A conversation – Jonas Burgert and Anouchka Grose

Anouchka Grose: Hello, you’re Jonas?
Jonas Burgert: So, you found the way here?

A.G: Yes, it was easy; I recognised the studio from the photograph in your book.
J.B: Okay. Well, come in.

A.G: I should tell you that I just switched the recorder on because I hate that artificial thing of, “Now, I’m doing the interview. Now I’m not.” Is that okay?

J.B: Yes, sure. It’s easier.
A.G: Woah, it’s amazing in here! Oh my goodness! J.B: Yes, this is where I work.
A.G: What a place!

J.B: It was empty for twenty years. It was owned by a big company back in the GDR days. They failed immediately after the wall came down and the economy collapsed. It was empty for twenty years. I’m rebuilding it because it looked like hell. People came in when it was empty and destroyed everything and did graffiti, like on this wall. I left that bit like it was. Have a seat.

A.G: It was your idea to speak to a psychoanalyst?
J.B: Yes.
A.G: Have you ever been in analysis? Or do you have a theoretical interest in it? J.B: No, I’m really not a professional like you; you’re a scientist.
A.G: Well, no…

J.B: It’s a very different thing; I’m an artist. But I would say that seventy percent of life is psychological, minimum. Art has so much to do with all that, but hardly anybody says so. We talk about art historical things…have all these big discussions. A lot of those books are fine. Art historians are writing great texts. But I thought it would be very interesting to have something totally different. That’s the reason I wanted to have a text from a writer, like Will Self, and one from a psychoanalyst. It’s a very different thing a different point of view. I can’t really talk like you, on your level, about psychoanalysis. That’s what you can do.

A.G: In a way…
J.B: I don’t know, in the end, you have to say the intelligent things… A.G: Well, no, not at all.
J.B: …and I say the strange things, okay? (Laughter)
A.G: No, it might not work that way at all.
J.B: That’s the plan. (Laughter)
A.G: That might be your plan. (Laughter)

J.B: Well, that’s the idea. If you look at people everywhere in the world, they all have the same problems. They don’t know who or what they are; humans don’t know what humans are. We can’t ask other humans, “Hey, what are humans?” We’re a singular thing. I think we’re in a trap, but it’s a nice trap. We have this energy and the need to do something, to find something special. On the other hand, we know that this search will fail. (Laughter)

A.G: I see, it sounds like you’re talking about quite a productive kind of trap.

J.B: Yes, we know there’s a trap that we’re all running into, fully conscious. Then, once we’re in there, we say, “Oh, it’s just man in here.” So we have to create another god or another god or another god or an ex-god. Do you know what I mean?

A.G: I’m not sure.

J.B: These kinds of things; that’s what I think about all the time. So I thought it would be interesting to talk to you.

A.G: Okay. (Laughter) Do you like to name the sorts of things that go on in your paintings, or do you think that’s not such a good idea?

J.B: I can name things, for sure. I can tell you, now, about every painting, what I’ve thought about in order to do it. In most cases, I prefer to talk about the phenomenon I’m working with, not to explain, “Okay, this is because…” I think it’s more important to have the feeling of it than the thinking of it.

A.G: Yes.

J.B: That’s what I think, too, about psychology; we feel so much and our brain is so slow. There are split seconds in which we have an idea about something say, whether to sympathize with someone or not. Our brain isn’t really there in that moment. The fascinating thing about making art is to transform the content into a feeling. Then it can last longer. It’s like if you see a sculpture from Egypt five thousand years old we may have no idea what they talked about, what their religion was about, what they really believed in and so on, but we still feel something. The energy is there. When I was a child, I was fascinated by these phenomena. How is it possible that we still connect with these objects?

A.G: Something about that idea struck you when you were quite small? J.B: It’s so strange, isn’t it?
A.G: Yes. Which were the works that grabbed you first?

J.B: That’s not easy to say, but all this work…it’s very ancient. It wasn’t only about the fact that it was well done. It was about this question of how it was possible. Can we do something bigger than our daily, strange struggle? I told myself, “Okay, let’s think

about this.” After I finished school I was interested in all these things and I thought, “There must be a way to do something with it.” From my point of view, it was a very visual thing. I came round to painting in the end, but it’s just one of the many ways to tackle it.

A.G: So there was something about these objects that had lasted, without any sort of chat or context around them, and still they managed to communicate something?

J.B: Yes.
A.G: That struck you as something really, really weird, but it also sent you to work? J.B: Yes, you’re right.
A.G: It made you go and do something.

