Last two weeks to see the acclaimed exhibition Anthropogenic Mass by Michel Lamoller, on show till Saturday June 18. An exhibition illustrating the mass of everything manmade which is now equal to that of all biomass on the planet. Each piece meticulously crafted into photographic 3-dimensional sculptures.
 
We asked George King to interview Michel Lamoller about his practice and the making of Anthropogenic Mass in specific. Click on any of the images to see all relevant information. 
  • Anthropogenic Mass, Through a careful yet intuitive process of digging through, cutting and stacking images – a process born from...

    Anthropogenic Mass

    Through a careful yet intuitive process of digging through, cutting and stacking images – a process born from a box of old postcards – Michel Lamoller’s photographs become raw materials for his meticulously detailed sculptural works.

    German artist Michel Lamoller (b. 1984) studied at Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts and is now a freelancing artist. Some of the photographic sculptures serve as models for a photo which becomes the final work. Lamoller uses photography as a material to create multi-layered sculptures that are on the border between being an object and being an image. By alienating the original use of photography, he revisits representation mainly because in this manner he succeeds in revealing its capacity of expanding the boundaries of the image, and he does that by being playful, conceptual, and at the same time bringing about a sense of surprise and bewilderment – going back to the basics of aesthetic experiences.

  • GK: At first glance, the unifying factor between your different projects seems to be a bespoke technique; a consistent process you’re using, irrespective of what the photographs themselves show. How did this approach come about? 
    ML: The basic idea behind my process is to expand an image – whether it’s a portrait, an interior, a still-life or landscape – into depths; to create something sculptural in a way. It probably began when I inherited this big collection of postcards from my Grandma, which I started to group into categories based on what they depicted. There were piles with cars, piles with beaches, bridges, and so on. I’d then stack them on top of one another to form a kind of landscape, cutting out sections to create a sense of depth. I kept on experimenting with this process for a few weeks, after which I started working on a series of small models fashioned from my own photographs. This went on for almost a year; it was a kind of trance…spending hours in the studio, making two or three works every day, going home, sleeping, waking up again, doing some yoga, then back to work!
  • Anthropogenic Mass

    Solo exhibition at The Ravestijn Gallery
  • GK: And in a technical sense, has that process evolved much since then?
    ML: I’d say it’s a lot more refined and detailed today, and the works I’m making now are much larger in scale, but the general idea has stayed the same. I usually print the same image several times, mounting each one on a piece of cardboard. From there, I start cutting away certain sections from the photograph that will form the first layer, then I place it over the second layer – to see where I want to have something ‘growing’, let’s say. I see it as a kind of digging process, because I work my way down through a stack of images, if you will. 
     
    After a couple of rounds of composing the images in depth, I use distance holders to add space between the layers, looking at the stack of images as a 3-dimensional whole for the first time. Everything then goes into the frame, where I study it again over a couple of weeks, making more alterations until I’m satisfied. This really takes time, because the structure of these works is complex, so I need to get to know them, if that makes sense? 
     
    GK: It does! It’s always good to take a step back.
    ML: Yes, and in doing so I always spot more things to fix. In the end, the process is sculptural, so I’m figuring out how one layer interacts with the one behind – to make each piece as vivid and as strong as possible. I try to keep going until the piece evokes a certain sensation, because if it touches me, it’s more likely to touch the viewer in some way.
  • GK: It’s clearly a pretty time-consuming process – and there’s a real physicality to it. Why does working in this way make sense for you? 
    ML: Well, first off, there were times when I was frustrated with the dryness of photography. Going out to shoot was always the part I liked, but the endless hours of sitting at the computer working in Photoshop afterwards…I just wanted to do something hands-on. Where someone like Andreas Gursky – who I respect massively – might spend a month on just one work in Photoshop, I would go mad! I could never do it. I need to be on my feet, with music, dancing around the studio every now and again…or else my back will be broken in a few years! 
     
