Interview conducted at Café Arema, Berlin-Moabit, October 2014
His sculptures and installations are a bibliophile’s dream. Artworks that are literally constructed out of pages and pages of written text, that invite the viewer to ponder that make up the visual universe which Albert Coers painstakingly constructs, book by book.
I guess everyone asks you the same thing – why do you use books?
Yes, I have had to answer this one a lot. In retrospect you end up constructing your own story of how all this came about, so the story goes something like this: I grew up in a household which was full, crammed even, with books. My father belongs to a generation — born in the 1930s — that saw collections as something one builds so as to have something to relate upon in the years to come.
Did he only collect books?
He collected pictures, too. He has a personal art history archive, which included all sorts of printed pictures of artworks, even pages from calendars, cuttings from magazines or newspapers. He was an art teacher and intended to use this for his classes. Books were part of this collection. But you have to imagine all these books and prints stacked one upon the other, interspersed with a variety of objects and materials, for instance ordinary household essentials one buys from the supermarket, layered upon one another. So, life and art were blended together.
So there could be a stack of books and boxes of washing powder?
And then, on top of those, there could be a box of wine bottles re-used as container for works by van Gogh, with the artist’s name carefully written on it… I was fascinated from the material and the misappropriation of things, their combination and the accidental sculptural structure all had taken. For my first project I emptied a room in our cellar where the core of my father’s collection was located, and transferred everything to a gallery.
Was your father collecting rare, or antique books? Were all these books that he had first read or that he aspired to read, eventually?
I think there was more the desire to collect, to possess, simply to have it “in case” at hand than the aspiration to read or, generally, to use them, as there were many works of reference like catalogues and encyclopedias.
There was not much of value in antiquarian sense, nor in the books — many of them came from second hand bookstores — neither in the pictures. When I entitled the show “collezione privata”, I played with the expectations one might have of a precious, well ordered collection of art.
How did it feel growing up in a place crammed with things? Was it like a treasure trove? Did it ever feel like a burden?
Nowadays it appears quite heavy a burden. At the time, though, I was experiencing it as an exciting site and as a hiding place. I was always amazed by any number of things whose exact function was a mystery to me. And I guess I was unconsciously taking this atmosphere in. Certainly there was a feeling of being surrounded by stuff from all sides. Over my sister’s bed, for instance, there was balanced a curving scaffolding loaded with books … Things were occupying the house. But to me, it was fun.
Did you like to read as a child?
No question! I was an avid reader, devouring stories. Quite often I would be found reading with the help of a flashlight, under the blanket, when I was supposed to be sleeping. I loved to read adventures, sure, and books about explorers traveling in the furthermost places on earth. I discovered science fiction and comic books. Looking back, these readings were driven by mere curiosity and pleasure; they were quite diverse, sometimes crappy.
How do you choose which books you will use for your sculptures and installations? Do you pick them according to size and colour? How important is the subject?
I work with material I have some connection to and that interests me, be it the biographical relation, the titles, the subject, certain formal qualities. In a second moment, it is rearranged, often in reaction to the space. I started with books that belonged to my father, and until a certain period I would use my own books. Then I began working with books borrowed in public libraries; I wanted the pieces to be, in one respect, interactive, so I asked people to borrow books that they would then lend me in order to create a new collective library.
In both cases how do you choose the books – according to subject, size, colour?
That depends. First time when I involved my own books to create an installation, I simply used all of them, to fill the only window of the room in which I lived at the time. As it happened, the size of the window was such that I needed to use all of them to close the room, to isolate it from the outside.
Why did you use books to replicate the feeling of isolation?
It was a period during which I was surrounded by books, going through the last period of my studies, writing my thesis. So by working on this installation I wished to put some distance between me and the printed material, to use it in a way other than it was all intended for, as sculpture material, to do something visually productive with it. Certainly, I was transforming it also in a picture.
And when you asked people to borrow and bring you books from a public library, what were the guidelines? What were you looking for?
That was a more conceptual approach. For “Biblioteca Collettiva” in 2005, I chose the theme of “Geschichte”, which means History in German. I thought it was working well, as the concept contained the word, “Schichten”, which means layers, which was the way I arranged the books. And History is something that leaves wide room for different interpretations by each one of us. So that work was a kind of experiment whether one would possibly be able to guess what the initial theme had been.
How did it turn out?