J.B: That’s a fundamental thing, this need to do something. That’s one of the other things I was very interested in. I spoke about it when I gave a lecture at a museum in America. I wanted to explain why I was so fascinated by the idea of making art. I said that humans have the need to find a spiritual representation, and they make a lot of effort to do so. In Guatemala people had found sculptures made from black jade, this very, very hard stone. Green jade is much softer. Historians said, “They had no diamonds to make these; so how did they manage?” After a while they came up with the idea that they had made the objects with black jade against black jade. Nothing happens in the beginning; it takes a long, long time. But after this huge effort you get the face of a god. When I heard that I thought, “That’s really strange. That’s a symbol for humans in a way. They have such a need to do things.” They could say, “Let’s just make it from green jade.” It could have been easy well, not easy, it also takes a while but easier to understand. With black jade it was peculiar because it’s a lot more work. Maybe they made a single sculpture over generations. And by the time they’d finished they’d lost half the material.

A.G: It was just wasted?

J.B: Yes, imagine. Would we start, now, to do something like that? You’d have to have a very big need to do it.

A.G: To be so occupied with an object?

J.B: It would have to be much more important than you, because it takes so long. Otherwise you’d say, “No way. I’m not going to spend my whole life on this one thing.”

A.G: Mmm.
J.B: Although, in another way, people are still like that. A.G: Yes, having to be occupied.
J.B: Yes.

A.G: So you’re talking about being occupied, and thinking, and the thought that becomes visible through the object you’re making. But what about the opposite; the thought that might be blocked out by all that activity?

J.B: Yes, you’re right.

A.G: You have both sides.

J.B: Yes, that’s the other side of it; you’re blocked.

A.G: It makes me curious, because you seem to be very productive. (Laughter)

J.B: I don’t know…

A.G: Well, there are a lot of paintings in here…

J.B: Yes, there’s a lot of stuff. It’s a studio; they’re not all finished so it’s in progress, you know? You understand that; it’s not an exhibition, it’s a studio? (Laughter)

A.G: Yes, but you’re clearly very…er…occupied.

J.B: Sure, I love it. Right from the beginning. I was very fanatical. My mother told me all the time, “You’re a bit too extreme. Be careful.” When I was young, I didn’t have this medium to work in. It was annoying for other people because I was always like, “Come on, let’s get to the deep sense of everything.” My friends at school said, “Oh my god, we want to play soccer.” It took a while to find my medium. But when I found it, I was really happy. I thought, “Finally I can put all this disaster into my paintings and there’s no longer any need to create it in real life.”

A.G: How did you get into painting?

J.B: I don’t know. My father was an artist too, so I grew up in an apartment with a lot of sculptures, paintings and musical instruments you know everything. So, for me, it was normal, but when I finished school I didn’t want to do what my father did.

A.G: Was he actually a painter as well?

J.B: Yes. So I said, “No, no, no.” You know… a son doesn’t want to do what his father did. So I started studying philosophy and went to some psychology classes at university. After a while, I couldn’t stop myself anymore; I painted all the time. I didn’t take the philosophy classes seriously enough. I was about twenty-one and took this philosophy course in the academy, it was a more advanced class – for people further along in their education than me – and I said to myself, “Okay, if I can understand this, I’ll continue. If not, I won’t.”

A.G: And?

J.B: It was very interesting, but I learnt that my brain doesn’t work like that. Philosophy has so much logical thinking in it. In another way, you have to be very open-minded, for sure. But I was far more interested in the poems of Nietzsche than in the philosophical texts. I was more interested in the transformation of one symbol into something else. My brain works very emotionally so I couldn’t follow all the logical things they spoke about. So I started painting more.

A.G: Are you a very different artist to your father? Or are there similarities?

J.B: We’re different, but I learnt a lot from him. He died five years ago. He was born in 1928, so he was a sixteen-year-old boy during the war. At the end, Hitler sent all these sixteen-year-olds to fight. It was a horrible thing. My father was lucky because the commander of his troop went to the west side, to the River Rhine, and on the other side were the Americans. This commander was very courageous. He said, “Enough! I have five hundred sixteen-year-old boys here; why would I let them die?” So they crossed the river and ended up in prison. All the other boys of his generation in Berlin were killed, just fifty kilometres away. His luck was that he went to the west side, the others to the east. He had one year of fighting, followed by one and a half years in prison.

Then he came back and studied art with Schmidt-Rottluff. You know Schmidt-Rottluff? One of the expressionist painters. He was an old man and his generation came back to teach after the Nazi professors were thrown out. My father began studying in 1947. I picked up a lot from him because he’d learnt this way of thinking about painting from these old expressionists. If you go to art schools now they don’t know it anymore. For me it was great luck to hear it from my father. He could tell me what it means to have a cold and a warm colour. What does composition mean? What does process mean? And so on. It was a very abstract education, in a way. They said, “The content of the painting is your business. Let’s talk about whether the painting is strong enough as a painting.”

