In Conversation With Daniel Schaal | Episode 17

December 7, 2022
© Daniel Schaal. Image: Lars Schwander
© Daniel Schaal. Image: Lars Schwander
Your way to fine arts was quite a long one. You have obtained a degree in Theatre Studies, then you studied History and, in the end, you landed at UdK (Berlin University of the Arts). How did you come to understand that you would like to devote your life to Fine Art?


I must say, I do not come from academic background. I was raised in the countryside and had absolutely no idea that one can study Fine Arts. I went to Realschule (secondary school) and thought, that I would become a cook one day. I didn’t even know that there was such an option – to become an artist. I was the first from my family who went to university, therefore, I had to figure out everything myself – to understand, how the entire educational system works. Nevertheless, I grew up with the feeling – I don’t want to sound arrogant, – but I felt like I was talented in many areas. I have musical background, but the thing is that I also have synesthesia*, so I never really separated color and music. I have always been “playing” colors. If I play music, I hear sounds, and if I paint something, I also hear them – there is no difference for me. So, it makes total sense for me to compose sounds and colors together. I have never perceived them as separate elements, but only like an inseparable unity. I was also interested in theatre because theatre combines everything. But at some point, theatre became hierarchical, with strict rules which one needed to follow. As for me, being also a pianist, I have always wanted to stand for myself. Pianist and artist might be very close to each other because both of them have their own instrument, so we are a little bit for ourselves. In the end, I came across the idea: “Why shouldn’t I do art?” Being an artist, I can do whatever I want, everything is possible. Everything gives me a lot of freedom, on the one hand, and a lot of certainty – on the other. That is how I want to live my life. 


*Editor’s note: synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon when a person experience one of senses through another, e.g. can hear music, but see shapes or colors.


Do you remember the very moment when you decided to become an artist?


I created my first painting when I was 22, because I needed time to figure out how everything comes together. My first paintings were acrylic as part of my studies. And it came so easily to me, it felt so right! It had so much sense for me. To be honest, I believe that being an artist is something that you cannot really decide about. Most artists do not really have choice, because it is their destiny. I talked to one friend of mine who is also an artist, and you know, we both could have become cooks or chocolatiers, but we would try to be as artistic as possible anyway. We could make different things, but it would be a life circulating around the question: “How could I become an artist”.


© Daniel Schaal's Studio. Image: Daniel Schaal


Do you feel that your experience with history and theatre influences your art today?


History was my second subject at school. I have always been interested in histories and I like telling stories. Studying history at university, however, was not something that I enjoyed very much. There was always somebody, telling you about some events in the past, while nobody really cared for your own perspective. I was always much more interested in music and drama studies, like the theory of drama, starting from Ancient Greek theatre. That is something I am still searching for in my paintings, namely what kind of storyline I can tell the viewer, because even in abstract art everything is telling something. I am curious, how to think in this paradigm.


You have been experimenting quite a lot with techniques and materials. Let’s talk about your paintings first. Your works seem very assertive, pushing and energetic, but at the same time quite structured and even meditative. How did you manage to achieve this contrasting perception?


I feel that the human existence is something I am really interested in. What do you cause by your existence? What kind of structures, images or ideas are you reproducing? Imagine, you just exist, and things are happening – because of you! As for the paintings, they are directed by the body, namely what the body is doing and what it is causing. The human existence for me is like the myth of Sisyphus. When you try your best, but you never actually reach the point. It is very typical for humankind – we always try our best but in the end we all die. As for my art, it is always about the line and the canvas. I see the blank canvas as something like “0” and line – like “1”. I was circulating around the idea of getting between “1” and “0”, because when you look at coding language, for instance, it is always “010101”. I was questioning myself, how can we get in between that, between this binary thinking? What does human existence really mean? I believe, that must be imperfection. When you draw a line with your hand, you cannot make it straight. A human cannot draw a straight line – you try your best, but you fail. Nevertheless, you will find a way. So, I did it four times – tried to draw a straight line on the canvas and finally I got a pattern. This pattern was full of failures. When I look at the pieces, consisting of failures, they are always the most interesting ones for me. Getting back to theatre, this “failure” is something you would normally create a drama about. All stories we write, but also books we read, music, we listen to, films we make – they all are based on something that was not quite “right”. Either we were struggling or something else was happening during the creation process. That is integral to the very existence – to have some battle, some challenge. That is something that I find interesting, and it becomes abstract in my paintings.


