Jonas Burgert interviewed by Claudia Stockhausen

At the heart of your work lies a fascination with the grotesque, mystical and fantastic. Each painting is like a carefully constructed stage of an opera or circus, set up with dramatic lighting, exotic costumes, stage props and make-up. Shamans and magicians, giants and dwarfs, demons and harlequins, creatures dead and alive populate the artificial world you evoke. What is it that makes this subject matter so enthralling to you?

It seems to me that we are human beings that recognize ourselves without actually understanding ourselves. This leads to a grotesque situation: man’s battle with his own mirror image, struggling to define himself. The ongoing debate about our own existence results in an enormous need for an overreaching narrative, for a spiritual context. We cherish the hope of finding more than merely the sum of our individual parts. So, in our mind, we create existences as heroes, gods or clowns. They lead unbearably loud, malicious, cynical, witty or passionate lives, in wonderfully strange or terrible places. In my art, I merely try to paint the scene of this ongoing process of debate and negotiation, with all its peculiarities.

The atmosphere of these ‘stages’, as you describe your paintings, is one of a world of destruction and decay. They depict an end time, or visions of a netherworld, or seem to stem from a peculiar nightmare. Can we talk a little bit about where you draw your ideas from? For example, I would be interested to know if literature is a particular source of inspiration to you? Do modern comics like Frank Miller’s or does science fiction play any role? Also your work makes me think of descriptions of the biblical Apocalypse, of Dante’s Divine Comedy with its depiction of purgatory and hell, or of certain stories of Greek mythology with their subterranean settings.

As an eighteen to twenty year old I used to read a lot. Then I suddenly stopped. I had so many stories and narratives in my head that literature tended to block me rather than to act as a positive inspiration. More than from literature, I gain my inspiration from the street, or from the bar of a corner pub! I feel it’s a place where the entire range of dramatic expression of an individual’s psychology can be observed: loneliness, hate, the desire to impress, revenge, addiction, excess! For me everything plays itself out directly before our eyes, and literature seems to be a detour rather than a direct route. So I draw my inspiration, creativity and energy to create especially from human relations and emotions. I am influenced by literature to the extent that my access to art always works through questioning existential topics that are echoed in the literary examples that you gave. It is not so much the actual story or literature per se that interests me, but the fundamental human concerns and actions – love, hate, envy, jealousy, euphoria and fear – intrinsic to literature that contribute to my work. That’s perhaps why the observer may draw so many literary allusions and associations.

Having just referred to science fiction and classical literature at the same time, I find it hard to place your paintings and the chaotic, orgiastic universes they depict into a specific time slot. They could represent a dystopian vision, but could also narrate something from the past. Were you thinking about a specific moment in time when creating them, or does the idea of time play no role?

It is true that the concept of time is really open in my work. I try to create settings and events that cannot be easily assigned to particular times; that stand between times. In fact what I find interesting is the subtext of things and what exists in between. The subject matter and ideas I address in my art have usually had a very long history and will at the same time still be viable now and in the future. For example I confront the war-painted skin of an indigenous tribe with the synthetic uniform of our time in my paintings.
It’s important to note one characteristic quality of the cast you invent, which is the loneliness of the individual. Biased by the apparent action of the crowd, one realizes upon closer examination that no one ever seems to engage with others. Paradoxically, what prevails is a horrible stillness, timelessness and silence. At the same time your paintings breathe the presence of a latent, brooding violence, which strikes me as a very contemporary idea of hell. What is the concept behind this?

The discrepancy between the individual and society is enormous. Each one of us possesses a highly individual inner world, but is inseparably connected to the mass. I feel that we take our bearings far too much from superficial happenings, from a detour through everyday scenes. Society agrees on certain codes of conduct in order to exist with a minimum of danger, whereas a knowledge of the phenomena of our existence throws the individual back onto himself. Society represses these questions, so it seems scary when an individual’s fantasies and peculiarities become apparent. An explanation is almost impossible, but we can sense what is happening.

Standing in front of your complex and often monumental paintings, one wonders about the practical process involved in creating them. How do you develop them?

I don’t really make many sketches before I start painting. I am much too impatient for that. For me, the thoughts I entertain before I start painting are much more important than a sketch or any preliminary practical work. In fact, the thought activity is the most laborious and electrifying process of them all because it determines the painting and the composition of the whole at a theoretical level. As soon as that is completed, I simply start to paint. The basic composition is naturally decisive, especially in my large format paintings, so I start by painting spatial lines, the long diagonals and so on. And then I merely have to react artistically to these first steps. So there’s lots of room for spontaneity. I have never yet painted a picture whose final state resembled what I had previously thought out. Because at some point I notice that I was initially beguiled by an idea that subsequently proved to be insufficiently coherent, that was unsustainable and was really only a momentary gag. So I have to change it again. My work is an ongoing process of wrestling with the painting, a constant and lengthy conversation with it.

The idea of a ‘conversation’ with your work makes me think of the related notion of the artist as a storyteller. To me you seem to operate as a creator of new realities, someone controlling your cast like a puppeteer does his marionettes, like the ultimate master of a game whose rules and actions remain mysterious and inexplicable to the viewer.

