Q&A with Kirstin Berg - Art Collector

Kirstin Berg, Tradgedy's Cathedral, installation view, Gallerysmith, Melbourne, 2016.

Camilla Wagstaff chats to Melbourne/Berlin-based artist Kirstin Berg about her latest body of work, Tragedy's Cathedral.

Your exhibition Tragedy’s Cathedral is showing now at Gallerysmith in Melbourne. What inspires this latest work?
This body of work has been brewing for quite some time. It represents a culmination of themes and ideas which predominately revolve around my concern for the environmental and psychological tipping point we are currently facing. It is a very personal body of work for me which has come out of the tragic loss of family members, but I think it also speaks beyond the personal: it is about the process of transforming our losses into something new and meaningful.

Can you tell me a bit about the title and how it relates to the show?
The title came to me shortly after returning from Europe last year. Whilst there, I visited many cathedrals particularly in France, and I was awe struck by the architecture of these places and the palpable tension between ideas of oblivion (war and death) and commemoration (birth, love spirituality) evident within them. These cathedrals were simultaneously places of mourning and celebration; tragic and ecstatic; full of beauty and horror. In the creation of this work, I was driven by similar contradictions (both formally and critically) and by powerful emotional states that surround life and death. I love the title Tragedy’s Cathedral New Landscapes because it is instantly dramatic yet not completely obvious. It is an invitation to bring your own experience to the work, and I think it’s a very open and broad invitation. I purposefully develop titles that do not box the work into a one dimensional interpretation.

Your work is powered by the conflicting elements of drama, beauty, and foreboding. What is it about these elements that compel you?
Despite the fact we have infinitely different responses to and interpretations of what drama, beauty or foreboding may be or look like, paradoxically, these elements are both familiar and universal to everyone. We can recognize and manifest them easily. That makes them incredibly potent and immediate sources for the work. I am always striving to bring these elements into my work. It’s the tension between them that creates energy and complexity and power.

You’re fascinated by the random and often brutal forces that occur in nature and their relationship with our psychological and physical experiences. How do you see this relationship playing out?
Nature is a gigantic mirror to our own experience. I think the idea of the perfect harmony of nature is only an illusion that we have created in our own minds and in reality, it is much more brutal and unruly.

We witness the collapse and renewal, and the unexpected catastrophes or sublime harmonies played out in nature every day. This collapse and renewal process is also continually happening to us. In the collapse, there is a great tragedy or death, sometimes a victory, and often a profound beauty. There is also great sadness and loss. There are a million different emotional qualities playing out, some of which we are aware, some of which are hidden to us. I am fascinated by these forces and processes that are at once unpredictable and inevitable.

Kirstin Berg, Tragedy's Cathedral, installation view, Gallerysmith, Melbourne, 2016

I’m interested in the process behind your amazing large-scale assemblages. How do you work through a composition?
I have spent hundreds of hours in the Australian bush and taken as many photos. I develop the forms and compositions for the assemblages by recalling my experience and referencing the photographs. I experiment with simplifying and/or exaggerating forms through a series of fast pen sketches until I find a composition I am satisfied with. I have a clear idea of colour in my mind before I begin which is determined intuitively in terms of the emotional quality I want the work to have.

I then hand colour long sheets of paper with fire ash, pigment, water colour and/or spray paint. These sheets become my palette, that I can then construct with. It is a matter of starting with big bold gestures first and working back to the finer more intricate details.

Of all the works in this show, the paper assemblages are the most challenging to create. They could be likened to an impossible jigsaw puzzle without a reference picture. Despite enormous planning, they always take on a life of their own and during their creation, they determine their own logic. It is usually a battle to the end.

These wall-based works are presented together with sculptural cathedra fashioned from found objects and painted bush debris. How do these speak to the ideas you’re exploring here?
There are seven sculptures in this show that I have jointly titled Family. They embody distinct personages that are independent yet connected to each other. They have been constructed out of leftovers or debris; the discarded things that are forgotten. For me they are an attempt to rebuild something majestic and meaningful out of the neglected. They are also about redemption and the ongoing challenge or question that hovers incessantly in the foreground of my art and my life: how can I turn shit into gold?

Kirstin Berg, Tragedy's Cathedral, installation view, Gallerysmith, Melbourne, 2016

You currently live and work between Melbourne and Berlin. How does splitting your time between these two cities affect your practice? Were these works created here or in Berlin?
These works were conceived in Berlin last year and in a broad sense this work has very much been inspired by European cathedrals, brutalist architecture and the tradition of post war German art and thinking that predominantly focusses on themes surrounding life and death, the power of nature, and the human condition. The realisation of the work has all happened in Melbourne over the last five months. I think this show embodies a really interesting meld of both Australian and European characteristics. It is crucial for me to live between two worlds. It keeps me out of complacency and Berlin is physically closer to the rest of the world. It keeps me operating in the bigger picture.

Are there any shows or artists that have really resonated with you recently, either here in Australia or in Berlin?
I visited the 2015 Venice Biennale last year; All the World’s Futures. It blew me away. I found a lot of the work to be the most impacting and relevant art I’ve seen in a while. Collectively, the art described the current state of things and it was not pretty, but incredibly powerful and moving.

What’s next?
I have already starting planning and collecting materials for a large scale constructed wood environment. I am upping the scale and intensity. So stay tuned….

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