GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN - THE 2ND INTERVIEW
interview by insane wayne chinsang

I FIRST INTERVIEWED ARTIST GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN BACK IN NOVEMBER OF 2000. SINCE THEN, I HAVE MET GOTTFRIED AND BECOME FRIENDS WITH HIS FAMILY. AND, LET ME TELL YOU, THEY ARE QUITE POSSIBLY THE NICEST AND MOST TALENTED FAMILY ALIVE. NOW, MORE THAN THREE YEARS AFTER I FIRST SPOKE WITH GOTTFRIED, WE SIT DOWN AGAIN TO CATCH UP ON TOPICS LIKE LOS ANGELES, CRITICS, AND WORKING WITH OTHER ARTISTS. ENJOY.

Wayne: Itís been three years since I interviewed you last. So, whatís new?

Gottfried: (laughs) Well, whatís new is that I live in L.A. now, and have for the past two years.

W: Are you liking Los Angeles?

G: I love it. I think itís the best place Iíve ever been.

W: Really?

G: For the work, you know?

W: Right.

G: If it wouldnít be about the work, I wouldnít be here. But for the work, itís perfect.

W: I read a quote you had in the L.A. Times that said you feel a freedom in L.A. that you have never felt before. I know you were in Ireland previously. So how has this move affected your art and the business?

G: Ireland is a total opposite. Iím really happy to have both places, because Ireland is everything that L.A. is not. Fresh air, very few people, everything is green all the time. It has an innocence that other countries probably had 100 years ago. It has a certain magic,.. itís just great. But for my work, I always need the cities; the chaos, the urban decadence. I need to be where society is going on in the course of decay. (laughs)

W: (laughs)

G: And L.A. is the perfect place for that. I think, in a strange way, L.A. is one of the freest cities I know. Iíve worked in many different places. But what I think makes L.A. unique is that nobody really cares. You can do whatever you want. You can look like you want, you can believe in what you want, you can do anything. Nobody gives a shit, you know?

W: Right.

G: I like it because I donít need to be controlled. I donít need anybody to look after me. I donít need anybody to give me rules and tell me where my limits should be. And most places are like that. There is no art scene here, which I like. New York, Berlin, or London are very different because there is a very tight art scene. Everybody knows everybody. They have this dominance of critics and experts, and everybody is just monitoring everybody else. Too much politics, too many rules and regulations. And thatís something I always hated. Iíve always had this urge to be free as much as I can be. And L.A. seems to be the place for that.

W: I know that since youíve been out there youíve become friends with a lot of different kinds of people, like actors and musicians. And youíve done some work with these people now. Is that different from the type of people you were hanging out with before you moved to L.A.? Did you hang around other visual artists before?

G: No. I actually was hanging more with the writers. The Austrian poet H.C. Artmann was a friend of mine, and the German playwright Heiner Mueller. I also met William Burroughs and Norman Mailer. Or theatre people, because I did stage settings for dance theatre in Germany, and other theatre productions and operas. I always liked to work with artists from other fields of art; more so than with fine artists. And here I have met some amazing and interesting people. Certain individuals just end up here. Like, working with Marilyn (Manson) is really great; very inspiring. I think he is one of the greatest living artists. We immediately had so many ideas when we met, we started working together. And we have more plans and ideas for the future. We just want to try out new things without stress. Itís strange, because when I met him I had the feeling of knowing him forever. There was an understanding; we didnít even have to talk. We knew everything.

W: (laughs)

G: I also hooked up with Sean Penn, who is the best actor that I know of-- another amazing artist. I think he is somebody that understands what my art is all about, and he actually suggested that we try and make a movie together.

W: Oh really?

G: Yeah. That would be a great challenge.

W: That sounds great.

