Figuration without Miracles. Luc Tuymans in conversation with Katarzyna Bojarska

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Katarzyna Bojarska: I would like to start with the issue of site-specificity. As you mentioned earlier, your exhibitions are always "site-specific." What then is this site-specificity here, and by „here" I mean not only the Zachęta Gallery but also here - Poland or here - Warsaw with its very particular historical context?

Luc Tuymans: First of all I think that all my solo projects - and I have done about 82 installation of shows (including the one at the Tate Modern) - should not look like retrospectives. However, that is now going to change in the States for the first time. At the moment, two American academic curators are working on a tour of a survey of my works that will come out in 2009. All the other shows are made in this way that each room has to be suitable and correct from a visual point of view. I like making "pockets of meaning" instead of constituting one single meaning for the exhibition as a whole. I think this overall view has to be left to someone else. Therefore in my artistic practice the hanging of the show is how I personally try to propose it to the audience.
In the case of this place, of course, it became immediately clear for me that it is loaded place, a loaded city. The image we chose for the poster plays with that. I see it as very local. It is a portrait, although masked and distorted by my hand, of Reinhard Heydrich (1). What is also important is that the three shows have altered through time. In Budapest the dominant element was different. It was also a historical element but of different kind. And in Munich, especially because of the Haus der Kunst which is an extremely dominating architecture, it became more politicised (2). Here it is actually the endgame of the three shows and such was the plan; to have clearly isolated stages in that tour. And well although it is basically the same work, (except for Munich because they got more works, 95, and here you have 70, in Budapest it was 73) here I guess the show sort of goes into a kind of claustrophobia. As for the content, as I had seen many Polish artists know my work, apparently it has been important for some of them.

KB: Definitely so. One context for your exhibition that immediately comes to mind is Wilhelm Sasnal's show which took place in the same rooms few months back. I think these parallels will be unavoidable, which is OK.

LT: Which is OK, except that when I was painting some of these things Sasnal was still a kid. But I hope the reception will not be limited to this kind of ridiculous, narrow-minded and generalised comparisons. First of all, it would not be good for Sasnal, I saw the installation shots and it was something very different - all works were more or less from the same time, while here you get works from 1978 until most recently, 2004. So there is the range you can see but also the diversity which was not there in Sasnal's show. Both presentations are totally different which proves how different the oeuvre is.
Interestingly enough, I still remember when my paintings were shown at the first Documenta I took part in, most of the audience thought I was an Eastern-European painter. Because of the palettes, because of the muted and underplayed element, finally because the understatement, which is also very typical for this country. In that sense one could see the clear link. There is also a link in a kind of black humour but also in terms of the country being overrun by several nations which was the case of both Belgium and Poland. Although Belgium is definitely a younger country than Poland (it was actually founded by Rothschild who paid for it in 1813); it was a buffer state and still is. It has no national feel, it has this dividing element with the languages, it is a complicated political structure but it is a fantastic country for individuals, and the region has produced the most powerful artists in Europe from Middle Ages on. Historically there is definitely a link, because we are part of that link.

KB: And where does the title take us?

LT: The title is actually borrowed from Elem Klimow's film "Idi i smotri" - a very realistic rendering of what the Einsatzkommando did in Belarus. It is a very strict film, and very true to the matter. You can actually grasp the physical reality of the horror, so to speak. The person who plays in the film had to be assisted by a psychologist during the whole process of shooting. Such was the impact of the trauma. You can see the kid ageing in the film, this is almost unbelievable. Realism is also a key word for myself and the art I make and the region I come from. Do you know it was a Belgian who invented documentary film?

KB: Would you call your art documentary?

LT: I would not call my art documentary, but as every contemporary artist I re-evaluate the idea of document, because that is a side effect of becoming democratic.

KB: When you were talking about two major elements of your painterly work: precision and timing, this made me think that in the context of the representation of historical event, or any event for that matter, the painter never "has perfect timing" so to speak. In a sense, he or she always comes too late, especially if you take new media into consideration. On the other hand, in your personal context of someone born in the second half of the 20th century, you come too late as a witness to the History you are depicting. Would you say this condition of belatedness is constitutive for and/or dominating in your work?

