Johannes Albers makes works of art that appear to be telling a joke. At first, at least. They are definitely pleasant to look at. But when one looks a little harder they tend to become a bit unsettling. Or so it seemed to me, while I was walking among them. The Berlin based artist whose work can be seen these days at his exhibition at the Michael Fuchs Galerie in Mitte, says that all he does is try to make life a little easier to explain. It is a little like telling a joke at your favourite aunt’s funeral. Or like offering a Christmas present. Is then nothing what it seems? Who knows. Life is a mystery and then we die; but in the meantime we cannot help trying to make some sense of it. So what. “To celebrate life, you cannot really want to be a winner”, says Johannes Albers.
Why did you name your exhibition Wall?
Initially it was because of the gallery space itself. This is no white cube. It is a dramatic space, where I felt I had to stage, rather than show something. I was thinking that I could build a wall so as to create a kind of drama, and then take it from there. After all, I always work with a general topic, an open concept that I keep thinking about. So I was thinking about the wall and its connotations, which led me to the decision that there should be one more artist taking part in this. And I invited Douglas Gordon. Because the wall we face every day is the other person. I will never know what is inside your head.
And I thought that the concept of the wall was connected to the history of Berlin.
It is natural that the title brings to mind the Berlin Wall. Which I like because everybody can connect to the idea. There are so many personal stories, innumerable personal stories. However I still believe that the ultimate wall we face is our own body. And our own mind. But don’t get me wrong, I believe that some walls are absolutely necessary and helpful; like the wall between reality and fantasy, for instance.
Walls tend to fall, though. They are not necessarily there for ever.
True. However, I imagine that a wall, any wall, is a borderline. And it’s a little like death, too. It can fall, because it is very fragile. But at the same time, going over the wall can be dangerous. I am trying to picture this in one of my works, which is a glass suitcase. If a suitcase appears in a story, there’s always something happening. It’s not the thinking stage and it’s not the trying stage of the plot; it’s about action: Something has already happened or will very soon happen. A borderline is being crossed. At the same time, though, I wanted the glass suitcase to stand for fragility, for fall, for death; or for a new beginning. Beginnings are fragile and dangerous, aren’t they? Then there’s always a very eerie feeling about unattended luggage. You know, I was studying in London during the time of the IRA terrorist attacks and to my eyes, a suitcase standing there, with nobody claiming it, evokes that feeling; even if it is transparent like this one. It is uncanny.
You also made a video, that you suggested I watch before moving on to the rest of the works.
I wanted this to be a little like an introductory film, like in a James Bond movie, where you first have the titles, then you get a little action and then the movie starts. I wanted it all to start with the image of a ship on a sea of walls, which would serve as an introduction to the main movie, which is the exhibition itself.
And what about the poem that a male voice is reciting?
This is my son, reciting Samuel Beckett. I heard it at a friend’s funeral:
imagine yes this this
one day this this
one fine day
yes one day
one fine day this this
During the Berlin Art Week, a month ago, your work was exhibited at the abc art fair. There was something quite playful in the way your work was shown.
I wanted that exhibition to have the feeling of a Magritte town: to resemble a playground at night…
There was a piece in that dark playground by the title of Nobody, 2013: A pinball machine upon which someone had thrown a rock that had definitely interrupted all the fun. Why did you do that?
The rock is a kind of antipode of Jeff Koons’ Rabbit. Jeff Koons takes seemingly very light pieces and makes them very heavy. The Jeff Koons Rabbit weighs a ton, I think. And then I come and take something that looks very heavy, and turn it into something very light. The way I see it, what art has been doing since the ‘60s is to take something that is simple, an object from everyday life, like a balloon or a Brillo box, and turn it into something very heavy. I tried to go the opposite way: to give the illusion that something very heavy and complicated is actually very light.
What If I asked you to put your art into words and say a story about it?
Imagine that your favourite aunt dies and you are at the funeral. You are overcome by grief, people at the funeral are sad, the mood is very dark. And then out of the blue somebody tells a joke. Suddenly all the weight of those feelings is somehow lifted. It goes away, even if is for a mere 10 seconds. This is kind of feeling that I wanted that rock to evoke. But the rock is still connected to another image: that of Jesus’ grave. The story goes that the rock was removed from the entrance of the grave so you have two options. Either the stone was very light and they pushed it away, or somebody with a super power managed to move it. I do prefer the first explanation.
