Ralf Sander at FE McWilliam Gallery

Is it Medusa, or Osama Bin Laden? Nothing is as it seems at the Banbridge sculpture gallery

German artist Ralf Sander’s latest collection Transformations, currently on display in the FE McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge, is a fusion of opposites: a reconfiguring of commonly accepted perspectives and ideas of history, nationality and society. Sander's pieces are concerned with transformation and metamorphosis, the ways in which society pushes forward and the pre-conceptions we take for granted.

'For thousands of years we have erected stones in order to remember a specific point in our landscape,' Sander explains. 'You erect a gravestone to remember a person. Or a stone is erected to remember a war, or a hero. It is a gesture: a method of remembering. So I try and point at future possibilities: monuments for the future.'

The Berlin-born artist is continually on the move, studying, living and working in Germany, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Poland and Korea. The latter is his current home. However, this summer Sander is in Ulster, promoting and talking about Transformations, which is on show in the FE McWilliam gallery's Sculpture Garden for most of 2012, until October 27.

On the surface, it is a playful collection: each piece consists of two sheets of metal, set perpendicular to the other and fixed at the centre-point. This connection creates a kind of optical illusion, whereby what the viewer sees depends heavily on point-of-view.

One of the most intriguing pieces in the collection is entitled 'The Medusa Touch' (pictured above and below), which, from one direction appears as the head of the famous mythological creature, and from the other as the face of Osama Bin Laden. As you might expect, below the surface of each piece is a deeper, more poignant meaning.

'The Medusa Touch'


Sander's 'Lady-Bird Transformation' (pictured bottom), meanwhile, achieves the same effect, but with the images of a woman walking towards the viewer and the silhouette of a soaring sea bird. The version on display at the FE McWilliam gallery is a maquette of a sculpture that Sander has been commissioned to create for the Busan Film Centre in Korea.

Each piece is about changing perspectives, hence the title. This is evident not least in 'The German', a playful commentary on our general perceptions of German culture and the German people. It is an amalgamation of images of sausages, swastikas, footballs and lederhosen, to name but a few, which point out the ridiculousness of associating an entire people with single elements of history and culture.

I meet Sander in the FE McWilliam gallery, against the backdrop of Transformations, and begin by asking him about the optically ambiguous nature of his work.

Each image depends on your point of view, so where you stand is very important. If you stand on one side, you see one thing, but if you stand on the other side of the sculpture, you see something completely different. So, in the piece 'The Man Who Became An Aeroplane' (below), if you stand on one side, you see the German artist Joseph Beuys coming towards you, and if you look at it from a different angle, you see the image of an aeroplane.

Together, these images make sense, in a way, but you must change your own point of view in order to see them. Concerning the image of Bin Laden, it’s really about petrifaction. The classical idea of the Medusa is that, if she looks at you, you become stone. Well, the same could be said for the other image. We can talk about Bin Laden, we can discuss and exchange ideas, but if we want to get close to the truth, we become petrified.

You also have a knack for fusing the natural with the technological. It’s almost like an absurd dialectic within your work.

I don’t find the dialectic absurd. I see it when I work with natural energy, for example. Energy is neutral. It is not hot or cold. So when I show that it’s possible to make ice with solar energy, it illustrates that using heat energy isn’t always going to create something hot. This dialectic comes from Goethe’s Faust. Mephisto says, 'I am the spirit that denies, who always wants evil and always achieves good.' So this is the dialectic that I think about: you cannot judge things –good or bad, hot or cold, right or wrong – it all depends on your point of view.

We’ve already discussed Faust and the dialectics of Hegel. Is it fair to say that there is a definite German point of view behind your work?

Well, if you are born somewhere, or grow up some place, to a certain extent you cannot avoid it, you know? Maybe it does come from this, but it is not conscious. I actually live in Asia at the moment – and there, I am constantly being told what Europeans think, what they are, what they like, and all I can do is strongly disagree. I might often pass by a German-style bakery, for example, and some of the Asian people I know might say to me 'Oh, you should go in there, you’ll like that’, whereas in actual fact I prefer the local food much better.

On the other hand, there may be aspects of my culture, such as the Christian Church, which I often criticise in my work. But even though I do this, it is still an aspect of where I’m from. I find it very outdated to speak about nationality, about race.

