An interview with Johannes Bansmann

Johannes Bansmann in his studio

Johannes Bansmann studied Fine Arts at UdK Berlin under professors Karsten Konrad and Katja Strunz and completed his Meisterschüler in February 2018. The following interview took place in Berlin in March 2018 with Art Springboard’s Wolfram Schnelle.

Wolfram Schnelle: Let’s begin by discussing your work for the Meisterschüler Degree Show.

Can you tell me about the works that you suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the room?

Johannes Bansmann: These photographs are part of a large collection of images that I'd taken during the last years of my studies. I began collaging them together, finding combinations. I then started to involve drawings in these collages, as an on-going experiment – instead of considering them as finished pieces, I see them as individual possibilities. I'm not a photographer, but more of an observer.

Another core part of the installation was the actual space I was presenting in. I wanted to let the images float in the room. I hung them from the ceiling in order to show both sides, as well as to allow for endless new perspectives, which vary each time the viewer changes position.

W.S.: You said that something happened when you combined the drawings with the photographs. Can you describe what you mean by that?

J.B.: The photographs that I chose are all very textural – they possess an interesting flatness as opposed to a narrative. It's never clear what exactly is being shown, nor is it clear whether it’s a staged situation or not. As for the drawings, I was interested in the transition from abstract to narrative – when do the abstract shapes start to take on narrative forms? I wanted to keep the drawings as simple as possible while also telling a story. Putting the photographs and the drawings side by side, I wanted to explore the differences between the two mediums, to see which was stronger in the dialogue, as well as to see how they influenced one another, potentially even melted together.

It’s always a question of staging. I think that’s what I am most interested in in art: attention to how something is staged. Arrangement has a huge influence on the work itself. For example, if you present a sculpture with the wrong lighting it can lose all its power and become completely lost. In this installation I suppose the focus was less on the individual pieces themselves and more on their presentation.

W.S.: Can you give me some examples of your work that you were particularly happy with?

J.B.: Take the line for example. A person is standing in a room and begins drawing the line from the highest point he can reach. The drawing continues until the line has reached the middle of the room.

On one side it’s simple – at a glance you understand what it’s about. On the other hand, I can also stand there for three hours, watch and something opens up. I find it interesting when that can also happen. A primrose can be like that. I can glance at it, but I can also take a microscope and discover thousands of things.

W.S.: You created a piece where you placed sails on an old factory building in Greece. Tell me more about that.

J.B.: That was an artist residency a couple of years ago, where 40 artists from Berlin spent a month in northern Greece with 40 artists from various art schools in Greece. We stayed in the middle of nowhere up in the mountains. There was very little material there to work with, which I really enjoyed. Sometimes it's helpful not to have too many things around. There was an old factory nearby and standing on the roof I could see all the mountains and the horizon. It was like being on a boat. That's what inspired me to put up the sails.

The setting was interesting but so was the political situation at the time. It was 2013, there was a big financial crisis in Greece which we discussed endlessly throughout the residency. There was a prevalent feeling of being stuck and for me this piece was also a commentary on what was happening at the time in Europe. I felt it was important in that situation to remain flexible, to look forward and allow all sorts of new thoughts, possible solutions and maybe even utopias to come forward and journey together.

Milo Rau, the director, says that those who work in the creative sector should not only ask questions, but should also give answers – offer up concrete ideas and utopias. It's refreshing and enlivening to remember that if we really want to change something we also need to deliver answers, rather than just packaging things in a nice way.

W.S.: Can you talk about the breadth of your practice, which ranges from painting, drawing and photography to performance?

J.B.: I currently think that theatre, culturally and politically, is the most fascinating platform for expression. When I have money to spend, then that’s what I like to do. Milo Rau, who I just mentioned, is an exciting director. It’s all staged of course but there is a certain directness in his pieces that I find interesting. When I make art, or when I plan an exhibition, I always find myself thinking about it as if the exhibition were a stage set, and the piece part of a production.

I think of myself and our society as satellites. We can see everything around us, but most of what happens is actually very far away from us. We enjoy the luxury of being able to watch, but also suffer from the dilemma of not being able to intervene, at least not on a level where it would make much difference.

I sometimes have the feeling that this archaic image of the artist is not something I can deliver honestly. It would be more honest to see myself as a stage director. That’s also how I can explain why I use so many different media for my work. I see them as tools or props in a production. I’m in the process of fine-tuning the different works and seeing how they come together.

Of all the things we see, what is actually reality? I’m very interested in appropriation art and people like Elaine Sturtevant who works with the artworks of other artists, reproduces them and questions them. I have a feeling that I can work more honestly from that standpoint.

W.S.: So, art for you is an examination of reality?

