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Tilmann Zahn's intricate torn-paper works straddle a sculpture and a painted image

Responding to the ideas of fragility and stability, artist Tilmann Zahn, who lives and works in Basel, captures the volatile state of constant change through his art.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Sep 26, 2022

For visual artist Tilmann Zahn, paper is both the image carrier and the image itself. He makes his art by tearing individual pieces out of the paper to create a structure that is more like a sculpture than a painted image. The torn edges add a unique layer to the context of the image, that of the touch of the hand. The organic feel could easily mimic something as contrasting as an iron structure in the process of decomposing and covered by soil.

“Paper is a fragile material, and recreating massive constructions with delicate paper corresponds to the idea that ultimately everything is equally stable and fragile: it only depends on the point of view from which it is viewed. It depends on the state one is in at the moment. Everything is in a state of constant change, everything is volatile, fleeting like dust,” says the German artist who was born in Osnabrück, Germany, and now lives and works in Basel.

Exodus,  2018,  Pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper | Tilmann Zahn | STIRworld
Exodus, 2018, pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper Image: Courtesy of Tilmann Zahn

The idea of 'everything is in permanent transformation' remains the key metaphor in the practice of Zahn. The imagery springs from imagination. For him the inner world is inextricably linked to the outer space and yet are of a different nature. "One is a mirror of the other," he says.

I speak to Tilmann Zahn about his practice, significance of material and process in his works, and metaphorical references.

Rahul Kumar: What do you wish to communicate through your work? How do you intend for your audience to interpret them?

Tilmann Zahn: There is always only one concern: to bring my inner images and states to the outside. This is a drive, sometimes almost a compulsion, because the images arise inside me, whether I want them to or not. I also don't know where they come from. Although my works are often very constructed and thoroughly composed, I actually work extremely intuitively. I don't think much and rely completely on my instinct. The basic idea is simply there, and then a process of shaping, composing, adding and omitting begins, until in the end the result corresponds to the inner image. Then the tension falls away. I no longer have a special relationship to pictures that are finished. But when I look at them with some distance in time, I realise in which context they stand, what they were actually about and why they are the way they are. Usually, I can only say something meaningful about my works with a distance of several months or years. 

Icarus, 2021, Pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper | Tilmann Zahn | STIRworld
Icarus, 2021, Pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper Image: Courtesy of Tilmann Zahn

I have no expectation of the audience's interpretation. Everyone should be given space for their own approach and approach the work with their personal intuition. In my experience, this works very well. The vast majority of people understand very well what it is about, even without explanations. We "western" people live in a culture that identifies far too strongly with mental activity. We pride ourselves on our intelligence and have forgotten to trust our intuition. But it is still there, and it is more powerful than we think.

Hybrid apparatus 1, 2015, Pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper | Tilmann Zahn | STIRworld
Hybrid apparatus 1, 2015, pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper Image: Courtesy of Tilmann Zahn

Rahul: Please explain the process you use to create the paper works (I am personally very intrigued to know how do you tear paper using oil – a video will help). Are there meanings to be drawn in the use of oil, process of tearing/removal? And the fact that paper itself is a fragile material…

Tilmann: The technique is not an end in itself for me, it is merely a means to an end. It's about content, not the craft. I love good craft, and I have no problem with someone saying that my work is well-crafted, but that is not the essence. Discussing technical-craft details at length distracts from what it's actually about. It can be used to avoid talking about emotions, for example, but my art is very emotional and the technique is just the tool to portray these emotions.

Experiential video of Zahn's work Video: Courtesy of Tilmann Zahn

Both the use of traditional oil paint and the process of tearing have a strong meaning in terms of content. The oil penetrates completely into the paper, creating a special depth effect. Together with the pencil drawings and the graphite, this results in a kind of patina that corresponds to what is in my inner imagination. I walk through the world and see processes of decay and transformation everywhere, and I see that nothing is as stable, smooth and perfect as it seems or as we would like it to be. That is the true nature of things. Everything is open-pored, cracked, fragile and fleeting. That's why my works have open edges, that's why I tear them instead of making a hard cut. And that's why I work so much with paper. Classic oil paint is a precious, natural and open-pored material, and I use it in a completely new way, which results in a special haptic quality. This is very important to me, because we already have enough sterile, synthetic surfaces - even in today's art.

Hybrid scrap 2, 2012, Pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper | Tilmann Zahn | STIRworld
Hybrid scrap 2, 2012, pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper Image: Courtesy of Tilmann Zahn

Rahul: Are there conceptual references for your recent works?

Tilmann: No. I am quite a loner and my only concept is that I try to detach myself from concepts. I do what wants to come out of my inner self. I have preferences, and I have my imprints, like every human being. But my relationship to art is very spontaneous and not very intellectual. And so, my relationship to well-known visual artists who could serve as a reference is also more emotionally than intellectually reflected. I try not to be too ‘intellectual’ in art. I love the connection to the intuitive, the energetic, the unconscious. That's why I can always explain my paintings only afterwards.

Dark boat, 2022, Pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper | Tilmann Zahn | STIRworld
Dark boat, 2022, pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper Image: Courtesy of Tilmann Zahn

Rahul: Materiality becomes significant in your work. Are there relationships you can draw with other material and processes you have employed or observed? What are your thoughts on transitional aspect of your art?

Tilmann: When iron rusts, small clod-like pieces break off, usually from the edges, and then, more or less quickly and resembling puff pastry, disintegrate into crumbs and finally dust. In this state of disintegration, even a thick sheet of iron is less resilient than paper. One could say that even the most massive iron construction, as stable and immovable as it may seem, is nothing more than material in a transitional stage: no longer liquid, not yet dust. Likewise, all other phases are transitional. In the liquid phase, iron is no longer dust and not yet solid; in the dust phase, no longer solid, not yet liquid. One could also say that, when a structure has decayed to dust, it would not be non-existent from now on, but would only have changed form. On closer inspection, transience is inscribed in even the proudest structures like a hidden engraving, and it is precisely the signs of transience that give them their beauty: The traces of all that an object has ‘experienced’ during its existence remain on it as enigmatic messages until finally the object, together with its inscribed history, slowly sinks back into the perpetual stream of coming into being and passing away.

Radar, 2021, Pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper | Tilmann Zahn | STIRworld
Radar, 2021, pencil, graphite, charcoal, oil on torn paper Image: Courtesy of Tilmann Zahn

The buildings of mankind, the small, the large, the enormous and the daring, the complex, sometimes ludicrous constructions of the industrial world that populate our agglomerations like giant insects, the urban landscapes around the globe, the boldest creations of entire generations of engineers and architects, all of them in their brute beauty, in which hopes and dreams crystallise just as much as presumption and arrogance, pragmatism and ‘zeitgeist’ or just plain necessity; they all share one and the same inescapable fate: As soon as they come into being, they begin to crumble to dust, imperceptibly at first, but ceaselessly and inexorably.
Things in decay hold magical riddles, and these riddles trigger a process of association in me, at the end of which are the oil papers. The thinned oil paint penetrates the paper, creating a depth effect that makes room for the mysteries of the places and themes that inspire me. This depth effect also allows me to engrave my own secrets on the paper or inscribe the fragment of a text on the image.

Tilmann Zahn | STIRworld
Artist Tilmann Zahn Image: Courtesy of Tilmann Zahn

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