“To me the concept is more important than the medium” says Wolfgang Müller, who spends his time between Kreuzberg and Reykjavik. A multimedia artist who escapes easy categorization, he is one of those creative spirits who once flocked to West Berlin eager to devote themselves to art. From creating deconstructivist comic strips, or making sculpture out of music with an avant-garde band in the ’80s, to reconstructing the sound of an extinct Icelandic seabird and writing the history of West Berlin’s subcultures, Wolfgang Müller has been shaping an unconventionally exciting path. And it’s a joy to listen to him describe it.
You came to Berlin in 1979. Which city did you come here from?
I came from Wolfsburg – this was one of the cities that had been founded by the Nazis. Wolfsburg had been built to house the people who worked for the Volkswagen industry. That’s where my family were employed.
Where had they originally come from?
My mother was sort of a refugee from the city of Königsburg in East Prussia. My father belonged to the German minority of Czechoslovakia – he came from a village in the area of Reichenberg. He was just 18 years old when he was called to serve in the army. He spent part of the war on a ship in Norway and later, after 1945, he ended up a prisoner of war. He was captured by the British; well, that was of course not as horrible as being a prisoner of the Soviets.
When was he liberated?
Honestly, I am not sure. You know, my parents -like many Germans of their generation- did not speak much about the past. My father never said a word about his time as a soldier.
Didn’t you ever try to find out what he and your mother had experienced?
The only information I could get, I would get by browsing through an old photo album. There were pictures of him playing the accordion as a young man… But you never know, right? One never knows what a man may have done in the war. But the truth is that I remember my father as a very gentle man; there was nothing macho about his behaviour and I have only good memories of him. What I know is that when he was liberated, he had no family to return to. They were all dead. My mother, on her part, had lost her home, as so many people from Königsburg. Many of those German refugees settled in Wolfsburg after the war. There was work for them there. You know, an interesting thing is that my mother was a Protestant and my father a Catholic. That was seen as a problem back then – my grandfather didin’t want his daughter to marry a Catholic, so my dad had to leave the Catholic Church. He was not religious, anyway, but this shows how stupid the world is.
So why did you come to Berlin as a young man? What was your plan initially?
I had been kicked out of school in the 10th class, because I was making a lot of trouble. I was not comfortable in the Gymnasium. Basically I had no respect for authority. Because I didn’t like the persons – I have always been like that, I still am. So I dropped out. And in 1979 I came to West Berlin, which was a big melting pot for all the outsiders in Germany: for the drop outs, the queer, the lesbians, the trance, for all those who opposed militarism, for everyone who didn’t fit. They all met in West Berlin. At the time, the Allied Law still applied. That meant that we were German, but we were not exactly part of West Germany; one had to get a special pass. In a sense, we didn’t belong to anybody. Wonderful! Well, OK, it could be bad in some ways – for instance the death penalty had not yet been abolished. Not that anyone was murdered, as far as I know. So, in any case, West Berlin had a very special atmosphere.
Did you intend to lead the life of an artist in West Berlin?
I had always been very interested in art. Sure, when I was young I had this cliché in my mind, that an artist is totally free to be and create whatever he wants. With that in my mind, I came to Berlin, crashed at a friend’s place for some time, applied at the Hochschule der Künste and got accepted. But I was already living as an artist.
Can you recall the first piece of art you created?
It was a very conceptual piece: I had been collecting all the cheating papers, from school, and I would note down whether the student who had cheated in each case was a girl or a boy, which class they were in, if they had cheated in French class or in Math, for example. So I had a huge collection of cheating papers, all of which exhibited real creativity. Now the German word for the verb “to cheat” is “spicken”. So I looked it up in order to find out where it stems from and it turned out that it has its origins either in the Latin “spikere”, or in the old Dutch word “specken”, that means to make something more tasteful by adding bacon. It sounded so interesting!
It sounds like your view on what constitutes art was not limited to painting or sculpture.
For me art was -and still is- a kind of research, something that helps make the world easier to decode, easier to understand. Art helps to unlock the world, to open it up, but not in a strict manner – art does not seek out or propose that there is one and only truth. You know, I don’t even think it is important whether spikere or specken is the word from which spicken originates. I think both are quite nice, both are interesting.
You are a visual artist, you write music, you write books, you do research… What is it that most appeals to you? What is it that you find artistically most challenging and intriguing?
The medium is not so important; the concept it. Let me give you an example: When I first went to the Reykjavik Museum, my curiosity was aroused by the image of an extinct bird – the last couple of a species that was spotted in 1844. So I was thinking that I can still know how the bird looked -I can see the shape and the figure and the body- but I cannot see its movement. And I cannot listen to sound it made, since it was never recorded. But I was curious about it – I cannot explain why, but I wished to know how it sounded and how it moved. So I started to conduct a sort of scientific research. I found some books in the library in Reykjavik, where people describe the sounds it made.
