THESE ARE THE IMAGES OF A MAN CONSUMED BY FREE WILL. A MAN WITH A GIFT AND A CRAFT AND A PASSION TO CHALLENGE THE MEDIOCRITY OF WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN ESTABLISHED. A MAN WHOSE OPINIONS EMBODY EVERYTHING AUTHORITY DOES NOT WANT YOU TO BELIEVE IN. HIS NAME IS GOTTFRIED HELNWEIN, AND HE RECENTLY DISCUSSED HIS 30+ YEAR CAREER WITH TASTES LIKE CHICKEN'S INSANE WAYNE CHINSANG.
wayne: You and your work are no strangers to controversy. In the late '60s and into the '70s you dealt with people trying to put a stop to your work. Today, you receive much less resistance than before. Do you feel that this is because society has seen more and is therefore no longer surprised by much, or do you feel that your work has changed to the point where it is no longer as shocking?
Gottfried: I think my work is changing, but my intention was never to shock. I thought it was just something I had to do and, to my surprise, it was a big shock for many people. From time to time with certain pieces I still get rather hot reactions. Many things were unthinkable in television and the media at the time when I was young, but today people have seen a lot. It is still rather easy to disturb people or get their emotions stirred up. Do you remember the elephant dung thing (Ofiliís "Holy Virgin Mary" piece)? Well, that was obviously intentionally used to be shocking. That shows how easy it is, even today. With fine art, the tolerance is very low. Itís very strange. One would assume that by what people see everyday, they should have no problem with certain things. But with fine art, they do for some reason.
w: You have stated that you learned more about art and life from Donald Duck than from all the schools you ever attended. Could you explain in further detail what you meant by that statement?
G: I was born in Vienna after the war. They had just lost World War II. Many houses were destroyed and people were deeply depressed. It was a world of no hope. There was no art, no culture. There was nothing. I didnít understand all the circumstances at the time, but I felt that it was a horrible time and place to be in. So, my first encounter with great art was actually the first comic books they had in Austria. American officers brought some with them. It was Donald Duck by Carl Barks. For me, it was like a complete encounter with the real world. That was true also for my friends. This was a world we could appreciate and understand. The so-called "real world" was very unreal to me.
w: It must be a nice escape also, to be able to detach yourself from that world.
G: Thatís what I think art and aesthetics is. If you have to be attached to that world, there would be no escape and that would be it. I could never live in that world. If there was not that door to aesthetics and art, which for me is the real thing, then it would be a disaster.
w: What do you do to relax?
G: I relax when I paint. Recently, Iíve been listening to music a lot. Classical music, actually.
w: Which classical composers have you been listening to?
G: Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, of course. All the stuff I hated when I was young. When I was young, I hated everything that had to do with established culture or environment. I rejected everything. I never went close to museums or galleries. I hated them and didnít want to know anything about them.
w: Was it too structured for you?
G: Well, when I was a child my enemies were basically my parentsí generation. I felt that this was really the last world I would want to live in. There was nothing about it I could like. When they taught you art they taught you to really hate it. And it took me probably 20 years to get back to it. But Iíve found that, especially with classic art, it is something fantastic. But, this whole type of culture that started in the renaissance time is fading out. Especially in America there is a feeling that it is gone. Even in Europe, itís over.
w: Your work has progressively gotten larger through time, some works reaching as large as 50' x 75'. Is increasing the scale of your work something youíve always wanted to play with? And if your work keeps progressing this way, how big do you plan on painting in the future?
G: Iíve always wanted to paint bigger. Iíd love to be able to have my work even as big as billboards and out on the streets, but itís too expensive. What Iíve always liked was to explore and try completely different things. There is probably only one thing I am trying to communicate. But I always try to do different things. And if I fail, I need that. I know itís not very appreciated in the art world because critics like artists sticking to one type of work so they are easily recognizable, but I donít care. I want to try different things.
w: Youíve met some very interesting American Pop Icons in your lifetime. What was meeting Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol like?
G: Michael Jackson was really interesting. He was very smart and very intelligent. I remember talking with him for an hour, and he brought Lisa (Marie Presley) along with him. So we talked about art and he was asking me about what techniques I use and telling me about what paintings he liked. And then he left. And Lisa looked at me and said, ďOh my God. He was totally normal. Thatís amazing!Ē I mean, this is his wife saying this! Andy was interesting because, uh, (laughs) this guy was so artificial, too. It was amazing! When he meets you for the first time he tells you, ďWow! I like your work.Ē He liked everything. The nice thing was, when I photographed him he was sitting there very patiently all day. Just sitting and didnít say anything, like he was frozen. That was great because I was sitting there and didnít know what to say.
w: In your amateur opinion, do dogs have lips?
