Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Albert Oehlen
from the Blue issue
Albert Oehlen: I was always interested in the transportation of meaning, and I tried to find out what's possible with that. When I started I was a kind of left-wing radical and I was interested in transporting this meaning-like making propaganda. I always liked the work of Immendorff; he did this thing too and he seemed to fail very early, but he continued doing it, and this was a very interesting thing for me. I couldn't repeat this experience but I had his experiences in mind when I started with my things. I experimented by trying to glorify something in the painting or trying to criticize. I saw very early that this failed and I wouldn't like the result. But I thought that I had to do it because as an artwork the result would be good; if I had the feeling that it wouldn't work, I thought I had to prove that it doesn't work. I thought this was good enough to do. The question is: what is the frame? what shall it be? what is the real subject of the work? Then you can say, 'OK now I'll paint Stalin,' but you haven't really painted Stalin, you did something else because you cannot find out if you were trying to praise or criticize him-there are more than two viewpoints. I started with this idea and I still have in mind that it's absolutely not clear what the picture is saying-this is a big problem.
Pataphysics: Do you want your images to be clear?
AO: Yes, but this wish is determined by the above-mentioned problem. It should always be visible in my paintings that this wish is present-otherwise my art would be funny or even satirical. Once the painting does not say anything, this does not mean that my general attitude towards clarity has changed, only the result turns out to be quite complex and no 'solution' in a folk-psychological sense has taken place. But the intention is the same and there is no reason to change it. On the other hand, this intention should not lead to idealization, which on this level would always mean decrease in content.
P: In relation to your belief that artworks function 'either to glorify or criticize,' how do you position your painting of Hitler done in 1986?
AO: This Hitler painting is a very big failure; it really is a disaster somehow, but it was meant as that. It was meant as an extreme point of content and the extreme point of painting. This idea of the three basic colors was meant to make it very artificial and the subject Hitler was meant as a maximum of content and association. But these two aspects together were meant as something that doesn't work, and this picture has failed so much that it just looks like an ugly, wild painting. It was the result of an experiment where I wanted to prove that propaganda doesn't work, and it really didn't work.
P: Is it possible for painting today to 'oppose' failure?
AO: The idea of 'failure' is connected with the historical context. Art always seems to give answers in the historical perspective; glorifying or criticizing or simply advertising 'failure' is a strategy to oppose such concepts by blocking them and by not playing around with them and changing their meanings.
P: How do you see your painting of Hitler in relation to Keifer's images of Fascist architecture?
AO: I have a doubt I can really say something. Kiefer deals with speculations. With misunderstandings. And, of course, Kiefer knows he is clean-he knows he is not a fascist. I try to prove that these are misunderstandings-for example, I don't believe in symbols. Symbols are, in practice, never used as independent global units. The idea of 'openness' with respect to symbols is-in most cases-a lie. The truth is that pigs always want to deal with things in their own language and that is why they need symbols. Even if symbols work in their language in a way which seems to be independent and precise, they are only vehicles of the intentions of the language in question. At the same time they deny this, because the viewer learns to deal with the symbols-they learn the language and believe it is their own language.
P: Do you see any relationship between the recent events in Berlin and your work of the past decade?
AO: No, I don't see a relationship. The main moving in my consciousness is that I started with very big intentions-I used art for propaganda, for saying something-and now I get more and more disappointed by seeing that that's not possible, and I try to blame the art on it, of course. This shouldn't sound like I'm unhappy with the art or with the politics, but I think if the relationship between art and reality is that way, then I want to prove that it is that way.
P: What defines beauty in art? Can art be beautiful if it is a lie?
AO: I can find something beautiful if I understand the idea and if I think there's the right thought behind it. To lie in art would be a misunderstanding-it would be taking art for something that it isn't; for example, to try to use it. This is the main lie, the main misunderstanding, in art, that you can use it as something to pleasure the eye as an organ. This idea is really a thing that is around. Or the thought that you could enjoy art, really directly enjoy it…
P: In relation to this how do you see the series of carpets you exhibited in 1987…?
AO: This is a good example because this is absolutely about failure. This is about the misunderstanding of using art because it's artwork that you really use because you run around on it and you step on it. They were collages and they all have critical texts on them; they're phrases that are supposed to be critical but they are platitudes. They don't say much, they just say things like : 'Be young, be radical' or 'Don't fall asleep' or 'The yell against hunger'-all these stupid things that don't say anything.
P: Is this the same with the phrases on your more recent paintings?
AO: These things are kind of the opposite; these are optimistic phrases. These are phrases I took out of poems by Walt Whitman and some of Guy Debord. I found phrases that have the same sound and the same meaning.
P: What was the importance of your experience as a member of Sigmar Polke's class in the '70s?
AO: We were quite alone there, and I had only one friend in this class who was Georg Herold. Polke more or less tried to show us that he wasn't able to teach us something in the classical sense, so he gave us a main lecture for every artist, which is to destroy a chair. This is the only thing I can remember. Then he showed me a film he made, and told me about his travellings in Australia… I couldn't say what Polke's influence was, but it's his radicality. When you start to work as an artist everybody thinks about radicality, like how could you make the most shocking thing. And it's not easy. Today it should still be possible, but it's very difficult. Polke is somebody who had a role in that; in a way he made very radical things.
P: Do you worry about where your work is presented?
AO: No. I decided once that I shouldn't care about that because I'm not this kind of artist, like some Americans who have control over everything that happens with their work and place it in special collections. But I can't care about that, I cannot control it. I feel I have to make one good picture after another and this should be my work.
P: You've said that you attempt to avoid making errors. How do you trust yourself enough to be able to judge what is and what isn't an error?
AO: There are two kinds of mistakes. The one mistake is the 'bad' picture. Of course, I've made pictures that I don't like or like less than others. The other mistake is the positive mistake where I say I can afford this mistake because this is not the meaning of the picture. I like these mistakes or these errors but with them I try to prove that the subject or the concept of the picture is on something else-in this case the mistakes are good. For example, in the beginning I made horrible mistakes in the classical sense of painting just to prove that I wasn't interested in this.
P: Formally, what is the importance of composition in your recent work?
AO: It is a composition of the ingredients: content = stubbornness and motive = why am I doing this. But at the end there is no problem of composition because 'the thing' is, what's happening in the middle of the picture and reverse.