Do artists have to like people to make them the subject of their work? Does art have to have a message? And why do modern people in a digitalised world need culture to be optimistic about the future? These are the questions we put to internationally renowned sculptor Stephan Balkenhol when we visited him at his studio in the Nordstadt district of Kassel.

FLORIAN HALLER: Your figures often appear devoid of emotion. Why do you always give them the same stoical expression?

STEPHAN BALKENHOL: I prefer to give them an ambivalent expression rather than an extreme emotion such as laughing or crying. If I carved those expressions in wood, they would look frozen, but when I show an indifferent expression, it’s a lot more open. This leaves it to the audience to join the emotional dots, as it were. In this case, the expression is undeniably more alive.

Every time I look at one of your figures, I feel as though I can see right inside the person. But I can’t explain it…

SB: When giving a presentation on my work, one of my wife’s students once said they were like wooden mirrors. I feel they are a cross between a mirror and a projection surface. With a figure, you can ask yourself what kind of person it is, what they do, what they are thinking, where they come from and where they are going? Or you can imagine that you are this person. You and your feelings are mirrored in them. Both are possible.

If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re not exactly the extrovert entertainer type…

SB: No.

Do you like people?

SB: I have nothing against people, but I don’t always like having them around me. I also like being alone. In fact, when I’m working, I need to be alone – apart from my wife, who I don’t mind having around me all the time. But take my children for instance – as much as I love them, how much of them I can take really depends on what kind of a mood they are in that day, and what kind of mood I’m in. It’s impossible to like everyone but I’m not a misanthrope.

You once said that your work involves being in a constant dialogue with the sculpture. What do you mean by that exactly?

SB: I think I can express myself through my sculptures. It’s how I communicate with the world and, at the same time, how I explore the world.

KATHRIN BALKENHOL: If I can just chime in here: I feel that Stephan’s work allows him to understand himself better. Sometimes I have the feeling that something indeterminate is working within him and that he will only be able to understand it once he has carved his way to it.

So working on art has a therapeutic effect?

SB: Artistic work can be healing and beneficial – just like any other kind of work. Not primarily but secondarily. Of course, it does me good to work. And looking at a sculpture can also have therapeutic effects. I once had an experience in Rome where a large sculpture of mine called ‘Sempre più’ was on display in the Roman Forum. An Italian woman came up to me and said that her day had got off to a terrible start – because of a divorce or tax audit or something unpleasant like that, I can’t remember exactly – but that she felt a lot better now she was at the exhibition.

KB: Looking at art can open up the mind to new kinds of reflection and cognisance. I have no doubt that, deep inside, we all have fears, shame, guilt and other things we have no words or images for and that we give a wide berth to. Art can help to ward off dangers and dispel fears by visualising them. I see this is being more of a magical, ritual effect than a therapeutic one.

SB: Yes, but these existential questions are not illustrated in the sculptures directly but rather indirectly and metaphorically. That’s a fairly common misconception about art – some people set out right away to detect something or decipher a message. And, with my work, this often causes confusion. The Bojen-Mann (Buoy Man) on the Outer Alster in Hamburg, for example, doesn’t have any message to convey and rejects this expectation. We have been conditioned to believe that monuments in public spaces should automatically represent an important person. But when it’s just a man in a white shirt and black trousers, some people can take a while to realise that it could just as well be you or me.

Why do you work primarily with wood?

SB: Out of a personal affinity and because it affords me a kind of freedom. I can process wood myself and don’t need anyone else to help me. If I were to create a bronze casting, I would need two or three other people to help me at various stages. But with wood, I can do it all myself. I could even go into the woods, cut down a tree and make a sculpture out of it. As well as this, wood is relatively quick to process and there is no transformation process. While clay or plaster involve an element of transformation, with wood you have the result in front of you throughout the entire process.

What is the process involved in working on one of your sculptures?

SB: It’s all about communicating with the material. After all, I could cut into it once with a chainsaw and say: “Okay, it’s done.” The interesting thing is deciding when to stop. Some sculptures are more like sketches, half finished and relatively rough, while others are finer. This communication, deliberation, examining it from different angles – that’s what makes working on a sculpture exciting. There’s a joke about a sculptor and a lion, where a visitor asks the sculptor: “Is it difficult to carve a lion out of marble?” To which the sculptor replies: “It’s quite simple, really – all you have to do is carve away everything that doesn’t look like a lion.”

KB: Another point is that Stephan can only carve as fast as he thinks. With stone or clay, it’s different. He once made a bronze sculpture of Richard Wagner for Leipzig. The clay model for the cast was ready to be collected and we were due to get married two days later. So there was a lot to be done. And then Stephan went to the studio at five in the morning and gave the Wagner statue an entirely new face. Because clay modelling is so fast and each movement of your fingers produces a different facial expression. This additive technique leads to another decision- making process. Carving a sculpture from a block and removing all the extraneous elements is somehow a better fit for Stephan.

