By Anita Malhotra
Berlin-based artist Hans Hemmert is best known for his groundbreaking conceptual artwork, most notably his performative balloon sculptures. His work has been exhibited at the MoMA in New York, the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea (CGAC) in Spain and Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art, among others.
It can also be found in many art collections around the world, including those of the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art Helsinki, Malmö Konsthall, Berlin Landesmuseum, German Bundestag, and the Jumex Collection in Mexico City.
Hemmert is also a member of the collective “inges idee” (Hans Hemmert, Axel Lieber, Thomas A. Schmidt and Georg Zey), whose more than 50 striking public sculptures can be found in Europe, Asia and North America.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Hans Hemmert at his home in Berlin on Sept. 7, 2018.
AM: Where did you grow up?
HH: I grew up in Bavaria – in the countryside.
AM: What were your first experiences with art?
HH: At school I liked to work with my hands building small models made of paper, or working with clay. And this developed in my youth.
I knew that I wanted to do something with my hands – not with texts and words, but with pictures and three-dimensional objects. I started studying philosophy in ’81, but then it became clear that I wanted to enter arts school.
AM: What interested you about philosophy?
HH: The interest came from the religious education I had in Bavaria. My family was very religious – Catholic. I was even in a seminary from age 10 to 17.
There I got a lot of religious and philosophical input, because we were reading the old Greek and Latin philosophers.
I started studying philosophy but realized that I’m not a scientist but an artist. Then I got a place in the art school in Berlin and studied sculpture for five years.
AM: In your sculpture studies, who were you influenced by?
HH: I was influenced by English sculpture because my teacher was English. He was a pupil of Anthony Caro, who did abstract steel sculpture in England in the ‘60s. Caro was the assistant of Henry Moore for five years.
So I started with huge abstract steel sculptures, and out of that I developed my own language.
Afterwards I moved away from pure sculpture to a lot of different materials and into installation and doing video and photographic work. I was also drawing all the time.
AM: What was the arts scene like in Berlin when you first came?
HH: Berlin was not the centre of the arts scene in Germany. The centres were Cologne and Düsseldorf. Berlin was a special town in the sense it was very cheap to live here because there was no economic growth. The city was more or less empty.
And there was a grant from West Germany for Berlin. Everybody who worked here got eight percent on their income from the state to live here. It was called Berlinzulage [Berlin Allowance].
Nearly every artist had a cheap studio because Berlin was a big industrial city before the war, and after the war all the factories stood empty. So West Berlin was very good for young people developing their creativity.
AM: How did you start working with the medium of balloons?
HH: During my studies and for a few years after I still worked with steel and other materials doing sculptures. And then I got ill with my back. If you carry a sack of plaster, it’s really heavy work, so I had a real problem and had to stop for a few months.
Then I started mainly to draw for one or two years. In the drawings I often had these bubbles. If you work with ink, you can take a little bit of water, and you get these wonderful bubble-forms. This brought me to the idea of working with balloons.
First I bought all the balloons and inflatable everyday stuff made from PVC you can buy for bathing like bath dolphins.
Then I realized that I wanted to have bigger balloons – as big as possible. I researched and developed the technique to build my own balloons and I built the yellow balloons with two assistants in my studio. It took two, three weeks’ production time gluing them with natural latex material I bought from England.
AM: Tell me about some of your first balloon sculptures.
HH: In 1995 I was invited by the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden to participate in an exhibition about Berlin. There I got a big space and I decided for the first time to take a giant yellow balloon as a sculpture and fill the whole room up to the ceiling. You could still walk around the sculpture, but the artwork took up 80 percent of the volume of the space.
After this exhibition I got my balloon back and I had the idea to inflate it in my student apartment, and go inside the balloon and take a photo.
The balloon was closed at the beginning and then you cut a hole in it so you could go in. My girlfriend helped me to get in. I went in and breathed through a tube, and then my girlfriend glued it closed again.