Of course that had been no nightingale singing; it was a seabird. And sea birds give out horrible shrieks. They have to be louder than the water, you see. While a nightingale lives in the European jungle, so the sound is very different. Anyway, I reconstructed the sound of this extinct Icelandic bird. To make something out of a description, to take something written and to create a sound out of it, to create a new form; this is art to me. Art is to put something into a form and it doesn’t matter what kind of medium one uses.
So do you always start with a question? With an inquiry? With something that provokes your curiosity? And then from there you expand to all mediums?
Yes, exactly so. I begin at that point where my curiosity is aroused and from there I proceed and end up in an altogether new place. But at the beginning I never know where I will arrive.
Then you do not have even a vague vision of the result?
No, no, I don’t want to. Because I think that we all have so many prejudices already. It is like we all have a special image for each thing embedded in us… So I believe it is better that as an artist I try not to succumb to this.
What do you do in order not to allow your inevitable prejudices to stand in your way?
It’s not a matter of not allowing, it’s more a question of surprise: of letting things surprise me. Again, let me give you an example. I have an artist friend who is a Mohawk. He also still lives in Mohawk territory, in the US. He was once visiting me in Berlin and we happened to go into a small shop that sold organic products. My friend spotted a pack of cigarettes that featured the stereotypical image of a Native American wearing feathers. Now the man is Mohawk and they have been cultivating tobacco for practically 800 years, so essentially it is their creation. My friend looks at those cigarettes and asks “What are these?” The woman behind the counter replied that they were some sort of biodynamic cigarettes, whatever that might mean. So my friend turns to me and tells me that this was absolute stereotypical bullshit, since the Mohawks wear only three feathers, instead of a whole bunch.
And while the woman was explaining how healthy and pure these biodynamic things supposedly are, my friend was whispering to me “this is the revenge for stealing our land and murdering us with liquer and schnapps and beer. Now die slowly and painfully white man, with ecological biodynamic cigarettes”. Remember, he was a red man speaking to a white man. Of course that was a very good joke! That was a beautiful concept, what he made out of that stupid stereotype. He was playing with the guilt feelings and the stereotypes of exoticising Native Americans. And this could only be said by him, it would make no sense if it came from anyone else.
Let’s go back in time, once again. What was your first piece, the first thing that you created as a practicing artist that gave you self confidence?
And what was it about?
This was a coming out story, which I would describe as being very deconstructivist. You see at the time I was a great fan of the French philosophers, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze… I was not interested in constructing an identity, I rather wanted to show that even if identity is an important part of any coming out story, in my opinion every human being is continually exploring his or her identity. That comic strip was for me a chance to realise what I really wanted to do – I did not do it in order to please anybody.
We were studying together in the Academy of Arts. We had a lot in common and most importantly we shared the conviction that the galleries in West Berlin were extremely conservative, they did not dare to look outside the mainstream. None of us were satisfied with the official contemporary arts scene. Sure, we went to the exhibitions of Meret Oppenheim or Dieter Roth; those were artists we liked. But they were established, things were different for them. For young artists, there were absolutely no opportunities to create something truly modern, something innovative in the visual arts. Nobody would exhibit it, or look at it, or discuss it.
What we noticed, then, was that the only artistic field where there was room for innovation and where innovation could reach a substantial audience, was the music scene! I do not mean the official rock scene, naturally. So the things that we were not given a chance to do in the visual arts scene of the time, we decided we would do in the avant-garde music scene, where there was much more space and freedom. The concept was to make a sculpture made of music, of sounds.
It’s interesting that none of you were musicians, though.
No, we were not, right. By the way, the group was having several members. It was a kind of collective.
Did you play any instruments? Did you know how?
No, we did not.
How did you pick the name of the band?
We were looking for a name that was strong and weak, fixed and fluid, funny and at the same time sinister. And then Nikolaus and I were very interested in Marcel Duschamp who did those word plays, you know like L.H.O.O.Q. And in German you have a word play with Tödliche Doris – because if you change the r to an s, you get Tödliche Dosis, which means fatal dose, an overdose. In naming the band, we were very much influenced by the atmosphere in the city. West Berlin was full of junkies at the time. David Bowie called it the Capital of Heroin. Even while he had come here to go clean – and he made it. So the “Tödliche Doris” is a funny name, one thinks that somebody misspelled. In fact, in East Germany there was a lexicon of pop music that mentioned us -“a German anti capitalist band, they called us- where the editors actually spelled our name wrong; die Tödliche Dosis, the fatal dose. Wonderful, isn’t it?
