Sculptures in the Space between Place and Memory

Raimund Kummer discusses his artistic path following his arrival in West Berlin in the 1970s and his approach to sculpture across diverse media on the occasion of his exhibition Sublunar Interference at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.

Photography Frangipani Beatt

Co-founder of Büro Berlin, one of the first groups dedicated to the conception and realization of art interventions in the public space, Raimund Kummer is a conceptual sculptor, a pillar of the heyday of frenetic creativity that was West Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s, and a profoundly interesting man with a carefully studied approach to art-making and interpretation. A site-specific installation artist, before such a term existed to give name to this style and method of working, three important pieces from his career have been collected by Germany’s Nationalgalerie and are indicative of both a moment and a mood, as well as an original voice in the German contemporary art scene and post-conceptual art. I spoke to Raimund on the occasion of his solo exhibition Sublunar Interference curated by Eugen Blume at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, containing key works from a career spanning more than four decades already.

What I must admit I half expected to be a cursory glance at his feelings about his exhibition (very satisfied) and his plans for the future (he is open to exploring many new things), in the end turned out to be a much more complex and critical jaunt through the early years of his artistic career in Berlin and the many twists and turns that gave Raimund his particular artistic perspective, one that was born out of the creative potential of the urban environment, replete with semi-destroyed and abandoned buildings and plentiful unsupervised and under-utilized public spaces.

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I was always fascinated by observing, rather than ‘creating.’ I think my qualities or capabilities are that I have a very precise ability to recognize that things in the context of where you are standing and that they send out a certain energy. Through my intervention you therefore note them as a special event.

Raimund’s early works can also be seen as something of an ode to West Berlin in the 1970s, a description of his love affair with the city of great potential. Berlin features as a protagonist in Raimund’s grand narrative. His massive ongoing photographic project On Sculpture—part autobiographical archive and part conceptual exploration of the very medium of sculpture itself—is also an ode to the city that welcomed him, when, in the ’70s he joined many artists flocking to the city, leaving behind an imposed normativity and running towards the promise of ‘Freiheit,’ of freedom and liberation at the edge of the western world in the divided city. It was a period in which the city itself, in its ruinous destruction, seemed to offer a creative playground to artists looking to discover their voice.

There was just a kind of wilderness. It was not like ruins after the war, but it was the next step after that. It was in between, it was a giant sandbox in a way, and we all could go out and play. And that’s why things could be staged, because you had these undefined open spaces and if you put the right thing in a space, it immediately became obvious.

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Raimund Kummer wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do in Berlin, but he knew that his expectations of becoming a painter had already vanished by the end of his studies. Instead he followed a roundabout path before the freedom to experiment with new practices in Berlin allowed him to really absorb and reformulate his surroundings and arrive at a technique that felt both important, accessible, and authentic. Berlin’s streets and its ample unused spaces were all at once his studio, his canvas, and his gallery.

This was a very liberating moment of being a young artist. This [Sculptures in the Street] was basically the first artwork, or some of the first artworks I did after finishing my studies. I photographed motifs from ’78 to ’79. I bought myself a Minox camera and ‘fixed’ things that I found eruptive. Things which I discovered on my daily walks. Over five or six hundred photos slides (colour transparency film) were realized. Of these photos slides I chose a selection of 80, an amount that would fit in a Kodak Carousel. That was the beginning of a way out of being stuck. That led me into discovering public space as a very interesting subject matter.

And therefore I found, in the occasional place of the everyday life, things which have been moved, stacked, or destroyed for a special reason; things that had never had an aesthetic purpose, but could be seen as such. As unwillingly produced interesting structures at least. To give them a programmatic sense, I called them ‘sculptures in the street.’

Not really minding who came or how many saw these spontaneous sculptures in the public realm, Raimund would, however, invite people with invitation cards sent by post, inviting them to “openings” to view the fixed points in time and places across the city. But his interventions in the street were really meant to be temporary and anonymous, and to blur the line between art and reality for the unsuspecting passersby.

This idea of anonymous worked only for the public. On a certain level it was a subversive strategy of going into the space and transforming the spaces for a short period of time only. Sometimes it was there for a day, a week, for four weeks, and then it was gone.

It reminds us of a time when art, appeared at least, to be more authentic. If there ever was such a thing as art for art’s sake, it was here in this tiny island of West Berlin, a wrinkle in time, a bubble on the map.

