In the Studio: Stefan Wiens

Stefan Wiens Mott Projects contemporary art sculptures styrofoam Mickey Mouse LSD
100 x 100 cm
oil and acrylic on polystyrene

Hamburg based artist Stefan Wiens sits down with Erik Sommer to talk about the Morlocks, fishing for zander, the morning after, and styrofoam outlasting bronze.

I’m always interested in how not to do it.

(ES) Describe your work for us.
(SW) I am a sculptor and make large, space-encompassing installations from everyday day materials such as styrofoam. My sculptures, some of which are larger than life, are shadowy images of pop icons such as Mickey Mouse, Batman and Hello Kitty.

Stefan Wiens Mott Projects contemporary art sculptures styrofoam Mickey Mouse Goofy Donald Duck studio
studio view

Tell us a bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
I come from a small village in northern Germany where there are more sheep than people. Early on I had to decide to take a different path – I was never the footballer or farmer. My interest was in music and later fine art. I learned piano and guitar, played a lot in bands, especially punk rock and the music of the 90s – Sonic Youth are important to me. My roots are in punk rock. You can see that in my artistic expression.

Where do you live and work now?
I’ve lived in Hamburg for 12 years, studied at the Academy and have my studio here. Hamburg is a gray, always rainy city – maybe that’s why we all paint a lot of gray here. The cultural scene used to be very lively. Hamburg has a long cultural tradition thanks to the harbor and the Reeperbahn, and it’s also international. Especially musically- a lot happened here with the Hamburg School in the 90s, which put punk rock in a new pop-cultural context. This has been somewhat dormant for a few years now, and it’s also difficult to find an affordable studio, which is why I’m looking towards Berlin, but I have the feeling that things are happening again in Hamburg. There’s a really interesting scene, especially in Hamburg Wilhelmsburg where I live.

How do you think this has influenced your work?
For a long time I couldn’t afford a studio. I painted small formats in my apartment – abstract, sometimes figurative, strange pictures – I tried a lot. I still don’t know what to do with it. When I had the chance to get a new studio I was able to pick up on my time at the Academy and work sculpturally again, which feels a bit like a liberation. I have a space that is completely enclosed, almost like a bunker, but it’s very cubic, purist and well insulated, which makes sawing the styrofoam easier when it’s raining thousands of white balls.

220 x 50 x 50 cm
oil and acrylic on polystyrene
220 x 50 x 50 cm
oil and acrylic on polystyrene

Do you remember any artists as a child that captured your attention?
I remember going to the Kunsthalle Emden with my parents. There was a big show of German expressionists, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel, the Brücke people and also something by Lüpertz. I love Kirchner. He is still a great inspiration, not only his paintings are delicate – the green faces like aliens, and also the wooden sculptures of the time touched me as a child.

Any artists today you are looking at?
I try to get to know a new artist every day. I see myself as a student of art. During my time at the Academy I was less interested in sculpture. The abstract expressionists, German neo-expressionists and Sterling Ruby, Joyce Pensato, Katherine Bernhardt and Chris Martin were the people who fascinated me. I came to sculpture more by chance, more or less overnight.

