Volkano’s Symbolistic Transformations

Getting close to the elusive Hamburg-based artist to talk innocence and escapism

Published: October 18, 2017
Words: Helena Sokol & Volkano
Artist Link: volkano-art.com/

Neverland never seemed too far from our reach. Promises of forever and future friendship was kept on the tip of the tongue. As our bodies blossoms and our minds expand, everything changes – for the better and worse. German artist Volkano captures the melancholy of growing up.

For many people, childhood is a magical place to get lost in memories. Everything was easy and uncomplicated, summers lasted forever, and you took in every impression as if it was vital for your existence. For others, it was complicated and difficult to carve a place out in the world where you fit. Limbs were longer than they were supposed to, friends were hard to get by and nobody understood you – sometimes it was even worse. No matter the position on the spectrum, I think everybody has memories that are soft-edged with age, with some degree of bliss and comfort, whether it was an intimate moment getting lost in a book, or connecting with a parent.

While some people stay youthful on the inside, others long for maturity and leaving jejunity – but no matter what, childhood and adolescence lays the foundation for the rest of your life in some way or other.

Volkano (1981) was born in Herford, Germany and lived there until he was 12, where he moved to Turkey, where his family originally hails from. He is blessed with a family of liberal Democrats, where politics and religion never dominated the house, and relations were good throughout.

“I remember everything of my childhood.”

The softness of every shape, the sweet scent in the wind, the endless time, everything that we lose when we become adults. From these emotions, I find my imagery of children being forced to get adult by running through strange rituals.

Volkano 'The Ritual of Growing 2nd Degree No. 2'
Volkano 'The Meat Ritual No. 5'

He has always been drawing ever since he was a kid and found endless joy by doing it. This interest lead him to study graphic design in Hamburg, where he still lives. Despite the passion in the field, it wasn’t before he heard the word “contemporary art”, that it dawned on him.

“Suddenly, I realized that I could make my living by painting all day, whatever I want, without going to work. This was like Peter Pan finding Neverland. So, I started to learn on my own how to paint in oil, refine my technique and define my storytelling by finding out the quintessence of what moves my emotions.”

This thought – never working – is something that I think every adult has a desire to, but logic and life tell you to put aside. It will never work; we have mortgage and bills to pay, and food doesn’t buy itself; and what about all the time you would have even if you had money, wouldn’t you feel useless or bored? While children swear never to work as a principle, adults dare not even think about what would happen if they didn’t feel fulfilled through their work. What happens in the meanwhile, between youth and adulthood?

Institutionalization happens. Educational structures are there to make sure you have the knowledge to successfully incorporate you into the world in all its functions.

“It starts with the primary school where they teach you how to function in society in the most effective way.”

You learn how to read the clock, that there is a time and time goes by, which means you have to hurry. You have to grow up fast and there is no more time to enjoy childhood. This process runs through childhood and adolescence. Your mind makes a change and this change is what I try to capture. I display it as an initiation ritual to another grade, the grade of adulthood.

There’s no doubt that school is one of the most influential things in childhood, especially in terms of building an identity. Suddenly you need to form opinions on people, politics, religion and the world. You join cliques and subcultures that can lead the way to both fantastic and troubling futures. Various kinds of love appear, emotions ravage. Interest forms, ideas flourish. Existing in a world outside the family bubble, among other children and people, sets off a complexification of life.

In Volkano’s earliest work, we see it in the clear contrast between a young child and raw meat. Becoming adult is feeling the harshness of reality, the weight of losing something otherwise inherent in your nature. Whether it is standing in a bowl of blood, playing with intestines or blindly drinking the juice of meat, these visualizations bring forth a feeling of something being forced upon you – sometimes unconsciously.

It is mainly in his drawings that adults play a role, guiding the child through an initiation – a rite of passage to become one of them. They introduce new and seemingly unnecessary concepts into children’s lives, and it is a heavy burden to bear.

Everything is done with an eye on the clock and children get involved too early. The raw meat is a metaphor for the raw adulthood the child is facing. Everything gets ugly when you grow up; milk turns to blood and chocolate to meat. It is also a symbol for the lust of the flesh, which captures you at a certain age and never lets you free.

There is an uncanny sense of passive accept in the portraits of the children, something that makes you wonder if it is even ethically or morally allowed to let children grow up if they aren’t given a choice.

I try to paint children with no expressions at all. To me, that is a very odd pose where I get the feeling that the ritual is working. Sometimes they have their eyes closed; they’re in the process of change.

In other works, there is an even clearer agenda to show innocence lost. Young boy soldiers follow a golden goat; a group of boys are aiming a gun at another boy in a rabbit suit; a girl scout holds a large candy stick as a rifle. Some are showing off Colgate smiles, while others seem more vicious as if they have already transitioned. The bright, symbol-laden drawings remind me of family photos, slightly out of focus or set up as traditional portraits – a homage to what once was, but is no more.

Comparing the motives of the drawings with those of the paintings, it is clear that they serve to be a disparate train of thought, multifaceted and experimental.

“The paperwork is definitely a separate layer of my work, as it has different possibilities to awake emotions. I never do sketches or colour studies, everything runs intuitively.”

