and I already had a relation to Berlin through friends at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. However, the transition wasn’t easy. I felt a little bit like a newcomer from a foreign country when I came to East Berlin in 1995. But I am very proud what my colleagues from the East and I accomplished for the sculpture department. I think we build a solid foundation, fostering dialogue and collaborations with students.
Inge Mahn: I am originally from the countryside in Upper Silesia and feel very close to communities of small villages. The purpose of the project is to be all inclusive. I restored a landmark building and declared it a museum. But what is a museum without artifacts? It was important to me that all inhabitants of the village would contribute something to the exhibition. Friends of mine from Berlin compared the exhibition with those of Joseph Beuys who also had a strong bond to small villages. I like to emphasize that I am only responsible for the arrangement of the objects but not their selection. All articles are authentically rural, collected by the people of the village. This is a collaborative project. And what is really great is the fact that famous artists are not known here. People who want to be creative can do so without any inhibition.
S2S: You were one of Joseph Beuys’ master apprentices. Do you have a special memory of him?
It was by coincidence that I came to Beuys. I graduated from high school in Bielefeld, a town near the Akademie of Düsseldorf. I first studied with professor Bobek who came from the Berlin School and taught us that artists have to suffer and women can’t do art – period! The class of Beuys came to my attention because there was always a lot of laughter, it was a relaxed atmosphere and art was approached in a very grounded way. Beuys came from the country side, rather than having his head in the clouds he kept both feet firmly on the ground. I approached him and asked whether he would accept me and he did and I got back to reality and art.
Russell Radzinski: But you do not consider yourself a successor of the Fluxus movement, do you?
Inge Mahn: I don’t consider myself a successor of any art movement. In the postwar period it was important to create something new – the end of everything that came before. I don’t see myself as a disciple or follower of a past movement. There are certain parallels because of course who you study with influences you. But I regard art as a roll call to create something new.
Emerson Gallery Berlin
10117 Berlin Mitte
Exhibition: 16 November – 8 February 2014
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Friday 2:00 – 7:00 p.m., Saturday 12:00 – 4:00 p.m. and upon request