First Expansion, Then Compression: The Practice of Michael Sailstorfer

Solarkatze, 2012

First Expansion, Then Compression: The Practice of Michael Sailstorfer

“A chair is ‘successful’ when the design is good, stable and comfortable,” says German artist Michael Sailstorfer. “With an artwork, it’s more difficult. The good thing is that an artwork does not have to be successful.” Since 2001, Sailstorfer’s practice has tackled effective imperfection through site-specific environmental interventions. Emphasising technical execution and artistic process, his works intentionally contrast sharply against their locations – a church turned factory (Hitzefrei, 2017), or Primitive masks installed in ritual formation around a taxidermy cat (Solarkatze, 2012) at Carbon 12 – evidence that juxtapositions accomplish Sailstorfer’s goal of appealing to multiple senses.


Installation view: We Love Them All. Carbon 12, Dubai.

Influenced by his upbringing in the Bavarian countryside, studio in Berlin, and artists such as Matta-Clark, Signer and Beuys, Sailstorfer’s works are portraits of key life moments. Adapting two schools of thought, the ‘man-can-do’ attitude learned at Akademie der Bildenden Künste München met Goldsmiths’ theoretical focus, resulting in Sailstorfer blending rawness with precision. “I like the idea that you can achieve everything you want, and do it with your own hands,” he says. Punk in the embracement of physical imperfection, Sailstorfer is provocative and playful, embodying youthful experimentation and its disregard for ‘rules’ while still remaining rooted in thorough understanding of mechanics and materiality. Though the execution is visceral, the concepts are poetic, and despite referencing industrial German contemporary art, he does not rest on his laurels: “The biggest challenge is to reinvent yourself with every new project.”

Sailstorfer’s earliest works are aggressively minimalist. “Waldputz (2000) was the very first piece I did at art school and is still very important as it reveals basic themes that are relevant,” he says. “I cleaned a plot of forest and created an artificial space in a natural environment. I used only existing materials and created an artwork by taking material away rather than adding. The piece causes irritation as the ambler does not know what happened, whether someone is starting to build a house or a chemical accident occurred.” This is one form of tension Sailstorfer employs, and ensuing works delved deeper into unexpected encounters and transformations of natural or manmade environments. “I was interested in what sculpture could be, how smell becomes a part of it, and how a physically small piece spreads and occupies the whole space by its smell,” he explains of Zeit ist keine Autobahn (2005). About time, progress and transience, the tire powered by an electric motor runs itself bare against a wall, leaving the stench of burning rubber and a pile of debris. Obliterating the invisible boundary between artwork and visitor by rendering the experience unavoidable, Sailstorfer turned the artwork into an active, living thing inextricable from the viewer’s reality.


Waldputz, 2000. Cibachrome on Forex, in collaboration with Alfred Kurz, 50 × 35 cm.

Often rife with metaphysical undertones, Sailstorfer’s artworks encompass the entire process from idea to finality. “Process is important, sometimes essential. Herterichstr. 119 (2001) is a sofa made from the broken-down material of a foreclosed house with a framed photo of the home hanging above it. The sofa is a portrait of the house’s design and colour,” he says. “The traces on those sculptures draw a line back to the making of those objects, the process and timeline.” Noting that time and transience are always on his heels, Sailstorfer’s works prove that destruction is not a dead-end, merely part of that process. Video work 3 Ster mit Ausblick (2002), a collaboration with Jürgen Heinert, depicts a self-cannibalising wood cabin, where over two days they systematically fed its three-cubic-metres into its own furnace – an existential commentary not unlike Forst (2010), six suspended upside-down trees slowly spinning and cleaning up their own falling leaves to the mechanical droning of the machinery rotating them. 


Reaktor, 2005. Concrete, microphones, mixer, amplifier, loudspeaker, 210 x 225 x 225 cm.

Wonderful, playful and fear inducing, Sailstorfer’s works veer between scientific experiment, synesthetic exploration, or disaster fetishist play – exemplified by Wolken (2010), dense black truck tire tubes suspended like clouds, or a Norwegian biennial project proposal to visualise acoustics via a wooden room with a single window and speaker. Sailstorfer only tested it – but the video reveals the speaker emitting bone-shaking, glass-shattering sound and vibration. Similarly, Reactor (2005) featured a microphone embedded into a concrete cube attached to a close-range speaker amplifying footfall vibrations. “When people walk through the space, it makes a low frequency hum. The more people in the space, the louder it gets,” he explains. “The piece is always present.” However, though focused on the extension of sculpture’s limits through sound, smell and physical presence, he asserts “It is not about materials, it is about images, ideas and freedom that wants to be kept.” Solarkatze (2012) embodies this. A more delicate intervention into nature and process, it sits atop a high-pedestal below a neon light, absorbing the fake sunlight in conceptual and physical illumination.

“It is an introverted piece, a contraction into the head of the cat, sitting under the light source and looking into it with eyes closed,” he explains. “It is a meditation.” After expansion comes compression: if Sailstorfer’s works come alive through broadened boundaries, he turns the tables again, because Solarkatze reveals that silence doesn’t equal lack of life, nor a firm viewer-object distance. His metaphysical undertones break the surface because now sound, smell and presence need no longer come provoke you – you come to it.


All images courtesy of the artist and Carbon 12, Dubai.

“It is not about materials, it is about images, ideas and freedom that wants to be kept.” - Michael Sailstorfer