Tanja Widmann: I’d like to start this conversation by thinking about the painting Masken (2001), which was more or less responsible for our meeting in the first place. I’d like to take it again as a point of departure for this talk. Let’s see how far we can get, keeping our focus and our conversation centered around it, and to what degree this allows some of your other works to be drawn in, too. Several points of reference come up for me when I look at this picture again. On one hand, it reminds me of Watteau. The staginess recalls a theatrical setting, but it’s not so much that the figures presented here would actually inhabit or activate a stage. This staged quality begins at the moment of disguise and encompasses the figures’ gestures and masks as well. The signifiers have been freed from content here, like with Watteau. If the costumes, gestures, and masks were bound together in a theater piece, in one single narrative, they would be loaded with specific meaning. But here they remain signs, which are powerfully set down, which evoke meaning, but remain suspended. As illegible, quasi-hollowed out signs, they grab our attention; as a viewer, I can only reach the conclusion that what they indicate is absent.
The group that appears before me carries with it a promise of unrealized utopia, and evokes the free experimental theater groups and socially critical formations of the 1960s and the 1970s. At the same time, the faces of the figures, some of the materials, and the painting style really feel contemporary. As the viewer, I feel that the image appeals to and addresses me personally, but just the same multiple boundaries are drawn. It’s exactly the theatricality, the group dynamic, and the location of the scene in the painting that render the exhibition space fully un-dramatic, quotidian, and sober. In a similar way, the collectivism of the group also feels foreign and distant. In this ambivalence between appeal and distancing, between the mundane and the extraordinary, a maelstrom opens that cannot be closed, a recurring phenomenon in some of your other work as well. What constellations of groups and relationships are you invoking?
AM: I think your description is really interesting. In fact, it wasn’t until these last few years that I noticed that my childhood in the early 1970s was really influential for me. I was born in 1968 and went to an anti-authoritarian kindergarten. We played with mud, painted the walls, and were allowed to run around naked in the woods. My parents devoted serious thought and discussion to our upbringing, and a goal was definitely to make us into free individuals who were in a position to deal with each other in a nonviolent way. The quest for an ideal society was even embedded in our children’s books, by Friedrich Karl Waechter or Alexander Sutherland Neill, for example. Besides that, we would play dress-up a lot, my mom would shoot Super 8 movies, and we would put on little plays and photo-narratives. When I was looking at Masken, it brought up memories about those photos, and that’s how the book Teenage Pantomime (2002) came about.
Later, we moved from the country to the suburbs, and I suddenly became a brooding loner. It was the social life and relationships of my early twenties that first brought back those feelings of community that I’d had in childhood. But love and friendship in young adulthood are very complicated affairs. On top of that I was reading Nietzsche, Barthes, Elias, and Wittgenstein. And I got really involved in studying the theory of social and mentalité history, which is based on the assumption that there can’t be an objective description, but which is nonetheless made up of the tedious collection of evidence for one particular version. What came out of this for me was not the desire to make art about the impossibility of truth (in the representation of reality or the inherent rules of the medium), but rather to create my own realities. I started by making photo-collages that had a very convincing effect, but were spatially or temporally confusing. Then I staged images with actors, and took photos. These served as the basis for my paintings.
The series titled L’invitation au voyage (1999–2001) attempts to evoke rather than symbolically represent interior conditions. I noticed after I finished the first part, Freunde und Liebende (1999), that it wasn’t enough for me to portray the individuals from the outside. Feelings weren’t so much embodied in the later paintings as they were “enacted” or “performed” because it wasn’t supposed to be about my feelings in relation to the world or about how I could convey these by means of a painterly hand. It was about the representation of something that was in the world and in other people—and more than anything that took place between them.
TW: Let’s look at this question of performance. Could you elaborate your definition of it? What does it mean for you that whatever is translated into the images, whether it’s feelings or specific constellations, the evocation of a desire for specific historical ideas of the ideal society and shifting it to the now, while at the same time this desire is precisely not embodied by the figures represented ? Neither embodiment, in the sense of a complete and uplifting identification, nor (self)-realization seems to me to be called up in your work. For me, the thing that maintains the suspense in the experience of your work is exactly this strange simultaneous layering of distance, evacuation, and hollowing-out on top of a recharging.
Performing, in my opinion, also always implies a takeover, a transference: whatever creates the possibility for dislocation. This non-identifying gesture also ties in with a challenge to the sometimes even too idealistic sense of self-realization as it sometimes appears in 1960s’ concepts. What I’m more interested in is a position like the one Judith Butler proposed. In this questioning of the possibility of a “practice of freedom,” what her position doesn’t lose sight of is the constitution of a self through codes, rules, norms, etc., which precede and affect us. Clearly though, the formation of the self isn’t really entirely determined by this field of norms; they can still be reflected and challenged. In this regard (and in relation to Foucault), Butler speaks of a similarity to something “like an originary freedom . . . Something similar, indeed, but apparently not quite the same.“ I think this dislocation is really important for me in your work, in the framework of a fiction, the staginess we were discussing before, etc.
