Houses and landscapes have always been the motifs that Markus Draper has been interested in. With time, he would start to look deeper into their history. Inevitably this preoccupation would at some point lead him to the decision to turn his gaze at his own past. “I have a very intense interest in the theme of memory as well as the theme of failure that is connected to memory – and in this context, the failure of the culture of memory”, says the artist who was grew up in the GDR and today lives close to the Berlin Wall Memorial.
Why did you change your name from Richter to Draper?
For a series of reasons.You know, as a young artist one sets out to conquer the world; that is an artist’s wish, to go out in the world and populate it with his artworks, to be seen as unique. This is an artist’s, any artist’s, motivations. So, since the name Richter was not that unique, I had to find another one. By the way, I come from Sachsen and by changing my name I follow in the tradition of many artists from the region who have done the same; among them many famous people too, like Georg Baselitz and Blinky Palermo. That’s how I decided to adopt a name with which I would step into the world of art – in a way I started my own artistic firm. I saw it as a project: to create a name and fill it with content.
Why did you settle on the name Draper, though?
I chose it as a reference to John Draper, who’s largely considered the grandfather of the hackers’ community. Here’s the story in brief: inside a box of cereal he had found a toy pipe, you know, one of those giveaways for kids. He was playing with this little plastic toy when he realised that it produced a tone that matched the one used by a telephone company. So he experimented a little and pretty soon he was able to hack into the telecommunications system. That was at the time of the Vietnam War, which the telephone companies were helping finance. So what John Draper did was much more than succeed in placing free of charge long distance calls; he was sending a message against the war. And because he did that with the help of that toy, he gave himself the name on the cereal box which was Captain Crunch. So he became famous as Captain Crunch. What I liked about this guy is that he managed to do something subversive with the use of nothing more than a child’s toy.
On a recent visit to the Berlinische Galerie, I saw the Windsor Tower (2007), the piece of yours that belongs to the Galerie’s permanent collection. It refers to a tower that once stood in Madrid – what drew your interest to this building in the first place?
I was working on an exhibition that was taking place in Dresden, for which I already had created two bigger sculptures and I was in the process of thinking up a piece for one last large space. The other two sculptures were reworkings of houses that had a history – to be exact, their past was such that they were considered not loaded, but actually contaminated with history; and their ruins were to be disposed of. As I was thinking about the third house that I was going to recreate, I remembered a story that I had read in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: it was an article with no pictures, about a high-rise building in Madrid, which had been destroyed in a fire and about the difficulties that its reconstruction entailed.
What was it about the building that attracted your interest, since there were no pictures?
It was this one sentence: “There stood a black, fragile needle in the middle of a white city”. I did search out pictures of the place and found some that depicted the ruin and I was fascinated, right there and then. On top of the ruin there still stood a building crane and it looked like a painting by Pieter Brügel; this tower that was built with such ambition only to crumble into the ground, this contrast between construction and wreckage. And then I looked into the whole story and how it all had started out. That was a tower that had been built in the 1970s and then in 2005, while it was being renovated, there was an accident and it caught fire. It was spectularly burned and partly collapsed. But to come back to your question, what truly fascinated me was this grand scale failure that the story represented; the dramatic failure of a utopia, that symbol of the vanity of man’s technological prowess, this act of erecting an enormous phallic symbol which then so dramatically crumbles on earth.
It is quite apparent that you are interested in buildings, especially those that have a history and especially those that contain some kind of conflict.
True – but my interest in conflict is something that came with time. Whereas my interest in buildings with a history has always been there. Since I was a child. My father was an architect; in fact he was an architect obsessed with architecture. Even on our holiday we would drive to see a new housing scheme, or a specific building. He was working in city planning and at some point he was also involved in the department responsible for the city’s landmark buildings. My interests were inevitably shaped by the conversations he had with his friends, by the magazines and books that were everywhere around me, by the visits in different sites.
How did this interest in buildings evolve when you started dealing with them as an artist?
My first paintings were trompe-l’œils, which were thus in a way combining painting and architecture. Early on, my work was infused with architecture. But during the late stages of my time at the Art Academy, as I was starting to consciously shape the direction my work would take, I turned towards site specific installations. I began to work with the interior space itself, to place windows on walls where there were supposed to be no windows, or walls would be misplaced, covered-up or twisted around etc. Pretty soon I would turn to working with the house itself. There never were any human presences in my paintings. So it was the house that could function as a reference unit, in relation to which one saw everything else on the painting; for instance a mountain would look really high when there was a small house in front of it. But the houses would stand also for what can be broken, what is vulnerable inside of them. This idea of the vulnerability of a building provoked my interest in ruins. And the Windsor Tower is among the first of my pieces where I begin to have a serious look in concrete conflicts, where I start to develop a deeper interest in actual buildings that have a history of conflict.
