Not direct translations

Natascha Stellmach Day 5 Natascha lets go of her X inkless tattoo. 2013
Copyright the artist and Galerie Wagner u Partner

In 2008, the Australian-German artist Natascha Stellmach said to the world “Set me free: Who will smoke the ashes of Kurt Cobain?”. By then there was the rumour that Kurt Cobain's ashes had been stolen from Courtney Love and Natascha Stellmach claimed she had "acquired" the ashes, and would smoke them as part of the Set Me Free exhibition at Berlin's Wagner + Partner gallery in order to set him free of the circus media. That project achieved an international acclaim although it was so controversial. The ashes hadn’t been stolen so the performance was thought as a socially critical act.  Now she returns to the same gallery to present a new project under the title “I don’t have a gun” including photographs, text and happenings as a celebration of renewal and exploring the syndrome Burnout which has a hard prevalence in the workplace. With Natascha Stellmach’s art the viewer becomes lost in the boundaries of reality and the imaginary.

Would you love to have a gun? Why or why not?

I’m certainly fascinated by the aesthetics of and have a scary reverence for guns, but no, I wouldn’t want to own one. I’d probably accidentally shoot my toe off or in a moment of extreme play a “William Tell” game may occur and I wouldn’t wage anyone’s life (mine included) against my marksmanship.

“This is the story of a girl with a smoking gun and how she burnt her house down.” This is the sentence that introduces your current exhibition. Do you see violence as a need or as a reaction?

The definition “smoking gun” refers to an object or fact that is conclusive or proven. I use this as a metaphor: that by clearly admitting our vulnerability or struggles and seeking help–in this case through a Burnout–that it’s possible to come into our own power. My statement relates to the burning or extinguishing of mind-patterns that keep us stuck or closed.

The women that I’ve drawn and that appear in the photographs and also as 3 metre-high wall drawings, I’ve called my “Smoking Guns”. And paired in this way, with these women, the term becomes seductive– and they are embodiments of that strength, fully present and in their bodies, both in their actions and in the celebration of their imperfections. I also jokingly call them my Bitches. They don’t take any shit (especially none of mine) and yet they are there to help. They’re not Buddhists, but they are all about non-violence.

The Catalan poet Joan Salvat-Papasseit once wrote a poem called “Res no és mesquí” (Nothing is petty) and one of its verses says “Per tornar a néixer necessitem morir” (To reborn we need to die). But in your work, your renewal concept is closer to death and reborn or to recreation?

I resonate with Salvat-Papasseit’s words and even though this exhibition celebrates pleasure following a struggle, it’s definitely not about recreation. It explores ideas of renewal in terms of self-inquiry: a symbolic ‘death’ of the parts of our psyche that keep us stuck or running in circles. In a crisis (or Burnout in this case) we’re confronted with our scariest monsters and I believe there really is no other choice than to address them, wrestle with them and ultimately, send them on their way (until they rise again with a different face and then the process starts anew, but hopefully with less chagrin or attachment). This letting go is the “death” and consequent birth that most creative endeavours share and is of course an ancient wisdom for life across many spiritual teachings. The exhibition explores this through various layers, blending personal experience, research and story-telling across various mediums: the photographs made from my family’s Super-8 films, on which I’ve also written cheeky “invitations” to the viewer, or the installation of the Smoking Guns which includes a point-form diary of my Burnout, or the Inkless Tattoo Happenings (at the opening and weekly) which are an invitation to the brave to allow me to tattoo a word on their skin–written very simply–that represents something they’d like to let go of: an emotion, idea, memory, habit or object. The scar disappears within weeks and as it fades it is a physical reminder of a psychological healing. I call it a purge, some people have described it as a powerful “tattoo therapy”. And I was a therapist in a former life … but it’s certainly not ersatz therapy– it’s also simply a magical endorphin rush. This body of work is all about reclaiming inner power!

How do you live the coexistence of the individual with the family, the society, etc?

I’m not sure I understand the question but I believe that to truly live harmoniously within families, communities and society at large, without losing ourselves in the process, we need to accept ourselves, including our shadow and failings. Once we treat ourselves with more compassion, it becomes much easier to connect, treat others with compassion and coexist. It’s really quite simple, but I have tended to find ways to make it so much harder.

