Bernhard Gaul in conversation with the German painter and stage designer Mark Lammert
BG: Mark, the impression I get from what I know of your work, is that you are on the one hand clearly a painter. This seems to be the core of your activity, what you go back to, but then you are also drawn to the theatre. You were at times asked to act as visual advisor for theatre productions, and you have over the years produced a number of distinctive stage sets.
Those stage sets though are hardly the product of a painter with just passing interest in the theatre, they show thorough understanding of working with space and time, and how to provide quite literally playgrounds to be explored by performers and directors, working with or against inherited structures of the theatre, … They seem to be organically developed, in collaboration, as part of an overall production with thorough understanding of the theatre and how it works.
Even though there may be interruptions and slightly less continuity in your engagement, the theatre none the less appears to be an intrinsic interaction space you also avail of, for which you have specific competency and in which you must also have a keen and specific interest I assume.
How did this start? What was your initial interest in the theatre?
ML: I think that the narrative, the telling of stories in painting entered a different realm with the coming to an end of the history painting. Also through forms of modernism. If you, as it is the case in Germany, are in a situation then where theatre is – or at least was – the central art form for the last two hundred years, then it becomes a very formative impression from early on, from childhood. In East Berlin specifically theatres and theatre texts played an important role, in particular also a theatre scene characterised by people returned from exile after the war. I would see this as a possible source.
B.G.: As I understand it the theatre might have been a central location for all arts in East Berlin, especially at the time of the GDR, a place where people met.
ML: I think that’s true for Germany overall. I believe this to be a result of the city theatre system, or Goethe. It may actually have less to do with East Berlin than with Goethe. And then it has to do with Brecht. But certainly it applied to a higher degree to the East. Partially this has to do with the fact that there was relatively more leisure in the East, meaning more time to acquire that. The possession of time was bigger – I think this can be said without putting a value on it.
And the second aspect is that in post-war art forms the theatrical, through the dissolution of genre boundaries (like with the arrival of video art for instance) suddenly slipped into the realm of visual arts; that elements of theatre and theatrical forms conquered and took over visual arts. This suddenly also made engagement with images more important again. In that respect there is always (whether either to avoid it or to subvert it) an interest in the theatre.
Apart from that there is also another relatively simple reason: it’s enjoyable to be in company. We are not necessarily talking about working in a collective here, but it’s a pleasure every now again to be a group.
That’s an illusion of course, but at the theatre illusions have a beginning and an end.
BG: With respect to the topic of groups, the work space of a painter is usually one of isolation. I assume that’s true also for you…
ML: …absolutely, naturally…
BG: … but there is obviously still also the desire to work in a group. To what degree is this affected by a decidedly political understanding? An often referred to quote by Godard is the demand to make art in political ways – rather than to make political art; which Godard applied to film, but also often quoted at the theatre, especially German theatre, including people you collaborated with.
ML: My favourite Godard quote is “We all come out of the museum”. But the other one is valid too of course. Let’s put it this way: I have never fully understood why painting should be political. It is politically simply by virtue of its quality. I mean, when it is good then it is political, because it proves something which only humans can do.
Of course there are moments that have the capacity to create circumstances which have political implications. Guernica, I guess, would be the best example for this in the 20th century. But this wasn’t necessarily created with the intention to create political art; in this case art really happened to become political. But that shouldn’t be forced. I also have to say that especially because I am from the East, I get pretty annoyed about the attempt to sneak that same thing in through the back door again: not to discuss form, only content.
I am generally sceptical towards paintings that tell very much. Because there are archetypal images which should be re-examined time and again. They exist in every iconographical context and that’s where it becomes very interesting again. – But theatre is something different; at the core there is motion and space, which become a location through the collective engagement – the narrow moment of happiness [or luck, the German “Glück” can mean either], so to speak.
