Michal Szyksznian speaks with Gottfried Helnwein
CELEBRITARIAN: 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?
HELNWEIN: LA is a strange place. A few blocks from my studio
the streets are filled with thousands of homeless people, huddling on sidewalks
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 tatoos, 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:
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.
CELEBRITARIAN: 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?
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 Führers, 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 franticly burning books and paintings, looting all museums, declaring art "degenerate", and in typically
German bureaucratic nerd-fashion he even created a Goverment-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.
CELEBRITARIAN: Someone destroyed
the photographs of children from your "Kristallnacht" installation.
How do you feel about it?
HELNWEIN: 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 children's 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 un-
intended by me, this attack added another dimension to that work of art and made it more powerful.
CELEBRITARIAN: Some people consider an artist as someone who should be above ideology, above
politics or even above morals. But art is often a
social commentary or political statement. Should art be about politics or morals? Or should it be the art for art's sake?
HELNWEIN: Too many people have already racked their brains
over the question what art should or shouldn't do.
Within living memory, self-appointed
"authorities"' and "experts" have always tried to define, regulate, control and organize art and to set goals, rules and limits for artists. Huge libraries have
been wasted with the junk of theoreticians, critics, and moralists. But art and artists don't need that crap, nor do people.
“There is no must in art because art is free”, Wassily Kandinsky said. Every artist has to make his lone decisions - free-climbing without safety rope and
with a good chance of slipping and falling, sometimes deep. Real art will always challenge the society the artist lives in to some degree, and at times it will
upset some people.
CELEBRITARIAN: You started your artistic adventure as an Actionist. What is special about
making a happening? And what is your favourite Aktion
HELNWEIN: At the age of 18 I finally realized that that I
was here to be an artist, and there was no way for me to escape that.
As a kid I always despised the
idea of being a painter. I had this concept of boring old guys with beards and berets standing in front of an easel and painting abstract canvases all day long.
Being a member of the Rolling Stones seemed to me the ideal form of existence as an artist. But that was unrealistic. So I started little paintings and drawings
of wounded and bandaged children with cheap watercolor paints, colored pencils and inks, and at the same time I began my actions with children in public
My first performance was with Sandra (6 years old). She was considered a problem child by her parents, and I think her mother had a hard time coping with
Sandra's wicked sense of humor. For example, one time, as protest for the punishment of being locked in her room, she cut up all her mothers clothes into
tiny little pieces, arranged them in a neat pile in the middle of the room and called her mum with the innocent voice of an angel. Another time she set fire to
her parent's apartment. She was one tough and mean little lady, but I liked her instantly. She had the pride of a Latino street gang leader. When she looked at
you, her piercing little eyes had a very clear message: "don't mess with me".
I asked Sandra if she would like to participate in some art performances with me. "What's in it for me?" she replied with the cool of a Yakuza negotiating
business. "What do you want?", I asked her. "A bicycle" she said. So we had a deal. I bandaged her and she would stand or lie on the street or sidewalk at
different locations in Vienna, in the stream of irritated pedestrians. Sometimes she would walk slowly like a sleepwalker and bump into people. She took
these actions serious and was very dedicated but always with a cool head - no emotions involved. I also did a series of photographs with bandages, strings and
surgical instruments and I was careful not to hurt her, but she was acting with a professional curiosity and encouraged me to try more extreme distortions of
Sandra was my first model and she appeared in photographs, short-films and my early watercolors of the "Beautiful Victim" series. I had great respect for her.
We never talked much, but there was always an almost telepathic communication and understanding. I wish collaborations with grown-ups would be that easy.
CELEBRITARIAN: You and Manson did a series of magnificent
works for "The Golden
Age of Grotesque" album. I know that there were some
problems with the album cover.
HELNWEIN: Manson is an exceptional, creative being. We did some experimental
stuff together in the last few years. It was exciting and inspirational for
both of us. From a series of performance pieces we chose the images of Manson as a black and as a white Mickey. I admit they were not the type of Mickeys
a kid wants to see when it wakes up in the night. We thought they were perfect for the cover of the "Golden Age of Grotesque" album, but the people from the
record company freaked out. Only over their dead body, you know? So Manson decided to use another image from the same series which I also like a lot: a
blurred apparition - red eyes and metal teeth.
CELEBRITARIAN: Art and entertainment: are they in opposition
to each other? Is there a line that connects them? The split between "high" and
"low" art seems to be disappearing these days...
HELNWEIN: "High" and "low" are completely arbitrary and
artificial distinctions that some bloated assholes invented to
make life more complicated. Comics
are considered "low", but when Roy Lichtensein comes and picks out one panel of that comic, projects and paints it on a canvas then it's suddenly "high" art?
