John von Bergen by Samuel Jablon

Sculptor and installation artist John von Bergen pulls the emotional and cerebral trigger. Samuel Jablon speaks with him here re: site-transience, urban claustrophobia, and the so-called “honesty of materiality.”

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John von Bergen, Miami Gun, 2011, water pistol merged with steel and wood parts from a .357 Magnum, 11 × 5 × 11½ inches. Photograph by Denis Darzacq.

I first met John von Bergen by answering an ad looking for a studio assistant in Brooklyn, and then again last summer partying and going to openings in Berlin. Many of his projects engage architecture as horrific theatre, blurring the borders of sculpture, space, and reality. He creates situations that alter exhibition rooms by affixing structures to walls that blend seamlessly into each other, creating what I consider a somewhat post-apocalyptic experience. One recent sculpture that challenges concepts of definition was created with mixed parts of a water gun and a real .357 Magnum. In this interview, John and I discuss his practice and artistic sensibilities.

Samuel Jablon First off, will you explain your work?

John von Bergen My drawings, sculptures, and installations all stem from multiple interests, but share a connection in that they deal with some process of change, relate to an uncanny aesthetic, and in many cases try to invite a critique of what can be considered real. Many of the installations involve the architecture of a space and start off by considering the wall as a transient skin, either shedding, stretching, hiding something, or breaking apart in an unexpected way.

SJ What specific qualities are you after in your projects?

JvB I like the roundabout ways one can arrive at interpreting experience through absurd encounters or unfamiliar situations. So for instance, a range of different materials may be incorporated into representing a violent simulation, conceived out of imagining an altercation between a physical object and the imitation of a physical object. Projects are not necessarily dependent on any particular reference or theme, as there are many different things interesting me at different times. But I usually try to find a balance between layering cerebral and emotional triggers, and in the process try to witness something I don’t quite understand myself.

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John von Bergen, Chronic #2, 2010, polymer-gypsum, graphite, rust paint, wall paint, 63 x 108 x 13½ inches. Collection of Berlinische Galerie, Berlin. Photograph by Henning Moser.

SJ How do you start a project—what gets you thinking?

JvB With site-specific installations, concepts tend to develop out of details in a room that may feel unique to me in some way. I may try to find something to obsess over, something that feels like part of a conversation that I want to join in on. But it all depends.

One of the more extreme examples was from some years ago when I was invited for a solo show at the former Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, a pretty unique gallery space. They had represented Polke, Tuttle, even Beuys back in his day, a lot of established artists. But the space was so far from the typical white-cube situation: windowless with a brick and marble interior. One room was covered completely in parkett (and I’m not referring to the art magazine). That had me thinking for months of possible directions. I even prepared a portfolio of interior photographs after visiting the space, and would look at the pictures before going to bed at night. I was hoping to remember nightmares the next day that could trigger something in the studio!

But in many cases for more neutral settings I may imagine an installation solution that is not so directly in dialogue with the architecture. For instance Chronic #2 had been shown last year in both Berlin and Amsterdam in back-to-back exhibitions, which was an intense production, but worked out quite well. In the end it was not so much site-specific, but rather “site-transient.”

SJ For your exhibition “Whip Lash” at Smack Mellon, you wrote in your statement that it was inspired by the apocalyptic feeling of subways grinding away over your head in DUMBO. Could you expand on this?

JvB It was recalling a paranoid sensation, and the project in some ways grew out of that. I remember standing on a street corner near Smack Mellon and feeling horrified by the subway noises above, which just ripped at my eardrums. I experienced this bizarre sensation of urban claustrophobia, but then pulled into this amazing sight of the Manhattan skyline, which is really breathtaking. I don’t know, maybe living in Europe all these years has just softened me?

The streets themselves are also fascinating—they don’t fit into any logical definition of a street. I think they really are so much more about something to admire, like an archeological artifact after some war, as opposed to something one drives over with rubber tires. The Smack Mellon space can also feel overbearing but in a different kind of way, as I found the architecture so dominating. For me, it had to be the subject to engage with for an installation.

SJ What have you been working on recently?

JvB There’s one new installation I am about to build up here in Berlin for an upcoming show at Autocenter that continues on with this “Chronic” series. I’m excited as the exhibition touches on those seemingly dogmatic painting concerns usually associated with the American Modernist ideology. I’ve also been experimenting with a lot of newer and smaller tests and studies, extensions of bigger projects completed within the last year or so.

But there was something really new that evolved during a recent residency in Miami. I was getting take-out food one day in Little Haiti and next to the register was a stack of postcards for a gun shop. That somehow shocked me. I grabbed one, and an idea to work with the subject of a gun grew from there. I figured out how to get the right parts to build this Frankenstein-like sculpture that combines a vintage water gun with parts from a real .357 Magnum. The gun sculpture is aesthetically balanced between the toy and the real. It’s crazy, but I just brought it home to Berlin after successfully convincing police and airport security in Miami, New York, and Berlin that all the gun parts were only for art. The process of legally transporting the “piece” has been a work in itself!

