While renowned artist and curator Marc Schmitz hails from Germany, his embracing of the philosophies of the Far East made his art flourish. He was most drawn to the open expanses and nomadic culture of Mongolia where he is the founder and artistic director of Biennial Land Art Mongolia, now celebrating its 10th year. We talk with Marc in his studio in Kreuzberg Berlin about his latest series, The Nomads Square, and what it means to approach art, and life, with an open mind; creating without brooding but always looking to the future.
What first brought you to Berlin?
This was a long time ago, I think '87. Before the wall came down I moved to Berlin. I was lucky because I found a huge studio at that time and started painting and doing artwork.
To be in Berlin right before and after the wall came down must have been an incredible time, on the edge of something new.
Absolutely. Before the wall came down we were thinking we were such avant-garde. It was a very special time. We had ideas we were already in the future but living on Mars or something strange. My studio was just around there. You could walk through a tent and you were all of a sudden in a strange jungle, you know? And then it was the end of punk. But Berlin is always in progress. I don't live in the past. We can never fight against time, it's impossible.
Word in Berlin today is you have a show going on. Tell us about it.
It's a two-person show with a colleague of mine [Han Feng]. It's in a large space nearby. We each have about three different rooms. We did some new work for this. I created two neons. And a selection of my paintings.
Is any of the work in collaboration with each other?
No, not yet. We share another exhibit which is currently in Shanghai. And soon another opening in Bangkok.
How do you know each other?
Han and I were introduced by a curator I know in London. Han had just emigrated to Germany and was looking for a studio. By chance I was able to help him find one and we became friends.
Let's talk about your latest series, The Nomads Square as I think it's fascinating how creativity has come out of this time period and quarantine. How did it come about?
I started in January. I had a show opening in China but that was the moment I realized something was going to happen. I didn't travel and then there was the lockdown until June. I was just working trying to keep my mind calm. Just drawing. I didn't use any kind of brush at first. For me, it was a good experience because I spent more time in the studio since a decade instead of traveling which takes a lot of time preparing exhibitions. So I've been using the studio for what it was meant for, actually. Just doing something every day like a diary and to feel openness. It's conceptual work, but it's to leave the concept. Then I decided to make a documentary book about it to have a better understanding for myself. Before I was doing much larger works but this is a small size.
So you gave yourself a restriction to be within this frame, if you will.
The restriction was not judgment. I don't judge, I just do them. Then the next one, just one after the other.
When do you come back to it, to look at the body of work?
One of my most important curators told me, do work and then forget about it. In Asian understanding I would say Taoist work. Just be in the environment. Be like water. Do something, next. Too much thinking or critique makes us heavy.
Tell me more about this approach to your work.
Good artwork is always also entertaining, but it's a carrier for the content. This is a very basic idea when you create something. In the end, you just have the work. If it needs a lot of explanation, people get a headache.
We just need to absorb it, right?
It begs the decision to not judge. Judgment has to be personal in the end. It can give a good feeling or open the mind or relax it or whatever. But as soon as the work is finished, I can't control it because it has its own life now in the public.
Being in the studio and not over thinking, was that always something you ascribed to?
For me, it's very important to feel the entire environment. The studio is like a kind of lockdown with yourself. The park is nearby. I go almost every day with my bike and it's all these small, uncalculated things that you see. Like in the age when important thinkers like Nietzsche were walking, but biking has a new quality of being open to the environment.
So you see the bike as representing your approach to art?
To bike is a statement. For an individual being in the open environment, it's different from a car. It's also an ecological statement. At the moment in Berlin, they are changing a lot of traffic and the streets to set up bikeways. In Mongolia, young people demonstrated to have bikeways. They had no lobby but they were successful. The statement is enough because in these changing times, it's very important.
Do you see more people in Berlin making such a statement?
Yeah. I had an appointment yesterday at the bike shop. It's almost impossible to get an appointment now because there's such huge demand.
How did you first come across Cowboy?
I saw an announcement somewhere and I liked that it doesn't look like any bike. I live on the top of this hill near Viktoriapark and I thought it would make a difference because it's annoying going up the hill every day. I had a sale of a work and I said yeah okay [laughter].
Ah, put the proceeds to a new Cowboy bike.
Yeah, that's a good option.
During this time, how has Cowboy played a role?
I feel supported. I feel lucky to have this bike. It feels strong, and in these times where you look for only basic things and you need to travel from A to B it's really useful.
Nice one. Okay, switching gears. When in your life did you do something courageous? A real cowboy move?
The big move was inaugurating the Biennial in Mongolia. Most of the work is in very remote places and it's a great experience for me. It's amazing because we have partners around the world participating. So yeah, this was a big move.
When did it begin?
What brought you to do it?
Space. It offered me space. This was for me the most important realization. Personally getting my mind open because we are in boxes and boxes. It's both a physical and mental experience that is important for me and my art. And this experience I could have in Mongolia much better than for example, in China or Japan or Korea or even here. We own three gers [yurts] in a place about five hours from Ulaanbaatar, near the birthplace of Genghis Khan. I can open the door of my Mongolian home, and I can see for 50 kilometers. It's just green. I usually go there for two or three months, traveling around. It's a personal thing that I really enjoy open space.
Certainly a different vantage point atop that hill compared to Viktoriapark in Berlin. Where do you find open space here where landscape is mostly developed?
The Park at Gleisdreieck nearby here offers a new movement through the center city. I'm a nomad who's not so good at staying in one place. So I need to move. One statement I'd make is that the future comes in the park.
Because the park is a place free from anything commercial. It's different from the street. We need this kind of free space. The park is developed as an artistic environment with the intention of being open.
If you had to sum up this state of openness you talk about, how would you?
Life is circular; step out of the line and enter the field.