Photo © Harald Neumann

Art in the Museum Courtyard

A Conversation with
Fabio Luks

Stones and Their Stories
Fabio Luks in con­ver­sa­ti­on with Dr. Nao­mi Lubrich, the direc­tor of the Jewish Muse­um of Switzerland.

NL: Mr Luks, you are a con­cep­tu­al artist. You pro­du­ce words, you com­ment on spaces. At the Kunst­haus Gren­chen you instal­led the word «Jetzt» [now] in human-sized let­ters that appear to be mel­ting. For an instal­la­ti­on in the cour­ty­ard of the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land, whe­re medieval gra­ves­to­nes are on per­ma­nent dis­play, you built new gra­ves­to­nes inscri­bed with the Hebrew word «chai» [ali­ve]. Is this reduc­tion or is it irony?

FL: You’re defi­ni­te­ly right with «iro­ny»: I’m rea­ding a book that argues that art, like wit, needs a punch line. The point of CHAI is that gra­ves­to­nes com­me­mo­ra­te the dead while simul­ta­neous­ly kee­ping them ali­ve, by pre­ser­ving their memo­ry. And you’re also right about «reduc­tion.» My work has beco­me more con­cise over the years. I initi­al­ly for­mu­la­ted who­le trains of thought. Then, I redu­ced them to phra­ses. Now it’s just words. Sin­ce I star­ted making art, my texts have got­ten shorter.

NL: You mean like «gra­ves­to­nes that speak of life» to «ali­ve»?

FL: The word «chai,» mea­ning «ali­ve,» imme­dia­te­ly came to my mind for the instal­la­ti­on in the muse­um cour­ty­ard. Life has the hig­hest pos­si­ble value in Juda­ism. It is to be pro­tec­ted at all cost. And life is clo­se­ly con­nec­ted with words. You might remem­ber that the Golem comes to life by means of a word. He’s made of clay, but when Rab­bi Löw engra­ves magic let­ters into the mud, he awa­kens. In a way, gra­ves­to­nes are no dif­fe­rent. Eight hundred years ago, the names of the dead were writ­ten on stones. Today, their inscrip­ti­on gives the stones a pur­po­se, a signi­fi­can­ce, and a life of their own. Words turn this block of stone into a tes­tim­o­ny to men and women who lived long ago.

NL: How did you beco­me an artist? What was it that made you want to pro­du­ce words in three dimensions?

FL: I began by pain­ting tex­tu­al images. I wro­te down my arbi­tra­ry thoughts, like auto­ma­tic wri­ting. But I beca­me more inte­res­ted in the texts, less in the pic­tures. I wan­ted to cap­tu­re the moment and hold it in words. I wan­ted to address the view­ers direct­ly. I loo­ked for words that were ambi­guous and playful. Soon I deci­ded to do away with the pic­tures and con­cen­tra­te just on the text. It was a kind of self-impo­sed restriction.

NL: Rest­ric­tions can sti­mu­la­te creativity…

FL: (Laughs). So you say! May­be I’ll go back to figu­ra­ti­ve images, becau­se rest­ric­tions might make me crea­ti­ve, but only for a short time.

NL: Who are your role models?

FL: I am par­ti­cu­lar­ly inte­res­ted in 20th cen­tu­ry artists: Mar­cel Duch­amp, the Nou­veaux Réa­lis­tes, Jean Tin­gue­ly, Dani­el Spoerri’s trap pain­tings [Fal­len­bil­der], Pop Art, Mar­tin Kip­pen­ber­ger, Jean-Michel Bas­qui­at and Tho­mas Hirsch­horn. They are the pan­ora­ma of my «male influence,» if you like.

NL: They are artists with a sen­se of humour.

FL: Yes!

NL: You stu­di­ed phi­lo­so­phy and Jewish stu­dies in Basel. How did your stu­dies influence your art?

FL: Both phi­lo­so­phy and Jewish stu­dies are text-loving sub­jects. They are asso­cia­ti­ve, con­cep­tu­al. In class, we dis­cus­sed aut­hor­ship, tes­ti­mo­nies, notes. We spent who­le semi­nars on ques­ti­ons such as «What is an instant?,» «Can you hold on to it?,» «Is the­re a ‹now that isn’t always gone?» The­se are the topics I deal with in my work.

NL: And Jewish studies?

FL: Rejec­ting images, reflec­ting on texts – I’d call that an ide­al-typi­cal Jewish process.

NL: Is ani­co­nism a topic of scho­lar­ly deba­te in Jewish studies?

FL: I knew about ani­co­nism [the second com­mandment which pro­hi­bits making gra­ven images] befo­re my stu­dies, but I never thought about it until I began to work as an artist. Juda­ism is most com­pa­ti­ble with abs­tract art. But an artist like Chagall would cer­tain­ly have seen it differently.

NL: Jews are still refer­red to as «peo­p­le of the book.»

FL: I often think of Hein­rich Heine’s con­cept of the «por­ta­ble fat­her­land.» Lan­guage and texts shape our lives in ways that never cea­se to fasci­na­te me. We live in our fictions.

NL: And iden­ti­ty, one of the defi­ning the­mes of our era? In your art, I don’t see you explo­ring your own particularism.

FL: That may come yet! (Laughs). I am actual­ly deve­lo­ping a pro­ject on iden­ti­ty. Not my own per­so­nal iden­ti­ty, but the iden­ti­ty of artists and their role in socie­ty. Unli­ke the gre­at mas­ters, artists today don’t have a cle­ar­ly defi­ned occu­pa­ti­on. Most artists can’t live from their art. At the same time, art schools are trai­ning and gra­dua­ting incre­asing num­bers of stu­dents. Society’s expec­ta­ti­ons of art are huge.

NL: The artist as a modern mes­siah? In any case, your work is not purely «Jewish.» You refer to many other tra­di­ti­ons. For ins­tance, the colors of the panels are taken from the book A Dic­tion­a­ry of Color Com­bi­na­ti­ons by San­zo Wada. Is your refe­ren­cing con­scious­ly post­mo­dern? Or is it a reflec­tion of our time, in which con­stant and varied refe­ren­cing is the norm?

FL: I am open to various artists, sources and ide­as and do not want to deci­de every detail mys­elf. I use tools and don’t want to rack my brain. I quo­te con­scious­ly and sub­con­scious­ly – it’s how I work.

NL: In our age of infor­ma­ti­on, you pro­du­ce ana­log objects by hand. Your art is not digi­tal, you don’t make use of 3‑D prin­ting. Your art is craf­ted in the same way that peo­p­le car­ved stones in Bibli­cal times. Is this part of your artis­tic concept?

FL: Well, it’s not real­ly like in Bibli­cal times. (Laughs). And at the risk of dis­ap­poin­ting you, the mate­ri­als I use are in fact new and inno­va­ti­ve. They’re har­den­ed foam boards that are light and easy to car­ve. I coat them with acrys­tal and paint them with acrylic. And I actual­ly do make visua­liza­ti­ons on the screen. I wouldn’t be aver­se to using a 3‑D prin­ter eit­her, should a pro­ject ari­se for which 3‑D prin­ting would be useful (and afforda­ble). But I wouldn’t want to work exclu­si­ve­ly on the com­pu­ter. I like phy­si­cal labour. And defi­ni­te­ly dia­log – even interviews.

NL: I’ll take that as a com­pli­ment. Thank you very much for your time.

Exhi­bi­ti­on booklet

verfasst am 17.12.2021