Which was the first such building?
It was the piece Sculpturenkino: House of Darkness (2006), which refers to a house with a very violent history. It was located in Great Britain and I learnt its story while I was studying there.It was during the mid ‘90s when I saw a picture in the Guardian – it was actually the diagram of a house where 12 bodies of young women had been found. They had been murdered by a couple who lived in that house. I was struck on the one hand by the detailed description of the murder site and by the brutal fate that those girls had suffered, and on the other by this very sober depiction of the house in the newspaper. That feeling stayed with me for a long time and I couldn’t get that diagram out of my mind. Nothing but a diagram, that’s all. A year later I was back in England, that same house was again in the news, but this time because it was being demolished and thus eliminated from the cityscape. Almost ten years later I decided to work on a piece based on that. That was the first time I transferred the story of a ruined, traumatised house into something concrete.
Most of your works are emotionally charged. Your buildings and landscapes are inhabited by drama and strong emotions.
There was a time when I would consciously highten the drama. I would consciously drag the most dramatic effects out of a piece – for instance I would paint a very sinister sky and place before it a gruesomely destroyed house and in between a snow covered mountain – just like an opera! With time it has all become a lot more subtle, but the conflict is always there – it is a theme I’m preoccupied with, I keep working on it. I believe it partly has to do with the fact that my pieces never depict persons. And I want to tell stories about people, but I am telling them with landscapes and buildings.
Did you grow up in Görlitz? It has been a divided city – so you were growing up in a divided city of a divided country. Can you help me imagine Görlitz in the GDR?
The effects of the partition of Görlitz were very present as I was growing up. All through my childhood and adolescence I was daily confronted with it. That’s why when I first came to East Berlin and saw the Wall, I felt that here was the concrete expression of what was already familiar to me. I had grown up knowing that right there in front of me lies a line that one is forbidden to ever go near. That there is a border one is never allowed to go over. I could watch people across the river, at the other side of the town, in Poland, where I knew I was not allowed to go to. That’s right, we practically couldn’t go to Poland. The ban was imposed in 1980. The Polish government had introduced martial law in order to fight the Solidarność Movement, so our government used this as an excuse to make it extremely difficult for us to get a VISA and cross the river.
And then one other important thing about Görlitz is that it was a frontier. It stood at the far, outer edges of the GDR. The full meaning of this was a bit too abstract for me to realise when I was young and still living there. But I knew how it felt – when I would take the train from Leipzig or Dresden and get off at the last stop. It was the last stop inside East Germany, the end station. There was something very melancholic about it. And this fact that it was sort of an ending, gave the city a deeply sad character. There was no hinterland, one could not go further. One was always standing in front of an ending.
Did the buildings of the city bear the marks of the war?
It is incredible, but Görlitz escaped the bombings practically unscathed. While 20 km away everything was destroyed, Görlitz suffered merely minor damages. The architectural heritage is of course remarkable – it is a medieval city where the different eras are still clearly visible: Baroque, Rennaisance…Before the war Görlitz had been the summer residence of the rich Berlin bourgeoisie, it was where the smart and wealthy class of Berlin would spend their holiday. So a lot of huge villlas had also been saved. And what did the GDR do in order to preserve the city’s historic buildings? Nothing, they were left to decay and crumble. Apart from a couple of restorations, the rest were not saved.
Because there simply was no money? Or did it also have to do with ideology?
Both. A new housing scheme, say a Plattenbau, could be constructed according to specific building regulations so that each apartment would house a family of four – because the state decided what a family of four needed, what was enough for them. In this sense, to have four people living in a 150 square metre house, with wooden floor and big windows was too much of a luxury. It simply was not at all socialist; it was too bourgeois. And it cost a lot of money, whereas in the case of the Plattenbau everything was premanufactured and thus a lot cheaper. What’s more, the old houses with their very high ceilings that made them hard to heat, were unattractive to the people. So those beautiful, historic buildings that had survived the war, started to fall apart in the years that followed.
Except for architecture, did you grow up around art? Because it sounds like you could have easily become an architect instead of an artist.
No, I did not grow up around art. My decision to become an artist instead of an architect came as a very hard process of emancipation. My parents wanted and expected of me to go on to study architecture. But I had grown up seeing how my father’s career choice had tortured him, the kind of problems and obstacles he had always faced, how he had suffered not being able to do more in order to save the city’s architectural heritage. His job had broken him, completely, physically as well as psychologically. But he still expect me to become an architect. I did not want this to be my future.
Did your parents put their trust in the state or were they ideologically opposed to it?
