The man behind the Matchstickmen – Wolfgang Stiller

Germany based installation artist creates life-like head molds on the top of burnt ‘matchsticks’.
“Oh my god! Its a charred human head on a stick!”
That’s my first instinctive thought when I see the images of ‘Matchstickmen’.
But once you get over the ‘Chinese horror doll-house” feel of it, you actually realize the beauty and the grace in the faces carved and painted with such intensity and finesse, its breathtaking.
It seems as if the artist has caught an elusive expression of calmness, neutrality and innocence, sans any extreme emotions of joy or sorrow. At the same time, there is a certain playfulness that makes you wonder, if the faces would suddenly wake up and start talking.
‘Matchstickmen’ is the creation of Germany based sculptor-installation artist Wolfgang Stiller. He attaches full-sized head molds to lengths of square lumber, creating an illusion of a match burnt into a man.
We caught up with him, as he prepared for his newest installation of ‘Ginseng Spirit’, live till 4th June’2017 at MACT Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Ticino  in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

Can you tell us a little about your background? Where are you from? How did it all begin for you?
I was born in Wiesbaden a small city in Germany and  started to get interested in art when I was at high school.  I had a very inspiring art teacher and took art as my main class. After finishing high school, I started to study graphic design but had to realize that I was made for it. Even though I learned a lot of basic things like drawing from nature, nude drawings and painting, I realized I didn’t want to end up working for an advertisement company. So I left university and started to study art in Düsseldorf art academy which used to be the best art academy in Germany by then, and may be still is. I studied there for 4 years and moved to Berlin in 1988.
You took ‘playing with matchsticks’ to a whole new level. What was your first ever inspiration that spurred you into this path?
I started with this idea while I was living in China for 2 years. I was involved in a movie production doing some dummies . The movie was about the massacre the Japanese did in Nanjing during the occupation of China. I saw photos of the beheading of people which made a very strong impression on me. Seeing a human head without its body has a very strong and different impact. After finishing the production I had those head molds sitting in my studio and was playing around with them until I got this idea for the ‘Matchstickmen’. It was really more of an accident than being planned right from the beginning. The first versions were much simpler and more like heads which were put on top of a pole the way like people would do during wars in former times.. I got interested in the human head without a body as an artistic subject and tried out several possibilities over the years. The latest version of the ‘Matchstickmen’ became much more sophisticated with more details.

Different people grow up dreaming about becoming different things. Did you always aspire to be an artist?
To be honest, I never had those dreams what I would like to become. It was not like I wanted to become an artist since I was a small boy. During my time at high school, I got hooked with art and it never left me since. After leaving high school, I locked myself in for 3 weeks, painted all day long without seeing anyone, just leaving the house during the night to take a walk in the forest. I wanted to figure out if I was really made for it.
Becoming an artist is an important choice and being an artist means one has to be ready to work by oneself and be content with this chosen solitude. It is a very autistic job and not made for people who like to socialize. After those 3 weeks, I was pretty sure that this was what I wanted to do.
What does your art mean to you?
Creating art works is my way of reflecting about subjects which I am interested in by using a different language. I have no answers to offer but I am trying to investigate problems by approaching them in an artistic way. No matter which contents I am working on,  the main goal is always to create an art work.
Creating art works is my way of reflecting about subjects which I am interested in by using a different language. I never forget that I am a sculptor.

Do you have a favorite among all your projects? Or a project that you especially enjoyed working upon?
Not really. Whenever i start a new project i am very enthusiastic about it and enjoy doing it, trying to get the most out of it. I try to stretch it to its limits .  Once i reached those limits and start with a  new project  the last one becomes less relevant . I am always keen to show my latest works in an exhibition. It doesn’t mean that those works are my best works but they are the most relevant at this point.
Can you tell us a little about the technicality and the process? How much approximate time does it take for you to complete a piece?
That differs from project to project. In general I have two different ways to approach a new series of works: One is an idea or a concept  will come to my mind and I’m looking for the right material to transform the idea into a three dimensional work. The other approach comes through materials I accidentally encounter. Usually I have an idea first and look for the right material which suits it best.
It happens often that I find a particular material, which is demanding to become an artwork. Mostly I work on several different pieces at the same time so it is very difficult to say how long I work on a single work. It can take 5-10 minutes for a drawing and several months or sometimes years for a bigger installation project.

What are you working on right now?
The next work I am going to show is a installation with bronze called “Ginseng Spirit”. I started it a little while ago but it is growing over time and will be shown in a museum in Switzerland in March this year. I also work  on other projects at the same time but since they are not finished yet I don’t really like to talk about it.
Few artists create Art “for art’s sake” and some are moved by some cause they support, that they have to speak out about and bring awareness through their work. Which one is it for you?
I think art should be socially relevant but its language is material ,form, color and so on. I don’t think art works should illustrate momentary political situations,injustice and so on. Those things are impermanent and subject to change. In my opinion an art work should express something more essential,timeless some kind of fundamental insight. Something which will be relevant in hundred years from now. I am not interested in expressing my personal views. I want to create something which goes beyond my personal experience so it becomes relevant to people in general. It is not always possible but at least it is a goal which I always keep in mind.
With the world changing so rapidly right now, all this chaos and dissention. In the words of Toni Morrisson – “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” What are your thoughts on this?
I always work, no matter what the situation is. Since I never react to a current political or social problem as an artist, those turbulent times do trouble me as a human being but they don’t make me react as an artist. I absolutely don’t believe in this kind of direct political involvement of art. This is just my opinion but I think art shouldn’t be a propaganda tool.
No matter which side you are on or which cause one is fighting for. Those things are  impermanent changing like the wind. As I said before, I go on the streets to demonstrate or get involved in different ways to help to change things I consider unfair or bad.

People like to read my ‘Matchstickmen’ series as a critique on the Chinese government. That is nothing I would be interested in even though the work allows this kind of interpretation. I did the work in China so I used Chinese workers as models. Seeing the tough living conditions of those people inspired me to follow a certain direction. It would be boring for me to limit my work to a particular situation. Watching those people in China made me think about certain human conditions which we can find everywhere and any time in the past, present and most likely in the future as well.  I reflect on the impermanence of human life, the waste of human resources, things like that. What is essential and will be relevant in 50 years from now as well.
Anything else you would like to say? A message to the world perhaps?
Oh  no. No message. I hope art will get back to be something more essential like it used to be. Right now it is  eaten up by money like anything else. Decoration and entertainment for the rich . Art has become a tiger without teeth. On the other hand, I always see a few young artists growing up with a different mind set. That is encouraging as well.

PC Achim Kukulies
Twins on scale


PC Achim Kukulies

PC: Monica J. Haugen

Ginseng Spirits

Muschel Kopie


PC Stephen Mallon

PC Achim Kukulies

To see more of Wolfgang’s unique artwork, visit his website.
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