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Tobias Spichtig

Interview by
Daniel Baumann
From Issue 34 – SS 19

An amateur singer, actor and musician, Zürich-based artist Tobias Spichtig brings together paintings, sculputres and second-hand furniture installations populated with ghostly past narratives. Here, he talks to Daniel Baumann about the inherent theatricality of it all–exhibitions conceived as claustrophobic scenarios where the viewer feels like an intruder, and intimacy is a “difficult business.”

DANIEL BAUMANN I first came to know you as a singer in an Indian restaurant where you got up and sang songs by Frank Sinatra. What does music mean to you? How did you start with singing?

TOBIAS SPICHTIG  Images do not exist without music. It possesses a sense of radical presence, a kind of concentration, which cannot be entirely pre-planned or pre-conceptualized. I could not do anything without it, and have also always made music myself. I have played trumpet since I was a child, always trying to imitate Chet Baker. My neighbour in Zürich, the opera singer Jeanne-Roth, gave me singing lessons, and I will always be grateful to her for that. Together with my friend Theresa Patzschke, I then began doing performances, singing songs by Scott Walker, Shirley Bassey or Franz Schubert, accompanied by piano.

DB  Can you say something about the keyboard sculpture that was exhibited at Waldo and Deborah Schamoni? Does this totem make music?

TS  Yes, the belts that hold them together press the buttons. They each play several chords and can hold them. They are like skyscrapers. I am currently making more music again and have a piano in my studio. I started playing piano three years ago and am slowly getting better at it. But this is just something I do on the side. I am currently writing some pieces with musicians, which we want to release at some point.

DB  What does acting mean to you? How did this come about, and who have you performed with? Is there something specific that interests you? Something that is lacking in fine art?

TS  Painting is the greatest luxury, because the projection stays on the canvas. A good painting is as if a star would sing live constantly—always as good as the best moments of a concert; always in a state of pre-breaking point. Acting is like a hobby to me, but I like the tension. It is the same as when one produces a painting or a sculpture. I very much enjoy acting in comedies.
It started with the two artists Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff asking me if I wanted to act in a play at the New Theater in Berlin, which then led to more. We had a really good time in the Grüner Salon of the Volksbühne. The ensemble changed constantly; I was actually in only two of the plays. The audience was just as important, or even more so. It was a local theatre for and about the people who would come to see it, over and over again. A meeting point where people would come together—that was important to me. It could have also been an exhibition, but the good thing about theatre is that nothing is up for grabs. In art, there always is, and that makes many people nervous, which in turn can also be a good thing.
I do not think that there is anything that fine art cannot achieve. That is why, sooner or later, most things end up as comedies or dramas on canvas or screens. Nevertheless, theatricality still interests me, because it is precisely there that things can or must go wrong in order for something to happen. I am more interested in the theatrical than the performative.

DB  Your exhibitions really do sometimes have something stage-like. So theatre is an important foundation?

TS  Maybe it is the other way around, because I barely have any experience with theatre. It is of course also about shows, which are often conceived as scenarios, but in a broader sense.

DB  Some of your exhibitions are standoffish, almost unapproachable. In some, the exhibition space is filled with used mattresses, as was the case at Georg Kargl in Vienna or at the gallery Bernhard in Zürich; at Malta Contemporary Art, it was stacked with chairs or refrigerators, accompanied by paintings, which are literally pressed up against the wall—sometimes barely visible, sometimes not at all. It is an exaggerated, claustrophobic present-tense situation of second-hand furniture with an overdose of past narratives. At the same time, the viewer is rejected and treated like an intruder. A brimming emptiness dominates. These are exhibitions that do not want any visitors; they are like ghost exhibitions. Or am I wrong?

TS  No, you are absolutely right. I enjoy working with used material because it does not look old too quickly. The series of exhibitions with sculptures of mattresses, tables, refrigerators and sofas is actually a passageway through a sleepless night. First, on the mattress, then to the table, then on to the refrigerator and back to the couch. At the openings, people actually sat on the tables, and it became very intimate. Some even got worked up about the fact that you couldn’t look at the paintings properly. The last exhibition, “Long Stories” at Jan Kaps, was with sofas, where the visitors could sit down and look at the paintings.

DB  Your clothes sculptures work similarly to the previously mentioned exhibitions. They are discarded clothes, ghostlike: theatrical sculptures without a body, frozen in a movement, like a theatre without actors. What do they refer to?

TS  They are actually classic, figurative sculptures. I wanted a drama, like in the Resurrection of the Dead by Luca Signorelli in Orvieto or in Canova’s Cupid’s Kiss. I also call them ghosts. If you have clothes lying around at home, then it sometimes looks as if someone were lying on the floor. So I wanted to make figurative sculptures, and the easiest way was to use clothes—the proportions work all by themselves. Oftentimes, these were clothes that somebody had forgotten, but the person is nevertheless present. So it was almost natural to fix the clothes in place with resin; they then look ghostlike, but somehow have more personality. The used material already has a lot to tell. I also like them as sculptures, because they have character. They thus refer to many things, but because they are empty, they can also represent numerous things.

DB  How are the new sunglasses paintings made? Are there eyes behind them?

TS  These are vinyl prints on canvas of photos with sunglasses and multiple layers of oil paint, usually photographed with a smartphone on the floor or carpet. They are then printed on an Epson, scaled to A3, and using heat press, fixed onto the canvas like with t-shirts. Then I paint the background with oil and, in part, paint over the print. Eyes are therefore more in front than behind, like in a portrait.

DB  What role does intimacy play here, and in general, for your work? What does intimacy mean at all in times of social media? Is it newly negotiable, like at the beginning of the 20th century? “The difficult business of intimacy,” as Virginia Woolf said.

TS  I think intimacy results from when one can identify with something, but cannot quite decide what do with that. I am not directly interested in intimacy, because it can often be embarrassing—and if it is done badly, then it can get really uncomfortable. But that can also be good, as this can sometimes create a sense of intimacy.
I believe that intimacy negotiates most things. Social media functions almost solely via intimacy. But social media is already starting to lose its charm; it is slightly exhausted. At the moment, I am interested in abstract paintings that are inspired by tattoos, typography and ornaments.

DB  Why these motifs?

TS  Ornaments are, at the same time, global and very personal.

Tobias Spichtig (Swiss, B. 1982) is an artist who lives and works in Zürich and Berlin.
Daniel Baumann is a curator, writer, and the director of Kunsthalle Zürich.
Courtesy of the artist; Deborah Schamoni, Munich; Jan Kaps, Cologne; and Galerie Bernhard, Zürich.

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