“I painted the candy weapons as a visualization of „making the war lucrative or edible to the child“. In our society, the roles are tightly divided. They develop toy guns for boys to accustom them to their role of soldiers in unnecessary wars. And girls have to play with newborn baby dolls preparing them to become birth machines. Everything is packed up in wonderful pastel colours.”

“The bugs were a central motive of contrasting transience and youth, as bugs often make me think of a composting corpse. I worked through various motives trying to find the most suitable item for my storytelling of the loss of freedom, a bound rabbit is awaking strange oppressive emotions on me. The flying bird is a common symbol of endless freedom because of its ability to fly.”

In the opposite, for me, a dead bird is the most powerful and poetic way of displaying the dying freedom. It caught me instantly.

Like the children, many of these animals have somehow been inhibited – whether bound of blinded – and play the roles of sacrifices in the works. Part of you must surrender if you want to become adult. Many of these offerings are done unconsciously, through parents or institutions, and the change is not noticeable before it’s too late. This pain of losing the lightness of being, an uncomplicated existence, is apparent in the stillness of the portraits. Sometimes it is the eyes, other times the unnatural pose of the child.

As a natural continuation of this visual journey of adulthood’s growing immobility, Volkano found another strong symbol: belts and straps.

“This is the path our society has taken since industrialization. We turned into machines to be able to operate the machines we invented.

Children will never have the freedom to unfold their minds in this kind of society. I paint the belts tight to give the feeling of the strict society. Children are surrounded, and can’t escape.”

Around 2014-15 marked a transition for Volkano in terms of both technique and motive coherency. The Dead Bird Rituals took shape and were increasingly realistic in their look. Bolder shadows and striking highlights, as prescribed by chiaroscuro, combined with an almost photo-realistic depiction of faces looking straight at the viewer, creates a tension not seen before.

“I’ve been doing that for the different kind of transmission a realistic painting has, without thinking that a painting gets better when adding more details. I think the sharpness works well in translating the emotion I’m after.

The paintings are the major part of my work because I can go big and I love to paint on canvas. Other than that, I feel that I have simply more freedom by working on a large canvas. And my motives are working much better when big.”

I feel almost guilty when looking at some of them as if I have stolen something from these kids. But they also have an almost peaceful look about them. The girls are older now, mid-adolescence, and it seems that acceptance has become easier. In this new series, the children become very real, distinct people. Perhaps this is also a part of becoming adult – with each year, your body, skin and hair change, and you gain more and more distinctiveness. It makes you wonder who is behind these portraits.

“The models in my paintings are the children of friends. First, we have a photo shoot in my studio and then I use the photos as references for my paintings. I make my choices intuitively.

Children can transport emotions on their mimics that no word can explain. If I get that emotion, I use the photo.”

The newest series of work, called The Mystic Eastern Rite, presented at North Art Fair in Aalborg by Galerie Wolfsen, takes another step into the world of ritualistic transitions that has lingered in earlier works. Bones, feathers and dead animals have long been used as methods to enter another state. Circles are for protection, or for concentration.

If you study the many cults and their mysteries all around the globe you find out that there is one subject that connects all, metamorphosis. You must die a symbolic death to resurrect as a new being. In many cultures, bones are a common metaphor for this. And like the sun, the moon or a cocoon I paint, they are all metaphors for a mental change of the child.

These striking poses embrace the melancholy of leaving your old self behind, but in my eyes, they also possess the tranquillity that comes with having a purpose or a goal, knowing that you must sacrifice something to get there.

By the first look at the veiled children in this series, my first thought was that of child brides and the youth that is stolen by such a ceremony. In that case, it would truly be innocence lost. However, by further inspection and inquiring, Volkano assures me that it is not anything like it. The near-monochrome works channels the Eastern deserts and the veils they use for rites. Dead birds crown the girls and tighten as adulthood sets in.

“The veiling is a long tradition in the East. But in this ritual the children are veiled in order to be enlightened afterwards. The priest covers the child with a cloth and bounds a dead bird on its head and the secret ceremony starts. At the end, the child gets unveiled and steps into a new phase, the adulthood. The process of the mental metamorphosis is being manifested here.”

Volkano as an artist has predominantly let his work speak for him, and do not have a very public life. As I have seen him develop his style and followed his work, I found myself wondering whether he had a family, and I was happy to find out that he and his wife had just had a girl, Ella. The first thing that came to my mind was the thought that having a child himself may have influenced the way his newer paintings looked.

“I’m married to my childhood love who I met at the age of 19 and in September 2017, she gave birth to a wonderful baby girl. My wife, who’s an art director, has always been having a protecting hand on me and promoted my path in art, backed me and gave me all freedom I need.

I’m currently working on my next solo show at Galerie Wolfsen and my new body of work is getting more poetic, more light in colour range and more feminine. I think this is a direct influence of my daughter.”

I, for one, will look forward to observing the development in soul and style that Volkano will be bringing in 2018. I am personally hoping for more sculptures, of which I have only seen two out of the three he has created. These three-dimensional works bring a heavier vibe, almost cartoonish dark, and are more surreal in their expression. The juxtaposition of materials like oil, wood, metal and plastic with his motives invigorates and deepens the symbols used.

However, for now, Volkano confides that he is developing a solo show for Galerie Wolfsen in February 2018, which will be a homage to Swan Lake.