I’d like to quote Elsy Lahner briefly: „For the artist himself, TOMAK is a fictional character, an antithetical position, the opportunity to counter what our society considers acceptable.“ How important do you consider the breaking of taboos, these excesses of the everyday? Especially in your current series you refer to the Marquis de Sade in one of the titles and work with a Chanel logo. Does that reflect this need to cross lines? I mean the images are powerful. They slap you in the face. They stimulate. How do you see your use of text in this regard? Especially the literature used has a very distinctive content.
I look for abysses. I don’t know if these are my abysses, or whether it’s necessary to expose others to those abysses. Because de Sade is the anti-Kant. I want to represent a certain antithesis. That brings us back to the TOMAK persona – a nom de guerre as Gerald Matt put it so well. Like Lenin.
It also communicates strength.
TOMAK says he is TOMAK, and Falco says he’s Falco, and Madonna says she’s Madonna. Let’s stick to Madonna. She has always embodied the opposite of the Madonna. This OPPOSITION is a very important point of art in general. The OPPOSITION is also ANTI. That’s why artists like Nietzsche bring up the Antichrist. You have to present society with its opposite, put an abyss in your picture that might not constitute an actual abyss, but rather a different perspective on a problem. The problem of humanity. The problem of God. The problem of civilization. Using these artistic possibility helps to refine the way we look at a problem. The problem of viewing art. The problem of networks, for example.
Networks? To what extent is that expressed in the work?
My pictures are woven together by networks. By veins, for example.
So, in the anatomical sense?
In the symbolic sense: these veins, these networks, these lines, these webs. Just like nature, which is woven together by networks. When you look at a river from above, it’s like a system of veins. My handwriting is the same, and it is meant to be read that way. The same goes for machines, circuits, computer circuitry. That gets also woven into these pictures to illustrate these networks. The interesting thing is that I come from a time when a household still only had one phone.
A lack of networking, that is.
A lack of communication. The communication mania we have now obviously brings about its own problems, especially in the sense of eavesdropping, for the purposes of spying on the public. That’s always been the goal of the state, and it became reality long ago. You can also take a terrorist approach to that. I can even imagine doing performances on that topic at some point.
You would do performance- and intervention-based work?
Yes. I’ve always done performances from time to time. There were about ten performances, I think, at Kunsthalle Vienna alone. These were always performances that originated from my ‘drawing texts’, which I then staged.
What were those like?
With actors. Projections. A rock band. It was always a huge spectacle. Gerald Matt encouraged it. Initially he thought that I was a performance artist. Until he saw my pictures at the Kunsthalle. This was also a big achievement for me, showing 25 paintings at the Kunsthalle, in a country where painting has always been neglected. That’s something you cannot emphasize enough. We’re suddenly talking about graphic art again, because here you can talk about the content. But it’s very difficult for curators and other decision makers in the arts to talk about painting.
It’s become an antithesis by now.
The perception of course is that painting is something sensual. But my paintings come from the graphic work, which comes, in turn, from the word. But in the end a good picture is a good picture. Who is able to judge what a good picture is? Not many! Having this ability to judge takes you further and further away from people who, for example, have studied art history for two or three semesters. It takes them forever to understand what Martin Kippenberger, for example, meant with his „Handpainted Pictures.“ Curators are only now beginning to understand these pictures. And when a curator understands it, a gallerist will understand it, and in the end a buyer will understand it. That takes a while.
What do you think about the theorization of art in general?
I am rather talking about something that comes from the outside. Thus not directly from the artist, not even necessarily from the curator, but rather the general theorization of art, the exaltation of art, the auratic aspect of art that is often added, and a lot of people are ‘puking’ their opinions all over it. In the end, no one really knows anything. What do you think about this overtheorization? The idea that art, respectively the deeper meaning of art always has to be something sublime? Maybe it’s meant to be direct and not sublime? Maybe it should slap you in the face.
Kippenberger matches this question perfectly. Because he actually kept bringing this auratic aspect of art back to its essence, though to this day not everybody understands that. I have been to Frankfurt recently, where I spoke to two gallerists, and I realized that the Germans have gone back to the Biedermeier era. It started with the Leipzig School, and now they’re painting hedges.
It’s easily digestible …
It’s bourgeois – German! So I said: „But you have people like Jonathan Meese.“ And he says, „Yes, but he doesn’t sell.“ Then I said: „Sure, a fucking hedge, of course every German Biedermeier industrialist is going to hang one of those up in his drawing-room.“ But it isn’t art. Today, people discuss art in terms of ranking. Of course, an artist who sells well is going to have a good gallerist. That good gallerist will then get the artist into a good museum.
It really is a kind of commercial treadmill.
These days, if it’s tasteful and pleasant it can be easily sold to a Russian prole. What kind of people are art buyers? They’re real estate people, construction magnates; they’re a bunch of proles with money. They have no understanding of art. They visit an art fair and buy a fucking hedge or some other nicely painted shit. They understand that. That’s the art market. The word „art market“ didn’t exist twenty years ago. Take pop music, for example. There’s good pop music, but up at the top there’s the worst crap ever. That’s how you have to look at it. The slicker the shit they make, the more people will buy it.
So it’s better to dissociate oneself from this commercial treadmill and these buyers?