SB: When I’m carving and get the feeling that I can’t see where it’s going, I take a break. And once I know where it’s going again, I carry on. This is rather baffling for visitors to the studio, because I spend most of the time running around the sculpture with a cigarette in my mouth.

© Stephan Balkenhol / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Does it make a difference what type of wood you use?

SB: I know from experience what wood is most suitable for each purpose. The reliefs for Serviceplan, for instance, are made of poplar wood, because I know that the colour doesn’t change over time. With softwood, the resin would cause it to get darker over time and small cracks would form. But I generally use the wood that I happen to have or that I am being offered at the time. I have probably carved sculptures out of 20 different types of wood. It’s not all that important. After all, I’m not making a wooden sculpture to show how great wood is – I’m using the material as a means to an end.

Unlike stone, wood is an organic, living material. Is that a relevant factor for you?

SB: Yes, wood is a living material and is always working – and will continue to do so even in a hundred years’ time. I would also describe stone as a living material, but steel and plastic are rather lifeless.

The term ‘sculpture’ makes most people think of the masterpieces of antiquity. Is this period a source of inspiration for you?

SB: Yes, absolutely. I’ve always loved going to museums that have a collection of antique works. The Glyptothek in Munich, for instance, is fantastic.

I was really impressed by the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. Those giant statues have such power.

SB: Those ancient myths are great narratives. The beauty of these images is that there is always an element of intricacy and mystery – there is nothing direct or ‘in your face’ about them. And even though the stories are about divine beings, they always hold a mirror up to us humans.

On that note, is your own personal history reflected in your works?

SB: Certainly, there’s no way of avoiding that. I come from a very specific cultural setting in Central Europe, Germany, so it goes without saying that I’m going to be shaped by certain influences I grew up with. My parents were Catholic and I had to go to church every Sunday. I was often bored there but always found the holy statues fascinating. At some point, I realised that these figures were supposed to represent Saint Anthony, Saint Elizabeth and others, but in fact it was the sculptor from the 14th or 17th century who had immortalised himself and the time he lived in. When you look at figures like these, you get a sense of their time and a sense of the eternal as well. I’ve always found that exciting.

Do you have a favourite among your own works?

SB: It’s always the one I’m working on. Otherwise I couldn’t do anything else – my work would be done and I could shut up shop.

What is art?

SB: I haven’t the faintest idea (laughing)! The beauty of art is that it has no use – it doesn’t have to be useful. And the value is only contrived when it is there and reveals itself. At which point you realise that you can no longer do without it. But everyone has their own individual reasons for this and they need to find them out for themselves.

Does art have anything to do with the zeitgeist?

SB: No, I find that too short-sighted. The function of art is not to mirror some zeitgeist phenomena. Of course, art is influenced by certain elements – there’s no question about that. This is perfectly legitimate and, in any case, probably can’t be prevented either. But I don’t agree with the expectation that art has a duty to comment on these elements – let alone to make the world a better or more just place.

© Stephan Balkenhol / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Can a work of art be viewed in isolation, or does it always have to be seen in a human context?

SB: Art always has a human connection because it is made by people. And because people look at it and are influenced by it. It expands people’s horizon of knowledge and experience and that is part of the artwork.

What are your feelings on the art market? Artists always claim not to care but then when you’re talking to them, they soon mention that some other artist’s work had reached a higher price than theirs. If the market is so unimportant, then artists wouldn’t use it as a yardstick, would they?

SB: I am part of the art scene and, as I make my living from it, am thankful that the art market exists. Otherwise I couldn’t work the way I work. And it’s part for the course that the market hyperventilates every now and then. Jonathan Meese put it very nicely: “Being famous is all well and good but the most important thing for an artist is being able to work in their studio”. That is happiness indeed.

So art does have a therapeutic side after all…

SB: Happiness is always therapeutic.

What role can culture play in our modern-day society?

SB: Lots of things that used to give people safety and stability no longer exist or have lost all meaning. All we can do is hope that the state or policymakers manage everything in a way that allows us to lead a halfway decent life. I believe the function of culture is to preserve an immaterial level in society that creates another kind of security. By this I mean that the insecurity doesn’t come across as being threatening but rather as natural – conveying to people that they can be happy despite being aware of death and all the difficulties associated with life.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

This interview first appeared in TWELVE, Serviceplan Group’s magazine for brands, media and communication. In the eighth issue, you will find further inspiring articles, essays and interviews by and with prominent guest authors and renowned experts centred around the magazine’s theme “A human-driven future: How humans are shaping the digital world of tomorrow”. The e-paper is available here.