Published  14/06/2016

Almuth Tebbenhoff: ‘I’m wrestling with ideas that are way out of my control’

Almuth Tebbenhoff: ‘I’m wrestling with ideas that are way out of my control’

The sculptor talks about the perpetual puzzle of the cosmos and its vastness, eternity and the meaning of life – all themes running through her work, no matter what its scale

Almuth Tebbenhoff. Photograph: Kevin Sharp.


Born in Fürstenau, in north-west Germany, Almuth Tebbenhoff (b1949), the daughter of a hobby blacksmith with his own welding machine, moved to England at the age of 18, where she studied ceramics at the Sir John Cass School of Art. Since 2003, she has been a Fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors. In 2006, while on a residency in Pietrasanta, Italy, Tebbenhoff began to work with marble, and, since then, her practice has spanned a variety of materials, always coming back, however, to the same central theme of the cosmos and its overwhelming vastness – an idea she was introduced to by her father when she was a child.

In the run up to a joint exhibition at Lacey Contemporary, London, Tebbenhoff spoke to Studio International about this universal thematic and some of her means of interrogating it.

Anna McNay: Can you tell me about the works from your Empty Spheres series – inspired by lunar eclipses – that are on show in your joint exhibition with the painter Pandora Mond at Lacey Contemporary?

Almuth Tebbenhoff: I was brought up by a father who was very interested in the cosmos. For him, it was a way of expanding and calming the mind. I grew up with it and I feel very at home in that. At some stage, in about 2012, I made lots of little pocket universes, because I thought it would be nice to be able to carry a talisman around with you or put it somewhere to be reminded of the vastness – almost like a little orrery, but flattened off and totally imaginary – because, after all these years of working with and researching the cosmos, all sorts of aspects of it, I had come to the conclusion that there’s nothing you can do about it – it’s too big, it’s incomprehensible, and therefore you might as well treat it almost like a joke. So I made these little things that look almost like dummies.  They’ve got little protrusions, like planets, that you could stick in your mouth and suck – except, no, these are bronzes, so you wouldn’t want to do that.

AMc: How big are they?

AT: They’re tiny. The biggest ones are probably only about 18cm in diameter and the smallest are 10 or 12cm and they have a very special patina. I wanted something that looked like a nebula, something with explosive power. I did some research, found a video of the Belousov Zhabotinsky reactions in a Petri dish, and sent that to the Pangolin foundry, saying: “Get me that!” – and they did. They were amazing. They do wonderful patinas and they like a challenge.

AMc: Is the cosmos something that influences all your work?

AT: I think it’s an awareness of eternity and the sheer scale of things. Saying: “I’m only an insignificant human – there’s nothing I can do about all this, but I’m participating, I’m part of this, I’m sitting on the crust of this ball, spinning around with everyone else.” That way, it sounds like fun. It’s my way of getting a handle on the mystery of life.
I’m mostly influenced by whichever material I’m working with. Each material has a different quality, which requires a different approach, but my awareness of this big sphere that we are part of is behind all of it. It has to be. It’s all we’ve got: you can’t escape from it. 

In my most recent pieces, I’m literally searching inside the stone. I started with a cube of Portuguese pink marble. I dug into it, scooping it out and hollowing it. There are those ideas that come all of a sudden, fully formed after years of mulling, and this was one of them. Ideas like that come with an enormous energy, so I have to realise them or I’ll suffocate. With these cubes, I just sort of burrow my way into them from all angles. It looks like giant woodworm eating into the stone to reveal the light inside, because, especially with certain marbles, you get translucency around the edges. The crystalline structure of the stone reflects light and you get an internal glow, which is really beautiful.

AMc: Is this what you’re working on in Italy, following your residency in Pietrasanta?

AT: Yes. I had a scholarship there in 2006 and I loved it so much that I have returned every year since, usually for roughly three months, made up from smaller chunks of time, so as not to torture my husband too much with a long absence – or myself, of course, because I miss him! I go for two or three weeks, maybe a month, depending, take a piece as far as I can, then pack up and come back. In Italy, I’ve got a studio space that I rent and a lot of my tools are there and I’ve got cupboards full of models of ideas. When I first get an idea, I make it in clay, because that’s most malleable. You can do anything with it and squidge it around and stick bits on. Then I scale it up. 