A.G: I see. Very formal.

J.B: Yes, but they also said, “Style is important, but you need to have good content otherwise the things you transform will be boring.” You have to have something already there when you move on to the more abstract thing, so it stays strong.

A.G: Has the content of your paintings changed a lot since you were at art school?

J.B: Sure, yes, because it wasn’t easy to be honest and courageous enough to do what I’m doing now. (Laughter) This is really not a cool, avant-garde thing going on here. I was bored by all that. I studied and painted abstract paintings and things like that. I thought, after a while, that most of the students were so impressed by this avant-garde

discussion; this cool art…understatement and so on. If you showed emotions they were like, “Oh, that’s not cool”. You know what I mean?

A.G: Yes.

J.B: I can only get into what I’m doing if I’m really honest about it. It took me some years to be strong enough and self-confident enough, to be sensitive again. Then I started to paint these kinds of paintings. If I want to have a figure, I paint a figure. If I want to have a horse, I paint a horse. And if I want to have red, I paint red. I need to do it like this, otherwise I wouldn’t continue painting. I didn’t want to be a conceptual artist. I didn’t want to be somebody who has a factory with twenty people painting stripes. There are some good artists like that.

A.G: I know!

J.B: I don’t blame them. I’m just talking about myself. I thought, for me, it’s important to be honest about what I do, and really to show what I think or feel. But people hate you for that. (Laughter)

A.G: That happens to you?

J.B: Yes, in the art world some people are really like, “Oh god, what’s he doing?” So when I became famous and the paintings were exhibited, they were all like, “Oh, you can’t do that!” Especially, maybe, in Germany. Germans are so tough.

A.G: But it’s all being discussed in terms of ‘what’s cool’? It makes me wonder about the content of the paintings and this very direct link to the war via your father…

J.B: I think they react that way because they’re afraid to show their inner selves. On the other hand, I get lots of positive mail from people all over the world. I believe that if you go back to basics, then everybody can understand you. The time or place isn’t what’s important; it doesn’t matter whether it happens in Alaska or in Africa. We’re all looking for a spiritual representation, but we no longer believe in religious things. On the other hand, you still find people who are afraid not to believe. They believe very strongly in

religious sects. They say, “Great, now I have the solution to everything and I don’t have to think about it anymore.”

A.G: “Just don’t ask me any difficult questions!”

J.B: Yes, they feel safe that way. That’s their main thing. It’s a big effort to look in the eye of the struggle every day, isn’t it?

A.G: Quite. I wonder about that whole business of converting something horrible into something that can be enjoyed.

J.B: I think about that, often, when I have collectors here in the studio. Some look at the paintings and say, “It’s so dark and bitter.” I say, “No, it’s not.” You don’t see cut off heads with blood in my paintings. No horror. I’m just being serious, and they’re afraid of seriousness. They say, “Can’t you make something nice?” I say, “Nice things are serious too.” If you say to somebody, “I love you,” you don’t laugh. It’s a serious thing. If you go to see the landscape, and the moment is quiet, you just hear the birds and the forest and it looks so beautiful I would never laugh in that moment. The positive things are serious; in between we might be laughing, like I am now. That’s because I don’t know how to handle things.

A.G: What about the Freudian theory of the uncanny? I imagine that’s something people often talk about in relation to your work. Freud’s theory of the uncanny and his theory of jokes are quite similar; you have two different ways of letting something difficult out.

J.B: I’m sorry, I need to ask…?
A.G: Das Unheimliche.
J.B: Ah, okay.
A.G: This very famous essay; lots of art blah gets written about it… J.B: Okay, now I get it, yes.

A.G: It’s about converting something horrible into something enjoyable. So a story about something sinister gets turned into entertainment…something that people can allow themselves to like.

J.B: Yes.

A.G: But also, Freud had his theory of jokes. He said that humour made it possible to say things that couldn’t usually be said. So in a joke, the thing that would produce laughter is the letting something problematic out of the bag, suddenly revealing it. It’s odd, this thing with your paintings and the idea of them not being funny, because there’s some link, I think, between the uncanny and jokes. They’re two different ways of dealing with the same stuff something that’s difficult to speak about and somehow making it enjoyable for people.

J.B: You’re right. That’s the interesting thing about jokes. It’s an opportunity to say something a bit difficult. So we make a joke. Especially in England…

A.G: Yes, they’re specialists over there.

J.B: …they can do it very well. I like it very much. But in art it’s problematic because if I tell you a joke and it’s a great joke but then ten minutes later I tell you the same one again, you can see it coming. So in art it’s rare to find an example of someone who’s using a lot of humour, and where it works in the long term. There’s Kippenberger. He’s a rare figure there are not many artists who can make work with humour and it lasts. Still, it’s not only funny, his work. There’s something below, a subtext he was fighting against the world. You feel it in everything he made.

