Interviews
January 17, 2004
tastes like chicken
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
wayne chinsang
Interview with Helnwein
wayne chinsang talkes with Gottfried Helnwein
"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 burned 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. Maybe it's the last place on earth where dreams are still legal."
Paradise Burning
mixed media (oil and acrylic on canvas), 2003, 116 x 147 cm / 45 x 57''
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, Ireland, curators, and working with other artists. Enjoy.
Wayne
It’s been three years since I interviewed you last. So, what’s new?
Helnwein
(laughs) Well, what’s new is that I have a studio in L.A. now, and I have been work here for the last two years.
Wayne
Are you liking Los Angeles?
Helnwein
I love it. I think it’s the best place I’ve ever been.
Wayne
Really?
Helnwein
For the work, you know?
Wayne
Right.
Helnwein
If it wouldn’t be about the work, I wouldn’t be here. But for the work, it’s perfect.
Wayne
I read a quote you had in the “L.A. Times” that said that 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?
Helnwein
Ireland is a total opposite. I’m 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... it’s 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)
Wayne
(laughs)
Helnwein
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. I’ve 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?
Wayne
Right.
Helnwein
I like it because I don’t need to be controlled. I don’t need anybody to look after me. I don’t 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 that’s something I always hated. I’ve always had this urge to be free, as much as I can be. And L.A. seems to be the place for that.
Wayne
I know that since you’ve been out there you’ve become friends with a lot of different kinds of people, like actors and musicians. And you’ve 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?
Helnwein
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 and costumes for the dance theatre in Germany and other theater 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 that we started working together. And we have more plans and ideas for the future. We just want to try out new things without stress. It’s strange, because when I met him I had the feeling of knowing him forever. There was an understanding; we didn’t even have to talk. We knew everything.
Wayne
(laughs)
Helnwein
I also hooked up with Sean Penn, who is not only a genious actor but also the last independent and rebelious spirit in the whole industry. He has more guts and integrity than anybody else I know here.
I think he is somebody that understands what my art is all about, and by the way, - he actually suggested that we try and make a movie together.
Wayne
Oh really?
Helnwein
Yeah. That would be a great challenge.
Wayne
That sounds great.
Helnwein
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, “Oh my God. L.A. is just about stuffed boobs and stupid entertainment.” It’s 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. It’s good to live in a place that’s 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 burned 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 that’s 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 can’t speak English, and say, “I want to go to Hollywood and one day be as famous as Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.” It’s 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. He's proof that you can become one of the world’s most famous actors without really being an actor. He is much more than that - he became one of the great mythological figures of our times.
And you can also become governor if you really want, you know?
Wayne
(laughs)Yeah.
Helnwein
And if he decides to become president, even though the Constitution doesn’t 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.
That’s why Manson is here. In this city he has that freedom to really dream his bad dreams.
Wayne
(laughs) That’s 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 other’s ideas, or does someone start an idea and then hand it over? How is it different than working alone on a painting, for instance?
Helnwein
Actually, I always like to work with other artists. Being able to do that I consider a great privilege.
It’s not often possible, because artists are usually 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 don’t have to make compromises too much. The downside is that you’re really alone all the time, you know?
Wayne
Right.
Helnwein
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 are aware of it or not - you are always carrying on with a tradition. You are 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 medias - photography, performance, etc.
What I want to do now more is large scale installations in public spaces and video and films.
Wayne
I know that Jason (Lee) did a documentary on you, and filmed you while you were working, correct?
Helnwein
That’s right. It’s an ongoing project.
Wayne
Oh. It’s ongoing?
Helnwein
Yeah. Because he’s documenting what is going on over the next few years; certain events and certain projects. And then he’ll compile it into a film.
Wayne
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?
Helnwein
No. For me it’s natural. I need new challenges, and I need to be able to take different points of view. The problem was always that I didn’t have enough, you know?
I must say, I envy artists that can just stay in the studio and paint all the time. That's a great life if you’re 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 am 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 always interested in what’s going on around me, - in the society, in politics, in other peoples universes. And all that will be mirrored in my work.
Wayne
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 you’re going to China next week.
Helnwein
Right.
Wayne
The show you’re having in Beijing. How did that show come about, and what work will you be showing there?
Helnwein
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 communistic administration and the deeply seated spiritual tradition of Confucius, Lao-tze and Buddha.
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 it’s 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.
Wayne
I know you’re also doing a show in Dublin in 2004, right?
Helnwein
In Cork.
Wayne
Cork. And then you’re having something in San Francisco as well?
Helnwein
That’s in the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, and it’s about the children in my work.
It’s a reoccurring theme - probably the main theme in all of my work.
And this show will be focused on the image of the child in my art and all aspects connected to that.
Wayne
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.
Helnwein
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’m 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 lie 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 a proof that people don’t need to be controlled and restricted all the time. They are usually not dangerous, and if you leave them alone they can handle their shit themselves. It’s okay to be whatever you want to be, and to believe in whatever you want to.