AMc: Was your residency in Pietrasanta the first time that you’d worked with marble?

AT: Yes, in 2006 – exactly 10 years ago now. I always thought it was too tough – I can’t do this – and then I got the scholarship and, well, you’re not going to turn your nose up when something like that comes your way and everything is paid for. It was the most generous, amazing thing – free tuition, marble, accommodation, food, drink. Pietrasanta is a very inspiring place, because it’s full of artists.

AMc: Initially, however, you started out with ceramics.

AT: Yes, in 1972, at the Sir John Cass School of Art. I did about three years there covering all aspects of ceramics, but I was always driven to make something abstract and asymmetric – after a while, I found the roundness of the wheel a little boring.

AMc: You had a welding machine at home as well, that you’d inherited from your father.

AT: Yes, but that was some years later. My dad died in 1984 and I inherited his welding machine, because nobody else wanted it – people don’t normally go around welding, unless they’re that way inclined! That kicked me off. I did a course in metal fabrication here locally in Wandsworth, at South Thames College, and loved it. I made a nuisance of myself in the college for about a year and a half because I was just experimenting. They were running courses for people who wanted to do sensible things, whereas I just looked at the material and thought: “If you weld that to that and that – wow! You can do this …” By the end, they were thoroughly sick of me, but they were also amused and thought it was inspiring, because I had shown them things that they hadn’t thought of. It worked both ways.

For years, I used metal at my workshop here at home in Laurence Hall, but there’s too much grinding involved, because I cut little pieces and weld them together, making clean facets with sharp edges. The house was permanently covered in fine metal dust. Even if you plug the doors, it travels everywhere, and I just thought: “This isn’t healthy – I’m creating a very unhealthy environment for my son and everybody else who lives here.” So I found another workshop where I could work for a while, and then they closed down, so now I have to travel for an hour and a half down the A21, on the way to Hastings. I spend a lot of time on the road, but it’s a big forge, with lots of wonderful industrial cutting equipment that I never had here. It’s also a bit reciprocal because Ben, who runs the forge, appreciates my artistic feedback on his own art projects, when he gets bored with making staircases and gates and fences. 

AMc: Do you have assistants helping you, because it sounds like there’s a lot of hard labour involved?

AT: If I get a commission for a big marble sculpture, such as the piece I did for Hong Kong, I pay the artigiani in Italy to do the rough-out. They are highly skilled and trained specifically to work for sculptors. They work much faster than I can. If had to do the whole work myself, it would take me maybe a year and I’m not even sure that I’d be physically up to it. It’s backbreaking work swinging a heavy angle grinder all day long, and I don’t see any reason to compete with strong young men who carve all the time. They locate a few accurate points in the block, carve away the main bulk and leave the sculpture where I can take over and finish it. It is expensive though, but saves me months and months.

AMc: How much of your work is commissioned in advance and how much is done on spec?

AT: Not that much is commissioned, really. There are many competitions and it’s such a long shot, unless you actually know people personally and you’re in with a recommendation. If you come out of the cold, your chances are very slim. So I tend to make my work, simply because I’ve got this energy to make work – I’ve got it and I’ve got to use it. Normally, I make work and then hope that somebody loves it enough to buy it. Or, even better, likes it enough to want it two metres tall. Then I make it again two metres tall. But, in the process, the work changes. If you make something bigger or smaller, it becomes a completely new piece, because the proportions change and the meaning of it changes, so you have to make allowances for that. You can’t just scale something up.

AMc: Do you ever remake something the same size?

AT: No, I’d be bored, frankly. However, just at the moment, I’m reworking a piece that I made about four, five years ago, and there was always something that bothered me about it. At the time, I exhibited it, but I kept looking at it and thinking: “There’s something really wrong with you. You look like a sofa cushion – I hate you.” Then I really worked into it again and now it’s sinewy and much more exciting. Somehow I didn’t have the guts to do it then, but now… As you learn, you get bolder. Now I can throw the material around in a way that I couldn’t have done years ago, because I would have been too intimidated by it, especially the marble. If you go thin, there’s this fear of breaking through and making a hole where you don’t want it. 

