VISUAL ARTIST SUSANNE WELLM
“The picture is wiser than me”
Three years ago, Susanne Wellm found herself having an artistic crisis. But from this crisis, her work took a whole new direction and she started weaving photographs into a web of threads. Here she tells us about her sadness of losing her German ancestry and her fondness for the color red.
How did you end up doing visual art?
“I originally studied textile design at the Danish Design School in Copenhagen, but started working with images quite early, and then the typical thing happened: I fell in love with photography in the darkroom. There is just something magical about watching the image appear. Since then, I have worked with photography as an art form, first with photogravure, then with analogue and digital photography. However, three years ago, I experienced an artistic crisis. I literally missed working hands-on and started to dislike just sitting in front of a computer screen. At one point, I had time to experiment and started to try out new things with weaving... and there was a great shift when I realized I could combine weaving and photography.”
What does your studio mean to you?
“Everything. I live in a small apartment with my family in Frederiksberg, so my studio is my sanctuary and my playground, where I even have birds that I feed outside my window. I'm here as much as I can, as long as it works in terms of my family life. My husband, who is an artist too, can be very flexible, especially when I am working towards an exhibition. So, if I’m in the zone, I can just carry on working. You have to strike while the iron is hot.”
Could you explain your process from material to the final piece?
“I start by finding the motif. That actually tends to take the longest. I then scan it to continue my work on the computer. Once I have my motif, I print it and place it on the table, where I add color to give it a look that is reminiscent of old film reels. Afterwards I cut it into thin strips and weave them into the threads, which have their own colors that add a dynamic to the motif – or I might lay a woven lattice over the image with knots and loose threads.”
What does your material mean to you?
“Nowadays, where we are surrounded by screens, it means so much to be able to create something with my hands – to have that physical resistance. Once I'm in the zone and weaving, it provides a tremendous calm. Which is a universal need.”
Did you come up with this technique?
“I don’t know if someone in say Korea is doing the same thing, but it is something I came up with myself. My first exhibition at Gallery Kant was totally sold out. I had taken as my starting point a German silent film and combined it with some contemporary and some old pictures. Are you familiar with the German author W.G. Sebald? He teases the reader by working with real-life events and characters that he puts together with fictional characters in a refined way where time and place are abolished. He has inspired me to work in a similar way – just visually.”
Do you see yourself in your works?
“In terms of moods, yes, always. I think the universality of 'lived life' is interesting. We all have a DNA that is expressed in a sense of 'I have been here before' or a repetition of 'I should have been wiser here'. I like diving into the past. It's the classic 'you need to know your past to live in the present and to influence your future'. I'm often on the verge of being totally banal, but that's where I find my source.”
What do you like most about your work?
“It constantly changes and is a matter of temperament. It is great to weave when my mind is racing. And if it gets a little boring, I love picking out pictures. I really like the fact that there are so many steps in my process. At other times, it might be the thought process; when you have a great idea and you start writing it down.”
What makes you choose one image over the other?
“It is often the colors that catch my interest. I have a soft spot for the color red. But first and foremost, it has to work visually, and if the context matches what I'm currently interested in, that's perfect. Sometimes it all starts with one particular picture, and as the process is so long I have the time and tranquility to really think through what I am doing and what comes next. In that sense, you could say that the picture is wiser than me.”
“I like going to flea markets to find pictures. For example, I found a hand-woven photo album in Warsaw, which is a small love album with photos of a man and a woman over time. I love finding new, small pieces and adding them together with pictures from today.”
“Literature can usually kick start a mood for me. For my latest exhibition, I read Stefan Zweig's 'The World of Yesterday'. I found it incredibly inspiring and highly topical during the American election. There are some parallels to a terrible time in Europe and I think we need to be alert. I really hope we have gotten wiser. Right now, I'm reading 'Germany Memories of a Nation' by Neal MacGregor. I have a huge interest in Germany as my mother is German, and after the deaths of my grandparents, I feel like it is my lost nation. That sadness is something that I use as a driving force.”
PICTURE AND STAGE ART
“I feel a connection to artists like Gerhard Richter and Sophie Calle and the entire Kieslowski film universe. And then there is Pina Bausch of course. Her performance in Denmark during City of Culture 1996 was the biggest art experience of my life. Her way of combining ballet, dance and theater is very inspiring.”
ELLE Decoration, text by Birgitte Ellemann Höegh
Heartbeat of the object; transcendence of place
Susanne Wellm’s “Inner Landscapes”
by Celina Lunsford
Autobiographies come to the protagonists in many ways. Robert Frank once commented about his book “The Lines of my Hand” as if he looked down the road he had been on and it all came back instantly. His references to journey and to time are essential. In Susanne Wellm’s “Inner Landscapes” it is the heartbeat of the object and the transcendence of place that are essential. She invites us to a story of life and change: nature spells her journey and time is told through a collection of things and gestures.