Give me a break. The only thing that I care about in art is quality, intensity. Is a work of art capable of touching and moving me? Does it cause an emotional
impact on me? Does it startle, surprise, upset, excite me? Does it make me think? Does it inspire me? Does it stimulate my imagination? Does it change the way
I view the world to some degree?
CELEBRITARIAN: What artists are your biggest inspiration?
HELNWEIN: Francisco de Goya, Pieter Breughel, Matthias Gruenewald, Carl Barks,
Shakespeare, Fernando Pesoa, Francis Bacon, Manson, Captain
Beefheart, Caravaggio, Jimi Hendrix, Kafka, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, Caspar David Friedrich, Rembrandt, Leonardo Da Vinci, Walt Disney, Bukowski,
E.A.Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Rolling Stones, Max Beckmann, David Lynch, Blind Willie McTell, Hans Christian Anderson, Goethe, Bach, Norman Rockwell,
Robert Crumb, Deix, Wilhelm Busch, Burroughs, H.C.Artmann, Jack White, Beck, Marlene Dietrich, Hieronymus Bosch, Tolstoi, Alexandre Dumas,
Stendhal, Donald Duck, Christoph Ransmeyer, Elfriede Jelinek, Mozart, Artaud.
CELEBRITARIAN: "Modern Sleep" series: this girl is not sleeping. She's got
her eyes open and she's conscious. Her look isn't childish, she seems to be
more alienated, more adult. Why did you called it "Modern Sleep"?
HELNWEIN: I never explain or interpret my work. My work isn't giving answers, it's asking questions.
CELEBRITARIAN: You are creating your works on a big canvas and gigantic installations.
How can artists communicate with people who know nothing
about art? What kind of visual language is needed?
HELNWEIN: it's easy to communicate to people "who know
nothing about art" as you put it, but it's almost impossible to communicate
to people who think
they already know everything about art. Allow me to quote Kandinsky again:
"And the academics that find fault with or praise a work of art based on their analysis of the already existing methods of procedure, are the most detrimental
misleaders, erecting a wall between the artwork and the naive onlooker. From this standpoint (which unfortunately, as a rule, is the only possible one) the art-
critic is the greatest enemy of art."
CELEBRITARIAN: As a beginner-painter I have some nice ideas but I just cannot find the way
to bring them to the two-dimensional image. I'm trying to
find a connection between thoughts and canvas which could help me to make my concept clear and readable. It is the hard part. How do you transport
your ideas into canvas?
HELNWEIN: That's the part I usually worry the least about,
I never cared much about methods and techniques. I pick up whatever tools or
available (and often I mix or apply them in unorthodox ways). And of course I experiment and always try to improve and refine my technique and explore new
methods, but that is the easy part. The only thing that really counts, that what it's all about -- the basic IDEA. What is it I want to express, what is it I want to cry
out. What is it that needs to be thrown into this world?
CELEBRITARIAN: "The American Prayer": Donald Duck - why is this character such a great inspiration for you?
HELNWEIN: I was born in Vienna after the war. It was a dark
place and I was a stranger, whose spaceship was stranded on this unknown planet
possibilities of ever leaving again. Not only did I loose my orientation through the impact of the crash, but also my memory, because I had forgotten who I was
and where I came from. There was only one thing I was certain of: that this was an alien world in whose merciless embrace I was now caught. It was like the
after-math of a sloppy end of the world, where the few people that had survived, now continued cautiously to vegetate amongst the ruins, hoping to remain
unnoticed by the Eternal Judge.
I spent lots of my time in cold churches where I encountered art for the first time, and stared in awe and fascination for hours at all these tortured and blood-
bathed saints that squirmed in ecstasy while their bodies were spiked with arrows or nailed against crosses; or the pale Madonnas with their cold and strange
beauty, ripping their dresses open and revealing a big, floating heart pierced by tiny swords. These were the images that haunted me in the sleepless nights of
That all ended one day when I opened my first Donald Duck comic book. It was like seeing the daylight again for someone who had been trapped underground
by a mine-disaster for many days. I squinted 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 decent, 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.
After all these years of cultural and aesthetic absence, a great culture had finally embraced me. What a joy it was to dive into the thirteen trillion dollars of tycoon
Scrooge McDuck, and to burrow thorough it like a gopher, to toss it up and let it hit me on the head. Donald was my savior. He rescued me from a world that
was like a bad silent movie in slow motion and opened the door to a 3-dimensional universe of colors, infinite imagination, miracles and wonders.