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Interview with Jonathan Meese: "I am the samurai of art”

The German artist explains why he puts aggression and provocation centre stage—along with his mum

Jonathan Meese is the enfant terrible of German contemporary art, best known for provoking audiences with his inflammatory and aggressive handling of sensitive subjects. German history, political repression, sadomasochism and a range of other highly charged themes figure prominently in his work, as do demonic figures such as Hitler and Stalin, and the ever controversial Richard Wagner. Meese’s multimedia skills extend into the world of set design, and this summer he created the stage sets for the premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s opera, “Dionysos”, at the Salzburg Festival. The Art Newspaper spoke to the Berlin-based artist about his exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (until 13 February 2011), his interest in Nietzsche and collaborating with his mother, Brigitte Meese.

The Art Newspaper: Can you tell me about what you are showing in North Miami?

Jonathan Meese: The exhibition is of objects and sculptures, and includes my first sculptures. These are paper and plastic figures and are very fragile, some are just 2-3cm high. There are also the stage designs from the Salzburg Festival, and new ceramic sculptures.

TAN: When did you become interested in the theatre?

JM: I was never really interested when I was younger, but I was interested in the theatre of art. I understood early on that art is total theatre and I made my own stage designs for my own performances. I had collected so much material that I was forced to make installations. I started performing in 1994-5 in art school in front of my installations where I read my poems, many of them in English.

TAN: You deal with politically touchy subjects, notably the legacy of Hitler, National Socialism and German colonialism. Why?

JM: Art must deal with the most radical things that have happened. In fact, art should be more radical than reality. All of our aggression should be placed into art. And wars of the future should be played out on theatre stages, in books and films. In art everything is allowed. I know that some people are shocked, but the beauty of art is to play with things.

TAN: Is your goal to repeat motifs until they become detached from historical meanings?

JM: Yes, absolutely. I use these images to say that an image cannot be bad, sculptures are never bad, a book is never bad, a photo can never be bad. We have to use images again and again until they start to become something else. To objectify them.

TAN: Are you trying to move historical associations away from the past and force people to think about the present?

JM: More than in the moment, we have to live in the future. Art is stronger than politics, governments and religion, and it is stronger than the past and the present. It’s the only real motor of the future. We have to learn that all evil things can happen in art. We have aggression, but if we put it into films and art, then we can live peacefully in the future. I believe that the whole planet should be a theatre stage where everything is played out and nobody has to be afraid of real violence.

TAN: Can you explain your idea of “the dictatorship of art”?

JM: I don’t want any leadership by humans; I want a leadership of art. Therefore you have to talk about the problems of the past and I always think you have to deal with the strongest images. That’s why I use Hitler and Stalin, and based on that you can show the absurdity of this whole thing. The goal is to objectify the subject. Art is the future, it’s the counter-world, a world without the laws that we know. It’s a fantasy and a vision, but it’s also possible to make it. But then we have to be different and change from what we are now.

TAN: Is humour an important component of your work?

JM: Yes. Especially when I’m on stage. I make fun of myself. I drank alcohol during many of my performances and I lost control of myself. All of the paintings are made with humour because they are made so fast and with lightness. The subject may be heavy, but the way it is produced is easy.

TAN: Do you rely more upon your instincts and intuition rather than reason?

JM: I only rely on my instincts, and not even on creativity. Creatively comes too much out of your head while you use your instincts like an animal and they are connected to your body. Creativity is too much connected to your ego.

TAN: What about the egotism of putting your self-portraits in your work?

JM: The images are a masquerade where I play somebody else. I play the warrior, or the captain, or a woman—and this is very easy with your own portrait because it’s accessible. Reality has so many limits, but art has no limits. People don’t see the potential. Religious people think religion can rule the world, or politics can rule—but artists don’t talk about art ruling the world.

TAN: You have made stage sets for theatrical and operatic productions. What interests you about working on these large-scale productions?

JM: Normally I’m very hermetic. I’m always alone and I hide from the art scene. But opera and theatre are totally different. The people are humbler and they all work together.

I had to create the stage before I knew the music. I was told that there should be a mountain, a ship, a horse and something about Nietzsche. I love to work with very little information and I work very quickly. I used Nietzsche’s moustache, which was also a mountain or a ship because it’s immediately recognisable. I also made a big mask-like god which stood eight metres high like a strange monster, and there was a big horse made out of wood five meters high.

TAN: Wolfgang Rihm’s opera “Dionysos” is an exploration of the Nietzschean endorsement of Dionysian sensuality. What aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy interest you?

JM: The playfulness. I was reading Nietzsche at age 12 and there is much more humour in his work than you would think. I feel that he understood that art is the strongest power and he created a totally new language and he put a lot of focus on animals. His appearance also interests me a lot.

TAN: Your father is British and your mother German. How did you come to be born in Japan?

JM: My father served in the Royal Air Force and was stationed in Japan after the second world war; he fell in love with the country. When he was demobbed, he returned to London where he studied Japanese and then went back to Japan where he worked as a banker. He met my mother who lived there with her sister. They married and my brother, my sister and I were born there. My mother decided to come back to Germany and we moved in 1973.

TAN: Do you think your Japanese infancy has had any influence on your work?

JM: I like the samurai idea of art: the discipline, the playfulness, the theatricality, the costumes, and the precise way of fighting, eating, and producing weapons are very important. I am the samurai of art.

TAN: Your mother, Brigitte Meese, has been involved with your work. Can you tell us about your collaborations?

JM: We worked together on several collage books about ten or 15 years ago, and more recently we performed together at Site Santa Fe [2006] and at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg [2006]. I have also photographed and painted her many times. My mother has natural power and natural authority. For me she is number one.

TAN: Would you say that this interview has been a performance or some form of play?

JM: It’s a kind of playful propaganda. I am always on duty.