A worn checkerboard domestic cloth holds “Inner Landscape” together. It is the canvas of everyday. Folded, faded, loved, stained, crumpled, pressed and needed. Woven of the hours of immediacy which come from anticipation, woven of with the actions that formed the past. This book’s rhythm interspersed by detail and distance, keeps the wanderer and the viewer looking and probing. A frame, perhaps an antique mirror is turned over on itself: devoid of reflection. A telephone, an envelope, a radio, an empty plate effectively resonate as postmodern still-lifes. Entities that we spend time with, sometimes too much time with, modifying, composing and serving our existence.
By issuing fantasy to her visual narrative, our author delivers her story as the handbook of change. Symbolic butterflies, transforming faces and altered environments highlight how she embraces metamorphosis as an elixir of life.
The landscape fluctuates along her “Wanderweg”. Natural scenery is ironic as a crater impression; poignant as familial excursions; transitional as coming out of a tunnel; and uncertain as viewed through a curtain or effected by weather. The places are revisited in another light, for another purpose beyond reminiscing what was. The inner appears as landscapes and portraits draped with paint. The adaptions expose reaction and signal the now. They are brazen expressions of change, stepping out of the photograph, out of the past, but also synchronise the acceptance of relating to another place and time.
“Inner Landscapes” is one of the most important soul photography books of 2012.
It is a chapter of life, a story past that is ever present. It sings, whispers, shouts and howls. The contents are not documentary facts but the medium for Susanne Wellm’s experience in simply…being.
Susanne Wellm – Photogravure
by Finn Thrane
Susanne Wellm’s artistic career takes its point of departure in work with textile printing at the Danish Academi of Arts and Craft at the beginning of the nineties.
In 1995 she made the marvellous discovery that the photographic camera can be used for other things than automatic registration; that with selected clips from a 35mm film one can tell stories. Some of these ‘stories’ were executed the same year in black-and-white photopolymeric gravure and submitted to the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition. One of them, subdued in tone as it is, grabbed the attention of the jury and ensured Susanne Wellm her encouraging debut: pipes, lather, glimpses of limbs – the iconography of the bathroom in eight matter-of-fact close-ups.
The motif invited in-depth treatment, and in 1996 the technique had been improved so that the theme of the morning toilette could be played through with new scope in the sequence of events and with more telling details. The inventiveness is not in the components of the sequence, for they are, as shared experience, the epitome of banality. The experience comes from the flow in the string of events, from the discreet individual colouring of the picture fields as well as the shifts between surface and depth. Finally, one must not underestimate the artist’s courage in allowing the depiction of the fine poetry of the bathroom incorporate the view of the morning stool in the depths of the toilet bowl. “I see my universe/ from a recess in the wall:/ nickel-plated pipes arise/ bent, twisted drains, white hospital-like tiles/ and the fly’s-eye of the shower spray/ from which the gentle spring rain/ in spite of everything, falls.” Thus Klaus Rifbjerg (in the poem “Life in the Bathroom”) situated the camera angle in the soap. Susanne Wellm situated the point of view in herself. This limitation makes the recognition correspondingly surprising and gives a salutary jolt to the conventions about the character of the female universe.
The same year Susanne Wellm continued with further subjective reconnoitring of the close surroundings in the photogravure sequence form. Not until 1998 was this interest superseded by a new orientation towards the outside world. This happened in Fredericia, where she was invited as “Artist on the Way of the Year” with a travel grant and a stay in the town. And she felt she had to respond to the expectation that the final exhibition in the town’s Art Hall would include recognizable town motifs. Burdened by the task, she wore out her shoes on the old ramparts and in the harbour area, and aimed her camera at small and large attractions. It was the small ones that won. Back in the capital, when she had to sort the material, most of what the citizens of the garrison town can recognize was rejected. What remains includes a cracked wall with an ironmonger’s hook, a pub table with a glass ashtray and unlit candles, as well as a waiting-room interior with a table and plywood chairs. This was the outside world of which she took notice and notoriously documented on the spot. Notable the motifs are not; rather, they are rendered anonymous, well nigh to the point of archetypal universality. But precisely because of this they emerge as images, as visionary testimony to the drag-marks of things in time – the low-key melancholy one can only fathom by entering into a dialogue with the work. It is part of the story that the initiators in Fredericia welcomed the exhibition with open arms, which aroused quiet but just attention.
One of Susanne Wellm’s latest photogravures shows us a simple schnapps glass in sixteen versions, shot at identical distances and in a bird’s-eye view, at 45 degrees the glass is seen a transparent truncated cone standing on its blunt point; or at 75 degrees so that the oval of the opening approaches the shape of the circle and conceals the bottom. The transformations are minimal, but crucial to the tone of the totality as theme and variations of visual chamber music: the displacements of the central motif, the changes in the intensity of light, the shifts in the surface and texture – modulations, each of which contributes to the wealth of experiences and tensions in the surface. To this we can add the changes in the content and quantity in the glass and the dependent comings and goings of the radical shadow formations. If the image means reorientation in Susanne Wellm’s universe, the narrative with its temporal sequence is in the retreat in favour of more abstract or conceptual values – unless, that is, the narrative is absorbed and condensed to explosion volume in the brief now of poetry.