A.G: Your work is also…troubling.

J.B: For me, art is not to decorate our life, it’s to make movement in the brain. In the best case, it’s a spiritual thing. A platform, maybe. Sometimes I see it as a stage on which we have these struggles. I think art is a very good place to think about things because there are no rules; there’s nobody saying, “You have to do it like this.” You can do everything in art and it’s okay, because people can always just say they don’t like it. It’s the only really free thing.

A.G: I wondered about your father’s work, and whether there was…er…visible trauma in his paintings.

J.B: It’s funny you ask because last week I talked to my mother, who’s still alive, and she said, “Because your father had such hard experiences in his youth, he wanted to paint in a very static, abstract, beautiful way.” He couldn’t handle these scenes because he had experienced, for real, all of these things, this horror. He was a sixteen-year-old boy and he had seen people destroying each other, their arms and legs flying off. Imagine. There was a whole generation of people who survived and who had no help, psychologically, because they were seen as perpetrators. They were guilty. They had to process things internally; they didn’t talk about it. So that’s the reason he made art. I can show you a book…

A.G: Yes please!

J.B: He made art that was very much on the defensive, but also very beautiful and very well painted, with nice colours. My mother said last week, “The funniest thing is that you had a very nice youth.” I had lovely parents and it was really great. “But you were able to do it. To take all these strange things that humans do, and to think about it and to show it.” I have a normal life; I’m an okay guy. It was interesting that she saw it like that. She said, “Your father could also have painted very strange paintings, but he wasn’t able.”

A.G: He couldn’t bear it, but you can?

J.B: Yes, I can. That’s right. I’ll show you the book. [Pause] See? It’s very different.

A.G: Yes, it’s different from your work, but I also think you see something like a family resemblance.

J.B: You do?
A.G: I think so, in the colour…

J.B: Okay, that’s good.
A.G: …or the figures.
J.B: Really?
A.G: The figures look so separate, like they inhabit totally different realities. J.B: Oh… people say it about my paintings too.

A.G: They do?

J.B: Yes, they say that the subjects are all separate.

A.G: Even though the limbs might be intertwined.

J.B: I don’t think about it so much but…

A.G: Right. (Laughter)

J.B: That’s often the way with these things, right?

A.G: Yes. It’s the most amazing thing to see. Especially in relation to what your mother said about trauma and how something gets passed along.

J.B: Yes, I’m able to do it because I was given the power by a very pleasant childhood. (Laughter)

A.G: Maybe it makes it seem slightly different, this anger of people towards you. It’s expressed as a sort of aesthete’s indignation “ That’s not cool,” or whatever but I wonder if it’s actually got more to do with something else that’s much, much harder to put your finger on.

J.B: Yes, I think, often, they are angry at themselves. They feel safe with what they make. They say, “Okay, if I do a line like this and make a cool text then everyone will love

me.” But they will not change their lives in this moment; they will stay as they are. I’ve often thought it’s more interesting to fail with an interesting subject matter than not to try it. (Laughter) Most people are afraid in life. Who’s not afraid?

A.G: Quite. Of something.

J.B: I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t afraid.

A.G: I wonder what made it possible, then, for you to paint in this way. Was there something happening elsewhere in your life that changed? Or what was the transition about?

J.B: I don’t know, it’s a good question. Most things are in a fog. You just have a feeling for the intense. I thought, “Something is possible.” I had no idea whether I would ever do it, and I still have no idea. It’s for others to judge. I had been looking for this intensity in painting for fifteen years. I thought I could find it in a structure like this, a painting like that, only this structure, only grey on grey surfaces. It’s a funny thing, when you’re doing all that, you think, “Ah, this is the right way to make art, for sure.” But ten years later I think I only changed the way I was painting because I wanted to feel this intense thing.

A.G: Did your father see these paintings?

J.B: Yes.

A.G: What did he think about them? Did he tell you?

J.B: For him, it was strange, but he liked it in the end. At the beginning he was very critical of me because he didn’t want his son to become an artist.

A.G: He didn’t?

J.B: It’s not an easy life. But he saw that I really wanted to do it. The last years with him were good because I became a bit better at what I’m doing, a bit stronger.

A.G: Right, but he was worried about you.

J.B: Sure, like a father.

A.G: But he didn’t speak about the sorts of things you were showing in your work?

