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The physical properties of materials and other things

by Clementine Schack von Wittenau

In a catalogue about the artists`group ODIOUS from Berlin most members of which studied at Hochschule der Künste (HdK) in the class of the steel sculptor David Evison you will find an article about the “juggling with the physical properties of materials” (Quellenangabe1). There the author points out that it is important for the sculptor which colour the medium steel has, whether he confronts it with other materials or if he emphasizes its immanent properties and its expressiveness, further more if he works the material “directly”, for example forging or welding it and if he evokes associations in the recipient. The essay about the young group of sculptors was written in 1988, one year before the political changes in Germany.

In the same period of time Wilken Skurk, who was born in Dresden, completes a training as an ornamentation belt-maker and after that works as a gold- and silversmith. In 1992 he starts to study Fine Arts at Humboldt Universität in East Berlin, a course of study which is later abolished. This is the reason why he changes to Hochschule der Künste to the class of David Evison in 1998 after taking his first final university examination. There he becomes a master student in 2001. One might ask what an “ambitious young sculptor”, as his teacher called Wilken Skurk (Quellenangabe 2), is doing in international competitions of glass craft (Quelle3) and even in a glass gallery?

During his studies Wilken Skurk rarely works with the material glass. He does not use it at all in his early works. In his sculpture “the failing dancer” from 1998 for example, the artist clamps an elegantly curved wooden wedge into a stone to convey the inability of the dancer to move no matter how hard he tries. In his “Bodo Fragments” which he made one year later the artist starts to use glass, combining it with cast iron volumes. In these sculptures the glass divides six-foot-high torsos in the middle like ruffled cuffs. Only since 2000 the artist has integrated glass in his work in the same natural way like he uses other materials. So for example in his work “Corner” where two different pieces of steel and glass form the sides of two triangles which are wedged together. The sides which lead off from a centre and reach towards the diagonals seem to form a unified whole; transparency contrasts with black density, one material intensifies the quality of the other.
All these works anticipate many aspects of Wilken Skurk´s future artistic development. Clearly he is a sculptor who works with different materials in parallel, as there are cast iron, steel, wood, stone, concrete or glass. It is important to him to work the material himself. Only for his work with glass he asks an experienced glazier from Baruth (Mark Brandenburg) for help. Under his supervision the glazier founds the casting moulds which the artists welds from steel plates before. Wilken Skurk “confronts” the different materials with each other, he contrasts hard with soft, brittle with flexible, rough with smooth,transparent with opaque and he exchanges properties which are attributed to certain materials. So a surface of glass can be cracked and bulky, one of iron soft and smooth. Materials can have their natural colours or in contrast be dyed like another material, so wood can look like stone and concrete like wood.

But it is not this handling of the material which makes Wilken Skurk`s sculptures so different from others. What is so special about his sculptures is rather that starting from a certain subject he relates materials to the form and with their interaction evokes associations in the recipient. Skurk says about himself that he is a deeply political person, a fact that necessarily finds expression in his work. His sculpture “Chess Game” from 2003 which is elaborately made of synthetic material and gold leaf looks at the first glance harmless. Rectangular blocks of glass are lined up in two rows facing each other. But on closer inspection one sees logos of companies on the front of the figures, for example the sign of Daimler-Crysler and Telekom on one side and on the opposite side the logos of General Motors and City group. Wilken Skurk remarks that his work reflects today`s commercially orientated world where European and American concerns fight for the best position on the global market like on a chessboard.

The artist continues to deal with the subject economical interconnections. For his works “Global Player I and II” from 2003, which were exhibited for the Jutta Cuny-Franz Memorial Award 2005 (Quelle4) the artist is inspired by the logos of the internationally active concerns Daimler-Chrysler and Deutsche Bank. Both sculptures are taller than a man and abstract. The first one consists of two steel struts reaching from a central axis into the room like a monumental circle. In their middle they bend and poke into the ground while a third strut of cast glass bends dangerously under the weight of the heavy metal. The Mercedes Star is vaguely recognizable. But much more impressive for the recipient is the aggressiveness of the wide form which is unstable in itself but nevertheless one can imagine that if there is any pressure from outside or inside it is ready to lash back. In the other work the logo of “the biggest bank in Germany” is the starting point for the artist. The square is transferred into three dimensions, the form is open to all sides. Rectangular beams, mainly of steel, form a frame, one is put on the other like a gable. On the ground beams of cast glass creep in all directions like tentacles seeming invisible because of their transparency.

