Olaf Breuning, Can Someone Tell Us Why We Are Here?, 2006.
Cibachrome laminated on aluminum. Courtesy Metro Pictures.
Catherine Ghim interviews Olaf Breuning.
Olaf Breuning solo exhibition
11 October through 8 November 2008
519 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011
Olaf Breuning’s studio is located beneath a seafood bar on one of the busiest streets in SoHo. Patient individuals can click through his website’s eight intro pages to get the address. But it’s also fairly easy to miss, despite the sign that marks the spot. It’s only natural that Breuning’s professional hubs serve as an extension of the artist’s playfully open personality. His photographs, drawings, sculptures, installations and films are distinguished by an accessibility that’s been well-prepared, sort of like following trail of breadcrumbs down a rabbit hole. Part joke, part investigatory exercise, it’s easy to feel the effort is absurd halfway through, but the desire to get to the punch line always wins. Direct without being confrontational, Breuning holds a steady gaze to meet the viewer’s eye, should they choose to look. He is known to cull references from an infinite archive of mass media and pop culture. Nothing is safe from Breuning’s insatiable appetite or compulsive commentary of the world and its inhabitants.
“You know, this placed used to be a massage parlor” says Breuning after introductions.
He looks remarkably younger than his 38 years, possessing a youthful earnestness without any of the insecure aggression. Not much appears to have changed around his studio since he assumed the lease last September, when the parlor was shut down for dubious services rendered to some grateful male customers. I’m led to a pink room where the “body work” once took place. The Swiss artist counts himself as a former customer, and now uses the space as his drawing room and impromptu gallery. Forty to fifty letter-size pencil drawings are taped up in rows on the walls, with a slightly obsessive, yet pleasing linearity. Around twenty will make his 40th solo exhibition at Metro Pictures, which opens in a few weeks. This room is cordoned by a curtain of beads from the main area of his studio, where his manager and assistant go about their business. It is meant to stifle all external distractions of the bustling city above.
“I need to be completely alone with no distractions,” he explains, and I start to feel like a snoop, intruding on the artist’s schedule and studio. Then suddenly, we feel the rumbling of the subway beneath.
Olaf Breuning and friend, New York, 2008.
Photo: Catherine Ghim, courtesy the artist
“Occasionally there are still men who come to get massages,” he says. “It’s so complicated in New York. Even if I shut the door and unplug the phone, you’re always distracted.”
Apparently subways and journalists are not the only interference during Breuning’s day. Most recently featured at the Whitney Biennial, trying to summarize the references in his work would be like trying to summarize everything on Google. The breadth of cultural systems Breuning navigates is dauntingly endless, grows by the day, and often results in déjà vu.
CG: Your vocabulary is derived from the media, TV, advertising, Hollywood, fashion, history, science, fairy tales, social myths, religion and of course, the Internet. You’ve taken this Google-like collective conscious of the everyday to form an ongoing commentary on the everyday. Where is this omni-inspiration derived from?
OB: Wherever. All over! It’s not one perspective I watch. History is different relative to the moment. The most important thing for me is the personal approach. How I value the world, what I think about this world, what I don’t like, and what I like. Whatever that may be.
Olaf Breuning, Still from the film Home, 2003. Dual Screen DVD Shot with Digital Camera,
32 minutes, Edition of 5, MP# V-7. Courtesy of MetroPictures
CG: Is Google a thematic preoccupation with in your upcoming show?
OB: Google is our tool today to figure out the truth about issues, we use it for everything. When I meet my artist friends for example, and they ask something like: “Is it true that Bill Chamberlain slept with twenty thousand women?” I’ll say “Surely not?” But then I will go home and Google it. Then I’ll read on Wikipedia that why yes, it is.
CG: Do you feel there our Google-dependency is dangerous?
OB: Fifty thousand years ago we had stone tools, and now we have computers. Google isn’t dangerous. It’s just different, just something else. I believe some things about human beings are good and don’t change, despite Google or whatever. Humans don’t change. Love and relationships never really change, though maybe differentiate by culture. I’m really interested in finding these continuous, specific things about life and then speaking about them.
