Felix Baxmann studied at UdK Berlin and finished his degree in July 2017. He was interviewed by Art Springboard's Wolfram Schnelle in August 2017.
Wolfram Schnelle: When did your interest in art start?
Felix Baxmann: I can remember that as a little boy I liked drawing on millimetre grid paper. I was drawing war ships or airplanes. I had an encyclopaedia of airplanes with drawings of airplanes and I imagined them and constructed new ones in my drawings. I’ve always been fascinated by evil. At that point it was in the form of military equipment.
My drawing was never encouraged by my family. I come from a family where art didn’t play a role at all. I went to a scientific high school with chemistry and physics where I was completely lost. But when I was 14 or 15 there was an art teacher who was great. Everybody thought she was crazy but she was a real artist. She was the first person to make me aware that there was a creative process and that I had some potential. I ended up quitting school and did an apprenticeship as a media designer and art wasn’t an option any more. I didn’t have the concentration and didn’t think I was psychologically up to it. Then at some point a girlfriend who I lived with pushed me to apply for art school. I had always been drawing and painting on the side, often as something therapeutic when I wasn’t doing well.
I ended up studying in Berlin at KHB Weissensee (Weissensee Academy of Art). In the beginning, it was great to have time, a space to work, and to be with like-minded people. That changed after the first enthusiasm had worn off, but I had time to work.
WS: What about the work that you were doing?
FB: I was trying things out, going in every direction. I think it’s important to start with one thing and see how far you can get, to experiment or to play. I was playing around, following my urge to play. While others played PlayStation, I was going to dumpsters, collecting old shoes, and making collages, or I was pouring chlorine over large photographs that I’d been given. It was fun, it’s what I enjoyed doing in my free time.
WS: To talk about your practice, let’s jump from the beginnings to your degree show. Thinking about the works you exhibited in your degree show, can you tell me what interests you and why you’re doing what you’re doing?
FB: I think a very important aspect is to prove something to yourself. And what I did with these works was a sort of self-conditioning that required a lot of time, discipline, and physical effort. Maybe it was some way of dealing with something. But it came very naturally, instinctively. I think that humans have lost their instincts but I think it’s something that you can train.
With the works in my degree show, drawing on the envelopes was an impulse. I started playing with something and then just continued. It’s hard to explain. I started to develop some sort of concept and some internal logic and went with it.
WS: Tell me about your process for making work.
FB: I go for a walk or I’m out with friends, feeling balanced, and then something will fascinate me. What I liked about my professor at UdK is that he would then say, ‘do it like that’. I think my motivation is really to prove something to myself and to entertain others. You’re kind of a host when you make art. You’re inviting people to enjoy something, to spiritually deal with something. I need to communicate something of myself.
I’d like to make works that I don’t really need to comment on, though. I’d love it if people listened more. They see the work but I want them to listen, too. That’s something I want to achieve with my work. It doesn’t necessarily make much sense, but something is there, something is being sensed.
WS: You just mentioned spirituality, and you’ve talked about Buddhism in an email. Can you tell me something about how this is important to your work?
FB: Silence is important. If I read Lektionen der Stille (Lessons of Silence) for example, a small book with texts on Zen Buddhism – something that Agnes Martin also referenced a lot – I get into a certain mood which I think is very important. It’s like a counterbalance that needs to exist so that I can make these works. If I’m reading or if I look and see that bird over there, I somehow register it and then automatically something of it enters the work. Forms or associations. I think if you read those Zen texts and internalize the words you get a different perspective on things, which has a lot to do with silence. This is automatically reflected in my works. It’s like a transformation.
If I look at my works now, it feels like half of my life comes through within a split second, and I feel awestruck by what I’ve created. It sounds corny but the work can be a mirror and that’s a big incentive to create. Something emerges from you that is you. We should see a person not just as what they say and how they behave but also as what they create.
And it’s not just corporeal creations. There’s something of a person, some energy that remains in what they create or where they were. You have to be open to that and understand the connections. If I see photographs of Joseph Beuys standing in the members room of the Academy of Arts (Clubraum der Akademie der Künste) then that’s a special moment for me to realize that his traces are still there, even if nothing visible remains.
I don’t really follow Buddhism religiously but it gives me some sort of guidance. Things like taking the path of least resistance.
WS: You mentioned that some of your works are very time-intensive. Is it like meditation for you when you make those works? Or like a therapy?
FB: It’s a sport and mental hygiene. Or psychological hygiene. Sometimes I listen to audio books while I draw – those ones that you never really want to read. It’s definitely some sort of meditation. When I start drawing I go to the studio, I say hello to the room, open the window, and get going. It’s like a daily rhythm. People need something to do. You look at the paper, see how everything somehow breathes and then you start. Sometimes you don’t feel like it. But when that’s the case and you still work, then the feeling afterwards is incredible. You lie down in the evening and you’ve accomplished something. You’ve made art, if you want to call it that, or you’ve doubled yourself. Simultaneousness also plays a role. I am not only drawing, I’m also present. It’s hard to describe in words!
