For German artist Volkhardt Müller, the British high street is in the curious position of being uniquely generic; a multi-faceted Jekyll and Hyde-type thorough-fare of gaudy shops, brash behaviour, business-like buzz and encounter, depending what time of the day you catch it.
It’s a side of the street that is caught in his Any High Street exhibition at the Exeter RAMM, a unique proposition in itself. During the course of the exhibition, three massive woodcuts will be completed, and sections will be commissioned for print by the visiting public, which will be printed and displayed in the museum’s gallery. At the start of the exhibition the display cases are empty, and the exhibition is set to grow with the interaction of those who decide to buy a section of the art. If it was blossoming outwards, you could think of a flower, but it will probably be more like a digital image, coming into its whole through differing sizes of smaller square and rectangular pictures, which may well overlap.
The imagery has been sourced through video, photography and life drawing. Volkhardt cycled up and down Exeter high street at different times of day and night, capturing the images to complement years of life-drawing studies he’s made in the city which once held the ‘clone town’ crown. The video, initially intended as a resource, is also part of the exhibition.
“These images could and should be anywhere across the UK on any high street, yet they are specifically Exeter,” says Volkhardt. “I had some people responding to one of the wood cuts saying that they thought for a minute it would be their hometown around the Midlands, which I thought was great, because it was exactly what I was intending with it.
“People from Exeter will immediately be able to spot the location, but in that is a generic piece of British urban design, and that is something that struck me very much when I moved to the UK for the first time.”
“I learned a lot about Britain, and I learned it from the right point of view straightaway, from 12 -16 year old disadvantaged rural youth. It kind of politicised me in a way, because that was my first intense way of finding out about the UK by working with these young people,” he says.
It took until 2006 and a residency in the Brewhouse in Taunton for Volkhardt to start building up his own UK-based portfolio.
Also on show in RAMM’s Any High Street exhibition are Cell and Pastoral – work inspired by decommissioned prison cells at Rougemont Castle, the former Crown Court in Exeter – and Witness Box, a series of 12 re-imagined wind-up toy TVs, each containing a lino print depicting a scene from around city.
“I thought I’d wrap these 12 images up in two months, but it actually took me a year,” says Volkhardt, who picked the toys for their inherent lack of value. The problem was finding images that were markedly different, but which all prescribed a state of being, and they had to end where they began – these images could go around forever. Weeks of work were put into the toys, changing their colour and branding, putting in switches, adding circuits, changing the music and adding the images.
It’s that element of craftsmanship that offers another aspect of Volkhardt’s artwork, initially the drawing of the images, which is followed by the technical skill of woodcarving, which Volkhardt says he has been developing during the process.
“What people like is the craftsmanship,” he says. “There’s a level of skill involved and they can relate to that and also to the naturalism in it. It’s not abstract. It’s like a graphic novel, illustrative type of work.
“I believe that a level of craftsmanship, skill and a display of that is actually very helpful when it comes to people finding a way into the work, to relate to it.
“People also say they like that someone is doing this technique with a really contemporary theme.
“You look at many artists working across the south west and they are essentially fabricating rural scenes, there’s a fair share of print making about which displays somewhat romantic imagery.
“If you look at German Expressionism of the early 20th century they were often contemporary urban scenes. City life in Berlin, expressive strong cuts, stark contrasts, night life, halls and gamblers. Really crass material, some of it. The crassness of the high street as it presents itself at the moment.”
The starkness of the woodcut technique appealed to Volkhardt to portray his high street scenes.
“Looking at the high street is quite shocking to pretty much any foreigner when they come to England for the first time. What happens between Friday 3pm and Saturday 1-2am shows a kind of Jekyll and Hyde face. People pissing in the gutter, throwing up, throwing items, shouting, drunk people everywhere fighting, police everywhere. And 10 hours before there were neat middle-class people shopping and spending their money. It’s quite stark, the contrast.”
The project is also part of Volkhardt’s ongoing investigation of how print can be used ‘off the beaten track’, and there’s a nod to pamphleteering and Hogarth in the exhibition. It is an extension of the thought process Volkhardt began with Double Elephant’s Politics in Print.
There’s a strong sense of participation both in the creation of the work and in its dissemination. Volkhardt found support all along his way. He works with volunteer carvers, print artist Deborah Treliving was generous with her workspace at Cockington Court for the production of Witness Box, and master printer Jack Shirreff and his team were vital in the fulfilment of Cell.
As far as the commissions are concerned, the images are going out into the community through an idea of joint patronage and participation. The woodcuts won’t be printed without being commissioned by people. The prints are very reasonably priced at 5p per square cm starting from £2.50 – which has so far attracted all sections of the community – and you can choose the size and location of the part of the bigger woodcut image you want printed.
With each commission, four copies are printed. “One goes to the museum, one to myself, one to the person who commissioned it, one exhibition copy, so it really is a tiny edition considering the huge amount of work that went into the carvings. All of these images go out there, and each of the patrons has their little share. Theoretically, they could come together, hold their picture up in the right place and reassemble the image,” he explains.
