Interview with Kirila Fäh

Kirila Fäh is an unusual, almost un unorthodox artist- although she comes from an Orthodox Christian background (her family was based in Croatia and in Serbia), she has lived and worked across many countries and continents. In 1980s she had surprised New York's bohemian artistic community with her innovative approach to photography. As she moved back to Europe (in 1990s), she had enriched her expression with her new artistic challenges as exemplified in her sculptures, notably her work in glass and then her wooden totems. We find Kirila Fäh at one of the biggest Swiss artfairs, so called Kunstszene Zürich of 2007 where she has exhibited her sculptural objects along with 600 artists, natives of Zürich.

Q: You come from the turbulent territory of former Yugoslavia, but you spent your formative artistic years, so called the 1980s in New York. At that time you were mostly making a sort of Surrealist and surreal photography and at that time I called you « a Cindy Sherman without recognition gone wild ». How did New York of that era influenced your work and why did you choose photography as genre?

Kirila Fäh: In NY I was doing something which I'd call “dejavue compositions” , the work I made by collaging portraits of my friends onto the reproductions of old masters and autoportraits. It happened that many of my photos which I had taken in clubs, or in the streets of New York appeared to me like the follow up of the work that some old masters had already realised. Photography was the media that suited the ambiance, the atmosphere and speed of that high-energized city. Otherwise I have never considered myself a professional photographer although it is a part of my a heritage: my grandfather, grandmother and my mother were all professional photographers.

Q: And was New York of that day a rather closed or an open city to new and upcoming artists? Once you said that the rules of the game involving the artistic competition had already been decided for everyone in it even before you moved there. Could you comment more on this?

Kirila Fäh: It seemed both open and closed. It was an open city for newcomers, with great number of new galleries that were opening in East Village on a daily basis; these galleries were offering artists to participate in a race in which the winner had been already chosen. Most of those galleries had favored the local artists. They felt at home there; they all came out of New York art schools and had already been on the road to recognition when some other, foreign artists, joined the club. In general the newcomers need to wait longer in order to obtain recognition, as they show a stronger involvement in conquering the territory : simply they have to work harder than the local ones. It is rare for any newcomer to climb the top as fast as domestic artist does, even if they are of the same age and have the same amount of artistic experience.

Q: For one reason or another you decided to move back to Europe, more precisely to Zurich in 1992 and that move drastically changed both the form and content of your work. You started making unusual glasswork, that is, small sculptures in glass but also some larger graphic prints. How did these changes come about? Were they a product of the newly-redescovered external environment or were they an outcome of your inner transformation, your inner outgrowth?

Kirila Fäh: In Zurich I resumed oil painting, which I'd still call “my first love”. I instinctively started painting abstract shapes in primary, vivid colors. I've experienced an enormous cultural shock and got almost to the “point zero” where I felt that all my previous experience was no longer valid. I had to learn a new language, master a new culture, and new ways of living, in other words I had to recreate my life literaly from the start. This process of personal investigation presented itself in colorful abstract shapes, which probably and in a very symbolic way, represents my soul's very search for the roots of its own existence.

Q: In this particular phase of your work coinciding with your arrival in Zurich, did your art undergo any particular influence? Did you acquaint yourself with some of those great Swiss predecessors, that is, older peers such as Nikki de Saint Phalle, for instance?What I have in mind here is the particular form of your glass sculptures and mobiles.

Kirila Fäh: True, I was looking for approval of my new shapes in other artists' work and found the similarity in shapes in respective work of Kandinski's, Gaudi's and Nikki De Saint Phalle's. Sooner than later I changed my own technique while making a serial of screen prints. This particular media was more adequate to the color drawings I was doing at the time. As a follow up, I engaged a Murano glass artist who turned many of my conceptual forms into small three-dimensional glass objects.

In Zurich I encountered myself again and experienced a different artistic process from the one that I underwent in NY. In NY all information were coming from outside, you know, one is under the attack of external stimulations all the time. In the quiet surroundings of Zurich, which is at the first glance a “noting is happening place”, I had a chance to explore changes within myself and express my inner world out of. I felt being 'a reversed glove' in comparison to how I felt in NY.

Q: What was the art scene in Zurich that you found at that time? You associated yourself with a group of artists around Tumb Gallery, a cooperative space for alternative, anti-establishment art. Who are they and what did they mean to you in terms of your own work?

Kirila Fäh: As soon as I arrived in Zurich I met with a group of Swiss artists gathered around Claude Steiner and Radovan Hirsl, calling themselves Art Visionaries, Psychonauts, Psychedelic or Phantastic painting artists. I found my people among them and felt at home as an artist and as a person. This was a group of artists who didn’t belong to any particular movement nor any big gallery corporation. We’ve organized together many shows in Switzerland and abroad. The collaborating fuel of enthusiasm lasted for several years; it was like we all fell in love with each other, stayed together, got married and got divorced after having explored all sources of collaborate work. Then we got exhausted. Today each of these artists does his own work and moves forward .

Q: From 2003 and on, you started working on what I'd call organic, small sculptures and mobiles which are basically the found objects further decorated and worked on. Where did you find inspiration for this sort of fragile work?