    So I try not to rely too much on rationality, or to overthink what I’m doing in the moment of creation – I just do it. Intuition is very important to me: when you’re working day in, day out, the process needs to match your character. You can always plan ahead, but working with a certain physicality is a nice way of letting chance, intuition, the unconscious – all these other nice things we’re composed of – flow into the work. Of course, I could plan each incision on the computer and have each layer laser-cut, but it wouldn’t be the same.
  • GK: You’ve mentioned some frustrations there with what you call the “dryness” of photography. Could you expand on that? It seems your work also responds to photography’s flatness, maybe? I’d love to know how these might gripes have steered your practice along.
    ML: Well – to tell the full story – my dad was a trained photographer, so we had a darkroom in the house where he first showed me black and white printing. And that was exactly this magical thing everyone always talks about; working until 3am in the darkness, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, watching these images emerge from the developer! I appreciated the unique character of photographs, because each print was different, and then there was the grading of course. So by my late teens, I’d already started to identify myself with photography’s materiality. 
     
    Later on, at 21, I did an internship with Magnum Photos in New York, but I didn’t follow that path into documentary photography – I was never so interested in one topic that I wanted to tell visual stories about it. Photography for me was more about craft, about aesthetics. And whilst I was looking for different ways of applying the medium I loved, I hated how overused photography was becoming by way of this digital shift. I didn’t feel anything with a digital camera in my hand…it was just this cold tool. So my basic wish was to revive a sense of the magic I’d first fallen in love with. 
     
    A big development came in my MFA programme, when I made this project with these small sculptural objects, formed from photographs. For the graduation show, my initial idea was to present just a photograph of this little thing – the model – to add a layer with its own distinct aesthetics, like a kind of Thomas Demand style work. But I decided to display the models in the end. During the opening, I remember leaving the exhibition space for a moment, and when I came back…people were really clamouring to see them! Everyone reacted really strongly to the little objects themselves!
     
    GK: Which probably reinforced some of the ideas you had about the magic of craftsmanship, of materiality?
    ML: For sure! I think it’s increasingly rare for us to look closely at the the things around us, but in this case, it was as if people were going into that process of perceiving, looking and questioning again, you know? So I quickly realised that it was something I should develop.
  • GK: So, returning now to subject matter: you mentioned that, in the past, you didn’t always feel drawn to a particular topic. It’s probably fair to say that most artists are striving for an artistic signature of sorts, or a thread that connects their projects. This might be a consistent visual language, whereas for others it’s often subject matter – a thematic territory they return to time and again. Where do you see yourself?
    ML: It’s probably the former, in that my process carries me from one project to the next. But equally, when we look back we always see connections…or maybe we just make up a story whereby everything suddenly makes sense! In any case, I realise that many of my projects expresses this need to compress as much information as possible into an image. I could focus on anything, but something draws me to the urban landscape time and again, where there’s always a lot going on; a lot to convey. I used to tell myself I was doing it for stylistic reasons, but I think it’s probably a far more deep-rooted interest in urbanity. 
     
    Coming from a small village in the Black Forest, I think I’ve always been sensitive to the landscape, but I had these particularly visceral experiences of visiting huge cities for the first time. In Hong Kong and Istanbul, for instance, my brain just collapsed: it was totally overwhelming! I think my mind wasn’t used to that density of information – of sound, smell, colour. But it was significant, too.
     
    More and more of humanity is being swallowed up by the city nowadays, and that’s my biography as well. The first half of my life was spent in the countryside, the other half in the city. So the technical aspects of my process are definitely a thread, but urbanity’s also there. I must say, though, I was super frustrated with this question of subject matter for many years; I often asked friends, ‘What should I do? I have this technique…but what theme should I work with?’. Looking for that subject definitely drove a lot of experimentation, but now I feel it’s started to emerge from the work organically.
     
    GK: That’s interesting! And I recognise those pressures on artists nowadays. I’d actually wanted to ask you about this, because I saw you shared a tweet by the art critic Jerry Saltz a few weeks back, which reads:
    "Dear all artists: never worry if your work is topical or political. Even if you’re painting landscapes and portraits, sewing abstract patterns, you are making your work in the present; the ‘deep content’ of the present is in what you are making. Your work is topical. Subject matter is not the sole determinant of your art. It is one of many weapons of mass destruction. Good subject matter can make good art and it can make bad art. Subject matter is fluid. Subject matter is a tool.”
  • "Coming from a small village in the Black Forest, I think I’ve always been sensitive to the landscape, but I had these particularly visceral experiences of visiting huge cities for the first time."

