Saturday, August 1, 2009

Moki's Unearthly Landscapes

As I've been searching the world of art for that ineffable, transcendental quality that is so elusive, I have returned again and again to the work of Moki, whose paintings often depict lonely northern places – frozen lakes, mysterious caves and rocky tundra swept by damp, bitter winds that carve the landscape into evocative, almost anatomical forms. She once said, "I am looking for places that are good for hiding, where you feel secure and safe, where you can disappear or return home. Where you can be invisible." In this remoteness dwell strange beings – part spirit, part animal, part earth, and perhaps also composed of something stranger... something that comes from the sky, or from another plane of existence.

In her most recent work, Moki has begun to paint remarkably realistic depictions of people existing within these unearthly landscapes in various states of corporeality, as if they are subject to a surreal sort of dream logic. Eyes averted, they are oblivious to our presence – either lost in an internal reverie or in the throes of being overcome by the potency of their surroundings.

While she considers herself primarily a painter, Moki also works in comics, photography, animation and sculpture. She currently lives in Hamburg and is working toward a graduate degree at the Academy of Fine Arts there. Her first American solo show, "Bunker Underground," opens on August 6th at Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco. Fortunately she was brave enough to overcome her concerns about our language barrier and share some insight into her work with me.

Erratic Phenomena: Tell me about your childhood in a the rural village of Brilon, Germany. You were surrounded by two nature preserves as a child, so that must be where you developed your intimate, almost mystical relationship with the landscape.

Moki: I grew up in a very small village in the middle of Germany. It's surrounded by rolling hills and woods – woods so big that you can easily get lost when you take the wrong turn. Certainly many places there are connected with special memories. For example, there is a red creek crossed by little bridges somewhere in the forest. It looks really strange – maybe the color is caused by iron in the ground. There are narrow valleys which are interesting for mushroom collecting – once I found a really big porcino. One hill there is called "Sonder,” which is Low German for sunnenland – "land of the suns." It's a heather-clad nature preserve with blueberries and some good places for hiding. It's a spot with a wonderful view!

Regarding landscape – in my pictures, I find ways to integrate large-scale human beings. Often they are as huge as giants in contrast to the landscape. As a child, I often thought about being very huge, being able to see everything from above. I imagined things like a giant sitting in the hayfield next to our house – so tall that his head was in the clouds – or I would lie in my bed and feel as tiny as an ant. My little brother told me that he imagines driving over the hills in a car that has huge balloon tires.

Growing up in the countryside, taming cats, building tree houses and playing in the woods makes me aware of how small I am, and how amazing it is to be alive.
In my pictures, there are many unconscious influences that I don’t try to control. I work from intuition, because for me that seems to be more interesting than illustrating an idea. There is no message expressible in words, and no need to interpret… although I’ve discovered many things about what I do. When people tell me what's going on in my paintings, I'm excited about their feelings and ideas!

EP: Was anyone in your family an artist?

Moki: My father used to paint when he was young. He is a passionate musician, and has had a band for many years now. My brothers and I were lucky, because we were able to try out several musical instruments. I’d like to be professional drummer by the time I’m 70!

EP: When did you first realize that you had something unique to say with your vision of the world?

Moki: I guess around the age of four or five, I decided to cancel my career as opera singer to be painter. When I was sitting in my room drawing something, I was totally absorbed. In Germany, people call this state of consciousness "flow." That absence of distraction is hard to find – that's why I can work best late at night.

EP: Many of your landscape paintings have a Northern romantic sensibility – with unspoiled tundra and rocks scoured clean by glaciers, reminiscent of a remote area of Iceland or some mythical subarctic continent. Do you consider these environments to be animistic visions of real places, or do you see them as existing in another reality altogether?

Moki: I had to look up the word "animistic" – more than animistic, it's pantheistic. The structures of stones, the colors of their lichens… it's a feeling of respect and appreciation relating to nature. I think sometimes it's the longing to be a part of it – forming a unity to overcome the feeling of alienation – just as much it is the amazement of beauty and a desire to understand. Concerning outside reality or imaginary worlds – I've read about philosophical constructivism, and there are many aspects of that idea which are appealing to me. It’s too hard to for me to describe it in English, so this is from Wikipedia:

“Constructivism criticizes objectivism, which embraces the belief that a human can come to know external reality (the reality that exists beyond one's own mind). It holds the opposite view, that the only reality we can know is that which is represented by human thought (assuming a disbelief or lack of faith in a superhuman God). Reality is independent of human thought, but meaning or knowledge is always a human construction.”