LT: Remember that painting is something different than other media, and especially - new media. Here we go back to Walter Benjamin of course, mechanical image and so on. But painting is more specific than that. And every medium in art history has its specificity. It could be perceived as belatedness but I actually see it as the depiction of time in a different time, which is a "painted time." And painted time does not have very much to do with the idea of belatedness but rather with a cognitive image. I work with time, over time and through time. I think it is a great misunderstanding to make all these comparisons between media because they virtually have nothing to do with each other. If we talk about the history in painting or history painting - and I am not a history painter to begin with - remember that it was the highest form of painting; the least was still life. That is why I deliberately made this huge still life (of Ockham's razor) for the Documenta.
And if you are asking me what has influenced my painting, the answer would be, my painting was of course influenced by new media, because they inevitably influence us. I am a kid of television generation so I was already brought up with a lack of experience and an overdose of imagery. And that goes back to the last show I did at David Zwirner which is about the beginning of Disneyland and the insane dream of Walt Disney to create a perfect, utopian city. I reflected on how virtual the world has become.
If you look carefully at my work you will see these obsessively recurring elements. First, everything here is an object. Second, it has nothing to do with the emotional validation of the action or gesture, because the gesture has become very small. I started as a very gestural painter with a lot of colour, which you will not see here, because all these works were demolished or over-painted. In order to make the signifier stronger, I tried to withdraw the work, by means of reduction I wanted to create meaning, by leaving out things, by painting them over. You will also see that the work like "Die Zeit," for example, is very graphical while in the later work, the more recent one, I allow myself to enter more painterly elements. So this is supposed to be the retrieval of this different kind of openness. On the other hand, the distance between the paintings and the one who paints them, which is myself, is becoming larger and larger and larger. Scale has changed, all these elements have changed.

KB: What about memory in this time-oriented process?

LT: We were talking about belatedness, and I think that in terms of memory, everybody experiences more or less the same. Every memory is inadequate. There is no memory which is complete/absolute. Because then it would be no memory at all, but a mass of material. It would be constantly there so there would be no need to evoke anything. But then the reason why we see moving images is because we have malfunctioning brains. We do not see everything at once. That was actually the invention of film. And film is actually much more important to me, or has been much more important to me than photography. (At some point, I stopped making paintings and filmed for about 5 years.)(3) There is a similarity between painting and filming.

KB: In what sense?

LT: There is no similarity between painting and photography. Photography is something that happens within a moment and painting and film are what happens outside of a moment. In a film you actually make a move, you approach the imagery, as you do in painting. There is also editing: you can edit a film as you can overpaint a painting. And apart from the fact that film is always narrative and painting immobilises image and therefore has no real narration, there is a similarity in the praxis of dealing with imagery. On the psychological level, there exists also a huge impact. And I think here is where the difference lies. People like Richter always struggle with the idea of photography, but it is not the case any more. Photography now - for painters such as Sasnal for example - is just a tool. It is not the thing they would try to fight, like Richter did once. Warhol, I think, actually understood that photography was not to be fought against. He was very analytical in a sense because he actually analysed the element of the authority of the print. When a thing is printed it exercises authority. It is an interesting thought and an interesting rule, and he was I think a very interesting artist. But these are all the elements that played out in the 1960s and 70s and they cannot be re-played now, because they were already played out. So here we are back yet again to the moment when understatement becomes very important. And also the idea of movement or the animated image installed within an immobilised moment, in a picture. All this relates not only to painting but also to the space outside the frame of the painting. That is why none of my paintings are framed or should not be framed.

KB: In the context of what you said about being dominated with images, why figuration? Does it still seem a more accurate way to deal with contemporaneity?

