Bianca Laura Petretto – Filigree of Desire

The experience conveyed by Jonas Burgert’s work is as real as standing in front of a mirror. It reflects the deepest inner workings of our being, allowing us to glimpse another place, opening up – or rather, ripping open a whole new universe.

The German artist primarily works on large-scale paintings inhabited by objects, animals, people and whimsical entities that disintegrate and constantly mutate. Tiny people and gigantic creatures spill out of cracks, perish between petals or sink into dull sheets; scraps of clothing without bodies to wear them; eyes staring into the void. Burgert’s paintings elude straightforward interpretation, they explore a higher reality and invoke the end of the world through personalities with multiple inner lives. The subjects are painted such that they are perfectly recognisable – albeit on a symbolic level. There are people who carry the paint on their skin, women with elongated bodies, frayed clothes made from plant fibres and rags. A constant need to portray hope and failure, beauty and confusion, prevails. Through his paintings, the artist strives to create spaces dedicated to the spiritual representation of ourselves – so that the observer is transformed into a creature, a figure within this painted reality.

Jonas Burgert uses archaic utensils, such as ribbons, strips and bandages that wrap around the bodies and everything they encounter. These are the threads on which a rope dancer balances between different eras and cultures, between Africa, India, New Guinea, Egypt, Europe. To begin with, the artist chooses dark colours that become increasingly intense and colder in tone as the work progresses. Colour serves to document rope-dancing cynicism. The artist seeks not to tell stories nor to cite history, but instead himself to be the stories – stories he sees on the streets. Jonas Burgert’s imaginary rope dancer and Matto, who hovers over the set of Fellini’s La Strada, have a lot in common. On the big screen, the street artist reveals a mystical secret to Gelsomina: Everybody is good for something, even you. As in Fellini’s film, the drama of non-communicability unfolds on the three-dimensional chaotic canvases, the law of the street holds sway, dominated by madness, violence and brutality. Burgert’s creatures are in a state of endured lyricism, just like the character of the vulnerable Gelsomina. The artist strives to paint the epic tale of loneliness that transpires from sweat cloths, from the grotesque, the mysterious and the fantastic.

In his latest work, Lieb wildert, it is beams and ropes that evoke the above and the below, the weird and the indeterminate, between broken bodies, white shadows and bursting microbes. Instead of descriptions of human acts, the observer actively experiences love, hate, envy, raving madness, jealousy, rage, torpor and fear. A subtext the artist often invokes is Tolkien’s Middle Earth, an undefined space between materiality and the other place. The inanimate pose in which the acrobat begins his walk on the rope is a compassionate step towards humanness. A terrible inertia, the suspension of time and overwhelming silence are tangible, but all have retained the strength to fight, to rage, to be passionate, to be energetic and powerful. Every creature has its own individual inner life, and yet each creature is inextricably bound up with the others. Instead of providing explanations, the artist allows us to share the pathos and feel what happens.

Art of the quality that Jonas Burgert delivers succeeds in creating a splendid illusion of tension between surface and space. The artist’s fascinating female figures are caught in a state of tension between recognisability and abstraction. Excessively elongated figures pose in graceful postures, adorned with ribbons and fluorescent colours, in front of shabby, scuffed walls, their faces earthy and dreamy. They wear bird necklaces and blank stares, vines twining around their heads and their long striped robes. They are figures reflected in the void, from which they observe their double. Although these silhouettes let us read the story of the painting, the abstract significance of femininity is far more powerful. There is not a single reference to their carnality, and yet they are sensual and lively, actualising women rather than representing them.

Jonas Burgert’s work is dominated by restlessness, it abounds in imagination while conveying authentic inner realities und energy.

He paints real scenes. They reflect his view of human existence, which is dominated by our need to find meaning, direction and a purpose in our lives.

The search is open to reason, imagination and the need to create large-scale canvasses inhabited by fantasy creatures of all magnitudes. Figures wear masks and costumes, they are placed in the midst of an ambience where  walls and floors crack open to reveal piles of corpses or pools of liquid, while an inexplicable darkness settles over everything. Then, ever so faintly, light appears.

Colour and light play a crucial role in art. As early as 1704, Newton’s Opticksdiscussed the properties of light and the nature of colours. One century on, in his Theory of Colours, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe investigated the principles of vision and non-coloured light, white and black, elaborating the essential function of shadow and coloured shadow; later, his investigations served as an important source of inspiration for Turner, Kandinsky, Klee and scores of other painters.

Colour as employed by Jonas Burgert is a substance that rises from and plunges back into black, while it dissolves through white. Light emerges from white and passes through a spectrum of bright colours containing a plethora of reds, yellows, greens and blues. In Burgert’s art, colour equals intellectual awareness.

The artist’s large-scale paintings draw us in and engulf us. The observer approaches, spellbound, to admire the eruption of petals springing up from robes and bodies; however, they explode so violently that the gaze is averted, descends into agonising darkness and holds the observer physically at a distance. They are living images, tableaux vivants, of ongoing destruction. Although no-one understands where this destruction occurs, everyone can feel as it takes shape, roaring. It expands to gigantic dimensions as one steps back from the canvas. Paint splatters ensure that spontaneity is preserved. The creatures, from emaciated figures, to  elongated women and otherworldly animals, are destroyed by significance. They swathe themselves in, merge, warp and disappear into the rubble left in the aftermath of the apocalypse. That is all that remains.

Machine-like figures are reminiscent of the demonic scenes created by Hieronymus Bosch. Echoing the Haywain tryptic and the Ship of Fools, they evoke the imaginings of the Dutch painter who dreamed up surreal and fantastical scenes populated by terrifying monsters in 1550. Jonas Burgert’s paintings also contain an ironic nod towards the Garden of Earthly Delights, the creation of a poetic world and a lost phantasy landscape.

The canvasses abound with rubble, detritus, remnants of history, cinders of the art of painting – the very cinders that serve to feed greed. However, they are of a fleeting nature. Their purpose is to devour the images and to unleash from the chaos the impulse and those emotions that linger in the memory.

Like blood coursing through our veins, Burgert’s art conveys the pulse of the present time, the inevitable decline of a cruel world which is no longer capable of producing different versions. And yet the petals, bearers of destruction, are magnificent: they carry a message, an inspiration. They are the ferrymen of the divine that resides in humankind. The sorrowful expressions and the death of the bodies are a flight into consciousness. They represent a renouncement of the world. The grotesque realism that unfolds in the artist’s work is a denunciation of ignorance. His portrayal of calamity and the scenes of horror are permeated with the power of the tache, perhaps the brushstroke of light, that knows how to celebrate the grace of a defeated humanity. In a place without time, the multiple, ideal self is revealed as alter egos that illuminate the dark sides. Not insanity, but filigree, the finest gossamer fabric of our being, faithfully accompanied by desire.

