Natascha Stellmach: I Don’t Have A Gun
Natascha Stellmach’s Berlin solo exhibition I Don’t Have a Gun at Wagner + Partner Gallery pushes the German-Australian artist’s concerns to new frontiers. Stellmach presents an ambitious yet eloquent collection of photo-collages, text based passages and performative happenings which work together to address the phenomena of ‘burn-out’.
Contemplating the question ‘What do you want to let go of?’ viewers can participate in the exhibition by booking a one-on-one consultation with Stellmach where they decide on a word signifying a sentiment they wish to personally relinquish. The artist then tattoos this word onto the participant with a professional needle, minus the tattoo ink. The inscription on the skin and the healing that subsequently follows stands in for a more abstract process of courage, surrender and renewal that Stellmach herself undertook to overcome her own experience of burnout. I Don’t Have a Gun combines these inkless tattoo happenings with a series of the artist’s hung pieces. Stellmach has worked into a series of Super-8 film stills with images of her own imaginary heroines, framed by winding lines of poetry teeming with Australian euphemisms.
These addtions spill out of the confines of their hung collages to cover the gallery walls themselves. Entries from the artist’s journal are combined with a motley crew of sketched figures Stellmach affectionately refers to as her ‘bitches’ – a rough and ready troupe of larger-than-life women – each ‘armed’ with her own tool of creative expression. I caught up with Stellmach before one of her inkless tattoo happenings to explore the themes of I Don’t Have a Gun, and to find out how inkless tattooing became such an eloquent expression of confession and redemption for her.
The preamble to I Don’t Have a Gun invites participants to undertake an inkless tattoo in order to answer the question ‘What do I want to let go of?’ How do you think inkless tattooing facilitates an answer to this question?
Natascha Stellmach: Inkless tattooing is something that I’ve been developing and it’s exciting because it is new for me and new for all of the people who have engaged with it. Primarily I’m interested in rituals that allow for transformation, and I like exploring different rituals – the ritual of smoking a deceased loved one or a deceased rock star were some of my past investigations. I Don’t Have a Gun looks at a different kind of transformation. A few years ago I started working on skin, writing statements in pen and textas. I realised that what emerged was a beautiful confessional atmosphere and intimacy despite it being public. The process was highly creative. Even though I wasn’t penning words that were personal to the participants, they were statements that resonated with them, so the participants became these billboards for questions around art. I wanted to develop that further, bring it under the skin so to speak, so then I learnt how to tattoo. I was keen to address these ideas of purging, catharsis, and the whole notion of transformation in a new way. It seemed to be fitting that the participant would have to engage with a bit of bloodletting to affect some kind of change, an internal process. It wasn’t about anything being aesthetic, permanent, or beautiful. While tattoos are all about permanence, this process is also a way for people to engage in that experience but without the permanence.
You tattoo a word on your participants which is decided upon during a 1:1 consultation between the participant and yourself. How is that word decided upon?
NS: It is quite simple and quite magic what happens in the sessions. Some people come in very defined and we’ll still often discuss it and see if the word they chose is still fitting. Sometimes it changes. Often I’m starting at the very beginning and people will say ‘Well actually I’m fine – I’ve got nothing to let go of’ and then, through the discussion, people start to trust and open up to me and I become a bearer of people’s memories and sadnesses. I have a background as a therapist so I’m inadvertently using cognitive behavioural strategies to facilitate a deep awareness of underlying fears. Sometimes I use simple word associations and tools such as a Thesaurus, or we look at if the concept is more representative in another language, perhaps closer to that person, or in an ancient language like Greek or Latin to represent their concept more strongly. So this is what the purging is about. It’s not about the superficial or about lip service: ‘Oh well I moved on, I’m going to put it behind me’. There is a process as well as a magic and tension that is involved with choosing a tattoo and having that on your skin. There’s a similar cathartic process here because it’s something that people need to actively engage in, and this may mean they need to hurt, to engage with fear. The word which represents their concept is then something that they also have to connect with every day throughout the healing process. For me, that’s what I’m interested in. You have to nurture and heal that word away and this can take weeks, months. The person becomes the art. This active participation is why they are happenings rather than performances and it’s actually not about me, it’s about them. I become a mirror, a facilitator. I draw it out.
This exhibition addresses your personal experience with burn-out. How did you use your art practice to combat this dilemma? Are you addressing artistic burn-out specifically in this exhibition or burn-out more generally?
NS: I address artistic burn-out but as you can imagine art often encompasses the artist’s life so really, it affected every aspect of my life. I used my own practice to pull myself back up because it was the only option left to me. What I also did was I sought help from various disciplines, everything from shamanic practitioners through to Catholic nuns, through to the medical professions. I looked at the whole gamut and how they address or looked at burn-out. What linked all of them was this idea of compassion. When modalities worked for me was when there was a sense of understanding, of empathy and compassion with that practitioner. And what I realised was that I needed to look at my own practice through that lens. I discovered that burn-out is classic for people who are hyper-self-critical and perfectionists, all these ridiculous modern notions that the creative professions are full of. This idea of looking compassionately, it was like a thread I used to realise ‘Well actually I just need to work again in a gentle way, in a compassionate way’. That was what brought me out, I started working from there.
What do you want to say to your audience about burn out? What ideas do you want them to walk away with from this exhibition?
NS: I guess this idea of compassion really. It can’t even be more simple than that. But it is also hard, it is the most difficult thing to do, not only to be compassionate with others but being compassionate with oneself – that’s where it all begins … It’s not just the Buddhists who say that, it’s such a beautiful lesson in life and I guess what I rediscovered was an inherent sort of playfulness and pleasure and that’s why I experimented with different media, things that are bizarre such as tattooing words that represent fears or sadnesses, without ink. As well, I’ve always drawn a little bit but I’m not an illustrator, so this also tapped into this idea of breaking my own rules, experimenting and becoming more playful. I guess that’s something that I would love people to take away, and obviously I would love them to experience an inkless tattoo!
Natascha Stellmach’s solo exhibition I Don’t Have a Gun finished on the 31st of July 2013 at Wagner + Partner Gallery – Strausberger Platz 8, Berlin (galerie-wagner-partner.com). The artist will be showing later this year at La Trobe Visual Arts Centre in Bendigo.
Carmen Ansaldo is a freelance art writer from Brisbane, Australia who is now based in Berlin, Germany (Carmenansaldo.wordpress.com)