'The Man Who Became an Aeroplane'


You can’t really escape from your origins, or the things that made you what you are...

But at the same time, doubt is very important within German culture. It is important to question things. But doubt is not just a German problem. I think it’s a very Western problem. In art, we doubt things, we question things. We think about how we can do things better. But, similarly, this is a question that I find also comes up in Asian culture.

I have been living in Korea for four years now, and this question of ‘how can we make things better?’ always comes up. They would never say ‘Oh, we have done something wrong’. This is a very European perspective to take. In Asia, it seems to be more a case of ‘we can do this better’.

You mentioned your criticism of the Christian Church – does that derive from this sense of doubt?

It is not just the Christian Church, it is authority in general. The Christian Church, obviously, is not a homogenous body – I know priests, I know very open-minded people in the Church. I worked for the Dominican Order in Mainz. I lived with them for a time.

I was invited by a Korean priest to spend time with him over Easter, which I found very nice. We had a good conversation and I am very interested in this subject. But at the same time, what I criticise – and, this is not through my art, this is a personal criticism – is the doctrine. This is wrong, this is right, this is good, this is bad. The earth is flat, we are the middle of the universe, and so on, and so on.

And you would extend that doubt beyond religion?

Yeah, of course. It is also political. It relates to society. That’s exactly the point: from my experience living in so many different places, this is where the doubt comes from. Asians are not the way Europeans think they are, and Europeans are not the way Asians think they are.

How did you become interested in the process of creation?

I grew up in Berlin, just on the edge of a forest actually. It was a pretty wild place, right beside the French military airport. All the men in my family were engineers, and my grandfather was a typical mad inventor. He had 28 patents and worked in the patent office between the two World Wars. He was fired in 1933 because he did not belong to the ‘right’ party. He didn’t want to join. He was actually actively resistant, which probably wasn’t good for him.

He was punished by the Nazis and forced to become a leader in the Hitler Youth. So he had to build big aeroplanes, and you can see there is always this dialectic: it wasn’t good or bad, he was simply forced to work. So I grew up being in his house, and looking around his workshop, which I loved. My father was a developing engineer at Volkswagen, and so he was also an inventor. The man who eventually became my step-father was a musician. He was a very creative person, but not gifted in the physical, technical sense.

It’s almost as if you are a fusion of those two elements: the engineer and the creative artist.

Yes, and my mother was a psychoanalyst. She was of the Jungian school.

You lived in West Berlin: what was it like growing up in a divided city?

On the one hand, it was very international. We grew up close to the army barracks, near the English boys. We also had a lot of contact with French people, and French culture. West Berlin was almost like a small island, you know? Of course, West German culture is very different from West Berlin culture. If someone wanted to run a business, they would usually leave West Berlin.

It was a dangerous, uncertain situation to be in. There were lots of students and lots of old people. The way people thought in West Berlin was very different, almost like a different country. It was a spirit of resistance, of bourgeois revolution. This gave way for some freedoms, which the rest of the country didn’t have.

Would you be able to select a favourite piece from this collection?

Possibly the Bin Laden piece, because of its connection with the Medusa figure. But I played around with the models for a while and began to feel it was too superficial, too much of a gag. The image of the skeleton rider, for example – it works as a piece, and people like it, but I felt there wasn’t enough background to it.

At the moment I’m working mostly with metal sheets, but I would like to develop the idea and create something more three-dimensional. This is much more difficult, and nobody has done it before, to my knowledge.

The ladybird piece, for example. This actually comes from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The novel’s protagonist is offered a life of priesthood, and he feels incredibly honoured. But as he is walking along a beach, he sees a girl standing in the water, and as if by magic, she appears to transform into a bird.

So I wanted to see if I could articulate this ‘magic’ as a sculpture, in order to transform something into its opposite: a bird flying becomes a person walking. But I want to perfect the sculpture, make it better. It can work in a flat, 2D form, or it can work as a real sculpture. So this is what I will be concerned with in the future: finding out which way works best, and how to improve it.

Transformations will be exhibited in the Sculpture Garden at the FE McWilliam Gallery until October 27.

'Lady-Bird Transformation'