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.
Wayne
So you embrace the chaos?
Helnwein
I love it. For me, it’s the best. I’ve lived in different places, and I don’t like places where some fucking self-appointed authorities constantly tell you what's good for you and what you better 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 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.
The know exactly, how art should be or not be, what's allowed and what’s not allowed.
The good thing is that it doesn’t work here. People who want to control the art-scene have tried in L.A., but they have failed, because most people here don’t even know that something like fine art exists, so it doesn’t work.
Wayne
That was actually what one of my next questions were. Since you’re doing all of these shows and traveling all over to different museums, what is your opinion of the art- world today? When we met last November, you critizised it. Do you think it’s getting better?
Helnwein
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 have only ten artists, then you have to buy their art because there is nobody else. And then that gets the prices up. But that’s really a small artificial market.
We have all kinds of groups that want to run the art world.
I was never interested in the politics. I’m interested in the art itself.
And I don't care very much about the opinions of theoreticians.
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 him?
That should be a 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 don’t 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 it’s not a defect? Somebody has to pre-inform you of that.
I like when the mailman comes into my studio and says, “Oh my God. What’s that?” And I say, “My paintings.” And he asks, “Can I come in and have a look?” And to see how he looks at the stuff, you can see that he’s moved. He has no training, doesn’t know anything about art, and he doesn’t have to pretend. He couldn’t 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.
Wayne
That is a good litmus test for art.
Helnwein
Yeah. And all great art work will create an effect like that.
Wayne
I wanted to ask you about your children. They’re all into different creative avenues. Mercedes writes and draws; Cyril is doing photography; Ali is making music. Is it weird seeing our children creating all of these different things? Do you see yourself younger in them?
Helnwein
It’s 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 it's 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)
Wayne
(laughs)
Helnwein
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, and Mercedes, my daughter 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.
Wayne
Really?
Helnwein
Yeah. It’s amazing. We were shocked, because we didn’t know. But then he showed us his poems, and they were amazing. He’s really very talented.
Wayne
I hear from him occasionally and he’s never brought that up.
Helnwein
Yeah. He only showed us his writings recently. But he’s good.
Wayne
That’s great.
Helnwein
I could see him being a writer some day. I like it. It’s the old idea of an artist’s workshop within a family, like it was with the painters during the Renaissance. It’s not exactly like that, but everybody creates here.
Wayne
That’s great. I talk with Mercedes occasionally, and I know that she is always working on stuff; writing and drawing.
Helnwein
Yeah. It was great to watch her drawing and writing since she was 7. Her most recent drawings that I just saw are really very intense.
She will have her first show in Spring of next year.
Wayne
Really?
Helnwein
Yeah. Maybe she will do a show together with and Donata Wenders, (the wife of Wim Wenders)
Wayne
Right.
Helnwein
Donata is an excellent photographer. I like the idea of Mercedes exhibiting with her.
Wayne
Will that be in Los Angeles?
Helnwein
Yeah. It will be in our studio space. A two woman show.
Wayne
That’s great. So, what’s next for you? Obviously a lot of traveling and shows, but as far as your work goes, what’s next for you?
Helnwein
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 it’s 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 to 1997. So I 'd like to show what I have done since then.
I also want to develop my digital photography further and then to get into short films and videos; experimental stuff.
And we’ll see how China goes. I’ve 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.
The Japanese always had a great interest in my work.
Wayne
Well, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.
Helnwein
Yeah. It’s exciting. Now I'll focus on my new work - here and in Ireland. It’s good to have this two different worlds.
Wayne
You still go back to Ireland, right?
Helnwein
Yeah. I will be back in Ireland soon. And hopefully I will be getting the Irish citizenship this year, which I will celebrate with some friends and lots of Guinness.
Wayne
(laughs) Hey, did Renate [Gottfried’s wife] pass her driver’s test?
Helnwein
Yeah, she did.
Wayne
Okay, good. (laughs)
Helnwein
She passed it. All her answers were correct.
Wayne
Good. I knew she was worried about it, so I figured I’d ask.
Helnwein
Yeah. It was bad, but she certainly had to do it. Now she’s a little bit more legal.
Wayne
Well, that’s all I’ve got. I’ll transcribe this and I’ll email it to you. That way, if there are any inconsistencies you can let me know. Okay. Well, say hello to everybody.
Helnwein
Yeah. I will. Are you coming to L.A. again sometime?
Wayne
You know, Dave (Crosland) and I might be coming out in January. I was talking to Renate about it.
Helnwein
Yeah. Well, we should hang out.
Wayne
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.
Helnwein
Dave’s a great artist. I really like his stuff.
Wayne
He’s doing really well. He’s working hard. I think it’s going to kill him.
Helnwein
That’s a good death (laughs). Well, I’m looking forward to possibly seeing you in January.
Wayne
Me too. Thanks again, Gottfried.
Helnwein
No problem.
Manson and Helnwein
2003
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