Julia Lohmann | icon 053 | November 2007

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Justin Mcguirk

If Lohmann were an artist, critics and theorists would be piling up readings of her work, probing for fetishism and ritual, mining a visceral conceptualism. But she’s not, so really it all comes down to two simple questions. How much do you know about what you’re sitting on? And how much do you want to know?

In a shipping container stacked on top of another shipping container, next to some scrapped cars at the back of a garage in Elephant and Castle, south London, is Lohmann’s workshop. You reach it by climbing a ladder. There’s a desk, a couple of dusty chairs, tubs of industrial soap piled like ingots and the fibreglass cast of the inside of a calf.

The cast was used to make a stool called The Lasting Void for Galerie Kreo in Paris. From some angles it is an abstract black blob, from others the rib cage is clearly visible. When he saw it in the September issue of icon, the Italian designer and theorist Alessandro Mendini wrote an open letter (which you can read on page 39) calling the piece “an extremely sad moment in the history of objects”. He thought it was negative, unpleasant, sadistic, cynical and pointless, and he wasn’t happy about the “cruel” manner in which it was published either.

“I thought it was fantastic that somebody felt so strongly about it,” says Lohmann, delighted to be the subject of high-powered criticism. But she is also stunned by some of the accusations. “I am completely in love with animals,” she says defensively. “Every holiday I befriend the street dogs and stray cats.”

The calf that gave its shape to The Lasting Void died of natural causes, and was awaiting the incinerator. Lohmann and her husband Gero, a fellow designer who sometimes works with her on projects, removed its innards and poured plaster into the cavity. The resulting object has a gloomy metaphorical power, but it is also a highly literal translation of a space, as faithful as one of Rachel Whiteread’s casts of bookshelves or a terraced house. Lohmann describes it as “a memento mori”. It’s not supposed to remind us of the animal’s life but of its death, and in particular of
the various processes that go unmentioned between an animal’s slaughter and the point when it has become, say, a sofa. Lohmann’s work confronts us with our ability to shut out the simple facts about where so many of the objects in our lives come from and how they are made.

Mendini pities the animal, but he also appears to pity the user having to confront death in an everyday object. It seems that he would prefer to elide the subject. Interestingly, he doesn’t credit Lohmann with having a moral message. He doesn’t suggest that this might be the introduction of realism to design, or that it might be a heartfelt warning to other designers. He doesn’t appear to spot what a sterner critic might so easily have criticised, which is that the object is, in fact, deeply sentimental.

“Normally designing goes back as far as the material, the finished leather, and then starts from that point,” says the German-born Lohmann as a Tube train trundles past a few metres away. “But I just walked further upstream, back to the animal.” She has made lights out of sheeps’ stomachs and leather benches shaped into prone cows. “I think a lot of it is my own investigation of how it can be that an animal becomes a product and gets accepted, and how, really, somewhere on the way, something gets lost of the animal,” she continues. “There is a point after the death of the animal which I don’t think is documented or talked about very much. Somewhere between this being a dead animal and this is my steak, which I am going to eat tonight, something gets lost. Some emotional attachment maybe.”

At what point does an animal cease to be seen as an animal, I ask. “The head,” Lohmann shoots back. “The head is important.”

Given the sculptural physicality of her work, you wouldn’t know that Lohmann started out as a graphic designer. She left her hometown of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony in 1998 to study communication design at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design (where she met Gero – also, bizarrely, from Hildesheim). It was in her final project that she introduced animals to her process – this time live ones. She and Gero dropped maggots into pools of ink on paper and watched trails emerge as they crawled away. Later, they took over a corner of Tate Modern for a guerrilla show and performance piece in which the maggots appeared to answer simple questionnaires. In a hint of works to come, Lohmann made passing art lovers engage with larvae as though they had personalities.