© Daniel Schaal's Studio. Image: Daniel Schaal


Do you work with sketches and think a painting over-and-over in your head or is it more like a so-called action painting, used by abstract expressionists, when you stay in front of the canvas and try to express all your emotions and feelings spontaneously on the spot?


I always think in terms of my body, starting from my body, like in performance art. Sometimes I even think that I should just listen to my body and lay on canvas. The work of an artist has a lot to do with the working process itself, which is the evidence of something happened. And this is where I usually start from – talking the canvas, layering colors and thinking: “What do I want from you?” What does feel right from that or this color? And then I get the sound of the color in my head and start composing what I think of. And it always sounds different. Besides, I really like to work with open window – then all these sounds are transferred into the painting immediately. Sometimes I also listen to the music while painting. All these sounds have impact on me while I am working.


And what do you prefer to listen at this moment?


I like classical music, like Claude Debussy or ancient music, like Hildegard von Bingen.But I also like pop-culture and pop-music. I find Björk amazing or Kate Bush, who has her moment of fame right now when young people listen to her again. Electronic music is also very fascinating. All in all, it is always good to irritate yourself, like listening to something that you do not really like. I always ask myself, what irritates me, as it is very important to get out of your comfort zone, to push yourself and sometimes music can be a perfect tool for that.


It seems like music is the main source of your inspiration, correct?


Exactly! Music and nature are my key inspiration sources. But also, like I said, the human existence itself – what human existence predicts or what it is made of. That is something that I am constantly questioning, and I develop my work from this starting point. This constant questioning and irritation are also the things that inspire me.


© Daniel Schaal's Studio. Image: Daniel Schaal


In your latest works you almost refuse to use intense colors, preferring a darker and calmer color palette. Could a global pandemic COVID-19 have affected your emotional mood? Or how would you explain this kind of transformation?


Only constant irritation and getting out of my comfort zone have made this transformation possible. Just one example – I constantly wear black, I don’t like wearing colors, I don’t even know if I like colors. But it is important for me to get out of this paradigm, to push myself out of my comfort zone every time, because it brightens the mind. Each time when I finish my painting, I think: “Or, now it is getting really interesting”. When I start drawing the first line, in this very moment I already want to see, how the result is going to look like. And when it happens, I understand, if it was the right decision of color or whatever. But sometimes I finish the painting and think that I don’t like it a lot. So, I was searching for something, circulating about it, but in the end, it was not it, it was not die Sache.


And what interests you more – the result and the finished work itself or rather the process of creating it?


As I said, when I start a painting, I already want to know, what the outcome will be. But you always must go through something to see the outcome. And I think, it is so reliving – you go through something, and it might be like you face life in the end. Or you might have to go through something, and it comes out differently. You must go away from the terms “right” and “wrong”. You should just observe what happened and when this “what happened” satisfies you, and gets you to another dimension, then it is something you have learnt from, and this is the feeling of doing something good. I hate the fact that a lot of people try to make things less complex. Things are not easy, and it is not bad. It is completely fine that you are overwhelmed all the time. It is completely OK to deal with a crisis. You must accept the fact that you must deal with the crisis. That is human, that is bound to our existence.


© Daniel Schaal's Studio. Image: Daniel Schaal


Have you ever tried working in figurative art or have you always known that you would like to concentrate on abstraction?


