One could be deceived by the formal minimalism of Alicja Kwade’s mixed-media works. She maneuvers natural and industrial materials into emblems of artistic industrialism that hint at the works of Donald Judd and Richard Serra. In Kwade’s hands, familiar materials, like plexiglass or copper, are diverted into playful sculptural pieces that upend common expectations of form. She encourages formal observation in her work, and allows the viewer to discover new perspectives through their own visual exploration.
But to end your observation at the glossy surface of these sculptures would be a disservice not only to the work, but to your own enlightenment as a viewer. These works are not solely for aesthetic engagement; rather, they operate as philosophical conversation points that address the eternal unanswerable questions of humankind.
Kwade’s works engage with the human urge to understand where we came from and why we exist; why we live in this moment and not another point in time; why space operates the way it does; why we cannot collapse these factors and mold them to our own likings. Throughout the biography of humankind, we have made so many technological advances, and yet there are certain riddles which we have never been able to resolve, no matter how far science and technology have progressed.
“I am very interested in the relationship between matter and time, how things, and also humans, are made and destroyed and changed and developed by different conditions of matter in time."
— ALICJA KWADE
In Kwade’s microcosm of our world, however, time and space can indeed be collapsed and edited, and perceptual shifts are abundant—that is, if you are willing to spend the time observing the environment from a different perspective. Things are not always what they seem here, and this is precisely Kwade’s attraction to the process of making art. She labors like a foreign detective, as if everything she encounters is both new and mysterious, and ripe with possible insight. Materials as seemingly simple as a slab of steel are keen starting points for the artist’s abstract meditations on objects, matter, and our understanding of them.
“Right now, I am very much interested in the object as information about something, like when a physical thing is beginning and where it disappears, and if we can know everything about an object, how much of a description is possible, and what makes the difference between nothing and the object,” Kwade muses. “When you imagine that you know the exact position of each atom of something in a reference system, and all the connections and reactions of them, is this then the object or is that the knowledge about the thing? I try to apply this on myself also, taking apart my DNA … to see how exactly and if at all, it can describe what I am.”
Born in Poland in 1979, the artist received a degree in sculpture from the Universität der Künste in Berlin, where she lives and works to this day. Throughout her career, Kwade has questioned the natural state of everyday materials and has pursued methods of altering their normative functions to create peculiar opportunities for cognitive and perceptual shifts. In works like her 2009 sculpture, Other Condition (Physical State 6), for instance, a row of variously sized cuts of copper, brass, steel, wood, and mirrored glass lean against a wall, with the bottom portions curving and slumping onto the floor below. She often uses this technique to create surprising forms for common materials, from shipping pallets to door frames and steel fences. By imbuing these everyday objects with unexpected forms and installations, Kwade creates a space for her viewers to reconsider their routine assumptions and expectations of being in the world.
“I am very interested in the relationship between matter and time, how things, and also humans, are made and destroyed and changed and developed by different conditions of matter in time,” she says. “I am also very much interested in the idea of different dimensions which are very real for me—I try to imagine the step after the third dimension.”
Like an alchemist, Kwade transforms ordinary and overlooked objects into touchpoints of philosophical discourse, transposing the everyday into an opportunity to explore the perceptual atmosphere just outside of our accepted understanding. In bending these objects, she encourages bending the mind to see beyond our assumptive realities.
Kwade spends long hours in the studio every day, where she oversees the progress of her work, as well as a team of assistants. While some materials are produced by technicians outside of her studio, Kwade pays immaculate attention to the ongoing and detailed process of creating a body of work that speaks to her artistic curiosities and queries. Her favorite part of the day is after her assistants have departed and she is left alone in her studio, free to research, read, and sketch ideas for works. Her latest influences—which are by no means aligned with her personal positions—include writings by Lisa Randall, Elena Esposito, Markus Gabriel, and Graham Harman, as well as the book "Flatland" by Edwin Abbott Abbott.
As an artist interested in philosophy, she is very much engaged in the cognitive preparation that leads to the physical making of a piece. Kwade says that she allows herself to be inebriated with ideas and processes, and then makes decisions and carries out her vision based on these preparations. The results often take a sculptural form, but she has also made films and photographs that intertwine her curiosities about space and time.
Lately, she has been focused on creating entire spaces out of individual works, uniting them in an atmospheric playground for cognitive exploration. Her recent 2016 solo exhibition at 303 Gallery, in New York, was more of a unified and explorative installation, rather than an exhibition of different pieces. In creating a whole space, or as she says, “trying to dissolve the surrounding space itself, and create an uncertainty for the viewer concerning his position in space,” she unfolded a previously undetectable dimension for her audiences to mine.
Despite her interest in the ephemerality of life, being, and knowing, Kwade is also quite grounded in the economical and political forces that govern our day-to-day lives. Her use of such materials as copper and gold are a nod to the value systems that have ruled for centuries, and which have gained an almost unquantifiable power in the daily lives of humans on earth. Through these works, she prods us to question what the inherent values of these objects are, and if a piece of gold could still carry its weight in economical meaning if it were of a different chemical nature. Kwade encourages us to question our acceptance of incorporated value systems, and yet again invites us to step outside of our inherent understandings about materials. It’s precisely through this ongoing practice of philosophical consideration, artistic exploration, and deliberate public engagement that Kwade has proven to be a provocative young artist, shifting the very course of art-making in our modern age.