The Meaning of a Circle: Marcus Nelson, Tim Plamper, and Hannah Weidner in Conversation

Interview /  November 2023

The Meaning of a Circle: Marcus Nelson, Tim Plamper, and Hannah Weidner in Conversation 
by Marcus Nelson, Tim Plamper, and Hannah Weidner

This conversation was had between Marcus, Tim, and Hannah as their exhibition together, A Tragedy in Three Acts at GROVE Berlin, prepared to close in August of this year. Set aside editorially, it has been revisited as an opportunity to gain insight into the practices of all three, along with the themes that drive their collective and individual work.

Hannah Weidner: Tim, your video work Exit II (Darkness) (2023) begins with the words “And slowly time comes crashing,” and as we've almost reached the end of your duo exhibition with Marcus [Nelson], it feels fitting to sit down together. It's been almost three weeks since we opened and I want to go back to the very beginning, when Marcus, you were here in the city for your four-week residency in June. At that point, you were just beginning your centrepiece for the show, which also gave the exhibition its title A Tragedy in Three Acts. Tell us a bit about the development of that work and how the title was born.

Marcus Nelson: I first came across the phrase “a tragedy and three acts” when reading Hemingway's book Death in the Afternoon (1932), his seminal text on bullfighting. In it he writes very factually about the structure of the bullfight itself — the fact that the fight always takes place over three distinct “acts,” where the bull is effectively tortured and its strength diminished, culminating in a “showdown” with the matador in the final act, where the bull must be killed as cleanly as possible. However, Hemingway also discusses it on a much broader metaphorical scale. He writes about the bullfight as an analogy of life and death; bravery, cowardice, brutality, showmanship, machismo; he writes about the arena and the fight itself as being a lot more than the simple killing of the bull. And I always found that phrase (“a tragedy in three acts”) striking, particularly the inevitability of it. And I think that's actually one of the things that he says in the book, that a tragedy is something that has an almost inescapable sense of doom, where you know what you're watching is going to end up going wrong; ending badly. But there's something intoxicating about watching that journey and knowing that the conclusion is going to be terrible. And in this case, that is the bull being killed, because in every bullfight, the bull is always killed, despite whether or not the bull manages to gore the matador. I knew before working on the show that I really wanted to make a very big, powerful painting of a bull, and I was thinking a lot about the theatricality of the canvas and how the size of the canvas itself can be used as a way to have more impact. And when I arrived at the residency, for whatever reason, I wanted to make that painting first. It was in many ways the most important painting for me to begin with.

HW: I remember we had a lot of conversations about the bull painting in the weeks leading up to your residency. It almost feels like it was the first thing we talked about when we met.

MN: It had to happen. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make that work. And I think because it was the most technically difficult painting, I wanted to tackle it first. And it really was a very difficult painting to make. I spent the first week working on one version of the bull, and for a bunch of reasons, it just didn't have the impact I wanted it to, so then I had to destroy that version. And then I worked on another one for pretty much another week, which also didn't work, which I then had to destroy again. And then the third iteration of the bull is the one which is actually in the show. So that was a strange sense of art imitating life, in that I had to make that painting three times. There seems to be something prophetic in that. But Tim may have a different reading.

Tim Plamper: From the beginning, I trusted both of your visions. And I was very happy to be invited. Maybe that's something we can come back to later. You both invited me to contribute a performance piece to the exhibition. I knew from the beginning that I wouldn't have the capacity to develop a full new piece to perform, so I unfolded this idea about the visitors becoming the performers. Basically, the construction should have consisted of a screen and a surveillance camera that records and displays the video simultaneously. Initially, the plan was to hang that structure from the ceiling, but in the end couldn't be realized for technical reasons. It was 4 a.m. after having been working on the setup the whole day and I was very exhausted. It took me a bit to digest the change of plan, but I immediately understood the potential of this setup and felt that also the title of the piece now makes sense.