EP: Like the great Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky, you are synesthetic – you experience music as colors and shapes, and abstractions like numbers and days of the week have their own color and tone. Kandinsky said, "Color is a power which directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul." How does having this "sixth sense" of synesthesia affect or enhance your work?

Moki: It has a bigger influence on my understanding of the world than on my work. Like many, I have strong emotions when I get into music – with these colors and shapes moving inside my head, it's overwhelming. I suffer from the impossibility of sharing this with other people. I once made an animation film trying to translate this perception, but I failed. The experience of sensing something that other beings cannot see or feel makes me so interested in the ideas of constructivist epistemology. At the same time, it shows me how difficult and important it is to communicate – to share the world inside our heads, our dreams.

EP: Why do you choose not to title your paintings?

Moki: A title is like a filter. I want the viewer to look without this little guide. The thoughts you get when looking at a picture reflect your own personality. When I have to find a title for a show, I sometimes use a phrase from a song I like.

EP: I understand that you consider yourself to be much more influenced by literature than art – notably the novels of Haruki Murakami, author of Kafka On the Shore, who writes visionary novels of alienation and romantic love, and the stories of the legendary Russian science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugastky. Your work particularly reminds me of the Strugaskys' bleak, atmospheric Roadside Picnic, which describes the inexplicable aftermath of a mysterious alien visitation which the human mind is too primitive to comprehend. Tell me what inspirations you find in these literary sources.

Moki: I think one aspect these two books have in common is the implicit supposition that the world is a treasure trove. The rare moments of insight when you realize how crazy it is to be alive, to have all these other feeling beings around you – sitting in a well, living in a library or making a detour to come faster to the destination. I enjoy the pictures these authors evoke, the surrealistic elements – metaphorical or not.

EP: Another major influence on your work is Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, whose films such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away resonate with a concern for the environment, which manifests itself in the suffering of earth spirits which have been ripped from the natural landscape they exist to inhabit and protect. Some of the ethereal and concealed beings that you depict in your paintings appear to have a similar origin, as elemental spirits emerging from and bound to the natural world. Tell me why you find these ideas so compelling.

Moki: In contrast to the ideas of western civilization, I cannot find a separation between "good" and "bad" in these examples of Asian culture. For instance, in the film Princess Mononoke, the central characters are both good and bad at the same time, depending on one’s point of view. I think this is a holistic approach, which establishes a better understanding and sympathy for the actions of other people, as well as for my own behavior.

Hayao Miyazaki invents wonderful creatures! I like Totoro and the little black dust men, the tree phantoms and many more. Sometimes you don't know if something is a walking plant or an animal...

EP: What are you looking forward to right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Moki: I will publish a book of my paintings at the end of this year. In general, I would like to do some more films and interactive stuff. I would like to try a different style of painting, focusing on the lines. I also plan to draw a longer comic.

EP: Thanks, Moki!

Moki: Takk!

Moki's "Bunker Underground" opens on August 6th at Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco. She also has a gorgeous print for sale at Nucleus Gallery and an exhibition catalog available from Heliumcowboy.

"He had never experienced anything like this before. It was as though he were in a different world. A million odors cascaded in on him at once – sharp, sweet, metallic, gentle, dangerous ones, as crude as cobblestones, as delicate and complex as watch mechanisms, as huge as a house and as tiny as a dust particle. The air became hard, it developed edges, surfaces, and corners, like space was filled with huge, stiff balloons, slippery pyramids, gigantic prickly crystals, and he had to push his way through it all, making his way in a dream through a junk store stuffed with ancient ugly furniture... It lasted a second. He opened his eyes, and everything was gone. It hadn’t been a different world – it was this world turning a new, unknown side to him. This side was revealed to him for a second and then disappeared, before he had time to figure it out."
– Boris & Arkady Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic


Suzanne said...

Great to read about Moki! She's been a long-time favourite of mine ever since I saw her exhibition at the Fumetto Comics Festival in Lucerne.

Bought her print last month and it's already framed in my flat - one of the most gorgeous things I own!



I’ve not encountered Moki before. She is a most remarkably talented artist. Thanks for the images.