Heike Gallmeier interviewed by Rory MacLean
‘I wanted to find my own way of “painting”,’ Gallmeier told me in her busy studio in the old school. Around us are theatrical flats, stacks of timber and strips of wallpaper. ‘I felt I could best do it by delving into a field that wasn’t overly explored. My work is part set design, part performance, part painting, part photography.’ And wholly unique.
Born in Berlin in 1972, Heike Gallmeier studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Mainz and sculpture at the Art Academy Berlin-Weissensee. In 1997 she began to build life-size models of classical paintings and place herself within them.
‘Early Renaissance art especially appealed to me because of its naïve approach to perspective and its illusion of space,’ she said.
She recreated Giotto’s Annunciation from everyday materials - bulky waste, old window frames and plasterboard – then dressed up as Anna, mother of Mary, to receive the news from the angels of her daughter’s pregnancy. In a similar mix of high and low art, she then reinterpreted Botticelli’s Birth of Venus by standing naked on a rough cardboard shell, her hair fashioned from dyed hemp, her nipples covered with swatches of packing tape.
‘Venus is such an icon; something between sexiness and holiness,’ she explained. ‘My posing as Venus might seem a bit silly, yet at the same time there’s a serious side. It poses questions about the nature of idealised beauty.’ She smiled, her olive eyes flashing. ‘I like being on the edge between the comic and the profound.’
Gallmeier has also portrayed herself as a medieval martyr, after being stoned, in Ich möcht so gern mit dir. In The Goethe Room, she became Goethe, standing with back to camera and dictating to a scribe. Cardboard mountains have even risen in her studio to enable her to reinterpret Caspar David Friedrich’s work.
In her interpretation of Giorgione’s The Tempest – re-titled In the Green - Gallmeier became the nursing mother, surrounded by roughly-hewn trees, torn backing paper hills and plywood bridge with a ghostly soldier or shepherd standing in the foreground. A stormy painted sky hung from the studio ceiling. The bank of the stream looped over a sawhorse. As with every staged photograph, Gallmeier assembles the elements together over weeks and months, deconstructing and then reconstructing, dressing the elements to camera. The image layers are staggered in rows like on a baroque stage. To achieve a painterly quality in the final photograph her set is illuminated to eliminate shadows and heighten depth of field. In this unique marriage of classical art and trashy materials, Gallmeier creates particularly surprising illusions, their power heightened by the display of the tools which made them. The observer can look at once both at the stage and behind the scenes.
Her work brings to mind the conceptual portraits of American Cindy Sherman and German photographer Thomas Demand, who creates three-dimensional models that look like real rooms and other spaces.
In addition to her staged photographs, Gallmeier has explored in video the process of constructing and destruction, building a set and then - as a character - entering and leaving the image. She has also created installations, for example the startling You Wouldn’t Like Me When I'm Angry, a succession of plasterboard walls which she broke through with a sledge hammer.
‘I am interested in the point where illusionary space meets everyday reality,’ said Gallmeier, who is preparing pieces for the show ‘New Frankfurt Internationals: Stories and Stages’ (at the Frankfurt Kunstverein 11.12.2010 - 13.02.2011). ‘Within my work, alongside the narration, I want to show the process of how an image is constructed. The illusion I create is always accompanied by its own destruction. More and more it’s the intrusion of the real space into the illusionary space which becomes a constituting element of my images.’