Interview with Benjamin Hirte

Applied Arts

Benjamin Hirte is part of younger generation of artists from that has attracted quite some attention to his work over the past years. His sculptures combine purist forms with artistic creativity and a delicate sense for spatial coherences. He often uses basic forms such as the chair or a table or everyday objects as the starting point of his artistic practice. References to the applied arts keep occurring throughout his oeuvre and are an inevitable source of inspiration to Hirte.

Could you please tell us a bit about your practice?

It is dissolving more and more, but I still like to consider myself a sculptor. I also started to bring in text at some point. So there is a strong interest in material and objects, as well as issues of language and writing. Metaphors, semiotics, slang.

When looking through your portfolio it is noticeable that your sculptures are orientating around applied arts. This weeks Theme Week is looking at fine artists using applied art designs for their artistic expression. What is your take on design in fine art?

It is hard to avoid using aspects of design when dealing with contemporary sculpture and installation. No matter how much time one spends online, it’s still design that surrounds us. Any display, graphics, architecture, product, surface.

It’s everywhere. It is just a bit more obvious, when you deal with a chair, table or a bench. These are like the canvases of design, the most classical disciplines.

The line between fine art, applied arts and design is very fine and often blurry. By definition,  Applied Art is the application of design and aesthetics  to objects of function and everyday use and incorporate design and creative ideals to objects of utility, such as a cup, magazine or decorative park bench. From your point of view, is such categorization useful, where can one draw a line? Is there even such thing as boundary between fine and applied art?

It never really helped me to try and define this line. I just know that I often enjoy design where one finds good, useful and  – oriented on this – beautiful solutions. I often don’t enjoy it when there is too much artistic expression in design. With the other way around, it’s a bit more complicated.

For several works, like untitled (stool) 2012, Untitled 2012, Untitled (stool) 2010, you are appropriating existing applied arts objects, in all three cases mentioned chairs, by removing/dissembling from the design. Can you elaborate on the process behind these works?

On some of them you can sit, on some of them you can’t. But they all inhabit this idea of people in the room, either to really be used by visitors or theatrically, when empty. It’s the narrator, the contemplator, the audience or just another person somehow. You cannot look at an empty chair without adding some personification to it. You change a small thing about an existing chair and it changes its characteristics, it might then look crooked or bold or just friendly in a funny way.

In other works, like C 2013 or & 2012 you are actually designing classical applied arts objects in the context of fine art. How are these works to be understood? Are they intended to be used by the collector and or visitor?

Yes, they are intended to be used. I like the gesture of making something where people can sit on. It’s less pretentious than a classical sculpture. And it gives nice shapes with people on it. You can influence the social situation by the shape.& and C are both social letters for me. The symbol & works only in combination, as well as the letter C especially in German, it works best with other letters as in “ch” or “ck”. In nearly all other cases it can be replaced by “k”. It’s a helper, a supporter.

Often you are drawing a certain attention to an existing object by changing a small detail of it. Works that immediately come to mind is the series, where you cut off a fragment of bowling balls. It`s use and design is altered, hence a completely new object, function and design is created through your artistic practice. How important is the initial object or are you purely working towards the new?

The bowling ball has a prelude. I was interested in lids and sieves, language wise, so I did a work with the cap of a spray can. I also cut a spray can open, which was quite a mess. Out came these two small mixing balls, which mingle the colour and make this clicking sound that everyone knows. They are not completely round, but have flat edges on two sides, I assume because of their industrial production. So I just imitated the form on a baseball, which worked out well, because it basically reveals the inside material. I went on doing this with some bowling balls and ended up on the last bowling ball, to only cut off one edge, which felt like enough, leaving behind the idea of the mixing ball. Just as much so you can see the core. It does a lot of things for me, by just removing a little bit. Also considering these customized holes for the fingers that already exist. It even made me think of an eyeball sometimes. Also these bowling balls have the weirdest patterns, to make them look twisted on the lane and the different models have quite useful names like Gamebreaker, Misfit, Antics, etc. So the titles were already there.

In another work untitled, 2012 (display case, MDF, wall paint, glasses, various materials) you are hinting on a sink via the use of a plughole in a wooden board complimented by an immersed coke can and piled wine glasses. All of these objects are framed and presented via a display case. Is this an act of devaluing or actually the opposite of empowering and framing for you?