You are right, in my eyes art is one great story. The attempt to create art automatically implies the principle of telling stories. It is important though that this story is not only thought out or rationally followed up. The story must above all be deeply felt as well. Art can then re- invent its own language and thus its story anew each day; it can make assertions and reject them, re-assert them and reject them again. Naturally, art is a complete illusion and a lie, offering a promise we want to believe in. Because we realize this, I have always felt it stimulating as an artist that I can call things what I want and re-invent as I like: I can tell wild stories on the canvas and create figures as I imagine them and as I want them to look, I can exaggerate, abbreviate, aggrandise, cut down again in size, …

… You are talking about a characteristic of your work, the disjunction of big and small scale personages within a single painting…
Precisely. Effectively this means that I can already find a formal solution for my interpretation of a figure! For instance, by allowing a completely pathetic figure to shrink on the canvas, then showing an unimportant person really big, and so on. I can build up an entire dramatic scene precisely as I feel it fits into my picture. Of course, I must not exaggerate it, for after a certain point the process of alienation that I undertake would tip over. It would become too abstract and meaningless. I must always be aware that despite the manipulations I undertake, the characters still need to relate to each other and form a coherent whole within the painting.

The creation of a dramaturgy you mention is obviously best experienced directly in front of the canvas.

Absolutely. It requires the observer to continuously come up to and step back from the painting, in order to understand the various levels and put them into their context. This simultaneity of various levels in the painting is what I try to generate. The observer should both be sucked into the picture and come quite close up to its details, lose himself in them. At the same time he should be drawn away from them in order to restore his overview. This process, these fractures and jumps take place not only formally (aesthetically), but also in thematic terms.

You have studied in Berlin and still work and live in this city. Why do you work only there, and in what way does the city inspire you?

Well, to begin with I was born there. I spent my childhood in West Berlin, which was a kind of island from where I could not get away so easily. At that time, France or Munich, or some other European city was naturally closer to me and easier to get to than East Berlin! Then the wall came down and all at once we were at the centre of things again, my city became twice as big and interesting, and the whole world came here. I thought that this had produced the perfect creative situation for me, and I ought not to leave the city. So I stayed in Berlin. And then the situation arose from which we are now all benefiting. The city quickly developed an incredible openness and progressiveness, and anyone who had any sort of extraordinary or weird idea came to Berlin to savour this situation and benefit from it. Now, of course, all that is changing again, things have become established and have taken on a more conventionally chic ambience. But at that time, nothing had yet become fixed, quite to the contrary! Everything was really open and new and interesting. I can for instance recall that immediately after the political changes in East Berlin the police were not really accepted or taken seriously. For a brief period they no longer had any authority in the city. East Berlin became an anarchic area in which we moved about freely. We threw furniture out of the windows of empty buildings, used them as firewood for bonfires in back yards where we drank beer. People simply took over some studio or apartment and worked there. That was how it was, at least for half a year or a year after the changes. This created an atmosphere that persuaded me to stay.

And in what way were you influenced by your voyage to Egypt in 2000?

Egypt has always fascinated and inspired me because its ancient artworks are still relevant in our time, and their humanity and tremendous symbolic power still speak to us today. Although I don’t know how the ancient Egyptians thought, what they believed or what their goals were, their artistic energy is extremely alive and enduring. Their stories have been transformed into the formal language of art and can consequently last forever. I have always been intrigued by the phenomenon of timelessness in art…
So does the idea of travel still play a significant role in your art?
On the one hand I would dearly love to travel and see a lot more. But on the other hand I would then be unable to paint, because it requires so much serenity and concentration. But I would love to go on another really good trip like the one to Egypt, on a real educational journey, a voyage as an artistic inspiration. And the first country I would like to visit is India.

I’m sure that’s due to India’s association with gaudy colour. Your use of colour is very characteristic for your work, in the way fluorescent areas glow amidst a backdrop of pale hues. Why do you choose such a striking palette?

I have thought about how I can best capture the peculiarity of our time on canvas. How can I integrate in my paintings the cynical and artificial elements that I feel characterize our time? I found the wonderful idea of doing this via colour, in an abstract manner. I proceed as follows: on the canvas I develop a completely classical theme and a composition that can be quiescent at times, then change the proportions at my will and finally try to exhaust the colours by drawing them out until they almost become toxic, poisonous. Some of these colour contrasts are so extreme that the process of viewing them can be rather unpleasant for the observer. But I love that! Colours are vitally important to me, they are quite fantastic!

You chose to name one of the works in the exhibition ‘Poisoner’ which refers to the importance of colour in your work. Your titles are very compelling and always have a somewhat mysterious quality to them. I wonder if they are a key to your work, or just the opposite… What do they mean and how do you come up with them?

I find titles very difficult, and coming up with a title often turns out to be a lengthy process. I always have some paper to hand, and if a word, sentence or idea about the painting comes to mind while it is being produced, I quickly write it down. I keep all these dirty paint-spattered notes on which many short words are written until the painting is finished and I have to find a title for it. It is then extremely hard for me to decide on a title. After all, the painting has built up a great illusion of freedom, and then I have to destroy it with a single word! Because the title naturally suggests an interpretation to the observer, and everyone then thinks only of the title when looking at the painting. I really want to name the painting, but to let it abstract and absurd at the same time. One of my favourite titles is Milch bleichen (Bleaching Milk), which wonderfully illustrates this whole thing.