Dr Anne Douglas, Senior Research Fellow in Fine Art at the Centre for Research in Art and Design, Grays School of Art, Aberdeen; and Chris Fremantle, Director of the Scottish Sculpture Workshop interviewed Wilhelm Scherubl at Duff House while he was installing his work. This is one of a series of interviews undertaken by the authors with artists who work in remote rural contexts.
First published in catalogue/poster ‘Zero’, Duff House 2000.
AD: Who are you and where do you come from?
WS: I was trained as a wood cutter and then I worked for 5 years as a woodcarver. But it is a long time since I work in wood. When you work as a traditional sculptor in stone or wood or clay, you always put things on or take things away. That is OK but when I started studying in Vienna I was like a sponge. I absorbed everything. I worked for half a year from morning to evening and made good sculpture. After a half year I thought, ‘what am I doing?’ I had an exhibition (every student had to have an exhibition), and all I exhibited was the stuff that had fall down without exhibiting the sculpture.
AD: The small pieces, the remains, the things that you took off?
WS: Yes. Normally you would throw it away. This was a turning point for me. The fragments asked the question, ‘what is art?’ Is it the time that you spend in producing a work, or is it the product, or is it the rubbish or is it everything. I had questions but I didn’t have answers.
The next point was when I finished the Academy. I made large sculpture and had exhibitions. You have to transport the sculpture. You have to get help from other people. You need a lot of energy. Nobody wants the sculpture, so you take it back and then you have to store it. You need space and you have to work to afford the space just for the storage. So I start to work with plants, so I have space to do large scale work, and I have no problems with storage, and maybe this is one reason why I work with plants.
CF: Are you returning to a point of origin by working with plants? Initially you worked with wood and when you work with plants it is like the stage before working with wood?
WS: This is not an answer to your question, but one important thing about working with plants is that it is a living sculpture. A sculptor normally works with dead materials. One way to think about materials is that they are never dead. When you get stone you do not always think in an extended timespan, between 70 to 100 years. You think that the material is static but it isn’t static. That materials are not static is very important to my thinking and my work.
AD: So roughly how long have you been working with plants?
WS: I did my first work in 1993.
AD: Could you talk a little bit also about the connection with Huntly and the work you are doing for Huntly and for Duff House?
WS: Yes, they are two separate projects but they grow out of the same thinking. In Huntly I have painted windows in 12 different places: public spaces and private spaces. The image of the painting is the same structure as the buckets n front of Duff House. This structure could be interpreted as a cell structure. Yesterday, when I was filling the buckets and put in the seeds I thought that it was interesting that the pattern of buckets looked like cell structures. By planting the seeds and allowing them to grow there was a process of building cells upon cells upon cells which become a sculpture.
CF: So how long does this take?
WS: I do not know because it depends on the weather in Scotland. Normally I work with Sunflowers. When I work with Sunflowers I know how they behave. I have learnt about them. I know how they grow and what they need and that they don’t like wind or too much water and so on. All these things are very important for the work, but you carry out only one part. You arrange the buckets and sow the seeds and the sculpture takes its course really. There are other factors such as the wind and people which are out of your control.
AD: Does that lack of control worry you that in coming to Scotland and doing the project here there are more indeterminate elements – there are more elements that you cannot control?
WS: It is always the same. That is the reason why I chose to work with thistles. I got information about thistles from the Agricultural University in Austria. They told me about two plants which should grow here. One of them was the thistle, and I thought OK, because the thistle is very important for the Scots.
AD: It’s the national flower of Scotland. In making the work about plants are you also developing ideas about the environment, about ecology?
WS: About ecology – in a way maybe, but I am more interested in a system and complex things. As a human being or as a plant you are not an individual. You cannot live as an individual. You are always connected with other people and the things that you need for life and growth. This is the social aspect. This social aspect can be integrated into art. That is why I thought that the cell structure was relevant in Huntly. It is a metaphor for social structure and for all the things connected with it, like roads and telephones and so on.
AD: Why did you choose to make works in a number of locations in Huntly?
WS: Because it is possibile to infiltrate the society with art.
AD: You mean making an intervention?
WS: No, I think it is different. It is like homeopathic medicine, a very small amount of something diluted hugely. You can infiltrate society with a very small amount of art.
AD: Intervention is much more aggressive.
WS: I think that in this work humour is important. It is an important thing for art.
CF: So where do you live? Do you live in the countryside or ……..?
WS: Yes, I live in the countryside. No, I think as an artist your geographical situation or where you grew up from a baby to an adult gives you a lot of inspiration. I think that it is important for the whole of your life and the work comes from it.
CF: This is the root, this is the starting point.
WS: Yes, the starting point. But I have also done interventions and installations in urban situations and maybe you can also work with plants in urban situations. I think it comes from a thinking, and the thinking is not restricted to the countryside.
CF: I wondered if there was an aspect of your work that was about also dealing with chaos?
WS: I do not know how you define chaos. One aspect is that I start the work. I take the buckets and the seeds. But I don’t finish the work. I don’t know what it looks like when its finished.
AD: But you set up the conditions: the structure which influences and the process which influences the outcome.
WS: Yes, that is true.
CF: But it is also more like agriculture.. What you are doing is a bit like a farmer. You plant things and then you have to have patience.
WS: But I don’t have to earn food from that. I am interested in the system.
CF: Maybe a botanist rather than a farmer.
WS: No, a botanist is a scientist. I am playing.
AD: I suppose with a botanist, the system is dependent on the botanist gaining some kind of functionality.
WS: When you do the things your playing and something is happening, normally, a scientist or a farmer is not interested in the accidental.
CF: They are looking at the centre and actually for you the centre is different.
WS: I cannot define a centre. Evolution is like a chain with accidents, and with the possibility with manipulation. Yes, everything can change.
AD: Do you reflect that possibility within your work.
WS: If the possibilities arise then I can recognise them, but there are no insurances. Everything is moving, floating.
AD: But your work is clearly structured?
WS: Order is a very important thing in my work. I try to find an order. I want to know what I am, and how the work is developing, but there is no answer. I know that there is no answer, but for me it can be explained.
© Chris Fremantle and Dr Anne Douglas, 2000