Fall 2009: Martin tom Dieck and I worked on the interview for the 3x3 magazine. Over a few weeks, we exchanged emails and thoughts about different topics. We collected a lot of material we wanted to use. In the end, the interview had to be shortened because there was just limited space. That’s why I decided to post the complete original version online.
Many thanks to Martin tom Dieck for inspiring discussions, to Henry Whittlesey who was able to find the right translations for our thoughts and of course to Charles Hively who made everything possible.
3x3 Interview Lars Henkel
By Martin tom Dieck, Translation by Henry Whittlesey
In recent years Lars Henkel has created internationally acclaimed works of art in which he interstices drawings, collage and film to produce a striking visual cosmos. We had several occasions to meet and talk while we were both teaching at the Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts in Kiel and at the Folkwang University in Essen. We have continued our exchange virtually between Cologne, where Lars lives, and Hamburg. It is no surprise that our talks centered on our collective interest in visual poetry as a specific narrative form. While I work more in traditional ink drawing, it is Lars’s experiments with the possibilities of collage, producing ambiguity on the edges of its contrasting elements, that has piqued my curiosity.
Lars describes his way of creating images almost like a medium: he works instinctively, is skeptical about meaning and searches for the mysterious. He catches something, assembles elements into pictures and then passes them on. And he is a real professional. All this prompted me to take a glimpse at what lies behind the secrets and I began to find out that he doesn't want to mystify this intuitive process too much: "As opposed to a medium, I do not see myself as a mouthpiece for spirits. Fundamentally, I try to find a work process that is not solely controlled by rationality. I try to let myself be guided by intuition and association. A dynamic emerges in this way and leads me to new, unforeseeable results. The images become infused with more life than if you cling to your sketches. They attain a certain depth because a dialog takes place in the process, letting you approach the subject.“
The idea behind creating images is to create strong images. One of his strong images shows deer against a foggy landscape. The point of view suggests that one of the animals is about to jump over you. These creatures look like bio-montages and produce an effect reminiscent of an unfinished rendering process that has fled into an artificial romanticism of nature, a surreal, melancholic dream world. As Lars explains, the representations of nature refer to motifs from Romanticism (e.g. W.Turner, C.D. Friedrich or W. Blake) and play with different references from A. Stifter’s nature descriptions to Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” However: "The forest there comes as much from my own experiences as from the myths and images that are a part of our collective consciousness. This mixture is exactly why I am attracted to the subject of the forest. It is a place that is real for everyone and also acts as a projection screen for your own imagination. It is the ideal stage for stories where the borders between the inner and outer world dissolve.“
The philosophy of Romanticism conceptualized the broken image, or vague fragment, in literature as well as art. Nor does Lars seek to represent nature as an idyllic dream world. In his motifs, inconsistencies and contrasts question the aesthetic facade and make multiple interpretations possible. To illustrate this Lars points to a picture like the jumping deer. "It does not stand just for itself but is part of a sequence that leads to the next insight. This sensuous figurative motif directly counters formal and abstract image panels. A sequence shows how the elements logs and limbs are conjugated. In other words, it runs through possible combinations of multiple motifs visually.“
Is this grammatical streak also applied to his characters? For Lars, characters in an experimental story have a different role than a conventional story. They are described less via the plot than by the world in which they move. "The individual images describe more of a soul landscape than a real world. I also test myriad things on my characters, similar to a laboratory or a challenge course. In experiments and exercises, I let the protagonists pass through certain emotional states and physically expose them to a wide range of situations. Then I observe how they behave.“ Obviously, this process does not culminate in traditional narratives. “Personally I prefer experimental stories or comics that are like a visual poem. I enjoy atmospheric, ambiguous images and a dreamlike logic that is open for interpretation. It is important to leave a certain amount of space for the viewer to project his or her own associations and emotions into the work. The final product is supposed to allow for multiple interpretations by the viewer."
This recalls Novalis, who described the reader as an extended author that keeps developing the story with his or her own interpretation, and, ideally, refines it and completes it for him- or herself initially. This model seems to shape Lars's own sequential work. And he gets right to the point when he describes the collage technique as especially well suited for the development of an associative world. "Developing images in reaction to previously existing material has the advantage that you are already close to an associative process. And there are also the surprises spawned by accidents that the collage material brings with it.“
So the means and possibilities of collage lead to visual poetry. How does Lars proceed and find the final combination? “In the story ‘Waldminiatur’ it was interesting to work with a limited number of elements. The material I started with consisted of photos of objects and characters I had created. The number of combinations was limited and only certain motifs were possible. These limitations require new solutions that automatically lead to an abstract visual language. In this way, you can produce poetic and ambiguous motifs." But of course, experiments in the process can also bring you to the widest range of motifs and combinations. "A pool of pictorial elements emerges, a type of visual vocabulary that you can return to later during the implementation process." Again, it is largely intuition that decides which images will tell the story in the end. "The origin of a story is a series of feelings that later serves as an outline in the process. All the images that do not support this original idea are discarded.“
I was curious whether Lars is working on a sort of river of emotion that flows on and on so to say, borne by the images. And then the question arises: what feeds this river of emotion? When I delve into the search for historical traces in his visual language, I find a lot in the 19th century: mechanics, puppets and automatons, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, all the way to Franz Kafka... “A part of the visual trail leads into the 19th century, but also to the first half of the 20th century. Socially, politically, culturally and aesthetically, it was an exciting era. Photos, images, objects all carry a previous history in themselves. Their traces allude to the life of another time. They are enriched with emotions and content that automatically flow into the art. For example, the photos of August Sander are still fascinating. Although they hail from an epoch that lies 100 years in the past, they have a weird effect. Precisely the portraits of older people show faces that no longer look like this today.“
Mechanics seem to be another inspiration for Lars, maybe because they fundamentally differ from today’s electronics. “Their construction was transparent and their operation could be understood. The appearance of machinery makes a symbolic statement from today’s point of view. The mechanical principles and machines are very good for use in a metaphorical sense to visualize abstract processes.“
This might be one reason why early films and photography fascinate him too. “Silent film, daguerreotypes and pinhole cameras from that time are very expressive, direct and - in a certain sense - timeless. They have an original force that captivates me. It is similar with etchings from the 18th century. (e.g. "Encyclopédie Diderot") or woodcuts from the 16th century (Dürer, for example).The aesthetic of these expressive forms also flows into my visual language. Though the focus is more on the force of the expression than the nostalgia connected with it."
While looking within the context of Lars' work I keep returning to the thought that we are involved in a neo-romantic project. Romantic not in a sentimental sense, but rather as a need to open up a new narrative space. In our rationalized world this is indeed a worthwhile project.