Which ones do you think are the most dangerous guns against our personal development?

Our minds.

Why all the painted figures are in pink?

Absolutely nothing to do with Barbie, but they are pink for pure pleasure. I wanted to give my “Smoking Guns” some fun. Plus – pink is traditionally a colour associated with love. They may be “Bitches”, but they have heart!

Your smoking guns are a tattoo machine and a camera. Has it something to do with the current tyranny of image?

The “Smoking Guns” are shown fetishizing their ‘weapons’. But instead of “guns” they brandish simple tools of creativity: the camera and tattoo machine that you mention but also also a kitchen blender, a Bird of Paradise flower as an air guitar, a ghettoblaster and a pen. These are all tools, which can be used creatively and non-violently to empower or tell powerful stories. They also all happen to be the tools I use in my life and work.

In your Book of back (2007) you wrote “When one person leaves a new life begins. We are simply human compost; it’s just that we sometimes think we are more.” Do you think we really think that or we need to believe it?

Here I’m referring again to the idea of impermanence and the constant interplay of renewal and decay that goes on within and around us at the micro and macro level. That line comes from a text I wrote, first published in The Book of Back and then recorded onto vinyl and exhibited at Wagner + Partner in 2008, where visitors could put the needle on the record and let it ring out through the gallery. It’s a contemplation on suicide and its heavy repercussions. The character is tussling with her ego, which is stuck in a destructive pattern and closed to life. But the good news is she does get out alive, but not until she’s tussled with some ghosts including Diane Arbus, Hitler, Bon Scott, Kurt Cobain, and the Brothers Grimm. It’s actually a pretty bizarre tale and was inspired by a dream.

In your work Come live in my Head (2010) there were some fortune cookies with two paper slips freefalling, one with: “Sei froh dass du nicht in deinen Träumen lebst”  (Be glad that you don’t live in your dreams). Where’s the boundary between dream and reality?

There is no boundary. Incidentally, that work also shows a second fortune cookie slip, which reads, “ In a parallel universe you are living in a black book of dreams. Aren’t you lucky.” They are intentionally not direct translations. In both slips I’m rehashing that old chestnut about being mindful about what we wish for and frankly Come live in my Head which shows fortune cookies like silly spaceships and parachutes, sailing through what looks like the outer limits of space, is rather tongue and cheek. I think the Dalai Lama poignantly says something to that effect about it being a wonderful stroke of luck when we don’t get what we want. Imagine him laughing tremendously as he says it and you can’t help but smile.

We all know your “Kurt Cobain smoking experience”. Do you think there’s too much smoke in art? And in that case, what is its origin?

In any profession there are those that practice with integrity and those that use smoke and mirrors. Of course it’s rarely as absolute as that – most of us teeter either consciously or unconsciously between the two poles, but in terms of the art I see and resonate with, I tend to have my radar tuned in to works that move me personally and artists who have stuck it out, challenging not only the establishment and their audiences but also themselves. Artists like Marina Abromovic, Bill Viola, Miranda July, David Shrigley and Alejandro Jodorowsky are just some of the living that I admire and respect. And yes I can adore the bling too, but I tend to forget it just as quickly. Granted, we’re in a time of surplus–of contemporary art, art students and art market saturation– and I say bring it on. The world can’t have enough art aficionados. And what this requires is not more censorship but perhaps more vigilance on the viewer’s behalf. And how do we ascertain the gold from the ‘smoke’? Well that involves more inquiry and less blind belief in the hype, be it media or marketing. Which is good for us. I think it keeps us vibrant.

Could you tell me a dream in which you would like to live?

This life is an exquisite dream if we can really live it fully: consciously and compassionately, through all its highs and lows. And no – I wouldn’t want to be stuck in any one dream – my nightly adventures are often so vivid and wild, so why give up the potential of all those escapades for just one? 

Natascha Stellmach : I don't have a gun. Exhibition here

An interview by Juan Carlos Romero
Photo by Natascha Stellmach
Copyright the artist and Galerie Wagner u Partner
All rights reserved