Hay Fever

In this series, frieze d/e asks artists to discuss the technical and logistical background to their works

When you walk into my studio, it smells like a barn. That’s because of the hay canvases I’ve been making for the past three years. I weave them out of hay ropes made for me in a village on the border between Lower Silesia and Greater Poland. These ropes are not originally a Polish material, at least not according to the villagers, who think the tradition probably comes from Germany, or from the Sorbian people who live in the German-Polish border region.It’s not entirely clear. But in Poland, too, such hay ropes were formerly used, for example, to make beehives and as insulation in houses. Today, they are only needed in the village in spring, when people wear themas costumes. These are then the hay men or ‘hay bears’, the spirits of spring. Their arrival, in a carnival-like procession, signals the end of winter.

The hay ropes are between seven and eight metres long and consist of dried grasses, herbs and flowers. The more diverse the meadow, and the taller the grasses, the better.No binding agents are used, since the ropes are held together solely by the friction between the twisted stems and a continuous hemp thread. So you take a bunch of dried hay,and then you start to twist it. The process takes seven people, with one person needed per metre to maintain the tension. The young men who perform this task for me don’t do it for a living. They meet up in the barn after work and treat the occasion like a party. They listen to music, drink beer – and make the hay ropes.

Today, techniques like this, featuring a very specific link between the countryside, material and mythology, are in danger of being forgotten. In the modern age, we tend to focus exclusively on the main centres: on Berlin, Paris or Munich. That’s where things begin; culture is in the city. Many people don’t expect there to be anything important in the countryside; they think it’s where farmers live, people who got left behind and neo-Nazis. That’s an ignorant view. Unfortunately, I don’t speak any Polish myself, I have someone who selects the right hay with the men beforehand. It has to be the right colour, the right age and properly dried. When the ropes are finished, I drive to the village, and we all look over them together. Later, when I weave them into a picture, I need one or two helpers as the ropes must also be kept taut while being woven onto the frame of ash wood. One person does the weaving (plain, twill or satin weave) while the others feed the rope and keep twisting it. Otherwise it gets too loose. You have to weave really tightly, which means serious physical exertion.

In the process of weaving, space is constantly being twisted. This is a basic theme in my work, including my folded acrylic glass pieces. You can look at a folded acrylic glass work – or a hay canvas – as a flat plane, but it’s always also three-dimensional. In the hay works, the individual ropes with their wound stems are already a twisted space. During the weaving, this space is twisted again. Finally, then, one is looking at a doubly-twisted space. If you choose to perceive it as a flat surface, that’s a decision you make. Even a normal unprimed canvas is never just a surface, but always also a twisted space. If you go right up close to a canvas, it basically looks just like one of my hay works.

I call these works ‘light pictures’. During my research, I noticed that hay symbolizes the same thing across all cultures, even in Japan: light and sun. Presumably due to its specific colour and shine. It seems people all over the world have this same association when they see hay: that it comes from light and grows towards light.

A finished work is made up of around 100 metres of rope, roughly fifteen individual lengths. Each piece weighs around 80 kilos. They are fragile, certainly, but transporting them isn’t especially complicated. The only important thing is to drill holes in the crates for ventilation. It would be bad for the hay to start sweating in the crate. People often ask me if beetles ever get into the hay. It hasn’t happened so far. The hay is disinfected by having been lain in the sun to dry. Ultraviolet light kills insects. Even if a beetle did get into one of the works, it wouldn’t eat the hay. Beetles don’t eat cellulose. And as for the smell, it’s unmistakeable and initially quite strong. It fades with time – the same as with tea. And the nice thing is that it always changes slightly with the weather, depending on humidity levels. If an unprimed canvas gets wet, it also smells slightly close up. Both are natural materials.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Olaf Holzapfel is an artist who lives in Berlin. He has recently published Region – die Technik des Landes (Region – The Techniques of the Countryside) with Distanz Verlag. His next solo exhibition runs from 14 February – 3 March, 2013 at Albert Baronian Gallery, Brussels.

Issue 8

First published in Issue 8

Feb - Mar 2013

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018