Monika Rinck – Montagmorgens nach der Apokalypse

Alle Wecker klingeln, die Morschen erheben sich, schauen sich um, zögern. So viel Herbeigesehntes ist durchkreuzt und markiert. Etliches fehlt, wobei sich die Summe der Gebrauchtwaren immens vermehrt zu haben scheint. Unscharfe Gestalten pulsieren, lassen nach, sinken ab, um kurz darauf urplötzlich auszuholen, doch gegen wen? Gibt es sie noch, die Gegner? Tentakeln versanden. Das Auge sperrt sich, das Drehkreuz blockiert. Sturm auf das Drehkreuz! Ab hier gelten die Regeln der Antimaterie, bei gleichzeitigem Überdauern der Reste. Unmöglich. Welchen Dingen ähnelt das? Falsche Frage, ganz falsche Frage, seufzen die in bunten Bandagen schaukelnden Morschen. „Worin, warum und wie ähnelt dies nicht?“ , würde die Frage lauten, auf die richtige Weise gestellt. Ein Glöckchen tönt hell und verstummt. Das Hörnchen schaut auf. Es weiß eine einzige Sache jetzt sehr genau: Erst der Blick macht die Ware zur Halde.
Die Morschen stehen indes in kleinen Gruppen vor dem Geschehen. Sie bezeugen das Hervortreten des Hintergrundes und können ihren Blick davon nicht abwenden. Offenbar ist noch nicht alles zu Ende. Es lösen sich eigentümliche Formen ab. Als hätte die Materie einen eigengesetzlichen Formwillen entdeckt, und zwar für sich selbst, nur für sich selbst. Sie generiert und generiert und – leise meldet sich Chaosangst an, den Morschen wird‘s schaurig zumute. Was werden die Morschen mit diesem Schauer anstellen? Zunächst müssen die Vorhänge herabgerissen und in die Ecke getreten werden. So. Jetzt ist alles klar zu sehen: Also haben sich die Flecken gegen die Dinge erhoben, sie fordern die Figuren heraus, machen selbst vor dem Figürlichen nicht halt. Zu Hilfe! Der Doppelagent des Gegenständlichen betritt beherzt die ernste Stelle: „Diese kleinen roten Flecken stellen zweifellos Blumen auf einer Wiese dar.“ Auf einer Wiese? Große Verwunderung herrscht. Es gibt doch seit vielen hundert Jahren keine Wiesen mehr, denken die Morschen, sehr stumm. Der Doppelagent des Gegenständlichen steht offenbar kurz vor seiner Enttarnung. Der Gefahr bewusst, zieht er sich leise in den Bildhintergrund zurück und verwächst dort sogleich mit einer Kommode.
„Stets verschobene und unentwirrbar miteinander verknüpfte Visualitäten, die vom Wind des Unheimlichen angeweht werden, nie in sich selber ruhen, sondern statt dessen alles überwuchern oder aber in dunkle Tiefen verschwinden …“ So sieht es doch aus. Eine Projektion von Pigmenten, ein Wandbewurf. Wo sind die Gegenstände der sichtbaren Welt? Hier!, sagt ein vogelfüßiger Morsch und weist mit knorpeligen Fingern auf eine alte Reibe. – Wir haben auch Bohrer, knarrt er. Bohrer, Reiben und verzinkte Tomatenstäbe, sowie den einen oder anderen Blumenstrauß. Ist dies der materielle Rest eines ungelösten Rätsels? Eine Spur, an der entlang der Betrachter sich zurückbewegt, oder aber in die ganz andere Richtung geht, nämlich seinem Untergang entgegen? Da käme es jetzt drauf an, zu wissen, wo genau der Untergang sich befindet. Der Untergang hat zwar eine Zeit, aber keinen Ort, suggeriert ein bandagierter Taschendieb. Aber stimmt das auch? Am ersten Montag nach der Apokalypse verließ ein junger Morsch ganz früh am Morgen die Ruine seines Hauses – äußerlich ganz unversehrt, nur etwas ungewöhnlich koloriert. Ein Stigma auf der Haut eines Seligen, von ausgelassenen Unseligen mit Farbmatsch beworfen? Mag sein, doch jedes Spiel ist einmal vorbei. So auch dieses. Der junge Morsch hat das Orakel erreicht. Es ist eine sehr große Frau.
Die große Frau grollt. Die große Frau lehnt sich in die Luft hinein. Die große Frau besteht aus Eis. Sie besteht aus Höhe und Erscheinung. Sie wird nicht unbedingt gnädig sein. Die paradoxale Selbstdestruktion der großen Frau vollzieht sich folgendermaßen: Je heftiger ihr sie anbetet, umso tiefer sinkt sie hinab. Doch sie wird zur Riesin, in dem Moment, wo ihr euch von ihr abwendet. Jetzt überragt sie alle. Der Hintergrund kommentiert das nicht, denn er ist dazu gar nicht befugt. Er wurde gebannt, indem man ihn zeilenweise schwärzte wie ein umstrittenes Dokument. All dies ist im höchsten Grade materiell, das Immaterielle auch.

Der Weltgeist, eine verborgene, ehemals rotbunte Schmiere am oberen Bildrand – ist nicht mehr zu sehen. Das angeschlagene Mysterium, von längst verstorbenen Archäologen Scherbe für Scherbe zunächst mühsam zusammengesetzt, fällt wenige Minuten später vom Gerüst. Selbstverständlich ist das Ende der Welt nicht identisch mit dem Ende der Lohnarbeit. In der Ferne knallt die Luft wie eine Peitsche. Farbspritzer retten die Spontanität. Die Spontanität zappelt wie ein Frosch in der Hand eines Ahnungslosen. Das ist bestimmt eine Finte. Es ist eine Finte! Wieder knallt es. Logische Relationen werden nicht eindeutig wiedergegeben, doch auf mehr als drei unentschuldigte Fehltage folgt nach wie vor unvermeidlich die Kündigung.

