Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Interview: Christiane Baumgartner

Skyline, 2007. Woodcut on Kozo paper, 57 x 73 inches

Christiane Baumgartner has garnered international attention with her large-scale woodcuts which are done entirely by hand, and which often attain spectacular proportions. Transall (2002-04), one of the better-known works, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was one of the highlights of their 2006 “Eye on Europe” exhibition (listen to an audio file of the artist talking about this particular work)

Transall, 2002. Woodcut on Kozo paper, 61 x 171 inches

Born and raised in Leipzig before the reunification, Baumgartner studied traditional printing techniques at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. She earned a Master’s degree in Printmaking at the Royal College in London, and soon started to work in video. Coming back to Leipzig afterwords, she decided to merge two apparently incompatible mediums, video and woodcuts, effectively mixing two types of “cutting edge” technologies, that of the gouge and the computer. In her extremely labor-intensive works (a single print can take as much as a year to be completed), Baumgartner achieves a slowing down of process that imbues her haunting images with an aura of concentrated presence. It’s no wonder that her preferred subjects are speed, movement, and translation, literal or metaphorical.

This interview was done via email.

J. Roca.

Deutscher Wald, 2007. Woodcut on Kozo paper, 28 x 35 inches

Jose Roca: You were trained as a printer in several traditional techniques. What attracted you specifically to woodcut?

Christiane Baumgartner: I was attracted to woodcut based on a conceptual reason and not just on the love of the material. 10 years ago I was working nearly exclusively in digital media. This was the time I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London. When I went back to Leipzig it struck me how far I had come from the tradition I was born out of. I wanted to find a way to reconcile these two traditions.

Compared to nature, the digital system is a calculable system. Digital information provides the means by which to order and to simplify and enables the production of endless identical images in different mediums.

Woodcut is the earliest technique to reproduce an image. It is very simple and you don't need more then a sharp knife and a piece of wood -which could even be a kitchen board. And in a way, digital video is the quickest, latest, and most developed reproduction technique.

For me it seemed only logical to combine those two techniques. By creating woodcuts of digital video stills I simulate this standardized information by cutting a line grain by hand on a plate of wood. I am interested in the hand-made aspect in the work, with all its inaccuracies and mistakes. A further important aspect of the work is the relation between materiality and immateriality. The "original" image is one of several thousand digital images, not yet defined in size, color and frequency of the screen. Through my selection and transformation I create a unique woodcut.

JR: In video (at least before the advent of the digital format) the image is formed by parallel lines. When and how did you make the connection with xylography?

CB: Actually I did not use the existing monitor lines for my woodcuts, although many people do think this is the case. I created my own raster.
I was looking for a possibility, how to print a grayscale photograph just in two components, in black and white, and so I came to use the line grid.

JR: Oh, I did think that the images were based on the lines from video stills. Someone told me that you don’t use the usual tools to carve the boards, and that you make one line at a time in a continuous gesture. Can
you describe some technical aspects of your work?

CB: The actual creative part is the choosing of the image, size and frequency. This all happens on the computer. Until then the image exists only virtually. Then I transfer a computer print on to the wood plate.
The cutting process is more something like a meditation, where I am concentrated but still have my mind open. I use an old specially sharpened kitchen knife.

View of the artist's tools in her studio

Lisbon II, 2001. Woodcut on Kozo paper (see video)

JR: The depiction of movement and ways of communication seem to be a constant in your work: planes, windmills, roads, tunnels, or the walks you proposed in your artist book Detour; why this interest in velocity?

CB: I was reading Paul Virilio and thought about how we live in a time when things speed up so much. There is so much more movement in our physical lives than 20 years ago. But also the time of information and communication has sped up in an extreme way. Because we are expecting such quick responses to our communications we miss the time for the thinking process and also to really prioritize.

Installation view of Fahrt II, 2004. Series of 8 woodcuts on Kozo paper, 57 x 73 inches each

Windräder II, 2003. Woodcut on Kozo paper, 57 x 73 inches

JR: So your prints, which take a long time to make, effectively slow down time by extending the moment of the constitution of the image from a brief second (the video frame) to entire months…

CB: Yes, this is one aspect of my work.

Luftbild (ed: under consideration), 2008-2009, Woodcut on Kozo paper, 102.4 x 137.8 inches

JR: On one of your last prints, titled Luftbild, there is an interesting pattern that resembles a moiré effect...

CB: The moiré at Luftbild is in the work. It happened when I filmed the TV screen with the video camera and has to do with the interference of those two medias. Here some additional images, which show the proof-printing in two parts and the final print on one sheet of paper.