The interview took place in a disused shop in Exeter’s Guildhall shopping centre, a wonderful space for an artist’s studio. And Any High Street had its first outing in another disused shop during Exeter Open Studios, where it ran as a pilot to see whether people were interested and engaged in the work. It’s an approach that has proved useful.
“Being an artist is not usually funded; you’re always striking a line between practicality and ambition and you try and turn it into a virtue. I’d rather find a temporary cheap space to work in, and spend any funding on the actual making, because permanent studio space is a luxury I won’t afford. Everything comes together, concept and circumstance are thought-out in parallel, it’s circumstancial art if you please,” he says.
Volkhardt was born and bred in Germany, in a town south of Stuttgart. After a stint of non-military National Service, he attended the State Academy of Arts and Design in Stuttgart for a degree with an emphasis on sculpture, followed by a research degree in intermedial design.
“I still feed on my first impressions to some degree,” he says.”I don’t think I’d be doing this work about the high street if it hadn’t struck me so massively the first time I moved here and I lived at the high street.
“The first flat I moved into was on Sidwell Street, exactly the site of the first wood cut. I left the door to look at this scene [the scene of his first woodcut]. And I didn’t think about when I did it. I just did that bus stop and later I realised ‘wow, that’s exactly my first impression of the high street’, which was quite unsettling to be honest.
“The first time I experienced the high street of Exeter, I was rather shocked by the sheer amount of visual information, advertisements all very screaming and colourful and in your face. It was a very strong impression. Like shell-shock. Almost visual overkill. And it’s lingered there, and after 10 years I’m revisiting it, and it’s probably not a coincidence.”
Each of the woodcarvings so far has taken upwards of 200 hours.
“The next thing I want to do is go bigger,” says Volkhardt. “The one thing I’ve started to realise as I’ve been working on these prints is that there’s something about the labour and the labouring to that scale that engenders and generates a mentality which I am almost inclined to call a form of spirituality – that is quite interesting. I did the last cut on the first plate, leant back and had 250 or so hours of work looking back at me – wrapped up in an image of a bus stop with old people in it, that was quite something”
Hard work is something that Volkhardt usually finds himself in the midst of. His Triparks work saw him transplant part of Dartmoor into the centre of Plymouth during a 24-hour workfest, and while still a student he orchestrated a three-year project which rebuilt a dilapidated vineyard, carrying 150 tones of stone across a steep hillside to rebuild stonewalls and terraces.
“It was a real crazy experience – like in Fitzcarraldo, getting the steamboat over the hills in the Amazon – years of work in the blazing summer sun, and then it was actually done. It was quite cool. That was about reconnecting,” he says.
There is certainly something of a grand scale with the exhibition, and perhaps that adds to the tranquility which is created by the soft glow each artwork produces. Each work has its own light source, almost like a halo. And the translucent Japanese paper is that used for the printing itself imbues a sense of calm.
“Aesthetically, you’re dealing with a whole series of objects that draw on techniques of relief and intaglio print on Japanese paper that is artificially illuminated. So that’s a strong formal connection,” he explains.
There seems to be a sense of connection and reconnection to one’s environment that runs through Volkhardt’s work, too – the way people are contained, directed and limited in their experiences, movements and consequently interests, horizons and ambitions.
“One of the basic differences between the landscapes of my childhood in South West Germany and the landscapes in Devon and the South West in which I raise my children is that the landscape where I grew up was and still is completely accessible – you look at the horizon and there will be a path that no cars can go on, but cyclists and pedestrians will be able to go there, and they just can keep going in all directions.
“People have a completely different sense of ownership over the landscape. With it, ideally, also comes a heightened sense of responsibility. Whereas, in Devon, I find it particuarly crass that the landscape feels really disconnected. It’s very pretty to behold. You keep driving places and you walk on a little route, and you go back in the car and you drive to the next place and there is no in-between. And that’s also something I’d be rather passionate about when it comes to young people.
“Cycling is the one thing that enables a 14 year old to go on a 10-mile perimeter around their village to find out everything about it. But they can’t, because it’s too dangerous. Loads of parents wouldn’t let their children out on a bike in these hedgerows. So they drive their kids about and in turn increase traffic again. It was an ongoing theme in these years of Vanland where I could see how young people did not relate to the landscape as they could or should, so they don’t really capitalise on the assets that surround them. They live this semi-rural, semi-urban kind of childhood in the middle of Dartmoor.”
The universal appeal of Any High Street has already been tested in Appledore, where people from Devon bought prints, but what about further afield – how would German audiences respond to it?
“They don’t know about the high street what we know about the high street. Most Germans haven’t been to Britain, and they have no particular ideas about the high street either. They don’t know what happens of a Saturday night as opposed to a Monday morning. The prison cell by comparison is universally readable, you can put that work anywhere.”