I earned a lot with the drawings, you know. Every idiot wanted one of those drawings, and they all got one. Until I said stop. I could still be doing that. Then I’d be known for the drawings, I’d probably be in the Museum of Modern Art. It really was a treadmill. But I said to myself, this constant, daily repetition of the same shit is so boring. I have too many ideas. So I started making sculptures. It was a disruption to what I had been doing, though it still had the same theme. But I made sculptures. Then I made these collages, in which I completely destroyed this image of myself. I thought I was done with that. During the past two years I had some great exhibitions of my paintings, some great achievements. My work was bought by major collections. So I thought I was finished, and then suddenly I am invited to participate in the portraiture exhibition The Marked Self.
Isn’t it nice though to return to drawing? Or do you look at drawing differently now?
I want to make it even better. I want to make it even more sculptural. I want to give myself more time. I’ll only make six or seven drawings, and then go back to painting. I’m happy to do it for one-off things like this one, for a museum. You have to. It’s an accomplishment, after all, and should be celebrated. You can always challenge your own work. Your own oeuvre. There are only a few artists who did that over and over again, Picasso for example. Closure is always a wonderful thing in life. I mean, to spend a lifetime with the same woman, that’s boring. You have to be able to bring things to a close. You have to make new conquests, new discoveries. That’s what it’s about. What’s on the other side of the mountain? Is there anything? If you don’t go, you’ll never know.
But won’t this restless pursuit of life kill you eventually?
No, I think that those who are really driven live to be very old.
If they don’t happen to slam into a tree.
This state of being driven has something beautiful to it as well. The point at which I felt the worst – mentally, physically, and emotionally – was when I was stuck in this commercial treadmill. Another five drawings here, another twenty there, and the collector wants another five, and so on. I had to make a clean break, and it had to be rigorous, in terms of the gallery as well.
That was difficult in your case. You left the gallery. You’re working together with LISABIRD Contemporary now?
Exactly, and I work with others as well. These are young people. With Lisa Kandlhofer I’m participating in fairs in Istanbul, have solo shows in Dallas, maybe solo shows in Vienna, and so on. She’s also in the process of establishing herself. She has a good international network. That’s very important to me.
She generally promotes good artists.
And makes a good impression as well. Travels a lot. That’s very important. The older the gallerists get, the more likely they are to sit around in their galleries and instead of going outside, they let the people come to them. That’s the wrong approach. I need a young mind. I need a young spirit. I need a young will. I need interaction.
Why are galleries still expected to have a cultural obligation? That’s what the museums do. And they do it well. They make an effort. I think that galleries per se are no longer entitled to put on brilliant exhibitions. They don’t even need to have a physical space anymore, theoretically. Their job is to sell. To increase artists‘ visibility. Auction houses don’t flaunt wonderfully curated, political exhibitions either.
Most studios are bigger than galleries. But the galleries have 25 artists, and you can’t represent 25 artists. My advice to gallerists has always been that you can represent a core group of five people. That’s plenty. That means an exhibition of two-month at the gallery, and the rest of the day is spent getting these artists known to museums, collections, art associations, to do little promotions, to get to know the artist. In a case like that I’d be happy to be represented exclusively. But not when everything just gets fired off quickly. And that’s what usually happens.
I am always surprised by what’s happening today. I came to Vienna at a very interesting time. Influenced by people like the Wiener Gruppe, Günter Brus, Attersee. Attersee did some really great things and had some big successes. Because his paintings took an opposite stand to the negativity in Austrian art at the time. Which makes some of his paintings seem all the more malevolent. My criticism of all this Actionism stuff is that it actually constitutes a violation of one’s own soul, the soul of the poor little sensitive artist. And then this poor little sensitive artist points to his distress and helplessness in the face of society. But I’m a child of the 80s, where people just set fire to things. That’s more my kind of thing, of course. Though the visual language and also the physicality of Actionism are still incredibly fantastic and influential.
Especially Brus, I would say.
Brus, Schwarzkogler, etc. – Muehl is also very important. All of them are great artists. Already during the worldwide hippie phase – the Fantastic Realists, who also came from Austria, were a part of it – they made work that was thoroughly anti-art. You won’t find the Fantastic Realists anywhere today. And maybe that isn’t the fate they deserve, I have to say in all honesty. But there’s just no lobby behind them. That’s the market for you. Who knows what will happen to certain things being hyped right now, and how low they’ll sink. That’s my point. It’s similar to stocks, to real estate. Warhol is always at the top because of two American collectors. One of them always puts the work up and the other buys it.
They also maintain his value.
And that brings us to the auctions. This is where it is done. In reality it’s manipulation.
You probably have manipulations in any market. You have to keep the market value up after all.
That’s totally legitimate. They keep Andy Warhol’s market value up. Suddenly instead of 50 Marilyns there are 500, wherever they might come from…
You almost have to respect the forgers.
I hope they’re getting a cut of the profits. That’s the market. This word „art market“ is to blame for certain undesirable developments, especially regarding young art, respectively modern, contemporary art. There are Documenta artists you’ve never heard of before and will never hear of again afterwards. In the past, exhibiting at Documenta meant you had it made. Today things are different. There’s artistic development and then there’s market development. I like the artistic development. If I were to follow what the market dictates, then I would only draw. Easy. But I want to develop artistically. I’m lucky enough to have recognition. The only recognition that’s really worth anything is that of other artists. And I have that. I look for it. What constantly gets publicized, though, are these nicely painted pictures. We should really be finished with these nicely painted pictures. That’s my opinion.