He, he, ihr überlebenden Leitartikler, was steht denn in der Zeitung am ersten Montag nach der Apokalypse? Wurde nach dem großen Zusammenprall der Kontinentalplatten endlich über das Inkarnationsdogma entschieden?, wollen die Morschen wissen. Wo steht der Dax? Har, har, har lachen die Morschen tonlos. Es gibt hier kein Nirgendwo mehr. Alle Medien verstummten. Die Morschen finden sich am Montag nach der Apokalypse auf einem Ödland voller Flachkrater jenseits der Schienen wieder und sind ganz ohne Sujet. Könnten sie selbst nicht gleichfalls in die Unähnlichkeit hineinschlüpfen, sich darin verbergen und heute ausnahmsweise einen späteren Zug in die nächstbeste zerstörte Kreisstadt nehmen? Vergeht denn überhaupt noch Zeit? Solange Hunde vergehen, vergeht auch die Zeit, bestimmen die Morschen und lehnen sich sehr langsam zurück. Kein Lüftchen regt sich. Andere Frage: Fahren die Züge denn noch? Das weiß man irgendwie nicht.
Ein Haufen Leute, die mehr ineinander verschlungen als aufeinander bezogen sind, schauen in die Welt hinaus. Das ist die Manie vieler Einzelner, die selbst in großer Masse keine Gemeinschaft bilden. Die einsame fette Taube im Regen auf dem Zweig bewegt sich nicht. Nein, sie bewegt sich doch, aber es ist keine Taube. Das ist der Augenblick, wo das Sichtbare in das Visuelle umkippt, im Kontrast, im Kontakt mit dem Surrealismus. Moment!, schreien ein paar Expressionisten, gibt es denn den Surrealismus noch? Aber sicher!, antworten die Surrealisten und öffnen die Schubladen, schließen sie wieder, öffnen sie erneut, reißen sie am Ende ganz heraus. Aufhören, brüllt der Doppelagent des Gegenständlichen in seiner Kommode, hört doch bitte endlich damit auf. Doch außerhalb der Kommode ist sein Ruf nur ein abstraktes Kratzen. Das kann er natürlich nicht wissen.
Es gibt keine logischen Ketten im überzeitlichen Gewimmel, selbst stillgestellt in einem beliebigen Moment des Verfalls, bilden die Einzelteile keine Geschichte. Es gibt nichts, das nach einer kurzen Pause weitergehen könnte, außer eben dem Verfall. All diese Körper, Bänder, Verbände und Bandagen. Der Knäuel ist die obsolete Verbindung, von allem mit allem, die sich nicht mehr entwirren lässt, das Spruchband ganz ohne Spruch, getragen von einem stolzen Absolvent der Zombie Academy. Die logischen Ketten rasseln.
Unähnliche Ähnlichkeit. Die Figuren tragen schwer an ihrem Sinn. Sie sind geradezu von Sinn zerschmettert. Darin wiederum ähneln sie den Morschen, die am Montagmorgen nach der Apokalypse in den Trümmern nach ihren Steuerunterlagen suchen. Sind es denn noch Verkörperungen? Sicherlich. Heruntergekommene und dann in langen Jahren an den Wänden des dunklen Brunnens wieder heraufgekletterte Verkörperungen, die dünne Häutchen aussenden, die sich über der dampfenden Halde senken. „Viele der sichtbaren Dinge senden Körper aus. Teils werden sie lose zerstreut, so wie der Rauch, den Holz abgibt, oder die Wärme des Feuers. Andere wiederum sind enger verbunden und dichter, so das zu eng gewordene Kleid, das die Zikaden im Sommer abwerfen (…) Und wenn dies möglich ist, dann ist kaum zu bezweifeln, dass sich auch ein hauchdünnes Bildchen außen von den Dingen lösen kann: Warum sollten sich gröbere Häute leichter von den Dingen lösen und trennen als feinste Häutchen? Niemand hätte auch nur leiseste Gründe dafür.“
Die Wirksamkeit der Bilder, die Arbeit der Ähnlichkeit, die schwebenden Häutchen in den „Zonen relativer Defiguration“. Was wird denn hier gespielt? Nüschte, murmelt der diensthabende Pierrot. Alle anderen bleiben eigentümlich stumm. Knistern und knastern, mithilfe der bereitgestellten Materialien und Immaterialien. Wie klingen die Bilder? Hier, stell dich davor und frag dich, wie das klingt, schlagen die verbliebenen Morschen vor. Der Requisiteur als Sprengmeister hat sich des Arrangements angenommen. Alles, was nach der Explosion irgendwo landete, blieb von da an genau dort liegen, als werde es von seinem zufälligen Ort erzeugt. So finden die Dinge mit ihrem Ort, der sich in der Postproduktion nicht weiter um sie kümmert, zu sich selbst und treten sofort in einen heiteren Prozess der Verwahrlosung ein.
Es steht etwas zwischen den Stangen im Dunkeln. Ist es eine Züchtung? Nein, es handelt sich vielmehr um ein Missverständnis. Etwas zwickte die Zange im Dunkeln. Überall ist Blütenstaub und Farbpigment, sowie eine harte Konkurrenz zwischen Abstraktion und Konkretion. Der frisch bereitgestellte Doppelagent des Abstrakten fechtet im Spiegel gegen die von überall hineindrängenden Gegenstände. Einen nach dem anderen spießt er auf seine schlanke Waffe und schüttelt sie schließlich über der Halde ab. Es gibt nicht eine Stelle, wo dies keine Spuren hinterließ. Mit den Spuren tritt die Zeit hinein. Hier ist schon wieder dieser ernste Fleck. Wärme dient als Steuerungseinheit. Die Morschen beobachten mit einer gewissen Skepsis das Überhandnehmen der Abstraktion und schleppen schnell weiteren Dinge herbei, Stuhlbeine, Steine, Schädel, Schläuche und Kabel. Was ist das überhaupt, eine Steuerungseinheit? Es ist in etwa so, als ob man mit Knochen Wunder wirken könnte, die hinfort den Maßstab veränderten. Mit vielen verschiedenen Knochen. Heidnischen Gebeinen. Moosen. Steinen. Eingeweiden. Upperclass. Proportionsverschub und die Präsenz dessen, was nicht mehr da ist. Das Bild sagt nicht nein. Die Morschen sind jetzt doch etwas gereizt, rasseln mit den logischen Ketten und bilden Haufen. Akkumulation oder Debris, die herumfliegenden Teile bilden den unverzichtbaren Proviant, das „Glücksarsenal des Kaputten“ . Wie sich der Ort doch der Normalität entwindet – am ersten Montagmorgen nach der Apokalypse.
Allein die Tiere scheinen nicht weiter besorgt. Der große Kranich blickt auf viele, die sich winden. Irres Licht. Die Farben strahlen, doch das Geländer ist locker. Unter all den Schichten lebt noch eine ganze Sippschaft Gnome und fragt sich, wo ist unsere Lust geblieben, in dieser miesen in eine Garage hineingebauten Mysteriengrotte. Ein hoher Verschmelzungsdruck liegt auf den arrangierten Quadern, das letzte der zahllosen Fin-de-Siècle-Picknicks scheint ein wenig aus dem Ruder zu gelaufen zu sein. Sehen wir jetzt, was nicht mehr da ist?, fragen sich die Morschen. Nein, widerspricht der Doppelagent des Gegenständlichen: Wenn es nicht mehr wäre, könntet ihr es nicht sehen. Ein stumpfes Guckloch wandert durch die Welt – wie weit muss man sich in die äußerste Finsternis begeben, um die Dinge endlich aus der Nähe zu sehen?, wollen sie Morschen von dem Doppelagent des Gegenständlichen wissen, doch dieser hält sich erstaunlich bedeckt. Ein trotziger Neonhirsch taucht im Dickicht auf, taucht sogleich wieder ab. Noch ist kein einziger Schuss gefallen.

Große Müdigkeit herrscht am ersten Montagvormittag nach der Apokalypse. Was ist denn übriggeblieben? Gegenstände oder Ungegenstände? Ist überhaupt etwas übriggeblieben? Immerzu steht der Morsche inmitten der Defiguration und verhandelt mit seinem Willen, etwas zu erkennen. Kann ich etwas erkennen? Ein Griff, der ins Leere geht, ein sich lösender Krampf, eine krampfende Lösung in Gestalt einer Qualle. Was aber ist ein Gegenstand, fragt sich der Gnom, irr wie das Wetter. Eine ernste Stelle, von gestaltlosen Ornamenten durchtobt, die sogleich unter neuen Farbschichten verschwunden ist. Wo sie war, entstehen neue Flächen, denen noch der geringste Hauch von Wiedererkennbarkeit ermangelt. Die Augen stürzen daran vorbei. Die Farbe hat sich von den Konturen befreit, in einem massiv gekippten Raum. Woher weiß der Gnom, dass der Raum gekippt worden ist? So etwas wissen Gnome einfach. Und hineinflutet in den gekippten Raum: Das Flirren der Fläche mit unzähligen Dingen, Morschen und anderen Wesen, die einander auf unähnliche Art ähnlich erscheinen. Das ist ihr großer gekippter Raum, in dem sie sich weiter vermehren, am ersten Montag nach der Apokalypse.

David Anfam – Waiting for the End

The grotesque body, as we have often stressed, is a body in the act of becoming. – Mikhail Bakhtin

Walking through the historic galleries of many a major art museum – at random, say, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich or London’s National Gallery – the astute observer may notice a difference that is as much geographical as cultural. Indeed, once we are aware of it, the latter phenomenon looks almost wholly linked to the former. Simply stated, much of the art that originated north of the Alps from the late medieval period onwards feels altogether distinct in spirit from its tramontane, southern counterparts. One tends towards the ideal and to Classical canons of beauty and refinement that, as it were, help smooth over the blemishes of time and tide; the other inclines more in the direction of a harsh realism attended, sometimes, by fantastical elements. Put another way and more flippantly, Verdi contra Wagner, Proust versus Thomas Mann and pasta against sauerkraut.


Nor is this dichotomy any the less valid for courting a cliché. On the contrary, clichés can spring from deep impulses. Likewise, such ideas (in part related to burgeoning nationalisms during and after the Enlightenment) were initiated at least as long ago as Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemande (1810-13) and, closer to our time, with the art historian Wilhelm Worringer’s treatise Abstraction and Empathy (1908). Worringer proposed that in a benign or beautiful ambience human beings were more likely to identify with things around them (hence the clear, easily perceived lineaments of Classical and Renaissance art), whereas in difficult circumstances people retreated into themselves, with calmness and clarity giving way to excess, angst and abstraction (as in the so-called Dark Ages and, again, in certain moments of modernity). As Worringer wrote, “Whereas the precondition for the urge to empathy is a happy, pantheistic relationship of confidence between man and the phenomena of the external world, the urge to abstraction is the outcome of a great inner unrest inspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world…. We might describe this state as an immense spiritual dread of space.”1 Enter the art of Jonas Burgert – yet coming from an angle that, to his great credit, does not quite conform to any of the foregoing criteria.


On the one hand, Burgert’s immensely crowded panoramas do appear to echo Worringer’s concept of a horror vacui. To scan them is like rifling through the leaves of an encyclopedia devoted to some unknown subject, wherein one entry/item follows another with alarming pace but in no readily decipherable order.2 Thus, in Luft nach Schlag [x] a vast congeries – ranging from bells, mannequins and decorative cloth(e)s to graffiti, abandoned poles, stairways and rubble – surrounds a central businessman- like watcher, perhaps, one might imagine, a modern Spieβer? Whatever, he functions almost like a rubric, a personification of some letter of the alphabet that by rights ought to organize, to interleave, the chaos around him. Except that he does not: in fact, he makes everything seem more baffling. Consequently, his role is more akin to that of a latter-day Everyman, a descendant of the wayfarer in Albrecht Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), now immobilized by the surrounding errant world. This is a Nordic morality play without a plot, drama amid quiescence. Equally, Burgert’s art is saturated with what the art historian Hans Belting defines as an especially Germanic mood. According to Belting, “our Innerlichkeit, the introspective and brooding side of our [German] nature, has always been drawn to the spiritual/emotional aspect of art which – supposedly – is more fully satisfied by music and poetry than by the visual arts, whose image enters the eye in a predetermined form.”3 In this sense, Burgert’s stage is one attuned to an almost indefinable sense of expectation and apprehension – wherein the past haunts the present and the future apprehends it – a similar Stimmung to that found in the enigmatic paintings of a nineteenth-century Swiss predecessor, Arnold Böcklin.


