Katharina Grosse and the ghost-eating-mud at K11 Foundation, Shanghai

by  Chris Moore 墨虎恺

Katharina Grosse is one of the leading artists working in the area of Expanded Painting, a field, in every sense, that encompasses extremely divergent practices, yet which always share an interest in the physical fundamentals of painting and paint – hue, light, material, surface, production – to explore directly the nature of painting itself and the ways people experience it. While Grosse also produces works on canvas, she is famous for her installations, often impermanent, such as her work “Untitled Trumpet” for the “All the World’s Futures” exhibition at the 2015 Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor. In November this year, chi K11 art museum in Shanghai presents Grosse’s first solo-show in China. Entitled “Mumbling Mud” and curated by Venus Lau of K11 in collaboration with Ulrich Loock, the sprawling 1,600 square meter show encompasses five separate immersive paintings that together form a sensory labyrinth. I met Katharina at her studio in Berlin to discuss her installation plans for Shanghai.


We started by looking at some recent works, “Rockaway” an installation in and around a derelict building on a beach, “Asphalt Air and Hair” in Aarhus, and “This Drove My Mother up the Wall” at the South London Gallery.“Rockaway” was commissioned by MoMA PS1. Grosse covered a derelict and condemned building sited on sand dunes near the beach, with white, red and magenta paint. What remained of the walls, ceiling and roof and the surrounding area outside were engulfed in color.

Katharina Grosse, Rockaway, MoMA PS1’s Rockaway! series, New York, 2016, acrylic on wall, ground, and various objects, 600 x 1,500 x 3,500 cm. Foto: Pablo Enriquez. Copyright: © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018. Courtesy: MoMA PS1, New York
Katharina Grosse, Rockaway, MoMA PS1’s Rockaway! series, New York, 2016, acrylic on wall, ground, and various objects, 600 x 1,500 x 3,500 cm. Foto: Pablo Enriquez. Copyright: © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018. Courtesy: MoMA PS1, New York

In “Asphalt Air and Hair”, reds and magentas were again used to transform a section of the Marselisborg Memorial Park in Aarhus, below the Marselisborg Palace, the summer residence of the Danish Royal family. Adjoining the sea, the color ripped over grass, trees and footpaths, only intersected by the road. Visitors walked over the painting, the grass continued to grow. Eventually the natural elements reclaimed the space and the painting was gone. Then in the South London Gallery, adapting stenciling techniques from her canvas works to cover interior space, Grosse masked and overpainted select areas:

“That had a little bit to do with the ‘left-over’, the ‘excluded’. I masked over a lot [of areas]. We put a new floor in, so it was also white [like the walls].”

Katharina Grosse, This Drove my Mother up the Wall, South London Gallery, London, 2017, 700 x 2,100 x 1,000 cm. Foto: Andy Keate. Copyright: © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2017. Courtesy: Gagosian

Grosse used the installation for a musical performance, underlining the inherent sense of synesthesia present in her installation works.

“I played music there with Stefan Schneider. He was very well known as a musician in the 1990s and co-founded the Elektronica band Kreidler. He’s also a photographer. We know each other from art school [Kunstakademie Düsseldorf].

Making musical performances in her installations came about by accident. Katharina had been invited to give a talk with Schneider at Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2008. Instead, Katharina asked Schneider to play.

“[We asked ourselves] how can we heighten the sense of listening? So, we stood on a ladder and we played a piece by La Monte Young (b. 1935) with a little band with traditional instruments; I was the only one with a keyboard… I had marked my keys and did my thing!”

Katharina Grosse, Asphalt Air and Hair, ARoS Triennial, Aarhus, Dänemark, 2017, acrylic on grass, trees, breakwaters and sidewalks, 1,200 x 5,700 x 10,800 cm. Foto: Nic Tenwiggenhorn und VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Copyright: © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2017. Courtesy: KÖNIG Gallery
Katharina Grosse, Asphalt Air and Hair, ARoS Triennial, Aarhus, Dänemark, 2017, acrylic on grass, trees, breakwaters and sidewalks, 1,200 x 5,700 x 10,800 cm. Foto: Nic Tenwiggenhorn und VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Copyright: © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2017. Courtesy: KÖNIG Gallery

Space, draped and divided

We are poring over catalogs in a downstairs sitting room of her 2009 studio, a very domestic space considering the dramatic modernist austerity of the rest of the building, designed for Katharina by Berlin architects Augustin und Frank. The big picture window has multicolored transparent curtains. A green-painted tape player sits on a cabinet. There are piles of books everywhere. We are looking at pictures of recent works in Sydney and Prague, both of which employ huge painted drapes.