LT: Because I believe in the anachronism that painting is. And that is where time from a metaphysical point of view again becomes something completely different. Because I also know that if you see a photograph you remember it far more decisively than you would remember a painting. The latter is a million times more detailed and it is also physical and the physicality remains the key point of it. Why figuration and not abstraction? It is because abstraction for me is too emotive. It has to do with an instant emotionality which I don't believe in, I am very sceptical about that. And if some of my works looks abstract, it is not abstraction, it comes from the real, from reality and relates back to it, or could be traced if you want. I was always fascinated with the figural because for me it is more abstract than abstraction. Just think of Medieval paintings, if you cut out the iconography from a great deal of them, you will find yourself looking at a very abstract painting. And on the other hand, Jan van Eyk, a painter who by choosing realism and despiritualising the imagery still lived largely within the religious dogma, which at time covered every part of knowledge: science and all that. So there was no place for dilettantism and the reason we have abstract art is exactly dilettantism, as simple as that!
It is the dispersal of imagery. Now we live in the time when media has dispersed so much imagery. I was asked by Swatch to do something for MTV when it actually appeared. And I had the idea to show "Die Zeit": these four images in the time span of a minute, without music, without sound. And of course that was refused. Because what MTV does is destroying imagery, it is pulp and the consumption of pulp. And so one minute would have been an eternity. My idea is: people should be allowed time to watch. And as an artist you have to create that space and that time, and that is painted time. As you see then it is not so much about belatedness or coming too late, but it is the idea of reconsidering it. And also in terms of the themes I choose, which go from colonialism to 9/11: they depend on what I am interested in, and my interest is not the global history of everything but my experience, what I apprehend, and I clearly said where it came from, it came from my family history.(4) And in that sense it is fairly unpredictable what I will paint next. But it has to be real. It has to have a link to reality in order to make sense for me. And this reality can be one which is historical or one which is present. Like in the case of the painting of State Secretary Condoleezza Rice and the ballroom dance: for some people the subject was even too topical to deal with in painting. So you see, the issue of timeliness comes back again. It is interesting to see what would that painting, which seems so topical now, mean in say 30 years. This is the chance that you have, the chance of coincidence. The whole "Mwana Kitoko" series was shown in the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennial. The pavilion itself had been designed by a colonial architect. And at the time of the show, without me knowing that, there was a guy (Ludo De Wit) who wrote a book about the murdering of Patrice Lumumba stating once and for all, that the assassination was the responsibility of the state, not the CIA or anything else, and that the King also knew about it. Together with that book, the film by Raul Peck and my show a moment was grasped. That is all.

KB: Is it a political moment?

LT: Yes, this is being political. It is clear for me that you cannot go into a gallery, like some artists do, and put the word politics on the wall, it is extremely stupid. Art and politics, are not the same thing, and you cannot fill the artwork politically from the start, because then it becomes a-political. Politics is basically life. Art can have a certain political meaning at a certain political moment in time, and it is not necessarily the moment when it is made. It can be the moment when it is already there, so it all depends on how you deal with the symbolic capital. And being an artist, you have to make sure you avoid being moralistic, and limited to one idea only. You need to allow people have a different experience. It has to be heterogeneous.

KB: But you have to give up control over how your work is going to be used or mis-used, read and mis-read.

LT: But this is actually the risk you take when you show imagery. I can never claim my idea fully. Who can do that!

KB: Was the choice of painting and of figuration a political choice for you?

LT: No, it was just an instantaneous choice to get away from the feverish climate and try to see what I could do with the world around me. I was never that much interested in other art or in other artists except that I admired it. I come from the generation when too much was played out on the individual, there were no groups there was no minimalism, conceptualism, etc. there were no clear didactic divisions. That did not exist, we were actually in a twilight zone.

KB: Representation in your art almost always seems partial and subjective rather than total and objective, and so is your narration, if this word applies here at all. You turn towards detail, blurred images and bleached colours. How is all this supposed to convey the complicated political and/or historical story that stands behind it?