More than 40 people took part in the process and brought in books that were very different from each other. Some of them had chosen books that bore the actual word “Geschichte” in their title, so the interpretation was quite literal. Others chose biographies, which of course constitute one way of writing history. And then there were books that were narrating history, but not in an explicit manner and not by stating it. So looking at the end result, a viewer was able to tell in which direction it all went to, but one could still not be sure.
What do you find so engaging in books as material for installations and sculptures ?
It’s both the quality and the cubic form of a book that makes it apt as building material, which appeals to me. And then, there is the content itself, which provides ample opportunities to play with, the context the books come from, their history, that of their users and owners …
When you visit someone’s home, do you tend to go take a look at their library?
In fact I am so interested in it, that I used the concept of the personal library several times, for example in my exhibition in the Kunstverein Berlin Tiergarten, in 2012, where I had asked members of the Kunstverein to bring me books that I would arrange in reaction to the material. For example, one of them, the director, was an expert on 19th century architecture, so for this installation I used the books in an explicitly architectonical way, like pillars.
Your work in general betrays an affinity for architecture – or am I getting wrong, maybe?
Actually my grandfather on my mother’s side was an architect.
So he was an influence?
Indirectly. His name was Hans Beckers, he designed quite a few buildings, mostly churches in the 1950s and 1960s in Bavaria. The family organized a small exhibition with pictures and blueprints, floor plans on his centenary in 2002, so I once again went through all the pictures and sketches.
You had a sort of informal education in architecture, then?
More a surrounding and an opportunity to look and observe. We were going in places where my grandfather had designed buildings, for example a little holiday house in Austria, and we would pay more attention to the details than somewhere else.
Many artists –visual artists but mostly writers, the most prominent among whom might be Jorge Luis Borges, share a fascination with the concept of the library. How do you explain this?
Interestingly I think I came upon Borges only after having already been working on my book installations. I was doing research, a posteriori, upon the motif of the library. I like his idea of the endless library. I think this fascination is it stems as much from the construction and the form, as from what lays inside of it, as it is the organization of knowledge. The spatial system of a big library, with the scaffolds, the different levels, the several corridors, resembles a labyrinth in which you can get lost. It is the promise of surprise, of unplanned discoveries, where you suddenly stumble upon something that you were not searching for. The library as a system that invites for deviations and circles and then the library as a treasure trove – this sums up its appeal.
Did you have this feeling as a child, stumbling upon something that was more exciting than what you had been looking for?
This was a feeling I would usually get in the place where my father was working; it was more like a studio, with hidden storage places. The studio itself was kind of a restricted area where I was normally not supposed to go. But when he was not there I would sneak in, and it had this allure of the forbidden place, even if it was not openly declared.
You first studied Literature and History of Art and only later did you turn to Art – what drew you to Literature?
Actually in school, in the last years, I had two main courses, one was Art, which I liked very much, and the other was Latin. I was quite good at that and enjoyed it, too. At that point I did not have enough self-confidence in order to apply to an Art Academy, because I saw that other students were better than me in realistic drawing – which I thought to be essential. So I decided to pursue my interest in Literature and Art History. But then after 2–3 years, while I was in Pisa doing some time abroad, I realized that I wanted to do something else. It probably had to do with the fact that the system of teaching Literature was more rigid there than it had been in Germany. So there I was, sitting inside a library, looking at all those young people around me who were bending over their books, shaking nervously with their legs and thinking to myself that there are other qualities of mine that I need to develop.
Was it then that you decided to lead the life of an artist or had you always planned to do so?
I think it was in Italy. Because it was there that I very determinedly said I would apply to the study Art. That time it was quite strong a feeling that had become all the more intense by this pressure I experienced in Pisa to finally do something. So I applied at the Art Academy in Munich and got accepted. The time of preparation was a very exciting and productive one. I lived in a small room in the students’ dorms and I transformed it into a studio using up every centimeter of the place, for example I pulled open the drawers of the cupboards and put a board on it. In fact what I did was create an installation. Looking back, this use and transformation of the space is something that interests me to this day.
How did it feel to be finally doing what you wanted?
Paradoxically, I fell like into a hole, after the effort of the application. The pedagogical concept of the class was to confront the students with a kind of emptiness. So in the beginning there was nobody closely following your work; you were more or less left on your own. It was quite different from school where you were told what to do. You had to develop your own project and get to know what you were really interested in.
