Rory MacLean meets Clemens Behr
As a teenager growing up in Koblenz, Behr latched on to graffiti as his means of self-expression. ‘When I was seventeen I was only interested in music, skateboarding and graffiti,’ he told me when we met in his Berlin studio. ‘In a way I’m not much different today,’ he added with a laugh.
At high school ('Gymnasium'), he was inspired by the Dadaists to create collage from printed images and text. At the same time he indulged his passion for ephemeral street art, submitting photographs of his graffiti for his final grade. In 2006 he drew together the two genres while studying graphic design at Dortmund’s University of Applied Sciences.
‘I was invited to take part in a group show in Essen. We had been loaned an empty shop and I planned to show my collages. But as I didn’t have the money to make proper frames, I decided to frame my two-dimensional works with cardboard boxes that I’d found on the street.’
Behr cut and placed the boxes in a manner that enhanced the collages, drawing out their geometric elements, in the process making the whole assemblage into a composite work. The innovation pushed him over a boundary, from two-dimensional to three-dimensional creativity, and into an area that felt to be his own. ‘I realised that to create I didn’t have to just paint,’ he said.
Through graphic design Behr found a vocabulary, learning about layout, balance and rhythm. Then with the confidence gained by exploring the medium, he rejected type itself. ‘I no longer needed it’, he explained. ‘I only needed its shapes.’
His boldness led to series of commissions in Germany, Spain and beyond. In cities as far apart as Marrakech and Sao Paulo he created fragile cardboard constructions that would last for only a handful of days. At times he felt a niggling sense of disappointment with their ephemeral nature, yet he realised that impermanence was rooted in his love of graffiti, a form where nothing lasts forever, where works are either erased by authorities or painted over by other artists.
In 2010 at Concrete Playground, another group exhibition in Essen, Behr used wood for the first time, building a freestanding 3D frame to support his cardboard boxes … because he’d been forbidden to nail anything to the gallery’s walls. Once again necessity pushed him into new territory. Once again he recycled found material - wooden off-cuts, odd struts - both to reflect the serendipity of the moment and to capture a spirit of place, as well as a sense of local colour and architecture.
‘My process begins with the space, which acts as a basis for planning,’ he said. ‘The space defines the colours and shapes, as well as any fixing or mounting possibilities and the dimensions of the piece. I can’t plan that far in advance because I can never be certain which possibilities and machinery will be available for me to use. Once I have the composition or an idea of the finished piece visualized in my head, I begin by painting the cardboard. Then a wooden frame is screwed together onto which the cardboard will be fixed. This occurs very haphazardly.’
At Oslo’s Akershaus Kunstsenter Lillistrüm for example, Behr arrived with no preconceptions for his solo exhibition. He wanted to be surprised. In the gallery’s basement he found stacks of cast-off wood and plexiglass.
‘It was like a paradise for me. My approach was – and is – to break down space, to reduce it to fragments and then to reassemble it. To turn it upside down.’
Broken Windows, one of his three delightful Norwegian constructions, brings to mind a disorientating three-dimensional graphic without letters, a feat of optical trickery with echoes of the work of Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters. Another installation, the hilarious and witty Suspended Bins ('Hängende Mülltonnen' in German), disassembled found wheelie-bins into airborne fragments.
In his most recent one-man show at Berlin’s GestaltenSpace, Behr continued to explore the breaking down of material and space in Splinter (‘Splitter’ in German).
‘I’ve become rather fed up with “clean work”,’ he revealed to me. ‘Now I’m exploring the creation of work through destruction: breaking wood in to splinters, ripping paper, smashing bathroom tiles then reassembling them into a jigsaw puzzle.’
Behr’s frustration with ‘clean work’ springs in part from the knowledge that his work rarely lasts for longer than a few weeks. In Muirhouse, the rough area of Edinburgh where Trainspotting was filmed, one of his constructions was torched by arsonists within hours of its completion. Another work off London’s Kingsland Road was also destroyed.
‘If you chose to place something in a public space, you must accept that other people have an equal right to use that space,’ he explained. ‘Everything I’ve made to date has been ephemeral. For me this has always been the normal way of things; to create something and then to let it go. Of course in part this is because I’ve never had the opportunity to make more permanent work. But if someone called me, offering a nice square or courtyard, then I could create a piece that was ever-lasting, or at least would endure for ten or twenty years.’
May the chance soon come for Clemens Behr to find that opportunity.