Rory MacLean meets Reiner Maria Matysik
'In my work I've tried to create the idea of an organised, organic, future world, populated by unique flora and fauna,' he told me when we met in his Berlin studio. 'I like to think of myself as an artist who ventures into places where art doesn't usually go.'
At school in Duisburg, Matysik excelled at science, and imagined that he would embark on a career in botany or biology. But on graduation rather than be conscripted into the army, he chose to do social work, and found himself tending the gardens of the Villa Schaaffhausen near Bonn. Its ethos of self-sufficiency appealed to him, and in time he moved away from Germany to join an international co-op on the west coast of Ireland. In a valley in County Clare he and others rebuilt old cottages, baked bread, raised chickens and sheep, while living in a responsible, self-sufficient manner. 'Like most young people I wanted to change the world, and to do it I believed that I had first to change myself,' he explained.
But in Ireland he soon found himself more interested in sketching the sheep than feeding them. He rediscovered his childhood passion for drawing as well as his fascination for evolution. 'From the earliest age I'd wanted to trace the essence of living organisms, in the creatures around me as well as in myself.'
Matysik returned to Germany to train at the Academy of Fine Arts in Braunschweig. His unique combination of talents and passions, especially his passion for gardening and fascination with the natural world, led to the creation of a series of remarkable works: a sculpted shrubbery in the centre of Hanover, a plum tree oval in Weimar, a pair of grafted maple saplings which were planted in wheeled pots so that they moved away from each other as they grew. In 2003 while still a student, he founded the Institute for Biological Plastic to encourage dialogue between science and the arts, a concept soon replicated in art schools from Helsinki to New York and Australia.
'But I am not a "bio-artist",' he said, distancing himself from both land art and landscape architecture. 'I didn't want to construct environments but rather I wanted to explore the nature of plants and organisms themselves.'
With his practical and scientific knowledge, and in tandem with developments in molecular biology, Matysik began to imagine incredible yet possible organisms, making models of them that – in his mind – were as alive as the living world.
So he created – in fiberglass, rubber and Plasticine modelling clay - the impatient bringer of sleep, impatiens soporus, a hermaphrodite organism that lives in sleepy colonies. He made perceptus ektophytus, a pert, squeaking, self-conscious vegetable with funnel-like 'phonetic receptor' flowers used for acoustic orientation, courtship and nourishment. In his procerus esculentus he crafted an erect, phallic organism that dies after mating. 'The synchronous mass mortality of males is caused by stress directly before and after mating,' explained Matysik in the scientific notes on his fanciful plant's behaviour. 'The corticoid level rises in response to the stress. Normally it is controlled by corticoid-neutralizing globulines but during the mating season, the androgen level is also increased, which lowers the level of corticoid-neutralizing globulines.'
With these hybrid organisms, Matysik established a new genus, linked to the classification system of Carl Linnaeus and grounded in conversations with scientists from the field of molecular biology research. He gathered hundreds of these 'prototype post-evolutionary life-forms' – with text, graphics and manifesto - in a single definitive volume entitled Wesen, or Being/entity.
Over the years Matysik's work has been exhibited around Europe from the Kunsthalle Bern to the Fondación Cesar Manrique in Lanzarote and Berlin's Martin-Gropius-Bau. He has received grants from the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, Kunstfonds e.V., DAAD, KfW Bank, Stiftung Nord/LB Öffentliche, and the Berlin Senate.
Today his work ranges from the cellular to the nebulous, from drawing to film. In cooperation with molecular biologists he grew and shaped a micro-sculpture from his own living tissue. In Oberhausen he even turned a river into a cloud. Fluss wird Wolke – a large public commission – transformed a flood zone's waters into billowing clouds, based on his theories of evolution, the natural world and sustainability.
'I've always asked myself, "Is the manner in which we are living together the only way? Is there a better way to live, to evolve?"' he said, echoing his belief – and artistic concept - that all life can be improved through active, constructive evolution. 'After all, we all are creatures inhabiting the planet.'
At the end of our meeting I asked the multi-discipline Matysik if he had ever painted. He shook his head, smiled and answered, 'I don't want my art to be contained by a picture frame. I want it to be in the living world.'