An Interview with Raphael Beil and Tobia Silvotti, Founders of the School of Sculpture

 A little gray cat skitters around the woods surrounding the School of Sculpture Berlin. It has a short tail that twitches as it surveys the thicket behind the kitchen tent. I fill a glass with water and lay it at my feet for the cat, it drinks and I listen to the sound of machinery. I am at Monopol, a facility hosting practicing arts courses at BCB and have just spent the past hours chiseling away at my alabaster stone, coaxing it into the shape of an oyster. I’m enrolled in the Marble Sculpture course taught by Raphael Beil and Tobia Silvotti. Today I’ve come in to work outside of class time. I find the work rewarding in the slowest sense, my arms are getting stronger and the patience I bring to the stone work is seeping into other aspects of my life. A while after noon Tobia makes a salad of cucumber, tomato, mozzarella, and fish with a thick loaf of bread and invites me to eat with them. At the table I join Tobia, Raphael, and Tobia’s brother for an interview.

When did you two meet at Campo dell’Altissimo? Aside from the space at Monopol, what made you decide to come to Berlin together? 

Raphael: We met in Italy at a place called Azzano, in the mountains. Campo dell’Altissimo is a sculpture school where I taught for many years. I met Tobia there but I didn’t notice so much about you. I thought who is that loser?

Tobia: I did some assistance for the course Raphael was teaching in Italy. I moved on to teaching there, but during 2019 Raphael told me about a big project in Norway. Maybe he realized that I’m not 100% loser—maybe only 90%—and he gave me a chance. I told him that he definitely needs help in Norway, that I would come. Raphael said okay you can come, but if you do, you need to stay until the end. That’s the deal.

Raphael: Initially he wanted to stay only three weeks, but then it became 14 months. So he got stuck with me and the quarry.

Tobia: I think we came here to do this in Berlin together because we had been talking for many years, every summer that we were in Italy: What would we do if we had a place like this and were involved with this kind of scene?

Raphael: The essence of the story is, if you are together for 13 months in a small hut, isolated because of Corona you either kill each other or you kind of get married. Still after that experience we decided to do this project here together. I know that you’re a bad guy but I could handle it–

Tobia: And I know that you’re a very good doctor, for example–

Raphael: I repaired his knee with a hammer. Easy.

Tobia: If you need amputations that is, otherwise maybe not so good.

[Raphael] What allowed you to begin freelancing in 1992? Was it a specific project, experience or mentor?

Raphael: It was after my studies, I couldn’t stop thinking; what am I going to do? No money, no job, no nothing. I decided I wanted to be an artist. I don’t want to do anything else, you know? And then I thought…where can I start? It was after the wall came down in Berlin. It was kind of a naive idea, but I thought I must go to Berlin and help to reconstruct Berlin. In the end it worked perfectly, I went to some architects and asked them if they had something for me to do in the reconstruction work. They said, show us your work, so I showed them my pieces I had done in my studies, small sculptures and such. They thought it was interesting and wanted to include me in this big project with the German parliament of 30 stones, 30 sculptures as well as in the Jewish Museum. From that point on, I was living as a freelance artist.

[Tobia] Do you think about where a piece will end up spatially when sculpting? 

Tobia: Not usually. There is an inherent part that contributes to how you create the sculpture but it depends. Projects like the one that Raphael and I worked on in Norway where it’s made for a particular place. You can’t choose who buys them, but as an artist you can be more or less involved in actually placing the sculpture. That is always possible.

Raphael: If you collaborate with architects, of course.

[Raphael] How does it feel to return to an installed piece years after its creation?

Raphael: After some time you forget a bit about it.When you come back the sculpture has changed, it has gone a bit dirty and used by the people touching it. It gives me a lot of memories of the time I was making it. I like it a lot, to go back to these places.

Tobia: It’s like having a much more time consuming version of a picture book.

[Tobia] You’ve worked with Peter Rosenzweig in his performances, what was this experience like? How can stone be used in a multimedia context?

Tobia: With Peter, we were still in this place in Italy where I met Raphael in the school. He had a history in the place where they used to do performances as well as stone caring and other arts, painting and such. He was looking for collaborators to do this performative aspect, so I joined him for a couple. They’re not theatrical performances, this is very different. They are more just being in the moment and having an activity that you are doing that is somewhat strange because it doesn’t serve a clear purpose. It’s about using stone in that context. It was very much related to the place, this place in Italy where there’s a community of people working around stones. In that sense, the stones were kind of inherent to the performance. I’ve worked on a project with some friends in Italy to make the stones a part of an installation with sensors and lights. It’s a very interesting possibility that is only open to us nowadays. Stone sculpture used to be much more traditional, focused on technique you know. Now we have the possibility to find what are the qualities of stone that really lends itself to other mediums.

Do you consider what you do alchemy? 

Raphael: I think so, alchemy in the sense that we transform it into something that is from our perspective more valuable, because we have added an artistic thought to it, an artistic meaning for ourselves and for other people.

Tobia: It’s an interesting question, specifically about stone sculpture. The stone’s life span is, of course, far longer than our lifespan. From the moment we take it out of the mountain it has already been there for 50 million years. We turn stone into something that is momentarily more valuable or different. From the perspective of the stone itself, it’s just a little moment.

Raphael: I think the answer is from our perspective. From the perspective of nature, we can’t do anything more valuable than nature. We can do different things than nature. Nature can’t make the specific shape we create. You will not find nature making that sculpture there. The polished granite with gold plated surface, you will find different things in nature but not that one.

After this interview I am left with many questions that only time with the stones can answer. As I write, the midterm for Marble Sculpture approaches. I am drawing up plans to turn my oyster into a water puppet stage and learning the benefits of power tools. Our pieces from the course will exhibit at Monopol Open Studios at the end of the semester.

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