Why did you want to do art, in the first place?
It just happened. I had ideas, I wanted to realize them and I got to work on them. I wanted to see how my ideas would look if they became real. It is like having a Christmas present that you want to open and see and touch. And that is how it has been ever since. You work, you get an idea, then you realize it. And what I am always trying to achieve as an artist, is to try to give you a feeling of what it is to live in this world. Of course art is always a struggle. It is a difficult path. But then everything has become difficult nowadays.
Why did you choose to study in London?
Well, because I wanted a little adventure. I could have studied in Dusseldorf, where the system of teaching is very traditional, very academic: You have the master, you copy the master and then you will be set free, you can do whatever you want. That prospect did not appeal to me, although I can see the advantages of that system.
So from my hometown, I went straight to London where I would remain for about 6,5 years. I remember that everybody there thought I was mad leaving Germany for England, where the mood was not good at all at the time. They were coming out of those union fights and the economy was pretty down. London was in no way the polished up city that it is today.
After completing your Fine Arts studies, you pursued a degree in Law. Isn’t that an unorthodox path for a visual artist?
I wouldn’t be so sure about it. Being an artist one often wants to combine things. Some artists do it with math or agronomy. And I tried to combine art and law, which is basically stories; the real life stories. You can combine art with a lot of things and have very interesting results. So I sincerely believed that it is possible to do that with law, too. But I finally decided that the results did not look interesting to me.
In the late 1990s you and Igor Paasch founded a two-man group, the Club Vernissage. What was the plan?
What we tried to do was to establish a kind of anti-marketing strategy. At the time all that marketing was very successfully doing, was making statements about this and that. Marketing was telling people that this or that was “fantastic” or “incredibly brilliant”. There was no reason why this or that was brilliant; it sufficed to say it was.The 1990s were all about a statement. In a way It was like driving and neglecting to glance at the rear mirror. So at the Club Vernissage we thought that if all those marketing strategists can say “this is reaaaally brrriiillliant”, then we can say “it’s crap”.
How were you articulating it?
We tried the poster technique, which is very fast and very direct. It was really fun because there were messages like “success is ugly”, and people would come up to me and ask what the meaning behind the message was. And my answer was “well what do you mean what does it mean? What it says, it’s all there.”
Did you succeed in achieving your goals?
No, it didn’t really succeed, because people didn’t get it. Let me tell you, it is always very difficult to criticize an established system. People will always tell you that your criticism stems from the fact that you are an outsider. So you either get ignored, or you get embraced by the system which thus neutralizes your criticism. To communicate with powerful systems is a problem in itself. You lose either way.
Do you find that marketing is still as effective today?
I think that it is not that simplistic or crude anymore. We all know that not everything is running very well. But coming from the ’80s, I remember a lot of people thinking that we can contain the strength of the markets, that we can use it for ourselves. It’s like putting a tiger in a cage and trying to milk it. It is a brilliant thought but in the end the tiger leaves you with the cage.
You studied in Goldsmiths and were a member of the YBA -the Young British Artists- who actually gave the school a great reputation. Was the atmosphere at the time as exciting as it is described?
Pretty much, yes it was. We were free to use everything, we could do everything, there was this feeling that we could do something that matters.
You were the only non-British YBA. Was that hard?
I think that in a certain respect it was difficult that I was German. At the time Charles Saatchi redirected his collection from international into only British. So if you call a movement “Young British Artists”, what do you do? Call it “Young British-and-a-German Artists”? It doesn’t work.
What was the best thing about the YBA?
It was the feeling of community, of being together and the generosity amongst some of the artists.
Upon your return to Germany, did you come straight to Berlin?
Oh, no, I didn’t. I first went to Hamburg, but I did not like it. I had the impression of a big small town. People know one another, they are like big families who are not especially fond of outsiders. Initially, though, when I came here in 1992 it was because of the cheaper rents. At the time the monthly rent for a studio in Berlin was more than 50% cheaper than one in Hamburg. At first I planned to commute but very soon I changed my mind and settled in Berlin which felt a bit more urban.