AM: An answer is hard for me to formulate here, because you’re asking for something which has to defy any description and or fixed meaning, which takes place in another realm. But I’ll try it like this anyway: for me, really important terms like freedom and happiness can’t be brought into representation. Because of this, the pictures with their actors can only enact something. The idea that something unrepresentable becomes perceptible can only be reached through the “as if.” The unrepresentable has to do with being outside of yourself: a condition I’m really interested in. I find it really dreadful being trapped in your own body, in your own head, in mortality. But also in cultural conventions, in an adherence to the rules that always forgets it’s historically changeable, in ascriptions of identity. Where I paint people or work with them in film, I get a little “outside of myself” and into the artwork, into which the viewer, in turn, can remove themselves as well. That works best with an protagonist who’s already inclined to position himself “outside”. This could be a drag performer, but also the bum that positioned himself on the fringes of society. So my sympathy goes out to anyone who wants to create a new persona for themselves, especially in fields that will never belong to high culture. Like the street mime in Video (2001) and My Very Gestures…Enchanted (2001). She perfected her art to the degree that she could hold her eyes open for minutes at a time. At the beginning, she cries with open eyes, because they stay moist that way. This is melodramatic, but the pathos seems fitting to me.
TW: I think this performance is interesting because the demonstration of a capacity to hold your eyes open is a performance of nothing, but a nothing that still stirs the body, calls up affects, which still appears as a pathos formula. This leads me directly to Warhol’s early work in film and the screen tests. Here as well nothing was represented, it was potentiality that waspresented: a kind of a visage, a surface, a machine. Complexity emerged, though, in the relationship between elements and power, and at the same time a maximal reduction, through the meeting of pure surfaces and affects queering time. Group constellations become a central factor in his productions, which allowed for the reflection of both the working order of Hollywood and contemporary artistic settings. The specific use of the camera gave Warhol the option of having the group, the individuals always in view, to record as well as to promote the circulation of desire, and the formation of the self in the capitalist machine.
AM: I just reread Warhol’s books. I find the films really funny; they’re almost like slapstick ideas. Like when someone’s face is filmed while he is been given a blow job (Blow Job, 1964). It’s an experimental scenario but one that has no other goal than to give you the chance to see what you really want to see. Or Sleep (1963): he explained that no one slept anymore, so he wanted to hold on to the experience of this remarkable phenomenon. Then you have to imagine how a bunch of people on speed would try to watch these movies. Or even to film a building that, well, can’t move. This kind of a sharp wit (sharp, actually, because it’s so banal), I find in Duchamp as well. For me, it was metal dogs that look alive when painted because the real dogs they refer to don’t have any fur (Xoloitzcuintle, 2005), or a giant motor that’s a completely immobile object itself but is made to put things into motion. And because of the medium of painting, of course, it has to be rendered immobile again (Motor, 2007). The characteristics of the medium are performed, so to speak, as an elegant gesture, which makes me think of Duchamp’s 1916 semi readymade With Hidden Noise—as a rich covering for an invisible content that only the viewer can generate. With me, it’s all terribly serious—almost overdramatic—but at the same time very tongue-in-cheek as soon as it’s about art. The mime staging herself as a statue is the opposite of the lifeless stone that allegedly possesses vital energy (Rare Desert Stone, 2005).
TW: That also makes me think about Agamben’s writing on gesture, which he describes as a space of potentiality but also as a figure of transference, as a performance of communicability. Quoting Mallarmé, he discusses pantomime in this regard as that which renders the most familiar gestures alien in their performance. As such they remain “suspended . . . between desire and fulfillment, perpetration and its recollection.” This pantomimic quality seems to me to show up in your later films as well. What stands out here, too, is the combination of the everyday and the familiar with the purposeless, brought together and represented by means of an extraordinary action. I have to think about the movements in No School Today (2005), which are between “potentiality and act,” something like a combination of play, everyday activity, dance, and martial arts. Of course, what I’m calling dance, because of the unbelievably slow and sluggish movement seems more like the performance of the body’s potential, as a dimming as well as an experiment with new possibilities. What does this speechless theatricality mean to you?
AM: Agamben’s formulation is as precise as you can be when you want to describe something that’s impossible to describe. The problem is that it would implode just in the moment at which it could become communicable in the sense of codification, signification, or narration. Because of this, pantomime that signifies the everyday but without the objects we’re used to using is totally uninteresting to me. That mime I worked with was the only one I ever noticed on the street, because she was so absurdly good in her performance that represented nothing. I’m interested in dance that spins a kind of precise ecstasy using pantomimic elements, like early breakdance, krumping, or M’balax. And of course in Parkour.
