Mathias Kessler, Artist


11.21.15 Athens, NY

"I believe that our society might have to come to terms with a future of limited resources that make sharing a necessity. We can also look at a different approach; one in which sharing can be half the headache, half the risk, half the work, and require half the money to be spent.  We have a strange definition of luxury that suggests that accumulating more stuff equals more freedom."

Interview & Photos: Kate Orne    

4x5 Polaroids from Staging Nature, and various projects.

KO: What drew you upstate?

MK: I was looking for a place close to the mountains because I love to hike and close to a train station because I don’t like to drive. While visiting a friend in Athens we saw a house for sale up the road. The house, a freestanding, red brick, federal-style structure, looked like a simple red box. A business partner of mine and I liked it and we decided to purchase it together.

KO: Doesn’t sharing ownership of properties with friends get a little complicated?

MK: I believe in communal efforts. The sharing economy has earned a bad reputation in the past because capitalism encourages us to consume more. If each person has their own stuff, the market can sell more.

I believe that our society might have to come to terms with a future of limited resources that make sharing a necessity. We can also look at a different approach; one in which sharing can be half the headache, half the risk, half the work, and require half the money to be spent.  We have a strange definition of luxury that suggests that accumulating more stuff equals more freedom. Yet one can see it quite differently:  accumulating stuff might be a drag to deal with in the end.

A backyard sculpture? No, just a very cool sauna designed by Sam Bargetz, Lodingdock 5

Interior of sauna. It's all about the light.

Kessler connecting with his Austrian roots.

KO: How did your Austrian upbringing influence your early work and how does it relate to your sensitivity to the environment?

MK: I grew up on a ski resort next to a cable car. You could say I grew up on other peoples’ holidays.

Early on, I was fascinated about how we move giant mounds of dirt to make ski slopes and how, in the winter, the grooming and artificial snow creates the stage for an event of mass performance. There are all these people skiing down the slope in all of these different outfits and gear. If you look at this massive spectacle you’ll find this image quite strange but it only highlights how we humans perform — while nature is always the background. This performative action can be any activity, however we choose to configure it.

I believe we can take this idea even further. After looking at the landscapes associated with mining or energy development, I realized that we are a geological force: moving mountains is no small feat. I was even more amazed when I saw mountain top mining in West Virginia and at smaller scale sites in Europe.

  Jarrells Cemetery, N37º53.96’ W81º34.71’, Eunice Mountain, West Virginia, 2012. Ink jet. Site-specific wallpaper.

KO: The contemporary school you are a part of turns landscape on its head, revealing the ugly versus the romantic and beautiful. You grew up with Casper David Friedrich as part of your cultural history but have our local masters, Thomas Cole and Fredrick Church, had any influence on your work?

MK: Yes, I definitely grew up in the European spectrum of culture and analyze a lot of American ideas in my work. I would say I have many influences that are not limited to Romanticism. I go back and forth throughout art history and use many elements that deal with economic, ecological and social agendas.

While being upstate, I have not only learned about but also experienced the Hudson River School and how it is entwined with the 19th century ideology of the Manifest Destiny: a set of ideas that are quintessentially colonial but ideologically expansive in that the American settlers felt they were destined to settle and expand throughout the continent. It might be obsolete today but that idea of expansion has not vanished. It’s no accident that, once we hit the Pacific Coast, we looked up to explore outer space or later created the Internet. Space has not contracted but expanded and so goes the capital venture along with it. It’s about growth ultimately.

The Sea of Ice, 1824 by Caspar David Friedrich

The Sea of Ice, 3D photo realistic rendering by Mathias Kessler

The Sea of Ice, Fridge, 3D print.

The Sea of Ice, Fridge, 3D print, and free Beer.

KO: Talk to me about how you are drawn to materials connected to memory.

MK: I look at it as an experience of material. We can think of objects as containers of memories and this is also true for images: they reflect, on many levels, how we localize ourselves in time and space. I can connect memories to other experiences and construct new ideas or experiences. The ambiguity of memories that come from, let’s say, an art object or photograph open up a personal narrative and that narrative can be shared. So curating objects, images and experiences will translate to everyone differently, which means everyone has a different take on it, which also makes it so fun.

Nowhere to Be Found, 2011. Human skull suspended in a clear aquarium tank. Living corals cover the skull over time, resulting in a reef. As shown at Marianne Boesky gallery

When I go somewhere I take these narratives, abstract them, and bring them back to a gallery or museum and it engages people. It’s the object or collected objects and images I show that make a difference. They become relevant, people tag me on social media and the conversation grows, and so does the narrative. I think art that creates that narrative is the most fun and enjoyable.

KO: In terms of social injustice and environmental causes, what upstate issues concern you?

MK: I think about the overall concerns of inequality or about fracking in Pennsylvania, which leaves water contaminated. In general: the irresponsible handling of our natural environment and the notion of economic well-being that is always answered with “tighten the belt” — meaning work more for less money. This, coupled with the privatized educational system creates, essentially, two societies: one that can afford and escape these problems and the other that lives in misery. It seems that, with many folks subsisting without a living wage, we are unfolding a slow-motion train wreck that might cause many more problems. I hope we can develop a more reasonable upper class that is willing to share, genuinely share with the public, and not just for personal pet projects.

KO: Based on what you have learned through project research, how do you imagine the world in 50 to 100 years?

MK: It will be a surprise. Nature is way more creative and chaotic then we can anticipate, so, we can’t really make a prediction. Every prediction that scientists make on that subject fails to be accurate.

KO: Is your 2010 work, Nowhere to Be Found, a corral reef yet? Will you return it to its natural environment?

MK: No, the point of the artwork is the process: the fact that the representation of death will vanish into a coral reef. The skull is nothing more than the mold for a coral reef.

On the other hand, it shows us how difficult it is, and how limited our ability is, to reproduce nature and keep it up and running for a long period of time. It debunks scientific utopianism, the idea that everything will be solved with technology. I would add that every new technology brings environmental elements to the surface and we can’t anticipate how they will interact with our natural settings. Look at the carbon industry: we had no clue what impact it would have.

Kessler inside the monkey cage at the Catskill Game Farm, a former zoo which closed down in 2006.

Mathias Kessler at home in Athens, NY

KO: Tell me about your recently published book, your first monograph.

MK: My book is the compilation of more than a decade of artistic research regarding how the relationships of media, nature, economy, and ecology form and effect communities and individuals. It looks into how advertised realities create facts on the ground and how we like to overlook complex problems that threaten our very existence on this planet. In it you’ll find great essays by my fellow collaborators, like the editor of the book, curator Dieter Buchhart, Franklin Sirmans who was just announced as the Director of the Perez Museum in Miami, David Ross who is Director of the Art Practice program at SVA and many other amazing thinkers, writers and artists.

KO: Are there too many art photography books at the moment?

MK: It’s tough to say. It is a changing landscape and it’s getting ever more specialized. I select books that I feel are special, be they about art, literature, or photography. For photography, I love to look at works that convey and create myths and desires and contain memory but it’s hard to gauge what the next step of printed books will be.

Buy Nowhere to Be Found, published by Hatje Cantz

Go deeper into the world & work of Mathias Kessler