The first time Martin Mlecko was invited to exhibit his work in Berlin, a few years before the fall of the Wall, he created a piece that made some insinuations about a future reunification of the country. Upon which he was told that he “can stay at home with your jokes”. Since then, a lot has changed in the city he has chosen to make his home.
I recently visited an exhibition of your work, in a Mitte gallery, where I saw some pictures from “The Things of Life”, a series of photographs of everyday objects. What provoked your interest in creating this sort of archive of mundane things which simply lie around us everywhere?
The series comprises solely of objects that were in my own apartment. I was simply asking myself what do all these various things mean to me. Does each one of them carry a meaning? How important are they to me? With those questions in mind I began to document them, back in 1993. The series has been a work in progress ever since. Exhibited one alongside the other, these pictures create a portrait. Objects tell a whole of stories about a person, they can be very revealing.
Has the process of creating this sort of a self-portrait made you reconsider about the objects you choose in your everyday life?
Oh, yes, definitely. First of all, it made me realise that we all have tons of useless things which we might as well get rid of. Were we to lose them, we wouldn’t miss them for a minute. But there are some objects which narrate interesting, personal stories. These have a sort of a life of their own. In general, though, I tend to give away a lot of things, all the time.
Books, for instance; when I am sure that I will not be reading a book for a second time, then I pass it on to a friend. I very often tend to give my books as presents. I believe that books should circulate.
That was not the only time you attempted to take a second, longer look at something one would normally look past. A few years ago you edited a series of snapshots, taken by various people during many decades, under the title “Private Life” – a collective German family album, as it’s been called.
The idea behind this series stems from a family snapshot I had hanging on the wall, back in the 1990s, in my studio. It was a picture my father had taken of my mum, a rather clumsy, blurry snapshot where her legs were left out of the frame. And to think I foolishly neglected to include this one photo in the album…Anyway, looking at that picture got me interested in what we are trying to capture every time we take one of these snapshots, in the way we pose for the camera, in the story these informal pictures tell about the persons we are and the lives we lead.
What kind of snapshots did you look for? Any photograph would do?
No, no, I was definitely not interested in photographs taken by ambitious hobby photographers. I wanted the ones where it was obvious that the photographer did not care about the technique, but merely about the content of the photo; the simple, normal click was what I was after. The second thing was that there had to be at least two people in a snapshot. There had to be some kind of relationship or at least some communication between the persons pictured. And most of all, I was intrigued by everyday life, as simple as that. What does the everyday reality of German people look like? That was the question. Then I took all the photographs and made the colour look similar, so that one gets the impression that they were taken by the same photographer.
Where did you look for the photos?
At first I put out an ad saying I am looking for snapshots for an art project. But this didn’t work out very well. The photos I received were quite bad, some of them were even of a fascist nature. So most of the photos came from my searches in flea markets and through friends. I don’t know all the people in the photos, but I do recognise a lot of them. I ended up with around 10,000 photos among which I chose 300. The question was “how does normality look like?”
Why did you choose to edit pictures that span the period between the late 1960s and the end of the 1990s?
I initially wanted to edit an album that would span the whole 20th century. I tried to. But at some point I realised this would never function. First, there’s a big break in photography in the late 1960s. It’s when the photographic material becomes cheaper, people travel more and they take a lot more photographs of themselves. In many ways it was similar to what happened at the end the of the 1990s because of digital photography. Snapshots now looked completely different. So I made the decision to include these three decades, where one cannot tell with absolute certainty at which time each one was taken. Sure, the clothes people wear may give out some information, but still…
And why was it important to create a collective photo album of the Germans?
There was this picture of us Germans that was not very nice. We have very often been perceived as very solemn looking persons, cold and distant, with no sense of humour. If you look at the work of Michael Schmidt for example, you see that it is a dark portrait of Germany. So for this work I only chose snapshots where people look really happy. I wanted to question to stereotype about Germans being always serious and never laughing.
Back in 1986, three years before the fall of the Wall, you did a piece by the title “Ich bin Berliner”, Michael Gorbatchev. How did that come about?
That’s quite an interesting story. At the time, there were three curators in Berlin who wanted to do a project on those big billboards at the bridges of Yorckstrasse. They called a number of artists asking us to send in pieces. Most of the works were paintings – Wilde Malerei, Moritzplatz Jungs etc. I asked for space on two billboards where I planned to mount two placards, one in German and one in Russian. I wanted to indicate that there was going to be a reunification of Germany and that we should take precautions and be very careful because it was possible that this future reunification would give rise to national-socialist tendencies. That’s why for the Russian language placard I used red and black colours and the cyrillic typography, whereas for the German laguage placard I used the brown colour and Fraktur fonts –which were used by the Nazis.
