Heavy metal thunders through the room. It roars and screeches—billowing, deafening, jarring—buttressed by a battering bass. The white prow of a speeding boat almost fills the screen, a blue sea and horizon stretching out behind. Whipping in the wind, brown tresses of hair draw shadows like thousands of skinny serpents or vines onto the white surface, creating a breakneck tangle of drawings. The sides of the image are mirror images, pulling the prow together and giving it the bizarre symmetry of a Rorschach test.
Clearly something has been unleashed, a crazed Melusine battling her demons; the idyllic image of a woman lounging on a boat at sea has been fractured. Raphaela Vogel called her video installation Isolator. Made up of a projector, utility pole, and ceramic insulators, the massive piece was the highlight of her first major institutional solo show three years ago, when she transformed Basel’s Kunsthalle into a poppy psychedelic space which, for all its sheer force, was also frailly futuristic. The Art Basel crowd immediately wondered just who this woman foregrounding herself so blatantly even was. Because Vogel appears in most of her films herself—as a creature struggling onto land through turquoise-blue surf, wandering through barren rockscapes, slipping through pipes or crawling between concrete walls, framed by luminous geometric patterns and the talons of a drone filming, attacking, or chasing her from above like some alien insect. The background is always filled with hypnotic tones, splashing water, claustrophobic creaks, or her own singing voice. Vogel’s world is all about sparks flying through friction.
On this dark gray afternoon in Berlin’s long COVID winter, her studio is damp and chilly, rain pelting on the windows. The former backyard locksmith’s shop in the Wedding district has ceilings at least 10 meters high, single-glazed windows, and feels like a time capsule from the industrious end of the 19th century when all kinds of factories and workshops were popping up in this area of Berlin. Today we’re wearing FFP2 masks, seated in a maelstrom of clothes, boxes, and flea-market finds, amidst overflowing pots of silicone soup, kitschy yard sculptures of lions and putti, and an installation of hand-scribbled animal skins hanging from the trusses above. In the middle of all this, Rollo, the artist’s enormous white royal poodle, pads around like he’s really a person wearing a dog suit. It all feels a bit like the studio of J. F. Sebastian, the replicant designer in the OG Blade Runner.
Vogel’s jeans are cinched well above her hips, and she’s wearing high boots with wedge heels. Her large eyes stand out on her pale, unadorned face, her brown mane tamed by a woolen headband emblazoned with a rhinestone. Vogel is a vamp, if not in the traditional sense—no, she’s just as conspicuously eccentric and alluring as her work, which has been all the buzz since she arrived in Berlin five years ago. Her time studying at Frankfurt’s Städelschule may seem distant now, but it forms the cornerstone of her work. The film with which she graduated under Peter Fischli shows the artist from above, wrapped in fabric, whirling through a narrow room and shrieking through billowing curtains like a banshee, only to end up standing on a heater, her long legs planted wide as she guides a flashing drone through the space. The rhythm, the distortion, and the brisk sensuality of her later work: all of it was already clearly present.
Faced with an overflowing desk, Vogel first balances her laptop on her knees, then she puts it on a huge, dusty pair of bellows. A three-meter-high 3D scanner sticks out behind her like a futuristic cabin strewn with camera eyes. She uses it to photograph visitors with musical instruments in order to make a film for a tram station in Geneva. The work in progress looks like a digitally remixed collage from the early days of MTV, with lines culled from her teenage break-up letters read overtop. Teen romance, pop music, and squawky props—all translated through the latest technology: Vogel has created an intense and highly contemporary visual language that, while immediately recognizable, is also constantly transforming and evolving. So much so, in fact, that at the age of 32 she’s already appeared at some of Europe’s finest venues: Basel was followed by the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the Berlinische Galerie, and the entire Kunsthaus Bregenz—an artist who manages this and still keeps growing, like Vogel does, has not only mastered today’s art world, but also tomorrow’s art history.
In this light, it’s almost astonishing when Vogel tells me: “I was always very shy. As an only child living in a village, I was alone a lot and fixated on my mom’s loud presence. I felt constrained.” Vogel isn’t the kind of person who has a ready answer for any question, just as she never forces a fixed concept onto her art. However obsessive she depicts herself in her films, in real life she is reserved—or at least part of her is. “When I was 16, I dropped out of school and went to Berlin, but only for a year. Then I went back and moved to a nurses’ home in Erlangen. It’s cause my mother is a nurse.” At 19, she started art school in Nuremberg, where she’d find her way into a world all her own. “I started with painting. But I didn’t like canvas; I don’t like touching dry fabric.” One day, a shopkeeper gave her 200 goat skins she no longer had any use for. They lay around in the studio for a while, but at some point Vogel realized they were exactly the material she needed. “I painted the skins, shaped them into triangles, and inserted a ring made of molded plastic at the bottom, a kind of bone, or a prosthesis.” Since then, goat, horse, and elk skins soaked in paint and covered in writing have been a constant in her work, guarding Vogel’s films and installations like ghostly sentinels. “Leather already carries a lot of meaning, yet not a lot of art-historical baggage. It’s archaic and animalistic—the image is already charged before I even start painting. And it’s also controversial. It’s a precarious material, just like plastic.” Raphaela Vogel speaks softly, but not rehearsed. “I like topics that are already heavily laden, that raise major questions which I can then implement in some baroque way. The myth of Arachne, for example—I’ve taken up spiders again and again in very different forms. Or I use vanitas motifs, for example when I made a skeleton ride a slow carousel under a weeping willow.” In the film installation Fuge meam propinquitatem!—Flee my proximity!—a skeleton holds a piece of glass with that inscription, flicking it like a clock’s second hand, while a recording plays of the artist reciting an ancient text on atomic theory in Latin. This all may sound convoluted, but Vogel’s imagery is so consistently haunting that explanations really aren’t necessary.