I had to wait for about half an hour with the tube in my mouth, and then through this tube she inflated the balloon with an air blower. I was seated inside and then it inflated and started to press against the furniture and the wall.
I had a camera and tripod with me because I had intended to take a photo. Then I thought, “Nobody will believe that this is a real sculpture. Everybody will think it’s a photoshop collage.” It needed a passerby – a reference person. I decided to be that reference person and I made self-portrait with a tripod and remote shutter release.
When I saw the image I thought, “This is a good work because it’s a very open image. Everybody can see different things in the work.” For me, personally, it was very interesting. I was sitting on the same chair I sat on every day just separated by a tenth of a millimeter of stretched latex. But in my thoughts I was far away, like on a journey to outer space or to the moon.
I continued over the next years to make a lot of different balloon works. There are different ones where I’m inside – for example, inside my car, inside my studio, and so on.
Afterwards I experienced this idea of going inside a balloon but taking a part of the outside – the balloon world – for example, my daughter Julie – into my hands. The balloon was, if you will, my second skin. I felt like an alien.
In 1998, I was invited by the Centro Galego for Contemporary Art – a beautiful new museum in Spain with a very special architectural space.
I made it a dialogue between my sculpture and the architecture. They are squeezed together like a sandwich, and in the end the whole space is an art installation. In another gallery show in Berlin at carlier|gebauer, I took a big balloon and suspended it by scaffolding standards.
AM: The one that puzzled me was the dancing balloon. I thought you had motorized it.
HH: I was inside and I was really dancing. It was bouncing against me and it was only possible for 20 or 30 minutes. I had two or three people outside who kept asking, “Hans, are you still okay?” “Yeah, I’m okay.” But then they had to cut me out because I had no air.
AM: So for this size of balloon, 20 minutes is the maximum?
HH: Yes, but you can stay a whole day in the big ones.AM: What does it feel like to be inside a balloon?
HH: The main feeling is fear. You feel fear because of the breathing. And I also had fear that it would blow up and hit me in the eyes, so at first I wore safety goggles. But this never happened when I was inside a balloon.
AM: Is there a reason you almost always work in yellow?
HH: I decided on yellow for different personal reasons. Yellow was a very fashionable colour in the ‘70s when I was a teenager, and yellow reminds me of the sun, of the colour of gold, and the baroque churches where I was raised in Bavaria and Franconia. So it has something divine.
And yellow is also a little bit aggressive. It inspires you to start thinking. I made transparent works before, but yellow was my favourite colour, and it kind of became my signature.
AM: How do you feel about the fact that people see your work and your name is out there, but then your work of art just deflates?
HH: Yes, it deflates and after a few years I throw it away. What I like about the inflatable art pieces is that I don’t pack my studio full of works. The steel work was always a problem to store.
And I like the idea that it’s temporary and ephemeral. A big balloon filling a museum space – if it’s deflated you can carry it in a suitcase. I travelled by airplane to Tokyo with a suitcase containing my art and inflated big installations. It was a crazy feeling – it was fun.
But the disadvantage is that although I was showing a lot – worldwide, too – I could not sell them. What I did was have photographs taken of performances in my studio and then I commercialized these works. Because otherwise nobody but a few assistants in the studio would see them.
AM: Why did you create German Panther – the tank made out of balloons?
HH: One day I stopped working with the big yellow balloons and decided to work with a lot of small balloons, like pixel art. I created a few works with small, randomly coloured balloons – first a church, and then I did this lifesize tank, German Panther.
I was invited by an exhibition and my proposal was in the form of a small watercolour drawing. They liked it, so I created it. I wanted to create an image which has a strong contrast between what you see as an image, the tank, and the material it’s made of.
The effect is stunning, but I also think it becomes an anti-war statement. It seems that a lot of people read it like this because I was asked by Amnesty International and War Child to use the image.
AM: How did you get involved with the public sculpture collective inges idee?
HH: This happened in the early ‘90s. I had a lot of artist friends, and with three others we had the idea to work as a team because work in public space was becoming more and more common. I created one public space project alone in Frankfurt in ’90.