Creating his sculptures Wilken Skurk does not follow a rigid canon of form but reflecting a subject he creates a particular expression from which a diversity of forms derives. In this sense the form of steel and glass in “Global Players” is modern, so to speak open-minded. In comparison the much-discussed sculpture “brotherly kiss” (Quelle 5) looks formally archaic according to the artistic intention to impressively revive a historical event. Inspired by an old photograph in which Breschnew and Honecker, the leaders of socialist states, join in a brotherly kiss, Skurk combines two blocks of very different materials. A heavy rough-hewn wooden block with a suggested head and arm “embraces” a slim “body” of cast glass which clutches “him” tightly at the top of the head. But ironically it seems that the wooden head which is open like scissors functions as nutcrackers and is going to crash the glass between its sharp teeth.

Wilken Skurk says that working on his favoured subject “connections, encounters, relationships” he wants to express restrained tensions and conflicts not only from the point of view of social criticism but also reflecting everyday life. This is proved by a recent series of works with the title “Berlin I, II, III” which was named “At Home” before. They are inspired by arial photographs of the city of Berlin where the artist lives with his family. The sculptures are seen from bird`s-eye view as well, one can recognize foreshortened roofs, a church tower and views into a narrow courtyard. The figures on the top which are so to speak seen from above are made of cast iron or of bronze rubbed with white colour. In contrast, the walls, that means the figures that are fixed to the ground, are made of cast glass. The roofs have a relatively smooth surface with a pleasant touch and they are slightly curved. In comparison, the glass walls have cracks, calluses and scars; the material is definately not beautiful or brilliant, rather ugly and shapeless, the forms are clumsy and bulky. But still the glass which gleams bluish or greenish according to the light obviously has the role to give the impression of weightlessness and immateriality which is why David Evison talks of “disembodied works” (Quelle 6) Because of their transparency the houses seem to hover off the ground, they seem to dissolve into air, they seem unreal like a reduced townscape seen from a plane. The restrained tension lies not only in the contrasts of material and form, most of all it is expressed in the conversion of heavy figures resting on seemingly incorporeal ones which in terms of physics is absurd. With this the artist makes the content of his series of works even more convincing.

Despite his intensive work with glass Wilken Skurk is not a “glass sculptor”. Nevertheless he could give important stimulus to the glass scene because he uses the material glass just like any other material and combines it with other materials as he likes. Terms like “aesthetics of material” have no meaning to him, he conveys his artistic messages only through form, the material he uses is only a means to an end for him. These statements sound banal to him as a sculptor, in the glass scene they could have an explosive effect. The discussion about his work could be fruitful and he could have the role of a catalyst which answers the question from the beginning of the essay.


(1) Beck, Rainer. ODIOUS: Konkret-Organische Raumplastik. ODIOUS. Gisela von Bruchhausen, Klaus Duschat, Klaus H. Hartmann, Gustav Reinhardt, Hartmut Stielow, David Lee Thompson. Ausst.Kat. Berlin 1988, S. 12 ff. Ihren Namen (odious, engl. hassenswert, abscheulich) haben sich die Künstler gegeben, weil ihnen in der HdK immer vorgeworfen wurde, sie machtn bei ihrer Arbeit Staub und Lärm. Die Gruppe besteht heute noch. Wilken Skurk kennt einige einige der Bildhauer, obwohl sie eine Generation älter sind als er.

(2) Evison, David. „Zum Werk von Wilken Skurk“. Unzerbrechlich. Wilken Skurk. Ausst.Kat. Berlin 2002, n.pag.

(3) Ricke, Helmut. „Jutta Cuny-Franz Memorial Award 2003“. Neues Glas / New Glas, Nr. 3 (2003), S. 79-80, Abb. Ricke, Helmut. „Jutta Cuny-Franz Memorial Award 2005“. Neues Glas / New Glas, Nr. 3 (2005), S. 75-78, Abb. (abgekürzt: Ricke 2005).

(4) Ricke 2005, (s. Anm. 3), S. 77-78.

(5) Ricke 2005 (s. Annm. 3), S. 78. Andrea Breitengraser. „Wilken Skurk: ‚Bruderkuss‘“. Pressenotiz, 1.9.2005. Veit Stiller. „Breitengraser jetzt ‚contemporary sculpture gallery‘“. Die Welt, 16.9.2005.

(6) Zit. a.a.O. (s. Anm. 2).