Which artists inspired at the time?
Dieter Roth and Joseph Beuys and of course Valeska Gert. She was very important to us. Valeska Gert was on the same level with Dieter Roth and Joseph Beuys. These men were much better known, but Valeska was as exactly as good as them, especially in performance.
The Tödliche Doris was active while West Berlin’s subculture was blooming. Which were its main characteristics?
This was a post-punk subculture – It had been preceded by a subculture that was hippiesque, leftist.
Looking back, can you explain why this exact subculture arose at that specific moment in time in West Berlin?
It’s a mix of different factors. One thing was that you had a lot of time and space to do things. And there were audiences willing and eager to see things. There were a lot of empty spaces at the time in West Berlin, many deserted places. Like the Potsdamer Platz, which was empty; ugly and empty. Mainstream groups did not want to do performances there. But we did. We found those places interesting.
So you think that the fact that there were so many empty spaces and ugly places in West Berlin liberated young people, allowed them to experiment in the city?
Yes, reality prompted us to experiment. For artists like us who were outside the mainstream, these empty spaces were the reality – they dealt with the past, they were ran down…This was reality, not impressive images. The latter was what interested the Wild Painters who did their big colourful paintings… But this was not West Berlin, the reality of the city had nothing to do with this.
When reading about the past, one sometimes gets the impression that this subculture was actually quite popular, that almost all the young West Berliners were into it. Was that the case?
No, no, not at all. This was an affair that included a minority, a very special group of people. And of course it’s not like all that was created was brilliant artworks. Many projects were merely experiments, or open ended things. But this was a positive thing. It’s good when this happens. What was most important about that subculture was that it aimed at looking and depicting tthe world as it really was, instead of showing pretty, fake versions of it. This will to work with the materials of reality was something that one would also find in Berlin in the 1920s.
Tabea Blumenschein was also once a member of the Tödliche Doris, right?
Yes, Tabea was, and probably still is, a very radical person. But you know, as a woman one runs a greater danger of being pushed to the borders of society. As a woman and as a person who is not affluent. Take the example of Martin Kippenberger, who happened to be a friend of Tabea. Only he was a man and he came from a rich family. This is a crucial detail that tends to be overseen, because it seems to be irrelevant to the image of the artist as someone who burns himself. However, I think that there is a big difference if you go to a chic restaurant and destroy the glasses but wake up the next day and send them a cheque. If you break the glasses, create a scene and don’t send in that cheque, there’s a big difference. And to do that as a man is different than doing it as a woman. I don’t remember who asked this question, I believe it was a woman art critic, but it goes like this: “Would a Martina Kippenberger be possible?”
Do you think she would be possible?
No. Well, OK, anything is possible; but I think no. Because men have a much bigger space to express themselves and society expects women to be timid and well behaved. For example, can you imagine that a woman with unwashed hair, who shouts Heil Hitler would ever be successful? Nobody would suggest that she is realising an abstract idea, people would simply see her as deranged.
Were you ever friends with Martin Kippenberger?
No, this sort of provocation never was my style. He was an interesting person, of course, but for me this kind of provocation is uninteresting. A straight, white, rich man to say the things he said, but to never turn the joke on himself… I am not saying it in a moralistic way. But remember the story I told you about my Mohawk friend – the joke he made could not have been made by a white man.
Had you been to East Berlin before the Wall fell?
Yes, many times. I had some friends there, I was friends with Heiner Müller, I knew people who did similar things with the ones we did in the West.
Did you ever perform in East Berlin?
Yes, we did an illicit performance – one of the people who organised it was Eugen Blume, who is today the director of the Hamburger Bahnhof. In the East I met people whom I would describe as real artists, as people sincerely and deeply interested in writing, in music…And I realised that freedom is a thing one may experience even while living in a closed up space, even when there is a border that does not allow the people to go past it. After all today’s borders are put into place by one’s financial limitations.
You are saying that in East Berlin there existed a microcosm inside which artists were free?
Exactly. Like it happened in the West. Imagine this – I came to West Berlin in 1979 and there was the first gay bar with windows, through which everyone could look inside. It was already mixed, with straight and gay people. And this place had opened in 1977. Among all the gay bars, there was only one where people could see inside! And this was 10 years after homosexuality had finally stopped being considered illegal. That had happened in East Germany in 1968, a year earlier than in the West. OK, it was only a year, but still…So in any conversation about freedom, one has to imagine a gay person who wants to live his life in freedom, in West Germany. You see, there are many aspects to freedom.
The fact remains that more people wanted to leave the GDR than the western countries.