Or maybe they are. For a while she drove around with her father’s tombstone in the back of her old VW van. She kept it under a blanket so she wouldn’t have to answer any questions when friends came around. Then she decided to include it in her exhibition at the Kunstverein Münster in 2016. She put it under the yellowed old IKEA loft bed from her childhood, surrounding the whole thing with a black and red border so it looked like an altar. A video played on a monitor alongside: a journey through an empty landscape, lined with flashing digital abstractions, through concrete tunnels and a church in ruins. Inside was a huge figure of a saint, carved in stone, like a patriarch closing his eyes in pain. “I was almost five when my father died. They told me it happened on a beach in Spain,” Vogel says, “but my aunt said he wasn’t dead at all. We were given a death certificate and an urn, but there was always this uncertainty.” Her parents had just separated—her father, a sailor, was married three or four times, and his relatives urged him not to leave another wife as their mortgage wasn’t paid off yet. “But he wanted to start a company in Africa. And then there was his life insurance.” What really happened is still unclear. Vogel wondered until the last second whether she should really use the stone she picked up after his grave was cleared. But the title of her exhibition, She Shah, ultimately played on this extreme self-centeredness: “she” is at the center, and so is “shah,” meaning king, or rather queen. The exhibition did feature a shisha (the Turkish waterpipe that’s also a symbol for male homosociality) only Vogel transformed it into a tentacled creature topped with a projector screening the journey through the ruins onto a tattered piece of cloth. It is held by a metallic mermaid—there it is again, the motif of the sea, and of course that of the female form—the artist drawing from ancient myths, strange materials, and the latest tech to transform them into an entirely unique universe.
Vogel’s installations make up cycles which are intuitively composed, unreal, and distorted, yet all the more coherent because of that. Their enigmatic, powerful imagery is reminiscent of the rituals in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films, in which the artist, half-human, half-mythical creature, climbs through elevator shafts or moves through futuristically lit spaces, sometimes wearing a leather apron, sometimes dandyesque orthopedic wear, dragging and jerking his astral body into an immersive emotional landscape. But the pull of Vogel’s work not only stems from her use of instinct, of the body: as obscure as her images may seem, she chooses them consciously. Behind all the twisted tales and hypnotic effects, she’s embedded a narrative, stylistic, and technical symbolism that seems fundamental, vulnerable, and above all profoundly human—and it extends far beyond the zeitgeist of our digital era.
But how does this young artist manage to exert such an all-enveloping physical energy—and how does she stay so totally independent in the process? “It’s got a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in the countryside. Animals are important, and there’s a close relationship to the body,” Vogel says. “The organic and the medical have always fascinated me. As a child, my mother took me to a children’s museum in Fulda where they’d constructed these massive models of organs made of plastic you could walk through.” Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds show also left a lasting impression—afterwards she bought a tight body suit with muscles printed on it. At the end of her film Isolator, she’s walking through a mountain landscape while her own, somewhat off-key cover of the countrypolitan classic The Most Beautiful Girl plays in the distance: an absurd allusion to the story of Marsyas, who challenged the god Apollo in a contest of music, only to be skinned when he lost.
With her dystopian fervor, but also her trust in that quality most people lose when they outgrow childhood, Vogel contradicts the current image of the “post-internet” generation as aloof and dispassionate. She shows that digital animations, organic polyurethane shapes, and readymades can be transformed into a cosmos that’s intelligent and playful—not to mention very funny. Her video installation at the Berlinische Galerie two years ago was called Son of a Witch: it saw Vogel lounging in a circular bed that, from the top-down perspective of the camera attached to a metal rod and controlled by the artist, looked like a mixture of a clock’s dial and a condom—then Vogel pushed her butt up, slapping it like a rapper in a music video and looking rather sumptuous in slow motion and the distortion of the wide-angle lens. In general, the artist distorts her image fairly often in her most recent works, thanks to her 360-degree camera, the result of which is silly and not ostentatiously profound, as often happens when artists turn their camera onto themselves. And by now it’s no longer just her we see: Rollo has become an alter ego of sorts. The white poodle leaps through her films, shakes himself off, and even inspires titles, like that of her show in Bregenz: “I woke up barking.” Amid weathered models of macho monuments like victory columns and triumphal arches (the piece is called Rollo), her video installations were positioned between casts of lion sculptures, elk skins, and giant spiders made of metal rods and plastic—the Zumthor-designed building became a surreal amusement park which offered the visitor’s mind no clear exit. It is with this mixture of mature megalomania and youthful imagination that Vogel so nonchalantly reins in her audience.
Rollo brooks no such leash, however. He jumps straight out of the studio, through the rain, and into the old VW van illegally parked out front. In the dark, it’s a bit hard to tell which of the wild-haired pair is behind the wheel, turning the ignition key, and driving towards Kreuzberg like a sleepwalker. But what does it matter? Raphaela Vogel’s journey will be long, and it’s only just begun.