HW: I remember that night when we had to scratch the idea of having the hanging system. I think it was already 1 a.m. when your assistant Elsa joined us to work through the night until we found the solution.

TP: But the next morning, I was really glad to see the result. The title of this work is Security V (Prey) and it’s part of the “Security” performance series which I did over the last few years. But since I titled this particular piece, I was always wondering if it's really “Prey” or if it shouldn't actually be “Hunter.” Because the machinery as I imagined it would have had a quite violent atmosphere. But when it could no longer be installed in this way, it became the prey of itself, so to speak. In the end, it was dismantled into pieces and spread in three spots inside the gallery. And that kind of process, with these kinds of coincidences and twists which led us to the best results, was exactly what we’ve experienced many times before during the planning of the exhibition and our discussions.

HW: I think it was destiny for you to also have lived through your own tragedy. And it might sound like a contradiction, but the show was full of tragedies in a very positive, surprising way. Now looking at the show and how it came together, it’s obvious what you meant by it finally makes sense. As soon as that structure, which was intended to be holding the screen and surveillance camera, was laying there on the floor, a whole new level of connection to Marcus’ work was created. Your work, Marcus, focuses a lot on dominance and coexistence between humans and animals (and I’d like to come back to your references to John Berger on how the human has developed to control the animal instead of coexisting with it). But that urge to control a species so uncontrollable really speaks from your paintings. It’s almost like a trial and error of taming and being tamed, between human and animal. And that’s something also to be seen in Tim’s work, where we as humans tried to control the machine and failed in the end, leaving us with the structures lying on the floor like a dead body, like bones, and this error has developed to visualize a very important part of the exhibition.

MN: When I first saw it on the floor the next morning entering the space it took me a minute to digest. Honestly, I was shocked. Maybe shocked is a strong word, but it was unexpected.

HW: Yeah, it was that moment when you had already installed your works on the wall and left in the evening and Tim and I, we’d basically sent you home as we both knew we’d have a long night of making decisions and changes. When you returned the next morning to see the results of the night, it must have been a shock indeed…

MN: Yes, but it's funny because the longer I spent with that work in the space together with the paintings, the more it made sense. To me, the structure almost seems like a carcass of our technological or consumerist society. In a way, it was almost like a lump of flesh. Like a skeleton left on the floor. And in a strange way, standing back and looking at the twisting and somewhat violent humans and animals coexisting around that structure, there was a moment where I looked at them and I almost could see a strange narrative being played out, in that there had been some frenzied rampage and what was left was that carcass on the floor. And it was almost, I imagine, a situation where those animals had run riot first through a supermarket or through a building and everything had fallen off the walls. For whatever reason it just really worked to have a sculptural piece like that with the paintings, as well as a physical bridge between the room with Tim's film and the room with the paintings. It was the perfect outcome to the tragedy really.

TP: I think that's interesting because, for me, the first vision I had when I entered the space during the opening of the second exhibition at GROVE, was that something like a long sculpture should be placed on the floor. So in the end, the circle was closed. We often discussed ideas and concepts, then dismantled them and put together the fragments in a different way, so the outcome looked completely different. In this way, the original concept was broken up and the essence of the idea was exposed. But the essence of the initial idea is that the circle really closed itself, twisting several times and being broken several times, and then weaving together, and that’s the meaning of a circle.

HW: It’s also interesting that you are now referring to your work that ended up in the middle of the space as a sculpture, knowing it’s “officially” described as being a performance. I want to get back to that part of your show, because Marcus and I surely wanted to have a performance artist. And to be honest, it was quite a struggle to find someone where we both felt it really matched Marcus’ paintings. It really struck me Tim, requesting you as a performer for the show and looking at the piece now, the performer seems nowhere to be found. And as we were speaking about dominance before, I wonder if in your performance Security (Prey) V, dominance does play a role for you? Is it the camera controlling the viewer or are you controlling them? Is it your performance? Are you performing by controlling the visitor through the camera or is the device controlling the performance, because it almost seems like you’ve taken the whole piece out of your own hands.