G: Beck is another exceptional artist that I know-- he is a very independent and unique creator and always surprising. His music is very different from anything we've heard before. I think that L.A. is one of the most underestimated cities, because nobody ever thinks highly of it. In Europe they think, ďOh my God. This is just about stuffed boobs and stupid entertainment.Ē Itís that stereotype. And when we ask people in New York what they think about the art scene in L.A., they say nothing good about it. I like that. Itís good to live in a place thatís totally underestimated, because it gives you a sense of freedom. The world doesn't like people that are different than the average. Rulers throughout history have always hated those people that stick out of the masses-- the geniuses, the poets, monsters, artists, witches, and saints-- and usually they burn them or put them in dungeons, concentration camps, or mental institutions, thinking of what a nice and peaceful slave camp this planet could be without them. But, for some miraculous reason, this desert town here seems to be different than the rest of the world, because here they don't mind these monsters. They actually seem to like them. L.A. is the sanctuary for people with weird visions and impossible dreams. If there is any place on planet Earth where you could pursue your strange visions, L.A. would be the place. Nobody would stop you, as long as you have the power to push it through,.. like Disney. Walt came here with nothing. He had this bizarre dream of turning the world into a Disney universe-- and he succeeded! He had a relatively short life, but his accomplishments have changed the face of Earth, and the idea of aesthetics. The whole planet is different. And, to a certain degree, thatís also true for Charlie Chaplin and Hitchcock, Raymond Chandler, and many others. When the Germans tried to turn Samuel Wilder, a Jewish boy from Vienna, into a piece of soap, he escaped and found refuge here, and became Billy Wilder. Or take Arnold. Everything he ever wanted was really impossible. You cannot be a kid from an Austrian province who can't act and canít speak English or even High German, and say, ďI want to go to Hollywood and one day be as famous as Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.Ē Itís not possible. Except in L.A., everything is possible. You only have to be a genius and obsessed and stubborn enough to push it through, nobody is going to stop you here. Arnold is a demonstration that there really is no limit. Heís proof that you can become one of the worldís most famous actors without really being an actor. And you can also become governor if you really want, you know?

W: (laughs) Yeah.

G: And if he wants to become president, even though the Constitution doesnít allow it because he was not born in the United States, he will achieve it, because if he really wants it, they'll have to change the Constitution for him. He knows he owes that to California, and he couldn't have done it anywhere else. He told me years ago: "Come to L.A. Here is the place for you. Europe is too narrow-minded." I've known Arnold for many years, and actually he's one of the nicest and most remarkable beings that I ever met. Maybe L.A. is the last place on Earth where dreams are still legal. Thatís why Manson is here. In this city, he has that freedom to really dream his bad dreams. (laughs)

W: (laughs) Thatís a great quote. When you work with other artists on projects, like Manson or Sean, is your creative process different? Do you feed off of each otherís ideas, or does someone start an idea and then hand it over? How is it different than working alone on a painting, for instance?

G: Actually, I always like to work with other artists. I consider that a great privilege. Itís not often possible, because artists are somewhat secluded and careful of sharing their ideas with other artists. Especially as a painter, your life in the studio is a lonely one. The advantage is that you can do whatever you want, and you donít have to make compromises too much. The downside is that youíre really alone all the time, you know?

W: Right.

G: You have no audience, no immediate feedback. You just do your own thing, and I've always liked to be inspired and provoked and challenged. Be it music, literature or theatre or movies or life,.. anything. No artist starts from scratch. You never really create out of a void. You always continue something that somebody else has started earlier. If you're aware of it or not, you're always carrying on with a tradition. You're always acting in a long line of creation that goes back to the beginning of history. For musicians or filmmakers, collaboration is a natural thing, because you always work with other people. But with fine art, it's rare. I like to leave the studio and crossover into other media-- photography, performance, etc. What I want to do now is more large scale installations in public spaces, and video and films.

W: I know that Jason (Lee) did a documentary on you, and filmed you while you were working, correct?

G: Thatís right. Itís an ongoing project.

W: Oh. Itís ongoing?

G: Yeah. Because heís documenting what is going on over the next few years; certain events and certain projects. And then heíll compile it into a film.

W: So how does it feel to be the subject,.. to become the piece of art, as opposed to being the person creating the art? Does it feel weird to be on the other side?

G: No. For me, itís natural. I need new challenges, and I need to be able to take different points of view. The problem was always that I didnít have enough, you know? I must say, I envy artists that can just stay in the studio and paint all the time. Thatís a great life, if youíre that type. Nobody bothers you, and you can develop something to a great point without any distraction. But I'm not like that, I need the dialogue with the world out there and with other artists-- I'm obsessively curious. I want to know and see and experience everything, and I am especially interested in the forbidden, restricted areas. Sometimes in the past, I went too far and got burned. But I'm also interested in what's going on around me, in society, in politics, and other people's universes. And all of that will be mirrored in my work.

W: It seems that 2004 is going to be a very busy year for you. I know that you have a lot of exhibitions lined up, and that youíre going to China next week.

G: Right.

W: The show youíre having in Beijing. How did that show come about, and what work will you be showing there?

