Interview with Mechthild Kalisky, the Marble Master

The work of Mechthild Kalisky is the fruit of a deep insight into the human condition, far from being anecdotal or literal, it is capable of touching all audiences. Both radical and ultra modern, her sculpture has an eternal strength, a mix between the beauty of Michelangelo’s David and the purity of the works by the Japanese minimalists. An entire universe can be observed in her fluid and pure forms, the simplicity of the shapes she creates are imbued with immense beauty. Kalisky’s open-mindedness is reflected in each work, the multiplicity of titles is a testament to both the evolution in her inspirations as well as the fact that her works continue to live once they are finished, the artist invites the audience to offer their own interpretations which she sometimes integrates into new titles. Her sculptures are not intended as a closing statement despite their resulting from extensive reflexion. The universal reach of her work no longer requires proof, it is like a great operatic air, it instills emotion and wonder in all who encounter it.

Her work has been exhibited in and collected by the Moderne Museum (Museum of Modern Art in Bruxelles), the Grand Palais in Paris, and the Parisian Pompidou Center amongst others, her work is also on permanent exhibition at the Alley Gallery in Montmartre.

Your approach to sculpture is unique, an oneiric and elegant treatment of marble - a noble and traditional material - resulting in the creation of “new realities”. How did you begin on this path which diverges strongly from the classical approach to both sculpture and marble?

MK The work “elegant” has alway bothered be me a little. It is true that polished marble with fluid lines inspires this word, or feeling, however that is not my intention. I think it is marble which provoked me, or inspired me, to inflict on it pressures, disruptions, injuries, I have sharpened it, rounded it, liquified it.

The end the year 2017 has been rife with debates around different issues of gender equality. Due to the eminently physical dimension of sculpture, it has long been considered a male domaine, yet as a female sculptor working with very large scales and amounts of marble, you prove that female artists rival their male counterparts spectacularly. As a woman artist, a woman sculptor, how do you think your career has been impacted by your gender?

MK When I was 18, a sculpture professor I had - who was famous and therefore rather impressive - told us that women should be portraits of their children of pottery rather than sculpture! This prejudice should be outdated but it isn’t. It implies women could be directors, composers, writers, sculptors, but only MEDIOCRE?? That is the kind of disdain that produced artists like Cindy Sherman, Marina Abramovic, Orlan, Tracy Emin, who in a sense throw themselves into the arena of art as a fundamental defiance. The debate is still very useful. Exaggeration, audacity, provocation, insult, derision, sometimes take a prominent position in the work by female artists because of this disdain which sticks to them. In a sense I feel I perhaps self-inflicted this difficult work of carving stone, marble and granit, to prove myself. A stupid challenge in a sense, which became vital to me, my life’s work. If being a woman changes a career? Yes most definitely.

In your series “Le bruit que font les morts quand ils se retournent dans leur tombe” (the noise which dead people make when they roll over in their graves), you seem to highlight a difference between the very literal and physical weight borne by the male figures (heavy sacs of material) and the symbolic weight carried around by female figures (the weight of their femininity symbolised by their clutching of their breath). Is it an allusion to the inequalities between men and women? How did you imagine this series before you created it?

MK I’ll admit title is very long. It is a phrase I would tell my children when I told them about their father. But if many people say this, and we could thus imagine an impressive rustling taking place in cemeteries. The curved shape of the marble lent itself perfectly to the figuration of human bodies, the male torsos excavating the mines photographed by Salgado, which I used with his permission. I took the photographs of the women clenching their breasts like the men carrying their burdens. A musicien made the soundtrack for the installation, it should ideally be exhibited in dark, enclosed, and round space.

Where do you find the inspirations for the titles of your work?

MK Inspiration is mysterious. Poetry is vital and it is everywhere. I need it, and sometimes a work becomes literary. Of course I also react, in more or less direct ways to the quandaries of my time.The themes are evident: history, hence death, war, injustice, ecology, science, gender. I think the idea is born in the moment I discover the material I’m about to work with. The shape which appears then dictates the title…The psychoanalyst’s sofa is a “Procustean bed” and it seems only natural that it be in marble, covered in bumps with rubber straps. The six young excised girls are six small pink columns, which are mutilated and have never healed. “The Leaking Piano” is surrealist, but I find it very logical. The marble ladders bring the eye higher and higher, mimicking Jacob’s dream in the desert (hence “Jacob’s ladders” is the title) and they must also make us dream! I made lead shirts, making them menacing, a leaded delirium, like the numbered shoes on the ground. The “Sperm Bank” scares the faint of heart, nonetheless I want the large leakages of black marble to make people aware of what is threatening us: I suspended test-tubes with genetically modified mice embryos which are magical. An installation of almost 50 triangles of all sizes with polished black sharp points is called “The Solitude of the Mean Dog”, it resembles the erect hairs of the dog, or his teeth. There is also the 150 “Spikes” made of Indian granit which is extremely difficult to carve and shape. They are inspired by the (derisive) reaction of the Earth reacting to our mistreatment and our exploitation. Or they can be anything we else we could imagine. When I exhibited them in the Grand Palais, I heard a male colleague say “Well that’s obviously a chick making phalluses!”. In Bombay, while packaging them, the Indians would say “it’s GOD”. As for the “Tempered Keyboard”, I also call it “Glory Holes”, it’s a Palaeolithic sex machine… It’s a way of making fun of our demented sexualities!

(Interview translated from French)