On the other hand, Burgert defies the logic of realistic images in a way that places him in a far more up-to-date context. Poetically speaking, many of Burgert’s titles eschew commonplace meaning and are elusive/allusive rather than explanatory. When I asked the artist as to why, even with my modest command of the German language, I found these words hard to grasp, his disarming answer was that they are mostly untranslatable and even baffling in the original.4 Similarly, rather than assume Worringer’s loaded concept of “empathy/Einfühlung,” Burgert instead speaks of Empfindung, thereby opposing a cooler, more objective attitude lacking in overt emotionalism, kitsch and the like. Visually, too, there are the disorientating changes in scale between one part of a painting and another; the oft-remarked fact that his figures, hominoids and other protagonists almost never seem to make eye contact (or any other kind of emotive contact for that matter) with each other; and especially the idiosyncratic use of color. It is hard to think of another contemporary who manipulates color with a legerdemain comparable to Burgert.


In a tableau such as Stück/Hirn [x] we might almost be looking at the celebrated floor of Jackson Pollock’s studio in Springs, East Hampton, raised up – replete with spatters, splashes and runs of pigment – to become the background for a somber yet subtly impish actor/artist whose prosthetic hands, wildly extended by poles, ape the “hands” of a clock. It is almost as though this were Burgert’s transformation of Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio (1855) into a contemporary allegory of the process of painting and its myriad ingredients. One sees duration (the clock “hands”); a bright red bull’s eye target (distant shades of Jasper Johns?); some colors of the spectrum – respectively cool blue at left and warmer yellows and oranges at the center and upper right (memories of the color chart in Marcel Duchamp’s Tu’m [1918]?); ornament (the swags at upper right); tribal makeup (the small inset painting-within-a-painting, above center; geometry (the attenuated triangles on the floor and perfect circles on the wall); theology (the minuscule figure in the pose of a Crucifixion (upper left); and nature (the leaves and branch on the floor). Above all, it is hard to know whether we are beholding a scene of creation or ruination or, probably, both. The ubiquitous sub-text, so to speak, is that of the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous dictum: “Allegories are, in the realms of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”5 Elsewhere, a youth in Vertrauter [x], (not without the merest hint of Burgert’s own physiognomy), attends shallow bowls of pigment as though they were the artist’s soupy victuals. In Tarnt [x], a haunting frontal presence dissolves into a multi-hued motley that hovers somewhere between Robert and Sonia Delaunay’s Orphism and maybe a painterly abstraction from the 1970s by Willem de Kooning. Tremendous pictorial energy coexists with an aura of melancholia and stasis. Schutt und Futter [x] combines these contradictory elements in an explosion of vermilion, acid greens, purple, orange and other unlikely chromatic clashes. In a quintessential move, the image pulls away slightly from the white ground along its lower edges, suggesting that the whole phantasmagoria may be a kind of mirage.6 Are we in realms of phosphorescent decay, proto-psychedelia or a Pantone swatch book gone wild in an age of digitization? Or perhaps just a virtuoso display of what paint in its multiform dimensions can be and become? Burgert appears to take all sides and none. Given these paradoxes and conflicts, scant wonder that in discussion the artist voices a telling oxymoron: “beautiful trash.”


Almost at the center of Schutt und Futter stands a hallmark in Burgert’s iconography. It is a perfectly upright line, weighted and trued by something like an old-fashioned ship’s lead and suspended from a fishing rod held by a distant, deft figure in blue. If we have seen such a still center amid a mass of paraphernalia and other goings-on before, then it is perhaps the scales and protractor of Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514). For Burgert, this ruler – the double entendre is intentional – becomes the silent measure of all the unrest in the composition, a kind of unmoved mover. Poles fulfill an analogous function, at once extensions of their wielders’ human limits (a boon), prosthetic devices (indicative of a handicap) and structural motifs that strengthen the picture’s dynamics (another metaphor for stability in a world gone awry). Their almost exact antecedents are the poles (weaponry) brandished by the German mercenaries (landsknecht) depicted by such a Northern Renaissance artist as Urs Graf – whose figures were also the fashion icons of their day with their ornamentally “slashed” sleeves and legwear. Less clear-cut in their significance are the near-omnipresent ribbons. At one level, these strands enwrap the personages and, therefore, hold them together. From another standpoint, they bespeak Burgert’s interest in fashion. Fashion photographs, alongside diverse other postcards, cutouts and sundry miscellaneous fragments crowd the outlying, multitudinous walls of the artist’s studio. Why fashion? Because, dating back to the earliest anthropological urges of mankind to adorn itself for symbolic, tribal and other purposes down to our current, quotidian relationship with fashion as a marker of identity and status, it is skin that is our interface with reality. Literally conceived, clothes and their decorativeness are the ersatz “skins” that we display to the world (unsurprisingly, Burgert’s characters often are cloaked). Metaphorically understood, as the cultural historian Claudia Benthien has observed, skin is where out insides meet whatever lies withal.7 For instance, the patterning that covers the two players in Hellwild [x] represents their contending alterities to the normative eye of the spectator – the one a geometric checkerboard, the other a motley of floral arabesques. Stern order versus capriciousness.


In the haunting depictions of single females, their attire varies from the golds of autumn, as in schmiege [x] – a species of Flora caught in her cyclical changefulness from efflorescence to leaf fall and a counterpart to the verdant schliefe – to immer [x], where the black drapery of hair or a hat establishes a funereal mood. By comparison, Vieche [x] dissolves these apparitions into calm light, whereas Fänger [x] is a mix of anthropomorphic fetish and a monster child. At worst, these latter-day tronie – that is, resurrections of the seventeenth-century genre of portrait busts – dissolve into the nightmarish brush marks evident in scheucht [x], a terrifying death’s head suggestive of Burgert’s retort to Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). This should remind us that Burgert’s ultimate subject is our own predicament – grasped emphatically from a post-World War Two-cum-Auschwitz perspective. Accordingly, Burgert speaks of the “deep devilishness” at the root of these events and questions whether we can sustain any spiritual beliefs after such evil and destruction. It is a very Nietzschean “death of God” Weltanschauung. Note, too, the gas mask almost disguised by the harlequin finery of the woman in Haltstand [x], the way this latter adornment starts to resemble bandages, the clothes that contain no wearers (at left in Falle [x]) and, above all, the jumbled piles of bodies. These bodies advert to the essence of Burgert’s vision.


At face value, it is tempting to compare Burgert’s packed, tumultuous scenes with those of Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Bruegel the Elder and, even more recently, the GDR artist Werner Tübke’s Early Bourgeois Revolution in Germany (1976-87). Certainly, Burgert takes from his Netherlandish predecessors the notion of the theatrum mundi. In short, a world that appears like a vast stage or amphitheater in which human activity present an absurd spectacle.8 In this scheme, the viewpoint is high and the horizon non-existent, as though we were plunged into an inescapable morass of anatomies, metamorphoses and other uncanny distortions of the natural order of things. Its apotheosis is BSL 54131 [x]. Here, the sole point of clarity, of stability amid chaos, is the severe black and white striped garb of the central female. It amounts to a supreme existential fashion statement, as it were, the human plumb line in a sea without fixed form or reason. Not for nothing does Lotsucht [x] summon thoughts of a Ship of Fools.


Yet the comparison with Bosch, Bruegel, Tübke and their ilk is, in the last analysis, altogether false. Their art conforms to beliefs in theology, history painting and analogous ideological conventions. Instead, Burgert rejects these anachronisms as well as various contemporary “isms”. His entire sensibility is keyed to the grotesque in the most profound sense: a mood in which what was once familiar and fathomable – color, architecture, faces (witness Immer Kopf [x]) and the human body itself – becomes constantly changeful and therefore, in a sense, regenerates itself.9 As the Russian semiotician Mikhail Bahktin theorized the crux of this mode, “the grotesque body, as we have often stressed, is a body in the act of becoming.”10 Unlike Bruegel’s famous set piece, too, Burgert’s oeuvre is not a triumph of death insofar as mortality appears constantly deferred. In sum, Burgert’s work is a dark carnival, albeit brightly pictured, in which multiform life seems to wait for an end that, by a twist of the human condition, forever remains at bay.


