Saskia Stolz is the Dutch artist behind the “Moving People,” small figurines installed in Bass Library to honor the millions of refugees currently fleeing their homes. She is also the founder of the Power of Art House, an art collective that addresses socio-political issues. Visiting Yale for a few days, Saskia took some time to sit down with WKND and discuss about her art collective, the role of a modern artist and her influences.
Q: What is the Power of Art House’s approach to art?
A: The Power of Art House is a creative collective of artists who want to intervene. We use art as a weapon against indifference. There are a lot of social issues and not a lot of awareness, especially in Holland — though I guess it’s everywhere. We want to raise awareness of those issues, mostly through street art. Usually we do it in public spaces. It’s really an intervention at the moment you don’t expect it and in a place you don’t expect it, so it has the most impact.
Q: How is the Power of Art House organized?
A: We have a think tank that’s quite big. It [consists of] 12 artists. When we come together, sometimes it’s four, sometimes all 12, sometimes I work with one. It depends. [An idea] starts with me, because I’m always the angry one, and then it catches. I’ll call the think tank and ask to talk about the idea — to improve it or enhance it — and it works. They’re very critical, but that’s good.
Q: How did you develop this approach?
A: I had my own design agency for 15 years that did work for Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, all these nongovernmental organizations. It’s a campaigning agency, so I’m used to developing public campaigns, mostly awareness campaigns. Those organizations developed professionalization that made the whole communication feel like marketing. They’re really selling a product. I was doing the same, but it doesn’t touch me anymore — it wasn’t straight from the heart.
When the war started in Syria, I read an article about a boy who was tortured to death in prison. I was so shocked by this article, and it made me so angry, that I started drawing this boy and began the street art action. Everybody liked the action; everybody was talking about it. And I thought: Ah, this is a much better way. When you do art in the street, people really feel it’s theirs. It’s not art in a museum, it’s in a public space, and the message is very clear.
Q: What do you think is most effective about street art, and how would you characterize the reaction it generates?
A: Most of the time, we use subjects from the everyday world and we give it a twist. Since the art is in a public place, and is often an object close to you, it’s weird — people start talking about it. Or, with “Moving People,” it’s about scaling. We took real people and made them small, and everybody liked it because it was cute. It made the ugly stuff accessible, and that’s the biggest effect. We provoke conversation and force people to talk about things they don’t want to talk about.
Q: How did you come up with “Moving People,” and what sort of response have you seen?
A: “Moving People” was created at a moment in which I was really angry because people were talking very badly about refugees. In Holland, the debate is extremely polarized, and people were saying such ugly things about refugees that I wanted to make something small and cute. It’s unbelievable how many people have embraced “Moving People” and are sharing it — thousands of people. And of course, they’re talking about it.
There was a politician in Holland who put one of the Moving People in Parliament and posted a photo on Twitter, so that got a large reaction … It was so great to see this little figurine provoked a debate.
Q: How do you view the role of the artist in today’s society? Does an artist have a responsibility to address these social or political issues?
A: It’s difficult, because a lot of people are asking whether it’s the responsibility of an artist to be engaged. To be honest, I don’t have an opinion. An artist can do what he wants, and if he wants to make art just because it’s beautiful, and he has no message, that’s fine. But when you are engaged and you use your art to spread a message, that’s also good.
Q: Do you have a favorite artist?
A: For a long time, my favorite artist was Banksy. For 10 years, he was my favorite, but now the whole world loves him, so I think he’s a cliche. But when I was young, I loved Hobart — he was really something else. I also love surrealist painters, so Magritte and all that.
Q: Do you see any similarities between your work and Banksy’s?
A: We did one street art action, and there were people saying, “Oh that really looks like Banksy.” Well, that’s not completely true because it’s a type of style. We both used stencils. Only this action was similar, but the rest, not so much. We also use design; we’ve done necklaces. The style is always different.
Q: What does Power of Art House have planned next?
A: We are developing a new project called “Invisible People.” It’s about people who are not visible to society because they’re living on the edge. They [are dealing with] financial problems, mental health problems, drinking problems, and they need help. I’m not only talking about homeless people. They can be anybody. We want to make those “invisible people” visible.
We’re going to put hundreds of pairs of shoes — really artistic, beautiful shoes — on the streets. For each pair, there will be a shadow of a real person, so it’s like a literal invisible person. In the shoe, there will be a QR code. People can scan the codes and hear from the “invisible people.” For example, it might be a little poem or video.