Austrian-born, New York-based artist Mathias Kessler is having a busy year: he just began year two of the MFA Art Practice program; he has work in three group shows in New York—“Our House,” “The Nature of Disappearance,” and “Ground Control”— and a solo exhibition in Mexico City, “after sublimity,” just closed.
Your photographs, videos and installations often focus on the natural world and our sometimes conflicted relationship to it. How did you become interested in combining science, nature and environmental issues with art making?
I grew up on a ski resort in the Austrian Alps, next to a cable car soaring through pristine mountains; the daily opposition between this machinery the natural environment has intrigued me ever since. The continual “land art session” of grooming the slopes—transforming the natural environment for use by tourists—confounded me from a young age and has influenced my ongoing interest in the human transformation of our physical environment. My research also explores how art-historical imagery has made the use of land for profit possible. In short, you create an image and advertise it over and over again, until it settles in our unconscious mind, making it a reality. That reality can then be mined for its resources without much public concern. As the goal of capitalism is one related to growth, so is land-use in terms of exploitation.
You often travel to remote or desolate areas (e.g., Picher, Oklahoma for the photographs and videos for that 2011 series), or require a great deal of tech/research in addition to logistical plans like travel and transport (e.g., transporting work for “After Nature” between Brooklyn and Copenhagen). Can you describe the process of making your work? Is it project-specific, or do you have a general process/method that you apply to your work?
Those projects are very complex and take a lot of time to research, produce and finance. In general, I have my daily studio practice that is an ongoing research that unfolds into work or work-cycles. These ongoing projects I do without any specific shows in mind. The material I collect within those projects are not always immediately used, they develop in my studio over time and can unfolds into a site-specific project when institutions or galleries invite me. There is always a great deal of collaborative effort in getting them produced. Sharing is generally my preferred mode of working. I explore a topic and then find collaborators and we get to work on it. Generally speaking, I leave myself a lot of time to develop projects, as I try to include all the concerns I come across whilst at it. Hastily developed projects can miss those points and it’s sad if they do, as it is a lot of wasted time and effort.
What prompted you to enroll in the MFA Art Practice Department and how has the experience changed your practice thus far?
Meeting [Department Chair] David Ross, talking to him, exploring ideas together and his openness to look at art making from a different perspective and trying to accommodate it was very influential for me. Another factor is that this program covers a wide range of interests, and the people involved are from all kinds of disciplines. But the main reason for me to pursue an MFA is to set aside extra time for my own artistic considerations—theoretical research aspects that allow me to re-frame my process and look where we/I am at. I want to be able to stop my ongoing process, take a second look and investigate our art theoretical and societal developments and develop it in my practice. Lastly this program accommodates artists with an exhibition history and an ongoing studio practice; we can go back and revisit any topic we want, something I enjoy. I could not see myself attending a regular program where I cannot continue my daily studio practice. It’s great to meet once a year in person and work/exchange for six weeks.
What upcoming projects and exhibitions are you most excited about pursuing over the next year?
I currently have a piece in the Austrian Cultural Institute on 52nd Street in their 10th anniversary exhibition titled “Our House.” I also have work in an upcoming show at Marianne Boesky Gallery, opening on the 28th of June, titled “The Nature of Disappearance.” Dieter Buchhart is the curator of the show, and he developed it around the idea of artworks with the intention to disappear over time. The next exhibitions I am very excited about are a show at the Explorers Club (where Mark Dion is currently showing) and the Kunsthalle Rotterdam in 2013. Right now I’ve started to work on my show in Frankfurt. It’s a project around landscape and memory at Heike Strelow Galerie.
Images, from top: Careyes, Mexico, 2003, digital C-print, edition of 6; Nowhere to Be Found, 2012, installation in a collector’s house; Torso 01, digital C-print, edition of 3.