1 Wilhelm Worringer, transl. Michael Bullock, Abstraction and Empathy. A Contribution to the Psychology of Style (Chicago: Elephant, 1997), p.15.

2 A little akin to the philosopher Foucault’s concept of a “heterotopia.” See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), passim.

3 Hans Belting, transl. Scott Kleager, The Germans and their Art. A Troublesome Relationship (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), p.6.

4 These and other remarks are based on an extended discussion with Burgert in Berlin on December 4, 2016. I am most grateful to the artist for his time and insights.

5 Walter Benjamin, transl. John Osborne, The Origin of German Tragic Drama [written 1924-25], (London & New York: Verso, 1998), p.178.

6 By sheer coincidence, Philip Guston employed a similar device in his paintings of the 1960s.

7 Claudia Benthien, transl. Thomas Dunlap, Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and the World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

8 Walter S. Gibson, Bruegel (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p.77.

9 James Luther Adams and Wilson Yate, The Grotesque in Art and Literature: Theological Reflections (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Erdmans, 1997), p.17.

10 Mikhail Bakhtin, transl. Helen Iswolsky, Rabelais and his World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p.317.


© Art Ex Ltd 2017

Heinrich Dietz – Rubble and Fodder

In contrast to reductionist tendencies in twentieth century art through which means, media, and parameters of artistic work were investigated, isolated, and sorted out, a contrary strategy is strikingly evident in your oeuvre: the maximum utilisation of a variety of those means which are traditionally available to painting. These include the representative function of painting – the figuration and construction of an illusionistic pictorial space –, borrowings from classical iconography and symbols, an extreme wealth of detail in the monumental paintings, but also composition, tonality, and modulation of the oil paints. What is the motivation for this assertive reactivation of painterly means?

Jonas Burgert
I understand the qualitative principle of reduction and esteem quite highly some of the works of art to which it has given rise, but there is a danger of thereby excessively shortening the path to the picture. I am not against reduction and simplicity, but on the other side are mass, chaos, complexity, and abundance. Simplicity tries to find one sign for our communication. But the world is cynical. A single sign is not enough. Sometimes less is in fact less. Notwithstanding, during my student days this reduction was propagated as a standard of value. Fidelity to a concept makes you defensive; I wanted to work offensively. It was a deliberate step to restore a name to precisely that which in fact was not supposed to be named. It was not only a formal concept, but also a contentual consideration that motivated my reaction. The individual already harbours within himself deep complexity and an entire range of contrasts. Our present era is characterised by inundation. We experience overflowing structures, sheer mass, and also chaos. We live with sand and poison. Why shouldn’t all that be painted? The quality of a picture should be evaluated independently of dogmas.


Quite diverse aspects of painting come to the fore in your pictures: sometimes it is more the construction of the pictorial space, at other times the dissolution of space through the accumulation of figures, or the emphasising of the figure through the coloured ground.


Figurative painting induces a spatial construction of the picture; that is the habit of our perception. But one of the wonderful illusions of painting is of course to build up a tension between space and surface. There arises an endlessly appealing contrast between recognisability and abstraction. The manipulation of the authentic. We want to be able to follow clearly the narrative of the picture, but we sense the intensity of the picture primarily on the abstract level. It is the subtext that determines the artistic quality. The contents must be transformed into the language of visual art. To put it simply: The intellect follows the gesture, and the emotions follow the colour and of course also the form, the light, the tonality, and the composition, because it is not a matter of representing something but of bringing something about. If I want to create pictorial unrest, then I try to construct a composition in which many similarly large forms overlap or directly adjoin each other. This renders the value unclear, so that the viewer’s gaze begins to dart about, and restlessness ensues. It arises not only thematically, but also formally. This can be continued on all levels. If I repeatedly set cold and warm colours in mutual contrast, an unrest likewise arises. One could create a perspectival vanishing point that gives an illusion of depth. But if I maintain the values of colour and light on one level, the picture conveys an impression of flatness, and a tension arises. In this way, the pictorial space is actually always subordinated to the vibrancy of the idea of the picture.


The human figure is the central focus of your works. These are often types from different contexts who act within your stage-like pictorial spaces: archaic figures from foreign cultures, grotesque characters as well as fantastic beings. These diverse groupings are connected by the fact that as outsiders of enlightened Western society, they have always served as projection surfaces for the Other, the foreign and repressed elements of our culture. What function do you consider this pictorial personnel to fulfill?


My interest is directed principally toward the phenomenon of the human being, the problematic of his self-definition. The human being doesn’t know what a human being is. We do not have any standard map; we have to redetermine our coordinates again and again. In this self-reflection, we are permanently searching. For we are not simply instinctive beings. The ensuing uncertainty leads to a need to embed ourselves. We disguise ourselves, subordinate ourselves to a culture, a ceremony, a rite, a fashion, a religion. I don’t know how many thousands of gods human beings have invented in order to discover themselves therein. Unlike animals, human beings argue with their existence, their definition. I am interested in this phenomenon. When you see a monkey, it looks like a monkey, and a dog looks like a dog. But a human being doesn’t look like a human being; he is masquerading and wears the insignia of his particular culture. I am interested in this phenomenon over the entire course of human history; for that reason I also use extremely archaic figures. It may be that five thousand years ago the painting of the skin as a component of tribal culture responded to the same need – the need for mental representation, for a self-image. The wish to integrate oneself within a wider context. I hope that with my figures I am painting a symbol for human beings. My interest is directed, not toward the real individual, but toward his mental border areas, in which the archaic, the inner, and the illusionistic principles are valid. Ten figural circumstances could be formulated in representation of one individual.


What role is played here by difference and diversity, by the contrast between the familiar aspects of one’s own culture and the incoherence of forms of human existence which do not have a common denominator?


Here as well, this definitional problematic is involved. The individual must define himself with all his inner contradictions and at the same time function within the mass, in society – a conflict in which we are caught. Thus
the recognition of difference and diversity can be transferred into the narrowest contexts, even onto the individual himself.


Figures that ladle paint, splotch themselves, decorate and dye themselves apparently refer to the symbolical function of paint and painting. In addition, masks, costumes, and body paintings bear witness to our urge toward self-representation. They point toward a staging in which the figures create a role, an identity, a self-image for themselves. Does the choice of religiously connotated contexts and of the communal rites of the figures – such as processions, ablutions, or funerals – stand in connection with the potential of painting to impart meaning, its capacity for creating worlds and establishing meaning?


Most definitely. Rituals are part of our search; I don’t do anything other than to paint the battlefield on which this takes place. I don’t take up any historically determinable themes for this purpose. My pictures are not concerned with concrete events, for example those from religious contexts. The feeling of familiarity comes from the fact that I endeavour to paint what has always concerned us in any case, because it is existential. We have the impression of being present at a ritual although we don’t recognise it at all, don’t know what the figures are actually doing there. But illusion is a part of our lives; it is the longing to discover something more than we are. This is also one of the aspects of the title of the exhibition, Schutt und Futter | Rubble and Fodder. I take what is actually refuse, garbage, or banalities and try to create out of it scenarios in which the figures spiritually elevate themselves – out of nothing. It remains at best beautiful filth. There is an interesting phenomenon that painting is an illusion which we consider to belong to us. Painting is not something fully artificial and aloof, a pure fiction; instead illusion is part of our reality, we live with it. We cry in the cinema, although we know that the film is deception.


You create time-transcending, fantastical scenarios in a pictorial space which remains coherent in spite of what are sometimes distorted proportions, in which gaps such as canyons or windows point toward another sphere. The selection of fantastical subjects in the Symbolism of the late nineteenth century or efforts by Surrealism to represent the unconscious may be considered as reactions of painting to photography, as an attempt to confront the medium of documentation and depiction with representations of another reality. What role can be taken on by the representative function of painting in view of a surfeit of digital images that can perfectly simulate fictitious worlds?