CG: You’ve clearly given the topic some thought. So despite the universe of information available to you, are you saying that you’re most concerned with the fundamental aspects in life?
OB: For me, and for the show at MetroPictures, that’s the theme of the show. There are going to be seventy different drawings, sculptures, and photographs. Each of those has a different quote or approach to speak about this world, to speak about myself in this world. I don’t as an artist try to speak about one body of work or one thing I care about...I try to go different places in my work, with my language, in other words as a human being. I don’t try to position myself in a specific way like, ‘I’m just interested in classical music so I just make my work about classical music.’ I’m just trying to be a common idiot, like a normal person.
Olaf Breuning, 20 Dollar Bill, Ghana, 2007. Courtesy of MetroPictures
CG: You’re an avid consumer of pop culture and mass media, in all its incarnations. In your past interviews you’ve admitted watching up to one movie a day. You also have a reputation for incorporating visual cues from B-grade slasher films, and even had an exhibition called “Hello, Darkness.” Are you a big fan of the genre? Does this influence your work?
OB: The thing is my art started from horror movies, but I've never been a big fan of slasher films. I've never been interested in making art about dark things. I’m fascinated by Hollywood. I'm a big fan of the early Peter Jackson films. I like John Carpenter films...I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David. Now my references are random, because life is random. I still watch horror movies sometimes, but also TV series, romantic movies. I try to use the references from my life. I try to be like a normal human being, who floats in that mainstream stuff. I watch one TV episode when I’m alone at my lunch break. I just watched Mad Men. The day before, I watched P Diddy’s show. I just have an open mind. I’m really happy when I cover as much as I can, using my senses as tools and what I already know. Whether I’m in the mood to be critical or sarcastic about this world, I just try to translate it in my language. [Breuning turns to his assistant, who is working on an altered photograph of a landscape. It’s an achingly beautiful shot of a lush forest set against an auburn backdrop of dusk.]
You see the here, birds have formed into letters spelling “Why Can't We Be Nice to Nature? What Is Wrong With You?”
CG: It's endearing but heartbreaking. Is your work is in protest or celebration of the world?
OB: Life is both for me. It’s like how I said before; many artists get into an “artistic ghetto” and become absorbed in a world that just exists out of similar things. But definitely I use my language about this world with a kind of disappointment. This disappointment that asks, ‘Why we can’t be better human beings? Why are we violent? Why are mean to each other?’ I try to ask all these questions. [Breuning walks over to a small print of his 20 Dollar Bill taped to the wall. Five African boys each hold a single twenty dollar U.S. bill up for the photographer. They are grinning ear to ear, just yards away from the rubble and poverty in the background. There’s none of the pleading desperation of a Greenpeace canvasser. It’s impossible to ignore heartbreaking truth that lies just beyond the happiness captured in the foreground.]
That is very disturbing work. You see I had to fly to Ghana. I had to put twenty dollar bills in their hands. I went to Ghana to film, and there I took this photograph. Here I can do a drawing in five minutes. You get a piece of paper and pen and more or less you get the same message. But here (motioning to photograph) that will be interesting in the show. Because you will see it in the drawing and here with photographs, and this the idea to go there and be conscious and signal “What is wrong?” The relation of the world? What is our responsibility?
CG: This is a typical of your work. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that we’re still universally ignorant despite globalization, or the wealth of resources made available to us. Your subjects present themselves with a jaded look of having seen it all. They’re disjointed from themselves and the world around them. They’re like props, in stage sets with ridiculous costumes. You achieve a result that’s at once shocking, familiar, intriguing and repulsive. Do you consider the audience and how they might feel, during your process of conception?
OB: I don’t really make art because I make art for the audience. I mean sure, I like it when people like my art. But the main reason why I make art is to make check boxes. Oh I spoke about that? Next! Next! Next! That’s why I make art.
Olaf Breuning, Ultimate Suicide, 2008. Pencil on Paper. Courtesy the artist
CG: What are you working on now?
OB: (Walks over to a free-standing mechanical contraption that stands five feet tall. It's a colorfully complicated system of pulleys, tunnels, tubing, levers and wheels meant for kids who aspire to become physicists or engineers. The kind whose parents thought I was a bad influence.) That's the nose and eyes, do you see? There are some balls and they'll go up and down and turning and jumping and rrrrrrr! This is one part of a series of sculptures that’ll be included in the show. (Picks up a photograph.)