It’s worth noting that the pictures themselves are not ecstatic, but rather perform ecstasy, just like these dancers, only through the development of grand precision and mastery of movement, are able to create ecstasy. And they achieve this mastery through unbelievable amounts of work and energy invested in something that produces no goods whatsoever, not even cultural value. I don’t know anything in modern dance that looks in that direction. Maybe Wayne McGregor. I’m bored incredibly quickly if I notice that someone is trying, with all these movements and gestures, to get something across to me that I’ve already known for a long time.
In my films, the first step is simply to do something in a different way. This something different can’t have a purpose or a goal, or it would be just more of the same. And it has to take place in specific surroundings. It is only in Tanz RGBCMYK (2007–2008) that the dancers “perform” elementary colors on a dark, empty stage, but I’d like to show the paintings with Rausch (2008), a film showing ecstatic dancing in the very real Club Basso in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district.
The pictures and films are couriers or vehicles—like in Vodoun where people are ridden by gods. For me, there are no gods and nothing to pray to them for. Nonetheless, I have the feeling that I’m evoking a space in which I don’t find myself alone. The representation through actors is like calling out a name without knowing what entity, what being it summons. This invocation has to happen in some corner of the living room, or out on the street, not in a church. And it has to obey certain laws. Actually, though, it knows it’s aiming into the void, because there isn’t anything there. Only what we create for ourselves. Maybe that’s where your feeling of alienation comes from, since actually there just aren’t any promises.
TW: This as-if leads me to a somewhat differently directed question. What makes the photorealistic tradition of painting possible for you? By referring to the concept of photorealism, I’m trying to bring several things together: that you’ve subscribed to a certain realism in painting and, at the same time, photos have often had an important significance for you as the basis, the reference point. What’s interesting to me is this double layer. The photo you use is already a staged gaze, fixed on a potential constellation of elements. These elements, if dissembled, could also be reassembled a new way before returning to the painting with specific difference. Just the same, this layer of the photographic is embedded to a certain extent within the painting.
At the same time, it also allows the elements of the real to break through in a certain sense—leading to a kind of disruption. Here we might also need to reformulate this notion of realism in more precise terms. Hal Foster, for example, attempts to apply this concept of the real to Lacan’s seminars on the traumatic. Using this reference as a point of departure, he ultimately also understands super-realism in relation to surrealism and the inclusion of photographic elements in Appropriation Art, differentiates their diverging relationships to the real. In doing so something like the decision to celebrate and/or question or exhibit illusionism would be important, but also questions of de-realization, the attraction of surfaces, etc. How would you understand this idea of realism in the context of your work?
AM: For the paintings and in the films, I work together with people to whom I leave a lot of freedom. I usually have images in my head, but they change as I work on them with others. It goes so far that for Dekonditionierung (2007–2008), I just asked the actors to follow my directions to act out a different rule of communication each day, but otherwise they were left to improvise freely. Afterwards come really long periods of time in the editing or painting process, however, where I bring out what happened with my actors, on the one hand, but also what I want to see. Because these are people I’m interested in, it seems pointless to me to alienate them in my images. As with culture at large, my view is naturally influenced by films and photography. On top of that, I believe that the kind of painting from which I borrow certain allusions, was already determined by the use of optical media. In the last few years I’ve also started to be interested in shifted perspectives and in the application of a certain hand that leaves the picture to pulsate a little. That doesn’t mean, though, that I think of this as a more “natural” view than the view through a lens. I gave Mal de ojo (2005) that title because I meant both the sinister look and pain in the eyes. The pictures have a traditional effect. They are actually disturbed, though, in a painterly way and because of their content, which makes me really happy. In this series, like in The Royal Mummies (2006), it’s a lot about the question of timelessness, about the strange possibility that through the artworks you might create a vehicle that can allow something to time-travel over vast eras, which the viewer might encounter as living even if it’s clearly only dead matter.
I have always called myself a “realist”, but I would use the word as Pier Paolo Pasolini did, as divorced from “naturalism”. For him, film is a system of signs in which reality signifies itself. A tree “plays” a tree. Through being placed in a context it becomes a “kinem”, it becomes possible to see it as if reality (or God, according to Pasolini) were to “speak” through it.
Pasolini’s tremendous grief over the passing of old cultures could be called traditional; it also seems inconsistent with his Marxism. Subconsciuosly he might have been yearning for the “age of similarity” (Foucault), in which every object had a potentially sacred significance. This longing comes from the amazement over the existence of all these things, animals and people, and despair over the fact that they are will all very soon be gone. If all these things could be brought to a process of signification—in a way that they signify “themselves” —then the process of transience might be forestalled. I see something similar with Hubert Fichte or in another way with Yasushi Inoue: the search for a possible, complex language that speaks not “about” reality, but “through” it. This gives rise to a certain obsession with detail, because without the details, nothing can be said.