Leipzig is described as eastern Germany’s most dynamic city after Berlin. The art produced here appears to be a sizzling mix of classical realism (where traditional methods of drawing/painting/sculpting are used to accurately capture the anatomy and mood of the subject) and a ‘relatively’ new found (post communist) freedom of expression which knows no boundaries conceptually. The result is really fresh, exciting and explorative art.
We are visiting the Spinnerei Works in a former industrial area of the city to see some of this art up close and personal. Its quite a place. Previously a cotton mill, it was given a new purpose in life through the imaginative vision of a few local artists, ( the most famous being Neo Rauch who still makes work here) and now provides studios for over a hundred artists as well dancers, architects, craftspeople and other creative traders . The factory has been left much as it was with rich old-school red brick, pipework-laced facades and only some simple inner shell walls put up to accomodate the new occupants. It is the ultimate artist’s fantasy ( or ‘cosmos’ as they call it!) and if that was your chosen career, you would never need to leave. It has a cavernous art materials shop, a cafe, library and even a traditional printworks where you could have invitations rolled out for your next exhibition… which of course, would take place in one of the fourteen galleries that have also set up home within the complex! This is not a new model, its just that its been done particularly well here and on an impressive scale.
I’m meeting a young sculptor – Laura Eckert. I saw her work when I was researching for the trip and it really gripped me – dramatic life size figurative works in wood and stone sensitively carved then spliced with jagged appendages, scarred with chain saw intrusions and pierced with slightly painful looking protruding metal bolts. I found myself smiling in wonder and yet wincing at the same time but wow they were powerful! They made me ask the question, could I live with one of these sculptures in my house? After all, no one would consider the macabre in a work of Picasso or the grotesque in a Peter Howson as good enough reason not to give it pride of place.
Before I get completely lost in the labyrinth of stairwells and corridors, Laura meets me at the door of Halle 18 and leads me to her basement studio. As we enter, the cold damp smell of metal dust and filings fills the air. This is a no frills work space with just a few tables covered in essential hand tools and raw materials. On the floor are one or two heavy duty items of equipment needed for this very physical type of creating. That smell is cutting and grinding and bone crushing machinery. Just as I am thinking this, I almost trip over a chain saw at my feet and beside it a section of leg…. belonging to one of Laura’s latest sculptures.
This might be a fitting scene for a classic horror except that the soft fragmented light that filters through these industrial scale windows brings warmth and a kind of light-hearted animation to the work sitting on the nearby pedestals. Laura hunkers down and ably lifts one of the large carved sections of wood offering it up to the other to show me how it fits together. Quietly spoken with a graceful willowy frame, she makes me think of a ballerina which just adds to the theatrical contradictions in this room.
She tells me that she always uses found wood for her sculpture (her recent bounty is a pile of 10 year old oak floorboards) not only for financial reasons but because she can then make it do what she wants. She glues, nails and screws pieces together before hacking, sawing and then very carefully carving what are by then quite weighty pieces of work. Even the surface and colour of the wood is changed with paint and dark oily pigments. She recovers left over stone from nearby quarries which is also controlled and manipulated – bolted together to get the size and rough shape that she wants.
Laura talks about the fact that we can now dictate what we look like, have plastic surgery and even add prosthetic limbs – we are not necessarily bound by the bodies we were given. This informs her sculpting process and the final presentation of her work. She describes a sculpture she exhibited where people could turn sections of the sculpture changing its form until it was their idea of ‘perfect’. Its poignant work that possibly raises issues of physical beauty and acceptance.
Looking around some of the portrait heads and contorted figures, you feel that if you looked away for a second they would move or change expression. Quite strange but intriguing, they take it to the edge yet stop short of being ‘ugly’….I think.
I am enjoying the mixed emotions I have about Laura’s work. It brings me back to my earlier question – can we live with art that isn’t ‘beautiful’? Life is a delicate balance of contrasts and opposites (you need one to appreciate the other) so should every artwork we have on display say the same thing – be a rendition of a familiar happy scene or a popular subject with pretty, joyful colours? What if some of the art in our lounges and hallways was more challenging, knocking us slightly of course as we wander past and reminding us that there is no such thing as perfect?
They have such a presence that I leave thinking my home could handle a bit of the theatre that these modern day ‘Frankenstein’ creations behold and hey, we all know that too much sweetness isn’t healthy anyway!