I see myself as figure. Though I do not paint self-portraits. I see myself as a performer and my paintings are only the outcome. In the past I used to create figurative paintings, as I thought, that one should be able to paint like Renaissance artists and do photographic drawings, otherwise you cannot call yourself “artist”. This thought was stuck in my head, but then I got rid out of it and started doing only that what really interested me.


Let’s now turn to your prints. Working with prints you often use packaging materials. I have read that that is a way to express your criticism of consumerism, modern civilization, and its throwaway mentality. Could you give us more context here please?


It all started when I had a lot of empty boxes, and I couldn’t through them away. These objects used to have something inside of them, and this “inside” part, the “filling” was so much valued. However, when you take it out, you normally throw the box away. But I couldn’t. So, I ended up collecting these boxes for several year. And then I landed in a printing workshop and learned the technique of printing. As for consumerism,  the fact is that consuming itself becomes a kind of a religion because we don’t discuss it anymore. But I think it is important to accept and admit that you are part of something, even if you do not want to be part of it. I am also part of this society – I am not living in a cave. It is also important to be self-justice, not saying: “Hey, I am an artist, I do everything right, I am perfect”. We all go to McDonalds and order staff from Amazon. And this is what sometimes looks a bit hypocritical in the art world. What I want to reach with my art is to make people look at it and think it through. And it will have its effect eventually – sometimes in 5 seconds, sometimes in 5 years and sometimes in 500 years.


© Daniel Schaal's Studio. Image: Daniel Schaal


Do you have a favorite artist? Are there any artists or just people generally who inspire and encourage you most?


I was very much inspired by Claude Debussy, because when he was at conservatory in Paris he literally twisted the entire system of classical music. He created something that was actually forbidden. Debussy’s Arabesque is a piece where he went against the rules, against the music theory. He broke the system of composing and was thrown out from the conservatory because of that. Although it was really hard for him, there was always some lightness about him. He didn’t turn into a “bitter” person, dissatisfied with life. At the same time Debussy managed to produce something great out of something banal, like his Pour les cinq doigts. This is something that inspired me a lot – how one can do something great out of some basic ingredients. And as for artist – nothing is more banal than the line. Kohs Ellis also inspired me a lot or arte povera idea. And looking at all these great people I always try to figure out, how not to become “bitter”. That it is why sometimes I am even more interested in the person then in the artwork itself. Because what matters for me is, if the person was “bitter” in the end or not.


What do you mean by this “bitter”?


Well, you know, when you become “bitter” in the end. A lot of artists tend to get bitter, because they don’t achieve success that they desired. It is somehow close to disappointed or angry. It is always important to think of the other. The other will always exist, whether you like it or not. You cannot ignore the fact that there is always the other. And only then you start to work on yourself. When people think about themselves as the center of the Universe, as if nobody else existed – that is not healthy for the humankind.


And now let’s throw a glance at the future. What is the most extraordinary project, you would like to bring to life one day?


First thing I think of is how I would feel myself in this situation, if everything were possible. I would try to understand, what my body would need to do in this case and would go in this direction. And then I would just do what I must do. It is not the choice – you just do what you must do. It is not about what I actually want, it is always about the need. And the need is always quite easy in the end, but it depends on a lot of complex things. Like every humankind needs a shelter – that is a very simple need, but it is not provided to everyone. Every person needs a toilet, but three billion people on Earth still do not have access to the toilet, while that is a very basic need. I also want to invest more time into textile works, I would like to create my own textiles. I often think about those kinds of fabrics, that would stay on your body for the rest your life, becoming part of you. The very idea of textile is very curious. I also want to investigate more about what I can do with the plastic that I am producing, like the packaging material. I have found a think tank in Denmark where they recycle plastic and granulate it. And I think it would be very fascinating to form abstract objects or surfaces with the plastic that I caused. And last nut not least – music, I would like to cooperate with musicians, transforming paintings and prints into music, producing sounds of the surfaces of the paintings. I really want to explore more in this direction.

Interview conducted by Valentina Plotnikova