At that time it was totally unthinkable that Germany would be reunited. How did you get this idea?
It was a feeling, I cannot pinpoint it. I had a feeling that it will all come to this conclusion. My worry was that it would unleash some problematic tendencies, because the people in the GDR had been living in their glasshouse for so long, not having contact with foreigners in their society, with the exception of some Vietnamese and Russians who were there for work.
How did Berliners react to those two pieces? Did you get some feedback?
Well, I don’t know how they would have reacted, because as soon as the curators saw my work they uninvited me. They said “you can stay at home with your jokes.”
Were you active as an artist in Berlin at the time?
No, I lived in Munich. I was born in Essen, in the Ruhrgebiet. I left school when I was 17 – I was not a very good student. And then I studied graphic design and worked in advertising for a few years, until my late twenties, when I decided to quit. That’s when I started getting serious about painting and photography.
Until then had been spending a lot of your time painting and taking photographs as an amateur, though?
My attraction to photography dates back to my childhood. My grandfather had this Agfa box in his bookshelf and I was totally amazed by that box out of which pictures would appear. I wanted to have one to and kept asking, until a couple of years later I received one as a present. I must have been nine or ten and at first I had no idea what I should do. But then I started taking pictures; tons of them. Unfortunately, only a couple of those photos survived; my Munich apartment got flooded in 1982 and I lost everything.
And all those years it had never occurred to you to take up photography full time? How so?
Maybe it sounds strange today, but back then I had never realised that photography was something that one can do professionally, as an artist. And it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that I became serious about taking pictures and thinking about conceptual photography. So the first real project I worked on was “The Things of Life”.
While growing up, what was your experience of art?
While I was growing up in Essen I was more interested in the cinema. The Folkwang Museum in Essen had this film club, where we could go once a week and see films that was not possible to see in the cinema. I am talking about the mid ‘60s. Lots of different things: from documentaries about the Pan-American Highway to Richard Lester’s films about the Beatles, to films by Michelangelo Antonioni…Antonioni is still my favourite director. These movies are decades old but still so very modern; they don’t get dated. The rest of my time –since I was not a good student and skipped school- I would take my camera and go through town taking photographs of people in the streets.
And what did you plan to do with your life at the time?
I had absolutely no idea.
You had never considered the artist’s life?
No, I knew next to nothing about the life of an artist. I was 15 or 16 years old. There was this older student who was helping me with homework after school, as a tutor, and he had this old motorsycle with which we would drive to Duesseldorf, about 35 klm away, to visit “Creamcheese” – that was a very famous bar, decorated with works by Daniel Spoerri, Günther Uecker and other artists of that generation. So my brief visits to “Creamcheese” were my first contact with Düsseldorf and the art scene. But at 19 I was off to Munich to work as a graphic designer.
How did you later switch to art?
After a few years working in the advertising business I came to realise I was doing things that I did not like. Because in this line of work, you are making advertising for things that nobody really wants. I was earning a lot of money really; great amounts of money. And I was leading the life of a very arrogant young man. And then I quit.
You just woke up one day and said I don’t like it anymore?
Yes. When I was 28 or 29. The people I was working with were sure I would come back. But I knew I wouldn’t. Because I had realised that I was doing a wrong, useless thing.
Did you then come to Berlin?
No, I didn’t for many years. I didn’t come to Berlin until 1996 – 97. I was married and my wife did not like the idea of living here while the Wall was standing. But it was not all that bad where I was living at the end of the 1980s. My wife and I had managed to rent an old, beautiful villa -imagine it more like a small palace- for amazingly little money. It used to be a children’s home, but they had stopped using it so it was possible to rent it. I would sublet it to a film company to use as setting for movies for a few months, and the money I got was enough to pay a year’s rent. So we stayed there for three years, at the end of which we thought that before leaving this beautiful place, it was worth opening it up to people by organising a big exhibition there. So I contacted some curators to ask them if they would be interested in doing this, since I had absolutely no relevant experience, but the first question everyone asked was “how much money do you have”. Well, I had no money; I had that amazingly beautiful space and the idea.
So it fell through?
