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On the Ex_Cavations from Holger Walter

It gets dark early. Yet, in the light of late January it is easy to recognize the primeval landscape, a barren desert, lava blocks to the horizon, snow-capped mountains beyond. And again and again, the ocean, its surf announcing the destination as it descends from the clouds.
After a short drive, scattered development, then shopping centres, industrial parks and residential areas, billows of steam from geothermal power plants, illuminated streets. Light is expensive in the long nights, they keep the Christmas lights up longer here than on the continent. There is no lack of power.
The capital proves to be a lively conglomerate made of wood, stone and concrete. The oldest buildings are from the 18th century. At the windy shore of the lake, directly next to the town hall, noisy whooper swans, ducks, seagulls and grey geese. It smells like fish, raw, boiled and fried. We would think of the Lutheran cathedral as a chapel at the most, but here it looms gigantically on the hill, the largest church on the island. Its concrete facade invokes the basalt columns so typical in this country like pipes of an organ.
The next morning, after the nightly bath in the eerily steamy “Blue Lagoon”, we set out on a tour. It is snowing. The lights of a power plant appear hazy in the darkness. Later, in the morning light of the afternoon, the vision of the Golden waterfall, set in silver ice. Not far away the earth is boiling. It is green in the middle of the cold winter. The blue bubble is lit unreal, bulging seconds before the elemental eruption of steam and water. Hot rivulets rushing down the valley, cool rapidly.
A little later we are standing between Europe and America, gazing at the fault that splits the land, there, where the continental floes drift apart two centimetres year for year. The history of the earth is experienced first hand.

Thrust and Poke
The brief and intense winter journey proved an unexpectedly suitable preparation for the text to be written, even if the stone sculptor, Holger Walter, has never seen the "Fire Island in the Arctic Ocean"[1] with his own eyes.
For Holger Walter stone is not a neutral, more or less common material for the more or less common realization of formal ideas. Nor is it only a difficult challenge to the work process. It is the starting point for a continually new dialog, a continual discussion with something that is more than simply there, at hand. It is something that has come to be over in millions of years, grown in elementary formation processes, which formed the face of our earth and continue to do so.
They are processes that are directly involved in the two diametrically opposed methods of three-dimensional composition, usually referred to without reflection as “Plastic” and “Sculpture” and therefore used imprecisely. “Plastic”, from the Greek “plasikos”, meaning to form, mold – e.g. clay, mud or wax –, to form in some way by amassing and combining material. “Sculpture” in contrast, comes from the Latin “sculptare”, to cut, carve, engrave, to expose by removing material, to bring something out of stone or wood, out of inorganic or organically grown material, to make something visible which basically is already there, to quasi whittle it out “surgically”, “ex_cavate” it from a block in which it is hidden.
Both can be found in nature as well as in the repertoire of artistic techniques. On the one hand, there is the work of the fire plying smith, Hephaistos, the Greek god, known to the Romans as “Vulcanus”, who creates plastic form under the influence of water, heat and pressure, expressed in the processes of melting, solidifying and crystallization. On the other hand, there is sculptural access to something pre-existing, creating something new through intervention, thrusting and poking, division and destruction, as is done by wind, water and ice, unrelentlessly on the face of our earth.
The latter process corresponds directly to the work of a sculptor, and it should be noted only in parenthesis - since another contribution of this book deals with this issue in detail, that the graphic work of Holger Walter should be seen within this context, although he is not alone when it comes to the technique. Because we know, thanks to the results of the letterpress and gravure print sculptural processes, that the printing plate is ultimately a three-dimensional product. In the two-dimensional result there is an analogy between the manufacture of the blank white sheet and the negative space of the sculpture or the printed sheet and the haptic, tangible matter.
But it's not primarily about an analogy of the process, above all it about approaching what is at hand. It may be helpful at this point to look to what is now almost classical modernism to better understand how the view and approach of an artist like Walter Holger differs from artists of earlier eras when it comes to the material. However, what is stated here does not apply to all representatives of the extraordinarily pluralistic scene field of "classical" sculpture.
The object art of the 20th century happily relied on “Ready mades”, on “objets trouvés”, on what had already been manufactured, pre-existing, whose history is expressed in the new context of artistic combination or whose isolated presentation is shown to be an essential component of the artistic concept. Holger Walter’s art is in no way object art, but rather– in regard to technique – traditional, classic sculpture. But it not only exploits the stone as simple material, it uses it as something encountered, something formed, created, that is accompanied by its own “history”, and he sees his own artistic endeavour as a continuation rather than an analogy to the geomorphologic processes.
As with Objet trouvé, the work begins with a discovery, with selection and access. Ursula Merkel quotes the artist in an interview, “My work takes place outside in the quarry.” He continues to point out “that forming a sculpture begins with the selection of the block. The formation process is comparable to a dialog, during which the sculptural form becomes concrete bit by bit until it reaches its final form. The form potential living within the stone with its predetermined, limited volume offers the artist the necessary orientation, it’s the starting point and reference point for his imagination.” [2]
The work develops, often without a precise concept or even a sketch, in a direct dialog with the existing form of the block, with its surface, its “inner life”, with the specific resistance that the stone sets brings against the hand and tool of the sculptor. In the work, a complex dialog between action and reaction, between imagination and materialization develops not so much on as with, or sometimes even against the stone. The stone is not forced or battled in some kind of mannered form, rather the sculpture emerges with the least possible intervention and technical aid in harmony with or out of the, which thereby opens itself to the space and the light and brought to speech, to a visual ring so to speak.