Yes, yes, true. But Heiner Müller once said to me that the most successful propaganda that the people in the East can see on West German television is not the news; it is those five minutes of advertisements right before the news. So some people simply craved the ananas, while others needed conversation and freedom of speech. The needs of people can be different. The people that I was talking with were not repressed, they talked very openly, they chose to do so.
How was night life West Berlin? Did it use to be as lively and as wild as the legend has it?
Oh, no, there were only five places around. And basically one; the Dschungel. It was not like the whole city was partying hard all the time, no way. They say the same thing about the 1920s, just because now everyone knows the art that was made by what essentially was no more than a bunch of people – but they were a bunch of people, not the majority. They never were the majority.
Did you use to go to the Dschungel? Was it as good as people say?
Yes. The Dschungel worked so well because of the surroundings – because everything was drab, grey and depressing. Smog, coal heating everywhere…In West Berlin there also existed a border between the young and the widows of former Nazis who got good pensions -they were called the Wilmersdorfer Wittwen. So in West Berlin you have these widows, you had a lot of old Nazis and quite a lot of cold warriors. And at the same time all the anti-militarists, the opposition, the artists…
And those worlds never met?
No, never. Only in the tube, early in the morning, when we would be returning home from the Dschungel and they would go to work, reading the Bild. There’s a good song – by the band Liebesgier. It goes “Morgens um 4:30 wenn die U-Bahn wieder fährt sehe ich dich, sehe ich dich. Du bist im ersten Wagen, deine kleine Augen sind so mut und starr…”
These days you spend a lot of time in Reykjavik. When did Iceland come in your life?
You can say it in a visual image: in front of my flat, the Wall came down. West Berlin was not an island anymore, and then, half a year later, I get an invitation to the island of Iceland. And so I discovered a new island.
What was the feeling when you went there? What is it about Iceland that you fell for?
When I arrived in Iceland, on the invitation of Magnus Palsson, an artist who was a friend of Dieter Roth, I got a call from Einar Örn Benediktsson of the Sugarcubes. He invited me to dinner. And it had never before happened to me to visit a country and receive such a warm invitation from another artist who had just heard I was coming into town. I found that very kind. And then I noticed that in Iceland people talk with each other on the same eye level – I didn’t see anyone feeling superior or looking down on others. A lack of arrogance, that was what amazed me in Iceland; that and an indifference towards status symbols. In Iceland you might feel proud if you can communicate in five languages or if you have written a wonderful book, but not because you have loads of money.
You earlier told me that Valeska Gert’s art has always meant a lot to you. A few years ago, you also curated an exhibition of her work at the Hamburger Bahnhof. Why do you consider her very important?
Modern dance was something that started in Berlin, right? Individual dance in contrast to ballet. And Valeska Gert was very special. Even while Mary Wigman and Gret Palucca created special forms out of her dance, Valeska created something entirely unique: her pieces give shape to different concepts through dance, but also through other media. Her art analyses reality. Because reality is what she was interested in. For example, when she was 84, she performed -for a documentary- a Japanese man who falls in love with a Japanese woman. The man is very fat and big, he is a samurai and the woman is very small and fagile. And Valeska is interpreting both parts, one after the other. And it is so wonderful! Something happens inside you while you are watching this.
Why was she largely forgotten after the war?
Valeska had emigrated, she was Jewish and she was not welcome when she returned in the 1950s. She was like a bad conscience that had come back. People feel bad when you remind them what they have done to you, that they have not helped you, that they turned a blind eye. I think that Valeska was a bit naïve in hoping that Berlin would start all over again, that it would once again be a melting pot. A few years after her return she realised that this was not going to happen any time soon.
Now imagine a woman who had been a big star in the 1920s and then she comes back after the war, goes on stage and plays the part of a real-life Nazi. Ilse Koch, a woman known for her brutal, sadistic behaviour, who had been sentenced to 16 years in prison. And Valeska Gert played her on stage in 1951. Another time, she offered the young Klaus Kinski the chance to appear in her space, Hexenküche; she said he should read lyrics by Arthur Rimbaud, because Germans were not familiar with his poetry. She was ahead of her time, that was the problem. She did everything too early. And she was always very kind and generous to the young people. Sadly very few things are left because she didn’t much care to keep a record. She died in 1978 – until then she was getting fan mail from punks, who would have liked to meet her.
Would you name one book or a film, something personal, that you would give to a friend to whom you would want to introduce real Berlin?
My book about Berlin’s subculture. In it I write about all the lesser known people, the not-so-famous who are worth learning about and remembering. And the people who are very well known I show in a realistic light.
And one last thing – what is it that you love most about Berlin? Why do you still live here?
It’s very green, for one thing. And I still hope that people in Berlin are a bit oppositionist to things that are mainstream.