Haute Art: Martin Denker, Artist, Between Photograph and Visual Art

Martin’s work is the reflection of his own world, the one where he brings us. When you have a look on his works for the first time, you cannot be focused only on one point. They don’t really have any foreground or background and photographs are full of details and symbols whom have the same and equal value. You can stand right in front of the photographs for hours and try to discover and understand their significations.

Each time another sense appears… He found his inspiration in our society (images of foreign cities, of people and situation, of data material from the Internet…) using all the details he can find. He picks them up, put them together and creates a new reality based on his own perception of the world. He transforms and merges two bodies, the symbioses of human and virtuality, animal or machine… A process that reminds us the countless visualized transformations in the films made by David Cronenberg. Apparently the world isn’t big enough for him! He destroys images to finally recreate them. He fragments and restructures them as in a kaleidoscope.

Dear Martin, could you please introduce yourself? During your studies, have you been influenced by any artists as Thomas Ruff for example?

“My name is Martin Denker, I was born in Hamburg in 1976 and I’m a photographer and a painter. I studied literature and fine arts in Greifswald/Germany from 1996-2000, painting and photography in San Antonio/USA from 2000-2001 and photography in Dusseldorf/Germany, from 2001-2006. I have been influenced by several great teachers and artists and to mention each one would mean to go beyond the scope of this interview.

My earliest important influence as I see it today was perhaps my teacher Ronald C. Binks from Chicago, who was my professor in San Antonio. Ron taught me painting and large format photography and he was the one to actually tear down the barriers in my visual thinking, giving me a more transcending perception and a freedom of view. […] he introduced me to White’s works along with the works of his contemporaries Stieglitz, Steichen, Adams, Weston, Cunningham, etc… Ron is a god of Black and White photography, a wizard in composition, developing film and printing. To see him dodge and burn b/w prints like a painter in the lab was a great source of inspiration for me. […]. And Ron is an exceptional paintner and draftsmen influenced mainly by Beckman and Bacon, which is maybe important towards understanding my own work in the force field between painting and photography. The same aesthetical set of rules applies for painting, photography and even performance, sculpture, acting, writing, etc…, that was my conclusive deduction from my studies with him.

Another influence in my US days was photographer Swain Edens. […] he was one professional shooter introducing me to lighting, digital photography and post production. […]. When it comes to accuracy, perfection and details it’s definitelyy what I learned from Swain Edens in the professional environment of his studio.

During these days, I also studied Photoshop at the University and I got more and more into working on the screen instead of the easel. I traded in pigment for pixel, so to say. When I returned to Germany in 2001 I started my studies at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf and I decided to study with Thomas Ruff, who was another fundamental influence on me. Thomas had been using the computer to enhance and manipulate his photographs since the early 1990s and by the time I picked up my studies he had totally turned away from shooting with a camera. His works, especially the nudes and the substrates, have been a crucial influence in those days, for I perceived them as paintings produced with photographic means.

The concept of the substrates is the effect of visual bulk: due to having too much information available, the image becomes an appealing, colorful surface in the process of blending and the content is not accessible any more although it exists. A parallel to our world: a deluge of information leading to superficiality by losing precision. A process of entropia with information becoming a white noise. Thomas achieved that effect by layering images in the computer. Et voila… that is how I could describe my own work with few words. I’d say I started developing my visual language out of the words that the substrates had spoken.

[…] In 2002 I started working with Andrea Gursky, with whom I have the closest relationship and I have spent most time with. Maybe he is my most important influence, also because I travelled the world with him and at times we shared every hour of the day for weeks in a row during projects [Olympic games in Athens, countless Formula 1 around the globe, stock markets in the Middle East…]. He showed me a planet, so rich in detail, that an image seemed hardly enough to capture the observations we made. […] He has taken photography to a peak, he has created a vocabulary of understanding global culture and he’s showing that mass leads to abstraction, just like Thomas has done with the substrates. The difference is, that in Andreas works you can still see every detail. So I think I can be found somewhere between those two concepts. […]’

You have established your career between photography and visual arts. Could you please explain us what it means with your own words? How would you define your work and your process?

“For an artist I think it’s important to stay open-minded and curious and look at things as phenomena. Distinctions and notions can be dangerous, they might limit you with a process of categorizing the world and putting things into certain drawers… Creation is born out of exceeding the limits and questioning existence as we think we know it. It is walking new ways and leaving the roads where everybody else walks. That’s why it doesn’t matter too much to me if something is called photography or painting.
Photography is as vague as painting, especially today with a vast culture of image altering: it’s all lies, but these lies can help you find a truth for yourself. Photography as painting are both individual versions of the world coined by the author and not a true reproduction of ideas. It’s more about how we look at things and I think the reaction int he viewer is more important than the artist or the work.
Some people seem to have problems with my images, simply because they don’t know what my works are – painting or photography? They are both and much more. I could say they are music without tones. It’s dangerous when we need someone else’s label to formulate our own opinion. But I guess that is a consumerists’ attitude and in the explosion of notions we’re facing today, people need more than ever a guide, a gatekeeper to tell them what they can’t have. We can take this all the way down to Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan”.
Basically my images are symphonic collages out of the visual debris of our exploding cultures: the permanent feeling of “too much” and the stress to miss something important that we all feel today, exemplified by countless stimuli – all this casted into a square trying to find harmony in chaos. They are about constant availability, ubiquity, restlessness in a saturated world that still wants to grow and stimulate and entertain and catch everyone’s attention for the products that we don’t need. It’s being on the cell-phone on an airport in Asia, talking to someone you used to know thousands of kilometer away, while watching a commercial for a gated community in Dubai, it is the impenetrable universe of glamour, glitz and advertisement. They are about loss of physicality and content, the disability to make sense and effort to maintain sanity in a space that seems to be endless and doesn’t prevail orientation.

Technically, I start my journey – and it’s traveling! – with one of my own photographs as the framework. This image has a story, that i’m extending. I run search engines like google to find information and deviate in a stream of consciousness through the digital realms. It’s a reduction to the maximum in a way. it’s like writing a novel. I create a plot and I erase what doesn’t belong to the storyline, I add and cut, I link and disconnect, I highlight and I camouflage. I put arbitrary words into the search engines and do an image search and I might end up with pig breeders in Arkansas, some teenager’s online poetry or a manufacturer of lawnmowers in Russia.
For em this way of working is the logical consequence of creating images today. If the internet was an actual entity where you could walk around, these would be the photos I would bring home. Art is looking from a platform in the clouds at the world. I don’t see why I should contribute another portrait, landscape or still-life to art history. I’ve seen more than everything, like everybody else. Almost more than everything…”

Your works, which look like a new type of kaleidoscope, bring us into a wonderful and unreal world where many details and symbols are represented. How do you decide to choose one particular detail instead of an other?

“Haha… I don’t choose, I use all of them! What’s interesting: Caleidoscope means “to see beautiful forms”; but seriously of course my works are a diary for me to a certain extend. Let me give you a recent example: in the course of the financial crisis I was doing research on the history of commerce and I found out how closely wars have often been connected with financial breakdowns, which is terrifying, and then I ran into the logos of the banks involved and partly find vulgar displays of power, like the Merryl Linch logo, which is a bull. Or Lehman itself used the phrase “Where Vision Gets built” – interesting! I start seeing “beautiful forms” and all of this takes me back to a culture of greed and facade that we live in. I also found old etchings from the US civil war in 1862, which was connected to a financial crisis… With these images cut/pasted I create my version of what was an ungraspable enigma to me before by creating my own mythology.
The choice of raw-material is a mix of aesthetic consideration and the necessity of its meaning towards the whole: in the transformation and dispensation of the original source material into the work, I apply the mechanisms, that the human brain uses to suppress and enhance detail in our memory to give us a limited universe of orientation. My actions can be seen as a parallel to the work that the hippocampus in the middle-brain is doing. It filters the flood of input in a loop and tries to create a system of useful logics towards our individual existences. Every human brain is an individual image.”

Regarding the evolution of the art market and the place taken by the virtual galleries (sometimes owned by the artist himself), what is your definition of the contemporary artists and its role in the market? Do you think that an artist could be his own art dealer?

“It’s not useful towards creative work when an artist is involved too much in market activities. Unfortunately this is often inevitable with the way the global market works, because you are selling your soul and you want to make sure, that it ends up in good hands and is mediated properly! And the dealers make money with your creativity, they’re not the ones who suffer for creating beauty, they sell it. It’s two totally different stories…
The market is a lot about vanity and surface and I’m happy that I don’t have to do the job myself, it’s a full-time job that suffocates my creative forces. I find it useful, not to be present in the commercial art world, if possible. In the Western cultures, art has been used and abused to display the power of authorities like the Church and royal courts ever since, and contrary to Asian cultures, it has given art the air of something holy which exists only for a precious few who can show it to the rest of the world. It’s still the same: money is the Church today and an ideal gadget of differentiation from your neighbors is putting art into your place, that they can’t own because you have it. This is why the whole art circus is needed: it’s our Western notion of art. You need to hit people with a hammer and tell them what they need. You wouldn’t buy a Bentley online either, would you? You want a glass of champagne in a leather couch and a good-looking sales-person when you spend the GPD or a small african country for a car or a sculpture by Jeff Koons.
The good news is that the market makes art possible in the first place and accessible to those who really love it and want to learn. An artist is a mediator, a seismograph, a chronicler. Artists are the ones who conserve their time in a vivid and profound way. When, let’s say, you want to get a feeling of the days of evolving early modernism, you look at Picasso and listen to Stravinsky or read Proust. At some point you have left a statement to the world as an artist and nobody will care in which way a work got into which place. Concerning online galleries: I think art has to be seen in person in the right spaces. The mass of online offers might blur quality with quantity.”

A lot of contemporary emerging artists are from Germany. Do you feel close to them and are you related to any particular movement?

“It’s true, many artists come from Germany or move here. I think the working conditions are good in Germany and Germans are interested in culture. Benefits start with affordable studio space, awards, grants, etc… and end with the institutions and the number of collectors and museums The art scene is big, colorful, professional and various. I heard that for instance in Paris most artists just can’t afford studio space anymore and so are threatened by extinction in Paris itself. If you look at it, there are not so many international artist from France around today, although it was the Mekka for art not too long ago.
I wouldn’t say I consider myself part of a movement and then are there any these days? I mean, you have the Leipzig school of painting here with a certain style which could be called a movement, but I think the vast variety of styles in the contemporary art makes it hard to classify movements. I’m in touch with other artists and I look at shows, but I’m not part of a group.

Then I also think, that globalization has rather quickly changed the conditions in which we live and work in the art world today: it’s not like a limited crowd is having their privy shows in town anymore. Damien Hirst said the other day, that the contemporary artist spends more time with a laptop in the frequent flyer’s lounge than in front of an easel. Maybe the truth can be found in the middle.”

Thank you so much Martin for this fantastic interview! I’s a real pleasure to discuss with you and I’m glad to learn more about you and your work. And I’m sure I’m not the only one!