The story of the mouse
Stone sculptors carry a heavy load– in more ways than one. The material is literally heavy, and obtaining it for work requires as much effort as transporting the finished work for storage or exhibition. It is hard, it is challenging, demands strength, but also needs to be worked with sensitivity. One needs to ease oneself into the material, not rape it as is often the case, but to respond to its needs – a highly complex process in which there is no going back, no possibility of correction, because what has been removed is irretrievably gone.
Experience and technical skills are indispensable for this. Nevertheless, Walters Holger handling of the stone is never about artistry, showing off skills, just as the quality of a musical performance is never about the presentation of technical skill, although it is a prerequisite for any professional performance. Neither the technology nor the materials as such - and this seems to contradict what has previously been stated – should be in the spotlight when it comes to artistic quality, this is the same for traditional sculpture as it is for the so-called "new media", where often the presentation of technical innovations is naively deemed to an indication of artistic quality.
The traditional sculptor also has a hard time of it, and this ultimately has to do with the previously stated, because he rarely is in a position demonstrate spectacular innovation ("events"). Sculpture is not aesthetic fast food, the production as well as the reception needs time. The classical possibilities of figurative sculpture seem to be exhausted, and in the sector of non-objective art one the one hand Walter’s teacher Hiromi Akiyama opened and dematerialized stone whereas Ulrich Rückriem on the other thematised sculptural intervention reduced to a minimum, radical dialectic of separating and combining, together going to the extreme, and beyond to where progress seems impossible.
But the work of Holger Walters unfolds between these extremes - diverse, independent and consistent, constructed and improvising, rational and poetic. His sculptures are not afraid of the manuscript, do not avoid subjective and expressive style for all the conceptual conciseness. They play with the contrasts and similarities between nature and architecture, organic and tectonic form interior and exterior, open and closed, area, mass and space, concave and convex, and heavy and light. It is characteristic of Holger Walter’s work that he overcomes the gravity of the material, without negating it. And he confronts – something resulting from the nature of material and process – the relationships of various structures and surfaces, smooth and rough, natural or polished, and in this context, light and

