In this Garden he Reads the Diary of the World | January 30 – March 20, 2021 | Sorry We’re Closed | Brussels

Stefan Rinck – Flintstones Meet Cubism

Stefan Rinck’s studio is located in a former industrial building in Berlin Wedding, a historic working class neighbourhood on the brink of coolness. The artist has been renting the space since his arrival 15 years ago, when he exchanged tranquil small-town life in his native Saarland for the buzzing German capital. The high-ceilinged workspace in a gigantic shared factory hall extends over 90 square meters  – an indispensable necessity when creating artworks on a monumental level: some amount to 20 tons. Rinck exclusively works with natural stone, creating mysterious, unearthly sculptures steeped in multi-layered symbolism; affable, imaginary creatures that are more cuddly toy than monster. At the time of this interview, conducted by phone due to the restrictions of the pandemic, the artist is getting ready for his show in January 2021 at Sorry We’re Closed in Brussels. There’s quite some hustle and bustle audible in the background, and Rinck has to interrupt our conversation a few times to give instructions to his assistants. 

I can hear quite some action in the background – what’s happening in the studio at the moment? 

Most of the works are finished, except one. It’s like someone threw a spanner in the works. It feels like a deadlocked game of chess. I am not sure about it yet, but I’ll get there. In total, there will be 11 quite large-scale sculptures on view at the gallery – some vertical, some horizontal, some egg-shaped, some potato-shaped. One can even be used as a bench. It focuses on animals from the time before the Holocene: reptiles, amphibians, crocodiles, …but they’re more than that. My pieces are always full of cross-references, from Picasso to post-war comics.

Where do you find your inspiration? 

I’m interested in literature, art history, geology, conceptual art, post-war comics, classic modernism, … I find my inspiration in books, on the internet, and in computer games. Greek mythology meets Pacman. It’s not all history – we’re living in the here and now after all. 

Can you cite a concrete example? 

One sculpture for instance depicts Fred Flintstone, who is peeking out of the mouth of a snake, a reference to the Aztec serpent god Quetzalcoatl. The snake’s scales have a prismatic and fragmentary touch to them  – a nod to Cubism. My references span across many different eras and ages, tracing an arc from the beginnings to today. A diary in stone, if you will. 

Fittingly, the exhibition is titled “In this garden he reads the diary of the world”. What’s the idea behind it? 

It’s a sculpture garden, in a way; a protected, contemplative space. Reptiles crawl through it as active creatures, through the garden as well as through time. It’s a refuge, a safe haven. I even entertained the idea of artificial grass. The horizontal snake sculpture can serve as a bench – theoretically you can sit down on it and read a book, just as in a garden. 

What is it that you want to evoke in the viewer, besides contemplation? 

I want to take the visitor into a parallel world, a mystic garden full of hieroglyphics that trigger our collective memory, just like in Marcel Proust’s book “In Search of Lost Time”. Even if you go back to the same place, you are not the same person anymore. But through sensory input such as scents, you might be able to feel the same feelings as in a specific moment in the past. When I say memories, I am rather referring to unconscious collective memories than personal ones. Fishing for something buried. I want to trigger something, but there is no clear, specific message. It remains ambiguous. 

Your art also brims with humour. Is that a conscious choice? Consciously unconscious. Someone once wrote that I carve jokes into stone. Life is serious enough already. I like artists who reveal humour in their work, such as Martin Kippenberger, for example. 

The titles of your works are especially playful, such as “Marcello the Legionary Duck”.

Yes. They shouldn’t be too far-fetched, but also not too descriptive. A good title embodies both, and adds a second layer. I often create them after the piece is finished, sometimes in a conversational ping-pong with friends.  

What’s your working process like? Do you have a detailed plan before you start working the stone? 

It’s a bit like chronicling contemporary history or writing a diary. Every day I transform ideas, one after the other. At the beginning, there is a basic idea, an atmosphere, sketches. But I improvise a lot. A block of stone is a bit like a cocoon. The block determines the figurine. Before sculpting the stone, I wonder what could be inside the block, and loosely draw on it. It’s all quite spontaneous. 

What role does the technical component play in your practice? Stone is not exactly an undemanding material to work with…

I find this technical aspect inside the artistic very interesting. Some types of stone are not easy to work with. You live with the stone, and take it into account during the creative process. For example, the way the surface reacts will have an impact on the piece. Marble will require another aesthetic language than limestone. Sandstone glimmers when the light falls just right. Marble has glistening crystalline structures. Some stones shine superficially, others subtly. Their symbolism changes accordingly. This time I’m also working with diabase, a subvolcanic stone, which is hidden below the ground and hard to find. It shimmers greenly but if you polish it, it turns pitch black. Then there’s a green quartzite called Atlantis. They all have very poetic trade names. I’m also getting more and more interested in the different histories of origin. Limestone, a sedimentary rock, is a preliminary stage of marble, for instance. I really like working with stone, also that you have to work with both hands. It’s very tiring, to the point that you don’t notice what’s happening around you.

Is that why it’s necessary to have assistants? And doesn’t that come with its own challenges? 

Yes. When you do figurative work and have your own aesthetic language, it can be tricky. But to work without assistants is difficult as well. I am not getting any younger, and it’s very physical work. After eight hours I’m completely exhausted, especially when the stones are large. We often work in rotation, sometimes on three sculptures simultaneously. I make sketches and a clay model beforehand… until a certain point, my assistants can help, but the details I definitely need to do myself. 

What are the biggest challenges when working with stone? 