Years spent on film sets to earn money, which began shortly after his arrival in Berlin, clearly influenced his approach. Working as a set designer and technician, he studied compositions, rearranging and fine-tuning, color correcting, adjusting angles and lights… techniques he later went on to use with the objects and materials readily at hand, creating his own parallel reality, a filmic, dramatic reality that was available out in the real world, but had to be pointed out, often with ad hoc and improvised methods.

Looked at / seen through rose colored glasses, 2004, Foto: Raimund Kummer © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

These I-beams were lying around, here on the Admiralstrasse [the same street in Berlin where Raimund still lives and works today in a large converted factory building that he has owned since the ’80s], and I thought it looked like a very nice throw of Mikado sticks. And so I went and I bought myself two gallons of lacquer paint and just painted it roughly and then photographed it. Here the photograph was more a document of an artistic activity of mine, anonymously done. But the piece itself was obviously to be seen by other people too, because it had a great presence. I didn’t have money to buy a 10,000-watt cinema light or something like that, so I just used this [red paint]. The intervention [in the public context] gives you a panoramic view on what is surrounding this thing, and it makes you think of why it is there, and what is around it.

These constructed scenes for his street sculptures were never meant to be repeated or reproduced, and unlike other types of found objects or readymades, his sculptures found their natural home in the public. They would exist only for as long as they needed to, even if that was only just for a moment.

My aim was to keep the moment where the art has been produced, where the art is happening, and the moment where you look at it identical. It is not this kind of readymade, where you find something in the street and bring it into the gallery or the white cube context and see how wonderful or unusual it is. I wanted to bring people to an awareness of the real space in which they are living.

The instantaneous and immediate nature of photography enabled Raimund to capture these moments, these temporary relationships between objects that existed on the streets for only a brief period of time. As a result, his photographic archive is immense. An edited version of this archive, On Sculpture (1979–2017), still growing and numbering some 444 pictures at the time of its most recent presentation, was one of four diverse installation formats from distinct periods in his artistic career, alongside Skulpturen in der Straße (1978/1979), Mehr Licht (1991), and νόστος – ἄλγος (2012) (Greek: Nóstos álgos) in his recent exhibition Sublunar Intervention at the Hamburger Bahnhof. A film of personal recollections from Raimund Kummer, which elaborates on his relationship with both place and memory as he visits various places of significance to his work with curator Eugen Blume and appropriately titled unterwegs / out and about, was also produced specifically for the exhibition.

I have a very long, ongoing, critical, love-hate relationship with photography. I had to show what my work is about. And that is why I have done endless research and attempts on documentation vs. non-documentation, on what remains and what doesn’t remain.

Many of these pictures, taken on the same Mamiya camera that he has had since 1979, are given a new life in the concisely edited, and sculpturally presented form that they take in the exhibition. The snaking path of the stacked manila files gives a weight and depth to the collection, signaling the years of archival and editing process behind the piece, while it is just on the surface that the selected images float, in an invitingly tactile way, making their way around one exhibition hall and inviting visitors to leisurely absorb the photographs, peering down at them at waist-level. In an age of abundant visual imagery, with our seemingly insatiable appetite for rapid image consumption on social media like Instagram, there is something grand and luxurious, as well as slightly nostalgic, in roaming such an abundance of printed visual material. There is also something brave and commendable about the editing process that Raimund has undertaken to condense nearly four decades of photographing into these 444 photographic records.

The difference is that, for me, it is not an endless flow without any hierarchy. Media is just plus/minus and the amount of data you can put on your phone. As an artist you have to make decisions. To state everything is art, 24 hours a day, is something that can’t be. For me, it is the person who steps in and says yes or no. I do editing, basically. I make decisions about what is important and what is not important. That is, I think that the difference between my work and the common use of Instagram, for example.

Over time, however, the purpose of his archival practice has also morphed and mutated, and just as his street-based sculptures were in fact studied compositions on what sculptures are and could be, this work has become a sort of meditation on the archive for Raimund, allowing him to work through aspects of his creative process, like a rhizome, closing some down and simultaneously opening others, unfolding new possibilities.

What I’m working on is getting to a stage of being able to go further. Which means to get rid of lots of weight, to become lighter, to get rid of the weight of history and how to do things, to go forward to discover something new, which you were not able to think before. That is the excitement of being an older person, having lots of experience. You have never ever achieved everything. It’s a question of your own values, and of your own spirit, if you want more. And for me, that’s still my spirit… I want more. I think I have still not done my best work yet. Being an artist means being in an endless ongoing experiment.

Mehr Licht, 1991, Foto: Raimund Kummer, Martin Salzer © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

Raimund Kummer’s Sublunar Interference was recently extended for three months and is on view at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin until the 29th of October 2017.