In dialogue

with Melissa Lumbroso

The dialogue with Ulrike Köppinger is the fruit of several visits to the artist’s studio during the summer of 2015.

»Im Schwarzen ruhen wir uns aus. We find repose in the color black.«

Now, alongside detailed naturalistic pencil, charcoal, ink and watercolor drawings, Ulrike Köppinger’s atelier is punctuated by earthy shades: forest green, ochre, and even smudges of cornflower blue on sheets of paper pinned to the wall. She shows me clay models in some of these muted colors, forms reminiscent of Ziggurats or Mesoamerican step pyramids, archeological remnants of early civilizations.
My eyes wander. A fragile dried branch with teardrop-shaped seedpods hangs alongside a collection of common as well as more colorful feathers with stripes and patterns. A scroll of birch bark rests upon pebbles and stones of various hues, shapes, and sizes.

»Ulrike, this collection of objects immediately reveals your consistent, deeply sensitive and poetic approach to textures and materials.«
»Yes. I guess you could say this has been relevant for even my earliest work. The palette of materials in my collages, videos or earlier sculptures awaken a sensory response, hopefully not just in me. It is also in stark contrasts, the monumentality of blackened beams of wood that all at the same time appear frail and splintered, the coarse alongside the soft, feather vs. stone, that I find a vehicle of expression for my work.«

I return to the clay models we still hold in our hands.

»I was thinking about your earlier work and their associations to Western high-culture, for example, Dark Romanticism. Here the objects and forms around you, while undoubtedly part of our earliest culture, appear to belong to the domains of our existence less informed or less shaped by culture. Looking at your works, I cannot help but think that you are addressing themes that have to do with our earliest origins, with the primeval.«

Something on her drafting table further distracts me. The artist’s object of study: A cabbage-size tree gnarl with an undecipherable number of twists and knots that appears to have a life of its own. It is at once monstrous, coarse and heavy, yet hints of its age and fragility are in the traces of crumbs and slivers it has left behind on the sheet of paper upon which it is taking form. Ulrike had brought this treasure with her from a recent trip to Tuscany.

»I am indeed interested in who we are as bearers of our own history — our origins are inscribed upon us. That which is ancient is within each of our cells. How does our earliest human experience, subconsciously a part of who we are, connect us to each other and to our world ? Our present-day experience is so marked by detachment. The most powerful forces in our society are in fact those that produce the most disconnection and dissonance. The cycle is self-destructive, not unlike a fed cancer cell: the more it is fed, the more it grows, leading towards its own ultimate destruction. And yet, true strength can only result from finding a way to reconnect to oneself, a self that is formed by our ancient roots.«

We compare the artist’s intuitive layerings of black charcoal or of scratchings on paper and photographs in earlier works to these recent drawings. These new drawings are maybe less palpably gestural, corporeal drawings. They are meticulous probings of the peculiar items she collects. All the while, traces of her intuitive excursions remain tangible.

»I wonder, if in contrast to your earlier exploration of apparently subjective inner sentiments and states of mind, if what you are trying to get at now is a kind of sub-subconciousness, at a level that lays beyond the individual psyche, to a more universal consciousness, one that we share with others of the past and present ?«

Ulrike smiles pensively, two fingers upon her lips. Perhaps my conclusion was a bit brash? After a short pause, she responds:
»That’s a nice thought. The sub-subconscious… And interestingly, my search has had me turn outwardly, to the natural world. My focus has shifted to an exploration of the secret life of things. For my artistic process, this means that the ambitious endeavor to capture and register the essence or substance of the thing insists on deceleration, on studious observation. It is an almost meditative process. In an attempt to further find a way to oneself, others and the environment, the individual psyche is no longer my primary object of investigation. Rather what comes to the fore now in my work are the elements of our natural environment that I believe we are connected to, they shape us and define who we are.«

She unrolls a large sheet of paper onto her studio floor. This is one of many drawings that emerge in the process of developing a sculptural piece. The drawing shows us the detailed rendition of a stone marked by veins and bearing a color suggesting an iron-rich geological origin. The stone’s surprisingly flat surface faces upward, extending below like a miniature upside-down mountain, a stone iceberg being carried by a series of long thin straight black legs that diagonally crisscross each other. A string of red weaves horizontally in and out of the spindly legs. Other smaller drawings show stones wrapped in filigree. Some stones balance precariously, or are tugged by the fine strands bound around another upright stone.

The weight and coarseness of the stone is at odds with the delicate thin wires and threads that cleave to and surround its body. These drawn sculptures are at once unsettlingly threatening while appearing to be threatened. The mystery and impossibility of perhaps ever getting to the core of what lies beneath our individual subconscious and to what subconsciously binds us to each other expresses itself here in these volatile and seemingly instable sculptures. These otherworldly creatures however do not feel at all alien. They strike a chord with us. After all, Ulrike says:

»We are the stone.«