“I did a lot of different artworks with cloth before but [at the end] I just threw the cloth away. I didn’t keep anything. But in this case – the work at Carriageworks in Sydney –, we kept it. It’s a huge amount of fabric! It had to be dragged in and hung into the building. And I did that at the same time as the Prague project, which is very different in terms of what an image can be, where you start wondering what is painting today? What could it do? So, these two pieces were the two poles between which I oscillated with my work.”

Both Carriageworks and the modern art branch of Prague’s National Gallery are large sites and historic structures: a 19th Century tram workshop in Sydney and an Art Deco Functionalist exhibition center in Prague – they have a lot in common, including the historical patina of their respective usages, and both used Katharina’s approach, also employed in Venice, of draping large pieces of cloth (Sydney) or hanging them to divide the exhibition space (Prague). In Prague the cloth was painted on the floor, whereas in Venice and Sydney it was painted in situ after they were draped. At the National Gallery in Prague, Katharina did not want to just accept the given architectural space –

“I wanted to do something that manipulates the architecture and partially makes it invisible.”

Katharina Grosse, The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then It Stopped, Carriageworks, Sydney, 2018, acrylic on fabric, 1,000 x 4,600 x 1,500 cm. Foto: Zan Wimberley. Copyright: © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018

Large tracks of cloth covered the floor like carpets and the walls like tapestries, completely camouflaging the existing Modernist space. I asked Katharina what was the key breakthrough for her in developing her practice but it was not an event or moment that was critical but a question:

How can painting appear in our lives? What ways of appearance, of coming up, of it being inserted in our every day, does painting have?”

“I think painting has [great potential] because it’s so direct: it enables me to look at the residue of my thinking. I just need an extension to my body and then I have a mark. I don’t [need] an algorithm tool to transform it into a more-or-less decided aesthetic. Its physicality is absolutely important, its relationship to the body. It’s not just a photograph or image of something else. That is very clearly and truly one of its biggest advantages. It relates to all of my senses, in a way that I am able to generate a really complex type of empathy. I think that the homogenous surface [like photographic paper] – as many advantages as it has! – does not generate that empathy, because it does not stimulate all my ‘body intelligence’. It does other things that maybe I can’t do with painting.”

This led me to ask Katharina about the distinction between painting and drawing.

“I think there is one very, very interesting and fundamental [distinction], that is traditionally going back to discussions in the Académie Français, for example, where they say color is appealing to your feelings, [thus] the impact it can have upon you is unreliable; morally, ethically, and in terms of conceptual innovation. It can’t be as clearly reliable as a drawing can be, because that appeals more to your conceptual, to your mental, to your intellectual [state]. They also said of course that drawing is more male and color is female. Interesting that the major innovations that were made in the field of painting in the last 200 years were all in the field of color: Delacroix, the Fauves with Matisse, and Post-War Color Field painting.”

Accordingly, in the West color was traditionally held to a subsidiary role, but with the rise of Modernism, and particularly post-War with artists as diverse as Marc Rothko and Cy Twombly, color in itself took on narrative roles. No longer fulfilling a mere supporting function, it had become the primary substance of painting. With drawing, this meant that color played its own independent function, no longer merely ‘coloring in’ illustrations. As Katharina noted, “The color could now be here and the drawing there and that was absolutely fine as an information pattern! Twombly does that so greatly, for instance, in Achilles, a drawing, I would say. There is a very, very intense color here [Katharina sketches the picture of Twombly’s Achilles shield], and then there is “Achilles shield” written there, and there is all this space and you go, Aha!* Accepting that there are these different spatial information systems is very clear. And I am totally taken up with the thought that [when] color is independent of being descriptively functional, [then] it can be anywhere, it can appear anywhere. Color is without location. It is un-topical. It has no site. It has no task in terms of it being somewhere, of its appearancesomewhere. It can just infuse a certain energy or attention or transformational aspect into a situation, without discussion of whether it can be, may be, or has a right to be – somewhere.”

A lot is packed into this deceptively simple statement about color escaping its traditionally limited descriptive role in objective and even much non-objective painting; whereby it sheds its subsidiary ‘adjectival’ role. I continued by asking Katharina how color changes not only how we understand space but also how we interact with space; because when liberated from a subsidiary function, color can be not merely functionally decorative, but in substance, structural.

“It can change how we look at things, because it is not developing a fundamental link with the subject [such as a glass or chair].”

 “Then we go into the debate about scale.”

“Ja! We are not in a fixed hierarchy once we encounter color in relationship to size or scale. It contributes a fluid understanding of the hierarchical structure – it can turn around [the experience of a given environment]! That is super interesting in terms of how we work together, live together, in terms of how we understand our responsibilities, from activity, to passivity, to receptiveness, to inventiveness.”