I have seldom seen the means of producing digital pictures being used for something other than entertainment. I do not strive to entertain. On the other hand, the medium is not important; it is the means to an end. Intensity can be attained everywhere. Something that I value in the medium of painting is that I can reinvent my pictorial language every day – there is a vast spectrum of illusion. The affective work of painting stands in contrast to the construction of the digital image, where a concept is carried out and runs the risk of becoming illustrative. One brushstroke can alter an entire picture.


Just as through photography the representative function of painting can be called into question, the digital production of pictures also enters into competition with elements of painting, whereas other aspects remain fully untouched – such as the painting process or the artisanal aspect, which differ fundamentally from the digital production of pictures, in which there initially predominates a fundamental separation between the producer and the picture.


The question is what an image is – photography can only create one form of image. Painting proceeds upon several pathways. Where things really work is in the medium of film, with its digitally created scenarios which doubtlessly extend the spectrum of film. But to what purpose? I have another goal. In art I have seldom experienced that the result was more than the illustration of a good idea.


In the handling of the brush, in the application of paint in a manner ranging from pastose texture to transparent expanse, the process of painting always remains visible in your pictures, and here and there – for example, in depictions of walls or at the edges of the picture – the illusionistic representation is totally disrupted, is transferred into abstract, sometimes ornamentally structured parts, into rhythmic brushstrokes and splotches of paint, or is dissolved into the flat pictorial ground. How do you attempt to capture the relationship between the materiality of paint, abstraction, and that which is being represented?


I try to subordinate the process of painting to the flow, the contents of the picture. The structure thereby arising must serve the atmosphere of the picture and not the other way around. I have always been irritated when a picture is reduced only to an invented, stylised handling of the brush. Nevertheless, its structure of course determines the intensity of the picture. It represents the emotions, that which remains unsaid, the abstraction. Thus even a seemingly real figure can take on an aspect of irreality through the application of paint and the internal structure. The inner attitude to the painted surface determines the outcome. If I want to describe a piece of fabric and view it as a sort of liquid, then the result will be different.


The figures in your pictures are involved in communal activities: They dump, push, lift, ladle, or are shown in moments of reflective isolation. But the individual sequences do not conjoin into a superordinate narrative; instead one has the impression of witnessing an absurd, ultimately incoherent occurrence. Through stories, we can situate individual events in an overall context of meaning. As a means of self-reassurance, we allow ourselves to try out possibilities of action, to construct identities, and to come to an understanding of our position in the world. Your pictures evoke narrativity and tie in with these narrative functions. To what extent are you inclined to convey the meanings offered by a narrative context?

In all probability, I don’t paint anything different than a site where the traces of an intellectual process may be seen. What seems to be narrational is perhaps ultimately impossible to decipher; but of course all these actions make sense to me, nothing is random, and in principle I can explain each detail in terms of content. But inner processes are difficult to label, because they are often deeply based on emotion, and every individual has an idiosyncratic perception of the world. For it is not a matter of telling a historical tale, but of creating a image in a pictorial manner, a symbolic sense. The picture is not supposed to be thought, but instead to be felt. Perhaps this can be described through the difference between prose and lyric poetry. I try to create lyric poetry. In spite of all dramaturgy, it is silence that I am concerned with. What requires the most effort in my working process is the attempt to attain the climate of a picture, because only therein do I actually see the possibility of producing something outside of space and time, of acting on a superordinate level, of not succumbing to the fleeting nature of a story. It is a matter of the picture per se.


You have said that it is important to you to record and to convey general human feelings by means of painting. This is less a matter of a subjective sentiment than of an intersubjective emotion which is supposed to have a direct impact on the viewer. Recently the philosopher Gernot Böhme sought to draw the notion of atmosphere into the centre of aesthetic theory. He characterises atmosphere as stirring expressions of emotion which link subject with object and emanate from things, as the spatial conveyor of moods.1 This notion of atmosphere is closely connected to the concept of climate which you apply to your oeuvre: something situated between the viewer and your work and emanating from it, for which you activate a multiplicity of registers in order to maximise the impact.


It is true that I operate with many registers, but I am concerned with one thing, namely with assuring that this climate predominates. It would be enough for me if the viewers did not necessarily comprehend the entire picture, but simply sensed the energy that creates this climate. Our intellectual analysis – also with regard to narratives – is designed above all for short stretches of time; it allows us to function, understand, see, act, and react. Over an extended period of time and on an intensive, existential level, it is especially emotions which have an impact and remain in the memory.


I believe that both levels are closely connected, for which reason the figure and the narrative element play an important role in your painting, as crystallisation points of atmosphere which allow the viewer to enter into a pictorial world. You are concerned above all with emotional impact. What is the relation here between participation and distance, emotional reaction and rational reflection?


Emotion predominates perhaps, but of course both aspects should come together. But between distance and proximity there is also this contradiction: I wish to create pictures in which you have the sense of wanting to plunge into this world and yet prefer not to do so. And this contradiction is what is actually interesting here, because we don’t know of any solution, or do we? We can simply produce a state of intensity that perhaps conveys a little knowledge, but the contradiction remains.


An important role for the psychological expressivity of your figures is played by pathos formulas as general symbols of human emotions. There are certain attitudes and gestures running through pictorial and cultural history which were characterised by Aby Warburg as forms for expressing an intense state of inner emotion.2 Alongside other aspects ‒ such as the depicted person, the symbolic props, the spatial concept, the indefinite temporal situation, and the narrativity ‒ they are a further pictorial means by which familiar, intimate, decipherable aspects are distorted, exaggerated, disconnected, and withdrawn from immediate access. How do you view this interplay between the familiar and the foreign in the context of your work?


I want to engage people, but also to irritate them. This interplay already begins in the painting process; here it is a longer path, actually a struggle to bring the objects of the world into my pictures. I must evaluate every object that I paint as to whether or not it functions. For the major problem is that what is currently in fashion is superimposed on us and plays tricks on us. I am interested, however, in what lies beneath, in the symbolical principle. For this reason, I require a long time to look for and to find those things that I want to use in my pictures. I would most likely not paint a cola can, except as a form. The objects in my pictures ‒ for example, leaves, ribbons, or sticks ‒ are simple, abstract, highly reduced forms which go to the heart of what they represent. A stick, for instance, can be everything. What is actually present in the picture is only the extract of what is a long, thin, flexible form. But it can affix, connect, protect, knot, decorate, and so forth.


But doesn’t that also have to do with the history and familiarity of the symbol, when a more vivid expressivity is achieved with certain pictorial objects?


That has to do with this fact from which we cannot exonerate ourselves. In my opinion, however, the old, pathos-laden forms of expression are not taboo. I continue to believe in timelessness. I believe that we must endeavour to create timelessness in visual art. What, if not that, is of interest? Fashions come and go. What remains as an underlying sediment? What are the things that bring us further? That’s what matters. And through transformation, we are capable of that, inasmuch as I take content and transform it into the language of visual art in terms of form, colour, light, sound, and so forth. I can look at ancient Egyptian art without having an idea of the religion, without knowing how those people lived and thought. Nonetheless, the works are present in any case, and one senses an attitude or an atmosphere. Here we have arrived again at that strange word, but we don’t have so many alternatives in our vocabulary for the intensity which these things radiate.


On the other hand, there are perhaps only various social frameworks, determined only by certain historical contexts, but not a basic human nature or fundamental, timeless symbols. At best, there are symbols with a long history. What role does history play for you? This question also arises with respect to your monumental pictures tying into the tradition of History Painting, the genre which, by means of narrative motifs, endeavours to attain a timeless symbolism that, however, has come in the meantime to itself belong to the rubble of history.


I am quite interested in history, but I am more concerned with the phenomena of our behaviour which it contains. I don’t tell historical stories in my pictures. I invent scenarios based on the existential activities of human beings. So you sometimes believe yourself to have identified an actual story, but in fact you won’t find one. The historical pictures of the nineteenth century are extremely well-painted in technical terms, but in my opinion, they are thematically uninteresting. It was once the fashion to mourn the myth of ancient history, but for me that is too sentimental.


Through its involvement with historical themes as an outgrowth of escapism or as a projection screen for national ideologies or sexual taboos, historicism is deeply rooted in its own era. But is it not possible, in concession to a certain era, to attain something that is also important or valid in another epoch ‒ for instance, Andy Warhol, who takes up pop culture and contemporary phenomena but thereby creates pictures which remain interesting past a limited period of time?


