A collector phones from somewhere – Asia, actually – saying the money is sent. Ulrich Rückriem sits in his braces and yellow shirt, laughs, and then chats some more. We meet by complete chance in the piazza facing Mantua’s cathedral: Ulrich is in town looking at a space where he’s been invited to exhibit in a group show. In an hour and half we cover a lot of ground (some of the ideas will wait for their moment on my journey).
Ulrich is a sculptor, largely, with huge minimal pieces in famous galleries around the world, and exterior installations. As he talks the list goes on: Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilboa. The Reichstag building in Berlin, Dusseldorf, Manchester, Hensca in the Pyrenees…
Of this last piece Ulrich says: “People look at the work and they don’t know where it has come from, you don’t know who did it, if it is old or new. From a distance it looks like a wall, when you come close you realize it is a series of walls, and there is a maze, a path around it. I like the idea of its being anonymous.”
“I don’t have a studio, I am a “quarry artist” he says, “I have a fantastic life: I am free to go.” He lives for the stone, and the precise location in which the art he makes from it will exist. It is the relationship between the stone and the place that makes the art. “I am collected, but they must really love the work because it is all about its site. When you take it away from that, which collectors do, then it is devalued: so they must really love my work to buy it. Everything depends on the space.”
Invited to show at Mantua with other artists, including Alan Charlton and Neile Toroni, he is considering the offer. “Toroni, he is a ‘travel’ artist. He lives in Paris, but he has no studio, he always carries his paints, and where he goes: drip, flick, he creates work on walls. He doesn’t need a space either.”
He remembers first seeing the red “stone” in Verona. “When I was young, just starting. I loved the way it fades in the sun, how it becomes something else. Inside the buildings, that is where you see the pure red, out of the sun. You know there’s a marble and stone shop in Verona, the biggest in the world, huge blocks sometimes three metres by one by one. Well, let me tell you about the stone. Now it all comes from China, they are taking over. The European stone industry is dying out, it is so much cheaper to bring it from China. And the shipping? They use the marble to weigh down the tankers, the ships. It goes at the bottom of the boat, it’s easy.”
So whilst globalisation brings Apple and Dell computers to Europe and America from factories in China on the upper decks, marble hitches a ride down below. Sometimes it is easy to think that China has thought of everything. The fork and the umbrella, for example: Tom’s discoveries that Marco Polo must have seen centuries before out East. Already the nature of my journey is such that the sense that “everything” has been done before is very powerful. Including the replacing of one dominant imperial power with another. I’ve seen Bourbons, British heroes, revolutionaries, Chou-Enlai’s recruiting grounds in the Paris hinterlands; hotbeds of modern dissent, allegedly, in the “banlieu”. Here in Italy the war “on terror” suggests that every internet café is a potential Tora Bora; I’ve crossed the mountains that Hannibal and Napoleon have; today I am at the birthplace of Virgil, the author of the Roman Empire’s “foundation myth”. Everything fades eventually, defeated by hubris or declining economy, or just the next big idea.
And sitting at the next table an artist, and his wife, who takes such palpable pleasure in his art, described simply but clearly a bureaucratic minefield of quarries, locations; creation itself. Sculpture takes us right back to origins, through its very materiality it can survive intact (though its meaning may change) in a way that stories cannot: they change, are always Chinese whispers of narrative. Virgil’s myth used characters from Homer, but re-worked in conscious effort to create Roman “identity”, and national identity at that. Ulrich takes us back to something more liberated than “state” and all of the collected assumptions, stereotypes and assumed realities of being from one country, or another. Even Ulrich falls foul outside art.
“Meet a German abroad, in the jungle, or the desert, and they will be from Saxony,” Ulrich says. “They have to do something. Everybody from the East has to be doing something. Everyone from the Rhine, the Rhineland, have grown cosy, too sloppy.”
I ask about his fellow German artist, Anselm Kiefer. I’ve recently seen two exhibitions, one in Berlin, one in London. I find them very powerful, humanist, full of Geman history, haunting; yet infused with a thick layer of visceral modernity that is universal. Kiefer is interesting, Ulrich suggests, but it all goes back to Joseph Beuys, “and it is never as good as Beuys.” History, its resonance and haunting is surely crucial to the German aesthetic? “For me history just is there, it has nothing to tell us – in itself. Art for me has to be ‘of itself’, ‘in itself’. It is the stone, and it is the place; the place is 50 per cent of the art.”
We have both been to the Palazzo Te here in Mantua, with its huge wall frescos commissioned by the architect Romano from local decorative painters such as Benedetto Pagni and Rinaldo Mantovano: the Room of the Giants, Cupid and Psyche (I’ll write separately about interior space soon), and are taken with the power of the effects. These aren’t Premier League Painters, but in this Gonzaga palace the impact is profound; the messages (‘sex is fun’; ‘don’t mess with the leadership’; ‘we are closer to god than you’; ‘yes, we will win the Epsom Derby and the Prix de L’arc de Triomphe this year’; “my phallus is big”) are clear to all – and far more important than the artists. “It is the space,” Ulrich says. “Show me the space and I can say ‘yes’.
Ulrich and his partner live in Cologne with their son. They want to move, to England – where they have a place in Spittlefields, though this isn’t near a German school, and they need this for their son. Perhaps Richmond, on the Thames: that has a school. He says he will retire in 18 months when he is 70. “My last piece will be based on work I do with ‘seven’ points. Connect them in different ways, there are so many combinations, and often you get what I call ‘birds’. It will be on a window. It will be free.”
“The problem with new galleries is that they are all about the vanity of their architects,” Ulrich says. People like Gehry, they make architecture so wild, so difficult to find your way about.” When invited to exhibit at Bilbao, Ulrich created a work “in” the floor, dug down. He told the curators. “I don’t like the space, I create my own.”
Which brings us back to modernity, to the technological “Second Life”, where “MySpace” is all. I rather like the fact Ulrich is not too taken with computers, though he likes some of the possibilities it brings for “planning”. Ulrich’s work is public, grand, and “for itself”. Soon in Venice there will be another kind of art, I suspect: art that is less about “itself” than its artists.