Sophie Lovell spoke to Georgian artist Andro Wekua for Wallpaper magazine about war, work and wandering.
‘Andro Wekua’s Berlin studio is located on a curve of the river Spree near the Tiergarten park behind the KPM porcelain manufactory headquarters. This used to be quite a backwater, a bit of an ignored unspace until recently, but escalating property prices and proximity to the river have turned it into prime real estate turf. The studio is in the remains of an old red brick building, a surviving wing of a larger industrial complex, its original intended context obliterated during the war. It is surrounded by seven construction sites with billboards advertising future coworking spaces and relocation invitations. As he shows me up to his atelier on the second floor above a small printing works and opposite Angela Bulloch’s studio, Wekua explains he doesn’t expect to be here much longer: “the owner is here almost every day with potential buyers”, but he doesn’t seem unduly concerned.
The inside of the studio is quite a surprise. I’ve been invited to interview an artist with three upcoming solo shows in The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Sprüth Magers Berlin and the Kunsthalle Zurich respectively. Wekua is just 40 years old but has been well known in the art world since his early twenties. The New York MoMA and the Saatchi Gallery have several of his pieces and he is represented internationally by both Sprüth Magers and The Gladstone Gallery. He may not be a top gun quite yet, but he is not far off. Other big-name artists based in Berlin, such as Tomas Saraceno, Ai Weiwei or Olafur Eliasson have giant studio factories with dozens of staff, but the main work room here is almost empty save for a number of modestly-sized paintings in progress propped against the white walls and a couple of tables covered in half squeezed tubes of oil paint and colour smears. The air is thick with the comforting aroma of turpentine. There are two chairs, which look like they came out of a skip, and a crate of bottled water. There are no assistants scurrying around, no sign of hectic preparation for the shows, just the artist on his own, offering a glass of water and apologising for not having anything else to drink. The word “spartan” comes to mind.
Wekua explains, almost apologetically, that this isn’t his only studio, just the one that he paints in at the moment and that he has sent his two assistants home for the day. His sculptural works are all made at the Kunstbetrieb workshops in Basel and his films in anther specialist place Zürich. He seems to be constantly on the move, dividing his time between Berlin, Basel, Zürich and, more recently, his country of birth: Georgia. I ask him which place feels most like home for him and he answers: “So far I have had no problem living in different places with but I am starting to realise it would be good to decide – not geographically, but so I am not scattered all over the world the whole time. As you get older you start to get a bit tired and it is difficult for the people working for you. Also when the kids start to go to school you have to make decisions.”
Perhaps this state of permanent transit is why the studio space feels rather impersonal, more like a hotel room than a home. He has personalised it only with the coloured oily tracks his fingers have smeared on the walls around each unfinished artwork. The dozen or so paintings, on the other hand, seem deeply personal, portraits mostly, bursting with vibrant yellows, reds, pinks and blues. He explains to me his work process for them: “I collect personal photos or ask friends for them – this is of someone I knew; this is me when I was young – but it doesn’t matter who they are, they may as well be strangers.” Wekua then sketches in collage using the photos along with coloured paper, cut and torn. “An aspect of collage that I find fascinating”, he explains, “is that I believe that time is not necessarily a linear thing. The elements within them stem from different times and different places, but one can still depict them in an integrated way.” When he is happy with the result, he sends the images off to a screen printer who scales them up and prints them on canvas or, in the case of the pictures here, sheet aluminium and the artist then works over the prints in oils, adding and subtracting and overpainting until he is content. Wekua again emphasises his distance from the subject matter, most of which look extremely intimate somehow, like family portraits: “it does not play a big role for me who they are”, he says, “these are not portraits, they are figures. There is a hardness about them, but it also interests me that there is a deeper narrative quality too”.
Painting is only a part of Wekua’s oeuvre. His powerful sculptural work often features life-like, life-sized androgynous adolescent figures made of wax and other materials. One piece for his upcoming shows (he has as yet to decide what pieces will go where) is of teenaged-looking figure with a huge black wolf nudging at her shoulder. Another is of a figure standing in a 3 x 5 metre pool with water circulating through her and coming out of various body parts, such as shoulder and hands, like a fountain.Wekua also makes films, the most well-known of which, Never Sleep with a Strawberry in Your Mouth (2010), features yet more uncanny, android-like figures, this time played by humans, in a strangely magical realist domestic setting. Then there are the architectural models, seemingly accurate but constructed partly from memory, of buildings from his former hometown. What appears to connect them all is a strong sense of intensely personal storytelling.
