Rory MacLean meets Raimund Kummer
'In those days West Berlin offered incomers a particularly existential experience of being,' said Raimund Kummer, 60, recalling his arrival in the then-divided city in 1972. 'Not only was Berlin the city in which to confront Germany's wartime history, the past having been brushed away elsewhere by reconstruction. It was also the place where the ideas of Sartre and Camus – in contrast with those of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse – were still being openly debated.'
He went on, 'In the Seventies an astonishing number of young people seemed to be reflecting on the singularity of the human being. And that discourse threw us all back on ourselves, creating the opportunity for each individual to figure out what he or she really wanted.'
Kummer paused, and added with a laugh, 'Berlin really was the place where people enjoyed playing with ideas.'
Kummer was born in 1954 in Mengeringhausen near Kassel. School had bored him, and from the earliest days he'd escaped into art and photography, hiding away in the darkroom or creating vast murals rather than attend mathematics class. He decided to become a painter and moved to Berlin to enrol at the Hochschule der Künste, at the same time as reading philosophy, political and religious studies at the Freie Universität.
'I knew that the art academy wasn't special,' he told me when we met in his Kreuzberg studio, above the streets where he has lived and worked for over 33 years. 'But Berlin was the most interesting city in Germany for me. It wasn't arrogant. It was filled with doubt. Above all it was a sanctuary for people who felt themselves to be different.'
It was also a place of empty undefined spaces, and cheap rent and low living costs that gifted both studio space and time to young artists.
Kummer took advantage of the opportunity, developing his individual style, working from cubist painting to black-on-black abstraction, schooling himself in minimal and conceptual art…until he saw Richard Serra drawings. The American artist's seminal work stopped him in his tracks.
'After seeing Serra's black drawings, I didn't know what I could add,' he confessed with disarming honesty. 'So I stopped the whole painting business, just stopped doing art, having had enough of isolated studio work. I fell into a deep crisis and simply got on with living, not knowing what to do other than make a living by making furniture, renovating apartments and making film sets.'
At the time Kummer had perceived a lack of emotion in much contemporary art. With his small Minox camera, and an intuitive kind of therapy, he began to photograph objects and scenes that stopped him on his walks along Berlin's streets: bricks under tarpaulin, a line of paving stones, a huddle of traffic bollards. He had no idea where the photographs would lead him, but nevertheless 'their inner strength caught my attention, and touched me. The discovery of the "Realraum" as subject matter draw me out of isolation and back into art.'
As his photographs had a significant sculptural quality he entitled the series Skulpturen in der Straße. The work led to him creating his – and one of Germany's – first works of street art, a term that he does not like. On nearby Naunynstraße he happened upon a building site, peppered with scattered steel girders. Kummer painted the girders he'd found with bright red industrial lacquer, drawing attention to them, transforming them into an anonymous sculpture, and thereby creating a marker of the city's physical and social change.
In 1980 with fellow artists Hermann Pitz and Fritz Rahmann, Kummer founded Büro Berlin, a loose and on-going 'encounter' of creative individuals. With every project, often called a 'situation' – from a miniature cable car at the Gleisdreieck U-Bahn station to a machine that will make an artificial stalactite over 500 years – Kummer and his collaborators (including the Czech artist Jan Kotik, British sculptor Tony Cragg, American Kiki Smith and many others) pushed the boundaries of art as well as the ways of making them public.
Photography continued to be vital in Kummer's work; first as a means of documentation, then as the art itself and finally as a source for his sculptural work. For me, his most powerful work emerged as a result of his photographic installations Piano 1, Body Double and Bananas Minus 2 Stops. In the remarkable Fiji Bitter/Krummer Deutscher, one of the Naunynstraße steel girders was bathed in its own past, with moving images of its historical context changing on and around it.
Kummer's fascination with sight and subjectivity – as well as nature – was crowned in Corpus Vitreum, his most ambitious masterpiece to date. Kummer took a glass eye as his starting point for the three-part, three-gallery glass sculpture at the Hannover Kunstverein. In the first gallery, in a work entitled Mehr Licht – a reference to Goethe's misunderstood last words – 101 glass eyes are exploded into colourless, transparent elements and shards. In the second room, Saal der Toten Blicke, 82 haunting, painterly, football-size glass prostheses stare at the visitor. In Byssodomein (related to Ulysses' decision in the Cyclops' cave to follow his own intuition rather than the gods), 15 large, leggy blood-red glass sculptures – imaginative reconstructions of iris, eyeball and ocular muscles – are frozen in movement.
The richness of Kummer's imagination, and his boy-like enthusiasm for playful, heartfelt and emotionally-loaded sculptural imagery, has taken him and his work around the world. In 1984 in Hamburg, he created White Noise, bathing a derelict swimming pool in the city's Reeperbahn in blue light and 16-channel sound of Niagara Falls. In 2009 at the Kunstmuseum Bonn his midlife work was celebrated in For Your Eyes Only. Most recently at the HBK Braunschweig (where he is Professor of Sculpture), Kummer closed a circle that he had opened with Skulpturen in der Straße. In his installation Nóstos álgos, a nest of 81 Kodak Carousel projectors flashed 6,480 unexposed black and at random 81 absolutely clear slides on three of the four surrounding walls, drawing attention to the dynamic relationship between image, space and sculpture that dominates all Kummer's work.
'In the main I do not work on images as such, but rather on special constellations, sculptural situations and sculptures,' said Raimund Kummer in conclusion. 'For me, that's something other than image. The spatial disposition – which I try to deal with – produces a completely different quality of image, if that's the right word. The whole question then has a very strong real-spatial dimension. In it you move in space, in the sculptural element. You can touch it. You can smell it. You can hear it. You can feel its temperature. Light is of central importance as is your own body of course. These are aspects that I don't experience when I stand in front of a painting or a photograph, however wonderful it may be. I may sense my body there, but not in the same way as when I move physically within the work, in the sculptural dispositions. For me, corporeality is of immediate and great importance. That is a key moment in perception.' (The above extract from a conversation between Marc Glöde and Raimund Kummer is used with the permission of Raimund Kummer.)