“I fight for the reputation of plastic.”

An interview with the artist Ottmar Hörl

400 Fontanes, 500 Beethovens, 600 Nuremberg Madonnas: Ottmar Hörl is famous for his monumental sculptures of plastic figures. A career involving more plastic than practically any other artist’s career. And he has fought more consistently than any other artist against the elitist pricing policy of the art world.

 

Hard plastic, shaped plastic, weather-resistant, unbreakable, monochrome or colourful, what type of plastic are Hörl figures actually made from?

 

That depends. Over the past 40 years, I’ve been constructing huge sculptures out of plastic waste bins and heavy-duty pallets. For me, plastic has always been a material of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s a material you can use as a sculptor, rather than steel, bronze and marble. And that’s why I've used a great many plastic manufactured goods in my larger sculptural designs.

 

Like Marchel Duchamp with his Bottle Dryer?

Duchamp simply declared his Bottle Dryer to be art. I have built a large building out of 50 waste bins and made a triptych out of four rust-red heavy duty pallets from the railways. I have always exploited plastic as a content.

 

When people talk about sculptures, they traditionally think about materials like bronze, marble, wood, metal and stone. Does plastic have a different value as a material for dealers, collectors or art critics?

Yes, it’s true, I've been fighting for the reputation of plastic for 40 years now. I grew up in a world dominated by plastic, not by bronze. That’s a material from the Renaissance. I want to work with modern materials, which we need and use in the context of our own lives.

Albert Einstein sculpture, Ottmar Hörl: www.ottmar-hoerl.de, photographer: Cornelius Bierer

 

© www.kultur-in-hessen.de, photographer: Oliver Zarski, Celtic Prince sculpture, Ottmar Hörl: www.ottmar-hoerl.de

 

Ludwig II sculpture, Ottmar Hörl: www.ottmar-hoerl.de, photographer: Wolfgang Günzel

 

In Germany alone, we produce 105,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish a year. So does this mean we can work with this material with a clear conscience or do we have to say: there is such a thing as an ecological footprint for art?

 

If you can come up with a replacement for plastic, that's fine by me, but I have no problem with it. I find it to be a very suitable material for creating works of art. You can put it outside, it's very cheap. I’m one of the few artists worldwide working so vehemently with this material. And I don’t have a bad conscience about it. I believe that plastic bags shouldn't be made from the cheapest plastics, which then disintegrate. The amount of plastics used in cosmetics is also a problem. But I don’t need to worry about that because nobody cleans their teeth with my art works or tries to eat them. The fact that the ocean is full of plastic bags doesn’t concern me. The plastics I use never end up in the sea. Heavy-duty pallets are not thrown into the sea, they are recycled. I mostly use recyclable plastics, even for the figures. We shouldn’t be afraid of plastic, it’s a part of our life. We can take a critical view, but then we can also take a critical view of steel works.

 

Now let’s talk about the production process. So how is a Beethoven made for the anniversary year in Bonn in 2020? Presumably it is cast?

First of all, there’s a clay model. I use a silicone mould on the clay model and then cast a wax model. I can work on the wax model in more detail than I can on clay. The metre-high figure is covered with a thin layer of copper and nickel. This produces the mould used later on in the centrifugal casting process. Plastic granulate is poured into the mould at a high heat. This makes it liquid so that it can be distributed into all the crevices of the mould by spinning it. The figure is removed from the mould by vacuum when it is still soft. The sculpture is only stable once it has cooled down on the outside. It is then filled with foam from the inside so that it also stays stable on the inside, in strong sunlight for example.

 

But you work with craftsmen who help you with this – you don't cast 500 Beethovens by hand on your own.

I simply couldn’t do it on my own. Centrifugal casting is a very complex process. The only company in Germany with a huge oven for these big figures is in Neustadt bei Coburg. If they closed down, I wouldn’t be able to make anything.

Foto: © Simeon Johnke

 

Foto: © Werner Scheuermann

 

Foto: © Simeon Johnke

 

As we said already, a figure made from plastic is totally different from a marble sculpture. I would have to pay EUR 500 for your Richard Wagner, unsigned. What are the prospects for it to increase in value, what kind of promises could you make to a collector?

 

I just wouldn’t operate with value appreciation in art. I’m only interested in whether everyone can buy themselves a sculpture. You wouldn’t find anything for less than EUR 500 at an art fair. For my projects in public spaces, I work for everyone and not just for the three percent who go to galleries and are involved in the art business.

 

The Sponti is somewhat cheaper, I've been able to get that in the online shop for EUR 50. So there’s always an opportunity to buy a Hörl – and it doesn’t always have to be a Wagner or a Beethoven.

That was the idea. A nurse earning EUR 1,500 a month is not going to put aside a month’s salary for a mediocre drawing by a student. Some of my sculptures cost EUR 10 – and others cost EUR 500. It’s all to do with the production costs. I have a calculation like your master locksmith. To cast a Beethoven, I must first put in about 17,000 for constructing the form. And the casting is relatively expensive. If you calculate it so that a third goes to the manufacturer, a third to the dealer and a third to me, you get a price of EUR 400 to 500. However, the Beethoven is a lot cheaper than that, it costs EUR 350. The Wagner is so expensive because it has four moulds: one for the head, one for the body and two for the hands. These are all cast and then put together afterwards. The manufacturer charges for the figures by kilogram and by level of difficulty. My art has nothing to do with increasing value.

 

Could you call it a democratisation of art?

It is a certain democratisation of art, because anyone can afford it. I don’t make a figure to sell it. All my work is by request. All the figures you can buy from me come from projects, from large installations in public spaces. This is an actual sculpture, which will be on show on the Münsterplatz in Bonn. The sculpture is made up of 500 Beethovens.

 

Beethoven has always been depicted as a grim person, never in a good mood, and yet for you, he appears to be a cheerful dandy, creeping into the start of the 19th century.

Beethoven had the typical cheerful nature of the Rhineland. Stigmatising a person as constantly being in a bad mood is absolute nonsense. If you are hard of hearing, you do get into a bad mood now and then. But our image of Beethoven ought to change. The world needs to recognise that he was a very hard-working, likeable person, who wrote great music that has still endured to this day. Someone who writes music like that is not an ill-tempered person, that’s just not on. I wanted to put that right.

Read other interesting articles and find out more about emco Group products.