Something old, something new: Interview with Thomas Schütte on his works in London and Leeds

“In a public space people should feel better after looking at the art”

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Düsseldorf-based Thomas Schütte is one of Germany’s most highly regarded artists and also one of the most difficult to pin down. Since he graduated from the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1981—where one of his teachers was Gerhard Richter—this retiring but prolific figure has produced a wide and often perplexing range of works in multitudinous manners and media. He’s probably best known for his giant bulbous aluminium “Grosse Geister” figures, but has also made delicate watercolours, ceramics, vast reclining bronze and steel women, and several series of architectural models. Now he is the latest—and the first non-British—artist to occupy Trafalgar Square’s empty Fourth Plinth with a sculpture entitled Model for a Hotel, an architectural model for a 21-storey building made from coloured sheets of glass. He is also showing his earliest work, made while he was still a student in the 1970s, at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

The Art Newspaper: How did you approach making work for Trafalgar Square, London’s most famous and symbolic space?

Thomas Schütte: I have this distance as a ­foreigner, and so I didn’t have to be involved with these war memorials and Dukes and Kings and lions. Immediately I thought that a model would be nice: not a figure, not a symbol, not a sign but some kind of a house. I wanted to do something that had nothing to do with anything else around it, except that London is also a city of new, interesting buildings. Models are like ­figures or animals, everybody can relate to them. It was impossible to use Perspex because that would have restricted the size.

TAN: So you used glass instead?

TS: Yes, but the colour, I did intuitively. I didn’t know that it would be the only piece of colour in the square. I wanted something big but light, colourful but not offensive. From far away it’s very discreet, it’s not traffic-stopping. I see Trafalgar Square as the British living room and I felt I had to behave. The Mayor made a good speech at the unveiling. He said that every minute it looks different, it is a light-collector, a lightcatcher. I was happy with that.

TAN: Why did you choose the model of a hotel?

TS: Just to give it a title. I could have also called it the Imperial Space Ministry, that would have been good.

TAN: The first title for the piece was Hotel for Birds, but in German this means a “silly hotel”, rather than a residence for London’s pigeons?

TS: I was thinking it was for the birds anyway, because I didn’t expect to win the commission. There were so many delays and because of this long timespan I didn’t rework it. It’s factory-made and the factory didn’t make a model, so I only saw it for the first time when it was unveiled and I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. But no risk, no fun…

TAN: What kind of response do you want visitors to have?

TS: I’m not a professor, I am not pedagogical but I think they should smile. Public art should be made for smiles and not for troubles. In an art place people should worry and trouble and think about themselves and in a public space people should feel better after looking at the art.

TAN: There’s another kind of engagement with architecture at the Henry Moore Institute where your show transforms its surroundings with everyday materials such as strips of fabric.

TS: It was about decoration, and how to get the biggest effect with the smallest thing, to have it moveable, and easy to do. I’m surprised by how cheerful it is. I remember this time as a bit depressing but from a long distance it is all very optimistic with its bright colours and simple ways. I could have made a career out of each group of works but I didn’t do it, I don’t know why. At the end there is a model, The Ship, and from there the work moves away from decoration and away from the surface of the wall and becomes more fascinated with creating spaces.

TAN: It must have been strange installing work that you hadn’t seen for more than 30 years?

TS: I sent my boxes more or less unopened to Leeds. They were all in storage and I didn’t know the condition, but basically it was all alright. When I opened them I was thinking, “My God, I was really busy at that time!”

TAN: You were certainly very prolific

TS: It was because we had such good teachers.

TAN: Like Gerhard Richter?

TS: Before Richter I was with Fritz Schwegler and we were treated as contemporaries not as ­students. So we knew everything first hand and in Cologne and Düsseldorf at that time there were a lot of things to see, perhaps even more than today. We were travelling a lot and working like crazy. I also did paintings but they are all destroyed.

TAN: But each one of your rectangular “brick” tiles which are lined up in rows to look like a brick wall are in fact little paintings.

TS: No, I mean classical canvas paintings. I glued all of them onto the pieces of this brick wall and overpainted them.

TAN: So underneath each of the painted bricks are the ghosts of your old paintings?

TS: Yes. I cut them up and glued them on instead of using primer. It’s still about efficiency and lightness and a certain silliness. You have to be silly to be successful, somehow.

TAN: But it can be difficult for artists to maintain that playfulness as they get more successful.

TS: It’s not Volkswagen, it’s not about objects and products. The interesting moment is if you can speak with a handful of colours, a handful of lines, a handful of light. To tell stories and not just to produce products. As soon as things are running very well, I normally stop. With the large women I stopped after five years because they were too obvious.

TAN: Your work has gone through dramatic changes in appearance—but it still seems to have at its core a desire to grapple with the boundaries of what art can be.

TS: I don’t think in a linear way, I think in series, in spaces or in fields, like a chess game. And now I have come to a really interesting point because I am confronted with my student work. I am confronted with lots of projects but nothing really urgent. At the moment, it’s time for a break.

TAN: Will you be embarking on something new?

TS: What I am looking for now, strangely enough, is some kind of realism, a drawing after life.

TAN: So are you going to be making work directly from observation?

TS: Yes. To retrain the eye, to retrain the hand and to get back to the small things. Because all this blockbuster stuff is interesting but it’s also limited because it’s all factory-made and you lose the hands-on quality which is really important. The artist can lose himself by going into stadium rock and I have started very shyly to find a way back to the self.

o Thomas Schütte’s Model for a Hotel will be in Trafalgar Square for 18 months. “Fake/Function Thomas Schütte: Early Work” is at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds until 6 January 2008.

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