herman de vries: 'Other artists work with mechanical things. I work with nature'

Karen Wright meets the artist at his studio in the Black Forest of Germany

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The Independent Culture

When I go to visit herman de vries (he stylises his name in lower case on his artwork "to avoid hierarchy") in his house and studio in the Black Forest of Germany I don't know what to expect. Upon Googling him pictures emerge of a naked man who resembles a scrawny Santa Claus, so I am reassured when he opens the door fully clothed.

Born in Alkmaar, Holland in 1931, de vries was part of the "Zero" movement in the 1960s. He remembers showing with Joseph Beuys in Dusseldorf before retreating from the artistic scene. He came upon the small town of Eschenau 44 years ago and decided that this would be his home. He settled with his wife Susanne, moving into this spacious building, a former schoolhouse.

He is very much the maestro in the town, not surprising as he is most definitely their most famous artistic inhabitant, currently representing Holland in the Venice Biennale and soon to have a show in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

His show in Venice includes some of the earth rubbings from his "earth bank", which now contains more than 8000 specimens. He takes me into his modest studio in the house. "Let me show you how I do them," he says. "I do not mix it with anything."

The scritching rhythmic sound, as his fingers skilfully push the red earth on to the paper, fills my ears when I later listen to our conversation.


The wife of one of his gallerists tried to bring him back some earth from Ethiopia. "She was stopped at the airport and asked what she was carrying," he says. "When she said 'earth' she was told they were geological samples and stopped. Eventually they were brought back in a diplomatic patch".

He has a roguish smile, complete with gold teeth, that instantly transform him from Santa into Captain Sparrow.

The artist walks in the nearby forest every day, although health problems in the last year have slowed him down. He keeps a map charting his walks on the wall of his kitchen, which becomes an art work at the end of the year. He finds fallen trees: "They are nice sculptures, no? A sculpture that nature makes."

We go up to his library overlooking his beloved forest. "I have 26 big windows". Nearby is his large library, sorted by subject, which includes his research on psychedelic plants. Here, carefully shelved, are his small black notebooks filled with his distinctive spidery writing, always in pencil. He shows me one where he wrote, "chance and change", a motto that has informed his work. When I ask how his work has moved on from his Zero days, his words hang in the air. "Other artists work with mechanical things. I work with nature. My attitude is still zero".

herman de vries's To Be All Ways to Be continues at the 56th Venice Biennale until 25 November