BG: There appear to be parallels between your paintings and your stage designs. Your stage sets, as far as I know them, are very abstract. They are quite literally playing fields, or even playgrounds, which give the impression that they are about finding others to play and experiment with. To create a space for oneself, also in an utopian sense, in which you can try something out, in which it is possible to elaborate things in serious, but also playful ways; an open and generous space.
To a degree that can also be found in the structure of your paintings, which again and again show some kind of body, at least that’s how I read it: a body or bodies in motion in space. What identifies theatre as an art form is that it is about physical presence, about the here and now, about physically being there through the presence of the body – which I also find in your painting.
To what degree is the process of painting for you related to the theatre; for instance to what an actor or performer experiences on stage – also in terms of exposure? Are there overlaps?
ML: I believe there might be overlaps in terms of creating a lot out of just a few elements. Let’s say: the old problem of expressing a lot with just a few colours, or to create a big physical presence with just a few elements. But generally there aren’t that many commonalities. There are specific reasons why I think that the spaces I built for the theatre are slightly different and also have a different impact.
That might have been most evident maybe at the second staging of Aeschylus’ The Persians in Epidauros, the relevance of that old Hebbel quote: “Beauty is depth of the plane”. Meaning: before which ground or base do you put something? That plays a very important role. And in addition there is also the effect of colour. These spaces are in this sense quite seriously dramaturgical machines, in some way (in the best case) co-players.
BG: My personal experience with the only stage set I have seen, which was the staging of Heiner Müller’s Philoktet by Josef Szeiler at the Berliner Ensemble in 1995, was that the overall theatre was opened up, essentially as a body of resonance for the performance, by the way the traditional stage was extended as a simple platform across the whole of the auditorium and the performance was translocated from the stage at the beyond to the centre of the theatre. It became indeed in this respect a co-player, or better “co-resonator”, which enabled certain things to happen that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Looking a bit closer at your paintings from that angle: The stage sets, as established, open up play areas; they create surfaces and planes on which the actors can move. The way you hang your paintings for exhibitions, the arrangements in those grid-like tableaus seem to provide similar circumstances for the viewer. A decentralisation, so to speak: the opposite of focus, a dispersion, which forces the viewer to move too – at least in the mind.
What importance do you put on these tableaus in the way you exhibit?
ML: They are important in so far as the paintings, if they are exhibited in a tableau or a grouping, then they can also be re-exhibited in other constellations. Each of these paintings must, of course, (and manages to do so I believe) be able to function in its own right. These are manoeuvres then which I conduct, when I make those arrangements and specific constellations come about in response to specific circumstances. But for me they are also always dissolvable again. In so far, if I would do that more often, it would reveal itself as working with the principle topic of transformation with recurring representatives. In this sense it does also have an element of “theatre flying under the radar”.
BG: You obviously paint series. Do you consider the constellations up front…
ML: … no …
BG: … never?
ML: I wouldn’t say never. It’s simply frozen storm or frozen time or stretched time. Such a block has a certain duration, a very long one… It would be fair to say that I work an extreme amount and accomplish relatively little in the time spent, in particular because the backgrounds of these paintings consist of a minimum of 15 layers. That’s truly an enormous amount of work; it can’t be done without time. Quite fundamentally this is a longwinded process out of which relatively few images are released or can be regarded as being finished.
BG: Does this mean that there are images, which don’t make it to the final stages?
ML: Every one must make it…
BG: I understand. That’s why it takes so long. Do you have an idea of time when you start?
ML: Always a wrong one. There is always hope it would be faster.
BG: I’d also like to talk about your drawings. The oil paintings I am familiar with are always relatively diffuse. The drawings, on the other hand, are usually quite clear. There seems to be a fundamentally different approach. Whereas painting is more or less always about physical presence, about a very direct and essential form of expression, the drawings seem to have an aspect of analysis, of something that is to be put in front of someone and examined from a distance. In that sense they are also stylistically quite distinct from your paintings. They are often very subtle. There are clear lines; at times you use a ruler or a compass.
