Günther Uecker

Günther Uecker

Poetry Made with a Hammer

“We need images to cross the boundary of the unutterable.” The moving story of Günther Uecker – a legendary German artist, who expresses his artistic belief by means of a hammer and nails, thus reflecting his dark experiences from World War II.

“The graves were shallow, but it was hard work, and we vomited a lot.” In his early teens, during World War II, Uecker – who lived on an island in the Baltic Sea – was given the grueling task of burying bodies that had washed up on the beach following a bombardment by the British, a traumatic experience that never left him and came to influence him as an artist. It was also during the war that Uecker had his first encounter with hammering nails, having to nail shut the door and the window shutters of his house in order to protect his mother and two sisters against Russian soldiers. Later, when beginning his “intrusive” practice of adding nails to paintings, Uecker feels that this was a response to the war, as well as a desire to re-establish a closeness to people: “… we, as children of these events, so to speak, as inheritors of the guilt, who knew what had happened then… tried to find reasons, a new reason for living.”

As a young artist, Uecker realized that all kinds of materials were suitable for making a work of art: “It’s about taking the reality of everyday encounters with material that’s lying on the street and creating an expression of life, a cipher, a symbol, an instrument, not a sculpture but an instrument like a knife and fork with which we can eat art.” Because the source of art was rooted in raw, unadorned everyday life, it was also a way of embedding it in the present, while simultaneously confronting “the lies” of the illusions in past paintings: “To create these works using such means was a testament to our claim on life…”

“Boundaries are fictional, and when I reach them I jump over… But when you keep doing that in a visual mania it carries on into infinity.” Uecker believes that if one “works unconsciously” and repeatedly, something distinctive will eventually emerge through exhaustion, much like in fieldwork, which Uecker – who has a farming background – is greatly inspired by. His work is driven by a continuous search for something unidentified that he knows is there. In continuation of this, he never looks at a work or makes any corrections: “… it’s never seen and merely felt. And then it stands there as a testimony to my existence in that moment.”

Günther Uecker (b. 1930) is a German sculptor, painter, and installation artist. Uecker was a prominent member of the group ZERO – a movement, forged in the late 1950s that fostered artistic discovery by promoting a new environment unconstrained by past artistic traditions. Since 1956, Uecker increasingly used nails in his artistic practice, hammering nails into pieces of furniture, musical instruments and household objects, and later combining nails with light and creating his series of light nails and kinetic nails. His nail-relief works exceed the limits of the two-dimensional plane and create a new realm for the vision to explore the calculated patterns of light and shadow. Uecker’s work can be found in the collections of major institutions worldwide, among them the ZERO Foundation and Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Walker Art Center in Minnesota.

Günther Uecker was interviewed by Christian Lund at Edition Copenhagen in December 2014.

The title of this video is taken from the quote “Poetry is made with a hammer” by Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whom Uecker has been strongly influenced by.

Camera: Klaus Elmer
Edited by: Kasper Bech Dyg
Produced by: Christian Lund
Cover photo: ‘Self-Portrait’ (1963) by Günther Uecker
Copyright: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2017

Supported by Nordea-fonden

  • Marina Abramović & Ulay

    A Living Door of the Museum

    Standing naked in the main entrance of a museum, facing each other while the audience passes sideways through the small space. Legendary performance artists Marina Abramović and Ulay share the story behind their poetic work ‘Imponderabilia’.

  • Julie Nord

    The Power of Drawing

    “It’s the closest you get to silence – or skin. There’s so little between me as an artist and my material.” Artist Julie Nord here shares her attraction to the "no bullshit" of drawing. Visit her studio and take a peek at how she makes her surreal, fairy tale-like drawings.

  • Nina Saunders

    A Cultural Warrior

    Meet artist Nina Saunders who plays with the familiar by twisting it in surprising ways. She here discusses her humorous yet disturbing work – made from discarded upholstered furniture and stuffed animals – which comments on our world.

  • Erica Jong

    Sexuality and Creativity

    “The urge to create and the urge to copulate are very close.” Watch the iconic feminist writer Erica Jong speak candidly of being fuelled creatively by desire, her experiences as a female writer and what she has come to realize about men.

  • Karl Ove Knausgård

    On 'Madame Bovary'

    “This controlled perfection, that I usually don’t like, elevates it.” Karl Ove Knausgård – author of ‘My Struggle’ – here shares his love of the classic novel ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert, which he has read three times at different stages of his life.

  • Günther Uecker

    Advice to the Young

    German artist Günther Uecker (b. 1930) – one of the most prominent members of the ZERO Group – here stresses the importance of not adhering to the conventions of society, but to follow one’s own voice: “Don’t rush to the guillotine, assert yourself first.”

  • Günther Uecker

    Poetry Made with a Hammer

    “We need images to cross the boundary of the unutterable.” The moving story of Günther Uecker – a legendary German artist, who expresses his artistic belief by means of a hammer and nails, thus reflecting his dark experiences from World War II.

  • Sambuichi

    Sun, Water and Air

    Travel through an enchanting sea of light and darkness orchestrated by the praised Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. He here shares his thoughts behind the wondrous water and light installation set in an old underground water reservoir.

  • Orhan Pamuk

    Do Not Hope for Continuity

    “I ran away, but I returned, and I will continue to tell its story. It’s natural that I write about it because this is the best place I know.” Watch Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk in this interview about his relationship with Istanbul – now and then.

  • Thomas Hirschhorn

    Show Me Your Phone

    “They’re the last people who fight for the public space.” Artist Thomas Hirschhorn pulls out a photo from the treasury of his phone and reveals how sharing a public area with a group of alcoholics inadvertently changed one of his projects.

  • TAL R :

    Shortly before he turned fifty, we had the unique pleasure of spending six months with Danish artist Tal R, while he was in the process of making his grand series of nine enormous railcar-paintings, ‘Habakuk’. Watch the intimate and biographical film.

  • Leonardo Padura

    Literature, Cinema and Baseball

    In-depth biographic interview with Leonardo Padura on how baseball was his first true love – and why he doesn’t want to be too local in his writing: “I am a Cuban writer who writes about Cuba, and I try to have a universal perspective on events.”