by Dan Klein
Wilken Skurk is an artist of his time and of his place whose work captures the spirit of New Berlin. He was born in 1966 in Dresden and grew up in the Hartz Mountains as a citizen of the German Democratic Republic where the prescriptive rules of state education left little room for talent that was not immediately apparent. He was something of a slow starter even though in his own mind it was quite clear to him from an early age that he wanted to be an artist. His father was a dental surgeon and as a boy Wilken Skurk was fascinated with the intricate wirework of corrective dentistry Instead he settled on learning the trade of a costume jeweller in nearby Quedlingen and enrolled in a yearlong course that would train him to become a jewellery designer. The end of this course in 1989 coincided more or less with the fall of the Berlin Wall. He now had new found freedom to investigate the possibility of pursuing further studies as an art student, which he was determined to do. He was accepted at Humbolt University in Berlin for a course in sport and the arts destined to earn him qualifications to teach those subjects. It was not until he transferred to HdK (the University of the Arts) in Berlin at the age of twenty-six that he was finally able to concentrate all his efforts on sculpture.
In other languages the momentous events of November 1989 in Berlin are referred to as ‘The Fall of the Berlin Wall’. The Germans refer to it as ‘Die Wende’ which more graphically describes the transformation that has occurred after reunification as a whole and most particularly in Berlin. Over close to two decades now a city divided in every way, geographically, politically, intellectually, socially and aesthetically has knitted together to become an exciting new European cultural centre. For a perceptive individual like Wilken Skurk living through those changes first as an art student and subsequently as a young artist has been an important source of inspiration. He came to Berlin from the socialist background of his early formative years and at first hand experienced change on a scale not given to many art students. Personal and professional relationships coloured by the new political and social landscape were transformed and living through the processes of change, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, coloured the young artist’s thinking. Berlin became the new seat of parliament: the neglected Reichstag building was reborn both architecturally and politically. ‘Unter den Linden’ once drab and colourless came to life as the smartest new avenue in town with its showily refurbished or newly built embassies and hotels. The captains of German and international industry vied with each other with exhibitionist architecture that shouted globalism. The rush to impress and rebuild involved as many drawbacks as benefits. The urban landscape and the city skyline changed beyond recognition and Wilken Skurk’s work documents the excitement, the uncertainty, the duality and the aesthetics of those changes in various different ways.
From an artist’s point of view one of the most notable aspects of this transformation was contained in the city’s new construction plans. The largest new building site in the world attracted the elite of German as well as international architecture. Berlin was a showcase for new materials and new shapes, which found their way into all the arts. Against this background Wilken Skurk developed his own personal language as a sculptor. Architecture could be anything from super object to mixed media sculpture. Norman Foster’s steel and glass dome sits above the Reichstag like a head ornament, more body jewellery than roof. I.M. Pei’s addition to the Museum of Natural History is pure Constructivism. Liebeskind’s truly inspired Jewish Museum building combines zinc cladding, concrete, slate and the greenery of olive branches as if they were always destined to be used together by architects. It is the material and conceptual freedom of the new architectural Berlin that underlies Wilken Skurk’s attitude to sculpture.
As an art student at the HdK Wilken Skurk studied under the British sculptor David Evison whose work is reminiscent of Anthony Caro’s groundbreaking large steel constructions that moved sculpture off the plinth and on to the floor. Skurk’s earliest pieces had been figural, torsos and such like, but he very soon abandoned those in favour of abstraction, encouraged by the school to go in that direction. The last vestiges of the figure appeared in Skurk’s ‘Bodo Fragmente’ from 1999, one of the earliest works to combine cast iron and glass, though the glass in this work does not yet take on the seminal role that it plays in his later work. From the very beginning he had mixed his materials, combining wood with metal or stone, perhaps as a result of his early aspirations to work as a jeweller.
It was whilst at HdK that he first encountered glass as a material to work with. A chef of the metal department had organised a visit to a glass facility in Wernigerode In a recent statement about his own work he says ‘Glass is the primary material I work with, cast glass in combination with some other material’. He has no desire to make the glass elements he uses in his work by himself. None the less his technical involvement in the casting process has been both original and inventive. He is probably the only artist who uses steel plates lined with to construct the moulds in which his glass elements are cast. Piles of them waiting to be welded together into moulds lie around his workshop in a green suburb North of Berlin among a cluster of low shed like buildings, formerly an East German explosives factory. The steel moulds are packed with clear, blue or white glassFold marks, lines and small cavities that happen during casting all give his glass the slightly raw quality that he likes.