SJ What do you feel your audience experiences when they walk into one of your installations?

JvB I think I may be offering different experiences at different times. There is often a theatrical element with a lot of the projects that can pull people in who normally may not be so excited about contemporary art. I find that very rewarding. At times the final effect for me has been a lot more important than the idea of the lasting sculpture, the “honesty of materiality.” I also think there is so much potential to take found objects and fabricated materials, mix them around, use casts from molds, use paint, experiment, then throw it all together so any concrete assertion of process becomes blurred. It actually took some time before I could really embrace this, especially when doubts surfaced as to whether there was too much reinvention going on. But these problematic material relations became an important part of a dialogue that tries to touch on problematic concepts. They may all be ingredients to help an audience connect, or at least invite a response.

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John von Bergen, Hang Nail (Part 1), 2011, steel nails, jute, epoxy, graphite, ½ × 10 × ½ inches. Mikesell Collection, Miami. Photograph by Denis Darzacq.

SJ You said, “The effect for me has been a lot more important than the idea of the lasting sculpture…” Could you expand on this, in relation to the impermanence of your work?

JvB With “lasting” I consider the solid, strong materials that spell out “sculpture” in capital letters, in this built-to-last-forever classical sense (which I think I stopped believing in after working student jobs for art conservators). I, of course, want my projects around for a while longer, at least most of them. But there is also, at times, a fragility to my work that in many ways may be a pain to deal with, but also reinforces my concept of sculpture, fitting into these different kinds of awkward relationships; like heavy vs. light, real vs. fake, even funny vs. scary. Perhaps this grows out of a resistance to implement materials in a strictly purist sense, especially when the surface is ultimately what we read and experience. So there is a combination of accepting these vulnerable aspects of fragility, yet still allowing the aesthetics of the piece to play center stage, regardless of material concerns. Some recent pieces made in Miami actually dealt with fragile pieces of drawing paper blending into walls, and now one of them is installed at a collector’s home down there. So in some ways “permanent” and “vulnerable” are not necessarily exclusive characteristics.

This reminds me of when years ago I was working in a museum in NYC and helping to install a bronze sculpture by Linda Benglis. It wasn’t large, maybe a bit smaller than a basketball, but it had been cast in solid bronze and weighed a fortune. With the right planning a group of us used a forklift to get it safely installed against the wall, which had an I-Beam reinforced behind it just for this work. In many ways I felt we could really experience that work in an intimate way that the viewers to the museum couldn’t begin to have, the weight and scale being a wonderful paradox. And these questions concerning materiality have stayed with me over the years. So one can argue of course that “metallic paint” is absolutely not the same as metal, and I couldn’t agree more. But the effect of looking like metal is at times enough for me. It says what needs to be said. It’s the idea of metal, and the idea is enough. But maybe sometimes it is real metal. So the fallacy of these “F-X” materials in conjunction with the real materials has also become a crucial part in all of this. And the occasion to bring real metal into these projects is still there, as I don’t imagine any conditions really being fixed.

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John von Bergen, Whip Lash, 2010, polymer-gypsum, rust paint, wall paint, graphite, 14 × 45 × 6.5 feet. Site-specific installation at Smack Mellon, Brooklyn. Photograph by Etienne Frossard.

SJ And how does this fit into the context of the Smack Mellon Project?

JvB The installation Whip Lash was basically destined for destruction before it was even made. That was actually an intense experience, not to mention a bit emotional, to rip that down after the show was over and toss it. I had many people ask me “Why destroy it? You should try to sell it… get a museum to buy it!” And of course I’m always flattered to hear that kind of compliment, but have to laugh at the same time. There was no other reasonable solution, living in Europe and not having a huge storage space in USA. Also, it could never have been the same experience exhibiting it outside of that building, as it was so extremely site-specific. So honestly, if it were to be reinstalled elsewhere, the most justifiable scheme for me would involve ripping out the actual pillars from Smack Mellon’s space and bringing them with the work (which would have been quite unlikely!). And also the piece requires a 60-foot long wall, so even if I was under the radar of the right museum or collector, owning an installation like that has many imperceptible challenges. It was exciting to produce, but it was extreme, and in some ways, a bit insane, nevertheless, a very important step for my work.

John von Bergen’s upcoming exhibition “a painting show” curated by Aaron Moulton at Autocenter in Berlin opens April 15th.

Samuel Jablon is a painter and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work explores travel, interaction, daily experience, and an individual madness/obsession with absurdity, contemplation, and humanity.

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