A Precious Truth: Sculpture by Hedi Xandt

By Frank Steinhofer
Editorial is open for submissions: https://bit.ly/3aCuaEE

Atop a glistening white marble plinth sits the well-known golden head of Apollo, of otherwise impeccable beauty, were it not for hundreds of aureate rays penetrating his ageless countenance. The blackened body of Saint Sebastian writhes under the pain of several thick arrows lodged in his limbs and torso. His face – gone. Marsyas, the mischievous Satyr, straining as his face multiplies in a thing-esque fit. Skulls plastered with nails and golden giants with bloated bodies of fat and muscle. By way of modern techniques, infusing classic motifs with his dark and brooding spirit, Hedi Xandt conjures nightmarish images of timeless beauty. Something you need to be afraid of, one that you should be afraid of  – but the longer you submit to its dense aura, the more likely you discover a precious truth within.

A Home Of Bones

Growing up in a home that featured its very own ossuary – a place where ‘leftover’ graveyard bones are neatly arranged and kept on display – Hedi forged an early relationship with skulls: ‘This small chapel-like building, it is like a complicated garden shack really, houses the remains of important figures of the past, mostly local nobility and clerics with political influence that had a lot to say back when they were alive. They had been put in the ground or mausoleums in skillfully crafted caskets, but after a few decades it’s all gone and they have to make way for the next generations. So the most prominent bones – skulls and femurs – are taken, cleaned and then put in the ossuary, where they are literally just stacked on each other in a beautiful pattern.’

This particular transition of a human from a person into material has had a profound impact on the young artist. From the moment that he discovered the underlying structures of the body, Hedi couldn’t let go. ‘Some of the first images I drew, and I still have them, are skulls and bones. Two big dark circles and a triangle together in another big circle. I think, in the beginning, everybody worried a bit about my attraction to the morbid. But to me, the images of bones and skulls in particular have never been about death or decay. The awe-inspiring properties of a skull bears testimony to the resilience of life rather than inevitable death. It protects our most distinctive organ from the beginning to the end.’

The very romantic aspect of vanity, says Hedi, means nothing to him – every living thing is alluding to death already, ‘We don’t need a symbol like the skull to remind us of the end when we see a dying planet all around us each day. In a few thousand years, there will be brittle remains of bones and plastics in the soil – now tell me, which of either reminds you of life, and which of death?’

A Face Beneath The Face

Our ‘second face’, as Hedi calls the human skull, is a constant source of inspiration for him. Not because of the obvious shock value, but the thrill of the hidden entity, waiting to come to light as soon as the shroud of flesh fades away. His profound love for the secrets of the skull culminated in his 2013 sculpture series The Longer You Last, which featured the artist’s MRI scanned skull cast in precious materials, propped up in a metal fork.

‘It is a series of self-portraits, not featuring the actual face but the very structure underneath. I had to undergo a complete scan of my head because doctors feared I might have a brain tumor – luckily I didn’t. But as it turned out, at some point in my youth it was cracked on one side. It seems like my head once took a blow, something that hadn’t been noticed. The weeks of anxiously waiting (would I be terminally ill?) were rewarded with the 3D model of my skull and the assurance that this incredible bone once saved my life. The whole ordeal was an eye-opening experience.’

Hedi went on to use the digital model of his cranium to create virtual sculptures, combining the shape of the bone with materials like translucent red glass or silver – and gold.

‘It was a phase of playful experiment – this was right in the middle of graduating from university. I had been creating digital sculptures and renderings since at least 2005, when I was still in school. Before, I got rejected from one art school in Germany because I applied with a portfolio of digital creations. The second one (that I got into) later almost denied me sculpture class because I used to sketch out my volumes in zBrush. Digital art – back then – was some sort of sacrilege because professors didn’t know better and thought it was cheating.’

Hedi quit art school long before masterclass and continued his studies at a university that embraced ‘new’ technology. A necessary step. Once in an environment that allowed every tool, especially welcoming the digital, Hedi felt enabled to create like never before. ‘The design school taught me to strip away the ornament. Today there is no element in my works that has no meaning or exists for aesthetics only. Everything has a meaning, and it’s hiding in plain sight.’

A Cult Of Gold

Personal studies in literature and philosophy further shaped the highly evolved style that the artist is known for today: Masterful interpretations of classic sculpture with an unnerving twist. But there’s more to the pieces than the obvious sculptural glory of old Gods and Demons – Hedi Xandt recognizes the marble statues as symbolic concretions of great abstract truths, much like long-forgotten mystics, whose ideas and understanding of nature fought the ignorant views of their peers. ‘Cults, secret societies and the esoteric are not just obscure story devices, their symbols are far from being dark fantasy adornments. They represent knowledge that has been taken away from our collective consciousness – and I’m not talking about supernatural fiction, incantations and spells, but factual and mathematical truths about our life in the universe, as it was collected by pagan societies long before our recorded history.’

One of Hedi’s most widely-known pieces, The God of The Grove from 2014, is one of those pieces that directly reference the connection of ancient pagan knowledge and greco-roman deities: Within the torn and destroyed face of the goddess Aphrodite sits a shiny skull, mandible ajar, with a golden worm-like tongue slithering its way out of the Goddess. While the blackened bronze body itself is the literal image of a deity – the exoteric – the skull and tongue represent the esoteric, the hidden truth that finds its way back to the light as the meaningless hull crumbles. Though the combination of black and gold make for great compositions, the precious element itself plays a more meaningful role in the works of Hedi Xandt.

