For the 4th Artist Interview, I met with Stephan Bruelhart – who is, to quote him «an elderly human but a young artist». Stephan studied Fine Arts in Berlin in the early 80ies and then became a professor for media education at the art school in Basel. After his retirement in 2019, he started his own artistic practice between painting, digital painting and creating interactive and sculptural landscapes in VR. We had a very interesting discussion about how digital technologies change our perception of the world and what role art can play in this process.
Today I am invited to the studio of Stefan Bruelhart in Brugg, a city in Switzerland near Zurich. Stefan, you completed your master's degree already in the early 80s, at the UDK Berlin, and worked as a professor of Media Education in Basel until your retirement in 2019. Since then, you dived into your own practice of painting, digital painting, animation and VR. And you recently joined the elementum platform with a series of five works that I would like to talk about now. In the EMPHATICVANDALISM series that you shared on the platform, we get the chance to dive into artworks that are full of associations. As viewers of these videos, we are taken into a full circle view around a group of objects and characters that are paused in the middle of a strange narrative it seems. Some figures and concepts are obvious to read, other are more obscure. In the work The last dance…for example, we see a polar bear that is hugging a pink person, and they are both floating on an iceberg in the sea. In another work called Teach him to fish… a rhino, a chameleon and a person sit on a boat while a swarm of fish is swimming around their heads in the sky above them. These absurd scenarios seem like pivotal moments of a story into which we as viewers just stepped into. By triggering the narrative character without telling a meaningful story, these works live on a meta state of storytelling. Stephan, could you elaborate on this?
Stephan Bruelhart: I see the settings of these works as stages, like theater stages in the sea or in a field and I as the artist act on these stages with different characters. I mostly find these characters in the news, in articles I read. Mostly the stories are full of the tragedies of life.
When we go back to art history and the question of beauty and the question of which subjects are worthy of being depicted in painting, we see that these questions have been answered in the different art historical genres like landscape, portrait, and so on and so forth. In my work the genres are struggle, suffering, loneliness, cruelty, stuff like this. As the title suggests, the polar bear and the naked woman that we see in The last dance… are sharing a dance. It might be the last dance since the dying polar bears have become the symbol of global warming and the ecological crisis and consequently the end of the world. So, their dance is a danse macabre – a dance of the death, and the work hence goes back to the medieval allegory that describes the universality of death. With the pandemic, death has become ever more present in our daily lives. Before Corona, we were not used to speak about death and dying but the pandemic has forced us to do that. Death used to be much more present when I was a child. In my hometown in Baden, the casket of a dead person would be carried around town to the cemetery in a procession, so everybody was confronted with it. We don’t do that anymore today, but maybe Corona has brought that recentness of death back. I use my works to create some kind of echo-chamber of what is happening in the world. I see myself as a seismograph, that records what is happening, brings it together with my own experience and manifests it in these artworks.
I think that is visible in your works, that you have an expansive repertoire of references and images that you integrate in your artistic process. When looking at EMPHATICVANDALISM, it becomes clear that your inspiration comes from very different sources, like film, theatre, and art history but also pop-culture and contemporary history, as you mentioned before. You are very interested and have an elaborate knowledge in all these fields, you have been a teacher for media history for quite a long time, but you also wrote books for children in an earlier life – I think all this knowledge and experience is visible in the in-between-layers of your works. I would like to talk about a work that I personally like very much, it’s called Teach him to fish…it’s the one with the rhino and the chameleon that I mentioned earlier. So here we have these three characters stuck in the middle of the ocean, because their boat seems to be stranded on a pile of blue stones. I can't really describe why I like it so much. Can you tell me the story behind this specific video?