Invariably an idea begins with an imagined glass shape in Wilken Skurk’s head that acts as a launch pad for further development. He does not work from preliminary drawings. It is in his mind’s eye that the glass forms take shape. Contrary to what one might expect from heavy sculptural work he uses glass more as foundation than building block, as the strongest rather than the most vulnerable of materials. Since much of his work is about deconstruction (taking things apart and reconfiguring them to give them new meaning) this reversal of material roles goes to the heart of his thinking, which centres around the way in which relationships of every kind, whether they be industrial, political, social, local or global, change or determine our lives. ‘My approach is narrative’ he says ‘but the end result is abstraction’. Thoughts and ideas are by their nature abstract. Most of us formulate them using words, but the abstract artist translates them into three-dimensional narrative which can be even more expressive, taking concept beyond language.
Wilken Skurk turns his thoughts into mixed media constructions using glass in combination with wood, iron or bronze. Ideas are sparked off by symbols or symbolic events of different kinds, or even by just a word. Sometimes an idea is used only once or twice: at other times it can lead to a whole body of work Sometimes it is an icon that sets his mind working, sometimes an event. . His chosen titles act as clues, ‘Sontag’, ‘Beziehung’, ‘Himmel’ ,‘His and Hers’ ‘Schachspiel’. The allegorical associations of a Chess game are unending and have been an inspiration for several of his sculptures. His comments about chess are indicative of the thinking behind his work. ‘The history of Chess is one of the rise and fall of whole civilisations, of murder and intrigue, heroes and lovers, cowards and thieves. No other game is so provocative. It is dramatic, secretive, some kind of fairy tale, a microcosm of society’. In a very different way the changing Berlin skyline has fired his imagination. All in turn have been background fodder for his abstract imagery, and of particular significance to someone living through a period of change that has shaped the global picture and more specifically the city where he lives.
In Global Player I & II from 2003 the Mercedes three point star and the Deutsche Bank logo are deconstructed, symbols that can instil as much admiration as revulsion because of all they stand for. In Global Player I the three point star has taken on the oversize character of some kind of giant virus that is both visually seductive and sinister. In each sculpture Skurk’s choice of materials and material finishes are carefully considered. Here the steel elements have a quality of shiny metal about them that may possibly refer to the body work of large black limousines, but not necessarily so. In Global Player II the same materials are used. The bold diagonal stripe of the Deutsche Bank logo has been re-located outside its normal position within a square giving an impression of disintegration. Verbal interpretation such as this should not be taken too literally. The important thing is that the new sculptural forms born from their related symbols are powerful in themselves.
In Bruderkuss from 2004 the materials chosen are different. Here carved oak and cast glass are locked in a symbolic embrace that is an allusion to an old photograph in which Brezhnev and Honeker hug one another. The implications of two very different but rigid materials embracing are open to wide interpretation. Two stiff forms in close bodily contact clearly refer to two human beings and the space left between them is again open to interpretation. The suggestive nature of Skurk’s abstract three-dimensional narrative gives his work its strength.
Wilken Skurk’s most recent body of work, begun in 2005, once again confirms him as first and foremost a sculptor whose main inspiration is drawn in some way from Berlin. The Berlin series is the most lyrical work he has done to date. It was inspired by aerial photography of Berlin, an art from to which the ever-developing skyline of the city has attracted a number of photographers. Here the old and the new sit shoulder to shoulder. Sloping roofs next to skyscrapers and old next to new signify the mix of tradition and innovation. It was this work that earned Wilhelm Skurk the Alexander-Tutsek Foundation Award in 2005 as a participant in the Coburg Glass Prize. The materials used are cast glass and bronze. In his catalogue statement he says ‘The duality of materials in my work springs from my interest in the differing tensions within each material. A determining factor for me, both with regards to content and to form, is the contrast between weak and strong, large and small…..My aim with these different building formations is to represent different situations, how one’s own home as a last bastion of refuge is called into question. The foundations are of glass’.
A touching detail within the body of these works is a section of bronze casting taken directly from a bath tub surround, a reference to domesticity and to the central role of home in our lives.
In this work glass plays a dual role of weakness and strength, fragility and solidarity. Materials symbolically change their identity and along with the change of identity comes changed significance. Bronze is patinated to look like concrete. Glass takes on the role of steel. Sturk uses materials and his own very individual form language to express how things have changed since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, since ‘Die Wende’.
The body of work that Wilken Skurk has produced to date earns him a place as a significant sculptural presence in Berlin. The museum of contemporary art housed at the Hamburger Bahnhof with its construction of iron girders and glass has been refurbished to become a state of the art permanent exhibition space. That building is about tradition and renewal and embodies the new spirit of Berlin in the same way as the work of this young artist does. His sculpture deserves to be seen there.