AMc: Has working with marble influenced your way of handling the other materials?

AT: It’s interesting that – there’s a bit of cross-fertilisation going on in both directions; I made these empty cubes and they actually drove me to make the latest marble cubes. I wanted to make images of a concept of nothingness, which one day I will have to deal with for real – I’m curious about the thought that, ultimately, there will be no more consciousness. I fabricated the cubes out of angle iron, so it looks like they’re containers. They’ve still got the vestiges of the cornering and they really look like they might hold something, but there’s nothing there. One day, Susan Steinberg, who made the film Mirrors to Windows, asked me: “What’s in your boxes?” And I thought: “OK, I’m going to take this challenge. I’m going to find out.” So I made myself a block of clay and got hook tools and just slashed into it and hooked more and more out, and basically made a mess. There were these piles of discarded clay on one side, and then, because I left all the corners standing, there was this almost empty space, and that’s when this idea of going into the marble came about bit by bit. I made model after model and I gradually came to the conclusion that it’s the light inside that I am looking for. So it’s a constant renewal of the same theme. I’m looking for this light, looking for what’s inside and what our souls are made out of and where we’re going – all that. One big question. I just have lots of different little ways of looking at it.

In 2002, I had a sudden brainwave: I think I saw an image of some sort of volcanic matter – molten lava, basalt, or something that, in the liquid stage, formed bubbles, and then cooled down – and I thought it was so beautiful and, to me, also meaningful, like a proliferation of cells endlessly continuing to create life. So I hand-built bubbles out of clay – whole clouds of them, hollow, sculpted. It struck me as an amazing idea. It’s a space, which is itself taking up space, encroaching on space, and yet empty inside. The bubble sculptures are made without an armature, so any wonkiness has to do with the heavy sagginess of the clay. I’m a hands-on person and I use all my acquired skill to get some sort of control over the clay – part of me doesn’t want this control, wants to leave the mess – sort of like abstract expressionism. I’m always wrestling with ideas that are way out of my control, so the control freak part of me is imposing a little bit of control. In my fantasy, I’m in charge!

AMc: How do you go about a new work? What is the process? Do you draw the piece and work it out on paper first?

AT: Sometimes I just start by looking at the material and I stick a finger in the clay and see what happens. Sometimes I wake up with an idea, and then I pursue that and see how I can make it come about, and, in the process, I sometimes find that I cannot. I had this idea of melting out the inside of a stone cube and seeing it puddled out. I drew it on paper and it looked hilarious, like a huge breast drooping out of a block! I tried to sculpt it and it looks ridiculous at the moment. I’ve really got to work this one out. I’ll get there, but …

AMc: Can you actually melt a stone?

AT: No. Well, yes, you can, but not at the temperatures I have available to me – they would crack first. But I want to show that as a possibility, to make something hard and rigid fluid – it’s sort of melting the heart and I think that’s where the emotions come in – you’ve got multi purposes in life and maybe one purpose is to melt hard-hearted people.

AMc: You mentioned drawing before. How much of a role does that play in your practice?

AT: At one stage, it played a huge role. For about seven years, I went to a drawing teacher every Monday for three hours. I’ve got a whole plan chest full of thousands of drawings. I tore all the others up. So, yes, drawing is a powerful influence. At the moment, I’ve discovered burning drawings. I use little skewers and burn holes where the lines are. I’m currently doing these faces that are burnt into paper. It’s one of those really, really slow processes and it involves a lot of concentration or the whole thing goes up in flames. It’s an idea that came through sitting in my favourite bar in the piazza in Pietrasanta, where there are these guys selling cigarette lighters to tourists and you’ve got serviettes lying there with your drink. I bought a lighter and was idly burning these sticks that the olives are skewered on, making nice holes in the serviettes. I just suddenly thought: “Oh, my God” and “Paul Klee, eat your heart out!” On thin paper, you just move the skewer along and it burns a lovely line. 

AMc: You’ve talked a bit about the patinas on your recent sculptures. How does colour feature in your work more widely?