I don’t know whether we can already assess Warhol. Perhaps we are fascinated because we are still involved in this society that both wears and worships sneakers. He probably created a symbol, but increasingly I consider his work to be decoration.


Do you not see in your own work any connections to pop culture or to the entertainment industry?


Pop culture has created an artificiality and an extension of contrast that pleases me quite well and that I also see as part of my own work.


Or are there also links to phenomena such as fantasy? That which in your case is fantastic corresponds in the world of fantasy to the merging of fictional designs of the world as a strategy of entertainment. Here is a parallel with which the entertainment industry enters into competition with art: in the creation of images, the staging of identities, but also the generation of atmosphere. In the meantime, this has not only become the goal of the entertainment industry, but more and more it is becoming the core area of the entire industrial production. When a whole lifestyle is bound up in a product, when stories and identificatory offerings are created through industrially produced commodities, then this represents a strong competition with a role once discerned by art.


It is true that today commodities are staged and a lifestyle is marketed through the emotions. That is certainly interesting and also fully legitimate. The question is only whether in art we in fact want to do something entirely different; in other words, the question is whether a competitive situation actually exists. There is this razor’s edge; it is incredibly narrow, but extremely important. We wish to give rise to a mental attitude or to initiate a process in the brain or the belly. We don’t want to achieve an effect in order to sell a product.


Doesn’t art simply lie at the extreme end of the scale, where there exists no additional product, where what is sold is simply pictures and the generation of meaning?


What is actually so terrible about this long-established notion that a picture should generate meaning? That it should have an impact on people, is allowed to irritate them, and doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasant.


The name of your exhibition at the kestnergesellschaft comes from the title of the painting Schutt und Futter | Rubble and Fodder (2012) 10. What is striking about this picture is the almost unmanageable accumulation of pictorial objects which, at the same time, can also be seen as a study of various forms of applying paint and representing textures, fabrics, and materials. Pursued to an extreme here is a principle that also applies to your other pictures. It is not only that many objects from various contexts are taken up, but also that many levels are set in motion: This is an accumulation of painterly means through which painting is represented in its diversity. How important is this principle of accumulation in your work?


It is a matter of the principle of chaos and irritation. The irritation comes when things combine and then strike each other once again. This is what I was concerned with in Suchtpuls | addicted to pulse (2011) 16, which in my exhibition Gift gegen Zeit (2012, Blain|Southern, Berlin) was hung opposite from Luft nach Schlag | calm after the strike (2012) 17. With this pair of paintings, it was a matter of at one time completely exaggerating and at of one time reducing. These are two aspects which are part of our life: that on the one hand, we are surrounded by an incredible amount of stuff; and that on the other hand, the individual is accordingly overwhelmed. I often have the feeling that one person isn’t enough for the theme being handled. We are animals of the herd; we produce things out of quantity, out of mass, and out of chaos. What is important is to rummage around in the dirt in order to find some sort of correspondence in meaning. That is one path. The other is: do away with everything; quiet, a wall, a figure; that’s it. This is the other attitude, namely that the work is achieved through the inner process, whereas on he external path, I must set masses in motion. In the case of Rubble and Fodder (2012) 33 in particular, it was actually a refuse heap at an unappealing site. The rest of a society which is left over, from which we form something anew, in which we settle down, or out of which we attempt to make something that is more than we ourselves are.


The rubble can also be considered as ballast, as waste, as the flotsam and jetsam of history, but also as a means of painting. At the same time it is the fodder for satisfying the concomitant greed to devour images, our desire to generate new interconnections out of a disjointed heap.


Greed is an appropriate word: We are greedy to find something therein, to take it up again, or to make something out of it. But in this mad endeavour we are helpless, overburdened in our urban life by a hundred thousand things. We only use those things for a short while. It is the same with intellectual ideas. This is why fashion has grown so strong; we are addicted to fashion. The rapid, slight distraction; the rapid, slight suggestion of security.


Fashion as a possibility of producing something new from the rubble again and again?


Yes, we want to get in there repeatedly, and of course industry knows that. The production cycles become shorter and shorter, and we consume things faster and faster. But in this way we lose depth, diminish in density, become a little flatter. All this has turned into a gigantic, voracious machine in which we all participate. There are photographs of rubbish heaps outside of Bangkok in which people live. This is incredibly symbolic for our era. I am concerned with the symbol of this pile lying there without rotting any longer. With reference to painting, to art, there is on the one hand this chaos of pictoriality, but on the other hand a tradition and a history in which there are still things to be taken seriously, and not just garbage. And in parallel, there is our almost poignant need to seize hold of a crumb from the pile, to raise it up, and to imbue it with some sort of hopeful spirit.


The end of painting, which was proclaimed again and again during the twentieth century, can be linked to two developments. On the one hand, it may be understood as a reaction to new means of production: the industrial manufacture of commodities, but also to those mechanical means of producing pictures such as photography and printing technologies. On the other hand, it results from a diagnosed disturbance in the relationship between representation, author, and recipient. Also on the basis of its artisanal origins, there seems to be a close connection in painting between author and work. The picture is apparently a direct attestation of its process of creation, inasmuch as it manifests traces of the actions of the artist-subject.3 But precisely on the basis of the described development, this connection was repeatedly put to question during the twentieth century, and doubt arose as to whether painting can in any way achieve a symbolic impact or possess expressive power. How effective can painting still be against this background?


Of course I believe in the effectiveness of painting. Whether my pictures have a symbolic impact is something that the viewers must decide. When I see the pictures hanging on the wall, I think that everything is working fine, although in fact I might not be seeing the forest for all the trees. Obviously, the jury conducts its examination from an external perspective and over the course of centuries. We don’t know whether all that is art at all; that it will subsequently be valid and possess more value than simply entertainment for the moment is a hope that I of course have. What doesn’t change is the fact that we have a need for illusion. Indeed, illusion is not a pure fiction that has nothing to do with us; it is a part of our reality. Painting invents its world, whereas photography is compelled to depict it.


That is possibly due to the fact that in photography the mechanical process is inserted in between, whereas that is not the case with painting.


Yet this romantic image of the artist doesn’t really interest me, the notion of the painter working with dirty pigments. What strikes me is the phenomenon that this illusion surface functions so well. That has always fascinated me; otherwise I would have worked with other media if they had managed to convince me. I do classic painting because I continue to consider the most interesting principle to be representing things, in other words constructing a world, generating an illusion, and engaging in this intellectual process.


But on what is this enduring evocative power of painting based, especially when there are so many other possibilities and areas for creating images?


Photography depicts reality. That doesn’t have anything to do with painting. Painting is not interested in reality; it doesn’t strive to show what is here, but what is also here, to generate a sort of subtext. The crucial distinction is that from the very beginning I am within an image, within illusion, whereas the photographer is initially not within illusion, but within reality, for which reason the photograph always seems like a documentation. There exist only a few photographers who think in terms of illusion from the very beginning and try to shift reality so that it corresponds to their illusionistic image. But they do exist.


The evocative connection between creative act and medium, between subject and brushstroke is one of the reasons why the concept of authenticity often comes up in connection with painting, why it is assumed that in this medium it is to a greater extent possible to achieve a pure and undistorted representation. When you speak about the fact that painting has always been illusionistic, has always operated symbolically, but that you desire to be authentic, isn’t it precisely the artificial aspect that makes possible an authentic representation?


Correct, and painting can do something that other means of pictorial representation cannot achieve. Painting is invention. It is a false conclusion to think that painting is something ancient just because it has always existed. That is wrong, painting works, that’s what matters ‒ and it will continue to work in the future as well.


Do you not see the danger of its wearing away over time? One problem of painting is not only that there are other procedures for producing images, but also that many of its possibilities seem to have been exhausted.


What is interesting is that it succeeds again and again. I too marvel at the fact that one can still paint a new picture, but it is indeed possible. The language is infinite. There are an infinite number of possibilities for painting a picture.


On the other hand, painting is faced with the challenge that a symbol which once conveyed a multiplicity of meanings loses its power through constant repetition and ultimately becomes a cliché.


