Ten Questions: Thomas Schütte

– Computers are not as exact as people think. They make the models a bit crazy, which I like, says German sculptor Thomas Schütte, whose retrospective at Moderna Museet opens to the public tomorrow.

Thomas Schütte, United Enemies, 2010. Foto: Nic Tenwiggenhorn.
Thomas Schütte, United Enemies, 2010. Photo: Nic Tenwiggenhorn.

Moderna Museet in Stockholm has during recent years made several large-scale presentations of contemporary sculpture and installation-based work with exhibitions by artists like Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson, Yayoi Kusama and Adrián Villar Rojas. Next up is German sculptor Thomas Schütte, who opens a large retrospective of work from the last two decades at Skeppsholmen tomorrow.

The Dusseldorf schooled Schütte is often viewed as one of today’s most prominent sculptors, but has previously not been shown on a large scale in the Nordic countries. Schütte was born just after the Second World War and has since the early 80s distinguished himself by working with both monumental and intimate materials, often commenting on social engineering and post-war ideas of art’s central position in modern society.

Architectural models, distortions of scale and iterations in new and unexpected materials are central to Schüttes work, and in recent years several of his buildings have been erected in full scale at different locations around the world. The grotesque, absurd or in other ways disturbing effects which proceed from these displacements of scale and form are seen as an important aspect of his sculptural idiom.

Thomas Schütte. Foto: Robert Stasinski.
Thomas Schütte. Photo: Robert Stasinski.

When Kunstkritikk meet up with Thomas Schütte in the Café Blom next to Moderna Museet, he has just supervised the moving of the exhibition’s largest work, the sculpture United Enemies, which faces the viewer right at the entrance to the museum. 

You have worked with a wide range of materials; drawing, painting, sculpture as well as architectural models and more recently 1:1 building structures. How has this come about?

I really prefer working with physical things, I sort of get bored otherwise. I like to feel a real material in my hands as I design something, regardless if it’s a sculpture or a building.

Did you know that the world’s biggest pencil manufacturer in Nürnberg, Faber-Castell – established in the 18th century, sold more color pencils last year than ever before in history? I think that says something about the growing status of physicality in creative work today. For me, it is crucial.

But, still, you utilize new technology as well, as in the exhibition title piece, United Enemies (2011), which is made using 3D modelling and printing.

Thomas Schütte, Vater Staat utanför Moderna Museet, 2016.
Thomas Schütte, Vater Staat, Moderna Museet Stockholm, 2016.

That’s right, I use technology when it suits my work, but I do not want to be a slave to it. First off I usually make a small puppet using PVC, not wax. Moulding it with my hands. Then it is cooked and becomes hard and solid. The next step is to dress it with fabric and run it through a 3D scanner and later print it in Styrofoam. After that I work on it for several months with my hands, before it is cast in metal.

Every part of this process used to be made by hand, so I save a lot of time nowadays. Especially since computers usually make the models a bit weird and eccentric, they are not as exact as people might think. I like that kind of craziness about visual models made in computers.

In your youth you were interested in becoming a filmmaker or a musician, but both of these worlds did not seem to fit your temperament or idea of creative autonomy. How come?

I wanted to play music but I did not have an ear for it. The same thing with film, I did not even apply to a film school, I just received the message from the film schools in Berlin and Munich, basically saying: “We do not need artists, we need team workers”. It was during the time of many great German filmmakers in the seventies, it was very interesting. So I quickly dropped out of the music and film scenes, focusing only on art. I have basically developed an allergy towards moving image, these days. Every time a YouTube video or any other type of moving image comes up on my screen, I immediately turn it off.

Your architectural models and buildings was something that came a bit later in your career, and perhaps a not so well-known part of your work in the last two decades. What has prompted you to make buildings?

Well, I have actually always made architectural models and structures, this was always a parallel to my sculptural work. I do quite a lot of building today, actually. It has become one of my main processes. If I get a commission for a sculpture somewhere, I usually say that for a tenth of the price I can get them a pavilion, temple, library or something else instead. A permanent structure, that can be made relatively fast, but unfortunately for a lot of collectors, they do not see it as quite the same investment as a sculpture, so I usually do not do as many for private collectors.

Thomas Schütte, With Tears in My Ears, 1989 © Thomas Schütte/Bildupphovsrätt 2016 Photo: Mathias Johansson
Thomas Schütte, With Tears in My Ears, 1989 © Thomas Schütte 2016. Photo: Mathias Johansson

These days I get a lot of requests to do monumental sculptures in different cities, but I never do that anymore, I usually propose a café, restaurant or some other structure instead.