J.B.: Yes, and I've had moments where I feel my art really works but then comes the presentation and in the end the outcome is very much dependent on the viewer. The entire setting where the work is shown is a new situation, and that's perhaps where this thing we call ‘art’ happens. It's an interaction between all these different factors, some of which you can control, others you can't. Some artists argue that the art they produce has to work wherever it's shown, but that's not how I've ever worked. I’ve always been interested in the whole environment: The door that you enter through to get to the work, the entire room of the exhibition, the cups that people drink from, what’s on their minds... I was often more interested in that than in the actual work!

W.S.: It seems like the boundaries between reality and art blur when you look at it like that. Where does art end, where does reality begin?

J.B.: Absolutely. As far as I’m concerned, the two blend into one another. You can have successful artworks that suddenly don’t work any more because of their surroundings. I find it very interesting to think about why that is.

With exhibitions you always have a certain concept, yet you also have the brutal reality of people standing in front of your work and wondering where the next toilet is or where they can get a beer. Reality is sometimes so banal and I find it exciting to explore that and involve it in my pieces. As an artist you often work in a bubble, thinking a lot about colours and this and that, and in the end the bulldozer of reality comes crashing in. And that very encounter is what I find interesting!

W.S.: Tell me something about UdK. How did your experience at the beginning compare with your experience at the end when you left? How did UdK influence you or your work?

J.B.: Starting my degree at UdK was the first time I actually looked at contemporary art. I had absolutely no idea what contemporary art was before that! It was daunting but also very exciting. I soon began to move away from painting, which started to seem somewhat antiquated and difficult, and I did more and more sculptural work. This process continued for all of the seven years at UdK. I tried out a great variety of media and in the end I was exploring what art actually was.

With UdK itself I had a difficult relationship. I think it had to do with my personal situation, because I was spending a lot of time with my kids and working. I think as with any university you have to spend a lot of time there – talking to people, going to the workshops, being present every day and working in the studio. I think then you can do great things at UdK. There are fantastic workshop supervisors and professors. However, if you’re too preoccupied with your own private life then you sort of slip through it. There’s no net or institution that catches you or tries to wake you up and help you to appreciate what you actually have there. Now that it’s over, I could imagine going back and studying there for another three years.

W.S.: Can you tell me something about this painting?

J.B.: When I started painting again, I wondered what to paint. I always ended up with landscapes, more in the form of fields of colours next to each other. When I think I think in landscapes. The other pieces came out of the minimalist drawings that I’d made. I often start with sketches and then try to translate them into painting. It’s something that I picked up again recently. I really feel like doing it and there are a lot of images in my head that have accumulated and are waiting to be processed.

W.S.: Here there’s a puzzle…

J.B.: One day my son was too lazy to do a whole puzzle and just did one row of puzzle pieces until he reached the bottom. I thought it was a great simplification. So, with this I’m experimenting with old puzzles to see what happens when I only show a part of it, for example only the sky.

I like the idea of a puzzle because that’s what a lot of artistic work is like for me. You have these elements that you start piecing together to end up with one functioning work.

This work here is a saw blade.

It’s a way of understanding form. This shape here in the middle is within the saw blade. I think it’s interesting how it becomes a triangle in the middle. It’s similar to the works with the bead chains around the tree where I’ve made a scan of the surface or an exploration of space. At the same time, there’s an element of op art too, which gives it a strong visual pull.

W.S.: You mentioned being inspired by theatre, as well as appropriation art. Where else do you find inspiration – what influences you?

J.B.: I see art everywhere. That’s an aspect that I really enjoy in the work of Francis Alÿs. Take his walks for example. It's a question of where art starts and where it ends. Often when I see exhibitions I’m much less inspired by them than by real life. For example, I went to Athens to see Documenta and the exhibitions didn´t fascinate me but the city itself did.

Richard Long is another example. With his walks and dealings with landscape he asks questions that I find very interesting – and not only as an artist. The biggest inspiration for me comes from ‘in between’ moments. I think most of our lives actually happen in these in between situations. Our view of history is so fact-based and orientated around specific events. But what led to this event and what happens afterwards? The moments between two events or between two eras, that’s where life and humanity exist.

W.S.: What’s next for you?

J.B.: I’ll continue to make art. I want to apply for NaFÖG, a very good scholarship programme available only in Berlin, and I’m considering studying ‘Art in Context’ at UdK. It’s a two-year Master’s degree that’s very practically orientated. It’s less about developing your work and more about the context in which your work is presented.

I really would like to continue to study and learn. I could imagine studying architecture or learning a craft such as carpentry. But first, I’m here at the studio to develop my work further, do lots of exhibitions, and see where I am with this in six to twelve months.

To see all works by Johnannes Bansmann, click here.

To learn more about the artist, click here.

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