J.B: No, not so much…a bit, but he was more interested in colour, how was it transformed? Even if you see a painting like that, with a lot of things in it, the hardest part of the process is to choose the colours and those kinds of things forms, composition, light to have the atmosphere of the scene in the mind of the viewer. You can’t remember all the things happening there. If you leave the room, you forget all the contents. The idea is that you still retain the atmosphere. But it’s only possible if you transform it into this abstract language of colours and shapes. So we talked about these kinds of things a lot. He was very happy to see that I could survive with painting. When it started to go well it was a relief for him to know that his son wasn’t homeless. (Laughter)

A.G: Do you think it’s difficult to be painting so much in relation to another painter? You spoke about making art in relation to the whole of history, going back to ancient Egypt or whatever. But it also sounds like there are very strong roots nearer to home. (Laughter) Really near…maybe, too near? I don’t know.

J.B: Yes, you’re right. It’s a strange situation. Myself, I don’t see it. It’s like everything in life, you see it in the rear view, don’t you? If you look at the past then you understand, “Ah, that’s why I was together with that girl for three years, at that time, because I was like this. I needed her.” (Laughter) We have all these problems because we cannot grab – what’s it called? ‘The moment’. We’re not actually living in the present; we only live in the past or the future. I think about it all the time; we’re talking now, but how will this conversation seem tomorrow, or in two years’ time? Here we are now, in ‘reality’, but we have no idea what it is.

A.G: Exactly.

J.B: It’s the same thing with my father. In a way, the connection we had with each other was very close, a very strong relationship, but it was also about this bigger context, about values that stand above everything. We’d talk about why Syrian sculptures from 5,000 BC were stronger than Picasso…things like that.

A.G: Do you have nightmares?
J.B: No, the thing is that I have no nightmares.
A.G: Really?
J.B: Yes.
A.G: Because it all comes out?
J.B: It does in here. (Laughter) So maybe I have daymares. (Laughter)

A.G: Yes, but perhaps you have much more control over them here. If you have a nightmare, well, it’s a loss of control. But here in the studio you can do something with it.

J.B: Yes, I want to handle it. We all live, in a way, with a mind-skin. Can you say that?

A.G: A what?

J.B: We only see a façade, we see a skin and we show a skin. We not only do it with our bodies, we also do it with our minds. It’s a strange thing. Why do we create this surface to show ourselves? A painting is also a skin; you have a surface of colours. How is it possible to show subtexts, the things below this skin. We are very trained at looking for it in faces. If you look at my face you see, “Okay, now he’s…”

A.G: Yes. A tiny thing that gives something away.

J.B: We are so sensitive to eyes. It’s different to a knee or something; we don’t look at knees so much. Although I know, yes, some knees are strange. But with a face, it moves a millimetre and everything changes. I would say, “It’s just a surface.” But I don’t want to paint a surface. So what can I do? This is the process: my whole day, in a way.

A.G: It’s something that’s so often said about war, and especially about the Holocaust; that the skin of reality was ripped off for a while and people saw what they don’t normally see. Then the skin had to be put back on again and what kind of skin can it be after that? So this connection between you and your father, and what you can bear to see, and to show, and to know, sounds really…

J.B: My father said he realised after the war that Hitler was a devil. He was about five years old when Hitler came to power, so he grew up with all the propaganda; everywhere there were portraits of Hitler. He said he felt for him like a parent. My father wasn’t a Nazi; he was a kid. But the propaganda was so powerful that he said, still, as an eighty-year-old man, when he saw a newspaper with a picture of Hitler, it gave him a warm feeling. His brain said, “That man is a devil; he destroyed everything.” He felt ashamed of it, but he still had this warm feeling. It’s amazing that this is possible…that our inner psychological statues, or whatever you call them, are so flexible, like clay.

A.G: Right, they can be molded, by images.

J.B: The propaganda shaped them. And you had this mixture between that and the mobilisation of basic instincts. What Hitler did was to say, “I allow you to kill because I know you want to kill.” We all have this in us; we are all hunters. But this was the strange thing…what you said about after the Holocaust…What’s our skin now? What values can we have when we know we are all devils? The people who made it happen, not just Hitler and the five guys at the top, but all those others who joined in; they were normal men. Somebody pushes a button in you so that you can kill. There was a documentary about a German school class. They didn’t want to kill in the beginning, but then after two years they destroyed three villages a day. So, because we have these basic…how is it in English?

A.G: Drives.

J.B: Drives? Hitler harnessed these drives, and if you do this it’s very dangerous. We make this huge effort with our cultural values, and democracy not to act on these things so much.

A.G: Quite.

J.B: But also, “Let’s go to the World Cup to scream because we want to scream.”

A.G: And to bite.

J.B: We also want to kill and we also want to love and we also want to fuck and so on. We have all these things. When I just said it, I thought about that movie about the Vietnam soldier – not Full Metal Jacket, the other one.

A.G: Apocalypse Now.