You work in styrofoam, which is not a common material for sculptors. How and why did you start using it?
It was a kind of accident. I was a rather poor student. Many of my fellow students at the Academy came from very privileged backgrounds and could afford expensive canvases and oil paints. I worked as a carpenter and painted on the side. Later I was the only sculptor in a painting class. It happened by chance. I was interested in everyday material, disposable material and arte povera. I have always been rather critical of the contemporary art market. I was out at night and found a piece of styrofoam in a container. Back in the studio, I didn’t really know what to do with it so I cut out a Mickey Mouse. I painted it with the painters’ dirty gray brush thinner that was in a canister. The nitro solution ate into the styrofoam surface and everything corroded – the result was an acrid, corroded surface as if Mickey had taken a shower of acid rain. I was very depressed because my work was ruined and left the studio. When I came back the next day I thought “it’s not that bad”. I started experimenting with this material, changing the motifs, shapes, sizes, etc. That’s how I came to sculpture and polystyrene almost overnight. I hated the artificiality, coldness and unreality of the material for years. You can find styrofoam at the edge of a lake in every corner of the world. But later I’ve learned to appreciate the quality of the material. It has many advantages: it’s light, easy to work with and deliciously toxic. In its fragility it symbolizes social decay like hardly any other material. It also makes a great surface and I like surfaces. It’s also a material that “real” sculptors reject, which makes it doubly attractive to me because I’m always interested in how “not to do it”. There are great works in styrofoam- I’m thinking of the wonderful sculptor Lin May Saeed or Huma Bhabha. Styrofoam is the longest lasting material, as scary as that may sound. Bronze lasts maybe 100,000 years, styrofoam forever.

Stefan Wiens Mott Projects contemporary art sculptures styrofoam Donald Duck Hello Kitty
200 x 50 x 50 cm
oil, acrylic spray and varnish on polystyrene

What tools do you use with it?
I usually use a chainsaw to saw the styrofoam blocks into shape. It’s always quite an event. Everything gets dusty and snowy with white styrofoam balls.

A lot of your subjects are Disney characters and other pop culture figures, yet by rendering them in rough material they lose their safe Disney charm. Why is this important to you?
Moreover, the material emphasizes their already existing artificiality. I’m interested in the transformation, in the real soul of Mickey Mouse, so to speak, in how I see him – the monstrous, the abyss. In the way I see, reflect and process these childhood motifs they are alienated from their meaning and given new connotations. It’s funny because these motives are heroes for many people in society because they offer a kind of escape potential – out of one’s own everyday life, the worries, the rut, the struggle into a superhero theme. The transformation from Donald Duck to Phantomias. When I have finished with them they are ruins, witnesses to a bygone era. They are living through a kind of renaissance. They are the morning after, desolation. These icons of pop were very important to me as a child. I read a lot of comics and cartoons. I never really bought the “safe”, bluntly naive side of them, because their souls are pretty fucked up. My way of using material, editing it and combining it with the characters, is my way of holding up a mirror to society and perceiving and depicting the times I live in.

You’ve mentioned being influenced by dystopian novels as a child. Any particular books or authors?
Literature has always been very important. I had a great English teacher who gave me Orwell early on. He had a talent for putting great literature into a social context, for drawing conclusions about you and me. Wells’ The Time Machine was important, especially the Morlocks. I drew a lot as a child, just as I imagined them in my imagination.

Stefan Wiens Mott Projects contemporary art sculptures styrofoam in the studio painting

What is your normal studio practice like? Any routines or superstitions?
I am in the studio very often, sometimes only for a short time. I always try to keep my head and my hands busy, which sometimes gets in the way. This results in many fleeting works, which are often disposed of again in a sketchy manner. I am constantly trying to educate myself to be serious and to look at a work for longer, to read a book, to bring my archive up to date, to listen to a complete album. I am very impatient and I get bored quickly. However, when I have a plan, let’s say to produce sculptures like the one for your show, I follow well-rehearsed procedures. The drawing is followed by the procurement of materials, then the sculpture is sawed, the studio is cleaned, then the sculpture is painted, then viewed, approved or disapproved, sometimes cast in aluminum, then packed and shipped. It’s very ritualized, just like in traditional craftsmanship. I’m a trained carpenter, which benefits me in terms of organization.

What about your working technique? Walk us through how you start and develop a piece.
I always look for a kind of (pre-)image for my works. The basis, the inspiration for the large polystyrene sculptures are those Pez candy dispensers you had as a child. I choose one that I want to enlarge a thousand times. Batman for example. Then I start with a drawing, mainly to determine the facial expression, the form. The final result, however, tends to follow impulsive conditions – the processing with the chainsaw is so rough that it’s difficult for me to really control it in a pointed way. The finalization further destroys the sculpture; the initial idea is often no longer there. The work then follows its own laws like a kind of force of nature. Chance comes into play, an ear breaks off, I get annoyed and later find it advantageous.

