HARD BELIEVER - FEATURE @Lodown Magazine #96
On first sight the drawings of Ulrich Kochinke's latest series "L'École sans Dieu" - in English "School without God" - might appear like a visual swan song on occidental culture, which is stuck between its fundamental Christian values, the bubble of pop cultural phenomena and subcultural icons, that are mingled in a nightmarish labyrinth nurtured by an eerie German pre-war aesthetic, devotional pictures and references from the fields of skateboarding. But following the monochrome series of large-sized drawings one has to fall for the charms of the German artist, who takes you on a trip through his archive, that is filled with a flood of images – some sticking to his personal background, some illustrating our collective visual memory, but all coming together in this fine selection of disparate objects, that populate Kochinke's world of art. There is, for example, this youngish, buttoned up bellboy that seems to be cut out of an advertisement from the 1920s, carrying two big, longish objects in his arms. One is Moses' tablet with the Ten Commandments, the other is one of Santa Cruz's famous skateboards that features the significant grimace by Jim Phillips. The misplacement of both objects give them an equality that stands outside of historical or social relevance, but plays with the object itself and the possibility to rethink its meaning. It is exactly this playfulness in combining different elements from completely different contexts and giving them a new home within his distinctive black and white drawings, which makes Ulrich Kochinke's art a kind of kinky wonderland, that opens a door for every beholder. LODOWN met the Berlin-based artist in early April in order to speak with him about his road from theology to art, his fondness for skateboarding, and his latest work ...
Before you started studying at the art academy in Münster, you studied theology for four years. The relevance of this first subject is visible in nearly all of your artworks. Why did you switch from theology to art back then?
Well, first I studied both subjects at once for a teaching profession. I come from a pretty conservative yet not empathic religious family and got interested in the whole subject of religion within my last years at high school – way beyond the dominical church going. Then, besides my studies, I started to work for the school counselling service at the diocese in Essen. This – in the broadest sense religious – work with school kids appeared very meaningful to me, but at the same time it showed me, that I wasn't really made for classical teaching. Simultaneously I got more and more into art – the permanent option to try new things out and to create simply got me. The art academy was a very inspiring and creative environment for me, totally different to the overly theoretical university where I studied theology. So I started to move between these two poles, and both actually seemed combinable to me. As a result I experimented artistically with materials like wood, fabric, wax, wafer, prayer books and devotional images, which are all used in the liturgy. Thereby it was always important to me to not be disrespectful, to flout or go for cheap cheer, in fact it felt like a downright research project to me. And when my professor turned me into one of his master students, it finally made me focus on art completely. Nevertheless, I always kept my approach to religion.
Another dominant subject in your art is skateboarding. There are decks, logos and other significant motives that keep popping up in your work. Where does this fondness come from?
I always loved to skate and back then Tony Hawk was one of my big idols, even though I always found him a bit too slick. And right from the beginning I had a soft spot for the whole graphic culture that was connected to skateboarding, because besides being the epitome of hip, it was pretty rough and dark as well, which stood against all the provincial, well-mannered flair of my hometown Münster. Growing up with the C64, magazines like Thrasher, Tempo, Max and Wiener were sort of my Internet, if you think of it as a source of knowledge or as an access to a community of interest. The visual world of these magazines did influence me a lot an I was almost excited, when I got my hands on a new issue. And when Titus Dittmann opened his skate hall "Skater's Palace" right beside the art academy, I immediately went there, introduced myself, and started to work there during my years of study.
Your artworks include a whole archive of religious motives and pop cultural quotes and images that come from a skateboarding context. Is it important to decode all of these different elements to understand the complex meaning of your work? Or is it more about the manifold associations and a playful interaction with our collective visual memory?
Well, ist's a bit like the music that I grew up with, which basically was described as crossover. The idea to combine things that seem completely incompatible and to create something totally new out of it did influence me a lot. As much as the technique of sampling, where you simply take something out of its context an put it into a new one. Playing as a bassist in different bands in these days, I worked with these techniques in music, and then translated them over to my visual work. Therefore I don't think that one has to recognize every element, to understand my art, but the different subjects and visual quotes can give different ways of access. And even identifying all the particular pieces doesn't mean, that one would understand the whole thing. It's basically as if I listen to a song and then recognize a sample or a loop – this might be fun, but it doesn't necessarily mean, that the music will have another effect on me because of that. I don't make art for insiders. I want the audience to get involved and find their own way into my world of art.
Your creative process starts with collecting and archiving visual material, followed by the assemblage via projectors, which serves as a pattern for the final drawing. How intuitive or rational do you proceed in this process of montage?
I started my archive by collecting postcards, old photos and books from flea markets, but nowadays I also find a lot of material on Ebay or on the Internet in general ... and I also take a lot of photographs myself. To go through this wild mix of my collection is always inspiring to me and I actually decide pretty intuitively, which motives I pick and combine. As I have to stick to this decision during the long process of drawing, I feel that my intuition is an important power that I need during this work. The rational examination comes into play early enough, as soon as I take my first breaks and step back to see, if everything seems to develop in the right way. So in the end it's an interplay of both – intuitive and rational decisions.
Your latest series is called "L'École sans Dieu", in English "School without God". This title seems to be explicit and ambiguous at the same time and it reflects on the relation between visual presentation and text respectively in your work. How did you come up with it?
"L'École sans Dieu" is a French term that describes a school without religious education, it dates back to the separation between school and religion. Obviously I didn't know that, but I was interested in the German translation "Schule ohne Gott, which explicitly underlines the absence of God. The interesting thing about that term is that God is still present, even if it's just in the negation. This is a kind of ambivalence that fascinates me and that I try to perpetuate through my art.
For "L'École sans Dieu" you only worked with paper and graphite. What meaning does this reduction have for you?
I drew this series with pencils with a hardness grade from 9B to 4H, which is comparable to a thickness of a lipstick to a needle. So I actually had a huge spectrum to work with, just as it would be with a full colour palette. I used all different shades of grey and played around with dark-light contrasts, more than with clear lines to define forms. Every limitation is a challenge and I love to immerse myself into a theme or technique in order to make the most out of it. On paper I can literally work way harder than for example on canvas. I really like the resistance of the material and the abrasion of the graphite during the process of drawing. And since I never rub something out, I simply can't take anything away. If I want to get rid of it, I have to cover it with the darkest of grey. So it's basically a whole different kind of work than with colour on canvas.
So what are your working on right now?
I am now working with colours again, I am painting and building objects. This year I already finished a series of smaller formats. Some have just been on display at Galerie Dina Renninger in Munich and a skateboard altar will be shown at the group exhibition "Du sollst dir (k)ein Bild machen" at Berliner Dom from June 7th.
WORDS: LISA SCHMIDT