A recurring topic is once again the exposure of the body, to open it up, so to speak, but in comparison with the theatre or the paintings where this is a metaphor, the drawings quite literally cut deeper; they go under the skin. They are full of bones, carcasses, ligaments – disassembled bodies or things that resemble body parts although not always clearly identifiable.
And there is a recurring horror: the drawings speak of disembodiment, of separations and fragmentations; analysis and dissection appear as violations of an organic whole, as torture, with references to unspeakable horrors of human history. Knut Ebeling and Carolin Meister, in an essay about your work books, point out the relationship of the reappearing grid as layout aid for anatomical studies, a quasi-scaffold on which to spread out the body, and the fact that throughout much of Western cultural history anatomical studies of the human body appear almost exclusively as crucifixions.
How do you see your praxis of drawing, as distinctive from or related to your painting?
ML: The relationship is essentially very trivial; there is no painting which doesn’t have a drawing as a foundation. It means that the paintings try to translate substrata of these drawings into colour, and with that in some way also into space – somehow they are trying to reduce the drawings to their essential dramatic core.
These drawings are made categorically within extreme congestion once a year. They are the third element of my work alongside the paintings and my work books, which are produced permanently, I mean regularly, on an on-going basis. In this sense the drawings are quite simply studies for paintings in a quite classical procedure of the craft of painting. I generally keep considering painting as a rather noble craft – which does require a certain amount of serious thinking, but that’s the case with every craft. In that respect this is a very classical working process for me, the same as for Pontormo, van Eyck, Rembrandt, whoever…
BG: Let me ask you in more detail about your work books, in which you also draw. It’s difficult to see from the outside where the boundaries lie to your general drawings, apart from the fact that there is always also text in the work books.
ML: Well, there is this extreme form of writing, of copying texts. These aren’t my texts but copied ones…
BG: … and they are also quite decidedly not sketch books. In the aforementioned essay they are regarded as a work space. I would even go further and almost describe the work books as a third interaction space alongside the theatre and exhibiting in galleries…
ML: … as little as possible exhibiting, I don’t like that. I prefer to work.
BG: Well, these workbooks I assume also have an element of enforcing discipline: what goes in there stays in there, whatever is faulty must level itself out over time. They are also, at least seen from the outside, a very personal space in which you expand yourself the most, in comparison to the theatre or the paintings, which always contain the body in front of the big open plane, the work books are filled to the brim. In terms of interaction I find it important though that they are also essentially public projects. You published a book about them. To which degree is it important to you that they are not just private work books?
ML: Not at all.
BG: Then let me ask you differently. You say exhibiting is difficult, what exactly is the problem?
ML: I just don’t like it very much. Well, once every few years, I do like to hold up the flag from the trenches but I don’t have an overwhelming desire for it. I know that. Of course I do like to exhibit every now and again and of course I am happy if people come to see it. But let’s put it this way: I can function quite well on my own. I don’t get depressed if I don’t exhibit for three or four years. I really don’t – maybe a little push once in a while for half an hour – but actually I don’t. Also because I believe that the term retrospective refers to an archaeological form of accounting for something. I mean, if you have done something then you should account for it and you shouldn’t get too tied up by what you do at the moment. I enjoy lately relating the things I have done 30 years ago to what I’m doing now. By now I develop an interest in this, in what it is to account for something. Also the work books are a collection of materials, in a way an account of my interests. Since painting, by definition, takes so much time there is a desire to account for it later. I find this quite peculiar.
BG: I notice that you use the term retrospective. In my understanding this isn’t something painters necessarily work actively towards.
ML: Well, this form of exhibiting permanently is really a permanent retrospective. That’s the problem. You create in a year let’s say five or six good paintings. In ten years that’s about 60; at this stage it’s worthwhile to exhibit. But we are also confronted with this system of exhibiting constantly, because the market continuously demands new works, which is like the pretence of a permanent erection. That, I have to say, doesn’t really make sense to me. Or let’s put it this way: it might be quite good sometimes to focus only on yourself as far as work is concerned.