Stefan Wiens Mott Projects contemporary art sculptures styrofoam Hello Kitty
100 x 100 cm
oil and acrylic on polystyrene

Are you more concerned with the process or the end result?
It’s always about the end result. The process is often nerve-wracking, whether it’s the dangerous work with the chainsaw or the disgusting, toxic material. However, I can rarely see the end result as a reward. Interestingly enough I often meet my works with a similar rejection as I experience from many viewers. But I think art should move something in you, like a punch in the gut. There is too much meaningless, glittery, super sexy boring feel-good art out there that some collector wants and hangs in pretty galleries. That doesn’t interest me.

Stefan Wiens Mott Projects contemporary art sculptures styrofoam The Simpsons sweet oblivion
Marge & Bart
80 x 15 x 15 cm
oil on polystyrene

SWEET OBLIVION, your solo show with us at Mott Projects, recently opened. How did you prepare for it and what can you tell us about how it turned out?
I was very happy that you asked me because for me your space is one of the coolest places where a young artist can show at the moment. When it was clear that I would show at your place and you sent me the space photos and dates it quickly became clear that I wanted my styrofoam sculptures revisited for the show. I hadn’t done them for a while due to lack of studio time and some personal issues, as i mentioned before. But I like the contrast of the cold material with the artificial pop aesthetic in combination with the old planks and the barn-character with the cool light. For the first time I started to produce flatware for the wall so that the shipping wouldn’t be so expensive. The first attempts were a failure and it took some time before I thought it could go like this with the shaped works. I saw a collection of the most important icons for me in the last years: Spiderman, Batman, Mickey, Kitty and Alien, a kind of family reunion. After that I created the Simpsons family for the room, two of them can be seen here. I was able to come before the exhibition to help arrange the show and build a large sculpture on site. Also, while I was reviving the first styrofoam works thematically, I listened to a lot of music I was listening to at the time: Lanegan, Joy Division, German old school punk. That’s where the title of the show SWEET OBLIVION comes from – named after a Screaming Trees album. For me, the title symbolizes my return to my roots.

How do you spend your time outside the studio?
I work as an art teacher, take care of my friends and family, and make art. When I really have some time I go fishing for zander in Hamburg harbor.

Stefan Wiens Mott Projects contemporary art sculptures styrofoam Batman
Before I Forget
100 x 50 x 30 cm
varnish on polystyrene

What excites you the most about the current art world?
These are strange times. Thanks to Instagram and the associated networking there is suddenly a stage for thousands of unknown artists, some of them incredibly good, most of them incredibly bad. This gives me the feeling that there are trends on the market, but basically anything seems possible. There is no longer such a thing as outdated painting, dematerialized conceptual art and reduced minimal. Everyone can do what they want and must do what they want. That’s an incredible freedom, but on the other hand it’s also a blatant corset because you’re forced to really know everything that’s out there and then find your own niche. In my opinion, there is no such thing as creating art out of oneself – this misinterpretation of the concept of genius. I also only believe in talent to a limited extent. It’s hard work, a lot of trial and error, a lot of research. I am a young artist and I take the freedom to experiment without fear and to find my idea of art. It is a permanent search. I also believe that the current art scene reflects the current state of affairs very well, the contemporary social ruin we find ourselves in. I talk a lot with other artists and realize that, in my opinion, social media in particular is all about the question of how you are seen, how you are received and whether you are liked. And how to find a gallery. I know this feeling too, but I try to block it out – not let it dictate my work and give myself room for mistakes, to risk being rejected, to go where it hurts. This interest is the main motor and drive for my art.

Finally, what is your favorite color?
I come from Northern Germany, so gray.

To see more of Stefan Wiens’s work visit his Instagram page.