Sophia Mainka

Gröbenzell with Lilian Robl
Interview, 2021

Lilian Robl (LR), Sophia Mainka (SM)

LR: Our ancestors knew exactly where to build a building. The Etruscans had sheep graze at a possible settling site for weeks before they decided for a place. If the animals got sick, they moved on. The Romans knew the “genus loci,” the soul of a place which had to be respected. What can you tell me about your house in Gröbenzell?

SM: Actually, I never wanted to live in Gröbenzell. I found it awful here: neither the countryside nor really the city, neither fish nor fowl. I come from Berg-am-Laim; and because I grew up in a suburb, I wanted to be cool and live in the city. Well, then we moved here. I knew no one and, even after ten years, I hardly know anyone. Since the place was a blank for me—almost empty—I could make it my own place, make it what Miko and I are: we have left our mark in this place. Gröbenzell, I believe, has not been populated for a long time, at least the newer part where we live. There is a lot of nature, big trees—we have a giant platanus in the garden—and a lot of creeks. We live in the upper floor of a house, downstairs another family, friends of ours, live. They have been living here for about twenty years. Therefore, it has rather been their house for me for a long time. On our floor, we haven’t rebuilt anything because we thought that we were going to live here only for a short time. We even left the horrible carpet as it was so that I wouldn’t have to pay attention to it while working!

LR: You told me that you are about to move…

SM: Sadly, we have to move out—otherwise we certainly would’ve stayed here forever. In the beginning we had big plans regarding a farm in the countryside, a collaborative culture project… However, we will now move move to Munich, and, regarding this, my feelings are mixed. For example, I’m afraid to be completely absorbed by the life in the city—generally, I feel that the city as such is very encroaching.

LR: The catalogue for which we are doing the interview is supposed to be a house in itself: the layout of your house in Gröbenzell is the template for the dimensions of the catalogue. Your works are assigned to chapters. The chapters with the headlines “the realtor”, “the front yard,” “our cat,” “the garage,” “the car of my wife,” “kitchen,” “living room,” “a friend’s visit,” “my bedroom,” “the bathroom,” “the hobby room,” “the fitness coach,” “a child’s room,” “the burglar alarm,” “basement” draw the picture of a heteronormative nuclear family from the middle class. Does this imagined, abstract house your book is conjuring up refer to a concrete house? Or: what did the house that you grew up in look like?

SM: It’s both: it’s a house from a storybook and, at the same time, it’s the house in which I grew up. Actually, this is an issue with which I grappled for a long time: I always had the feeling of being a perfectly normal girl; from a middle-class family, three children, one cat, a terrace house in a suburb. For a long time, I wanted to shed this and be something special. By now, I can accept more and more that it just belongs to me, that this is me. Now I even emphasize it: I live in Gröbenzell—the place to be! That’s why I decided to make this bourgeoise normalcy the main issue of my catalogue.

LR: What do you associate with the term “homeland” [“Heimat”]?

SM: For me this is a strongly political term, less an emotional personal one. Of course, the term appears mainly in relation to the debates surrounding refugees: homeland as a global crisis. And, as German, I think that you have to consider the term from the perspective of Nazism. If I did think homeland as something personal, it would be home in regard to persons or objects transporting identity or belonging.

LR: Which objects are these? Objects which you’ve had for long time, or could they also be new?

SM: New ones as well. For example, a lotion with a certain scent. Putting lotion on the body is one of the few situations in which you touch yourself everywhere. This could be a moment of feeling at home.

LR: Would you like to live in one of your installations?

SM: I imagine that someday I will have a big house in which all my sculptures stand. My big grape sculpture, for instance, belongs to my bedroom. I have a very strong connection to my works, just because I work so intensely and long on them. They become a part of myself. On the other hand, I feel very uncomfortable in extravagant houses. I like to be comfortable. My sculptures emulate the world, but they also have unfathomable or whimsical moments, sometimes something ironic. It wouldn’t be good for the soul to live among them permanently.

LR: And what about sleeping over in your installations? Recently, when Stefan and I locked the room after our opening at fructa, we found it strange to leave our works alone. And we asked ourselves: what do they do at night? Do they communicate with each other? Regarding my zettelkasten sculpture, the weight actually dented the lid over the period of the exhibition causing the tower of boxes to be lopsided.