TP: I would say neither, because I think the concept of the piece is based on something I wrote two years ago, when I was invited by my friend Lisa Moravec to do a performance workshop in Vienna. In this text I wrote “…What systems are surveilling me now? A powerful machine monitors my actions. I feel it. The means of capitalism. I seek ecstasy anyway. I lick my limits. I slowly expand them and offer myself to the threshold. I lose myself. I find myself somewhere else. I burn within. I’m fuckin’ alive.” I think this text shows my approach quite clearly. I'm really curious about the media of performance, which is really alive right as it's happening in the moment. And then while developing the new piece for our exhibition, I was always wondering, “Who is actually the performer? Is it the machine that performs while recording and screening, or is it the visitors, including me and you? Or is it maybe Marcus’ paintings?” Because in the envisioned setup of the machine running 24 hours a day, the monitor would have mainly been screening Marcus paintings, as most of that time the gallery would have been empty. This complex of thoughts and questions the development of “Security V” produced are very meaningful for me. I think that in the artistic field, questions carry more potential than answers.

MN: It's not about the answer, it's about the question of who is actually the protagonist and who is dominating whom, or if it's even about the question of dominance, or if it's rather about the question of how we communicate to towards each other, like how this machine is communicating with the viewer.

HW: Whilst being part of this performance or becoming the performer yourself as the viewer of this work, you’re also being surveilled whilst watching the second artwork of yours in the show, which is a video piece titled Exit II (Darkness).

TP: And that's very awkward.

HW: Very awkward indeed, and it’s a twist that happened through the way we installed the show in the end. Because now you're being surveilled whilst being a part of an artwork whilst watching yourself watching another video.

MN: I think for me, one of the most interesting elements of the whole show is this idea of the gaze and voyeurism. When I did my research for my paintings, I was very interested in the idea of the gaze of the animal and how that relates to dominance between animals, and also between humans, and how eye contact very much can be the trigger of violence or of a shift of dominance between two beings. And so it was a very conscious effort for me to have all of the animals or figures within the paintings not actually looking directly at the viewer. I think it's really interesting, thinking about Tim's work and how when the viewer is looking at that piece: they are looking at themselves, but they're not actually looking into their own eyes. I remember we were speaking a lot about the idea of an arena, and how that then relates to a bullfight and how within a bullfight you have this thing taking place in the centre between man and beast, and then thousands of eyes all focused in on what's going on. This then relates to the space of the gallery being a square, with the animals and the figures on the walls of the gallery, and the carcass, and the audience, in the middle. So, I think there's lots of really, really interesting things going on between our work in that sense.

HW: The communication between both your works runs throughout the whole show. Looking at your paintings, Marcus, the figures in it seem to be coming from some dark place in connection to the text from Tim’s video piece that you can hear throughout the entire exhibition space. There’s also a very specific part in the video Exit II (Darkness) where you, Tim, say “It is night, even by day,” which relates closely to your interest in Carl Jung, particularly with Jung’s description of the unconscious mind as a “dark lake.”

MN: Psychoanalysis and philosophy have always been a very big influence on my work. I find the way that philosophers create images to explain very complex intellectual ideas very inspiring. There is a particular phrase that Carl Jung uses when he writes about the unconscious mind, describing it as a “dark lake behind the mask of the persona,” the persona being the image of ourselves we project to the world. To some extent, the idea of “a shadowy part of ourselves” has definitely played a big part in my work. That was also one of the things that struck me so much about Tim's practice. The more I read about Tim's work and the more I read about how much you've been influenced by the writings of Jung — and I remember there was a piece of writing you did, Tim, where you were talking about how you almost feel like a fisherman in a dark lake picking up images — that really struck a chord with me because I feel very much the same way. Sometimes I feel like a lot of the beauty in art comes from the things that you can't give a name to or nail down; they just come from within. They come from that dark place.

