A conversation between Raphael Hefti and Phyllida Barlow at her home in London on a rainy Sunday morning in December 2011.
Raphael Hefti For me the relationship to handcraft, to the people who produce things, is very important because I’m interested in technique regardless of which category of production it comes from. I love visiting factories, discovering something and asking them how it works. It can happen that I also discover an interesting ‘misproduction’. I then try to convince these people to push the mistake further until something new comes out of it.
Phyllida Barlow The process behind the work is interesting. But the question is, how much do you want to show, how much do you expect your viewer, your audience or even yourself as the first viewer to be interested in all this at the end? To put it bluntly, why should we be interested in this process other than as an interesting way of intervening in something that usually has a highly commercial outcome and turning that process into art, if you like? There is a narrative and there is an object, are the two things together or apart?
RH I would say that the narrative and the object are together, are inseparable. I’m interested in collaborating with industry as a part of my work. With the museum glass works I can control the outcome maybe 50% and the other 50% relies on what the factory does, their regular process and its imperfections. It’s not that I go to a factory and just tell them what to do. I ask ‘can we push this mistake to make something new?’ With my intervention, something new is created, a kind of ‘détournement’ of the normal way of things. My direction of the process is intended to create something new away from, or in subversion of, the typical outcome. And of course this new process is prone to its own mistakes, to accidents and not 100% under my control.
PB I want to ask you a question about Gerhard Richter. I’m interested in the idea of light, which I think is incredibly problematic when it becomes an object, how you transfer light from an ephemeral transient state into trapping it as a static thing. And it interests me how Richter used an apparatus in order to enable him to make his observations about light being trapped as though he was trying to still this ‘thing’ of light and reflection.
RH Are you talking about where he had several sheets of glass behind each other, held together, and you see yourself kind of blurry?
PB Yes, it sort of breaks up the image and that is to do with refraction of light, isn’t it? I think he’s inventing an image, which to me comes back to something that you’re saying about an image. But these works, are they in-between image and object? Where do they sit?
RH The relationship of object to image is not my point of departure. I’m interested more broadly in the properties of materials. Museum glass originally is designed as an invisible object, almost a non-object that you aren’t supposed to notice. By adding several layers of this anti-reflective coating the original function of the material is reversed. The coating breaks the light, which then appears as colour, depending on the ambient light. Some of them are transparent, some of them very opaque. What does one see when the work is in front of the window? I’m exploring how the works are interacting with the qualities of the space they’re in. So I see these questions as existing somewhat outside of the image ⁄ object binary. Of course they have aspects of both but it’s not the only way they can be considered.
PB I think what interests me about work that comes from a very technical, high-tech process, is my desire to ground that, to bring it back to something very real, something very close or intimate if you like. You talked about the handcraft of it, and I thought that was fascinating. I’m thinking of the casting process you have used and at what point the mould of the thing you’re casting becomes even more interesting than the object. You think of people like Medardo Rosso who incorporated the mould into his sculptures, or even Rodin who took sections of cast objects and sections of the mould and literally reconstructed the figure from the two components as if he was arguing that the process itself is integrated into it and it’s no longer a hierarchy, it’s no longer being dominated by this incredible technology. Where do you sit in relationship to that, with the team of people, the engineers, the craftspeople, the factory people? Do you think there is something you’re talking about there — the mistakes that fascinate you, how far could that go, what happens if the glass breaks?
RH I think for me this is the key position: does the craftsman let me see what he’s doing, is he willing to show me what he’s doing? If someone shows interest in your work, even its mistakes, then something new can come out of it.
PB At what point do you want to begin to contrive the accidents, so that they’re almost the heart of the work? It shows the human presence in an otherwise robotic procedure; is that something that you’re working towards, where the accidents in this process are possibly more interesting? Or is it a marriage of the two?
RH I think it’s more like a marriage. On the one hand, my relation to the process and the workers, on the other my relationship to the final work. The work Replaying the Mistake of a Broken Hammer emerged from my time as an apprentice. During one endless week we were filing a piece of metal super precisely to produce a hammer. On the last day we had to heat the steel to harden it, and between the two heating stages, I dropped it and it broke like glass. I think it’s fascinating how steel can become so brittle and fragile. I wanted to revisit this mistake by creating a work, putting steel through the hardening process, but interrupting it before completion. It has been hardened but remains brittle, and this beautiful change in colour also results from the process.
PB It’s quite threatening … the human intervention, the flesh, the blood, the warmth of the human against this. And also this as a kind of weapon in the space interests me. I think this is how you say you are using the space, and the space has a materiality. One of the things I find a very significant factor is the weight of the glass, which means that gravity is also going to be an important component of the space. You have the light, the wooden floor, the walls and the reflection — the language of reflection and non-reflection contained in quite a pictorial, painterly way. But gravity holds the works to the ground and I’m just seeing if this rod is almost able to defy gravity, not literally so, but it could even be on the ceiling. It’s an interesting foil, an interesting argument against the limitations of these big heavy glass sheets. Well I think what has made me think of that is the idea of capturing the thing that shouldn’t really be present — it is a bit magical, this object.
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Raphael Hefti (b. Biel-Bienne, Switzerland, 1978) completed his MA in 2011 at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. He works between London and Switzerland and this year won the Art Award Canton Zürich 2011. He completed an apprenticeship in Electronics and Mechanics and studied Photography at Ecal, Lausanne (1993–1997). His recent solo exhibitions include ‘327 Different Sounds’, Coalmine Galerie, Winterthur, Switzerland (2011) and ‘Beginning With The First Thing That Comes To Mind’, Fluxia, Milan (2011). Group shows include: ‘Magical & Poetical Structures — New Existentialism’, Kunstzeughaus Rapperswil-Jona (2011); ‘How to Work (More For) Less’, Kunsthalle Basel (2011); ‘The Sun Is The Tongue, The Shadow Is The Language’, Ancient & Modern Gallery, London (2010); ‘New Contemporaries 2010’, A-Foundation, Liverpool & ICA London (2010); ‘Things in the Air’, Museum im Bellpark, Switzerland (2009). He is represented by Ancient & Modern Gallery, London.
Phyllida Barlow is an artist who lives and works in London.
Supported by Pro Helvetia, Canton of Berne, City of Biel ⁄ Bienne and Glas Trösch AG.