What is wrong with all of us? Is a piece by one of my favorite contemporary artists, Olaf Breuning. He's hilarious and so smart. He has a new show up currently at Metro Pictures - go see it (thru Dec 5th)! I hooked him up with my friend/artist, Rachel Howe (Teenage Art Manifesto, K48#3) and she asked him some questions for The Bullet...
RH: Your art takes many forms—film, photographs, drawings, sculpture; but the photographs are the works that I had first seen, and which I am most drawn to, and so the works that I brought up the most while we were talking. A lot of the photographs have groupings of people, often in very similar poses and costumes. The multiplicity of the figures does not homogenize them, but in fact seems to give them more power, and because of the small variation in details of each individual in the group, they do not lose their individuality but again seem to gain strength by their unified stance. You mentioned that many of the same thing has more of an effect than only one of that thing. How did the groupings come about?
OB: Exactly how you wrote in the question, I really think that when a group of people does the same thing it becomes a stronger statement. I don’t have to be Einstein to figure that out. The reason why I am fascinated with it is more that I am scared of it. I don’t like when more than 10 people stand together and want the same thing. Unless it is for something good, then maybe yes. At the moment I am working on new photographs for my show at Metro Pictures in the fall. The groupings... I just cannot do them anymore. Even when I am still drawn to it, I just cannot do it anymore... I guess I did too many photos where people stand in a group looking straight into the camera. The new works are more documentations about thoughts.
RH: Do you think about art historical precedents to this device of groupings? I’m thinking of something even like Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, where each figure is basically the same, and they are identified as a group, not singly, but with the variations in their individual features they retain some specificity. In addition, they are posing frontally to the viewer, in the same way as your photographs. The figures in the group photographs become iconic images because they all face front, and become almost like objects, objectified through the flattening of the frontality; at the same time, they are themselves aggressively confronting the viewer.
OB: Wonderful, your questions already answer themselves. Yes, you are right, with the brutal frontal perspective the figures in the photo become demanding for the viewer, aggressive. I like that very much. I always said I could be a Becher student (Bernd and Hilla Becher). It is ironic, they photographed water towers, frontal and as dry as possible. Thomas Ruff, who was a student of them, did the same with his portraits; in my case I have wild scenery but the way I make the photo is the same. Straight from the front. People don’t smile, don’t make gestures... I think it becomes somehow mystical and metaphoric for something. It stands as a sample of a "kind". Or it is just pathetic.
RH: In these group photographs, there is a recurrence of “character”, of someone dressed up to become something, of cartoons, or images from pop culture… the people are static, but infused with extreme meaning, similar to Halloween costume advertisements, in the way that they are presenting a sinister but playful image that is clearly “put on”. In the “Home” film as well, Pokeman masks theoretically turn the wearers into an army of yellow mice. What is this power that the masks, the makeup, the props, etc. holds?
OB: These things are more a reference to our time. And our time is a wonderful melting pot of so many things. You and I know that the best, we live in New York. But I really think with the advanced communication tools we create another "home". Signs are not anymore simple arrows to common meanings. They float around and are read differently from person to person. The yellow Pokeman mask, yes I know it is Pokeman, but I also like them because they are simple funny masks... I try to make a bigger mess of signs than is already the case today. I try to suck things "we know" today into my work and spit them out in the same way to world is doing it. Confusing and unexecpected.
RH: In the photos and films, morbid themes (vampires, skeletons, ghosts), and primal themes (cavewoman, Vikings, primitives, knights, apes) are most prevelant. What draws you to these themes, or using characters that relate to dark or occult, and violence-tinged, motifs?
OB: I left the dark side more or less behind me... I was very interested in references to horror movies and stereotypically dark things. I had once an interview together with H.R. Gieger who designed "Alien". The newspaper thought it would make sense to bring us two together for a talk. He is really into occult things and I realized at that moment that I am not. That I was always more interested in the aesthetic language than the background of it. So, at the moment, today, my works are more colorful. I believe as a normal human being that all of us have a dark side and I’d like to include that forever in my work. Maybe I am a cynical person.I need always a little portion of darkness in my work to make it more accurate to life.
RH: Another theme that recurs is the idea of the OTHER. In the film “Home”, the main character is shown wearing abnormally pale contacts while visiting third world countries, emphasizing his otherness, making him even more exotic in an exotic land. In another scene, an Amish man is forcibly made to wear an ET mask, turning one outsider into a different kind of outsider. How do these different versions of an “Other” figure into your work?
OB: I like to be the "other" by myself. Not that I would walk naked to my studio each morning or do something to stand out in a daily life, but I guess that I am an artist is my urge to be at last, with my work, different, to do something that is belonging to me and what gives me the chance to make a step away from all the idiots surrounding me (don’t misunderstand me, there are a lot of them but luckily I am surrounded by very interesting people).
RH: I wanted to know what the basic idea or theme to all these works was, the main concept that you explore with all the different series, and you responded that it was a view of life today. Is the present tense, the idea of things happening now, of the current moment, a part of this? There is a sense of urgency in the works and, in the films, of disparate but somehow simultaneous events crashing together and creating an image of what the time now is really like.
OB: I don’t know, I try to stay as a person in a wide range of information, mainstream, nerdy-stream, and other streams.....I try to be like a membrane in our time. I guess I would be not happy as a artist to speak only about a specific film of Fassbinder or about one kind of bird... I really like that my art output is similar to the world we live in. The world is confusing, my art should be confusing too.
RH: You were also interested in the idea of people creating fictions, or imagination being a primary motivation for the scenarios in the works. This seems to be accentuated in the films where the main character that we follow is played by your best friend, and I would imagine that the two of you collaborate on ideas a lot, perhaps playing off of the fictions that each one creates. Is this the case?
OB: Sure, when Brian [Kerstetter] and me worked on Home 1 and 2, we tuned into the same fictional world. That was necessary for him to understand what he has to play as a actor, and for me to create a fictional story. Also we know each other very well and two brains work faster than one when it is about ideas. But in general I like fiction very much, more than the real life. It opens up for dreams and desires you just cannot have in buying some milk in the store next door.