Under the gun

Controversial artist Natascha Stellmach live tattoos your greatest fears in a Berlin gallery

Natascha Stellmach, 2013, I have a ghettoblaster &

Born in Melbourne to German parents, Natascha Stellmach is as comfortable on the scorching beaches of South Australia as she is amid the monoliths of Berlin’s former East, where we now sit, before the vernissage of her latest show. Welcoming and calm despite the imminent grand opening, the artist’s antipodean warmth belies little of the darkness of her work. Entitled I Don't Have A Gun, the exhibition follows on from her controversial 2008 show Set me free: Who will smoke the ashes of Kurt Cobain?, during which the she claimed to have acquired the late Nirvana frontman’s ashes and planned to smoke them in a joint. 

Appropriately, Stellmach’s new show is focused around the psychological condition of burnout, and features three separate but interrelated sections. The first room is a collection of five collages depicting stills from a Super 8 film, excerpts from a rambling diary, and sketches of women drawn in pink and brandishing everyday objects. Next door, these pink ladies adorn the walls directly, enlarged and towering up to the high ceilings, bearing down on a wall covered in messy, hand scrawled text.The female figures stand guarding yet another area, separated by a white curtain bearing a single red insignia: “let me get under your skin”. It’s here, in this small bright room, that Stellmach performs live tattoos. 

Dazed Digital: How does the live tattooing work? How do you decide what to tattoo on people?
Natascha Stellmach: Essentially I’m using a tattoo machine, it’s just that I’m not using ink; I’m using the skin, the blood and the person to form those lines. I write words with the tattoo gun - either a single word or a phrase - and it’s a very simple but very powerful process. The potential tattooee and I sit and talk, and I ask them a single question: ‘What would you like to let go of?’ We all have something we’d like to let go of, whether it’s very superficial and banal, like a habit or a fear or an object or an ex-lover or a desire; or something much deeper. During the session, we figure out what it is that the person wants to let go of, and I tattoo that word onto their body. Through the process of healing it fades and disappears. The idea is that at the same time, your relationship to that concept shifts, and its intensity and your attachment to it diminishes too. It’s about bringing deep things out to the surface. 

DD: Body and mind are mysteriously but undeniably linked; I can imagine the process is quite cathartic.
Natascha Stellmach: This whole show is about courage. The tattoo is not permanent, but depending on the individual and where it is on the body, it will take between one and 12 weeks to disappear. I always joke that it also depends on what it is that you’re letting go of. I love the process and treat it with a lot of reverence - this potential to inflict pain or injury (even though the needle only goes in 1.5 mm and of course it’s all sterile). What I love about it is that it’s not something that you get to keep. Really, it’s all about what this life is about, which is transience.

DD: Did you learn to tattoo as this idea developed, or did you already know how?
Natascha Stellmach: I have learnt it in the last year or so. The idea developed from responses I had to the show I did about Kurt Cobain’s ashes. One of the ways of working with those responses was to work with people and bring their words closer to their skin. Throughout that process I realised that I’d created a kind of confessional. In busy places like art shows and Documenta, I found myself having these really intimate experiences with strangers. I decided to make it more personal and more relevant -- a bit more scary, but also more effective at revealing people’s vulnerability and helping them to accept it. 

DD: What’s the significance of the title, I Don't Have A Gun?
Natascha Stellmach: It has quite a few layers actually. All of the everyday objects depicted in the show are tools of creativity -- the tattoo gun, a ghetto blaster, an air guitar, a camera... a blender -- and the women holding them are fetishising them like guns. One of the things that helped me come out of a period of extreme burnout and exhaustion was to pour it back into my art, and all of these tools you see are objects or symbols that I’ve used in the healing process. 

It’s also an homage, to those in the know, to Kurt Cobain; a line from Nirvana’s stunning track Come As You Are. A lot has been written about him killing himself, but I want to show that it’s possible to emerge non-violently out of an intensely difficult period.

DD: The show is based around this burnout you experienced. What was that like and how did it manifest itself?
Natascha Stellmach: It was a build-up of having too intense a relationship to my work: working too much and too long. A mixture of horrendous perfectionism with workaholic tendencies. Burnout as a condition is still not something that’s seriously addressed. We all know that people in the helping professions have a tendency to experience long-term exhaustion -- from policemen to paramedics to hospital workers: they’re always giving, or having to make stressful decisions. I think for us creatives, constantly having to dredge new material, those demands are in some ways very similar. And you don’t know it’s happening. It’s something that creeps up and enters every sphere: the physical, mental and emotional. For the first few months, everything was very difficult, and I toyed with notions of early onset dementia and even schizophrenia. I was in denial for a long time. Society moulds us in that way -- to be strong, not show weakness or ask for help. We’re still very afraid of mental health issues. 

DD: The text you have written across the main wall, to me is evocative of a tropical, colonial situation. Is it fictional or based on experience? 
Natascha Stellmach: It’s interesting you say that. It’s a story that shows the beginnings of something insidious happening. Fire that’s creeping up on a place, but we don’t know where it’s coming from. For me that’s a metaphor for what burnout felt like. The whole thing started while I was in this idyllic place in Australia. I find it beautifully ironic that one can fall into a state of hopelessness in such a breathtaking place; it’s a great paradox of life. 

Stellmach will be at Galerie Wagner in Berlin every Friday between 1pm and 6pm doing tattooing sessions. Make an appointment in advance via the gallery.

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