Manuel Graf

In the footsteps of animation

Photos: Sarah Schovenberg

Düsseldorf, 30 January, 2018. My studio visit today gives me access to a very special area of ​​the Düsseldorf Art Academy. It is the top floor of the former Reuterkaserne, equipped with a high-quality render farm. I have an appointment with Manuel Graf, who lectures here and also develops his own cinematic and graphic works. Graf, who studied at the Düsseldorf Academy himself, now exhibits in national and international exhibitions in various group as well as solo exhibitions, and has been awarded numerous prizes and scholarships. His works move between sculpture, painting and film, but are more vividly described with the term animation art, as I’ll explain later.

I enter a huge space that seems more like a research facility for new IT systems, than a place for creating art. So this is what a studio for virtual art looks like, I assert, disenchanted. The fact that this is a computer network for generating 3-D computer graphics and computer animations is only recognisable by looking at one of the screens. After sitting down at the high-tech equipped desk of Manuel Graf, I carefully approach this unfamiliar topic.

“Renderfarm” in the Düsseldorf Academie

“Am I correct to assign animation art to the superordinate field of new media?”. “No”, is the surprising answer from Manuel Graf. “The medium existed well before the technical possibilities came into being. Animation simply shows movement. A glance at the history of ideas in animation shows that movement sequences can already be seen in rows of images of cave painting. We can also see in antique sculptures that one moment of a movement is represented. For me, 3-D animation is therefore located much more in the continuum of painting and sculpture, than in the new media. It’s more easy to understand in comparing with photography. While animation is determined by the construction of image processing, photography depicts a physical reality. The picture is already there”, Manuel Graf explains.

To illustrate this, I now get a small introduction to the 3-D animation program. I limit myself to following only the image composition and not the work steps as such, which follow each other at breakneck speed. Within a few minutes, a photo-realistic depiction of different image levels develops. It is above all the calculation of the light and shadow effects that creates the perfect illusion.

“How long have you been working with such programs, and what do you find particularly fascinating about it”, I now want to know. “I have been using it for my work since the beginning of the 2000s. From the very beginning of my studies, I have been fascinated by material experiments in the various art media. I also always like to work on different projects in parallel”, answers Graf.

“So you often supplement your video projections with sculptural works and present them as an installation”, I conclude. “That too. But this is more about the idea of ​​showing the real and virtual forms of one and the same object at the same time in parallel. So then, for example, a ceramic can be viewed both on a pedestal, as well as simultaneously on the projection screen. It’s similar for the chairs. Here I connect the chair as a physical object with a flat screen. The chair is both the holder of the screen, as well as part of the animation and the object itself”, Graf explains this basic idea using illustrative examples.

Example 1: Combination of real and virtual installation

Example 2: Combination of real and virtual installation

“In your cinematic work, you often deal with architecture. Like in the film let music play. What motivated you to do this?” “I wanted to represent the spatial dynamics of different building types. In this I compare the long building, the central building, the portico and the Four-Iwan Mosque to one centrifugal moment in architecture. ” During his explanation, we watch the film together.

Let music play?


“Sounds like a not uncomplicated scientific approach. You have therefore transformed the spatial perception of building types of early architectural history into the present. Is it important for you, that the viewer understands this confrontation with the cultural past?”, I ask. “As a result, I would above all like to seduce through the images and avoid a substantive gravity. I like it when the viewer is curious and in active pursuit of the subject they are confronted with. But communicating a message is not the primary goal for me”, Graf says.

“At the moment, you are also working on architecture rendering, the software-based form of architectural illustration. You said that real estate developers, in particular, asked you to use photorealistic situations to simulate atmospheric views of their designs. In what way does an artistic discussion take place?”.

“What was exciting for me was the discovery that in this genre more and more ideological aesthetics are emerging that are intended to portray a particular image of society. This happens via a variety of patterns. For example, it is interesting to see how people are portrayed in such a stylised way, in an otherwise perfect architectural illusion. It is also exciting to analyse which motifs are supplemented for which building project or in which cases this or that light or weather situation is favoured. Above all in the field of luxury real estate, an environmental and sales aesthetic shaped by the male investor is increasingly emerging. That is why the idea arose to create an awareness of this typified aesthetics through the development of a counter-model and to counter this with a new one.

Examples of typical architecture-renderings (Image 1: Cadman, Image 2: Ingenhoven architects)

Ultra 1–2 architecture rendering by Manuel Graf

“Speaking of setting a new aesthetic and countering it with a typical one. As part of the Markus Ambach project Von fremden Ländern in eigenen Städten (Markus Ambach Projects) you participate in an important art project that takes place this year in public spaces in Düsseldorf. What exactly have you planned?”

“The aim of this project is to make visible the transformation process around the main station. My idea was to create a new perception for the back of the station, the Bertha-von Suttner-Platz. This idea has something to do with architecture again and, interestingly enough, with a type of building that I have already dealt with extensively. If you take a closer look at the postmodern-style square and turn your gaze upward, you will recognise the parallels to the exterior programme of a Four-Iwan Mosque. I will visualise this similarity by means of a light-projection installation.”

Light projection at the Bertha-von-Suttner-Platz for the project Von fremden Ländern in eigenen Städten (Markus Ambach Projects)

Can a recurring theme be identified within these very different projects, which are only a small part of Manuel Graf’s work? I ask myself that finally. Even if he primarily wants to seduce with images and avoid a gravity of content, I nevertheless attempt to derive a higher level of meaning…

At the beginning of our conversation we considered the history of ideas of animation. While its original idea was to create a moving image by creating and displaying a sequence of still images, today’s 3-D software can also simulate space by superimposing images in one image plane. In addition to movement, the photorealistic illusion of a single image can thus be generated. So far, so good. So perhaps it is possible that the medium of animation in Manuel Graf’s work is not only an instrument but also the subject of his work?

In the variety of examples that I have seen today, a crucial commonality is recognisable – the confrontation with spatial perception. Whether animated architectural plans, projections of virtual doppelgangers or animated light installations in public spaces. It is always – and independently of the individual content – about dealing with spatial perception. When looking at the works of Manuel Graf, traditional ways of seeing and thinking are broken up and new perspectives are proposed to the viewer.

Yet the variety of the different examples reveals another, very simple, but nevertheless important commonality: it is the continuous experiment, the examination of the possibilities of the medium as such, the inexorable search for ever new formal implementations, for ever new contemporary interpretations.

While following in the footsteps of the animation, its own history of ideas is being updated…

Weitere Informationen

… about the artist: manuel-graf-biography

… about the project “Von fremden Ländern in eigenen Städten: /