Later in our conversation we looked at pictures of Katharina’s first in situ painting, in her own bedroom and some earlier installations – mainly in public institutions – and I noted that her installations are somehow threatening:

“When you put color into a space, and let it go over everything – here we are looking at paint all over a room, over a bed – there’s an implicit threat there; I mentioned agoraphobia earlier. From a very early age, children are taught to color inside the lines, not to go over the line, not to go over the edge. When we look at architecture often, even when there’s a panel of color, it stops: it’s not allowed to leak. You’re not allowed to be messy. So, when color is not neatly painted on but sprayed, or let to run, there’s a certain threat there. It’s upsetting the order of things. It’s upsetting the visual order, how you interact with the space. It’s a direct challenge to how things are interpreted visually. But I think it is also offering an alternative order, because to some people to be kept in lines is also threatening.”

Sie trocknen ihre Knie mit einem Kissen / She dried her knee with a cushion

In the apartment of Erika Hoffman, one of Germany’s most influential collectors of the past 40 years, one of Katharina’s installations occupies corners of the large living room like some sort of temporal vortex. Yet while the dramatic color intervention is somehow immeasurable, a space-altering intrusion, it is still very much personal for its title alludes to private family memories, the spectral intimacies of life that linger in our homes.

“It’s important to note that my wall work forms an ecology, it is not everywhere. For instance, in “Bed”, the room was also quite under-painted in certain areas. With Erika Hoffmann’s living area, I understood clearly that it had to have the same presence as the work that I bring in.”

“Your installations are always responding to their site, very specifically.”

“The site has a lot to say, a lot of presence. It’s more like a coincidence of two systems rather than an instant turnaround of the existing site. I try to paint the smallest possible version of a large painting!”

I laughed at this and Katharina smiled too but noted, “But otherwise you wouldn’t have this possibility to re-scale [to adjust to being in the space with the painting].”

Katharina Grosse, Sie trocknen ihre Knie mit einem Kissen, Hoffmann Collection, Berlin, 2012, acrylic on wall and canvas, 600 x 1,600 x 850 cm. Foto: Sebastian Schobbert . Copyright: © Katharina Grosse und VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2018. Courtesy: Hoffmann Collection, Berlin

Continuing with the theme I asked about the evanescence of the site installations, with temporariness being built into them: “they have a certain life – possibly only weeks or months – and after the installations are gone, they endure only in documentation, like books, and in people’s memories of interacting with them. There is a certain performance side to this. The work is tied to a location, at a certain time. That context is temporal and temporary. That is part of the understanding of the work: you are having an experience and that experience is going to dissipate, and you’re not going to be able to recover it except in memory and whatever documentation.”

Katharina noted though that, “This is true for most things that we do in life. That’s how we look at the world: it changes all the time in front of our eyes.”

“But with your work, we can’t pretend otherwise.”

“True. Like in the royal park [in Aarhus]; the grass is growing: you can’t paint as fast as the grass is growing! The grass was even stimulated to grow more! When I finished, I re-painted over certain areas so they would look complete for the first photos, though it looked great when it was disappearing too. And people were violent to it.”

“Was that the first time there were violent reactions to your work?”

“The first time I saw them. The aggression management in MoMA PS1 was different. I had a lot of people around me to constantly communicate with visitors about the work, but in Denmark we were not prepared for that kind of reaction…People really let out what they think about art in general but also, in that particular instance, it was territorial: who allowed it? Who am I to come into their country to do this? That it was ugly. That it was polluting. That it was damaging the environment. That it was not art.” A public meeting was organized by the mayor and the museum director with two scientists – one was for it, one was against it – and they discussed all the aspects of the work and people could ask questions about it.”

“Isn’t it important that people are overwhelmed by your work; isn’t this why scale is so important?” 

“There is a certain sense of exuberance. It takes you in, more like a natural phenomenon, I guess. Visitors have to be active in the work. They are theatrical environments, not as specific stage designs but there is a conspiracy between the viewer and the work, and it enhances all your senses so you’re performing anyway, particularly with the sense of temporariness.”

Spectrality, a postscript

During our discussion about the K11 show, Katharina mentioned that the title would be “Mumbling Mud”, but when I asked about it, she laughed musically and replied enigmatically: I would have to ask the curator Venus Lau. A few days later I emailed Venus and this is how she responded:

Mumbling Mud is actually from a conversation between me and KG. I saw spectrality in her works, you know that kind of non-narrative, lumps of visual slurring in her works, that you don’t know where it begins or ends, it just haunts. And then I told Katharina that there is one Cantonese expression 鬼食泥which literally means ghost-eating-mud, and it means murmuring.

Berlin, August 2018


* Cy Twombly (1928–2011), Fifty Days at Iliam: Shield of Achilles, 1978, oil, oil crayon and graphite on canvas, 191.8 x 170.2 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art

“Mumbling Mud” – Katharina Grosse at chi K11 Art Museum, Shanghai

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