‘Gold doesn’t change like silver or copper, it doesn’t tarnish. You can pull a 3000-year-old golden bracelet from the ground and it will look just as shiny and new as in the days it had been worn. It’s the one true divine element on earth. The ancients of the Americas have been bewitched by it, objects of gold were sacred instruments of the gods. To me, this is its true value. The other thing is with gold, it makes everything look good. Humans are thieving magpies, they see something shiny and they want it. It’s only natural. But that’s only part of the deal. It takes composition, knowledge and restraint to make gold work beyond the crass.’

Hedi’s main goal, at first, was to create the digital representation of a New God, a fetish much like the biblical golden calf, that many people would kill for – but that could not be owned, because ‘you can’t own a God’. A plan that worked.

A Divine Influence

In the midst of the neon-drenched vaporwave movement, the sculpture immediately became an internet hit with hundreds of thousands of reposts on social media platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, sparking a new black-and-gold (and skull) trend that lasts until today. ‘The fact that the sculpture has developed a life of its own fills me with great joy. It is exactly what a God does: Influencing people all over the world. It’s out there and it’s being worshipped.’

Even though inquiries roll in almost every day, the sculpture has not been sold. The studio sells bronze copies of the original sculpture – just the head, dubbed a ‘relic’ – but not the original. ‘People want it because of the gold. Because of the flashy looks. But the collector will have to give more than just money, they must want to own it because of the idea. You got to commit to a God, man.’

To this day, Hedi counts roughly 600 individual – known – tattoos of his sculpture on people’s arms, legs, even whole backs have been plastered with the image of the God Of The Grove. Intricate drawings and even cakes have been created from its likeness, it’s been (unofficially) put on T-Shirts and whatever product there is. Workshops are selling cheap resin knockoffs online, and there’s tons of album covers ‘featuring’ the iconic golden skull. But besides all the copycat flattery, Hedi’s signature style – golden bones set in black bronze or white marble – seems to have sparked a whole genre of artworks and an aesthetic that – once applied lavishly – easily drifts into the decorative.

‘Ornamental is not bad. On the contrary, it is what most will find enjoyable. And even though you might see my work at times as decorative, it’s not my main focus. The beauty in my work comes from the honesty of a hidden truth. And that is what differentiates it from others.’

A Desire For Illusion 

Hedi’s work becomes highly ornamental, though, when he applies it to more commercial projects, such as the album cover artworks for Beyoncé’s The Gift or, most recently, the collaboration project Rumble In The Jungle by South African artists Tresor and The Scorpion Kings.

‘I am not a typical research person. I dont go googling about after a briefing, looking for moods. Every resource I have is kind of there already. Pictures I’ve seen, books I’ve read, stories I’ve come across – and I always sneak those into the work.’ The juxtaposition of different art periods, styles and eclectic cultural references are fundamental cornerstones of Hedi’s work. ‘There’s high value in an ornament, if you know where it comes from and what it stands for.’ Nothing is just superficial, ever.

An apt user of digital and traditional creation techniques, Hedi’s work has always been about the attraction of the physical and the impossible of the virtual. He employs the use of a 3D scanner to create assets for his library, sometimes creating small maquettes in clay that are digitised and refined in the process – constantly blurring the line between the tangible and the immaterial. ‘People often ask me: How did you come up with the funds for that sculpture? And when I tell them that it’s just an image, a rendering – they refuse to believe it. But it’s also happened that followers see the picture of an actual sculpture on the net and think it’s digital. It’s a trick that goes both ways – and I love it. Because it says a lot about physicality. An object does not have to exist in order to make an impact. It can all be an illusion and still open your eyes – For me, this is the most important aspect about art.’

A New Reality

Merging the digital with the restraint of the physical has been part of Hedi’s work right from the beginning. ‘The advent of digital art is long overdue’, says Hedi when asked about NFTs. ‘It’s not like this is new – it’s just now that the digital has been recognized by more traditional institutions. I’m not saying that this was necessary – because, fuck what others say – but in the end, it’s about being valued as an artist. It’s a way of taking back control, but also of expressing new concepts for sculpture.

Published on SuperRare is one exemplary new concept, Koschei The Deathless (2021). Part of a series of seven unique sculpture designs, it explores the notion of ‘hiding’ the collector’s soul in the decentralized web, effectively binding his identity to the piece in the blockchain. In addition to owning the NFT and thus the sculpture itself, the individual in possession of the elaborate urn design also owns the privilege to be entombed in the actual bust.

Hedi’s latest addition to the uniques on SuperRare is the exclusive black version of his classicist bust Impurità (2020-21), of which the owner will not only receive the NFT, but also the actual high-resolution digital sculpture model and the original life-size black-and-white Carrara marble bust.

‘My work is constantly shifting – from worldly to otherworldly, from concrete to abstract, from digital to physical. I want my NFTs to reflect this, in all aspects.’

Hedi Xandt (*1988) lives and works in Hamburg, Germany

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