J.B: At the end he’s in this blood rush orgy. It’s the same phenomenon. He takes these basic drives and says, “Okay, now, do it.” Then it feels like a drug. That’s what my father said about the war. He saw people with an energy you couldn’t imagine. There was a very thin, small guy, and a locked door. The enemies came from the back and he broke down the door. You’d think it was impossible. It shows there’s something in us that’s so strong we can hardly handle it.

A.G: It sounds like one of your paintings.

J.B: That’s all; in the end. We have to have values which can handle it, and to discuss these values again and again and again.

A.G: Yes, it’s a constant labour.

J.B: A constant procedure, like it is in here every day. (Laughter) Or like you do when you write your texts.

A.G: Or like rubbing two pieces of black jade together. J.B: Or in a way, a bit like a therapy, right? (Laughter) A.G: Absolutely.
J.B: It is. It is.

A.G: I wondered – I don’t even know what the question is – but the thing you were saying about the absence of blood and guts. It’s like a different kind of horror, or a different kind of trauma, in your work.

J.B: This is the thing: to be honest and serious. Then you feel insecure. If somebody is really honest with you, it’s strange.

A.G: Yes!

J.B: You often feel it, at first, in a bad way. That’s maybe a reason why many people find the paintings so difficult. But if you look longer, you see, “Okay, there’s no horror. They’re not killing each other.” I’ve never painted things like that. I’m not interested in those gestures because they’re too simple. Killing can also be looking like this [eyes sideways]. You know what I mean? I’m very interested in gestures. So if you draw a hand like this [relaxed] it’s not interesting; if you make it like that [bent backwards] it’s very interesting. It’s like in the face with…

A.G: …these tiny subtleties of expression.

J.B: We’re trained at reading faces but, in a way, I try to do the same with everything. I want to say, “Okay, let’s focus on this hand going like this?” Now, you feel okay [contorts hand] now you feel a bit strange [a bit more] and now you feel it’s not good. That’s the reason I have thousands of pictures of the things humans do, from all over the world. I’m interested in these gestures how the body reflects the spirit. Can you say that? I mean, if a leg is a bit too long, then you feel like something is weird. The proportions aren’t right; I often make it so that one figure is a bit too small. It makes you feel uncomfortable. You see something in the wrong position. It’s horrible. You feel like, “I have to save myself,” you know? It’s the same with good things. For example, last month, in the street, I saw two people kissing. They were really in love. I was afraid; I was like, “Oh God.” It wasn’t like that usual nice kissing of couples in the street; it was really intense.

A.G: Atomic?

J.B: It was so good that I was afraid of it. I felt like I had to run away. We actually feel things ourselves when we see them. We mirror it immediately. I wanted to have it too, or something like that. But it was so nice that I said, “I need to get away. It’s too strong.” I still remember it and I see people kissing in the street every day. (Laughter) So you see both sides; the bad and the good. If it’s really intense, we have to make a decision about how to handle it. Often, we say, “It’s easier to escape – because then I’m safe and I can think about it. Later, I can say, OK, I’ll have another go.” Still, the first thing, often, for humans is to save themselves. It’s a good idea from nature, isn’t it? But we even want to save ourselves from the good stuff; it’s so strange. I had it at the grave of my father. I don’t often go there, but I went because I was feeling so positive. I was standing there, but I kept thinking about myself. I arrived in a good mood, but the feeling was so strong it made me wonder, “Am I really thinking about him?” And then, “Oh, no, you’re only thinking about yourself. Are you stupid?” So I went home. (Laughter) I said, “Okay, I’ll come back another day.”

A.G: Another instance of the present being something you can’t really access…

J.B: That’s right, we have no access to the present. And the good things and the bad things have this same intensity and seriousness.

A.G: It’s curious, this thing about people and separateness…this thing that might be said about your father’s paintings, or that’s been said about yours; that the figures look totally separate even though they’re physically close. It sounds like something you’re very caught up with how separate people are, or aren’t?

J.B: Yes.

A.G: If you have to run away from two people kissing in the street, you possibly don’t feel too separate from them? (Laughter)

J.B: I wasn’t actually running… A.G: Oh well. (Laughter)

J.B: It felt wrong to be there; they needed more space. I was like [whistles]. It was very romantic, in a way, but I didn’t think about romance, I just thought about love. It’s one of those big things; the fact that we are all separate, alone. We learn to handle other people, to feel part of the gang or the tribe or society and, especially, family. We’re so dependent on the love of other people. But we also know that we’re somehow not a part of it all. There’s our inner world, and also the outer world. It’s this very strange but genius idea of nature to give us these two energies fighting with each other all the time; the yin yang thing or something like that. It’s so perfect! (Laughter) Nature said, “No, no, no, you will not be lucky in life; but neither will you fail all the time. You’ll just be lucky sometimes.” Whether it’s good or bad it will stop, and that’s the interest of life.