Ours was a typical middle class family, but my parents had never become Party members. And even though my father was highly educated and had a good job –or rather, because of it- we did not belong to the privileged class. Quite the opposite, I should say. My parents were making great efforts to maintain a good standard of living and preserve a façade, when they never had the kind of money and comforts that were available to our neighbours, who were working three shifts in a factory. The fact that in the GDR the highly educated were considered a lesser class of people compared to the workers, and that sort of pseudo-suffering that the whole family had to endure, collectively, as well as the inexplicable humiliations that I had to share as a child -even if I could still not realise or put in context– created a very weird atmosphere. Because in a capitalist society it is the highly educated that are privileged in relation to the working class. Until I finally realised that in the West the order of things was the exact opposite from what I had been experiencing under socialism. So here too, the relations between classes had to be reconsidered and thought all over again. But until then, as far as I am concerned, I had only known one kind of humiliation that had pervaded my family’s everyday life
Has this contributed to your deciding to not become an architect?
Absolutely. I decided early on that I did not want to have anything to do with the absurd and demeaning convention that were part of belonging to the middle class of the East German society. I had no interest in keeping up appearances, or putting up with a load of crap just so that I might get a car. I wanted to be completely free of all those conventions, I’d rather spend my days in a ramshackle painting, being sort of a hippie. But I was actually no more than a pseudo-hippie; after all this was another kind of trap. But to try to study art, in a school, that was also not possible.
I had the wrong family background; for one thing, I did not belong to the working class. On top of that I was politically incorrect, I was considered a subversive political element.
While still at school? What kind of subversive political activities were you engaged in?
I was involved with groups that were active in the protection of the environment. There were huge problems with the destruction of the environment through the mining of brown coal in the GDR and it was kept under covers. There was silence about it. Criticism was forbidden. We had no oil in the GDR; we would import it from the Soviet Union. That meant that brown coal was the country’s main energy resource. But the damage its mining was doing to the earth was considerable. So I joined a group of activists that were doing undercover work. We did research and we were trying to publicize facts, so that the government would be put under some pressure. All the while I was also openly critical of the state, so I was an outsider. I would never get a place to study painting.
What were your options then?
I had trained as an offset printer, but I was basically doing serious environmental activist work. And all the while, I was working on my art, alone, trying to improve myself and to progress. Again, I was thinking that I could lead a sort of hippie existence, away from the middle class conventions. I was ready to live as an outsider as long as I could go on doing meaningful political work.
Would you describe the kind of work you did in more detail? This was the time leading up to November 1989. What were your exact plans at the time?
There was no plan. The plan was the escalation of my activist work. In that respect, things were heading toward a clash. I had been living in Leipzig since September 1989 and was contributing the making of a television documentary that was going to air in the West. But during the years leading up to that, I had also been doing work in the open, organising lectures, collaborating in publications, organising exhibitions. For a long time we were able to do this under the protection of the Church. As long as one did not cross a line, they offered their support. For the people in my group it was important to be able to keep doing our work – we did not want to provoke the authorities so that they would throw us out of the country. And thus we were trying to keep a balance. We wanted to stay home and change things.
How come you did not want to simply leave everything behind and go to the West where you would be able to live in peace and even study art?
I did not want to go away, the bonds connecting me to the country were very strong. Even while I felt great anger, leaving was never an option I considered. At the time I believed that we should do our best to change things, to make life in the GDR better. And I was thinking that those who left had severed their bonds to their roots, that they would now be displaced, they would be left in limbo. I felt I would not be psychologically able stand this; I saw it as a grave emotional trauma to be left hanging over a void. I needed the connection to the country I was familiar with. And what is important is I knew that if I left, I would never be allowed to come back.
You mentioned you were living in Leipzig. Why did you move there from Görlitz?
I had moved there in the summer of 1989. I had quit my job in order to spend the summer painting. You know, one needed very little money in order to make a living in the GDR, so every summer I would take a break from work and devote my days to drawing and painting. I had been painting for years, but I was getting more serious as time was going by. And despite everything, I still harboured the wish to study something – I was thinking of studying graphic design. In this way I would also meet my parents’ wishes halfway. There was an evening school in Leipzig and I was going to enroll after the holiday.
And then came the Monday Demonstrations, in September 1989. Did you take part in them?
I did, yes. It was a chaotic time, truly chaotic.
Did you only look back on the events of October 1989 when you started working on your piece Demotape? Was that piece a way to make sense of the experience?
The «Demotape» project was not planned, I was rather led to it, through a coincidence. However it dawned on me that it was not a bad idea to do something about my East German past, for once, instead of steadily running away from it. In my work until then, I had taken material from television and used it to construct real-life models. This time I would take television documentary material and use it to make paintings. That was the thrill in terms of the form – and this is especially important for an artist in order to work on a project that is emotionally loaded. The thrill or the challenge in terms of the content had to do with my decision that I would now, finally confront that shitty, miserable, nagging feeling that once connected me to the East; that I would work out that feeling of insecurity and dread. At the same time, it was a way for me to commemorate the events of that September in 1989.