TP: I think that's exactly where our work really connects; where they share the same ground. For me, it’s really like the film I'm showing, which too is about darkness. It's part of the larger cycle of works based on the idea of the subconscious. It uses the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to investigate a psychological point of view with artistic means, and as all these figures come up in the story, I questioned them from a modern perspective, and tried to make sense of the story in our contemporary world. Or, maybe not make sense of it, but cast them in a different light. Certainly, this whole cycle is really strongly connected to my subconscious, which is kind of my general approach, I would say. When I was preparing the notes for today, I also remembered that I had a dream two weeks ago which I wrote down. During the production of my other films and performances, I happened to have meaningful dreams, where I felt a strong connection and resonance with the project, which is the same feeling I had this time. The dream note reads as follows: “I‘m constantly falling inside the void in-between matter. The empty space (das Nichts). Vollkommene Leere. In there I encounter ‘The Dark Demon’ (Sauron?). Terror of Void. Endlose Stufen von Nichts.”

It was a nightmare and very terrifying. The same night I had another nightmare, but I couldn’t remember it. I knew that this one was connected to the video in some way. I myself, as a body, was literally falling into this minimal space in-between the atoms, and at the same time I could perfectly perceive this vast space of nothingness (“Nichts”), this “abyss” that stretches between atomic particles. I still have to make sense of it as the connection is not obvious, but I would say that the dream points clearly into the direction of some very alien reality that might be linked to the subconscious.

HW: It seems the words “It is night even by day” are being put in a wholly different perspective now, hearing about your dreams. It’s the exact feeling you get when you’re in this exhibition and it’s almost like you’ve invited the viewer and listener to become a part of your nightmare, moving the night into day, where everything visible is what’s usually left in the dark. Time becomes fluid.

TP: I think that's what I meant with the “magical” approach, because I think language is a really good tool for that. I think language itself is magic, we just forget about the potential of it (mostly). At the same time, we still use it with this potential in other spheres. I think it's really a magical dark power. We are giving up ourselves too. But at the same time, it still has a very human touch, because language is unique and it seems to have the potential to connect us to other worlds. I really like that. I feel it's a bit dangerous sometimes.

HW: Following the text of your video piece, you're speaking about children of culture. Who are they?

TP: Humankind. I think animals don't have that ability to put things into words. We give everything names. Animals don't do that. At least when we don't know the right words, we have the ability to define it. But I think this puts us in a very awkward situation. I think it's also connected to the idea of dominance. We try to dominate things by giving them names, but things don't care. We run into problems because of this. I think that’s the “children of culture”: we play around with the magic, but we have no real understanding of it. And sometimes it works well, but mostly it doesn't.

But I have another question for you, Marcus: what made you actually create this new body of work? What was the deeper meaning for you, or the trigger for that?

MN: Well, most of my inspiration tends to come from texts I am reading. Of course, the Hemingway book was a key one for me in this instance, but there were definitely many others that fed into this body of work. However, the bull image is something that I've been wanting to work on for a long, long time. Naturally, I think you get to a point where you start to expand your vocabulary, and you start to look for broader themes to discuss. Obviously, the animals and all the symbology that is linked to the animal kingdom, and how animals relate to us, is a very interesting avenue to look at. The last big presentation of work I made was well over a year ago. And so I'd had a long time to gather these ideas and read lots of text. Another one that was very influential was by John Berger, called Why Look at Animals?, as well as Kathryn Scanlan’s The Dominant Animal. It became clear to me that this was something I wanted to explore — particularly the image of the bull. I think for me, with this body of work, the bull is really the heartbeat of everything, because so many of the themes relating to the bull expand out to the other works in the show, particularly around dominance and violence.

TP: Indeed, that’s the magic of it.