A.G: That it changes all the time.

J.B: Yes. “Why should I give you a very nice thing for your whole life? I’ll give you love but, maybe, for five years. Maybe for one day, or maybe for twenty years.” It’s moving all the time. One of the greatest ideas ever, I think, is to have these two conflicting energies. That’s what I love about painting; trying every day to show things fighting each other. Hopefully, in a way which gives us the next movement. (Laughter)

A.G: Do you have any brothers and sisters?

J.B: Yes, I have an older brother and I also have a half-sister from my father’s first marriage.

A.G: Are you all very different?

J.B: Yes, we’re different, in a way. And not.

A.G: Are they involved with art at all?

J.B: My sister taught art in a school. My brother, no; he has a company that builds models for architects.

A.G: So he makes things.

J.B: They use computers and these huge machines. He can draw very well. So we’re different, but also similar.

A.G: It’s fascinating because of the way you seem to be processing your family history in a very dynamic way. Of course everybody has to do it somehow, but you’re doing it in a way that’s visible. It makes me wonder how your brother and sister might be doing it.

J.B: I don’t know. Often in families you don’t talk about these things, so I don’t know how they feel about it. I should ask. (Laughter) Also, I have a question for you.

A.G: Yes?

J.B: I would love it if you said something too. You know what I mean?

A.G: Mm-hmm.

J.B: I think it’s nice if it’s a bit like a dialogue, if you’d like to do it…I don’t know. It’s just a question.

A.G: Hmm.
J.B: I like it that you have this education, this knowledge about things. A.G: I don’t really see it like that. I don’t see psychoanalysis as a… J.B: Sure, it is! (Laughter)

A.G: It looks like I have a preference for seeing it as a way of being, or of being open to question, or somehow unfixed. I would hate to come and see you and then apply all this prior knowledge.

J.B: But I would like it because I’ve already talked a lot. For sure, it’s this interview situation, but you are not a journalist. I would like it, if it’s not too much of an effort for you…

A.G: It’s not an effort…
J.B: You’ve heard my strange talking. Now you say your things.
A.G: Here? Now?
J.B: Yes, I would love a dialogue situation, not an interview situation.

A.G: Well, it sounds like a way of evading your question, but there’s something about listening that’s really…um…One person’s listening is completely unlike another’s. So you might say something totally different in relation to a particular quality in the listening. If you were talking to some other semi-quiet person you might come out with a whole other lot of stuff.

J.B: Yes, you’re right.

A.G: I’m not into articulating a theory, or saying, “It’s this and that, and I can see this and that in your work.” I’m embarrassed because I feel I already did that far too much when I spoke about the uncanny and jokes. I just want to make a certain kind of silence, or a kind of emptiness, that would produce speech in you. For me, that’s much, much more interesting than psychoanalysis as a set of theories; to be silent in a potent way that would make it possible for another person to say something.

J.B: Yes, I understand that. Well, do it your way!
A.G: Very kind of you.
J.B: No pressure. I was joking about, “You’re a scientist,” because it’s impressive. A.G: Oh, it would be…(laughter)…only I’m not one.

J.B: My idea was to have a different kind of talking, that’s all. In the end, the text just needs to have feeling, it’s not about right and wrong.

A.G: Absolutely. The thing I find so difficult about all this stuff is that theory can sound so dull. You have these big ideas like ‘the trans-generational unconscious’. It’s something people might speak about in the psychoanalytic world; how the things a parent doesn’t say would be articulated further down the line by a son or a grandson or a daughter. It seems to be exactly the sort of thing you’re speaking about. Your work is like a demonstration of it. But the demonstration’s so much more interesting than a theoretical generalisation.

J.B: Yes, neither of us are able, really, to talk about it in the end. We can talk like we’re talking, and we can read a lot of books, but then what about that feeling when someone comes in, and walks in the wrong way, or comes a bit too close?

A.G: Exactly.

J.B: They’re not sensitive. You say, “Come on, that’s too much.” They say, “But I’m not doing anything.” They don’t have a feeling for the situation. It’s these kinds of sensitive feelings that I love so much. Women often have it so strongly. I remember my girlfriends over the years understood so much more than I did.

A.G: Really?
J.B: Unbelievable.
A.G: And they would tell you about it?

J.B: Yes. Once we went to a dinner with ten nice people and it was a nice evening and we came home and my girlfriend said, “They hated each other.” (Laughter) I said, “What?” She said, “Yes, those two.” In the end, she was right. A month later, I heard that they’d fought. I said, “What? Where did you get that information?” Women have so many – how is it called with the radios?