I ask him about the girl and the wolf, a theme that repeats itself in his sculptures. I explain that, for me and perhaps many others it is a motif dripping with storytelling symbolism: Little Red Riding Hood, Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke or one of the Stark children from Game of Thrones. The figure is both innocent and warrior. But Wekua is adamant that storytelling is not his intent: “They stand for something, but not someone. It is a feeling about a universal condition that moves me and is what I want to represent, so I express it in one or another form. But that is not a story. If viewers want to make stories out of my work or see stories in it I think that is of course cool, but it would be great if they could get a sense of that condition as well.” He does not go on to elucidate what that condition might be.
More tellingly perhaps, Wekua’s own back-story is always related in articles about his work and by his galleries. It is as if his refusal to admit to a narrative in his work, automatically drives others to forcibly attach his own one to him. He was born in 1977 in Sukhumi, by the Black Sea in Georgia, a region riven by war, civil war and occupation. In 1989 his father, a political activist was killed by Abkhaz nationalists during the Sukhumi riots. His family fled the city and at the age of 17 he was sent on an exchange to an anthroposophic school in Basel, Switzerland. “It was during the 1990s. Those were bad times in Georgia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was huge chaos. Nothing functioned anymore. Nevertheless, it was still a good time for me, I had a lot of fun and was outside a lot. But for my mother and others if there was a chance to get out and go somewhere else, it had to be taken. I did not want to leave.” Switzerland was a culture shock, “especially after all that chaos. It was quite depressing for me at the beginning and I was really alone.”
Wekua says he did not actively choose art as a profession either: “I never knew what I wanted to be. I drew a great deal as a child, so when I was 11 or 12 my father took me to a painter friend of his in Georgia who had a great studio, just like you imagine an old-fashioned atelier to be. I ended up going there twice a week. When he painted, I painted as well. It all sort of just came together. I did not set out to become an artist”.
We move on to talk about in-between spaces, like the location of his Berlin studio. He once stated that he is are interested in the “blurry material that holds things together”. In a city such as Berlin, it is precisely such in-between spaces that have allowed the creative scene to grow and evolve. They fall between the rules as well, so there is freedom to invent, to create something new. I ask if that is what drew him to the city and again he replies in a self-contained manner: “For me it is the spaces in between that are important, but I can make my space anywhere because I carry everything I need with me.” But what, I ask, of the non-physical gaps? The spaces where emotions and memories and dreams exist? The human mind has a fantastic ability to imaginatively fill in the spaces left by its often-flawed sensory system. “Where I grew up in Georgia,” he answers, “it’s very different now from what it was. War and civil war and occupation have changed it massively and much of what I knew in my childhood is not there anymore. Also, you imagine things differently to what they were. You fill in the gaps with your imagination. My work is about closing these gaps.”
When he is working, the names for Wekua’s pieces come last of all. At the time of writing two weeks before the first of the three upcoming shows, most of the works for them are still nameless. By naming them he will be ascribing potential for meaning and he seems reluctant to do so: “Then there is no going back”, he says, “I think names are important. But then again some of my works don’t have a name even when they are done, even though I have tried to give them one.”
Despite his self-professed aim to close gaps, there is one yawning chasm he opens up between himself and his works when they are completed: he says he detaches himself from them completely. “As soon as my work is exhibited somewhere then that is where the relationship stops”, he explains. “The work is not an ambassador for my ideas, it becomes autonomous. When I see my work in an exhibition, I am just as much an observer as you are. If the work is not able to take on a life of its own and if I don’t feel like an observer, then it doesn’t leave the studio.”
Most interviewers tend to ascribe an air of mystery to Andro Wekua but in our meeting he comes across as an intelligent, contemplative person struggling a little to express himself, quite understandably, in what is his third or fourth language. Which artist likes to answer the question: what is your work about? Or: what was your intention? Wekua is an explorer examining the gaps between the perceived and the all too real. Memory, time, and the non-linearity of how it is stored are all of interest to him. Yet he has experienced family loss at a young age, war, loss of homeland, culture shock and loneliness and his work also reflects a great deal of processing. His professed disinterest in the protagonists in his works, his dismissal of the autobiographical and his ultimate detachment from his creations may be self-protective but it seems more likely that he does not want his work to be defined by his own circumstances by western critics constantly flagging up his migrant, warzone background. So he is guarded and careful and rightly so.
But Wekua is an artist, and an increasingly famous one at that. As such he has willingly entered a realm where feelings and thoughts become, by definition, public property because he is putting them on display. Gallerists, journalists and fans alike pick him and his work apart for every scrap they can get. Perhaps, being so wrapped up in the creation of his art, he genuinely cannot see what he is revealing with it: alienation, melancholy, loneliness, isolation. Like when you have a strong dream and it fills your head so much with the feeling of having experienced a cinematic fairy tale of epic proportions. But the moment you wake up and try and tell someone your dream, the magic disappears: it becomes an analysable set of images and symbols spouted by your subconscious – and it allows the person you tell it to read you, to interpret you. When the interview is over, we start to chat about lucid dreaming and his eyes light up.’