[1] Title of a book by Icelandic youth author Jón Svensson, aka Nonni (1857-1944)
[2] Ursula Merkel, Schwere und Leichtigkeit. Bemerkungen zu den Arbeiten von Holger Walter. In: Holger Walter, Skulpturen und Arbeiten auf Papier, Karlsruhe 2003, Pg. 3

dark. Light and dark, produced either by light falling into the fabric of space or by the different treatments of the stone surface, which, ultimately, are the same thing, although in this case in the microstructural realm.
Sculpturing is hard physical work, at least, if you performs the work yourself, as does Holger Walter. Walter is not a designer, who sketches a sculpture on paper or a computer monitor and then hands it over to a specialized company to have mechanically executed. Why? Why would an artist subject himself to something like this these days?
It seems as if the increasing flood of digital images in our world and the sometimes tiring fascination with the incomprehensible and imperceivable technical possibilities generates the need for immediacy, physicality and tangibility as a counter-reaction. If this is true, then Holger Walter’s art, is not anachronistic, on the contrary, it is highly topical. With him, writes Martin Zuska, "the mouse becomes the rodent again, permanently gnawing, penetrating, exposing".[3]
Last but not least, anything that the sculptor tackles is expensive, starting with the material. Creating large sculptures without the financial security of a contract is hardly possible.