Breathing life and a certain lightness into the stone – something that signifies the opposite of its essence. The characters and symbolism as well as the childlike features deflect from the coldness of the stone and defuse its seriousness. And stones are part of nature. They have natural fissures that can be complicated to work with. You have to find a way to work around these problems. Often the rock has been blasted, and cracks remain. So when you’re working with it, the stone can break. It’s unpredictable. In limestone you can often find nests, which make the stone crumble. But there are tricks to deal with it. Transport can also prove problematic. My new sculptures are even bigger and more massive than those I showed in the last exhibition. I had to ask structural engineers what’s possible in the gallery. Some pieces are impossible to fit in, because they’re so heavy they’d break through the floor and end up in the basement. In Paris, the narrow streets were a major problem. The logistical part can be quite challenging. 

How and where do you find the stone you work with?  

It requires quite some research. I have to contact stone suppliers, who send me photos of the available blocks, and I pick the ones I like. The stone comes from Southern Italy, Poland, Bavaria…the diabase I found near Frankfurt. It was a rare find; it’s hardly ever this large. Transport is costly. I am trying to find other solutions, such as collaborating with quarries and working directly on site. In France I once made a sculpture exactly where it was supposed to be put up.  

How did you start working with stone in the first place? 

I’m a trained stonemason. It was complete chance. I didn’t know what to do after high school, and the mother of a friend knew a mason. I made drinking troughs, for example. 

How did you make the shift from stone masonry apprentice to art school student? 

After the apprenticeship I started studying philosophy and art history at the university in Saarbrücken while continuing to work as a freelancer at the stonemason workshop. Art school was a natural choice because it combines making things with your hands with studying interesting subjects. I grew up surrounded by art. My mother was an art teacher and the president of the local art society. She had a little studio and even gave drawing classes, and sometimes I would participate. When I was a teenager, I set up my own studio, and I’d mess around there with my friends. We didn’t do anything of note but enjoyed this bohemian feeling.

What was art school like for you? Some find it superfluous, others essential – how did you experience it? 

I’d have never made it as an artist without art school. You evolve and improve by being forced to work continuously. I experimented a lot, with concrete for example. It was very free. The sculpture course was very broad; it even included video installations. I also painted a lot, even after finishing art school. We got the chance to try out many different things and learned quite a few basic techniques. We also learned to work independently, and getting into a workflow, no matter what the outcome might be. The exchange with other students was essential as well, examining perspectives on contemporary art and one’s own practice. After art school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I even considered becoming a teacher. But then a friend of mine contacted me with the idea for an artistic collaboration, and that set things in motion. I really enjoyed it. He was more of a painter, and was looking for someone who knew how to work with stone. That’s also how I came to Berlin back in 2005. I only wanted to stay for a couple of weeks, to do this project, but many years later I’m still here.

How did you emancipate yourself from your friend and find your own path?

It was an organic evolution. We did a bunch of exhibitions together, but at one point the demand faded. I think artistic duos only work when the two merge completely, like Fischli & Weiss for example, and that wasn’t the case for us. When we stopped working together, I still had stone blocks left over, and I decided I wanted to do something with them. That was the start of my own trajectory. I’ve been able to live from my art since 2005. There were difficult moments, but for the last years everything has been going really well. There were times where I never thought this possible – for example when I had to deal with my paintings being rejected. 

Were your first stone sculpture attempts already similar to what you’re doing today?

Yes. The basic principles were the same, but of course I widened my repertoire over the years. I did a lot of research, read books… I didn’t want to copy anything, rather remix and create something new. And of course influences from my education, friends, and daily life played a role. 

You also experimented with colour for a bit. Why did you not explore that route further? 

This was a relic of my attempts at painting. But I came to the conclusion that it would be patronizing the viewer, in a way. Painted contours guide the focus too much. It restricts the viewer’s perception. Besides, all stones are naturally coloured. Leaving the stone untreated has a practical advantage as well. It doesn’t need to go into storage right away to be protected from dust and dirt and can easily be cleaned. 

You have quite a few followers on Instagram – how do you feel about social media and the art world? 

I’m a little torn. Instant coffee is not exactly good. The same is true for instant pudding. But yes, it’s a great tool to communicate, and very practical, especially at the moment, when not many exhibitions are taking place due to the pandemic. It also lets me discover other artists, and I even receive sales inquiries through it. I remember attending a dinner during an art fair in Spain, where the gallerists were showing each other artists on Instagram. I think a lot of them might use the platform to see what is well-received. But what if it isn’t? You’re always being put to the test. As an artist, you have to be able to free yourself from that. 

Speaking of the pandemic – how has it impacted your work this year?

During the strict lockdown, my studio was shut down, and I set up an alternative workplace in a small garden shed in Berlin Weissensee. But because of its small size and the lack of lifting space and machines, I could only work on small sculptures. But to be honest, it wasn’t such a bad thing for me. This exhibition was postponed a few months, art fairs cancelled – and I’m not sure I would have been ready in time otherwise. I would say it dialled everything down by 20 or 30%. I had time to revise and rework as much as I wanted to, and I was able to include more themes than usual. 

Looking ahead, how do you feel about the future of the art world under these changed circumstances?

I think it might be a good idea to slow down a little. The art world could use a bit of a deceleration. Less can be more. 

Interview by Sarah Schug

The exhibition runs through March 20, 2021.

Sorry We’re Closed

Rue de la Régence, 67
1000 Brussels, Belgium

Wednesday → Saturday

2PM → 6PM