A.G: Antennae.

J.B: Antennae. Men are very focused on one way of thinking and being. When I have a problem with other people, I ask my female friends for their opinions because often

they can smell it, they can feel it. I’ve often felt sad that I can’t do it myself. Men are so simple; they make decisions and then they go away. (Laughter)

A.G: How would you explain that, or think about it? That difference between men and women?

J.B: I don’t know, I think it’s necessary. It’s the other brilliant plan of Mother Nature.

A.G: To make things a bit…whoaaup?!

J.B: Perfect, isn’t it? I never like it when people want to make everything the same. Life is very rich because we have both sides. We need these men who are running forward like, “Whroar,” and we need understanding and that’s what women can do. Men often do their thing but they don’t really get it. I love the idea of this mixture; I think it’s genius. Both sides are equally valuable, it’s the same energy, there’s no split in it, no competition. People often don’t understand that. I think it’s a shame that the emancipation of women has sometimes focused on copying men’s style, and not really pushing the values of women. If I had a big company with thousands of employees, I would have a woman at the top because she would understand everything. And a man – you need both, next to each other but with different talents. I don’t know. I’m hardly an expert in these matters. (Laughter)

A.G: What about your mum? What’s she like?

J.B: My mother, she’s…great! (Laughter) I think she’s a very strong woman and sensitive too. Very emotional. She came from an old aristocratic family from Riga; a thousand year old family with all these traditions. But she wasn’t interested in those family things she ran away. What’s the saying? “Tragedy in childhood…?” She was born in ’41 during the war. Her parents killed each other when the Russian army came.

A.G: Oh my goodness. A suicide pact?

J.B: Yes. We know now that my grandmother didn’t want to kill herself, so we think that my grandfather killed her, and then himself. She was twenty-eight and they had a four-

year-old daughter. They’d run away to South Germany to avoid the Russian army. My grandfather was very old, he was seventy and he didn’t want to run so he killed her.

A.G: He was seventy and she was twenty-eight?

J.B: Yes. She was in love with his son but he said, “No, I’ll have her.” He must have been an impressive man because, in the end, it wasn’t pure pressure.

A.G: You mean she fell in love with him?

J.B: Yes. He must have been an impressive guy, but also very hard, with this old-school aristocratic thing. My mother was four years old when it happened and she escaped with a – what’s it called with a horse in front?

A.G: A carriage?

J.B: Yes, and the girl who takes care of aristocratic…?

A.G: A nanny?

J.B: Yes, a nanny and a carriage and this four-year-old girl in the middle of a war zone. They went to friends in southern Germany.

A.G: Did the friends take them in?

J.B: Yes. It was 1945, towards the end of the war, and there was disaster everywhere. It was incredible that they survived. Then she grew up back in South Germany, with these friends. She’s an amazing woman. Maybe because of all these problems. It sounds cynical, but perhaps that’s the reason she has such good values. She is really focused on love and freedom.

A.G: So both of your parents were processing these huge, huge traumas. And maybe they did it partly for you, so that you could…

J.B: Everybody in Germany has these traumas. It’s crazy.

A.G: Yes, but what your parents presented you with was…

J.B: Yes, I think in the future, people will talk about it. It was because we were all so guilty, and for sure we were guilty, that nobody talked about it. English soldiers when they came home from war…

A.G: Yes, could all feel…

J.B: …like they were heroes. They fought against the devil. They came home and everybody embraced them. In Germany there were Nazis, for sure, but there were also normal human beings. They had no chance because this was the hardest dictatorship imaginable. If you said, “No,” you were killed. So whatever it was, you would do it.

I would do anything if someone threatened to kill me. It wasn’t like the GDR or other dictatorships. My great-aunt was active against Hitler. She was in one of these groups that were fighting from the underground. She told me, “If you said no, boom.” Ordinary people did terrible things, but they had no choice. I don’t want to make it sound easy – there were also a lot of bastards who took it as an opportunity: “Ah, now I can do whatever I like!” But people had no psychoanalysts to talk to. Nobody. My father had it especially hard, because he was sixteen. My mother was just a small child, but they’re affected by it too. So maybe it’s also still in me. We say in Germany that Hitler wanted a thousand years’ government but what we got instead was a thousand years of guilt.

A.G: But your mum sounds amazing in terms of being able to transform one thing into something else; to live through all that and then…it’s incredible.

J.B: If you have disaster, you learn something. Either you die or you learn. (Laughter)

A.G: Maybe that’s a good place to stop?

J.B: Yes, we talked a lot, right? But if you have more questions then we can speak again. It’s not necessarily easy to translate all this into writing, is it?

A.G: No, but there’s something I like about these snapshots… J.B: Me too.