The Explosive Life of ‘artist-alchemist’ Raphael Hefti

Part abstract painter, part mad scientist, Swiss artist Raphael Hefti’s education in mechanics and electronics bursts through in his outlandish techniques. His work involves exploding various powders and materials. His choice of title for a recent Camden exhibition reveals something of the spirit he brings to his works, ‘Launching Rockets Never Gets Old’. His extreme and eccentric methods caused him to be dubbed by the Financial Times ‘a kind of artist-alchemist of image’.

Key to his process is a moss called lycopodium, which he nicknames ‘witch powder’ for its ‘explosive qualities and historical links to the occult’.

Raphael Hefti's Lycopodium, 2011

For his Lycopodium series, he travelled around the mountains hand sourcing the material, before taking them home and drying them out to release their fine white dust. He explains that ‘the resulting series of explosions creates, over time, celestial, abstract patterns in a rainbow of colours, determined by the heat’.

Throughout the process, the canvas survives these explosions unscathed as the explosions flow upwards and the powder itself masks the sheet.

One of Hefti's pieces in progress.

One of Hefti’s pieces in progress.

But such dangerous techniques are not without consequences. He explained in one recent interview with alarmingly dryness and insouciance, how one day whilst working in his studio, he hit the wrong detonator, blowing his car into the air and causing it to drop some distance away away. It landed, as chance would have it, ‘only a few kilometers away from where the World Economic Forum was occurring in Davos’. Perhaps less surprisingly, ‘charges followed and he was unable to gain entry into the US for three years’. It is a bizarre tale of circumstance, but one so weird you couldn’t make it up.


1097-2106-Raphael Hefti Lycopodium 2012 a4 1

I first saw Hefti’s work in the White Cube gallery last summer. In the White Cube’s blank, dentist like sparseness, Lycopodium dominated all gaze in its state as a set of three panels each measuring an impressive 6 meters each.

His works reflect something of the chaos and highly charged energy of Hefti’s life. They strike me as something of an astronomical survey of the night sky, dipped in tie dye. They have a true claim to being original and inimitable. It is not likely that we’ll see anything quite like this for some time, unless someone equally bizarre and brave steps up to the plate, explosives in hand.