Kirila Fäh: Twiggy Twists are small objects made of wooden branches, sticks and twigs that I started producing in beginning of last year. The idea was present for few years waiting for its moment to be realized. Last year I was invited to take part in a group show in 'Gallery Incontro' in Zurich and then had a one-artist show in Bremgarten. As I hadn't had anything new to show, I started working with a new material, applied new ideas to it and new opus was produced. Instead of “accidental” I’d rather use a word “spontaneous” in explaining the process or the inspiration that urged me to pursue this work. Spontaneity includes an openness to all sorts of possibilities; it follows the intuition and inner instinct that work with given circumstances and leads us to the exact results. “Accident” and rules that stand by it are loaded with mysticism and are harder to explain.

Practically I start my day by taking a walk in the forest, and this soon turns into my collecting all sorts of twigs, seeds and leaves. As I collect them, I constantly make a choice which varies from the acts of “seeing” or “recognizing” a certain shape and/or a color, to the envisioning the final object. At the same time as I am aware that I am in a special environment, in a deep wood surrounded with high trees, bushes, songs of birds, visible and invisible forest spirits, I still manage to concentrate on broken branches fallen from the trees, on the roots sticking out of the ground, on dry leaves, calcified mushrooms, seeds, bird’s feathers, and oak apples, armors, dried forest fruits. Right there I make choice in chosing shapes that I liked “on the first sight”. I recognize in them my future objects. I take the material home and start the reconstruction, reanimation if you like, of what was seen at the first split second of impression.

This process reminds me of reading the coffee grounds, you know when you drink Turkish coffee and then turn the cup upside down and the grounds imprint all different shapes and drawings on the inside... We see them at the very beginning only as some abstract, unrecognizable forms which slowly turn into visible shapes of birds, male and female figures, numbers, objects and signs soon to be defined as symbols. Now they are connecting us with reality, which was deeply hidden before.

In this way my Twigs are gaining a new meaning, that was hidden and invisible before, and I feel like a discoverer who knows that there was some mysterious existence and presence in the brunches prior to me finding them in the forest. For me this is a magic moment: I feel that good, little forest spirits are at work.

Primitive art of Native American and African tribes have the same sort of spontaneity, as they have that creative drama, intrigue and closeness, or playfulness that we find in children’s handwork. Each of us, back in his childhood had a similar experience in primary school, at the times when we would make a field trip and then make all sorts of figures out of the branches, seeds and acorns that we came accross.

Q: How did you find it working with wood? Was this an awarding experience or on the contrary? Some of your work is colored, painted. When did you start painting on wood and how did you arrive at coloring it?

Kirila Fäh: Work with wood for me is not a brand new experience. For many years I was painting on old chairs and different peaces of furniture. I like to work with all kinds of materials. Making of Twiggy Twists involves of the use of many other different materials such as the modeling clay, paper, glue, metal, thread etc. which I use in order to connect all parts of the figure and arrive at its final shape. Sometimes I feel like a surgeon reconstructing a broken brunch, gluing some parts together, adding dried leaves to them, and sticking together parts that normaly do not belong together.

In the case of Twiggy Twists a material such as wood, does not present such a challenge to me as is the shape that triggers the idea or inspires me. Color is important element in my work as much as are line and shape. I use colors to paint the objects, but sometimes I leave some of their parts in natural color with rough surfaces, when I feel they need to remain that way.

Q: Some of these figurines look like the funny 21st century totems made for our contemporary society in dire need cure their contemporary problems. How did the ancient tribal cultures, such as the African or the Native American one influence these figures? What did you take from these cultures, in terms of their ancient tribal use of them, and what part did the heritage of Western contemporaries, Giacometti for instance, play in them?

Kirila Fäh: I think that all sorts of shapes have already existed in us eversince and that we simply try to pool them out to the surface in using them as a language that explains and expresses various emotions, and motions within. My Twiggy Twists are funny, twisted, joyful and humorous magic sticks that should reach you with an ancient human message that life is glorious and a joyful creation. Again, as soon as the shapes start materialising as objects, they remind me of the Native Americans, Africans and Gypsies. I haven’t thought of Giacometti, but you might be right that he's in there as well, especially when you see some twigs in shape of long legged figures, the legs being disproportional in relation to their bodies.

Q: Humor is a very important element in your work. Can you comment on it ? Do you start with irony or do you arrive spontaneously at the humorous comment and statement in your work?

Kirila Fäh: Humor is a very important part of my life. The battles either against ugliness, or injustice, inappropriateness, inadequacy, stupidity, unfairness, lies, corruption, cheating and the fake, can be won through the application of the twisted caricature and humor. Humor is also the way to tell the truth without hurting the other. We can laugh at our mistakes, so that we could remember them better and avoid repeating them, or in order to reduce pain caused by the mistakes that we had made. So, we should be constantly reminded of them, in one way or another. I feel that humor is the powerful weapon in this case.

Q: Can you describe some of your future projects as well as a direction where you ould like your work to develop? Are you likely to deepen the existing forms that you have already worked with, or rather explore new genres, and new media possibilities?

A: I don’t know where this opus is going to bring me, sure to a certain ending which implies a certain change. I presently work in this way. As I've already stated here I change medium voluntarily depending on what I’m trying to say or in what mood I am in. It’s like using different languages to say different things. Somebody has said that singing a love song sounds the best in Italian, praying to God sounds good in Spanish, talking politics in English, and explaining working methods sounds the best in German. Sometimes the media I use is photography, sometimes print, oil painting, sculpture, or a written story. I might start singing one day.