Open Studio: Making Space with Gerhard Marx
HL goes into the studio and practice of celebrated art cartographer Gerhard Marx as his new exhibition opens in Johannesburg.
Artists Maja and Gerhard Marx recently moved into a new studio designed and built by game-changing design practice Wolff Architects. The brick structures, situated in their home’s garden in the suburbs of Cape Town, have been ‘shaped in response to the process of making art’, according to the architects. But how does the change of environment affect an artist’s work?
House and Leisure caught up with Gerhard Marx a few days after the celebrated cartographer and flâneur opened his new exhibition, Ecstatic Archive, at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. The new works on show use decommissioned geographic, geological and political maps that seem familiar at first, but their changes in form, structure and colour suggest a different perspective for the artist.
Your new studio space is wonderful. How has the change in environment affected the work in Ecstatic Archive?
It has been a real privilege to work in a space that has never been anything other than my studio. It's a simple and modest but very logical structure that was really designed for its purpose. We designed and built it along with the studio of my wife, painter Maja Marx. We both knew that we needed wall space (to make larger works), so the roof structure got inverted to maximise wall space. The architects worked hard to bring a lot of indirect, natural light into the space, and the result is that for the first time in our lives, we can make work without being surrounded by a small army of fluorescent lights.
The feeling of working inside the studios is like being inside a camera, or some structure that was made for looking. Our studios are built onto our property, which means that our work and our domestic worlds are completely integrated. It really is a ‘machine for living’, to use Le Corbusier’s words.
What was it like working with Wolff Architects to design the space? How did the process unfold?
Heinrich and Ilze Wolff are close friends of ours. They were the first people we called when we set our eyes on the house to hear if they agreed on our sense that it ‘had potential’. They were bringing take-aways when we were ripping out musty carpets. The studios developed organically out of a lively and constant conversation, and this rich conversation is still what we treasure most about our interaction with them.
There was never a point where we decided to do this, we just blinked and it was happening. The project is really small in contrast to the other projects that they work on, but they gave it enormous focus, love and dedication. It was a really low-budget project as we did a lot of it ourselves. The architects were laying bricks. We laid the roof together. It felt more like making a sculpture than a building project.
You need quite a bit of room to make your work. What goes into the physical process of dismantling then rearranging the maps?
I select maps based on the particular visual quality that I am looking for. Essentially, I might be looking for a particular line fragment in terms of its colour, line thickness, curve and so forth. To do this, I have to literally dig through an archive of maps that I store on a mobile industrial shelving unit I keep in my studio. It's a very physical, rather messy process of digging and pulling maps from under the weight of those that lie on top. When I get busy, the studio is strewn with tattered maps. I like the idea that I get lost in them.
Once a map makes it onto the cutting table, I cut it with a scalpel and steel ruler. I then brush adhesive onto the canvas and place the cut fragment in its exact position on the canvas. This is has to be done with great care as the visual logic of the work relies on disparate pieces reading as a continuous line. Once the fragment is placed, I burnish it flat and embed it into the canvas to emphasise the sculptural aspect of the layering process. I then wipe excess adhesive away and start rummaging for the next fragment. There's a lot of physicality and movement involved as I move between the source material, the cutting board and the canvas.
You've spoken about the physical process of ‘cartographic mining’ in the past, but what does that term mean?
A map is necessarily an over-simplification of the physical world. In rendering space into territory, it diminishes the dimensional environment to a two-dimensional plane (and reduces it to a singular agenda or focus). Part of my interest in this body of work has been to rupture that flatness, to metaphorically dig into the ‘solid ground’ that cartography tries to communicate in order to create a mapping of ‘uncertain ground’. I have literally dug into the archive of discarded and decommissioned political, historical scientific maps from which this body of work was made by cutting my way into and through it.
But I have also dug into it in an illusionistic manner by reassembling the basic flat, rectangular frame into geometries that forces that cartographic flatness into dimensional geometry – forcing it into a depth. To do this, I have played with perspective and the illusion of transparency and layering (one thing on top another) to literally replace a flat, rectangular worldview with more complicated, often contradictory one.
How should a viewer go about navigating your maps?
Maps are about locating one’s physicality in terms of an exterior or larger environment, and similarly, the illusion of perspective is about implicating the viewer’s body in the pictorial plane. By forcing the maps into perspective, I hope that it speaks to the viewer in a very physical manner. The maps invite you into a space in which the illusion it presents is contradicted by the beautiful, sculptural tactility and flat physicality of the maps themselves, which I hope makes for a very involved form of viewing.
When and why did you connect with maps first as an artist?
In the late 1990s, there was a moment when names across the country were being changed. While on a road trip, I noticed that the map we used to navigate with no longer correlated to the physical environment and that the names on the map no longer correlated to the names of the physical places. To me, there was a richness in this gap between the physical world and the languages used to approach, fathom and control it.
It’s not often that you exhibit sculptures. What's the story behind the one at the show? (pictured above)
The sculpture grew out of the drawings. I was eager to use the same logic – that the pictorial logic could contradict the physicality of the object. In my map works there is the appearance of dimensionality, but an inherent flatness that comes with it being a map or a drawing. With the sculpture, I could invert that logic by applying it to three dimensions. In this case, I could cut a rectangular shape according to perspective – so that one side appears closer and another appears further away. But once that two-dimensional shape is cut, I can move it about in three dimensional space, so that the side that appears to be further away is actually projecting towards me. So the pictorial appearance of that plane works against its own physicality. It is not what it appears to be.
I developed the shape out of this logic, and grew it step by step: I started with a single plane as described above. Then each side offered me the side of a new rectangular plane, I would cut that new, neighbouring plane to also appear as if in perspective, but it could ascribe to a different perspective, a different point of view. By adding perspectival plane next to perspectival plane, I could grow the surface from the logic of agglomeration. It literally grew as a topology of differing perspectives. It was important for me that this work was made in a manner and material that would allow me to make the sculpture entirely by myself, so that I would not need to pre-design anything. By making the work in wood, I could just follow the process and let the form emerge. I could literally let it grow from a rather simple logic, plane by plane, into an emergent shape. The result was the 'Nearfar Object', a very lively topology in which the surface is literally at odds with itself.
What do you hope the experience of Ecstatic Archive elicits?
I always hope that the work evokes a form of tactile, embodied and engaged looking. That the works can function as ‘thinking models’ – not as things that carry an overt message or something that one simply looks at. But rather as something that opens things up, something that one can think and see with, and through. One hopes that the sense of enquiry that fuels the studio spills into the gallery.
Ecstatic Archive is on at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg from 26/1/2019 to 3/3/2019. Head to the Goodman Gallery website for more information.