?Gottfried Helnwein – An Interview – On the Vandalism of the Installation
Ninth November Night” “In this interview with writer Michal Szyksznian, artist Gottfried Helnwein discusses the clash between artists and dictators, the mediocrity of society, and how he dealt with the attempted destruction of his installation “”Ninth November Night”” in Germany.
MS: In common notion, America is seen as the land of freedom. But at the same time it seems to enforce definite canons and models on the world, and put the hand of censorship on the unconventional expression of the individual. I know that you enjoy living in LA, because it gives you freedom. What kind of freedom does LA have to offer?
GH: LA is a strange place. A few blocks from my studio the streets are filled with thousands of homeless people, huddling on sidewalks or staggering through the streets — and from time to time some lost soul is gesticulating franticly and shouting at invisible enemies. I live and work in the so called “”artist district”” in downtown Los Angeles – an innocent little island with old warehouses and brick buildings that look like left-overs from a noir movie set, inhabited by artists, photographers, musicians, skinny girls with nice tattoos, freaks, and Japanese students from SCI-Arc (The Southern California Institute of Architecture) placed in the former Santa Fe Rail Road freight-depot, a concrete block one-quarter of a mile long.
The heart of the artist district is the “”Groundworks”” cafe in a red-painted building across the old, run-down “”American Hotel”” where Bukowski once wrote the screenplay for “”Barfly””. The air is heavily polluted from all these diesel trucks that blow their unfiltered exhaust gases through their erected chrome-pipes into the air of downtown. When I touch my paintings my hands gets black from the layers of black dust, that sets on everything all the time.
But that’s only one ride in the theme-park that is LA. There is also little Tokyo, Chinatown, Mexico, Russia, Armenia, Korea-town, etc. All together more than 140 different ethnic groups and 224 different languages. Here you can find any religion that people ever dreamed up – from the Church of Satan to the Chassidic Jews wearing huge fur hats and tight caftans, like their ancestors wore in Galicia 200 years ago, walking with their children on Shabbat under palm trees in the Californian sun.
In South Central, black kids loiter at street corners with a magnum in their waistband, controlling the drug-trade. And in the heavily gated communities of the rich, private police officers in smart, black uniforms protect all the precious miracles that plastic surgery is creating these days. And all these different people live here in some kind of peaceful anarchy. And of course there is that industry which has fabricated dreams for the whole world since 100 years: Hollywood.
LA is a city without a center, and it has no memory – there is no past and no future, only the here and now. It is like a raw wound that nobody cares to bandage. I never felt so free in my life. I think it’s a freedom that comes from the fact that nobody gives a shit.
MS: It seems that stereotypical thinking and censorship increase the will of crossing the boundaries. I think that these things are necessary for the artist to intensify his expression. What do you think?
GH: Most societies are ruled by mediocre people that have no vision and no imagination. Most rulers are scared of creation and creative people. Artists are funny people. All they want is to touch and move, challenge and surprise others. Dictators hate surprises more than anything else. All they want is to turn their territory into a neat little toy prison camp and play with their little toy people. Push them around, rip a leg or a head off now and then or throw them into the garbage when they are tired of their stupid, little doll faces.
And it’s actually not very hard to convince humans that it is the smartest and safest for them to become puppets and leave all that boring thinking and decision making to the wisdom of God – or to his deputies: the Fuehrers, leaders, Popes, Presidents, Duces, Cesars, Chairmen, and General Secretaries.
Isn’t it interesting that Stalin for example – lord over the life and death of hundreds of million slaves, the biggest war-machinery, armies of secret police and an enormous network of Gulags – was scared of the poems of a lady named Anna Akhmatova? Deep inside tyrants know that a seemingly innocent song or poem can have the potential power to spark off the final big fire that will turn his empire into ashes.
Hitler tried to destroy every artistic expression by frantically burning books and paintings, looting all museums, declaring art “”degenerate””, and in typically German bureaucratic nerd-fashion he even created a Government-agency called “”Reichskulturkammer”” which handed out official certificates to artists that explicitly forbade them to paint or write poetry.
I smelled a little bit of that breath of death, when I had my first exhibition in a museum in Vienna 1971, when somebody stuck labels on each of my paintings with the words “”degenerate art”” on it. I need censorship as much as I need an asshole on my elbow.
MS: Someone destroyed the photographs of children from your “”Kristallnacht”” installation. How do you feel about it?
GH: If I put an installation, a work of art, into a public space, I start a process that I can’t control entirely anymore. I have to be willing to let go, and accept that the emotions and reactions that it might trigger will become part of that work.
Sometimes as an artist you put your finger on a spot that hurts and then you have to be able to confront the screams. And exactly that happened with my “”Ninth November Night”” Installation (in remembrance of “”Kristallnacht””). It was 100-meter-long wall of pictures with 4 meter high childrens’ faces lined up in front of the cathedral of Cologne, and one night somebody came along and cut all the throats of the children. I was startled at first and uncertain of what to do with the cut up sheets of vinyl, but then I decided to just roughly patch them up with tape and include the injury. And although it was originally unintended by me, this attack added another dimension to that work of art and made it more powerful.