I am glad you like it! There are many stories behind this idea. One of them is of the dying fish in Lake Victoria in Uganda, that forces fishermen to fish garbage instead of fish. Another reference is the final scene of Federico Fellinis’ El la nave va from 1983, where the narrator saves himself from the sinking cruise ship in a boat, with him a rhino. The rhinoceros is also the protagonist of a play by Eugène Ionesco from 1959, in which the citizens of a small town all turn into rhinoceroses, a very Kafkaesque and absurd play. The boat of course is a symbol that is very important and reoccurs in many places, not least the bible where it symbolizes the Christian community and the church. In our times the boat has been associated with tragic migration histories in the Mediterranean Sea. When I create an image or a scene, it is an amalgam of different quotes that go back to film and theater history or completely different sources. To put together all these different references into a new situation is fun, it’s very playful. And that is how the title “empathic vandalism” or I also call it “loving vandalism” comes in. It is an homage as well as a satire of these sources. I take them very seriously but at the same time deconstruct them and collage them together in a new work.
And it's not only the title of the series, but this whole concept of empathic or loving vandalism, is actually the guideline of your practice. It's a contradiction of itself somehow, but somehow it describes really well, what you were talking about. It combines the questioning of today’s society, the cruelties of this world but at the same time it is also celebrating very different kinds of culture and art that have existed. Would you say that is an accurate description of your practice?
Yes indeed. And I think it can even be applied to the tools I work with. I use a 3D Software that is normally used by architects, but I use it in a way that normally architects would not. So again, I am vandalizing a tool, but not to harm someone but to explore new ways of image production. I see it as research in production processes – what can I do with these digital tools, that others have not done before? And I explore the possibilities of construction and demolition and in the end it is also fund to play with it, to create art in Virtual Reality.
Right, you told me before that you start creating from VR, which is a way of working that I had not heard of before. One might think that you start with a painting and then transfer this into the digital realm, but actually you go vice versa, you start painting in the VR. How do we have to imagine this to happen?
It is rather a process of sculpting the characters. You can play around, make them big or small, make them talk…You can act like God in a way, it’s all in your hands and you decide what happens to the characters, you can be brutal or kind. To work like this let’s you change the perspective on your subject constantly. It is really like setting a stage and be able to look at it from different angles and to explore this as an artistic practice in itself.
The performative aspect is already in the working process, it's already a part of the painting. The physicality of the painting process has a long history in itself of course. But as you paint in a virtual world, this becomes a new aspect to this old medium.
For me it is a process of demasking the medium of painting, it is a way to be conscious what the digital tools can do for us but also where they distort our realities and how we become aware of that. We have come along way since the first explorations in the late 1990ies to the Web 3.0 and Blockchain based technologies. I think it is important to think about the new power relations these technologies create, also in the art world. The NFT technologies allows a wide range of different artist with different motives on that marketplace. Some are just interested in putting a picture on the blockchains, while others put a lot of research and deep thought about the technology into the NFTs they sell.
What was your interest in doing NFT's and joining elementum.art? What were your initial incentives?
First of all, I think the NFT technology is a new chance for a lot of artists. It is a hype now, but we don’t know where it will lead. I think with publication series such as Digitale Bildkulturen by Klaus Wagenbach publishers, you can see that a critical discourse about it is starting to take place. Obviously, it is interesting to see what Cryptoart will be in 10 years. For me the technology is interesting, because I have full control over my works and where they are seen and sold. I am also happy that elementum.art is working with a curator, like you, so that there is also a discourse that is created around the artworks on the platform, that we talk about the content and context of digital art. I feel that has been missing for me so far. I think NFT is a new chance for digital art to be exhibited, collected and sold and with that give it a place in art history, that it rightfully deserves.
What is interesting for me, from a curatorial and art historical perspective, is the new ways of displaying digital art, that the NFT technology is offering. Along with the new marketplaces, there are also new digital exhibition spaces arising, that allow for different ways of experiencing digital art than just a scroll through a website, that are more interactive and create a different experience for the viewer. You see that in platforms such as newart.city for example. There is a huge potential for digital exhibition spaces to explore, also for institutions, museums and galleries. I'm very interested in what will happen.
I agree, we need room and spaces where we can create the critical discourse of what is currently happening in the artworld and in the world in general. I am not afraid of the hype of NFTs at the moment, if people are just interested in making digital images, that is cool for me. It is the first wave of this movement, that is just scratching on the surface. But there has to be more to it. And as soon as we have some digital galleries or digital museums or places where we can talk about it together, that is wonderful.
I think that’s a wonderful end to this conversation. Thank you very much Stephan.