Gregor Hildebrandt is in his Berlin studio reminiscing about what prompted him to make artworks us- ing cassette tapes and records. “At the start of my career, everyone wanted to paint like Picasso or Cy Twombly”, says the German artist. “I’m also a big fan of Twombly, but then I started to think, No, I want to paint like The Cure or Sonic Youth or the writer Georg Trakl,find to find these idols whilst painting like Ad Reinhardt.” In 1997, when Hildebrandt was a 23-year-old student, he had the idea of putting a song by the band Einstürzende Neubauten into a book. “I recorded it on tape, cut the tape, and put it into an envelope”, he recalls. “I carried the song around with me the whole day before gluing it into the pages of my book. I liked the metamorphosis of a song into a painting.”

Fast-forward two decades and Hildebrandt has been metamorphosing songs into not just paintings but into patterned floor installations, ‘ribbon walls’, and towers of records inspired by Brancusi’s Endless Column. Not only has his experimental use of tape become his signature, but in the post-analogue digital era of internet art, his oeuvre stands out in a fairly nostalgic way. The latest works attesting to this exploration of music into art are presented in his new show at Almine Rech in Paris. The exhibition’s title, Alle Schläge sind erlaubt (No Holds Barred), alludes to the notion of artistic freedom while adhering to a self-given set of rules. “When we play table tennis, we say that everything is possible but you have to follow the rules”, says Hildebrandt. “In art, you create the eld and move the way you want within it: everything is allowed – you give yourself your own rules.”

His confrontation with the Almine Rech space segues from his exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin (2015-16). There, black and white pillars of compression-moulded records formed two facing walls, beyond which lay a floor piece made from vinyl records and evoking a parquet pattern. At Almine Rech, Hildebrandt intends to elaborate on this, making a more complex composition. “I want to create a display that has freestanding black walls made of records – a kind of labyrinth, so that you have to walk around to find the middle of the space”, he explains, adding that a floor piece fashioned from records will be in the centre. The idea of using vinyl records occurred to him in 2004, after serendipitously discovering a record-shaped serving bowl in a flea market. “I was so fascinated by it that I bought a lot of them for myself and my girlfriend [artist Alicja Kwade] – they’re good birthday gifts”, he enthuses. He also cuts up vinyl records to make his abstract canvas works.

A TENDENCY TO HOARD

The artist’s work has engaged with architectural dimensions since 2003, when he clad a building in Berlin with a ‘ribbon wall’ of tape. The temporary installation was titled Hausmusik, a pun on house music, with a film recorded on tape covering the exterior. Passers-by gazed at the black, shimmering curtain swaying slightly in the breeze. His ribbon-wall installations – some made with cassette tape, others with VHS video tape – have since been exhibited widely, from the Haus am Waldsee art centre in Berlin and the Saarlandmuseum in Saarbrücken

to Almine Rech Gallery in Brussels, Galerie Perrotin in New York and Seoul, and Wentrup Gallery in Berlin. In the pieces made with VHS tape, the length of the tape tends to relate to the duration of the film. Yet, the music or filmic content remains invisible, existing solely in the viewer's imagination. One such VHS-tape work features in this new Almine Rech show.

Similarly, Hildebrandt's primarily duo-chromatic, black-and-white cassette tape and acrylic-on-canvas works usually feature a specific song that has been recorded onto the tape. These vary from landscapes or wallpaper patterns to abstract pieces, where ribbons of tape produce fields of muted colour, depending on what Hildebrandt has drawn inspiration from. Printed photos on paper of silver-screen stars such as Louise Brooks and Romy Schneider have lines of tape glued onto them too. For example, the work Romy als Poupée (in Boccaccio 70) shows Schneider in the 1962 movie Boccaccio ’70. The song on the tape is La chanson d'Hélène, sung by Schneider. Indeed, Hildebrandt’s studio in Berlin is stocked with thousands of cassette tapes, mostly ordered on eBay, just waiting to be transformed into artworks. He shares his obsessive drive to accumulate things with the late artist Arman – “I never put anything in the rubbish bin, I collect everything I use.” Conveying to the viewer that it is actually music they are beholding is key. “The starting point is that people realise it’s music in the paintings”, explains Hildebrandt.

