Interview with Walter Oltmann
The following is an online interview that I had a chance to do with Walter Oltmann regarding his wire sculptures featured at The Seattle Art Museum
I am currently working on a presentation of two of your works that are exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum. Caterpillar I and Caterpillar II. I do have to say that I am truly amazed at the craft and intricate details of your work.
I noticed your motivation in traditional woven art for these pieces as well as the mix of human and animal features. May I ask your thoughts regarding in this case, insects and how they relate to the meaning more in detail? Would you say that they are connected to African art from history, in defense and/or protection of caterpillars or personal interest?
Insects do interest me for several reasons, one of them being that they are humanity’s most extreme ‘other’ – they are perhaps the most alien of species known to us as humans. I have been drawn to looking at those insects that we commonly find in our homes but which are generally very unwelcome and despised, for example, cockroaches, fish-moths and other such bugs. These creatures have a particular resonance for me in that they arouse in us such a strong feeling of revulsion and yet they cohabit and share our everyday living spaces. Insects do quite frequently feature in African folklore. The praying mantis, for example, commonly features as a stealthy, mindful creature that has the magical ability of disguising itself amongst leaves. These aspects do interest me too. Their adaptations in defending and protecting themselves often features in my work as well as their heightened sensory features (in feelers and hair-like extensions). Insects generally carry their skeleton on the outside, i.e. they have an ‘armour’ that shields them from threat. This seemed appropriate to my hollow woven wire sculptures that often have a shell-like quality. One of my first insect sculptures was of a large fishmoth called “Silverfish” (1997) and I made it for an exhibition titled “Refiguring the Archive” that dealt with questions around storing and transmission of knowledge. The fish-moth likes to live in the bookshelves of libraries where it destroys papers and book bindings (they feed off the starches in the binding). In this sense the fishmoth is the little ‘terrorist’ of the archive, and as diminutive as it is, it can be very destructive. By making the body of the silverfish as big as my own, I wanted to set up a one-to-one relationship between insect and human being and present the viewer with a somewhat confrontational situation. What the viewer generally knows to be a small creature is suddenly his/her own size and its antennae become rather threatening looking, whip-like extensions. This blowing up in scale may also recall scientific scrutiny in looking though a magnifying glass or microscope at something tiny. The silver lustre of aluminium wire also felt appropriate to the rendering of the the slippery-smooth surface of the fish-moth.
My caterpillar suits explore a hybrid crossing-over between insect and human. They look like empty shells that remain behind following larval molting processes. At the time of weaving the suits I was also interested in looking at the elaborate suits worn by the first Europeans who arrived on African shores. A key influence on my caterpillar suits was a Benin carved ivory salt cellar which represents the foreigner in a conquistador-like garment, giving it an air of masculine power and authority. The African carver’s interpretation of the foreign European represents an inversion of the relations of power which characterizes the representations of ‘exotic’ people by colonial artists and I liked this ironic inversion of the depiction of the exotic ‘other’ where the gaze is reverted back onto the European explorer as something foreign and alien. The suits therefore deploy such inversions between ‘self’ and ‘other’. My processes of weaving the suits are very slow and accumulative and link conceptually to the processes of transformation and becoming – metamorphosis and hatching – as evidenced in insect life. These themes of the re-examination of the ‘other’, the inversion of power and the slow metamorphosis into a new hybrid identity underlie the many suit sculptures that I have made over the years.
Are there particular artists you would say you derived artistic influence from?
I do look at a lot of contemporary art and am particularly interested in artists who explore craft-based fabrication processes. There are so many artists whose works I find interesting, I wouldn’t know where to start listing… I always encourage my students to keep looking at art.
One last thing I am curious about is the donor of these pieces, The Vascovitz Family. They seem to be continuously involved in the arts and seem to have ties with Cornish College of the Arts.
What kind of art do you feel they have a preference when it comes to supporting? I don’t really know Mr Vascovitz that well and have not had the opportunity to meet him yet, but I am very grateful for his donation of my works to the Museum. He has been a great collector and supporter of South African art.
Interview conducted April 14th, 2014