SM: During my residency at the Künstlerhaus Lauenburg, I spent a lot of time in the rooms when the exhibition was closed. At night, I often sneaked around to feel the works and, thereby, myself. And yes—this secret idea that things live has accompanied me for a long time; this idea that objects interact with each other when you aren’t looking. Or just like that, only we don’t notice. It’s funny because I have two very different worldviews: Option 1 would be the parallel universe. Everything that can happen actually happens. And you only experience what you’ve decided. When I get home safely after a drive, I often think: I could’ve had an accident. And probably it did happen, somewhere in a parallel universe. That’d be like Schrödinger’s cat. The world only happens when you observe it. And the alternative concept, option 2, would be: the world really happens when you are not looking. A hidden world that belongs to things, ghosts and the most different networks hidden from us. That’s probably my main question: which version is the correct one!

LR: Oh, you’re really asking that yourself? I was really joking when asked what the sculptures do with each other at night…

SM: I am, I’ve been asking this myself since my childhood! As a child, I made bets with myself. If you can hop on the small stone ten times without falling, your mum will come home alive. Morbid!

LR: I did this as well. I was never right.

SM: I believe it worked for me. Well—good question! This would be this idea again: I can influence the world.

LR: Yes, the illusion of control! I’ve read somewhere that pushing the bottom doesn’t have an effect on the traffic light circuit.

SM: Hm. Or the person who built the traffic light circuit believes that it doesn’t have an effect, but the traffic light reacts to the touch of the hand—if you grasp the traffic light as a living being. That would be another option!

LR: This leads me to my next question. In your works, there are often moments in which opposing areas merge. “Känguru” is a blanket with sleeves and a belt bag; in the video “Carmen,” the body of a woman expands into her car. Here, categories of human and thing overlap. And I think that the indiscernibility repeats itself on a formal level. I could call your sculptural works neither “figurative” nor “abstract”… but rather in-between. What is tempting for you about the figure of crossing over?

SM: I have to consider this briefly. I would say that these are actually philosophical and theoretical considerations that I wish to become true or in which I see a potential: post-human dystopias or utopias in which human beings can develop into hybrid forms.

LR: In your video “Carmen,” it’s the other way around. In this case, a car develops into a human being…

SM: It is a very common notion that humans become cyborgs through technical applications. I think, this is a bit one-sided! For me, this is too much about enhancing performance. The technically expanded human can think like a computer or run like a jaguar. The thought that the car becomes a human is rather about the car being sensitive, vulnerable and empathetic. If you regard anything as animated, a transformation has to take place in both directions. That’d be much more logical! Who knows how the perspective of objects functions? Maybe a car that is not being driven is being bullied by the other cars? Maybe the driver is a status symbol for the car? Maybe the cars wish for a rowdy as driver who is speeding—or rather a retiree?

LR: I’ve asked myself: which role does the “as if” play in your work?

SM: My sculptures are objects emulating the real world, they scantly withdraw themselves from any function. That’s why I very much like to combine ready-mades with my own materials. Thereby, I defamiliarize a common object. The materials I use for my sculptures, moreover, is supposed to be a comment on the topic. For example, if I consider the front garden, the material in itself has to convey a form of handyman-ship. It has to crumble like a badly built wall or tiles that you laid yourself. That’s why I often use materials from the DIY store. On first glance, they seem to be shiny or like a design; on second glance, the illusion crumbles. The material is like a study of a specific milieu.

LR: Similarly, places that are neither “private” nor “public” play a role in several works, for example the front garden or the gym… I think that the studio is such a place. On the one hand, here, something intimate and worth protecting takes place. After all, only at the end, works are supposed to be looked at by outsiders. For a studio visit and for Instagram, the process is supposed to look as good as the finished works…

SM: Exactly! For me, the bathroom is also an example of a place in-between. Physically you’re alone there, but mentally it is shaped by the beauty images from commercials. In an intimate moment like showering, the promise from a shower gel’s commercial intrudes. Happy shower with hemp-poppy, love-yourself-beauty-bath. And, automatically, you think: Ok, this is my wellness moment that I have to enjoy. What has to do with this and what also interests me is the tension between representation and individuality. Out of all things, you show your individuality through objects that everybody uses to show you are individual. And you even try to personalize a functional environment like a car, and you buy these fur covers for the steering wheel or attach something to the rear-view mirror.

LR: Oh really? Do they still have that?

SM: I see something like this in every second car, but that is my well-trained eye. I don’t use something like this at all… Actually, that’s what I find problematic about my works because it could imply that I’m making fun of that, that I sneer at the smugness of people. Rather, I find this very poetic.

LR: Yes, even if you don’t use them, these things have something to do with you, your origin, your life. In your videos, for example, you appear yourself. To what extend are the women in your video works connected to you?

SM: I do consider them possibilities of myself, yes. In this case, it’s also about what you could be. I can imagine having become this woman desiring grapes in another universe—just like in my video about object philia. So I see that such potentials are in me, but they have never broken out in my current life. Also, in the past, I wanted to become an actor.