These are being made in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They are completely white colossal ceramic bodies and they have no ceramic head. You see here, that could be an arm, that could be a belly button but they have no head.
CG: [Squinting, failing to make out any recognizable appendages] I’m not sure what I’m looking at.
OB: [Points to the Lego-tower-for-geniuses] That will be a head. These ceramic bodies are the same but with different heads, it could be a Gandhi or an Adolf Hitler. Whatever is possible! This one stands for a guy who thinks a lot, an intellectual. Another sculpture I've got has a head made out of boobs and asses. It stands for a primitive guy who thinks about sex a lot. I think it will be a very strange, simple installation. But also beautiful, because the head on will be very nice on top of these beautiful ceramic bodies. They are a lot more expensive than the shit that’s standing on top of it. I like the dichotomy.
CG: I get it! They’ll be easier to get once the parts are assembled. [Bumps into the tower] Did I break it?! [In panicked voice] There goes my rent.
OB: No, no, it’s cheap anyway. I got it for $150 off a website on science.com or something.
CG: Okay, maybe just my ConEd bill. [Whew] The message will be easy to grasp once the head and body come together. It seems like your work is usually not meant to be esoteric or over-moralizing, despite tackling some heavy issues.
OB: You don’t have to be someone who reads a lot of books, travels, has money and knowledge about things. [My work] isn’t limited only to people who have these things. I’m interested in how we think, how we operate. I have an open door and people can walk in and they might be confused when they come inside. But I’m not an artist who closes the door and writes only about culture and art history for people who understand it. It’s just not my cup of tea.
Detail of Olaf Breuning's studio interior, New York, 2008.
Photo: Catherine Ghim, courtesy the artist.
CG: I’d like to look at your drawings again.
OB: Sure. [We return to the pink room to look at his drawings. He points to a drawing of a man sitting in a filled bathtub with a radio perched precariously on the edge, a bottle of pills strewn on the floor, while a cement ton brick hangs by a thread above and he holds a gun against his head.] I like this one, “Ultimate Suicide.” For all of these, I locked myself in, closed the door and took an Adderall pill. I have a friend who's a shrink who gave me twenty of those pills. He's a good friend.
CG: I need more friends like that.
OB: (Nodding) He gave it to me, and I never used it. I took one to see how it is and its actually wonderful because even if you take one pill, its just shhhhhhwww! [Makes a tunnel motion] That’s something appealing I had about when I started to make art more because I was in my zone. But here it’s so complicated; New York is a difficult place to focus. So I call this the “Adderall Series.” [Picks up a book of his sketches “Queen Mary.” The first drawing series Breuning completed was drawn onboard the Queen Mary, going from New York to England to save himself from boredom.]
None of those were made on Adderall. There's nothing, it's just sea. There was really nothing which is actually beautiful.
CG: What will happen once your Adderall supply runs out? Will you get more?
OB: Sure, I could but I won’t. I just don’t need it anymore. I have five or six pills left and that’s all I need for five or six days left I need to do [the drawings]. It has these side effects. At night I go out and often I meet people, but you feel socially awkward on it. I’m kind of a virgin for pills! I never took them before, so my body reacts like “wow, incredible!” So after this show I go clean. (laughs) At least I can say I was a drug addict!”
Tool wall in Olaf Breuning's studio, New York, 2008. Photo: Catherine Ghim, courtesy the artist.
CG: Every artist needs a good drug story.
OB: [Mocking voice] Yeah, I had to quit Adderall. It was really hard. [Grows serious] I know a lot of people especially in New York, especially Americans, who have kids who have problems to focus they would give them. But in Europe it’s not usual to take it. It’s a cultural thing. I just would never do that as a parent. Especially when you take it a long time, and you think you can’t live without it. Ah! I have to do a drawing about pills.
CG: Do you have other work aids, like music?
OB: Usually music helps. Nowadays I’ve been into hip hop. I’ve been listening to hip hop for eight years.
CG: Like Michael Phelps!