AT: I started off being afraid of colour, actually, because I was brought up in north Germany and everything was very monochrome. It wasn’t like a Latin country, where you have brilliant sunlight most of the time and people walk around in brightly coloured clothes. No. I was used to mostly grey skies and sombre clothes, so I had no confidence in the use of colour, and, as a result, I made everything grey for a while. Then, suddenly, bit by bit, colour crept in. At some stage, I decided to paint a colour on the reverse side of my steel wall-sculpture so that the colour would bounce off the wall. It looked as if the sculptures were floating on a cushion of pink or yellow. I’ve got a lot of patience. I do things very slowly and deliberately until I understand them – that’s how I learn about things – and then, at some stage, there was this moment of “Wahey! Now I’m free to use colour!” I found an amazing paint, which is very flat and matt, but loaded with pigment, so you really get a sense of the richness of colour. Now I feel more confident, so I can splash it around, get it wrong, put another colour on. But with patination, you’re back to what’s available naturally. I haven’t started painting marble yet, but who knows? People used to. All the old Greek statues were painted.

AMc: You just mentioned hot countries. In 2015, you were involved in the First Anguilla Sculpture Symposium.

AT: That was a revelation for me, because I’d never been to the Caribbean. There’s this amazing sense of wellbeing when the temperature around you is so beautifully warm that you don’t need much by way of clothes and you can swim in the sea and you can eat what comes out of the sea – I just loved that. It seemed so idyllic, although I know it’s not. I know there are all sorts of problems and islands are disappearing under the sea, thanks to global warming. But, for a moment, it was like a gift from the heavens. It was wonderful working there and the people were extraordinary – very, very friendly.

AMc: How did it come about?

AT: A friend of mine said to somebody who owned a house there: “You should do the First Anguilla Sculpture Symposium” – just a throwaway comment at a party. And he rang her back a couple of weeks later and said: “I’m bored.” And so he just mobilised the whole island, virtually – it was really extraordinary. There were three sculptors involved – my friend and I from the UK and one guy from America. The West Indies Commission wouldn’t support the project because it wanted to involve only local people, to have Anguillans make their own sculpture, but I don’t think they were quite ready for that. I hope it will happen, though, because it’s a beautiful place, slightly off the beaten track for tourism – the big ships just sail right past. 

AMc: Did you make any work while you were out there?

AT: Yes. They gave us each a block of local stone. I was greedy and ordered one that was 2.5m x 80cm x 60cm – a sizeable block. And then I had to deal with it! But I did it.

AMc: Earlier, you mentioned the film Mirrors to Windows. You were one of 10 artists featured in this documentary about the woman as artist. Were you happy with the outcome and response?

AT: It was interesting. I felt I could have been clearer when I started talking about my work because, if you point a camera at me, I get a little bit shy. I liked the way the women talked so openly and honestly. I thought it was really brave though and I liked it as a film.

AMc: Do you find it difficult – or challenging – being a woman in a largely male sphere?

AT: Yes, certainly, but then I like a challenge. And things are changing. There are things that men just cannot say any more, certain put-downs for women.

AMc: You have a son. Did you continue working after he was born, or did you take time out?

AT: Ten days after giving birth, I was in the studio. That was quite hard, and I wouldn’t recommend it that way, but I wasn’t living with the father at the time, and, for stretches, I was on my own. I chose it that way, but I do look back and think I maybe could have done it a little bit better, or a little bit more sensibly. 

AMc: I loved one of your quotes in the documentary: “Tear up the rule book, start afresh and see what happens.” Do you live by this maxim?

AT: I do, yes. With everything, you have to completely let go every now and then and reassess and see it with new eyes and see how it looks from different perspectives. I think you can get so stuck in pursuing a work of art that you can’t see the whole any more. Then you just need to start afresh, be brave.

Places Among The Stars is on show at Lacey Contemporary, London, until 25 June 2016.
• Almuth Tebbenhoff is also showing work in Sculpture in the Garden at Pangolin, London, until 9 July 2016, and at on form 16 at Asthall Manor, Oxfordshire, until 10 July 2016.

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