1. September 2003
Editor in chief
YUICHI KONNO TALKS WITH GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN
“Children and lunatics cut the gordian knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.” Jean Cocteau
Yaso: 1. About the images of the Nazis.
You began your life in the wake of World War II in Vienna, and you have often used Nazi images in your works. I suppose you received very diverse responses in 1960-70s when people still remembered those tragic sights and experiences vividly as opposed to what you get today when young people only know about the war through books and films. For example, we see many works of art in which artists combine Nazi images and the ones the Nazis banned as "degenerate" art.
Do you intend to make any differences in the way you treat the Nazi-images today from decades ago, or is your methodology the same?
Let me try to explain how I ended up using this imagery in my work – it’s far more simple and less scientific than you might think.
My art is an ongoing dialogue that I started 30 years ago with my public. Since the early days of my childhood I was under the impression that the world I lived in was a madhouse. I could never figure out what this was all about, nothing seemed to make much sense. People around me, especially grown-ups who pretended to be in charge, acted extremely weird. Everybody seemed to be entangled in a web of complex invisible rules and laws.
I figured this out because whenever I got smacked or kicked I was told that I had just violated one. I always thought – how did I end up in a place like this? What was I doing here? The only thing I knew was that this was not home – I didn’t belong here. But who was I then? Where did I come from? Obviously I was in a state of total amnesia.
However, for the time being I seemed to be stuck in a no-fun two-dimensional world -- a cheap, silent, black and white movie in slow motion. What I didn’t know then was that I had been born in Vienna shortly after the second of the two world-wars that my stupid ancestors had caused within the last 30 years – and lost.
Many buildings were in ruins, destroyed by the bombs of the allied forces
now occupying the city. I never heard anybody sing and I never saw anybody
laugh. And when I found the photographs of my father, my grandfathers and my
uncles all in uniforms of Hitler’s army, I started to ask questions.
Unfortunately, I was speaking either in the wrong tounge or they also suffered
amnesia, because I never got any answers. But I was a very insistive child
and I never gave up asking, despite the fact that it didn’t get me anywhere.
When I was 18, there was this one miraculous moment when I suddenly knew that there was a way out: I had to become an artist. And I started to paint. I didn’t know much about the art-world and other artists, and I didn’t care about styles and techniques. I just began to formulate my old questions now as images, and step by step I developed my own visual language.
But I was not prepared for the avalanche of emotional reactions that my little watercolor-paintings triggered. I was quite surprised to realize that suddenly I seemed to be in possession of a superior magic language, capable of cutting through everything and reaching deep into the hearts of people and moving and touching them.
And to my amazement this nation of mutes started to talk, to respond. I suddenly found myself in a very powerful dialogue with a growing number of people. It never stopped and became the momentum and destiny of my life.
Yaso: 2, Reality that occurs in two-dimensional fields.
In Japan today, comic books and TV animation are dominantly influential to the degree that many of the boxers took up the sport after they had read comic stories about boxing. The two-dimensional, virtual rendition of boxers feels more real and overwhelming than actual ones.
What is your idea about the reality that two-dimensional representation has, such as cartoons, and the potential it has to affect the human subconscious?
Of course imagination and illusion are always so much more powerful and bigger than this mediocre and boring thing called reality.
What is reality? At any given time or place in history it was always the ruler – this priesthood of power – that defined and told you what reality is. All the education-systems had (and have) only one purpose: to make you agree with their fabricated “truth” or “reality” and the attached little belief-systems, and to abandon and betray your own reality – your own magic and boundless inner world – your spiritual home-universe.
Of course their arbitrary, stupid, little belief-systems vary from time to time and from nation to nation, but their methods are always the same: threats, punishment, pain and terror, if you don’t submit yourself. It was one of these twilight-zone “realities” that I woke up to in post-war Vienna, created by the very same people that had just completed the killing of 50 million people.
And into that limbo of my childhood some merciful god (or goddess) dropped the first German Micky-Mouse comic-books with all the Donald Duck-stories by that genius Disney-artist, Carl Barks. Opening my first Donald Duck comic-book felt like seeing the daylight again for someone who had been trapped underground by a mine-disaster for many days.
I blinked carefully because my eyes hadn't gotten used to the dazzlingly bright sun of Duckburg yet, and I greedily sucked the fresh breeze into my dusty lungs that came drifting over from Uncle Scrooge's money bin. I was back home again, in a decent world where one could get flattened by steam-rollers and perforated by bullets without serious harm. A world in which the people still looked proper, with yellow beaks or black knobs instead of noses.
And it was here that I met the man who would forever change my life – a man who, as the Austrian poet H.C. Artmann put it, is the only person today that has something worthwhile saying: Donald Duck.
Whenever I closed my comic-book I was back in this two-dimensional nightmare, but it was not the same anymore because - now I knew there was another world to which I could always escape if I wanted.
Yaso: 3. About death.
Your photographs including the portraits of Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Keith Richards, et al have an odor of death. I suppose human faces have many expressions inherently and one can often display the solemnity that he/she will show at the moment of death when he/she is still alive.
Do you choose the expressions that look like dead faces deliberately when you take portrait photographs and create paintings based on them?
My series “Faces” is also the result of a dialogue. I keep the procedure as simple as possible.
Usually I meet somebody I am curious about, and I leave everything to the moment of encounter. I have no plan or preconception of what the person should act or look like. There is always a moment of uncertainty involved, also on the side of the person to be photographed. Nobody really knows what the next step will be.
Andy Warhol, after his usual compliments and small-talk, sat down and didn’t talk or move for more than an hour – it was a strange, uneasy silence at first, and I didn’t know what to say; everything seemed to be frozen in time, like Andy’s face, and slowly I felt a relief. All the social veneers were crumbling, and I started to shoot. I felt like I was floating in outer space – only Andy and I – a moment of truth.
All of my better photographs caught a moment similar to that one. Developing a photograph of a face is always an adventure because you never know what the outcome will be. It’s like opening a secret chamber and unearthing something for the first time that nobody has ever seen before. It’s rare, but in the hand of a master the camera can reveal aspects of a personality that are invisible for the naked eye.
William Burroughs said that faces never stay the same, they constantly change, acting like a screen onto which different images are projected from within.
for full interview with pictures, click here: http://www.helnwein.com/news/update/artikel_1393.html