West-Eastern Divan
All this began in the mid eighties. Holger Walter completed a stonemason apprenticeship at a company with its own stone quarries in Hohenlohe Neuenstein. Upon completion of school, he continued to work in the quarry where he found working outdoors to be liberating. But the experience with nature soon became connected to architecture:
“The work in the quarry or on the church steeples”, wrote the artist in a letter, “the concentrated work with this unconventional material, shaped and influenced me greatly. The daily use of measures in working with the complex Gothic objects sharpened the eye. Today's artistic sculptures profit from this ‘visual experience’ skill when it comes to the relationship of material and space or the distribution of mass. These days in my sculpture I'm not so much interested in perfect workmanship or the finishing of the surface, as the search for a material form. When needed, I let the sculpture be raw and rough if this can increase its effect.”[4]
There was a key experience in 1989, a visit to Lanzarote. “The primeval beginning / origin in the lava field, where the first lichen and first life started to grow on the barren solidified lava, inspired me. During my studies, I worked on a series of sculptures with the title ‘Effusions’. Lava is a so-called extrusive stone. I began to look for material in the quarries of the Vulkaneifel, Germany’s youngest volcanic region. The quarry culture in the town of Mayen has a history of over 7,000 years. Lava captivates me even today. I always return to this material.”
Walter initially used lava stone almost exclusively for his works, a raw and porous material, “which cannot be polished smooth. What continues to be fascinating about this material ”, writes Ursula Merkel, “is its primitiveness and direct connection to the Earth, lava is an expression of the indomitable, energetic elemental force of nature. Other types of rock such as granite, limestone or sandstone have been added and taken an equal place alongside the lava found in recent years.”[5]
With the discharge money from civil service, Holger Walter financed a two-month trip to Egypt in 1990, but has also returned for visits for long periods, studying, drawing and working in Egypt, the historically most important country of origin for artistic work with the stone material. On a photo of a corner of the temple in Karnak he noted: "Here you can see exactly how Egyptians built. How the raw blocks were roughly worked, shifted, and worked again, carving out the areas from top to bottom. The columns or temple walls were then carved out like from a monolith. This "rough state" of the temple construction held a certain fascination over me. You almost feel as if you had participated in the process."
He essentially deepened such impressions in Japan, a country in which Shinto tradition of employing stone has an almost religious dimension. “The Japanese,” writes Holger Walter, “treat nature with humility, as it is often a threat. Typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. I was preoccupied with this during my time in Japan. This feeling of instability drifting on some tectonic plate, often being exposed to hundreds of daily quakes.”
Holger Walter studied from 1990-1996 at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe, under Hiromi Akiyama, a master of stone sculpture as masterful as he is sensitive. In 1997-98, Holger Walter received a year-long DAAD stipend for Japan, and through his teacher he was introduced to the highly interesting and lively scene of contemporary stone sculptors, whose works according to Walter, "are top level. One hardly encounters them in exhibits outside Japan.”
The residency in Japan also brought him in contact with important Japanese artists, including fashion designer Issey Miyake, the photographer Araki, and the painter Naofumi Maruyama and perhaps the most important artists in Asia, the Korean old master, Lee Ufan, who resides in Kamakura. He also met prominent European colleagues such as the French sculptor César, shortly before his death.
Again, however, an encounter with architecture played a stimulating role. The architecture of Tadao Andos, which is as ascetic as it is pure, enthused him as much as “the house architecture of Tokyo, where a maximum of space is masterly created in confined spaces, formal, radical, minimalist.”
The altar in the field
“I dig into the stone”, says Holger Walter, “create associations of archaeology and the adventure of discovering hidden, mysterious spaces in the stone”.[6] Indeed, many of Holger Walter’s works show an unmistakable affinity to architecture, in that they not only exist in space, relate to an outdoor space and unfold in it, they contain space within themselves. Interior space, the negative volume, the breach, the contrast between mass and void play an important role in Walter’s work, a topic which will not go away in the world of sculpture since Naum Gabo and Henri Moore, although admittedly is was present in rudimentary form even much earlier - think of the pleated canyons in Late Gothic sculptures - a constitutive moment of plastic art.
A dialectic principle is expressed a second time in this double space reference, which not only has an impressive effect in the architectural work such as the altar sculpture for the Stiftskirche Stuttgart (2001-2003) and the "Light Caves" in the "Room of Silence" of the Wuppertal hospice (2007). Space surrounds not only the sculpture, but this in turn surrounds the space in terms of a dialogical interaction. That opposites – matter and its absence - are not mutually exclusive, but complementary in a dynamic way, however, is one of the fundamental lessons of East Asian world view. Thus, a lot comes together in the artist's work.
In “Tokyo sculpture”, created 1998 in Japan, the stone is opened and hollowed in such a way that a dome-like shape is created, preserving the exterior by the natural curvature, and yet accenting the interior in a manner reminiscent of the extremes of elementary architectural structures, of the interplay of mass and structure, wall and window, of the dialectic of openness and closedness in a face, a skull or a helmet. Opening the stone creates a more intense dialog between the interior and exterior, which is experienced at the same time as a highly differentiated dialog between light and darkness.
Holger Walter’s sculptures open to the space and the light, they rise from the floor like islands or cliffs from sea level, stand up like hills and mountains, like people, kneeling, seated, rising piece by piece “From the depths” – like the title of lava stele created in 2002, which as a totally subjective series of variously arranged and stratified blocks connects in a surprising, new way to the ancient and yet immortal, current topic of the human figure.
The tension and relationships between geology, landscape, architecture, people and cultic function becomes wilfully and distinctly clear with the largely natural basalt stele erected at a prominent location above the area of Langenseifen, around which a chapel is to be built and in the upper section of which the hewn stone pillar will be used as an altar. An anthropomorphic character, dug up from the earth, rooted in the earth, looming above the countryside, becomes the axis and centre point of an architecture to mark a holy place – a work of art appearing archaic as it is topical. Particularly exciting for the artist is that he does not have to respond as usual to existing spaces; he can create a place, a centre point, an axis of reference for the yet to be built (wood) architecture. Equally remarkable is that Holger Walter once again has managed to create a work that preserves its autonomy as a work of art within the framework of functional context, that the contractor had the courage to realize this, and that – to bring us back to the “Prologue” of this text - a delegation from Iceland travelled here to gather inspiration for the construction of a church.

Heidelberg, January 2009
Hans Gercke

[3] Martin Zuska, in: Holger Walter, catalog for the exhibit in the Bruchsal Palace, May/July 1996
[4] Letter from January 14, 2009 to the author – containing the following quote.
[5] Ursula Merkel, Schwere und Leichtigkeit. Bemerkungen zu den Arbeiten von Holger Walter. In: Holger Walter, Skulpturen und Arbeiten auf Papier, Karlsruhe 2003, Pg. 4
[6] See ref. 4