Magnus Plessen is an artist whose creative techniques and sources of inspiration have shifted many times over the years. Having spent several years focusing his work on the horrors of World War One, his latest show, Hope Love Helium, marks a departure from this morbid inspiration. Instead Plessen focuses on the interconnectivity between chemical reactions that occurred billions of years ago and the world that we live in today. We caught up with the man himself to speak about all manner of things, from his family life to the so-called Kriegszitterer.
Your show Hope Love Helium opened at London’s White Cube Gallery in Mason’s Yard on November 5. The gallery’s synopsis says that exhibition’s name is a reference to the nuclear fusion that powers the sun. Could you explain that to us in a bit more depth?
Brian Swimme’s book Journey of the Universe was a great source of inspiration. In his book he talks about the stars being our ancestors. He talks about the origin of the universe 14 billion years ago when bright and dark matter combined in one single (trillions of degrees hot) point. Let me quote Brian Swimme:
"Star birth occurs when gravity squeezes a cloud of atoms together so tightly that nuclear fusion ignites in the centre. In this process hydrogen fuses into helium. This nuclear energy expands outwards and opposes gravity. Stars represent an amazingly creative balance between gravitational collapse and nuclear explosion. And as a star expands it creates all the elements (phosphorus, oxygen, carbon, gold, etc.) it’s by this stupendous process that we can say the stars are our ancestors. The carbon atoms of our body passed through an intense explosion of a star."
This process continues around us no matter how much we have damaged our planet. No matter what importance we give to ourselves as unique individuals, this process has been unfolding and will continue to unfold and expand the universe, self-organising matter into life. I was curious to imagine a world where subatomic matter and human representation become visible regardless of their difference in physical size. A kind of subatomic or, even better, quantum humanism where what we call life- or actual-size is suspended. Images of spontaneous human, plant and atom constellations without a scriptwriter.
This is the beauty of being a painter: that I can depict several contradictory representational systems simultaneously. Macro and micro. Self-organizing matter, humans and plants. While working in my studio, I am surrounded by plant models made for teaching botany in schools. One model which I have used in several paintings is that of a blossom of a dead nettle.
Both the subject matter and aesthetic style of your previous 1914-18 series were quite bleak, whereas the focus on nature and primary colours in this collection seems to be decidedly more optimistic. What prompted this shift in tone?
The shift in tonality and mood is the effect of a shift in worldview. At the time of WW I, the human body was treated like a machine. Officials and most doctors were focused on restoring the work and fighting power of those wounded. The psyche was mostly ignored. Trauma was dismissed as simulation. We all know the films of the so called Kriegszitterer, or the shell-shocked.
I feel that today similar to 1914 where the psyche is deliberately factored out. I feel that today something we have long overlooked is about to come to attention.
I find it thrilling to imagine that each appearance, may it be of a plant or of a human is attached to a chain of reactions, which go farther back than conception. Events like the formation of a single-celled organism. Did this event have us in mind when it first fused? I love this incredible creativity, even if it may be indifferent to our existence.
The latest collection also demonstrates what appears to be imagery of metamorphosis between plants and people. Given the precedence of climate change in the global consciousness at the moment, does this reflect your own aspirations for a healthier relationship between humanity and planet Earth?
I believe that science has for a while advanced into fields which used to be reserved for religious interpretation or esoteric speculation. I am against hierarchical institutions which place the human being on top of creation. Climate change has shown that the voices of animals and plants which we have made extinct are in fact speaking for the planet as a whole. My work reflects the impossibility of separation and negates the supremacy of human beings. Imagine a situation in which our destiny would be not just controlled by our mind, but also by the creativity of intelligent matter which predates us.
Are you always painting? Or do you have periods of activity and periods of rest?
I’m incredibly fortunate to have large family. My wife and I have four boys. And I’m also a professor at the Academy in Karlsruhe. I try to go with the flow, resting is not exactly the right word.
The methods behind your works are deeply unconventional, utilising stencils, rotating the works as you’re producing them, and borrowing techniques from sculpting. Are there any artists who inspired this process, or is it something you devised completely of your own accord?
I love when something unexpected happens. For instance: Dan Flavin’s neon fence doesn’t light a space, it collapses the light into its source. Even though Job in Auguste Levêque’s painting from 1890 is depicted as an old man lying on ruins, his hands, feet, and his face appearing old and broken, his emaciated body glows from within and radiates energy.
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Untitled (Fig. 24) 2021. © Magnus Plessen. Photo © Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy White Cube.
Talking about your 1914-18 series, you mentioned the inability of soldiers to distinguish between their dead and living comrades; is the merging of humans and nature in this collection a positive inversion of this ambiguity surrounding consciousness?
I like the way you think. I would think of this as an incredible advance if our consciousness could connect us to the universe’s creative processes. I believe this could be a door-opener for our very complex and gridlocked situation.
Back in 2014, you remarked that your artistic process once adhered to various rules that were “unpractical in the context of a painting.” Are there any rules that you try and obey with your work now? Or is it the breaking of rules that inspires provoking art?
I was lucky not to know what the world I wanted to paint would look like. That made me curious, and I was able to show it to myself.
On both a personal and a professional level, how has the pandemic affected your life?
Like for so many other artists, many of my planned projects were postponed. Suddenly I was given much more time than I had in the past to work on my paintings. This reminded me of the situation when I started as an artist. At that time, I had months and months working without anyone really caring about what I did. I think for me personally, this worked out well. But again, I was extremely lucky as I had my family around me throughout the pandemic and I could still generate some income.
What does the future look like for you? Do you have a specific planned trajectory? 
My back has stiffened I need to make it flexible again.
Exhibiting at the White Cube, London. Now until 8 January 2022
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Untitled (Fig. 6) 2019. © Magnus Plessen. Photo © Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy White Cube.
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Untitled (Fig. 11) 2020. © Magnus Plessen. Photo © Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy White Cube.
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Untitled (Fig. 10) 2020. © Magnus Plessen. Photo © Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy White Cube.
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Untitled (Fig. 23) 2021. © Magnus Plessen. Photo © Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy White Cube.
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Untitled (Fig. 17) 2021. © Magnus Plessen. Photo © Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy White Cube.
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Untitled (Fig. 20) 2021. © Magnus Plessen. Photo © Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy White Cube.