COMBINING THE INCOMPATIBLE

When he creates a spatial composition, with ribbon walls providing a backdrop for the paintings, it encompasses a multitude of films, songs, and references. Viewers can let their minds be transported by the physical yet, paradoxically, imaginary nature of the world contained in the works. The sounds become images, aligned with the framework of conceptual art. “What I find unique about Hildebrandt’s works is his ability to combine materials and objects that are incompatible and contradictory”, says Dr Roland Mönig, director of the Saarlandmuseum. “On the one hand, his pieces have a tactile, sensual quality. In the face of rapidly advancing digitalisation and virtualisation in all walks of life, they make an emphatic stand for the real and the analogue, not least through the use of such technically obsolete sound-recording media as vinyl records and cassette tapes. On the other hand, his art is fed from a dialogue with the invisible and a passion for music. Everything can be filled with one’s own memories, associations, and experiences.”

Equally, Christoph Tannert, artistic director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, opines, “The work of Hildebrandt follows the criteria of rigour and ornamental consistency. Each of his exhibitions is a staging of intricate catchiness with provocatively unclean transitions into provisional states, in which the individual groups of objects form part of an overall composition brought to life by offbeat introductions, dynamic changes, and subtly altering lighting conditions.” In 2016, the Bethanien awarded Hildebrandt the Falkenrot Prize, presented to international artists working in contemporary painting and interrelated fields. Audiotapes and cassettes also feature strongly in Hildebrandt’s work. His first site-specific floor installation, presented in the Statements section at Art Basel in 2008 by Wen- trup Gallery, comprised thousands of audio cassettes arranged in a herringbone pattern. Visitors had the impression of walking onto a floor of music. “It was a kind of disco scene”, he says. Influences ranged from Christian Marclay covering the floor of Shedhalle Zürich in 1989 with unsleeved LPs that visitors trampled over, to Wim Delvoye’s tiled floor embellished with motifs of human excrement at documenta IX in Kassel in 1992. The perspectives in René Daniëls’ paintings have also been a source of inspiration.

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

Subsequently, Hildebrandt made floor installations of black and brown audiocassettes in various con-gurations, to evoke a parquet floor. Sometimes the tape had been removed and applied onto a painting, leaving the cassettes empty and devoid of their former function. “I have the cassette on my mind all the time because I’m recording a song on it”, clarifies Hildebrandt. “And I have such a connection with the empty cassette that I don’t want to throw it away.” Equally, Hildebrandt used tape to make a woven carpet for the work Klangteppich, loosely recalling Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s wrapped candies spread onto the floor like carpet. Nothing in Hildebrandt’s studio goes to waste, as cassette boxes are also put to use. Arranged in rows and columns, they are employed as the material with which to make a picture. Placed on a wall, the aggregation of boxes becomes a three-dimensional image of an actress or an abstract landscape – such as in his piece Urlaub im Urban. Stretching over 18 canvas-like parts, the work brings to mind an underwater vision of the ocean.

Certainly, Hildebrandt can reflect on a two-decade-long career culminating in a highly varied body of work. This versatility is evident in his Almine Rech show. It combines a labyrinthine installation with smaller pieces, such as a painting of a peacock and of a fabric-covered wall in a New York hotel (both made without tape). “I like how the dust creates the image”, says Hildebrandt of the latter. Again the hint of nostalgia is pervasive, with the sense of dust particles suggesting subtle sound vibrations and movements both invisible and inaudible to humans. “But I’m not very nostalgic compared to a classical painter using oils – I am not so retro in that way”, he asserts.

With so many paintings, sculptures and installations under his belt, Hildebrandt’s passionate vision for giving a new lease of life to cassettes and records is aggrandising. “I want to create a building inside the Almine Rech space”, he says, dreamily, referring to his maze of record columns. “I wish to build a house, or a city, but actually it’s only a sculpture, it’s only a game.”

Gregor Hildebrandt: Alle Schläge sind erlaubt is at Almine Rech, Paris, 12 January – 25 February 2017.

This article appeared in DAM60. Order your personal copy.