A vitrine makes everything inside seem precious. One already has a lot of freedom in putting things in there and people taking it serious. People would literally stumble over one of the bowling balls and then spend time at the vitrine putting their reading glasses on. Which doesn’t mean it was a joke. I had many bigger sculptures in this show at the MAK and incidentally I collected smaller things in the studio and arranged it in the vitrine. In the end, it was just a few things in there, but they were an odd group that was some kind of method board for me. On top of the cut-off coke can was a camera lid, there were also differently designed drinking glasses standing on top of each other. One was broken on the place where you put the thumb. And there was a cast of chopsticks, designed by Philip Starck in the 90’s, in a vacuum bag that was looking out of the vitrine. Finally the drain made sense, to let it all breathe a little.

Many of your works are playing with the relation to language and words. Either in form of applying letters directly onto the galleries wall, laser engraving categorizations onto air pumps or the appropriation of a space through its written definition. Can you elaborate on the relation between text and (your) art?

I guess it is an old desire of sculptors to let objects speak. Language is a wide field to play in. There is a lot of freedom and absurdity in it, at the same time it is very concrete. And then again it alters constantly, if you look at the cultural changes evolving from the Internet, there is some new surrealism to it in the way it operates and puts anything aside.

As I said, I try to bring together my interest in material and form and in text and language production. The bike pumps are the most recent and evident examples.

Further you recently were awarded the MAK-Schindler Artists-in-Residence Program in Los Angeles. Besides some fantastic sculptural works, you produced a small publication called „GENE TRYP“.  The book differs drastically from a typical artists book. One barely finds standard representations of your works or the obligatory CV etc. Yet the complete book, arranged from found and self initiated material seems like an art work in itself. Again text plays a crucial role. How do you understand the GENE TRYP?

It was intended to be an artist book, not a catalogue. It’s a weird thing, all footage from the Internet. I put together various materials I found on this old dramatic poem “Peer Gynt” by Henrik Ibsen. The drama plot was very radical for its time, bringing together fantastic folklore, quite unromantic realism and abruptly changing scenarios. It also played a role in some of Wittgenstein’s ideas on language. The title GENE TRYP is an anagram of Peer Gynt, which was supposed to be an experimental country rock musical for Broadway by Roger McGuinn the singer of the band The Byrds. He was trying to bring in some ideas on New Media and even Psychedelic, but it never got staged. There was a lot of material evolving from this initial point, that I put in the book and framed it formally in the five chapters of the original poem. Various things linked in strange ways, a bit like one going through the Internet sometimes.

To come back to our Theme Week. When talking about applied art one artist that has to be mentioned is Franz West. Especially the works „Adaptives“ or „Fitting Pieces“ often relate to a notion of applied art. Most of his sculptures are intended to be used by the viewer. Would you argue that this influences your work? If so, in what way?

It is a friendly gesture if people can use things in an exhibition, I do that sometimes, but it’s not the main focus of my work. I am not an expert on Franz West, though he is a great artist and also very important for the young crowd in Vienna. Heimo Zobernig, who is beside West the other very influential artist here for young artists, was probably more important to me as I studied with him and worked for him at his studio. I like these two Viennese figures as artificial counterparts; if you caricature them you get the dyonisian and the apollonian principle.

Although you are from Germany and have just now returned from LA, you studied in Vienna and are working and living in the Austrian capital. Vienna is among others famous for its designers. Is there a different notion towards contemporary art also in regards to its link to applied art?

Vienna used to be famous for its designers. That still echoes at the Academy and in the sculptural tradition. Vienna is also a city with a great literary tradition. But the focus here is always more on the glorious past. Which gives it a great melancholy. It’s a task to bring this together, so it’s alive, the old breathe of Vienna and some very recent ideas and possibilities in contemporary art and culture, that are definitely more present in cities like Berlin and LA.

Having received the Jürgen Ponto Stiftung Scholarship, a solo presentation at Frieze in London with your gallery Emanuel Layr and awarded a residency at Cité des arts in Paris next year – What`s next?

I will do a show at Christian Andersen Gallery in Copenhagen in mid January. And I try to read a little more.

all images © Benjamin Hirte