This is a quite complex field also as far as income is concerned. But I am referring to an ideal here. The ideal is: show your banner – work – work – show your banner. – That happens also at the theatre: people do far too much.
BG: How is this for you then having art as a profession? You live from art. Is this a problem?
ML: It’s like it is for every artist: it mustn’t become a problem. That’s a very difficult and very personal issue. There are no rules for it. If you sell then it is more like Picasso, if not, then it’s more like van Gogh. There is no recipe. Not even a respectable answer. The ideal is rich wife or rich father, that’s clear. But as soon as you phrase it that way it’s already wrong. It’s a recognised problem of course. It applies to everyone, which in a sense also has an egalitarian effect, but it can’t be solved, I believe. I fear.
You have to work somehow, that’s all.
BG: I know you teach, too. What relevance does that have?
ML: That’s not easy to answer. Let’s say: you try, from a good distance (I use the [German] formal address with my students, for instance) to accompany a stretch of a path. And it’s a known thing, accompanying someone can be strenuous. If you engage with something it also follows you into your own things.
But I also see it, quite egotistically, as an opportunity to understand what these people feel, or what that generation feels. And with that emerges again what I felt when I was part of that generation. It’s like a game of distortion between one’s own youth and the youth of others.
You try to convey a certain sensual-tactile standard, a certain approach, not to portray it as the only valid way, but to offer it as an option.
BG: But I assume it is also an opportunity again for more direct interaction, in some sense again a counter realm to working in isolation in the studio. Generally I notice that for you there is also always that counter realm. To which degree is this a necessity? Is there an interchange, an equal balance? Or would you simply prefer to work more in the studio?
ML: I would love to work even more in the studio. And I am not so sure if painting isn’t a form of interaction too. After all it’s like that, you go through certain circumstances into a work space and you take things with you. And if you are good and focused then you leave your body at the door. Picasso once said that painters get so old because they leave their slippers at the door, because the time spent in the studio doesn’t count towards living time.
I don’t see a contradiction between working like this and wanting to interact. There is maybe the issue, that, if you worked with a model, as it was common once, then you had some direct interaction that way. There were at least two of you. Since this is usually not done anymore, this form of immediate interaction fell away too.
But I am not so sure if using modern terms like interaction really helps to capture the problem of solitude and society, of being in company, in its entirety. You have to imagine the whole thing in the context of the breaking away of the audience. Theatre, too, is potentially thinkable as being reduced to the makers, if nobody comes anymore. What happens then? Do they do it anyway? That’s the crucial question: Is it the result which has priority, or the process?
For me, without question, it’s the process.
BG: Thank you for the interview.
 In 2009, following a previous staging of the play also in collaboration with director Dimiter Gottscheff at Deutsches Theater, Berlin in 2006.
 Knut Ebeling and Carolin Meister: Gerüste. Das Zeichnen des Außen / Frameworks. Drawing from Outside. – In: Mark Lammert: Arbeitsbücher / Workbooks. – Düsseldorf 2005.
- Mark Lammert: Arbeitsbücher / Workbooks. – Düsseldorf 2005.
- Mark Lammert: Malerei 1997 – 2010.– Düsseldorf 2010.
Essays by Mark Lammert
- Godard Maler. Schönheit als Beute, Farbe als Verfremdung – alles ist Material.- In: Lettre International 91 (Winter 2010)
- Heroische Störung. Heiner Müller und Corneliu Baba – Kunst als Gegengift des Schreckens.- In: Lettre International 99 (Winter 2012)
A book about the stage sets is in preparation.
The interview was conducted in German, translation: BG.
All images © Mark Lammert
Bernhard Gaul is an Austrian born painter living in Co. Louth, Ireland.