Jorinde Voigt interviewed by Rory MacLean
Jorinde Voigt is one of German art’s rising stars. Tall and lean with intense dark eyes and high cheek bones, she met me in her studio near Berlin’s Hackescher Markt. She wore black from head to toe, apart from a pair of startling yellow sneakers. Likewise her studio offered only rare flashes of colour: purple lilies on the desk, a plastic East German KINO sign in the courtyard. Across the floor spread a vast black ink work-in-progress for one of the dozen solo and group shows coming up this year.
‘My work is like music,’ she said, nodding at the drawing. ‘You can enjoy it without being able to read the score.’
Voigt is best known for her graceful spiralling arcs and parallel looped lines, stretched and interwoven, bursting across the page as if caught up in a strange temporal chain reaction. Her meticulous drawings are schematic yet of the natural world, reminiscent of ocean current charts and water droplets falling in slow motion into a pool. They are part timeline, part electronic wiring diagram, part exotic system of musical notation which chronicles subjective experience. Her work seems to be both familiar and totally new, controlled yet wild and unhinged.
I stared at her drawings like a code-breaker, trying to decipher line and meaning, to understand workings of her mind. To that end I asked about the process – the journey – which had brought her to create such extraordinary, dynamic drawings.
‘My family was extremely strict,’ Voigt told me. She was born in 1977 in Frankfurt. ‘I grew up with an exaggerated respect for authority. At first that limited me. I had to fight to find my own way, fighting not against the old but for the new.’
At nine years old she began to play the cello, learnt to read music and matured into a gifted young performer. In 1996 she went to Göttingen’s Georg-August-Universität to study literature and philosophy. To help her understand the subjects she drew diagrams for herself, transforming words into idea maps.
‘I felt the study of philosophy was limited by sentences. I knew how the musical score functioned, how it’s meant to be read. It wasn’t hard for me to exchange a note of music for an idea, situation or action. The approach helped me to understand Descartes and Wittgenstein.’
After a year she decided to move to Berlin’s Freie Universität. When she arrived its students were on strike. As their argument wasn’t hers and she wanted to work, Voigt assembled her philosophical idea maps into a portfolio and applied to the University of the Arts (‘UdK’). She was offered a place immediately. But once in UdK’s Multimedia faculty she again rejected old formulas.
‘Photography pretends to be objective but it’s not. It claims to tell the truth, but it doesn’t,’ she said. ‘I needed to rid myself of the camera’s limited perspective. In those days photography was also really expensive. I spent all my money on prints. So I asked myself, what do I need? The answer was only a pen and paper. I started again from zero, trying to look at my subjects anew, as if for the very first time.’
In Berlin and on trips to Florida and Indonesia her work began to develop its distinctive style. Her subjects – for example two men at a café table, the colour of clothes on a street, overheard pop songs and arbitrary text – were reduced to black and white notations as if on a score. In her precise and careful hand those notations then began to interact on the page, enabling Voigt to portray her subjects from different points-of-view, and across time.
‘Drawing allows me to develop maps to many constellations, across many possibilities’ she told me. ‘I deal a lot with what is subjective and objective. I create a time construct which is beyond our ability to experience.’ When I asked her to explain she smiled and said, ‘We are alive. We are not the person that we were yesterday. That’s why I am interested in multiple perspective.’ Her answer helped to explain why her shows have titles like EPM (emotions per minute), Rotating Remains and Collective Time.
Voigt added, ‘It takes years to invent ones own structures. But I learnt to be disciplined by playing the cello. For the first five years you just have to practice, practice.’
In her studio stood an intriguing new sculptural work. Institution consists of seven black poles, each with two narrow bands of white on which was written ‘brown eyes’ or ‘pink silk-nylon-gold’.
‘I travel a lot,’ she said. ‘When I arrive in a new country I always try to figure out the relationship between men and women. Last year I was in Lamu where many women wear a burka. The clothes seemed to reduce the individual to eyes and ankles.’ She went on, ‘At the same time I had wanted to develop my work beyond paper, into a third dimension. I knew that my drawings always have a vertical structure. I was interested in the round surface, as it concerns infinity. So I came on the idea of the poles: vertical yet rounded. I wanted to reduce my first impressions, my perception of the women of Lamu, to a kind of short language, a society looking at you.’
She laughed, ‘Of course it’s all an experiment. I am always discovering in my work.’
On a wall behind the desk was the prototype for Grammatik, a huge work of 64 graceful, spinning, black carbon aircraft propellers, each blade inscribed with opposing handwritten words of love: Ich liebe mich, Ich liebe mich nicht, Er liebt mich, Er liebt mich nicht.
Voigt looked around her office and studio. ‘Almost everything in our urban environment is a construct. This chair, that desk began as someone’s idea. If you can deconstruct the process, you can see the possibilities. You can imagine what might have been.’
In her yellow sneakers, with and without her cello, Jorinde Voigt seemed to be forever questioning, challenging pre-conceptions. ‘I find it exciting to ask a viewer to imagine something in a different way, in ten different ways. Of course people can just enjoy my work visually but I liked to share my thinking, to help them to understand its logic so they can – if you like – read the score.’