Didn’t you then experience the end of the GDR as a liberation in itself? After all, you were finally free to pursue a place in an Art Academy.
That came later. At the time that events were unfolding, my feelings were very mixed. This was a situation for which I had been totally unprepared. Out of the blue, everything that I had risked my freedom for, seemed to have no relevance anymore. What had I been working on? I had believed that through political action we could make the world a better place. And I was willing to contribute, by putting myself on the line. I was ready to face the consequences. And suddenly nobody was there to fight against! The lack of an adversary made me feel betrayed, like an idiot. That conflict was anyway idiotic. But still, the first emotional reaction was one of betrayal. The feeling of liberation came later, I had to work on it. It came after I had decided that I would no longer build on the foundations of a pseudo-conflict; I was finally free to become an artist.
After the fall of the Wall, you were accepted at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. Why did you pick Dresden over Leipzig, whose school is also very prestigious?
I chose Dresden because my friends were already living there. At the same time, the Dresden Academy was considered subversive in comparison to the school in Leipzig. Of course both were full of Party members, but the Dresdeners were the bourgeois, they had been less restrained and had done art that was unconventional and thrown it in the face of the Party. They had dared to defy the official taste. Whereas Leipzig was clearly very conformist, they had basically been doing socialist realism.
You remained in Dresden for a few years before deciding to move to Berlin. What prompted the move?
Dresden was like a huge pot, a big but sealed space where it was possible for the process of fermentation to take place. For a long time, this process was important to me. I needed to have contact to my own history, to feel connected to my tradition, to draw from it. Dresden was ideal in that it allowed me to take my time and grow as an artist, in peace. But it was all the while clear to me that this was a closed system and that sooner or later, I would have to go. So as for the pot not to explode…So after spending two years studying in Britain and another six months in New York, I came to Berlin in 2001. I needed to put myself out there, to challenge myself with the reality of a big city, permanently.
For an artist who is interested in exploring conflict, architecture and the way ruins narrate history, Berlin sounds like a natural destination.
Indeed. And it may look a bit strange that I have not yet done any piece that deals with the ruins in this city. Not yet. But living in Berlin has definitely helped sharpen my outlook. All the more so because ever since I came here, I have moved around a lot, living in different neighbourhoods and thus getting to know different sides of Berlin. This has also made it possible to closely observe the way the city has been transforming through the years.
While working on a painting, or an installation, what is it that you aim for? How would you describe what makes a piece of art important to you?
I am interested in works that are reflective; in artworks that are not solely about the gesture, but where the painting -or the sculpture, or the film- is there as much to illustrate something visually, as to reflect on it. I don’t adhere to the theory that wants the picture to merely illustrate an idea; I am interested in the space between the image and the idea. Even if I wish to embody an idea, this is a stage that belongs to the process of making a piece; the focus is always on the artwork as a visual space.
In which case would you consider a piece a failure?
In the case it has become lifeless. That is a when a painting, or a sculpture, or a film wishes to express something, to convey a meaning, but it simply cannot touch you. It cannot move you. Because no matter what an image is about, it has to grab the viewer.
You have chosen to use practically all the media available to a visual artist in our time. Why is that?
I have learnt to work with a many media, that’s right. After all we live in a time where we are every day surrounded by so many visual media that it makes it strange to ignore them. Our times demand of us to use them. On the other side, I have enormous respect for the artists who choose to concentrate on one medium – and to use it not merely as a stylistic devise, but as a means of reflection. When I work with different media, I am always searching for that moment of interaction between them, so that I can use it in my work. At that stage it is important to keep myself focused on the idea for which I want to find a visual expression. And to always keep in mind my reasons for wanting to express this idea in painting, or maybe in film. Right now, I am going one step further and paint, for instance, film stills of my own films. Or I am looking for motifs in existing paintings that I want to depict in film.
Berlin is a city that strives to keep the memory of its past lives somehow visible and tangible. What is your impression of the city’s memory culture?
I have a very intense interest in the theme of memory as well as the theme of failure that is connected to memory – and in this context, the failure of the culture of memory. I live close to the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Street, which I see as a place of memory that has been constructed with intelligence and sensibility; however it is being condemned to failure as it is merely being utilised by the thousands of tourists who go through it every day. One must finally recognise that, here, the memory of what once was the GDR, is not being conveyed. All the more so, since all those people who consider themselves kind and humane, and who go there to pay homage to the those who lost their lives at the Berlin Wall, completely forget that there are other dramas playing out today, in several borderlines around the world. For example in the Mediterranean. In my eyes, this is the essential failure of memory – however one must be able to remember and at the same time to be conscious of its failure. And what drives me, is to incorporate this contradiction in my artistic work.