How Max Zorn Became The Master of Tape Art

February 17, 2020

Tape art, as the very title suggests, is based on the usage of tape as the prime medium for the production of various artworks. Deriving from urban art in the 1960s, this specific subgenre gained autonomy throughout the century. Regardless of the surface, (wood, cardboard, glass, plastic, etc.) tape layering can result in fascinating two- or even three-dimensional compositions. Tape art is easy to install and remove without leaving a permanent mark, and covering or masking is not necessary, making it perfect for quick urban interventions.

Although it wasn’t very popular, in recent years one artist changed the course of the medium.

Since 2011, Max Zorn gained international attention after posting videos of his actions on the streets of Amsterdam on Youtube. Zorn claims that he came up with an idea while jogging around his native town in the nights.

By focusing on the night atmosphere as a result of the interplay of street lights and shadows, the artist started thinking about creating nostalgic compositions that responded to the site. Willing to make his work visible, Zorn started recording his light interventions through a vlog called Street Art by Max Zorn Making of Tape Art.

Within a year, Max Zorn's tape art went viral, and naturally started receiving calls for TED talks, interviews, emails from assistants to celebrities such as JJ Abrams and Lana Del Rey asking for available work, and galleries interested in representing him.

In 2013 Zorn had his first Miami solo show at a dive bar directly across the street from the world’s best known urban art site Wynwood Walls. All the pieces hanging on bar walls were sold in four days. The following year, Zorn exhibited with Stick Together at SCOPE Miami, again a huge success. Part of this enormous professional and commercial fame is the fact the artist is producing his artworks live in the booth so that the collectors can directly experience how the artwork is made.

To unravel specific details concerning Zorn’s process, as well as the range of influences and inspiration, we asked a few questions that he kindly answered in a brief, yet informative interview.

Street Art by Max Zorn - Making of Tape Art

The Process

Widewalls: For a short while, your artworks went viral and you practically became a star. I am interested in how you perceive stardom in the art world: has such a position affected your art? Have you changed the themes and the way you present them according to the requests of your clients?

Max Zorn: The attention came overnight and I can tell you, I wasn’t ready for it. At the time I was sleeping in a student dorm and lived off of toast and cans of tuna. All of a sudden I got hundreds of emails from galleries, museums, and people I only knew from the cover pages of celebrity magazines. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t touch my laptop for a week or so.

But I also knew that I couldn’t let this thing pass and eventually I jumped in and learned to cope with the new realities. Strangely enough, while my life was turned upside down, I felt a weird calmness settling in when it came to creating my art.

As an artist, you often have to explain and defend yourself and creative choices. That wears you down over time and the longer you wait for your art to make some sort of impact the more you question the whole thing. Success helps greatly to plow through that emotional noise. All of a sudden you don’t have to prove anything anymore. You start trusting your instincts and there is a great deal of freedom that comes with that. But it has a downside, too:

Success curbs the urge to change and experiment and that can be a danger to the creative process. You risk becoming a tamed animal that gets fat in a zoo rather than roaming the prairie freely.

Here is where commissions can help to venture from the safe path. Working with an outsider opens you up for new ideas and concepts. It’s a balancing act though: It can be fun to drag other people’s ideas into your own universe and incorporate them but you can’t let it screw with the integrity of your aesthetic style.

Widewalls: Duct tape certainly is your primary medium, but are you interested in working with other media as well or do you tend to explore the one you are using already further?

MZ: When I ran into the tape as a medium it felt like I had found a weird alien instrument in the streets. So I started dabbling around with it. With no ambition at first, but once I began to understand the stuff I began to love the sound of it and I wanted to see what’s possible yet. The approach is so unique though that I’m not sure if it translates automatically into better skills as a painter or such.

Interestingly, the nostalgic color of the packing tape and the themes of my compositions started forming somewhat of a unity that I don’t want to break up yet.

In many ways, I feel like I’m still at the beginning of this experiment and I’m excited to get better with handling the instrument to eventually play the melodies I can’t quite execute yet. Until then I’m happily stuck with tape.

Max Zorn - Irresistibility of the carefree
Max Zorn - Irresistibility of the carefree

Max Zorn on The Inspiration

Widewalls: Could you emphasize a bit more on the range of the themes you explore? My impression is that the very medium dictates nostalgic and rather cinematic scenes reminiscent of film noir, but what else comes to your attention?

MZ: There are some moments in life when you skate right at the edge of a cliff and you have no idea how this will end. Let’s take two boxers who get in the ring and either rise to fame or get knocked out in front of the whole world. I like those fragile moments that can tilt to either side: Love or heartbreak. Win or defeat. All or nothing. They show us when we are most vulnerable but at the same time at our strongest.

Sometimes this discrepancy happens in quiet moments: When you are looking over a city, the whole world at your feet; and you feel invincible and insignificant at the same time. You somehow know these are important moments but you just can’t put your finger on why, or what they will trigger. It’s more feeling than understanding.

Creating art is my way to grasp these emotions and break them down into a single image. The cinematic style helps me to build a theater stage around those themes. And packing tape, with its sepia tone, draws you automatically back into the mood of a gone-by era. I like that, nostalgia can be a powerful transmitter for stories. All these compositions are fiction but I want them to feel familiar enough to you to connect and add on your own stories.

Widewalls: Having in mind that you started as a street artist interested in hacking the public space and that now your works are being shown in museums and galleries, have you considered extending your practice by delivering something more conceptual or even socially engaged?

MZ: Some street art comes with powerful messages, but I’m just not that good with pointed social commentary. My artworks were always more like little hidden windows into a different world rather than a wakeup call.

My intention comes from a different place. It’s about finding beauty in the ordinary, seeing the potential in the neglected. Turning ugly tape into art is the obvious starter, but the idea moves onto the streets, by turning lamps, cars, and houses into storyboards. And it doesn’t have to stop there.

For example, I’m giving out little artworks to people around the world so they can hang them on street lamps themselves. It’s not a big conceptual leap but perhaps it encourages the idea that art is not only what happens within the frame but that it can transform the space around it in a meaningful way.

Max Zorn - Circus
Max Zorn - Circus

The Maintenance of The Artistic Practice and Future Plans

Widewalls: Can you share with us what was the greatest obstacle you had to deal with on your artistic path?

MZ: My greatest challenge is the balance between private and professional life. The whole art adventure started as a flirt and seems to ends in an obsession. The more success you have the more time you spend creating alternate worlds and bother less and less about the real one. It’s a fulfilling life but you need to snap out of it at times if you don’t want to lose touch completely.

Widewalls: Can you tell us something about your plans for 2020?

MZ: I’m still in awe that Stick Together gallery sold a whole year worth of my artworks at Art Basel Miami. It’s kind of intimidating but it also gives me the great freedom to pick my darling projects, which means less travels and more studio time. Mainly I’ll be preparing a number of large format artworks for a museum show with the Erarta Museum in St. Petersburg (the opening will be in spring 2022).

And soon enough I will start working on the next edition for our Miami show. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep in shape to produce more artworks up on street lamps.

Max Zorn - Tape Art for SCOPE in Miami 2019

Featured images: Max Zorn - Crosslines; The Great Escape; The restless pursuit. All images courtesy of the artist.

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Melano, Switzerland