How much of the completed artwork do you know before you start? Do you visualize the completed piece or do you rather like to surprise yourself?
A bit of both. For me it is important to let things happen, to react on the site and often something comes out in the process. But while preparing an exhibition some visual concept has to be there, even if no image of the completed work; so I make sketches, built models of the exhibition space …
I think you would probably agree that a great many artists revisit their childhood experiences – what’s your explanation?
It probably has to do with a wish to return to a state of naivety, which we enjoyed as children, where the function of things was not so determined. And in my case it still is extremely appealing to do a sort of child’s architecture: basic constructions, using blankets, paper boxes, a bed… I think this wish to create a space, a little world, out of things that are normally intended for other uses altogether is a way to recapture that perspective of a child – and it is what constitutes the connection to the approach of the artist.
Which artists’ work do you like to go back to and look at it again, or have influenced the way you see art?
Among contemporary artists, I am very fond of the work of Thomas Demand, who is doing architecture or settings from paper, after pictures out of his own or the collective memory, and then takes photos before destroying the settings. The temporary use and transformation of ordinary material, the sculptural approach, the use of preexisting pictures, this is quite intriguing.
Do you make a point of seeing a lot of exhibitions? Are you the kind of artist that tries to not miss new things?
If someone interests me, yes. OK, there are periods where you are immersed in your own work and don’t pay much attention, but generally I like to follow the work of anyone I like. I also go to museums quite a lot.
Which Berlin museums do you visit more often?
The Hamburger Bahnhof, for instance, because they have interesting temporary exhibitions, but also great collections. And then the Neue Nationalgalerie.
What was the last exhibition in Berlin that you really loved?
It was the exhibition by Martin Honert at the Hamburger Bahnhof. I was completely happy after having been there. It was also the theme of childhood that I am interested in and then as sculpture it worked so well.
What’s your definition of a bad or unsuccessful piece?
A piece is too simplistic, too easy, if it has only one layer of meaning. There would also be the criterium of redundancy. Then one has to be careful that an artwork is not exclusively visually appealing.
Let’s go back to books – what are you reading these days?
I’m always carrying around a book with me, sometimes I read it. Recently I bought a anthology of English short stories, which I have with me. Besides that, I was reading a novel by Botho Strauß, “Die Widmung” [The Dedication]. I took it a few days ago at the book stalls outside the Bodemuseum while waiting for someone. But then, I realized I had a copy yet and had read it years before. This time I couldn’t get into it and left it in the waiting room in the station of Bologna. Probably it’s still there.
How long have you been living in Berlin?
I came in 2010, but before that I had visited the city on several occasions. The first time was in 1985. I was still a boy and the trip with a friend to West Berlin had the allure of an adventure.
Did you go to East Berlin?
Yes, and the differences were very stark. It felt like switching from colour TV to black & white. Then there was a lack of advertising in East Berlin, which I noticed right away, and a huge difference regarding the cost of everything. I recall us going to a big department store in the Alexanderplatz and things were so easy to buy with our Westmark changed in Ostmark, We bought loads of sketchbooks and pencils. One other thing I remember very clearly was the Palast der Republik. It was impressive, with those windows with the reddish metallic glow.
Do you think that it should have been preserved and still standing there?
Yes, I would have preferred it. Especially now that I see the construction site. I mean, I like construction sites, as they look always better than the finished building, but this one is so massive. When it is going to be reconstructed as a palace, it will be quite imposing upon the city. There used to be this huge empty space behind the Palast and all the way to Alexanderplatz; I rather preferred it that way. And I think there should be something as a reminder of that period, even if it was not great architecture.
Do you think there are fewer reminders of that period?
Yes, I do. Sure, you have to think of the functionality of things – but then the function of that new palace is not clear either.
If you could ask people who come to Berlin to read one book or see one film about this city, which would it be?
Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” [Der Himmel über Berlin], even if it has a kind of pathos that probably feels a little outdated. I would still recommend it. And the text by Peter Handke is quite poetic. I like it as a document of the time, of the image of Berlin in the ‘80s.
Katerina Oikonomakou is the initiator and author of the berlininterviews.com which features interviews with artists and authors. She has worked for many years as a journalist for the Greek daily press. Along with her journalism work, she has been active in the area of arts administration. Between 2010 and 2012, she was project manager and coordinator of the “Talks and Thoughts” Program of the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens. Katerina splits her time between Berlin and Athens.