|‘I’m in the business of sorting things out, fine tuning and finding a visual language for it,’ says German artist, Clemens Weiss, about his work. He makes no bones about being a theoretician, at one point leaving us bewildered with a long mathematical explanation that involved spirals, chessboards, emptying an ocean with a teaspoon and how rabbits multiply (‘I don’t understand anything you’ve just said,’ said Sian flatly) … but his art is intriguing: glass sculptures that sometimes resemble strange cities or objects made out of pieces of glass thickly daubed together with glue, as though a child had tried to mend something he or she knows is intricate and precious but nevertheless baffling. There are also collections of spiky, vital drawings often depicting human excess and appetite. Clemens trained first as a medical student and then went on to do an engineering-related degree but and says ‘Scientists tell me I’m an artist and artists tell me I’m a scientist. Really I’m something in between.’
Oh that’s very easy to answer. I mean glass is less ‘material’ than anything else. If you have a piece of wood, stainless steel, whatever, if you look close, there are individual differences [between the pieces] – with glass, for 50 years, unless you scratch marks in it with a diamond cutter, it stays the same.
Doesn’t it turn yellow?
Not really. What it does, what most people don’t realize, is that it slowly loses its shape. It’s still in a liquid state. I’ve become something of an expert on glass. It’s not crystalline. It’s just physics. It seems I have used tons and tons of it, so it seems like I have a fetish or affinity for glass but I am more of a philosopher so I needed this ‘less of a material’ … and glass, since it is transparent, since it has no [individuality] attached to it, well, that’s all …
What would you like people to think, to bring away from your art? Your work thwarts the viewer as much as inviting them in, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s the atmosphere. [Sometimes] you can see what an artist wants and you get it right away but with me it’s the opposite, they will say ‘well, he’s not cynical, he’s not this, he’s not that’ and then I end up being a ‘conceptual artist’.
|So you have a conception of yourself as an artist – well, what is that?
The thing is my tax returns says ‘artist’ or ‘visual artist’ and some will say I’m a sculptor because I make objects but artists are not too big on [labels] … I’m somewhere in between. I have a background more in science. I have a technical degree where I learned to work as precise as two-thousandths part of a millimeter and I was very good at it. But you asked earlier about why the glass is pieced together in this messy way, and this is the opposite. Artists sometimes don’t know what they’re doing and they’re proud of it, they say ‘you know, I have an intuition’ … but the thing is that in my objects, they are logical, there are sequences, even in these kinds of things that [may not look] precise, they are precise … but if you want to make a balanced statement you have to balance [the precision] with something … and it works better with the most opposite [i.e. messy] way of putting it together.
This is a cliché, the precise German.
Well, I wish they were precise.
People do have this perception of Germans. Why?
There is in a way a reason for it and that has to do with the language. The German language, seen from the outside, you know the way you see it in movies, this barking, military sound, that’s ridiculous, but if you look at history, there’s a reason why they’re good at engineering and philosophical engineering, because the language gives you more options, it’s logical … it’s better suited. If you want to make something sound nice, well sing it in Italian or French or something else! … But if you read French philosophy, it’s full of logical glitches.
|Do you have a fear of disorder?
The way I explain it, there are certain problems and they are mounting up and it becomes more costly not to know what’s going on.
But you can’t always control situations by imposing order.
It’s not controlling – then you overdo it. The difference is, well, it’s just the old-fashioned things of a little bit of foresight and thinking things through.
|And do you think this is something that, if we did more of it, we would be happier?
The culture, like so many things, depends on how many people participate. It’s organization. Always what’s missing is the most important thing.
So that’s an image of human beings working like ants in an anthill. Is that your image?
No! It’s just the opposite. I stepped out of that right away.
What if you can’t come up with a solution to something?
That’s no problem. It’s only a problem if you expect otherwise.
|So in this period of time working as an artist, where are you in your thoughts now?
I walked out of school at 17 and I’ve been working as an artist ever since. I spent about ten years laying the groundwork, putting down the theoretical work. I started showing in New York. I wanted to be as clear as possible, to not make mistakes with my thinking, no misunderstandings. I always started with the most complex things in the beginning, not the simple things. The thing is [for many] it’s always that somebody puts out big ideas and they’re full of illusions, if you want to get somebody to do something, especially a big project, you have to include a very high degree of illusion, the pyramids, the moon program, it’s basically very simple …
But that’s vision…
Yeah, but if you want to communicate it, you’d better simple. It just doesn’t convince me.
What has being an artist taught you about how to live?
Well … I mean, I’ve always known that I’m not good at fitting in. I hate to get up early in the morning and be somewhere … I needed something where I step out after noon — and I haven’t missed anything.
by Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch
| The scene from Clemens' latest exhibition, playful objects + sculptures, which opened on February 3rd, 2009, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany ...