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Bodo Korsig: Making Peace With The Past

By Victor M. Cassidy

The graphic forms in Bodo Korsig’s
printed paintings and print-like
sculptures hover at the edge of recognizability,
like things flitting in and out of
memory or a dream. Black and linear, like
doodles or enigmatic emblems blown up
to enormous scale, they may suggest bits
of machinery, street trash or microscopic
anatomical structures. Korsig, who views
himself as a sculptor, makes his woodcuts
as preparation for his sculptures and the
same forms repeat across media: a threearmed
calligraphic shape like a mutant
starfish (or triads of neural ganglia)
appears, for example, as an eight-foot
wall sculpture of cast aluminum (Hidden
Mind, 2006) and as a wall-to-wall Astroturf
carpet (Can You Feel What I Feel?,
2006), and has near relations in woodcut-
on-canvas works such as I Can’t Stop
(2007). He admires Richard Serra’s black
oil-stick drawings and acknowledges the
influence of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner on
his early work; the glyph-like look of his
imagery owes something to Mark Rothko’s
early surrealist works and to Native
American cave paintings he saw in the
Southwest in the 1990s. The titles—often
in English though the artist is German—
are allusive rather than descriptive. He
keeps the works’ content open and does
not insist upon any specific interpretation.
Korsig (b. 1962) grew up in Zwickau, an
industrial town in East Germany. As a boy,
he filled notebooks with his drawings and
enrolled in weekend classes at the studios
of local artists, where he learned painting,
drawing and various forms of printmaking.
He took to woodcut early on: it
was “a technique I loved,” he says. “I don’t
completely understand it . . . I loved Dürer
and the German Expressionists.” As he
began to have professional ambitions,
he found that doors were closed to him
because he would not join the Communist
Party or serve three years in the East
German army: “your whole development
is limited if you don’t play the game,”
he explains, and alludes to unspecified
“hateful experiences” at the hands of the
regime. In 1986, however, he entered the
School of Advertising and Design (Fachschule
für Werbung und Gestaltung) in
East Berlin, where he studied sculpture
and stone restoration. He made some
figurative art at this time but preferred
semi-abstraction, and characterizes his
student imagery as “very aggressive.” He
felt the bureaucracy imposed exhausting
limits on his freedom, and the anxiety of
this period is, he acknowledges, still visible
in his work.
After the Berlin Wall came down in
November 1989, Korsig moved first to
West Berlin and then in 1993 to Trier, a
town near the Luxembourg border, where
he took a teaching position at the European
Academy of Fine Arts (Europäische
Kunstakademie Trier). His first mature
work was made that year—a quartet of
23-foot-high acrylic paintings collectively
titled Inkognito (1993), which was exhibited
at the Städtisches Museum Zwickau.
Foreshadowing much of Korsig’s later
work, these huge acrylics employed blocks
of red into which the artist scratched
ragged white lines, and over which he
placed black linear shapes suggestive of
machine parts and budding plants.
The shapes in Inkognito originated in
Korsig’s informal sketches and photographs.
Since youth, he has explored the
urban landscape, looking head-on, but
also gazing up at buildings, electrical
boxes and shadows, and down at trash on
the ground. He reworks and recasts these
notes to create elusive images and sculptural
forms that he finds more interesting
than what he saw in real life.
From the beginning of his professional
career, Korsig has also made woodcuts
characterized by heavy black lines, often
with images floating alone or in pairs at
the center of an empty ground. In some
prints, thin lines extend from the center
to the edge of the picture space, suggesting
instability. Paired images may be confrontational,
creating tension and a sense
of threat. He prints woodcut editions on
his own press, and uses a steamroller to
print unique, banner-like works as tall as
eight feet, often on canvas so they can be
viewed without looking through glass.
(Done outdoors, the steamroller drew
crowds and generated television and
newspaper coverage, as well as invitations
to demonstrate his process at venues in
Germany and Switzerland. Eventually,
the need to travel with woodblocks and
printing supplies and to rent steamrollers
locally became burdensome. He still
makes steamroller prints, but in Trier.)
At the Cologne art fair in the early
1990s, Korsig met the American artist and
print workshop innovator Garner Tullis.
Korsig spoke little English at the time, but
in 1993 he traveled to New York and called
on Tullis, who showed him his workshop
in downtown Manhattan and suggested
he keep in touch. In 1996 Korsig began
working with Tullis, who had developed a
computer-controlled hot table for working
with encaustic wax pigments and handmade
paper. In Passion (1997), Korsig used
active brushwork and translucent amber
and yellow to activate the ground beneath
a black drawing that might be read as a
landscape (a body of water below a round
hill with trees) or as an eye floating above
the horizon with two small triangles.
Tullis embraced Korsig as “a young
sculptor with a novel outlook on life and
a fluid comprehension of materials [who]
added a new dimension to what was
occurring at the workshop.”He took the
young man under his wing and taught
him how to navigate the art world. As in
many other studios, everybody joined
together for a midday meal in the kitchen
and talked shop. “The whole world came
to Garner,” Korsig recalls. “At lunch there
was always someone else at the table.” He
met artists such as Sean Scully, Catherine
Lee and Robert Ryman, and encountered
a larger and more accomplished art community
than he had known in Germany:
“I could hardly have chosen a better place
to be.”

In New York Korsig also began two
bodies of work that have continued to
be central to his production. In 1998 he
produced a book of encaustic paintings,
FATE, which has been followed by some 35
volumes of collaborative text-and-woodcut
book projects with writers such as the
poets John Ashbery, John Yau and Novalis
Scardanelli, and the novelists Paul Auster
and Norbert Niemann.5 Most have been
produced in small limited editions, but
these “books” have also taken the form
of unique leporellos and architecturally
scaled, painted and perforated folding
screens with texts by the poets Zao Zhang
(Magnolia, 2008) and Akira Tatehata (History
Sisters, 2009). His first project with
Scardanelli, Wir waren die neue Horde
(We were the new horde, 1998), was built
around an apocalyptic free-verse poem
that Korsig sees as “a reflection on our
world today”:
we arrived from the unavoidable / we
swarmed the land
extinguished all memories and / colors
of the past . . .
injected diseases into the living
slaughtered the old and children.
This poem is also referenced in
two eight-foot-high steamroller-printed
woodcuts on canvas from 2001, Wir waren
die neue Horde and Körper (Body). In the
first, printed in black on a flat blue background,
the title runs across the bottom
below two vaguely botanical spiral
structures. In the second, phrases from
the poem are scattered across a flat
orange ground, beside black silhouettes
that resemble freshly erupted seedlings.
Each work is composed of two panels that
stand on the floor and lean against the
wall, forming a confrontational presence.
In New York in the ’90s Korsig also
became interested in making art based on
human brain function. Returning to his
hometown of Zwickau in 1993, he found
that some of his old friends and acquaintances
had used their post-reunification
freedom to travel or start business enterprises,
while others did little more than
grouse about political corruption and
their love lives. “I was shocked,” he says,
“because they are still waiting, still waiting
for something. They couldn’t change
their mentality to move forward. I don’t
know what they are waiting for, but also
understand that some people cannot forget
the pain and frustration of the dictatorship.”
He wondered what could be
done for them—a new brain perhaps?
He started reading about neuropsychology
and consulting with scientists,
the most prominent of whom was
Eric Kandel, director of the Kavli Institute
of Brain Science at Columbia University
(and later winner of the 2000 Nobel
Prize in Physiology or Medicine). Kandel’s
research focuses on the physical mechanisms
of memory and behavior, but he
has also been active in finding common
ground between the “two cultures” of science
and art.
Korsig says that the New York art environment
gave him permission to engage
as an artist with the brain’s response to
extreme stimuli: fear, violence, death and
love. He began to use neuro-anatomical
imagery—cell structures, synapses, ganglia—
as his point of departure, creating
compositions that are often more narrative
than his earlier work, and also
more open and positive. He was “playing
around with . . . color, space, line and
shape,” as well as multiple layers. He says
he felt like “a bird in a cage for many years
that finally was free.”
Returning to his studio in Germany,
he made steamroller-printed woodcuts
and linocuts on canvas with titles such
as Obsession (1999), Erase Your Past (2000),
HEADTRANSPLANT (2001), Where can
I buy a new brain? (2001), and Who am I
when I am sleeping? (2002). Kaltes Gehirn
(Cold Brain) (2002) is a group of five modestly
sized woodcuts on canvas (23 1/2 x
12 inches each). The line drawings—
printed in black on a flat blue ground—
look like they might have been lifted from
a medical text, but none represents a specific
biological subject. The nearly tenfoot-
long triptych HEADTRANSPLANT
(2001) is less ambiguous: the central
panel spells out the title in black on a
red ground and is flanked left and right
with silhouetted severed heads perched
on what could be curled wire supports
or arteries (there is humor in this). Many
of these works were gathered together in
the exhibition “Where can I buy a new
brain?,” which appeared at three German
museums in 2006–07. Along with a large
number of woodcuts, it included wall and
floor sculptures (the most malevolent of
which were four-foot-long ceramic-studded
clubs piled in a disorderly heap on the
floor and partially inserted in the wall).7
Today Korsig spends most of his time in
Europe, with occasional trips to Asia, and
the tenor of his art has shifted. For a 2013
exhibition, he created Ursprung (Origin), a
series of 34 woodcut monotypes made in
collaboration with the Luxembourgish
writer Nico Helminger. (Reproduced in an
eponymous limited-edition catalogue,
each image is accompanied by a handwritten
phrase or sentence.) The monotypes
have brushed grounds in subdued, mixed
colors that recall Korsig’s encaustic paintings
from 15 years earlier. The curled-up
form at the center of Aus dem Innern eines
Tons betrachtet ist das Lied unfassbar (Seen
from the inside of a sound, the song is
unbelievable) could be an ear canal
attached to a plant hanging from the top
edge. This attractive work may indicate
that Korsig has begun to mellow and make
peace with his demons.

Art in Print – The Global Journal of Prints and Ideas, Vol 7, Nr.6 (März-April 2018)