Berlin-based artist Pierre Schmidt, at age 28, has created an extraordinary series of works that run the art historical gamut from Surrealism to Dada and Pop. With a flamboyantly incisive signature style, Schmidt’s collages are at once wonderfully absurd and deeply unsettling, perhaps pointing to the edges of human representation. Schmidt’s work is troubling, and yet we must acknowledge its beauty, like an impending thunderstorm. Many would contend that the techniques and aspirations of John Heartfield, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, and Man Ray—to name a few possible influences—have become nothing more than objects for inspection in a museum. Schmidt, however, revitalizes the power of photomontage and surrealist photography in order to motivate progressive change and aesthetic experimentation. Schmidt’s work has appeared in numerous publications globally, and his career is certainly one to watch in an increasingly staid art world.
Fractured bodies drawn from vintage advertisements on the Internet populate Schmidt’s universe, drawing us into a realm that expands the senses beyond their normal capacities. In keeping with his dedication to the avant-garde of the early 20th century, Schmidt manipulates otherwise unremarkable imagery in order to provoke a shift in our vision. This is a distinctly political act, as it shakes our dulled eyes, which are constantly bombarded by capitalist propaganda, into a greater awareness of the manipulative power of the image. Moreover, at a formal level, Schmidt combines text with his menagerie of transubstantiated faces, and has no qualms about shuttling between so-called “fine art” and “illustration.” The latter has often been considered a lesser art form, but for Schmidt, it is a fecund outlet for new creative avenues.
For this inaugural issue of LOST WKND, Schmidt has created an extraordinary piece somewhere between lowly pornography and the best photomontages of Hannah Höch. Like Marcel Duchamp’s 1946-66 sculpture Étant donnés, the female body is exposed and laid uncomfortably bare. Candy colors entice us, like so many vapid advertisements appealing to sexist consumer tastes, but something arrests us. This perfect, smooth body is actually in the throes of transformation, turning slowly into menacing flora. This refuses the viewer the traditional role of an uninterrupted visual consumer—a refreshing and necessary reworking of the tropes of art, fashion, and illustration. In this incisive interview, Schmidt considers his complex and personal process, as well as the implications of his futuristic imagery. Perhaps most importantly, Schmidt provides a glimpse into the impetus of the creative act—a rare chance to consider the variety of factors inherent in finding inspiration in a dull, repetitive world.
The natural world seems to be a central inspiration for you, as does the mechanical and the man-made. How do these seemingly different strands intersect?
The work on collages, with source material from the various magazines, photographs or advertisements, enthralls me the most when I am able to connect contrasting elements. Botanic illustrations from old books on biology might meet with snippets taken out of a fashion magazine. These are the elements I put together. Then, if such a composition proves to be interesting enough, I try to turn it into a more homogeneous form and make it more cohesive in general. This part of the working process is the most fun to me. It is rather easy for me to rearrange photographic material without having obvious traces of retouching. Thus, from a far off distance my works appear to be homogeneous in tone. If you look closely enough, however, you can find the numerous different sources on which I have built the collage. A couple of years back, it was all about the homogeneity of details for me. Today, I think it is more about the cohesiveness, as perceivable from a distance.
Bodies are constantly in a process of growth and decay (or perhaps cross-pollination) in your work. What is your vision for humanity’s future? Is your practice utopian or dystopian?
That is a difficult question. I think there will always be a constant process, and that process will keep on accelerating with the new technology emerging in our time. Things that may appear unimaginable or unethical to our contemporary ears—I’m referring to genetic engineering and the like—will become an acceptable instance for mankind in the future. I don’t have any illusions about that.
My perspective on the future is neither utopian nor dystopian, really. Once you accept that man is neither genuinely good nor bad, it becomes unfortunately clear that a perfect world is an unreachable goal. That being said, however, hope is a fixed instance in such a world, since people will always believe in other people. Who knows? Mankind’s history might experience another surprise or two. Whatever will come, we will manage somehow; I’m sure of it.
I have to add that my perspective on this matter is in no way connected to my work. I try to focus on the inner world instead of political or social issues. I leave that to people who feel the need to stand up and change something.
The sexual, gendered, and corporeal motifs of Surrealism could be seen as manifest in pieces such as How to Disappear Completely or Ressentiment III. How do you see yourself as connecting to this legacy?
Surrealism, to me, is primarily a form of expression that is connected to the active changing of circumstances—a way to change and determine the laws of reality myself. It allows me to imitate reality and force my own mindset onto it at the same time. Those new laws I make up are, however, not consciously conditioned. It happens purely intuitively, according to my gut feeling. I sit back and leave the stage to my imagination. While it does what it does, I can only watch what happens. I really don’t know if that is Surrealism. In the end, this classification is something that comes from the exterior and not from me.
At the same time, there is also the presence of Dada, with its multimedia, often politically driven combination of illustration, agitprop, and collage—a dance between “high” and “low” culture. What inspires you about working in this cross-disciplinary vein?
Good thing you mentioned Dadaism. While experimenting with materials, ideas and all kinds of snippets, I do not care whether or not it’s considered high or low culture. The interesting point is that this process resembles the modus operandi of a dream. In a dream, all incidents of the day or other defining moments are randomly reassembled by your brain. It changes these elements around at its own whim and produces surreal movies in your head. These movies have their own set of rationality and logic. Deciphering a dream into the smallest details is rather impossible, if you ask me. The pool of personal experiences of every human being is just too deep for that. There will always be something that, at a certain point in life, secretly enters your mind, submerges and much later randomly re-emerges in a dream. I am curious about the chaos happening there, not its deciphering. This wild dance of thoughts, wishes, and experiences is what I try to illustrate.
How do you select the found imagery you use? What kinds of materials most interest you?
There are a couple of really great archives on the net, where I can find old photographs and illustrations for free. I frequently visit these. I like to choose pictures that already leave an impression on me when still in thumbnail size. While scrolling through the many images of that size, I try to find the ones whose colorization, perspective, or whole composition spark my curiosity. If I find such a picture, I either put it in my own little archive or start working on it immediately. Obviously, this selection path might eventually leave me in a dead end. It happens that I work on a picture for hours just to find out that it is not as outstanding as I had thought it to be. But even then, I might come back to the draft on a later date and finish it with a completely new concept in mind.