Character building

The Pictoplasma festival has grown up – but while there are less costumes and inflatables, it now inspires more than ever

For the past ten years, Pictoplasma has sought to champion contemporary character design and, following early forays into publishing, it has given rise to annual conferences in Berlin and New York that attract a cult following of practitioners, students and aspiring character designers.

I came to Pictoplasma for the first time as a young student in 2006. I have vivid memories of being greeted by a troupe of larger than life characters frolicking in the grounds (an experience akin to being in a slightly bizarre theme park), but this set the scene perfectly for what was to be a chaotic, energetic and entertaining few days. Through a programme of talks, workshops, animation screenings and exhibitions, attendees bonded over a common thread of understanding; building friendships and relationships that far surpassed their short visit. Naturally, my later experiences of the festival have never quite matched up to that exhilarating first encounter.

Nevertheless, expectations were high for Pictoplasma’s tenth anniversary edition – though initially I was disappointed at the absence of the ‘happenings’ and activities with which the festival had become synonymous. This year’s event felt like a much quieter affair, with the heady days of colourful inflatables, illuminated bumper cars and costumed characters something of a distant memory.

At its heart, though, the event is a conference – and one that offers an unrivalled opportunity to hear a range of international artists and designers share their ideas, working process and personal and commercial projects with an audience eager to uncover the driving forces behind their varied careers. This year’s line up of 18 speakers included Kimiaki Yaegashi, Sarah Illenberger, Brecht Vandenbroucke and James Jarvis, who presented a series of exploratory drawings exploring themes of truth, representation and architecture in a marked change of direction from his earlier vinyl toy associations.

The other main attractions were the Portrait Gallery show at the Kaufhaus Jandorf, a grand group exhibition funded by Kulturstiftung des Bundes of 100-plus artworks in response to “the time honoured genre of classical portraiture” (White Noise installation, shown left); and the Character Walk, a tour of 15 art spaces in and around the Mitte and Kreuzberg areas of the city (again, it was a little disheartening to find that last year the walk managed to visit 23 separate exhibitions).

In one of the shows, Colombian artist Diana Beltran Herrera presented What Air May Be, That Is Not (see over page); two exotic birds suspended in mid-flight, constructed entirely from brightly coloured paper. Her work, which seeks to explore the disengaged relationship between humans and nature has a delicate tactile quality, beautifully captured an eerie stillness from which the two birds might wake at any moment.

A short walk from the main conference venue, Instituto Cervantes hosted a solo exhibition by Argentian artist Julian Pablo Manzelli, known as ‘Chu’. His collection of handmade wooden objects and multi-layered paintings owe much to his street art background and science education, exploring the relationship between deconstruction, geometry and abstraction. One of the founding members of Argentinian collective DOMA, a multidisciplinary group known for their conceptual artworks and performances, Chu divides his time between commercial projects, teaching and making his own work, which provides a space to explore alternative themes and ideas and develop his DIY aesthetic.

The joy of craft was also embraced by Belgian artist Benjamin van Oost, who was to be found in the throes of assembling his one man show BAM BAM BAM at Volume Gallery on my first day in Berlin. Drawing inspiration from architecture and the rich history of craft in his hometown of Ghent, van Oost has developed a unique approach to sculpture, constructing imaginative maquettes with hundreds of miniature plastic shapes made from liquid silicone. He likens his working process to playing with his own invented Lego system – in a Pop-Art-meets-craftsmanship approach.

Van Oost’s background as co-founder of Toykyo and Case Studyo has also provided a platform to collaborate with renowned artists on limited edition sculptures, developing a love for three-dimensional objects, which then feeds into his personal work. His recently launched jewellery line, Love Craft, is one outlet for such experimentation. The pure joys expressed through his playful ensembles reflect a child-like spontaneity, which belies the skill involved in their execution.

A few yards away in the Kaufhaus Jandorf, the desolate empty building and former shopping centre now utilised as an exhibition space, was this year’s major group show, The Portrait Gallery. Showcasing an eclectic display of paintings, sculptures and animated video portraits by some of the artists who have shaped the festival over the years, Pictoplasma co-founder Lars Denicke described the essence of the show as “investigating the genealogies of character design in a contemporary twist on classical portraiture. [It’s] re-visiting the fundamental thoughts of abstract, non-representative characters.”

But while justly celebrating its numerous alumni at this year’s festival (it was an anniversary after all), Pictoplasma also continues to look to the future. Last September it launched its Academy, an intensive eight-day course designed to facilitate personal projects through practical hands-on workshops, under the close guidance of professional artists. Parra Torro, one of the first
20 students to participate in the educational scheme (which saw students exhibiting work in the Character Walk show), shared his thoughts on Pictoplasma’s overall appeal: “It’s an endless source of inspiration for young artists – they feel motivated and encouraged to make art and show it to the world.”

With rumours of developing a more professional ‘market place’ within the festival to facilitate talent and client relationships, there’s little doubt that Pictoplasma is evolving. The people behind it are continuing to look for ways to engage and recruit the next generation of artists in their cause – and, of course, to help them show their work to the world.

Lisa Hassell is founder and director of Inkygoodness, a showcase for artists working across illustration, character design and graphic art. See, @inkygoodness. Pictoplasma took place in Berlin during May. For more details on the event, see

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