Beate Terfloth

Beate Terfloth’s Room Drawing/Atlanta was presented at Nexus Contemporary Art Center Gallery January 8 – March 2 as part of the Goethe-Institut-sponsored “Salute to Berlin.” This interview was arranged for Art Papers by Nexus Contemporary Art Center.

Mildred Thompson: Is most of your work wall painting?

Beate Terfloth: Lately. Until about four years ago, I was doing three dimensional structures which were hung on the wall. When I started the wall drawings, they were geometrical, and then became less so. There was an irritating, contradictory element in the geometrical wall drawings, and I think this is something that continues in the new work, too.

MT: Is this work influenced at all by Hundertwasser?

BT: No, not at all. He deals much more with a line in itself, where with me it’s very strongly the encounter between the line and the architectural space, and the way the line is determined the minute it is confronted by the rigid structure of the architecture.

MT: And these lines are designed for this particular space?

BT: They’re like sketches. I do a lot of sketches in the open space, in the landscape, but it doesn’t have to be landscape in the traditional sense, it can be just any area. You can find an organization of the space which could be seen as a continuation of interfering lines that cross. I do a lot of small sketches that try to capture the space in these lines. When I set about to do a wall drawing, I know the space beforehand; it just sits in the back of my head and eventually I come across things that will be interesting to work out in the space. In the third stage, when I am actually working in the space, things change because there is the actual bringing together of things.

MT: In doing this space, had you a plan ahead of time?

BT: I had a ground plan, I had photographs, and I knew the measurements; I can read a ground plan and imagine the space, but of course it doesn’t have the physical feel of it. So, I had two basic concepts, but I was not sure which would be the most interesting. I had also been going through sketches; the sketches, of course, show something that is going on in my mind. The lines I will use are not immediately linked with the space; they are more what sits in my brain at that point, and they then become influenced by the space.

MT: Once you work with a particular idea or structure, are you always aware of it, for example in stripes painted on the street or railroad tracks?

BT: Actually the whole thing started off that way. I went regularly to see a friend of mine, and from her house you could look down on a field. There were these traces on the field; I kept looking at them and it was clearly understandable how it was put together. These tracks just sat in my brain for half a year. I kept going back and drawing them, and I didn’t know at all where I was going, but I had a very clear immediate reaction to it.

I have come to realize how space is limited, how it is conditioned by what is surrounding it. What I find is always much more diversified in reality than I could ever imagine, which is why the sketching is so important.

MT: Are you sketching all the time?

BT: Well, a lot of the time, yes. I carry these books around with me and then I work from them.

MT: Is the work always in black and white?

BT: It has also been in color. In one case, the space was a long room, basically two walls that were interrupted at regular intervals by windows on one side and doors on the other. It looked like two gates facing each other and the gates were at different intervals. The syncopation between these intervals interested me very much. There I worked with one color, because the space was so interrupted that I wanted to stress the unity of the walls that were facing each other. The space between the lines was filled out, so it became just one red- orange band. It was the paint they put on ships to prevent them from rusting. It’s a very dense and physical thing, something of an object. It’s not a color that comes out of a can and which you just spread, it’s a real material.

MT: What makes you use lines that are more vertical than horizontal?

BT: Because the vertical line is related to the body of the observer—but I am not so much addressing the observer as the person who just is in the room and accidently sees what is on the wall. The vertical lines interrupt the wall and give you the idea of a structure in front of the wall; to the right and left of the line would be open space. On a long wall like this, more is happening with a vertical line, whereas a horizontal line would be immediately a landscape. I don’t want a landscape with a kind of distance that makes you an outside observer. I want you to be inside.

MT: Are you concerned at all with the quality of the line, thin or broad?

BT: The space between the lines is always this width, which I think has a lot to do with the size of the hand, or something to do with the human body, because it just suggested itself to me. I don’t carry a tape measure with me, but it always comes out this width. And I do feel that it’s important that the in-between space can be again seen as the wall itself, or it can be seen as interior spaces, it has a double signification. You can see the whole thing as a band or you can see it as two parallel lines. It is the basic phenomenon of the even number that includes the uneven number—like a fork with four prongs and three distances in between—you always have the link of the even to the uneven number; you can never separate them.

The lines themselves have to have a certain thickness to be observed as a surface, so I go over them until they are about 3 millimeters. They start as obviously something I draw out, and the minute I calm them down and make them thick, as thick as they are, they become very much solidified.

MT: Have you ever varied the lines?

BT: No, I think it all has to be the same thing.

MT: Why?

BT: Because it’s one element that is opposed to the architecture and it should be consistent in itself. I don’t want things to be too individual.

MT: Have you done very large spaces?

BT: I have done two spaces that compare in size to Nexus, but never anything larger. I have also done very small spaces.

MT: And how does it work in a small space?

BT: Very well, very intense somehow. I’ve done the room that I live in, which is very small, about 3 x 3 meters, and it’s a very solid box, very cubical, and it’s very intense. It’s bearing over you and it’s conditioning very strongly your vision of the space. Whereas in the larger spaces it is much more relaxed.

MT: How has your experience been in Atlanta?

