James: Dr Schroeder, can you tell me something about your early memories of collecting objects?
Viktor: Please, call me Viktor. I was a sickly child, and it often interfered with my schooling. My father, who sold prosthetics, would sometimes take me on his work trips when I was off school. One time, we stopped in the village of Messel, and when he was working, I wandered around the village. I was bored, and took to throwing stones in the river. One of the rocks I picked up was shaped differently from the others, and I took it home with me. When I showed it to my father he told me it was an ammonite, and that it came from the age of dinosaurs. That I could hold in my hand a creature that existed millions of years ago seemed nothing short of miraculous. I began to accompany my father whenever I could, and he indulged my passion for collecting fossils.
Memento Mori with Bridal Headdress, 2014
Cast human skull, Victorian bridal headdress, 19th Century books, antique pocket watch, Victorian mourning brooch and Death's head hawkmoth.
J: Collectors often say that in collecting objects they are in fact collecting stories or indeed memories. The Harz region where you live is well known for its German Folk lore and the brothers Grimm were known to travel the region around Kessel collecting their stories. Was story telling a big part of your upbringing? And do you see collecting in the same way ?
V: This is an interesting question. My mother was a severe woman, loving in her own way, but not the kind to indulge her children with stories. Of course, the people in this region are proud of the Grimm connection, and it would be impossible to grow up here without being aware of those stories. For me however, the love of stories came from my father. He was as close as you can come to a liar, without being one. My mother hated his stories, and would leave the room when he began, whereas I found them magical. He could recite the most ordinary event and give it a near mythical status. I suppose, at heart, he was a salesman and like all great salesmen, he believed he was not selling products, but stories.
And of course stories are a part of my collection. Even extraordinary objects are just things. And I have no interest in things. I am interested in people - who they were, how they lived, who loved them, how they died. What did their lives mean? I suppose I am trying to understand the story of my own life. It has been in many ways a lonely one, and it is through the stories attached to the objects I collect, that I most easily feel a connection to other people. I am not, I admit, someone with whom people feel at ease.
Memento Mori with Bilder Bibel, 2013
Cast human skull, 19th century bible, Victorian syringe and pocket watch, taxidermy butterfly.
J: Is it ok for us to talk about Anja Roth ?
V: I'd rather not. The event has somewhat defined my life and I have no wish to discuss it publicly.
J: I completely understand. There must have been so many influential people in your life. RD Laing for instance. I understand that you spent some time under his care at Kingly Hall. Laing said that madness need to not be all about breakdown and that it may also be break through. Is that something that you can relate to from your time with him?
V: Laing was a pig headed man, convinced of his own genius. His ideas interested me for a time, they were revolutionary, in a time when a revolution in psychiatry was needed. But his limitations as a human being prevented him making the most of his theories. You have to understand he was something of a celebrity, courted by counter cultural figures. He lost interest in my case when I refused to take part in an orgiastic ritual with the poet Allen Ginsberg and a woman whose name I can no longer remember. Were he less flawed as man, his ideas would have become more accepted. If anything, my time at Kingsley Hall, caused me more harm than good. He wanted to use me as proof for his theories, and when I failed to recover, he could not mask his disappointment.
The idea of madness as break through rather than break down has some validity. It is unique to our culture that we pathologise those who hear voices. In other cultures so called psychotic states are seen as spiritual awakenings, where valuable things can be learnt. The people hearing voices are given special status, and supported by the communities in which they live. In the West we medicate our shamans.
Memento Mori with Der Forman Schatz, 2013
Cast human skull, 19th Century books, Victorian pocket watch, antique scalpel and taxidermy butterfly
J: So given that your experience with Laing was not as you had hoped it would be, you returned to Germany and you have admitted that you then obsessively indulged in collecting. Was this your own self prescribed form of therapy? And, what had changed about the way you collected?
V: I didn't set out to build such a big collection. I just began to study artworks relating to things I was preoccupied with, and then, when the opportunity allowed, I purchased them. People have called it an obsession, but that's not how it felt. I was just deeply engaged in thinking about whether or not life could have a meaning if one doesn't believe in God. Death distorts life, and it seems to me people don't confront it until the very end, I was interested in confronting it during my lifetime, as a way of deciding how best to live.
Over many years I ended up with a large collection. Because I collected these objects over many years, it wasn't until someone else came to my home, that I realised it had become an obsession.
J: I am assuming that you are referring to the time when you allowed Mike to visit your home. He has often told me of the time when you and he met by chance but I would love to hear your version of the event. Would you share it with me?
V: There was a beautifully carved and inscribed 17th Century human skull at a minor auction in Hamburg. I very much wanted to own the piece, and to research its history. On the day of the auction I was competing against an anxious looking young English man. He eventually outbid me. We got talking and shared much in common and connected in a way that I felt was worth pursuing further so I invited him to my home.
He looked at my collection, and my own creations for several hours, and we discussed life and death and meaning until the early hours. The next morning he tried to persuade me to show some of the things I'd made. I was reluctant because I did not intend them to be seen publicly, but rather saw them as the physical manifestation of an entirely private thought process. Eventually I agreed - he is a persuasive man.
The Anatomy Of Melancholy
Equiine Skeleton, reson, steel and Sapele wood
J: Evidently your collection mixes religious artefacts with natural history but also we see examples of science and technology amongst the things that you are collecting. You appear to collect much in the same way as the early renaissance collectors, the originators of the Wunderkammers or 'cabinets of curiosities' as they are more commonly known these days. When we view your 'memento mori' cabinets are we in fact looking at miniaturised Wunderkammers or is there an alternate interpretation to these assemblages of collected objects?
V: I am not so much influenced by the idea of the Wunderkammer, as Vanitas paintings and Memento Mori objects, which are close relatives. One way of viewing the objects I make are as 3 dimensional Vanitas paintings.
J: I see. Was it always your intention to create three dimensional vanitas?
V: It was never my conscious intention to create assemblages of objects. Laing encouraged me to paint at Kingsley Hall, and when I returned home I decided to paint my own Vanitas. For several years I painted and repainted the same scene, but was never satisfied. None of the paintings I made managed to recreate in me the feeling I got from looking at the objects. It was then I realised that the objects themselves were the true version of the creation, so I decided not to replicate them in painting, but to concentrate on the objects themselves.
J: You are well known for being something of a recluse and that you rarely leave the Harz region. I wonder what does it mean to you to be sharing your intimate world with the outside world?
V: To be frank, It doesn't really interest me. I like to make things. What others think of them is largely irrelevant to me. They were never intended for display.
Memento Mori with Heilige Schrift, 2013
Cast human skull, 19th Century Bible, Victorian syringe and pocket watch with taxidermy butterfly
J: Finally, what will you be making for the Wondrous Obsessions exhibition, and will you be coming to the opening.
V: I will not be making work specifically for the exhibition. That doesn’t interest me I’m afraid. I will be sending some existing assemblages. I will not be in attendance. The idea of a room full of strangers wanting to discuss my private work repulses me.
Thank you very much James and Dr Schoeder!
Wondrous Obsessions: The Art Of Collecting - Curated By The Connor Brothers
Private view Thurs 5th May 6-9pm
16 Mar 2023
3 Mar 2023
22 Feb 2023
22 Feb 2023
9 Feb 2023
4 Jan 2023
21 Nov 2022
10 Nov 2022
7 Nov 2022