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Interview with Heidi Sill

“I draw to expose something”

The Berlin-based artist Heidi Sill produces works in a variety of media including: ink drawings, collages and installations. This year’s Cultural Foundation Schloss Wiepersdorf Fellow was born 1963 in Fürth/Bavaria and studied at the Kunstakademie Nuremberg and the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques in Paris. After spending several years in Paris, Sill has been living in Berlin since 2003. The artist is involved in programs that support artists’ concerns. She is associated with the initiative Haben und Brauchen (Have and Need) and the Professional Association of Visual Artists - bbk berlin, where she serves as a board member and spokesperson. At the beginning of June, the Berlin-based art critic Kito Nedo and Sill discussed the significance of surfaces in her artwork, what she has in common with Hanna Wilke, Carolee Schneemann and Bettina von Arnim, and the effects of the corona crisis on the art scene.

Heidi Sill, as a Cultural Foundation Schloss Wiepersdorf Fellow, you are continuing your series of works: “Role models of female transgression”. How did this series get started?

The series stemmed from my ongoing study of media images, such as those we see in magazines or on the Internet. The exploration of surfaces, however, is a constant in all of my works. Surfaces are interfaces. They provide a view of what lies below the surface, as a surface in itself that is interpreted, which also points to something that is absent. This dual character of the surface resembles a kind of mask.

In what way?

The hidden is classified as interesting because an alleged “depth” is needed to observe the “whole.” Goethe wrote: “The human form cannot be grasped merely by looking at its surface, one must expose its inner being.” This tradition of thought also means: the shell must be smashed in order to reach the core. By contrast, the media philosopher Vilém Flusser had published a work in the eighties entitled: “Praise of Superficiality.” In terms of screen media, he wrote: the manifestation of all essential information is located on the surface. These opposing standpoints on the subject are central to my work.

The term “Überschreitung” can be translated among other things as “transgression”. Is that the aim of your work, in terms of both form and content?

In these drawings that focus on women, I am highlighting the ruptures, provocations and transgressions that they experienced in their lifetimes. They are women who interest me either because of their artistic work, or that I find interesting as people. In contrast to the collages, I don’t use a cutter, I work with a pencil, which also exposes something. Behind the faces I have drawn, forms become visible, they powerfully resemble strands of muscle, but in no way do they follow the laws of anatomy. Nonetheless, a certain physical hardness coheres to these drawings, the viewer can’t help but think of skin and the underlying tissue.

The titles of the images continue the game of speculation.

The drawings are based on real models. But it should also work on a speculative level. Hannah, for example, refers to the feminist artist Hanna Wilke. Wilke used her own body and used chewing gum as material for her performances. You can also see that in this drawing. The tiny blobs look as if she has boils on her face. Using chewing gum as a material, she had produced an entire series of self-portraits in which she reenacts certain clichés of women: cowgirl or model. Another image refers to Carolee Schneemann, who in her performances addressed social discourses on physicality, sexuality, and gender roles.

From the series Vorbilder weiblicher Transgression by Heidi Sill: Carolee (2012); Hannah (2008); Hannah 2 (2014)

Snowman and Wilke are modern, contemporary figures. Bettina von Arnim, on the other hand, is considered a representative of the Romantic period. What interests you about this writer and composer?

Bettina von Arnim was very interested in socio-political issues and, as a matter of course, routinely engaged in public debates. For example, she fought against anti-Semitism and advocated the abolition of the death penalty. She was deeply concerned about social justice and political equality for women. This was not only unusual for the era in which she lived, but downright revolutionary. In 1835, three years after Goethe’s death, she published her debut Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child. For this epistolary novel, she drew on her actual correspondence with Goethe, but also drew on the poetics of romanticism. This led to critics accusing her of fraud. I found all these things very interesting. In this respect, Bettina von Arnim is a woman who fits perfectly into my series.

Due to the Corona pandemic everything is different in 2020. What does your everyday life as a Wiepersdorf Fellow look like concretely?

Originally, I had planned to intensively study Bettina von Arnim’s work in the castle library and search for images and texts on location.  Unfortunately, this has not been possible due to the current situation. The encounter with the other fellows from various fields has been moved into virtual space. We exchange ideas in zoom-conferences. But, of course, we are lacking a direct and also physical communication that arises when you genuinely sit together every day for three months, eat together or hang out in the garden. That would certainly look a lot different than our current encounters on the net.

Since 2016, you have been on the board of the Professional Association of Visual Artists - bbk berlin, which has around 2,400 members, and you also serve as their co-spokesperson. How has the corona crisis effected the art scene in general?

The culture and art scene has been hit hard: All exhibitions were closed temporarily, many of them have been postponed or cancelled. Since the beginning of March, we have been working on ways we can help the artists, for example, through intensive lobbying of politicians. This has certainly contributed to the fact that they came up with an early and unbureaucratic emergency aid package for artists in Berlin.

Many exhibitions have opened again in the meantime

That’s true, but there are no more art openings. What’s missing is direct communication, dialogue, and the various forms of discourse that artists need. Many projects have been put on hold, until further notice. It will certainly be some time before you can go back to the theater, or before exhibitions can be organized. It is crucial that we prevent art and culture from being sidelined, for example, by forcing freelance artists to seek social welfare, i.e. Hartz IV, due to the lack of federal aid programs. Of course, we must continue to support art and artists in this regard.

The interview was conducted by Kito Nedo on behalf of the Cultural Foundation Schloss Wiepersdorf as part of the Virtual Residency 2020 Program

Translated by Zaia Alexander

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