Language is our biggest obstacle. We should think without words. Art is a good example of doing that: I’m thinking something but I resist putting it into words. I find words extremely hindering. When I draw it’s mostly empty in my head.
I think the word ‘art’ should be abolished. It’s way too broad. And it’s the same with love. Loving a book and loving a person are two completely different things, yet we use the same word.
WS: We’re talking about words, but what about figuration?
FB: I also find figuration hindering. You create associations. It’s the same with titles. Imagine I draw two bodies and call it Lovers. Then it’s clear I want to make the viewer aware of something. But with my work, I want the viewer to become aware of something by themselves. That’s why I never give my works titles. I want to leave it as open as possible and that’s why figuration isn’t an alternative for me. I would only use it to question its own existence.
WS: One aspect of your work that caught my attention is the materiality. When I first looked at the drawings, I wasn’t quite sure what it was I was looking at. There always seems to be some ambiguity, which you seem to play with through the different ways you use and apply materials, such as using a drill to put paint on canvas or using multiple pens at the same time.
FB: It’s about transformation. It’s also where my playful instinct comes in. I’m trying to build a world where I can play god. That’s the exciting part. I’m in control. I can create and make new things. If I look at work made using the drill or I look at my Indian ink drawings, I see the drives or basic needs behind these choices. Maybe missing self-confidence or the need for recognition. It all plays into it. I would describe it as a big ball of energy that’s inside me and needs to find its way out. I use a specific technique – the loops I make with my drawings or the way I use the drill – as a constraint that channels this energy and gives me a controlled direction but all the rest I just let go free. I think as an artist you need to decide how you want to present yourself. If you do too many different things it’s not good for your psyche.
WS: This takes me to the question of developing your own voice. If I understand it correctly that’s something that art school encourages – finding your own voice. Could you describe what your voice is?
FB: No. I think that a good professor helps you find a way in.
WS: Tell me about your experience at UdK. What influence did it have on your work and what was your overall experience?
FB: It was all about detail. If I had a big work with many elements my professor would say to me ‘pick this aspect, explore it, and see what it does with you’. That rigidity is something I missed at KHB Weissensee. I need friction and somebody to tell me to stop and do it in a different way. You can call it professionalization of sensibility. Or it was about looking at small details, such as how the foreground works with the background, is there even a foreground or a background. Those were the questions that my professor asked and I’m very thankful for that. Those were the best two years in terms of achievement. Overall, I would call it a professionalization.
You go in with some basics, everything is there but you have to do something with it. You have milk and you want it to become cheese so you have to do something with it. That’s how it was at UdK. I listened to my professor and he was right. It was great that he could do that. But you must be willing to go with it. I had a very friendly relationship with him in that we could talk openly about everything, even intimate personal things. It was important to me that he knew everything about me so that he could get the most out of me.
My instinct somehow took me there. It’s important that it works on a personal level. I always had problems with authority but with him it worked very well. I trusted him.
WS: Was there something like a eureka moment that you remember?
FB: He made me aware of the fact that what I do is really good. That was the moment when we really started working together. Although he’d also tell me if it was shit. He’s a total perfectionist but I’m like that too so it worked well.
WS: You told me that you don’t go to museums to look at other artists’ works. Where does your inspiration come from?
FB: Relaxation, emotions. Nature and silence. When my head is relaxed it leads to inspiration. It’s as if nature sucks all the negative out of my body and then the fact that I’m then free in my head is reflected in my work. On the other hand, I can also work quite well when I’m emotionally drained. So, I don’t really know and I’m not sure I want to find out. I sense that it comes from somewhere else.
Materials and materiality inspire me a lot. Graphite powder is something I worked with and experimented with for a long time. Or when I went to Sri Lanka I found these dead coral pieces that almost looked like runes – it was like a sign language that you can’t draw. I took them with me. I would smear them with graphite and work with them. But this materiality has moved more into working with materials and it’s led me to make more object-like works. With the drawings it’s the process that’s important. A long and dense way of working where new ideas come up while I’m working.
WS: What’s next?
FB: I don’t know. To outdo myself. First there is the exhibition in Paris. I’ll look for a studio, get a job, and then make a plan. Plans help me a lot. A plan gives me security, even if it’s just a month or two ahead. At the moment it’s all open. I’ll see where things go, see if I find a gallerist and if I like working as an artist. Maybe I’ll do something completely different at some point.
To see all works by Felix Baxmann click here.
To learn more about the artist, click here.