“For me, it’s never about a message”
Three questions for Stephan Balkenhol

Stephan Balkenhol is one of Germany’s most renowned international sculptors. His works can be seen in many public places, among them Lörrach, where Balkenhol’s “Large Pillar Figure” has become one of the city’s trademarks. Following an extensive restoration, the sculpture, on loan from the Deutsche Bank Collection, has returned to Lörrach, where it is now on exhibit in the Burghof cultural center. Claudia Schicktanz, Senior Curator, Deutsche Bank, Art, Culture & Sports, talked to Stephan Balkenhol about his work.
Claudia Schicktanz: How do you go about planning a work for public space? And why did you develop the “Large Pillar Figure” for Lörrach?

Stephan Balkenhol: First of all, I have a look at the location and let myself be inspired by what’s there. I search out a spot that calls for a sculpture. In Lörrach, it was the image of a classical plaza whose center had not, however, been accentuated or given any weight. Acting on an mixture of self-awareness and irritation, I decided to fill this center, although the sculpture wasn’t intended to stand between people, but rather—and this is where the irritation comes into play—to move upwards and not be the likeness of some “important person” who deserves a monument, but of an “everyman” who quite naturally communicates with viewers. It’s comparable to the image of a concave mirror with a candle placed at its focal point: the candle’s flame fills the entire mirror and lends presence to everything around it.

You studied from 1976 to 1982, in other words, during a time in which abstract, minimalist, and conceptual positions prevailed in art, including sculpture. Why did you decide to work figuratively in spite of this?

During my studies, it was downright frowned upon to work figuratively. Figurative sculpture was irrelevant in the art of the 1970s—it was suspected of serving religious or political power. There was a kind of dictum: art had to be autonomous, separate from representation. I was interested in this prohibition and in the idea of carrying on the tradition of figurative sculpture, which had been cut off in modernism—but continuing it with new parameters.

As all of your sculptures, the “Large Pillar Figure” is entirely free of pathos or any form of emotional load. Why did you make this “neutrality” the trademark of your figurative works?

I had and continue to have this vision of creating sculptures that can’t be misused as the bearers of messages. Instead, I want to let them be questions, mirrors the viewer fills with content. And so, along with the negation of sociological and economic contexts, pathos formulae, and symbolically charged attributes, the work is chiefly about the openness and ambivalence in the sculpture’s expression, from which many different moods can be inferred—all moods, actually. I’m never interested in a message, but in the overall human being. And a human being is made up of a sum total of moods, or a juxtaposition, a superimposition of moods. I see my works as wooden mirrors for our fragile and contradictory selves. They offer a vehicle for projection and reflection.