G: (laughs) Oh my God! The good thing is this is a question Iíve never been asked before. Do dogs have lips? I think so. I have four dogs. Iíve never kissed them on the lips; but I think they have lips.
w: In 1991 you arranged for your three children to paint large-format canvases to be hung with your work in the Basilica. What was the feedback on this, and, now that your children are older, are any of them pursuing a career in art?
G: My daughter is writing and drawing and likes to do film. Amadeus is the littlest one, so he is just watching television. Heís not doing anything right now. And Ali is in a band. He is doing music. But at the time of the show I told them they could paint what they wanted. People, especially the critics, were really pissed off because they said that it was making fun of art. I honestly didnít expect it. And with some of the paintings you couldnít tell that they were done by a kid. And the curator would think it is the greatest thing and want to hang it in museums. Itís actually a disturbing point that they couldnít tell.
w: Within the last decade youíve started using computers in your work more frequently. How have computers changed your work?
G: I always was looking for new techniques. When I started to paint I also started to photograph. Iíve always thought that those two have paralleled. Photography is a very important aspect in my work. I donít know much about computers, but I have tried different things and think it is a new and fantastic tool. But I still like to make things that are totally made without computers. I always try to switch up the balance and make something else.
w: What is one thing you miss most about your childhood?
G: Nothing, actually.
w: Whom, alive or dead, would you love to paint a portrait of but havenít yet gotten around to it?
G: I would have liked to have met Picasso. Also, Francis Bacon. I had an appointment to meet Francis Bacon, but then he died. The same thing happened with Dali. I had an appointment with him that was very hard to get because he was sick. And again, I was too late.
w: What are the most recognizable differences between living in America and living in Europe?
G: I didnít believe it in the beginning but there is a big difference. What I really find in America is that the concept of the culture of old Europe doesnít exist. Culture and art are something different here. The feeling in America is that itís entertainment, itís business, itís investment, itís media. But the idealistic approach that exists in Europe doesnít exist here, actually. In Europe, someone would like a certain type of art and collect it their whole life just because they liked it. They collected it for no other reason other than they were passionate about it.
w: In 1998 a board of contemporary artists (including yourself and Cindy Sherman, among others) juried an exhibition titled Choice, a show of young emerging artists. What do you think young artists of today have to deal with differently in the art world?
G: I think it is harder than ever. The problem is that the world is entertained to death. There is so much cheap entertainment and everything is so mediocre and stupid. I was watching MTV and it was a shock to me because I hadnít really watched television in several years. But, from time to time I will peek in to see where the world is. And seeing that was a shock. It was so stupid that I couldnít believe that it was even possible. And everyone is a part of it, and no one has a problem with it. Everyone was acting so stupid and so superficial. I think the biggest vision in literature in the last century was Aldous Huxleyís Brave New World. Huxley describes the world as a place where they entertain people so they have no time to think. And that is whatís really going on. Everyone is so stupid and so superficial. And I think it is very hard for young artists. Today the art scene is dominated by curators. Itís not even about art anymore, itís about curators. Itís also all about the media. Art would never be covered in the media, with the exception of Hollywood. Starting as an artist is really tough. My message would be to disconnect from the whole shit and donít work with the galleries. Get your own factory space, which would probably have to be in Idaho or something because everything is so expensive. But get something; get a garage, meet other painters and become independent. Do it yourself. And I donít say this because Iím stuck in the '60s. Itís really how I feel.
w: What is the most prized gift youíve ever received and what is the most prized gift youíve ever given?
G: I donít get much actually. (laughs) The paintings I give to people are the most prized things I give.
w: Just recently you moved to Ireland. But prior to that you lived and worked in a castle near Cologne. First of all, why a castle? And secondly, why move out of a castle?
G: Because I moved into a better castle. And I moved into a country where I donít pay taxes. Ireland is the only country where artists are tax exempt. I think thatís really fair and smart, but thatís not the main reason. The main reason is that I hate German-speaking countries. The Germans are control freaks. They tap all the phones. They have the biggest secret service, after the United States of course. They have so much control and there is still a feel of the Gestapo spirit. It sounds stupid, but I really just want freedom. I think Ireland is the freest country in the world. It is beautiful. There is no bureaucracy. There is no army. There is no police. I never see policemen. Never. Just until recently they didnít even have driverís licenses. Itís fantastic! The people are so nice and down to Earth. Itís what America was probably like 100 years ago.
w: When you leave this Earth, what is the one thing you want to leave people with?
G: This is kind of disturbing, but I hope my work can disturb them enough to not forget me soon.
READ OUR SECOND INTERVIEW WITH GOTTFRIED HERE.