LR: Really? Me too! Did you audition?

SM: No. In school I acted a lot, and everybody said to me that I would become a successful actor. Somehow, there wasn’t any other option than to become an actor. It annoyed me that everybody pretended to know what my future would look like. And, of course, I was afraid to fail at the auditions. When I presented my portfolio at the academy of arts, I didn’t have that pressure at all. After all, I hadn’t really concerned myself with art. Now, I’m glad that I don’t have to play these preconceived roles. I find it much more exciting to create the characters myself.

LR: For me, your videos are “warmer” and “noisier” than your sculptures or drawings. Maybe even extremer or more utopian.

SM: For me, these temperatures also exist in my works. I need both. The sculptures whose coldness lets you slip off and the warm videos which are more approachable, and which are maybe sometimes encroaching, disgusting or erotic. The characters in my video works are always an exaggeration: neurotic, fetishizing, compulsive—but brave enough that they shape their lives after their own ideas, and they fight society. The character in my latest film is a prepper who becomes a postapocalyptic videogame-utopia-fighter in a break-free moment.

LR: How do you decide what will be a sculpture, a drawing, a video?

SM: Mostly, I work on one topic about one or two years. The medium is a consequence of the theme, however, most of the time, everything emerges at the same time. My current complex of works which is about a need for safety extends to all three areas. We’ve already talked about the video. The sculptures often develop out of the materials I see in my environment—also here in Gröbenzell, in this case. Fences, hedges, security cameras, alarm systems. For example, for me, it’s about material questions. Do I take the same or exactly the opposite material? In what size? How do I defamiliarize them, how can they become alive?

LR: What about your drawings?

SM: For me, they are a bit outside of all of this. Although I try to professionalize the area. Recently, I’ve begun to take drawing lessons.

LR: Would you like to tell me about that?

SM: Gladly! I take aquarelle lessons with the artist Berthold Reiß who has also written a text for the chapter “kitchen”. I want to learn from him to paint a homogenous plane that doesn’t show the brush strokes. In my drawings, organic figures with objects from the material world hover in an airless room. It’s also about dismantling hierarchies… and it’s also bit fairy tale-like.

LR: Hm, fairy tale-like? I find your drawings rather cool.

SM: That’s right, it doesn’t concern the aesthetic. The fairy tale part is rather the story that I develop in my head. Maybe my works should look a bit more fairy tale-like in the future!

LR: Which feeling helps you to work best? At what time of the day? In what atmosphere?

SM: Definitely in the afternoon until the evening. In the morning, I’m often still occupied with my dreams from the night. That’s why I need activities in the mornings to distract me and that don’t lead back to me, like answering e-mails or writing applications. Currently, my studio is in my home. Initially, I went directly to my studio-room after waking up, only in my panties, and instinctively got out the saw. Then I stepped barefooted into a sharp nail, and everything went wrong—eventually I cut the cloth, drilled a hole in the wrong place and I thought to myself: that was really predictable. Now I try to avoid such situations. What feeling helps me work best? Often, I can transform bad moods—then I’m very restless, my heart beats fast, I feel chaotic and erratic—into good moods by working. This gives a healing aspect to artistic working. That’s why I would even say: the best mood is a bad one because then it’s gone!

LR: What is your foundational impulse to work artistically and to do it again and again? I believe I keep starting over with works and a topic to find out what I think and why.

SM: That’s beautiful. I believe it’s the same for me. Only by talking, I find out what I think. And for artistic work, it’s the same. Partially, I somehow also work autobiographically: then, my works are actually a kind of processing of bad feelings or, that’s what I referred to in the beginning, of this feeling to be normal. Prior to the academy of arts, I was a hippie girl with dreads who constantly roamed the woods and thought that anything mainstream is super stupid. Only by making art, I consciously experienced why this feeling to fight the normal is so strong for me and to what extend I would like to live in a more utopian and freer way. Sometimes I think if I should die tomorrow—I would have already left something. It wouldn’t interest anybody but my family and friends, yet, nevertheless, I find this idea soothing. You would have to consider what kind of stuff that is. Even now this gives me some kind of a fulfillment of meaning. Do you feel the same?

LR: I can’t really imagine the world without me! For me, my works and exhibitions are a kind of mnemonic. I’m pretty forgetful but the works show me what has been established throughout the years.

SM: It’s the same for me. The works and exhibitions are so interwoven with life—you still know exactly how you felt when you did this or that exhibition, if you were having a crisis, what people came to the opening and such things… It’s like a diary. Art gives me a better access to my own life.