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An interview with Mathias Kessler Mathias Kessler, Jarrells Cemetery, N37º53.96’ W81º34.71’, Eunice Mountain, West Virginia, 2012

An interview with Mathias Kessler

MA student Chiara Juriatti interviews artist Mathias Kessler, discussing the role of art in times of crisis and how that influences his own art.

Mathias Kessler is an Austrian artist who started his career in New York City during the 90’s. His artworks mainly depart from the medium of photography, expanding into fields like installations, sculptures or computer renderings. In his work, he questions our understanding of nature and adds his own interpretation. Kessler often refers to art historical motifs in his staging of natural environments. He exhibited his art internationally, among others in the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Colorado or the Rosphot National Museum of Photography, St. Petersburg. In this interview, I talk to him about the role of art in times of crisis and how that influences his own art.

Photo Kessler

Ch: I saw that you moved back to Austria when Covid broke out. What led to the change of scenery?

M: It is weird, after 25 years –for one I have a son, who is 4 years old, and Brooklyn became increasingly difficult for us to stay in. But I was already a little bit tired of this whole scene. So, I needed a change. I moved in the mid-nineties, I realized after the first crisis in 2001 that you’re always better off to keep a foot in Europe too. I always had this bi-continental existence anyway. If one place doesn’t work out, you always have two other places to go and do projects.

Ch: Would you say that those ups and downs, politically and socially, influenced the way you do your art?

M: I always see it through the lens of the environment, the economy, and society. They are all sort of interconnected for me. I question the system itself. I am not a theorist, I put poetic touches to it or create projects that show you how it affects people, how you can look at it differently. For example, shooting coal mines in West Virginia and transporting them into the museum room. For me, it is a location and dislocation. Bringing those locations back to the people or back to the cities where we use the energy. For me, it is a lot about witnessing and being part of the process. It is not only about criticizing, but also about creating a situation where I can better understand what is going on.

Ch: When you create an exhibition or an art installation, do you try to make a sensual artwork that perceivers can sense and interact with? Is that something that you take into account when you create your art?

M: Yes. From early on, I always went to places and did interventions. By doing so, I realized the people I brought along had a positive reaction to the situation, for example when we were going to the Arctic. While everyone first was excited to go to Greenland in the winter, once they were exposed to it, they weren’t so happy about it anymore because it was super cold, it was dark, and it actually wasn’t very cheerful. They usually started to freak out on me and get really angry. It is a very extreme environment, let’s put it that way. So, I came up with the idea of sensing it. I started to create environments that people could witness and experience. We relate in groups and families and social structures that are comprehensive to us. We can comprehend the amount of it. When it reaches a bigger scale, it gets overwhelming.

Ch: Would you say that art is therefore a medium for you to order the huge amount of information we get from media and science? To make this comprehensible?

M: Yes, my human skull would be a good example of that. We all flush the toilet, and we all know it goes into the water. We dump chemicals, we dump nuclear waste, it all ends up in the water. No one really bothers to think about what happens to the fish or all other living organisms in the sea. We are part of the ecosystem in the sea too. So, I try to put that back into a visible structure in the gallery, in an aquarium. In the arts, we try to make representations. So, for me, it is about bringing back the process of death and life for people to witness in the gallery, the museum, or anywhere.

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Mathias Kessler, Nowhere to be found, 2010, Aquarium tank, human skull, various live corals, LED light with UV spectrum, saltwater filter, pump, plumbing, and wooden pedestal

Ch: Coming back to Covid – the circumstances for presenting Art changed. What changed in your process of making art? How is it for you to do art now?

M: Pandemics happened before – the plague, influenza. Each of these episodes had a special past story. Art is also a response to that. During Covid, I was stuck in a ski resort. I was fascinated by the luxurious ski resort that was completely empty. I thought about Chris Marker’s La Jetée. It is a loop where a child witnesses the death of a person at an airport. In that loop, you can’t escape history, you can’t escape your own history. In my film, there is no escape, you are trapped in this strange empty place with no people around. This noir movie theme I am relocating is not science fiction anymore, we are in a real event. I am not going to have them escape this situation, they are just going to be trapped in this lockdown. I feel like a lot of people feel that way. I want to keep that sentiment and cherish it. Now we have this real situation happening. Science fiction becomes a reality.

Ch: Is art in that Sense an escape for you?

M: Yes, I find much easier answers in artworks. It has this beautiful exit of poetry. I think the one thing that is beautiful with art – it doesn’t comply with any narrative, to any scientific protocol or any other protocol, except an ethical one. Everything is possible. It allows us to find new solutions. Depending on whether someone is willing to listen. It is maybe also part of the learning process, bringing experience in the museum, having people giving out free beer, sitting down and talking to people, giving them space. There should always be a discourse.

Photo Kessler 2 Photo Kessler 2
Artist in his studio

Ch: I see that also very much in your West Virginia project – you not only give a voice to the local people, but also to the local environment.

M: The first time I came there, I got rejected. They asked me what I wanted there. What I realized, later on, is that these people thought I came from a big city and wanted to make money from their misery. But I was actually really interested because I felt like their situation was so complex. So, I kept on coming back. And after eight years, they understood that I don’t come to show off their misery but I come to understand what is going on.

Ch: Because you listen to them, you don’t judge them.

M: Yes, I think it’s the care that is missing. I think in our society it is not the money that counts, but it is the people. That is missing in politics. Even in the current situation, it is more fearing than caring. And then the next thing you know, someone is showing up promising some care, and then you have a mess. We know that from our own history and we see that in the States. I thought about the history of the working class, the history of the uprising. So, I went to West Virginia, where the biggest uprising took place. 100 years later we have the same discourse. It is always the same discourse and I wonder what happens after this now.

Ch: It is always the circle – as you said – there is no escape. In the end, you begin where you started.

Information about the artist and a selection of his works can be found here.

Chiara Juriatti is a student of the MA Contemporary Art in a Global Perspective at Leiden University. Her main field of interest is environmental art, especially the concept of contemporary habitats. Her thesis studies the use of biotechnology in architectural practices. Besides studying in Leiden, she works for artist Mathias Kessler organizational assistant.

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