It sounds like you were reluctant to come to Berlin, though. I thought that it was quite a popular destination with artists at the time.
I did not especially like Berlin back then. It had to do with my growing up in a small town, and the impression that I had of the city when I was young. I remembered how Berlin had always had this magnetic appeal to my fellow students at school. They would travel to Berlin and then come back having adopted the cool ‘80s style with the dyed black hair and a Berlin accent to match. And they had only stayed in Berlin for a fortnight! So I would get a little upset about this city that I thought made people immediately assimilate.
How welcoming was Berlin to you when you finally landed here?
I found a nice apartment which was pleasant, sure, but it still was a struggle. It was not easy to try to network, to find people that are interested in the same things that you are interested in.That is always hard, of course, but in my case there was a whole network of people that I had left back in London.
When you want to look at good art these days, where do you turn to?
Anywhere. It happens by chance. A film can be fantastic art…Basically what art does is make the world more accessible, easier to explain. It gives one an idea of the world in its entirety. As an artist I can try to give you a feeling of what it is to live in this world.
What if a 16-year-old asked you to show her some good art? What would you suggest?
I don’t know…It can happen…Discovering and relating to art is a kind of adventure and it would spoil it if I pointed at a specific entrance. It can be any one entrance. It could be a TV series like The Wire. I believe I would let 16-year-olds find their own way.
Do you think that art should somehow be provocative?
I am not sure. But in any case, a provocation is merely a start, it’s like an entrance that allows one delve deeper; if one wants to do so. To begin to do that as an artist you have to tear at something, you have to see a gap and then try to slip the message through it. For instance, I’ll maybe try to make a joke -remember the aunt’s funeral that I was earlier talking to you about? A joke can be a tear at something, or it can be a provocation. And it is still there to help one open up to something else, to maybe come a little closer to the mystery of life. About which, by the way, none of us knows a thing. Still, art is about life.
There are a lot of references to toys and childhood in your work.
To childhood and adolescence, yes. There is the table tennis, the toy trains, the toy duck even. I think this happens because I’m interested in situations of change and changeability. Adolescence is when things change. One minute you are still playing with trains and then you’re falling in love for the first time. You have changed forever. It is beautiful but you have to leave your childhood behind. It is a new beginning and an adventurous one, but it brings its own dangers with it. This feeling has a lot in common with being an artist.
The feeling of falling in love for the first time? In what way?
I think that what happens when you are an artist is that you fall in love with the world, basically. Why else would you want to make images of the world? Remember how at fourteen or fifteen, when you are in love for the first time, you want to have an image of your first love so you take a picture. And when you are at home and you look at it, you realize that it is not quite right. You have missed something. So you take another picture, and then another and you once more try to capture the real thing. This is what you do as an artist. So you see, the problem is that the piece I am working on is always so much more beautiful inside my head. It’s a little bit like Christmas, like a present that you cannot wait to unwrap and when you unwrap it is not exactly as you imagined it. You are a little, just a little let down…
There’s a melancholic feeling about it.
Yes, of course. How else could it be? Life is a gift, like art is gift. But in the end you lose the gift. It’s always taken away from you, which is a very melancholic thing. But this is alright. Do you remember how we were talking about marketing earlier? Well, I think we focus too much on the winners. There is a flood of stories about the people who won. But this is a lottery! And in any lottery a hundred people may win but millions will not win. So the actual story that we should be narrating each other is not the winners’ stories; it’s the losers’ stories. Because that’s what life is about. We all are unashamed, glorious losers, who all think they want to be winners. If I could, I would change it immediately. To celebrate life, you cannot really want to be a winner.
Art history has a few good losers’ stories.
Losers whom post mortem we have turned into winners. If you declare them the winners after the race is over, then you are definitely not celebrating life. It is like saying, “look, everybody else disqualified, so Van Gogh is the winner after all”. But this is not a race and it is not about winning.
More links: – Johannes Albers’ exhibition at the Michael Fuchs Galerie is on until October 26, 2013.
– Learn and see more of Johannes Albers at Other Criteria.