OB: Who is Michael Phelps?
CG: He’s the Olympic gold-medal…Nevermind.
OB: Anyway, yes I like hip hop very much at the moment because it’s the so far removed from me. I am not Black; I don’t live in the hood. Punk rock music is like where I come from, too close to me. But at the same time I’m not someone who’s specific. I’m a big fan of Lil' Wayne. His new album is a good record. I think he’s a very good rapper. Hip Hop is like a Hollywood movie. It has the same patterns. Often there are these guys who make one album and it’s just the industry. That’s why people like Lil’ Wayne stand out. He seems to have a brain, have character in how he raps.
Olaf Breuning, Print of 20 Dollar Bill, Ghana, 2007. Courtesy the artist.
CG: Your fascination with pop culture is particularly provocative on film. I’ve seen "Home". Do you plan on doing more films in the future?
OB: I am interested making art using film as a medium. Take the Sopranos for instance; it’s a two hundred hour movie. You have a lot of characters and stories. But not in a film, when it’s just 2 hours. It’s just like there’s not that much going on. Short films, like Japanese films. That’s actually what I want to make when I make films. Art as film. I’m not interested in making film films. I want to make artist films. I want to make low budget films without big production scene around it. That’s what I really like. Because it can be just like when you make a drawing or photograph. Keep it simple.
CG: What will your next film be about?
OB: I don’t know. I would like to make Jurassic Park 4 with very weird dinosaurs!
Breuning’s films are a visual catalog of our social conventions, regurgitated into an absurdist, no-holds-barred-tableaux. The world he captures in his films reveals relentless truths about our reality in the most surreal way. Even the most grotesque of Breuning’s subjects are nonthreatening, simple in nature despite the “in your face” quality. Breuning can get away without stepping on toes because he executes everything with the Puck-ish spirit of a class prankster. After all, who hasn’t experienced boredom from the humdrum of everyday routine? What may initially come off with a “Jackass” outburst isn’t obnoxious or juvenile, but a deliberately stylized method. Breuning refuses to play the part of passive receptacle. He chooses to interrupt life's lessons in complacency with unapologetic honesty, and implicate the viewer into his world, and theirs.
Interior of Olaf Breuning's studio, New York, 2008. Photo: Catherine Ghim, courtesy the artist.
“I like to stay open, not close myself down and to this pigeon hole. Keep it open. That also makes my work a bit more offending? A lot of young people, kids like my work because they just understand. They see this thing and it’s easy and they can understand it, this kind of direct language,” he says.
Since audience isn’t a preoccupation, he has no qualms about taking a chainsaw to the familiar, reassembling its dismembered parts to construct his armies of macabre messengers. Breuning is engaged in an investigation with his “Frankensteins,” reinforcing the boundaries of genre, sex, reality, fiction and fact by distorting them. He has a penchant for dressing subjects in funny costumes, placing them in stranger habitats without blinking an eye. They are completely unaware of how ridiculous they look, instead possessing a somber, ritualistic seriousness. His subjects stare vacantly out of the photographs and drawings, insinuating the viewer’s own empty expressions of life, and the shallowness in which we go about everyday without ever really trying.
Look closely, and you'll see Breuning's sly tags, his psycho-socio-cultural-geo-political graffiti marking every weird, tacky surface of these imagined netherworlds. He despises passive stupidity, our narrow perceptions, homelessness, genocide, poverty, and soulless acceptance of it all. Breuning’s strongest tool is humor, using it to lower inhibitions then subvert our realities while we’re having a pleasant chuckle. Because they are so unassuming, the simplest low-tech sketch drawing is capable of upsetting the world we think we know. Drawings are Breuning’s strongest suit and perfect poison, because they allow him to easily shift between time, place, and character.
Most of the time, it’s easy to laugh at his subjects, those hybrid freaks of nature and colossal efforts in bad taste. How else to deal with such absurdity? But the joke is actually on us. Breuning gets us drunk off our own clichés in order to seduce us into his nightmare vision of the world, violating our realities by exposing them as fraudulent daydreams. This is Breuning’s ultimate prank.
For more information visit the Olaf Breuning's website.
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Catherine Ghim is a freelance writer in New York.