G: There was an artist from China who came to Berlin years ago. He was interested in my work and asked me if I wanted to exhibit in Beijing. I liked the idea, but it was a slow process to actually organize the show. China is very different than the West, and, in many ways, seems totally contradictory to us. It's a modern, capitalistic country with a Communist administration and the deeply-seeded spiritual tradition of Confucius, Lao-Tse, and Buddah. But now, finally, this dialogue seems to be successful. The Central Academy for Fine Arts is presenting my exhibition. It will be a retrospective in the National Fine Arts Museum in Beijing, and possibly in Shanghai. I want to show all different types of work, from photography to painting to drawing and, hopefully, outdoor installations. What I like about visual art is that itís a universal language, and like music, has no language barriers. I can show my work in China and connect with the people there without them understanding English and me not knowing a word of Mandarin. But, of course, my pictures might mean something totally different to them than it does for us.

W: I know youíre also doing a show in Dublin in 2004, right?

G: In Cork.

W: Cork. And then youíre having something in San Francisco as well?

G: Thatís in the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, and itís all about the children in my work. Itís a reoccurring theme-- probably the main theme in all of my work. And this show will be really focused on the image of the child in my art, and all aspects connected to that.

W: So with all of the shows and the traveling, with you wanting to be a social person and be involved in society and politics, when do you find time to work? I mean, it just seems like your life is so full.

G: It's not easy, because I'm never satisfied with my work. I have so many ideas, so many things I want to do-- but to bring them into reality, into the physical universe, is the hard part. I am still settling in here, but L.A. seems to be a very good place for work ethics. And if you want to observe the state that Western civilization is in, and if you want to watch the Roman Empire fall again-- in slow motion-- this is the place. Around the corner, a few blocks from here, there are hundreds and thousands of homeless who wander and lay in the streets talking to themselves. Then, in other parts, you have the richest and most beautiful artificial creatures that plastic surgery can create. You have everything here. Maybe L.A. is a theme park-- "Planet Earth". It seems as if any culture, social and ethnic group has a small fragment of it here in L.A. And I really like that peaceful anarchy. Here you can find the most stupid and superficial individuals, and the most amazing and ingenious. There are also probably more different religions here than anywhere on the planet. Maybe this is the only place with actual total freedom of religion. You can believe whatever you want. You can be a member of the Church of Satan, a Korean Presbyterian, a Hasidic Jew walking with a big fur hat exactly as they did in the 18th Century in Eastern Europe, or a black Muslim,.. nobody gives a shit. And I think L.A. is proof that people donít need to be controlled and restricted all the time. They're usually not dangerous, and if you leave them alone they can handle their shit themselves. Itís okay to be whatever you want to be, and to believe in whatever you want. Another thing I like here is that you can vanish so easily-- if you want to get off the radar screen, be invisible. Just stop making noise, stop going out, and, within a week, people wouldn't even remember that you ever existed. It's so easy here to walk out of existence; this city doesn't have a memory.

W: So, you embrace the chaos?

G: I love it. For me, itís the best part. Iíve lived in different places, and I donít like the places where some fucking self-appointed authorities constantly tell you what's good for you and what you shouldn't do. I don't like to have somebody else's belief system forced on me. I really don't need that. I hated that when I was a child, and I always thought that once you are grown up, you are free. But, to my surprise, nothing changed. Here they were again, this bloated priesthood of authorities, talking out of their ass, obsessed with the idea of knowing what's best for me and everybody else. And that's also true for the art scene. You have a regime of experts and people who are omniscient. They know exactly how art should be or not be, what's allowed and what's not allowed. The good thing is that it doesnít work here. People who want to control the art scene have tried in L.A., but they have failed, because most people here donít know that something like fine art exists, so it doesnít work.

W: That was actually what one of my next questions was. Since youíre doing all of these shows and travelling all over to different museums, what is your opinion of the art world today? When we met last November, you criticized it. Do you think itís getting better?

G: No. Not yet, but it will have to change. The fine art society is very elitist, and usually pushes a handful of artists, but only them. They are trying to exclude anybody else; their goal is to create an artificial scarcity. If you only have ten artists, then you have to buy their art because there is nobody else. And then that gets the prices up. But thatís really a small, artificial market. We all have kinds of groups that we want to run the art world. I was never interested in the politics. Iím interested in the art itself. And I don't care very much about the opinions of theoreticians. And I think the real test for any type of art, be it music or painting or literature or whatever, is if you confront somebody with it who has no education in art at all, will your art be able to move or touch or startle this person? Will your art have an emotional impact on them? That should be the test that any art should be able to pass. And much of the contemporary art in museums today will not pass this test. Even the most knowledgeable and sophisticated expert could not guess that an empty room is art, unless somebody tells him beforehand that the artist has decided to keep the room empty because he probably wants to tell us something about the meaning of existence. But if you donít tell him, how can he figure out that an empty room is art? Or, if a light is going on and off, how do you know that itís not a defect? Somebody has to inform you of that. I like when my mailman comes into my studio and says, ďOh my God. Whatís that?Ē And I say, ďMy paintings.Ē And he asks, ďCan I come in and have a look?Ē And to see how he looks at the stuff, you can see that heís moved. He has no training, doesnít know anything about art, and he doesnít have to pretend. He couldnít care less. But you can see that he is genuinely touched by the stuff. And I think it is that test that any art should be able to pass.