Although she was offered a job at legendary graphic design agency Pentagram, Lohmann ended up going to the Royal College of Art to study product design. At Surrey she had won a D&AD award for a kitchen bin she designed, so the aptitude was clearly there. But the animal theme persisted. For her graduation project in 2004, she hung 50 preserved sheep stomachs from the ceiling, creating an organic chandelier called Flock. “I went to the butcher and saw the stomachs laying there,” says Lohmann. “I saw these textures and thought, wow, that’s beautiful, and so I took them home and started experimenting with them.” The preserved parchments have a floral intricacy of the kind designers normally resort to computers and rapid-prototyping to produce. “In the beginning a lot of people came and said, wow, what’s that? And then they read the label and said eeuuugh!”

Lohmann likes to subvert expectations. It’s almost as if she wants to seduce and then betray the viewer; attraction to the object gives way to repulsion or morbid fascination. “When you find out what it is, you have to reconsider whether you still like it,” she says of Flock. “And I think you should, because there is no reason to eat the muscle of an animal and wear the skin of an animal and then to discard the stomach and say it’s disgusting.” Works such as Flock and The Lasting Void are uncomfortable because they maintain a link to the animal that makes us feel complicit in its death. We have become a squeamish species that prefers to live in denial about where our sanitised materials and neatly packaged foodstuffs come from.

“I still remember the moment when I realised that meat is made by killing animals,” says Lohmann. “A lot of children are really horrified by that. The moment of perception where you are made to like something when you don’t know the full story behind it – it happens the whole time in our world. If you knew the full story of every object you would like different things.”

Lohmann’s best-known pieces to date are her Cow Benches. Each one unique and given a name – Juergen, Belinda, etc – they are made from entire cowhides that are brought sculpturally back to life. Each part of the hide hangs where it ought to, but there is enough abstraction to avoid it being taxidermy, and, critically, there are no heads. The pieces are almost kitsch, yet this is the kind of furniture that could disarm you. People seem to feel the need to make friends with it before using it. “The first thing most people do is they pat it on the neck, they stroke it and then they can slowly sit down,” says Gero, who has been by Julia’s side throughout the conversation. “People from four or five continents have sat on them and the reaction is always the same. It transcends the normal cultural boundaries we impose on ourselves. For me, that’s function on an emotional level rather than ergonomic.”

Function is a point worth addressing briefly. The Lasting Void is only a stool because it was made to be a stool and is the right height to be one. Similarly, the Cow Benches cannot be used as sofas, but they have the bulk and enough give to lean against, and other qualities besides. “The first time I sat on it I felt really protected somehow, really safe, because I grew up with horses,” says Lohmann, “and if a horse lays down next to you it’s the most trusting thing it can do.”

More interesting than the functionality of Lohmann’s work are the parallels with art. Her Flock and Ruminant Bloom lights recall the fleshy sculptures of Eva Hesse, revelling in ambiguity, except that they don’t just evoke body parts. Unlike the late German-American artist, Lohmann works in a country with an institutionalised sentimentality towards animals, but also one in which artists since the Nineties have gone out of their way to shock. Without Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided (a bisected cow and calf in formaldehyde that Lohmann vividly remembers seeing as a teenager), it’s unlikely there would have been The Lasting Void. However, in using a calf as a mould, Lohmann wasn’t just trying to offend middle-class values. She at least has a message, which is that designers make an impact, and have a responsibility to use materials responsibly, and not just those from animals. “I think there should be a second value, not just the monetary value but the ethical value of the material, for example, plastic. It really makes me cringe if I see these cheap Chinese plastic Christmas toys that break after two days and you know that it took thousands of years for the material to be made and will take thousands of years to decompose. It really, really bugs me.”

Lohmann’s shipping container is only a temporary workshop. She is heading to Japan for three months to work with fish in response to the over-fishing of the oceans. Before parting company I ask Lohmann if she has any good ideas for a photo shoot. She suggests that she could be boiling soap, as the stacked tubs in the corner are about to be cast into an armchair for Gallery Libby Sellers in London. But it doesn’t sound very photogenic. I try something more interesting.

“Can we wrap you in sheep stomachs?”


Too gory. Still, she’s game, so the three of us clamber down the ladder and head to the local butcher’s for inspiration.

portraits Steve Double

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