Portrait Heimo Zobernig

It’s happened: everyone’s an artist. It isn’t creativity that has led to success, but rather the employability and willing exploitation of the all-rounder. At least this is what Daniel Baumann claims, in conversation with Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig. Zobernig keeps his cool and sees, above all, feuilleton-thought at work. Are they going to fight? Whoever is right, one thing is certain: all this endless talk about context is eating up art.

BAUMANN: Tell me about being an artist.

ZOBERNIG: There are moments when I really enjoy being an artist, but I also really appreciate those moments when I completely forget about it.

BAUMANN: You have been variously described as a painter, stage designer, draughtsman, sculptor, performer, video artist, architect, book and exhibition designer, and theoretician, and have worked in these fields for over 30 years. What interested you in taking on these roles? Were you interested in subjecting yourself to other requirements?

ZOBERNIG: No requirements. Somehow these many roles are actually one; I can pursue them all freely, driven by a compulsion to make. The material, or medium, provides resistance during the shaping process – a sculpture is a painting is a film ... When I started out over 30 years ago, the disciplines had become thoroughly mixed up as a result of what happened in the previous decade. At the time, it was more of an exception to limit yourself to just one. For some people, it also had to do with making a living – for example, they did graphic design jobs to earn money. At the beginning of the 1990s, I think, the term “slash people” was in common use. It referred to the way people listed several practices on their business cards: designer/sculptor/video artist, and so on. But actually it’s normal for an artist do to a bit of this and a bit of that.

BAUMANN: I’m asking because it seems to me that your work articulated and played with this idea of the “free artist” right from the start. You had a self-conscious modesty regarding materials (cardboard, primary colours, and so on) and the idea of putting yourself at the service of others. But it never came across as polemical – unlike those works that loudly proclaim the start or end of something. Am I mistaken, or does nobody talk about the role of the artist anymore? Everyone talks about the market, or how the economy determines relationships, but the artist as a figure has disappeared, or has become irrelevant, or both. Nowadays artists write their own press releases, buy back their own works on the secondary market, and produce trailers for their own shows. Everyone is more of a slash person than we first thought. Or is this description off the mark?

ZOBERNIG: As I already mentioned, I am driven by a compulsion to make. My relationship to this has become very professionalised over time. It is based on skill and of course an ethics – often called attitude. But attitude isn’t talked about today as it was in the 80s. I think that’s good though; at the time, attitude was pushed to the forefront, and it took priority over the formal. It was better to do nothing than to make a wrong move.
I don’t think in the least that everyone is talking about the market. When I talk to my friends or students, it isn’t really a big topic of discussion, and my day-to-day life is determined by what I make, and not by counting money. Of course I have also noticed that the newspaper feuilleton are currently obsessed with this subject. I find it rather tedious that so much fuss is being made about such a small part of the overall art scene. It would make more sense to ask these journalists why they can’t find anything more interesting to write about when it comes to art.
Writing one’s own press releases and being concerned about art as a commodity is a step towards self-empowerment for any artist; it’s about not being at the mercy of the art industry’s goodwill. And I should add that successful artists have always done this – there’s nothing new about it, as a bit of historical research will reveal. But it’s always obscured by the myth of the free artist. Of course finances play a role in this profession, too. The whole industry has changed, of course: you only need to look at art schools. The well-educated artist is prudent, far-sighted, dependable, and has a stable character – and this has become a model for the present.

BAUMANN: The model artist described above – stable and prudent – expresses precisely the condition that the feuilleton are describing. Admittedly it is a tedious, slightly self-pitying lament, but nowadays art education and art discourse are based on this image of the artist – it has been internalised. In which case you might as well close the academy. I’m also not sure anymore whether it’s really about self-empowerment. Isn’t it far more about self-promotion, about constantly “liking” one another?

ZOBERNIG: Why close the academy? Should artists be naïve and dumb again? You don’t have to believe an author’s eloquent descriptions of themselves. Surely it’s disastrous if critics and those working in the field no longer make an effort to look closely, to read and check whether the text even fits to the work, or whether it should be interpreted as a subtext. In the past, self-promotion was practiced in exactly the same way, if not with more arrogance.

BAUMANN: I’m interested in the role of the artist today, whether it really has changed as much as it seems. In 1992 and 1997 you were invited to documenta, and in 1997 to Skulptur Projekte in Münster. For all three of these major events you created “applied art”: for Münster the big billboards, which functioned as advertising and signage, for the first documenta, a stage set for concerts, and for the second, a lecture hall and café. Your work encapsulated how the artist at such exhibitions is also always a serviceprovider – for the location, for the curatorial concept, and for himself. These projects were therefore also an analysis of the position and function of the artist. Other artists have tried something similar, but none of them with your laconic precision. Now this approach has become mainstream; it has become a model supported by art schools and has led to greater permeability. Was this your intention?