    - Michel Lamoller
  • GK: What was it that really resonated with you here?
    ML: Coming from art school, you obviously want to make something that matters – and we’re encouraged to be very heavy in terms of the ideas we’re grappling with in our work, particularly in Germany. It’s as if it’s not allowed to be light, or it’s not supposed to be fun. And then there’s the other pressure of everything that’s gone before, so you’re also pushed to honour certain art historical traditions; or make something that adds to all of that. And that’s a big weight for a 25 year old!
     
    So as artists, we worry all the time about these pressures, and we’re seeking out that big topic which is meant to sit at the core of our practice. But now I’m free of that – I just do what I really like and what I’m interested in.

      

    GK: Yeah…resisting some of that must be pretty liberating. And I guess if you’re an artist who doesn’t have that central theme or research question, the pressure to find one might not turn up something particularly authentic?
     ML: Yeah, you can’t really push it, that’s the interesting thing. I liked the way Saltz talked about this idea of ‘deep content’ – meaning that work like mine is already embedded in our time. And just the idea of taking images and morphing them into 3-dimensional sculptures tells us something about today. Put simply, people in the Renaissance wouldn’t have done that! 
  • GK: Right, nothing is produced in a vacuum! So the work you’re making now – the urban landscapes – will form the basis of the forthcoming Anthropogenic Mass show at Ravestijn. What is this concept exactly?
     ML: So I stole the anthropogenic mass title from a study I read by the Weizmann Institute, which claimed that the mass of everything manmade is now equal to that of all biomass on the planet. So it denotes an historical point in time that says a lot about where we are as humans. 
     
    Despite the constant spread of our cities, we maintain these naive images in our heads for thinking about the landscape, and about nature. Still today, if you open a kid’s book, you’ll find all this imagery of wild animals, or the jungle, creating an impression that there’s something wild and unchartered to go out and conquer. My kids still ask all these questions about which animal is the most dangerous and stuff like that.
     
    GK: It’s definitely, definitely humans!
    ML: Absolutely! But their questions show how these incredibly naive ideas are still impressed upon us, even at a young age. So the study for me is articulating a kind of tipping point – and of course my works aren’t trying to illustrate the study. I’m just taking the idea as the framework for a story; stacking all these layers of information to create subtle visual metaphors. But I can imagine that someone else – Edward Burtynsky, let’s say – would take a totally different approach to the same concept.
  • GK: And in terms of the specific works on show, what can we expect?
    ML: We’ll present a mix of my framed urban landscape works, as well as some larger scale installations, which are inspired by the same process of cutting and layering. These installations are immersive – people can enter and interact with them in the space. From a particular angle, the different parts combine to create a single image, whereas from the side the parts are totally fragmented. For me, the point is that people can enter an image. And here we could go in numerous philosophical directions about what that means; about our connection to images and how they shape our perception the world, but I don’t think we need to go down that rabbit hole!
     
    The framed works – there’ll be 9 of them in the exhibition – are all images shot in China, which I also think is significant because, when you travel there, you get a more acute sense of the times we’re living in than you might elsewhere. That’s because they’re not trying to hide the pace of change and construction; I think it’s similar to how you would have felt in New York in the 1930s. China is a reflection of what’s happening now, at an amazing speed. It has an impressive energy, but with a very fucked up flip side of course. It doesn’t feel healthy.
     
    Naturally, I see these cities through a certain lens because I’m educated in all of the doomsday scenarios about globalisation and climate change, which I’m fed through TV and in newspapers. So when someone comes to a place like China, they can either be awestruck by a perceived progress, or be horrified! And that’s really dependent on what information – on what images – you have consumed in your culture. 
  • GK: And do you have any ideas yet about how your research might evolve? What’s next for you?
    ML: Having done quite a bit of reading about this idea of the Anthropocene, about nature, and about anthropogenic mass, it’s definitely shifted my thinking – I can’t not see the human influence in the landscape anymore, so I’m now photographing outside of the city, where I’m trying to capture this human influence on nature. But I want to work in a quiet, metaphorical way again; a way that focuses on some small – maybe even banal – details. In a way that can still say something about humanity without offering a massive, comprehensive overview of how man has altered the sublime. So that’s where I am with the nature ideas… but the urban interests will be there for a long time, too.
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