Your architectural breakthrough work, Ferienhaus für Terroristen (2012), was made as a reaction to the process of designing the new buildings on ground zero after the 2001 attacks in New York. You first made it as a model but recently it has become a full scale house in the Tyrol in Austria. What are your reflections on this work now, 15 years after the attacks in New York?

Well, sometime around 2002 I visited the competition for the new World Trade Center, while I was in New York. There were works by Daniel Libeskind and others and they all had to design a 500-metre high skyscraper in just a few months. All the proposals were basically turning into art, or using artistic styles or solutions. Anyway, I thought it was silly and so as soon as I got home I made a model building out of an old spiral staircase and some sheets of perspex plastic.

The first idea behind it was that if terrorists had a proper house they would not commit crimes, but since then it has also become a comment on transparency and surveillance, which is one of the major things we live with after 9-11.

How did the process of building the house in full scale come about?

The polish art dealer Rafael Jablonka wanted me to visit the site of his summer house in Mösern, near Innsbruck in 2012. So I went there and looked at it and a year later it was built. Since then I have also slept in the house, and it works pretty well, actually.

But the politicians in the town protested at first because of the word “terrorism” in the title. In order to get them to understand what terrorism actually is I gave them a link to the German Wikipedia site for the word “terrorism”, not the English one. Terrorism is not about war but a communications strategy. It is a closed effort to scare millions of people with very small means. But in the end we changed the title of the work, in order for it to be realised, which was fine for me.

Thomas Schütte, Pringles, 2011.
Thomas Schütte, Pringles, 2011.

What can you tell us about the exhibition United Enemies at Moderna Museet?

All the artworks except the ceramics work Gartenzwerge (Garden Gnomes) (2015–2016) have been shown elsewhere, so this exhibition is not presenting much new material, but the context in which it is shown – Sweden – is completely new to me.

Usually about once a year I do a gallery show, which in many ways is more exciting for me than just another retrospective exhibition. The last years I have done a lot of large scale exhibitions around the world, which for me as an artist is really exhausting, since I am always on site for the installation of the essential pieces.

On a recent list of the most expensive German artists made you came in fourth, right between Andreas Gursky and Anselm Kiefer. Your work Grosse Geist No. 16 (2000) sold for about four million dollars a few years ago. What relation do you have to the art market and the increasing demand for your work?

Right at this moment it seems as though a few rather big collectors of my works are selling, so I don’t know if that should make me nervous or not. But auctions, which you mentioned, are inexplicable to me. Even the people working there cannot seem to explain why someone pays 4–5 times the money that you would in the gallery just around the corner. There is definitely a hype or bubble in the art market right now.

Thomas Schütte, One Man House III, 2005. Foto: Wilfried Petzi.
Thomas Schütte, One Man House III, 2005. Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

When I started about 35 years ago, the entire art world was basically just three or four family run clans, but in the middle of the eighties the market just exploded and became a global art world, literally. An industry. And at that time things changed, people who were charming to you one day, could easily rip you off the next. Art speculation became common and resulted in artworks being bought and sold, without ever been featured in an exhibition anywhere. But I have really no inside clues as to how the art market actually works.

Do you actively track the whereabouts of your works in the hands of dealers, collectors and speculants?

Yes, I have a very good archive of all my works, I have a person working only with that. About ten years ago we started making a catalogue raisonné online, that is part open, part closed. So everyone that needs information about my work, museum people or researchers, get a password and can browse through all the information. I also make a lot of curators work hard, making lists and documenting everything for me.

Yesterday, I had dinner with a very reclusive man who used to run the Jarla Partilager in Stockholm, and has collected my works for years [Gerard De Geer, editor’s note]. The first time I ever came to Stockholm, about ten years ago, from the documentation it looked as if there were 6 or 7 collectors in Scandinavia of my work – since it was scattered around many different addresses. But in the end it was actually just one person.

In your almost 40-year career, what has surprised you the most?

That I have had an incredible strike of luck, from the start on. I attribute my career solely to luck, and the fact that I learn well from the mistakes of others. I do not make the same mistakes as others such as overpricing, overproducing or being too rude. Or too selfish. This show at Moderna Museet, for example, I don’t charge anything for it except the plane ticket and hotel costs. And a warm meal.

Thomas Schütte, Wicht, 2006. Foto: Nic Tenwiggenhorn.
Thomas Schütte, Wicht, 2006. Photo: Nic Tenwiggenhorn.