Alexander Polzin. Photo: Stefan Thissen (detail) View full image

In search of the real Bach

Alexander Polzin’s third sculpture of J.S. Bach will be installed in the foyer of London’s Royal Academy of Music on 13 June. He tells us about the inspiration behind the work and why its construction is unique


How did the installation come about?

I have many connections to the Royal Academy of Music through friends and colleagues, so it’s a natural fit. I met the Director, who liked my work and suggested that the Academy would be a wonderful place to host one of my sculptures, so I visited, looked around and we chose a place together.


How do you go about choosing the best spot for it at the Academy?

I always have dream positions in which I would like to install my pieces, but I’ve learnt that not everything always goes according to my ideas. In public places, especially, there is always a dialogue between what I think is best for the work and what the hosts want to do – their restrictions, plans and visions.


‘It will never directly hear music – it will hear the echoes of music from all the different rooms and halls of the Academy’


There is a lot of art at the Academy, including portraits of composers and players – paintings, sculptures, mostly made out of marble. It is like a museum; it even has its own museum. When I came, we looked around at possible positions that were free, in an already crowded environment. They made the suggestion to place my sculpture in the centre of the main entrance, in the foyer, which I was very pleased about. We looked at technicalities – where it can stand so not to be the way and considering emergency exits, and in the end we found a place everyone is happy with.

Where it stands, it will never directly hear music – it will hear the echoes of music from all the different rooms and halls of the Academy, through open or closed doors.


How do you hope people will interact with it?

Although it is a portrait of Bach, it is my interpretation – a strong one and quite different from all the marble portraits in the building. I count on the fact that nearly everybody who enters the Academy knows who Bach is. If I placed the same sculpture in a shopping mall, it would be the same sculpture, but I could not assume that everyone there would know who it was. In that regard, it is the perfect fit. I’m curious how people will react and interact with it. It’s like putting a seed in the right soil. The connection between the god of composers and the Royal Academy of Music is a very obvious one – almost too obvious.


‘My original idea was not a portrait, but something inspired by the Art of the Fugue. It was an insane idea, but I didn't know that when I was 17’


What is the story behind your creative process?

I have had a long journey with Bach. I was always fascinated by him and when I was 17 I started to think of creating something in connection to him. I had a big plan, but over many years, I always failed. My original idea was not a portrait, but something inspired by the Art of the Fugue. It was an insane idea, but I didn't know that when I was 17. I never got to an end result that was satisfying to me. I kept trying, but after many failures, I stopped. I consider Bach the God of music and there's a rule that you shouldn't make an image of God.

Eventually, I reached a point where I thought, ‘Okay, why not? Let’s give it a try,’ and I started to make my first sculpture of Bach. There is always a single concept behind each of my sculptures, but I noticed that the main idea behind this first portrait was true, but the opposite of that idea was also true. It’s like deciding that Bach is blue, and making a blue portrait, but while making the blue portrait, discovering that red would also be absolutely true for him. That was my process, so as I made the first one, I decided I needed to make a second one. While making the second, that experience repeated itself and at the moment I’m working on my fifth portrait. The Royal Academy will install number three, but I have already finished number four and am in the middle of number five, and I will probably make more.


How does Bach’s music inspire you?

Music is a substantial part of my life and practice. There is always music in my studio – when I built it, I installed a sound system before I had any tools.

The fact that I keep making sculptures of Bach says something about the variety of his work. When you listen to his piano works, they are at least one Cosmos. Then you start listening to the Passions and the Chorales and they are additional worlds. In making a portrait, you discover that all these different universes came out of one human being, and that is fascinating.


‘Maybe the reason I can’t stop making these sculptures is that I’m still on the search for the real Bach portrait’


Maybe the reason I can’t stop making these sculptures is that I’m still on the search for the real Bach portrait. One of the things about sculptures I love – maybe the main reason I make sculptures in the first place – is that they can represent opposite things at the same time, depending on the angle at which you look at them. You create an object in space and from one side it looks one way and from a different angle, with a different light, it can represent almost the opposite of what you saw from the other side. So I'm used to creating sculptures that capture many sides in one object, but Bach’s variety is so overwhelming that I haven’t managed to capture all the different layers that I hear and see in one object. Maybe I will find it one day, maybe not.

However, I realised that having failed for 30 years to create my work inspired by the Art of the Fugue, what I’m doing now, unconsciously, is exactly that – an Art of the Fugue in visual art, as the portrait of Bach. With a fugue, there is a theme and the composer makes the most out of it, showing you how much potential is hidden in this very simple line. In Art of the Fugue, Bach incorporates the letters of his own name and makes variations of it; my theme is the portrait of Bach and I make variations of it. This was not planned, though. I didn't start the portrait and say, ‘Now I will make a portrait of Bach and it will be a fugue.’ While I was making my fifth sculpture, I slowly realised that this is like making a fugue.


Was there anything special about the process of making it?

I usually make my sculptures in wood and then cast them in bronze. In the past I have used two different methods to gild them partially that are in fashion today: gold leaf or a chemical process. For the Bach sculpture, for technical reasons, I decided to use the most ancient and traditional way of applying gold on the bronze surface – fire gilding. It is very rarely used now because the process is highly poisonous, although it’s the most sustainable way of doing it. When we look at crosses in churches and objects that have gold in them from the last century or the last 2000 years, it’s all fire gilded.


‘Fire gilding is the only method that allows me to reach all the hidden parts, which is a wonderful metaphor for Bach’


I chose this method because the sculpture has so many hidden angles and parts that I couldn't reach with the other methods. Fire gilding is the only method that allows me to reach all the hidden parts, which is a wonderful metaphor for Bach. There are so many hidden little golden things that I had to use fire gilding.


Alexander Polzin’s Bach sculpture will be unveiled on 13 June in the foyer of the Royal Academy of Music. There will be a concert the next day of the complete Játékok and Bach transcriptions by György Kurtág, with whom Polzin has had a long friendship.