MN: Yeah, of course, and, it was only really after I started painting it that I really started to get into all the different meanings and symbols that you can attach to a bull that go well beyond the bullfight. There's obviously the bull that you mentioned before, Tim, that is on Wall Street. It can also be read as a symbol of vitality. The bull is also a symbol of Europe. It also has links to the devil and the occult. There are so many things that it's linked to. But going beyond the bull, I found animals in general to be such rich and relevant subject matter for me. Moreover, when making this body of work I was very conscious to push the human figure into something that was somewhat less human in a sense, and much more animalistic and much more androgynous. So yeah, I guess that is a long way to say that these ideas came from books, but then I think there is a snowball effect where one thing just led to the next, and by the time I actually got to making the work, making the bull, it all just fell into place.

TP: I felt the same way with the video because I actually started the poems that are read aloud and the text in the video three years ago. And then I started to think about it. I let it rest in my subconscious, so to speak. Then I wrote this text for the proposal of a performance workshop. In the end, I did the video: the visuals I did last winter, and the music was basically done two days before the opening of our exhibition. It’s really nice to give them time to actually grow. They need time and it's a different time than the everyday time, when you walk around the streets of a city. It's a different pace. I think allowing this pace to be affective on the artwork is really a very luxurious thing to do. Sometimes you really have to protect the works from the other timings or other speeds.

MN: I think that's one of the benefits of not producing too much work, and that's why I tend to not show a big body of work like this too often. For me personally as an artist, I think that if you're going to show a big body of work, it needs time to grow and it needs time to gestate, and I think it needs to be different in some way each time. That's why it's really important to allow these things to grow and change. Because when I got to Berlin and started making these works, I obviously went there with some kind of a plan. But then you start painting, things change, and you know, maybe one thing doesn't work and then another door opens and you go through that door.

HW: I think, especially in your case, Marcus, it’s probably easier said than done. It's been your first show in Germany and having a residency sounds like so much fun. And I think it is, but I also think it’s a lot of pressure on the artist, because you have this specific timeframe. And even if the ideas have grown before, it is almost an unnatural period of time for an artist to make work. What has built up in your mind needs to be delivered to the canvas now, which to me, as a curator, seems like a ridiculously short period of time to ask of an artist to paint such a big body of work. We’re talking about nine canvases here.

MN: Yeah, I think particularly for me, because I have a very chaotic way of working.

HW: …Like when you smashed a bucket of black oil paint all over the floor.

MN: Exactly. But also, if I'm going to make four successful paintings, then I almost have to make eight, because maybe four of those just don't work, and I have very high standards for what I want to show. So it was a very stressful month in a lot of ways, because not only was I in a new environment and a new studio, it was all new! And it was a big platform. So it was hard in some ways. But I also think, and some artists always talk about this, but I think in some ways that pressure is a really good thing. It speaks to me because there's something about that pressure that creates unexpected openings. It forces you into certain decisions and it forces the work out.

TP: I think it's similar for every artist. Without the pressure, you are stuck in your own loop. I think this pressure of time, and having a specific timeframe or just an opening date, you have to get on stage at a certain point and perform because a lot of people are watching. This can be helpful. Mostly it is helpful. Sometimes it's just a pain in the ass. I think that it’s so frightening that it really makes you energetic and puts you in tension. This is a good energy, and if you are professional enough to deal with that, you get a good result. I think there are maybe two ways of working: either you are someone who’s going to the office every day, and you labour, or you’re the opposite: it seems like I'm totally lazy and maybe just lying in bed and dreaming, and at a certain point things come together. As you also said, Marcus, everything just falls into place. And sometimes it's really hard to wait for this moment because it feels so meaningless. Like losing time…

HW: …it comes crashing. It seems we end where we’ve started.

TP: True.

HW: And as I’ve opened the brackets of this conversation with the first words of your poem, Tim, “And slowly times comes crashing,” I’d now like to close the brackets of this interview with the very last words from your video piece. What else could we do but point to the stars?

TP: Nothing. Watch them.

Image Credits:
Courtesy of GROVE