But isn’t it the case that the really excellent things don’t succumb to wear and tear? Doesn’t Nefertiti continue to be outstanding? Even if millions of people try to reduce her to a cliché through never-ending photographs? Didn’t the Egyptians in fact create something which continues to have an impact beyond its original functional context, precisely because they transformed reality in so powerful a manner? That is true today as well. Where do we find a symbol which is not only fashionable but which proceeds further, defines us as human beings? For we continue to be human beings, not puppets for the purpose of entertainment.


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.

Eva Karcher h.o.m.e.

Jonas Burgert, auf Ihren Gemälden kriechen kahlköpfige, hohläugige Jammergestalten durch verwüstete Landschaften, das Licht ist fahl, die Farben psychedelisch – beschwören Sie die Apokalypse?

Nein, das sind keine Weltuntergangsbilder. Sie sind ernst. Aber sind nicht nur die unglücklichsten, sondern auch die schönsten Momente in unserem Leben ernst?. Wenn ich jemandem sage: „Ich liebe dich“, dann lache ich nicht dabei. Oder wenn ich in einer Landschaft bin, die mich umhaut – dann schweige ich.

Dennoch scheinen die Akteure Ihrer Werke meistens heillos.
Das finde ich eben nicht. Okay. Es gibt uns als reale Figuren, und es gibt unseren Subtext. Innere Persönlichkeiten. Ich behaupte, dass Sie und ich jeder mindestens 20 dieser Seelen in unseren Köpfen versammeln. Wie Nietzsche sagte: Ich sind viele. Meinen Sie unsere multiplen Ichs? Ja. Es geht darum, dass jeder von uns eine sehr viel komplexere Persönlichkeit besitzt, als wir sie nach außen präsentieren können. Wir alle haben zahlreiche Alter Egos. Ich definiere sie als Wasserzeichen von uns selbst und so male ich sie.


Als groteske Projektionen?
Es sind ideale Ichs, aber auch Ichs, die unsere dunklen Seiten markieren, unsere Süchte. Deshalb bin ich das Gegenteil eines realistischen Malers. Ich will Erkennbarkeit, aber auf einer symbolischen Ebene. Wenn Sie sich auf die Szenarien hier länger einlassen, werden Sie merken, dass sie gar nicht so irrsinnig sind. Da agieren keine verrückten Außerirdischen, sondern Menschen, die komische Kleider tragen und ihre Haut färben. Aber abwegig sind sie nicht, jedenfalls keine Phantasy-Monster.


Oft tragen sie Masken …
Tun wir das nicht ständig? Wir alle verkleiden uns, wir wollen mehr scheinen als sein – oft mit tatsächlich schlimmen Ergebnissen.


Hat das mit unserer Annäherung an Identität zu tun?
Ja, mit dieser unausrottbaren Sehnsucht, die Definition von uns selbst immer wieder neu zu starten. Das ist unser Kernproblem: Wir stellen uns existenziell ständig in Frage. Ständig suchen wir nach Orten, an denen wir uns einbetten können.


Sie meinen, Sie malen unsere Sehnsucht nach Geborgenheit?
Sehnsucht ist doch unser treuester Begleiter, oder? Es ist eines der schönsten Worte der deutschen Sprache. Sehnsucht beschreibt, dass wir süchtig danach sind, uns nach etwas zu sehnen.


Weil wir sterblich sind?
Genau. Deshalb brauchen wir Spiritualität, eine Sphäre, die größer ist als das, was wir sind. Ich male einen Ort außerhalb der Zeit. Eine Bühne, auf der wir unsere Existenz verhandeln. Mit meiner Malerei will ich Räu- me unserer geistigen Repräsentanz schaffen.


Symbolische räume?
Ja. Unsere gesamte Kultur ist doch nichts anderes als das Schaffen von geistiger Repräsentanz. Was für einen ungeheuren Aufwand betreiben wir dafür von Anfang an! Inzwischen weiß man, dass die ältesten Tempel der Welt 12.000 Jahre alt und aus Stein sind. Der Archäologe Klaus Schmidt fand sie im Südosten der Türkei, in Göbekli Tepe, darunter riesige Felsstelen, behauen mit Tierreliefs. Diese Konstante des Menschen, sich ästhetisch verewigen zu müssen, ist mein Thema.

Langsam wandern wir durch sein hallengroßes Atelier, vorbei an Leinwänden, die noch auf das Finish des Künst­lers warten. Schließlich stehen wir an der Stirnseite vor dem Porträt eines männlichen Wesens, das aussieht wie eine Kreuzung aus Krieger und Clown, mit farbbekleck­ sten Hosen und einem Kopfputz aus dürren Zweigen und Trockenblumen.


Sieger oder Verlierer?
Finde ich gut, dass das nicht eindeutig lesbar ist! Der da blickt ziemlich herausfordernd, doch scheint es ihm nicht schlecht zu gehen.

Warum trägt er dieses Gebilde auf dem Kopf?
Sie schmücken die häupter gerne mit Federn, Turbanen, Bandagen, wenn die Köpfe nicht kahl geschoren sind … Schmücken ist das Stichwort. Diese Typen dekorieren sich, genauso wie sie ihre Körper mit Kostümen drapieren. Es geschieht alles für die Illusion von uns selbst. Wenn ich mir einen neuen Anzug kaufe, dann trete ich an dem Tag, an dem ich ihn zum ersten Mal trage, ein wenig anders auf, stolzer. Es ist damals wie heute das Gleiche: Früher haben sich die Eingeborenen die Gesichter und Leiber tätowiert, bevor sie andere Stämme angriffen, um sich dem Feind gegenüber angstloser zu fühlen.


Und warum die mit Bändern umwickelten Gliedmaßen?
Mit ihnen arbeite ich ständig. Sie verbinden, aber sie fesseln auch. Sie kommunizieren auf vielfältige Weise. Sie sind Grundformen in meinem Repertoire, genau wie die speerartigen Stäbe. Archaische Utensilien.

Die Sie mit modischen Jetztzeit-Attributen mixen …
Genau. Ich mische die unterschiedlichsten Epochen und Kulturkreise, Afrika, Indien, Papua-Neuguinea, Europa. Aber ich habe kein historisches Anliegen. Es geht mir um Ausstrahlung. Um Präsenz.


Wie entstehen Ihre Bilder?
Ich mache wenige Zeichnungen, sondern beginne einen neuen Zyklus parallel auf mehreren Leinwänden. Wie die alten Meister fange ich oft mit dunklen Grundierungen an. Im Malprozess werde ich dann farbintensiver, dabei in der Tonalität kälter.


Welche Rolle spielen die Farben?
Eine entscheidende. Es hat mindestens zehn Jahre gedauert, bis ich bestimmte Farbkontraste malen konnte. Das ist ein hoch komplizierter Prozess. Über die Farbe versuche ich, den Zynismus unserer Gegenwart zu dokumentieren, den scheinwerfergrellen Unterhaltungswahnsinn der Medien, dem wir alle ausgeliefert sind. Diese Perfidie, uns mit immer neuen Konsumnarkotika zu betäuben und dabei uns und unsere Umwelt zu zerstören. Das soll aber nicht moralisch klingen. Die Farbigkeit ist eher ein abstrakter Umweg für mich, diese Ebene in die Bilder hereinzuholen.


Wie lange brauchen Sie für die Formate, die manchmal über sechs Meter messen?
Rund zwei Monate. Ich hatte immer Lust auf große Dimensionen. Man arbeitet mit anderen Proportionen und kann viel mehr eintauchen. Aber jeder kleine Fehler kann eine Katastrophe sein, die das Bild aus- einanderfallen lässt.


Seit fünf Jahren haben Sie Erfolg – wie viele unbeachtete Jahre lagen davor?
Viele. Ich male jetzt seit 23 Jahren. Es hat also 18 Jahre gedauert, eine eigene Sprache zu finden. Und das Tollste ist, dass ich jeden Tag aufs Neue das Gefühl habe: Ich lerne malen. Wie Claude Monet. Als er 70 und weltberühmt war, fragte man ihn einmal, was er sich noch wünsche. Seine Antwort: „Ich würde gerne mal ein gutes Bild malen.“ Das ist das Geheimnis!



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?


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.


blüht und lügt – Long Museum Shanghai

Sinn frisst – ARP Museum

Zwischen Albtraum und Realität – Deutsche Welle

The Vinyl Factory

Poison Against Time

Stück Hirn Blind

© Jonas Burgert