I realized if you do it alone you have to be really a good entrepreneur, and it would be much more convenient to work together on such big projects.
Also, if you work in public space, your work will be seen on the street and has to make sense to everybody.
Only a small percent of society goes to contemporary art galleries or museums. We thought if there are four of us discussing the ideas, then we are already a small public sphere because the four ideas come together and the four critiques come together during brainstorming.
That’s our main business – doing brainstorming. Everybody brings ideas to the table, and then we filter out what would be good at this site in this context.
An artist colleague from Vancouver once said, “inges idee is like Christmas. You never know what you will get.”
AM: What does the name inges idee mean?
HH: Well, it’s just a crazy idea. Inge is a German name – a woman’s name. But it’s old-fashioned. Nobody has been called Inge in the last 50 years. We wanted Inge because it has an “i” like the word idee, and idee is a beautiful German word. We also thought, “It’s a woman’s name – we are four guys.” So the fictional fifth person is “inge” – the mother.
AM: How do you work together?
HH: Everybody has his individual skills. Thomas Schmidt is very good in drawing very quickly and evocatively, Axel Lieber is doing all the texts – very precise text work, Georg Zey is the best manager you can imagine, and I work on the small models, which then go to the factory to be enlarged.
But all of us are first and foremost the artists of inges idee and mainly involved in the idea-finding process.
Our studio is full of small models – hundreds of little sculptural sketches. We did 350 competitions in the last 25 years. These are invited, closed competitions like architectural competitions. We won and completed 50 or so in 11 different countries.
AM: inges idee has many interesting works all over the world, but one of the most striking is the snowman you have in Japan. How did that idea come about?
HH: The snowman was an invitation from Aichi, a former world exhibition site. When we are invited, we get images of the place and usually travel there and come back and develop an idea.
Here, the place was an exhibition pavilion with an open sky roof and a small water-feature below. And then we came to the idea of building a snowman who melts down and loses his hat.
We wanted to bring something from our culture to Japan, and for that reason we used the schneemann (snowman). I think it’s a German or middle European invention – a mythical figure.
Everybody builds a snowman as a child in wintertime because we have snow everywhere. I built hundreds as a child.
In Germany if you make a snowman, you put a carrot for the nose, a pot as a hat, and two pieces of black coal or buttons as eyes. So the snowman starts to melt, and the hat falls while the snowman is looking down.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about the basketball court sculpture outside the Munich technical school?
HH: We had the idea to take a basketball court and destroy one parameter of it. So we removed the parameter that it’s flat. Everything is what you would expect for a basketball court – there’s normal tartan material, the sizes are right, the lines are right, but the parameter that it’s flat is left out. And so we built hills up to two metres on it.
You still see it as a basketball court, but it is also asking questions. You cannot really play on it, but you can use it in a different way as a relaxing zone in front of the school. It’s a simple idea, but it does so much to a place.
AM: Another striking work is the one of the dog and bone in Calgary.
HH: That’s the newest one. It’s installed at the Seton medical centre in Calgary. We wanted to attract people to the entrance of the medical centre. It’s a dog looking for the bone up on the roof, and the dog itself is built out of nine bones. And so the dog is built out of his own “desire.” He is longing to get the bone, and he is built out of his desire like every human being is filled with desires, if you will. The sculpture tells you to always look up.
AM: What projects are you working on now with inges idee?
HH: We are working on a new invitation in Vancouver, Canada. There is a new area outside Vancouver with incredible highrise buildings called Gilmore and they are building a SkyTrain. For this space under the new SkyTrain, they invited artists to make public art.
We are developing three or four ideas, and at the last moment we will select the best one. So right now we are doing drawing and making models and photoshop collages.
My whole day is about looking at visual ideas and deciding which one is strong – which one could invite people to start thinking outside of the box.
For more information about Hans Hemmert and inges idee, please visit ingesidee.de.