BT: One of the main things is suddenly taking your work and making it confront a particular situation. Atlanta, even from a plane, is different from most places I know, being so spread out and semi-industrial. The center is very dead for a lot of the time. The gallery in the Healey Building has something very artificial to it. And it seems somewhat mad to go in there and do a drawing which should be site-specific. The building gives you so little; it has this beautiful rotunda, but it doesn’t correspond with the rooms. I find it very broken up as a building. I mean, you have a nearly Gothic building and it reflects a certain kind of urbanity that doesn’t exist anymore. So I let this different kind of psychological space flow through me, which then conditioned the perception of the architectural space. So that was one thing that was very interesting.

MT: Is there something definite that you are trying to portray or speak about, something philosophical or spiritual or anything like that?

BT: Nothing that I could illustrate in other terms. It’s not that I have some theory in the back of my mind. But the thing that I’m experiencing and think I’m articulating while I am working—and that is getting stronger—is somehow the encounter of the vision of space, or of the world around you. It has a lot to do with questions relating to visual phenomena. I think my work is very much directed towards the perception and orientation in space. I’m just trying to create a situation which might be exemplary of how perception of space works, or how perception at all works.

MT: You’re not trying to create any kind of atmosphere.

BT: No. I may be trying to push out a lot of distracting things and to come down to a very limited situation, where there are very little things which the eye encounters. In this way the eye begins to understand its way of encountering vision, of encountering space.

MT: Does it have anything to do with minimalism?

BT: In a way, yes, but minimalism is much more conceptual. It has to do with minimalism in the sense of reducing situations to make them more transparent, but minimalism always worked on a geometrical or logical outline or ground plan.

MT: I think that there is something very definite that you are doing but I don’t know how to verbalize it

BT: It doesn’t lend itself to description, because what I’m trying to do is give something which is as plainly visible as lines, but point to the ambiguity in it. Obviously it is very easy to understand what has happened and at the same time there is something that you never quite resolve. I am trying to work in this tension, a tension that is being defined in the drawing every time, so I don’t think that a language, so far, exists for me to describe or categorize this.

MT: But what you just said explained it very well.

BT: But you don’t create the experience during the explanation.

MT: So the experience comes through the actual making of it.

BT: Right, and through the actual viewing of it. It’s something that is constantly happening again. Once you walk out of the gallery, you can’t really say what it has been.

MT: And what do you want the audience to experience?

BT: I want them to be held in this tension, and this ambiguity.

MT: Are you concerned with how the audience responds?

BT: I’m not trying to trigger a particular experience. The space has certain factors, and whoever wishes to experience it can go inside and just study the work. I’m not on a crusade of any kind. In a way, a gallery like this, where the walls are very directly lit, is not exactly what I would have wished for. I would have liked the walls to be more indirectly lit, for the whole thing to have happened much more inadvertently.

MT: Incidental?

BT: Yes, but not in the sense that I am being imprecise.

MT: Is it because the gallery lighting says, “Look at this”?

BT: Right, right, exactly. I like daylight anyhow, because one of the things I am working with is graphite on the wall. One of the things that most captures color that is just floating through space—colorful clothes, whatever—is a white wall with graphite marks on it. It is a kind of net that can catch different elements coming in. What I create is a situation which will capture whatever color is floating through the room, and this of course doesn’t happen with this lighting.

MT: And all of this is graphite.

BT: Yes, it is actually pencil. I go to the office supply shop next door and buy it from them.

MT: Very soft pencils?

BT: Not actually, but that depends very much on the wall. I can never tell beforehand. In this case it has been rather hard pencils because there is a funny coating on the wall. If I am preparing the wall myself I usually use pure lime, which again captures most of the daylight. But that’s okay if it’s different; being site specific involves also having different situations.

MT: Have you ever done that same kind of thing three dimensionally? I can imagine a black ribbon that same sort of width.

BT: It would never happen because the surface of the wall and the bands are identical—they’re the very same thing. I am going to the surface and I am conditioning the space in between the walls. The very flatness of it, which in a way is imposed by the illusion of this thing being three dimensional, of this being a tube, is one part of triggering this ambiguity. So I wouldn’t put it in three dimensions. And one very nice thing about the Nexus space is that you have these three dimensional pipes going bang into the wall and encountering the lines.

MT: Yes, I saw that too. I was there for maybe a half an hour alone in that space. It gave me a chance to pay attention. You use the word ambiguity a lot…

BT: Yes, and perhaps for the lack of language, though. If I was to say it in German, I would say maybe three or four different things that hint at different aspects of ambiguity.

MT: How can you find a way to express what you really mean by ambiguity?

BT: Well, I mean when one thing has two qualities that actually are contradictory—seeing them as three dimensional, as an actual structure, with the wall becoming an open space between. At the same time, the very same wall gives you the information that these are just lines put on a flat surface. The wall acquires a quality of three dimensions and a quality of flatness and they obviously are contradictory. Those qualities could not logically exist together, but they do for your vision. It’s not a trick so much as trying to work on the way we look…

MT: It’s sort of an optical illusion.

BT: Sort of—it’s making something that is saying two things at the same time. And through this, making people listen much more carefully…

MT: Listen?

BT: Well, look more carefully, listen more carefully to what the eye says.

MT: Do you think that the work has a sound?

BT: If it did. It would have a kind of continuous sound.

MT: A drone?

BT: Yes, but not droning in a remote way. It would just be the presence of sound.