ZOBERNIG: It was to be expected that it would enter into academia. If it hadn’t been successful, then perhaps it would not have. It became an art genre. Some artists developed it further, while others just pretended to. Even at the time, I emphasised that in addition to the functional aspect, these were sculptures. It turned into a topic of debate at the time. Now of course it’s established and has become part of art history. Whether I meant it like that or not is irrelevant. Even if it was barely visible at first, I worked to make it more visible.

BAUMANN: Do your students continue to orient themselves using texts? Are there certain theoreticians,
philosophers or critics who are particularly popular? Or has theory lost its appeal?

ZOBERNIG: This depends a lot on the student’s character, of course. Some don’t need it. Others have studied philosophical subjects before, or are studying them parallel to their art degree and are great thinkers. The breadth of students’ knowledge is generally better than in the past because it is now part of the art-school programme.

BAUMANN: But are there authors who crop up frequently? And what about you? You’ve often stressed the importance of texts and books, right through to your own artist books about books. Have there been any recent publications that have impressed or bewildered you?

ZOBERNIG: A lot of reading happens online [laughs]. I read Wittgenstein all the time .... No, seriously, it’s a broad field. Many students are very educated in their reading habits .... Georges Bataille, Karl Mannheim, Michel Serres, Svetlana Alpers, Jens Soentgen, through to Bazon Brock. I’m very seldom confronted with theoretical drivel. Students have a strong sense of the difference between theory and the experience of what they are actually doing. I normally have a pile of books by my bed. For a while I have been dipping into Patio and Pavilion by Penelope Curtis, and I loved Bernd Stiegler’s Belichtete Augen [exposed eyes] – a very curious book. For a while I was reading Peter Bieri’s Das Handwerk der Freiheit [the craft of freedom], and recently I came across Juliane Rebentisch’s Die Kunst der Freiheit [the art of freedom], but I’m only making slow progress with it – a page at the beginning, a page in the middle ... it’s lying around more as decoration, really.

BAUMANN: Let’s go back to talking about being an artist. In your case you had two careers: The first, up until early 2000, was international, with important individual retrospectives. Bigger galleries were interested in you, but you didn’t change over. Then your career started flagging a little. A few years ago it picked up again, as you said yourself, in the USA, with Friedrich Petzel Gallery, and with a younger generation of artists who rediscovered your practice. Did this have an effect on your work? Would it be esoteric to say that the appearance of the human figure in your sculptures and the more recent appearance of gestural painting are connected to these developments? Or should they be regarded as immanent to the work?

ZOBERNIG: No, your interpretation isn’t quite right. My career didn’t die down. In 2002 and 2003 I had large exhibitions in Vienna, Basel, and Düsseldorf. After which I could take a break for a while. But during that time I had exhibitions in Japan, Australia, and Korea. The frequency of the exhibitions increased all the time – just not as quickly as before. Too much success can be negative for a good life. From 2005 on the format simply changed: bigger and more museums. The appearance of figures in my works, among other things, coincided with the start of my professorship in Vienna. I asked myself why figurative art had totally disappeared from art-school practice and wanted to show students that this was still possible by playing around with a mannequin. I certainly see my current paintings as immanent to the work. I am currently exhibiting works on paper as well as my latest paintings at Chantal Crousel in Paris. Here you can clearly see how they complement each other.

BAUMANN: As a non-Austrian I asked myself why you were only first asked to contribute to the Austrian Pavilion in Venice in 2015. Is this indeed your first invitation? Have you sometimes imagined how the pavilion would look if you were showing?

ZOBERNIG: Hmm, yes, well – I don’t know – maybe. Yes, I suppose so. But you probably want me to explain in more detail. Well: I’ve already been in the Arsenal twice, and once collaterally with Franz West in the Palazzo Barbarigo. And I was represented with a big piece made of Murano glass in the Museo Ca’Rezzonico. It’s true that over the years I have often thought about the pavilion. The timing of the invitation is just right. It means I still have it before me and it’s not something already passed and forgotten. My current project is also something completely new and isn’t based on old ideas, though it still relates to works that have their roots in the 80s. Perhaps I just haven’t been able to implement it in the right way until now.

Daniel Baumann is director of the Kunsthalle Zürich.

Heimo Zobernig, born 1958 Iin Mauthen, Austria. Lives in Vienna. Exhibitions: Austrian Pavilion, Venice Biennial; Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna (solo), Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris (solo) (2015); kestnergesellschaft, Hannover (solo); One Million Years – System und Symptom, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; Mudam Luxembourg (solo) (2014); Against Method, Generali Foundation, Vienna; Kunsthaus Graz (solo), GEO-NEO-POST, Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest (2013); Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid (solo) (2012); The Indiscipline of Painting, Tate St. Ives, Cornwall; ohne Titel (in red), Kunsthalle Zürich (solo) (2011).

Represented by: Petzel Gallery, New York; Meyer Kainer, Vienna; Simon Lee Gallery, London; Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; Galleria Gentili, Prato; Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, Brussels; Galerie Nicolas Krupp, Basel; Galería Juana de Airpuru, Madrid; Galerie Christian Nagel, Köln/Berlin; Galerie Bärbel Grässlin, Frankfurt/Main; Galerie Christine Mayer, Munich