No, no. My wife and I did it on own. We had no money, no computers or even fax machines, nothing. But we invited a lot of artists –Rosemarie Trockel, Christian Boltanski and others. None of them was a friend of ours, we did not even know them personally. But they were excited about the whole idea so they agreed to take part in it. And we were on the road for hours on end, in order to transport the works on our own. We worked for a year and the exhibition took place in August; it was a wonderful August.
No, that came a half year later. I went to Cologne, to the Ruhrgebiet, where I wanted to organise another exhibition. This time it was going to take place in an abandoned coal mine and the title was going be “Glück auf” – that’s the wish coal miners exchange before going 2,000 metres under the surface of the earth. At the time I had gotten to know Wolfgang Schöddert, with whom I am still a very close friend –we do projects together- and we were thinking that an old, disused coal mine in the Ruhrgebiet would be a good place for us to think about the disintegration of social communities and dying traditions. So while I was working on the preparation of the exhibition, I happened to visit London where I saw this sign that read “The People’s Project”. It hang outside a shelter for the homeless. And I thought that is what art is: created by people for people; it’s a people’s project. So I came up with this “Kunst is the People’s Project”, and under this logo I did a few different things.
Is it still active?
It is, yes, but I am not working on something specific at this moment.
What about the “Loge”, this tiny gallery space on Friedrichstrasse, which you run? It is not a commercial space right? So what is the idea?
The Loge is very close to the Checkpoint Charlie and it’s only 3,2 square metres big. We set it up with Wolfgang Schöddert. We were looking for a small space where we would exhibit only one piece of art at the time. And where there would be no need for anyone to be present – the work of art would function by itself. So in the Loge, the passers by can look at the art through the window. The space is actually an invitation to the pedestrian to make a small break and simply look at something carefully. The last piece we showed was by Christian Boltanski and the next exhibition opens on the 23rd of January with a work by Roland Schappert.
In 1998 you photographed objects from an abandoned factory in former East Berlin and you then juxtaposed them with luxury goods from the Quartier 206. What was the thinking behind it? Simply to make obvious a contrast?
No, not at all. After all, to be honest, when I was taking the pictures there was no thinking or concept whatsoever. I just took those different photographs and at some point they all happened to be on the table together. Whereupon I noticed that these were similar situations, only of a different aesthetic. But before my eyes they seemed to stand for what was forever gone and what would come next.
I am especially fond of your series “Evidenz”, which features collages of photographs of private libraries – did you only choose to take photographs of the libraries of friends?
Yes, mostly of friends and people I know. I started this series in 1996, when I happened to find myself in an apartment in the Hannoversche Strasse. It was completely empty but for this one shelf of books. Socialist, marxist and leninist literature …And one could see that if one tome was removed, then everything would come crumbling down. So I took some pictures and created a collage, without giving it much consideration, and then let the photograph in a drawer for fifteen years. Then I took it out, and started to work on the whole series. I am one of the many people who upon entering a place, they are first interested to check out the books in a library. The books one reads tell a lot about a person.
But since you tend to give away a lot of your books, how accurate a picture of you would one draw by looking at your library?
They would find all the books I tend to return to.
What would be the most cherished book among them?
Joris-Karl Huysmans’s “Against The Grain”. I buy old copies whenever I can get my hands on them and then give them to friends, as presents.
You have very often talked about things that have been left in your drawers for years and then took them out and worked on them.
Yes, it’s true. Quite often I happen to take a picture but don’t know what exactly to do with it. So I let it be, a little like you put a bottle of wine in the cellar. You forget about it. And then, years later, you once again take it out and look at it more carefully, you relate to it again.
Would you like to be anywhere else than Berlin at this point of your life?
Berlin is dying. Or at least the Berlin which I came here to live in. And I have always said that all of us late-comers to this city bear a great responsibility for what it has become. We have all betrayed Berlin. We have let it become exactly what we least wanted it to become. A Disneyland full of Starbucks und H&M, littered with extremely ugly architecture and BMW cabrios. It is almost impossible to discern the quality of life that was once characteristic of this city. That quality didn’t use to be all about money. On the other hand, though, there is no other place in Germany where I would rather be than Berlin, still, despite everything.
What should or could Berliners have done?
We should have protested harder and louder against the investors who wiped away all the spots that were of cultural significance and bore the memory of the city.
When you want to look at something truly comforting, in Berlin, where do you turn to?
I go to the Bodemuseum and look at the Renaissance portraits.
What are you working on right now?
Abstract pictures. It’s photographs on film, not digital. This is one more project which was in the drawer for at least 12 years.