"The aim is to have everybody find their own voice"

16 December 2014

The Mainz Academy of Fine Arts of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) welcomes an acclaimed artist as a professor in the person of Tamara Grcic. The idea is that the versatility of her work will be reflected in her teaching. In her sculpture class, for instance, Grcic does not plan to lay down hard and fast rules but to allow students sufficient space in which to find their own personal form of artistic Expression.

A chair, a table, a laptop, and a telephone on the window sill. The bare white room is otherwise empty, apart from the connection pipes for a sink that emerge from a tiled section of the wall. But Professor Tamara Grcic is happy with what she sees. It was not supposed to be an ordinary office anyway. "It is a workspace. And perhaps it can also be used for exhibitions," says the artist.

She will be giving her inaugural lecture at the Mainz Academy of Fine Arts in an hour's time. "I will talk about my art. My work is basically the reason why I'm here in the first place." Until then, she has agreed to tell us a little about what she has planned to do as a professor and as the new tutor of a sculpture class.

Not a classic sculpture class

"I take a very multimedia approach. I am the sort of person who likes to frequently change the medium they work in. I work with photography, with sound, with video, and with installations. So I am not really a sculptor in the classic meaning of the word. And my class will not be a classic sculpture class."

The class was formed last semester. "I intentionally left everything very open." After all, the intention is to avoid applying a specific artistic label to the students. "I want to try to share experiences, reveal paths and models. I need to give the students time. They need to develop, use the freedom they have here. For the next few years they will be relatively sheltered and can experiment. The aim is to have everybody find their own voice. I am there to help them do this."

Standing in a high-ceilinged, light-filled room is a mass of tables covered in white. Seven hundred honey melons glowing in deep orange sit on the tables. This is one of Grcic's early works. She began her studies at the Städelschule in Frankfurt in Professor Peter Kubelka's film class. "He had very definite ideas about what a film should be," Grcic tells the 100 students who have come to her inaugural lecture. "But I wanted to find my own way." So she switched her medium and presented an installation in the Alte Portikus gallery.

Grow, ripen, decay

"I wanted to work with fruit, work with something that has a limited life. I was interested in how things grow, ripen, and decay." So she conceived her twelve-hour exhibition. She got the melons from the adjacent market hall. "I wanted to inject a completely different image into the food chain concept – rather in the way you might insert a completely different scene in a film. I wanted to create a picture that would then disappear."

The melons were supposed to be sent back to the market, but the strict food safety regulations upset this plan. "So we ended up donating the honey melons to a refugee intake center with large numbers of people who came from regions where honey melons grow."

Her first description of one of her earlier installations tells us quite a lot about Grcic. Her way of expressing herself is very straightforward, almost simplistic, but always spot on. She mixes theoretical considerations with very mundane experiences associated with her work and both combine to form a coherent whole. "I don’t like to be too direct," she explained in the conversation beforehand. "I like to tackle subjects that have a certain degree of complexity."

Concrete and abstract

In 1993, a scholarship brought Grcic from the Städelschule to New York. "I wanted to try something new. Photography became ever more important to me." She began to photograph the backs of the heads of people passing by. "I was interested in the independent dynamics of hair that has not been tamed in front of a mirror." The photos have a very concrete subject, while at the same time the hair is abstracted into a texture.

A related piece is called "Folds". Grcic presents "Bodies in clothing, like fruit in its skin." Once again, these are close-ups of real subjects. "On the one hand, I show the interaction between bodies, structures, material, but at the same time I have produced something abstract." The photos adorned the exhibition space like colorful panels.

Then Grcic turned to film. The vitality, the energy of movement, and the tension in bodies interested her. She filmed the backs of professional boxers and the torsos of race horses before it all became very personal. While a Roma woman talked, Grcic filmed her. "I found it important to show segments of a person while not revealing the whole."

Working out of the limelight

Grcic's work has been exhibited at many different venues, including the biennials in Venice, Munich, and Frankfurt. Professor Dieter Kiessling, Rector of the Mainz Academy of Fine Arts, has been following her career since the 1990s and is thrilled to have her as a new colleague. "Hardly any other artist covers such a broad range," he says, "and there is hardly any other who reacts more sensitively to what is happening around them. Her works are always interesting and different, while also being profound. We are incredibly lucky to have her here, because she can give us so much."

So Grcic is now in Mainz. But why Mainz? "The Academy of Fine Arts here is relatively small," she explains. "I like to work in places that are not directly in the limelight, where I can do what I want in peace. Here I have the feeling that the development of artistic potential is really the focus." She wants to start working on this with the students in the coming years. The bare, whitewashed room offers all sorts of possibilities – just like the artist and professor of the new sculpture class.