W: That is a good litmus test for art.

G: Yeah. And all great artwork will create an effect like that.

W: I wanted to ask you about your children. Theyíre all into different creative avenues. Mercedes writes and draws; Cyril is doing photography; Ali is making music. Is it weird seeing your children creating all of these different things? Do you see yourself younger in them?

G: Itís a totally different situation. When I was a kid, I lived in a kind of twilight zone, and there was no art except Donald Duck and Jesus. I really like what my kids are doing. I think itís natural, because it shows that they were always exposed to creation and art. We always lived in a kind of creative chaos. We moved from place to place like a little gypsy tribe. (laughs)

W: (laughs)

G: But they always had a great deal of freedom. They were always involved in the work that I did, and they were totally free to try it themselves; anything they wanted. Most of the times they had friends over, Mercedes organized these little art festivals, like theatre plays and strange performances and videos. They were always creating. So it was natural for them. And Amadeus, the youngest, is also writing now.

W: Really?

G: Yeah. Itís amazing. We were shocked, because we didnít know. But then he showed us his poems, and they were amazing. Heís really very talented.

W: I hear from him occasionally, and heís never brought that up.

G: Yeah. He only showed us his writings recently. But heís good.

W: Thatís great.

G: I could see him being a writer some day. I like it. Itís the old idea of an artistís workshop within a family, like it was with the painters during the Renaissance. Itís not exactly like that, but everybody creates here.

W: Thatís great. I talk with Mercedes occasionally, and I know that she is always working on stuff; writing and drawing.

G: Yeah. It was great to watch her drawing and writing since she was seven. Her most recent drawings that I just saw are really very intense. She will have her first show in Spring of next year.

W: Really?

G: Yeah. Maybe she will do a show together with Donata Wenders-- the wife of Wim Wenders-- the filmmaker.

W: Right.

G: Donata is an excellent photographer. I like the idea of Mercedes exhibiting with her.

W: Will that be in Los Angeles?

G: Yeah. It will be in our studio space. A two woman show.

W: Thatís great. So, whatís next for you? Obviously, a lot of travelling and shows, but as far as your work goes, whatís next for you?

G: In 2005 I will be doing the stage setting for the L.A. Opera for Rosenkavalier with Maximilian Schell. I like working for the stage. And the L.A. Opera is perfect, because itís just two minutes from here. And I would like to publish my new works. My last book from the Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg only shows my work up until 1997. So I'd like to show what I have done since then. I also want to develop my digital photography further, and then get into short films and videos; experimental stuff. And weíll see how China goes. Iíve always been really interested in exploring China and Asia more. There are certain places that respond well to my art, and Asia is one of them. Japan is similar. They just respond very strongly to my work.

W: Well, it sounds like youíve got a lot of work ahead of you.

G: Yeah. Itís exciting. Now I'll focus on my new work here and in Ireland. Itís good to have those two different worlds.

W: You still go back to Ireland, right?

G: Yeah. I will be back in Ireland soon. And hopefully I will be getting the Irish citizenship next month, which I will celebrate with some friends and lots of Guinness. (laughs)

W: (laughs) Hey, did Renate (Gottfriedís wife) pass her driverís test?

G: Yeah, she did.

W: Okay, good. (laughs)

G: She passed it. All her answers were correct.

W: Good. I knew she was worried about it, so I figured Iíd ask.

G: Yeah. It was bad, but she certainly had to do it. Now sheís a little bit more legal.

W: (laughs) Well, thatís all Iíve got. Iíll transcribe this and email it to you. That way, if there are any inconsistencies, you can let me know. Say hello to everybody.

G: Yeah. I will. Are you coming to L.A. again sometime?

W: You know, Dave (Crosland) and I might be coming out in January. I was talking to Renate about it.

G: Yeah. Well, we should hang out.

W: We will. Dave is going to be doing a book project with another artist out there, so it looks like we might be heading out there soon.

G: Daveís a great artist. I really like his stuff.

W: Heís doing really well. Heís working hard. I think itís going to kill him. (laughs)

G: Thatís a good death. (laughs) Well, Iím looking forward to possibly seeing you in January.

W: Me too. Thanks again, Gottfried.

G: No problem.

READ OUR FIRST INTERVIEW WITH GOTTFRIED HERE.

VISIT GOTTFRIED HERE.

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