LT: Well the blurriness you see is actually sharpness because it is not like in Richter where it is wiped out, but it is painted, so it is always sharp. As far as the colours are concerned, there is an enormous amount of colour used to create this blurriness. Moreover, not all the work is in weak colour, "Child Abuse" is strong! This is just the perception that has been written about. So much for that criticism. The other goes towards the idea of fading away of time and it goes into the poetic and melancholic, which is also completely stupid. It is rather about the accuracy of what you do.
The fractured image you see, the fragmentation of the imagery is not about the fragment of something, it is always the fragment as a whole. In the work like "Diagnostic View no 4" it is of course a piece of an imagery but it works like an image and the image is monumental. And how does it convey the meaning? When "Die Zeit" was shown at the Documenta the audience made it to the meaning. There was a temporary structure built by a Belgian architect in a park and it looked like train wagons. I went to the city museum and found out that in the park there was a track of the transport going the death camps during the second world war. So I actually said to the press service that they were not allowed to give out the information. Nevertheless, there were two elements that came out: first of the audience thought it was from Eastern Europe and the other thing was they knew it had to do with the war. So it worked perfectly. That was a test on a huge scale!
On the other hand, whether the message does or does not get to the audience, I do not really care. I do not want to convince them, or force that meaning into their throat. You know, people have actually seen tenderness, beauty and nostalgia in my paintings. This is also the working of an element of camouflage, an element of masking, the discrepancy between something that is, on the one hand, aesthetically tempting and could be actually seen as poetic, and then turns out to be harsh and cruel. This is also something I counted on from the beginning. And from the very beginning I talked about my art, because I wanted it. I will give all the information from the beginning because I want that type of openness, which now backfires on me because they tend to say now, without your explanation the painting does not exist. And it is taken for arrogance.

KB: What I rather meant, is that game you propose to a viewer. A game on multiple levels, a game of expectations and disillusionments concerning the imagery of terror and trauma. In other words, we are used, however terrible it may sound, to heaps of dead bodies when thinking about genocide. And here we come to your show and see something which is not really there. Moreover, there is figuration but no miracle of mimesis, there is a promise but not fulfilled. One never actually sees what one expects to see, what one thinks one should expect to see. This is absolutely brilliant, do not get me wrong, this is the irresistible power of your pictures...

LT: No, this is just that the distrust in imagery that I have; in any form of imagery, even my own paintings. This distrust is something I want to induce to the viewer. The viewer needs to know that first, it is not complete, second, that he/she knows something is going on, but something that works on his/her memory. And not everything is shown. Of course the heaps of bodies that we have all seen on numerous occasions when it comes to the war, have been over-spectacularly exposed over and over again, but they never really made any difference. And also especially when it comes to the Holocaust, it is important to show something that is non-descriptive, something which is banal. Because that is what it was, it was an everyday life terror. I went once to the Gestapo Museum and found out that hundreds of thousands of Polish people went through that cellar which was just, when you looked at it, a non-descriptive place, but of course when you know you understand and you start to feel different things. This element of disguise that they used, and which the authorities use all the time, is my continuous fascination. This is this kind of fascination that forces me to always see what is bad and not good in things. Evil, I think, is much more interesting, the consequences of violence are so numerous that they create more imagery, happiness does not. So everyone who is going to see my show is not going to be happy, will not come out smiling; but, I would like to believe, more thoughtful or confused, or completely not affected. And that is also a part of the fascination people have with my work, I guess.

KB: I really appreciate your statement about how historical atrocity concentrate on the banal, on the detail. It seems crucial to me. If one is willing to look close at your paintings, one will see that those elements (grand narratives and the banal) co-exist on the same ontological level: everyday objects and gas chambers. If you look close enough it is there and maybe even the commentary can be left out.

LT: That is also what the test of time will point out. I wonder how these pockets of meaning I tried to propose to the audience over the years will work out. What are people going to do with it in future. Because it seems so fragile. Works influence one another and produce different meanings but every one of them should be good as an entity in itself. I work in series of course, but every one work as in "Diagnostic View," should be strong enough. This is why I like to disperse them.

KB: Would you call your art demanding.

LT: To an extent yes, I do think so, The viewer needs to spend time with it. It is difficult because as a contemporary artist I am not only the author of these works but also the first recipient. We were educated like that. It is very strange but I mentioned the word democratic before, this goes to the statement of Bertrand Russel from 1964 who says that we have become democratic not only in our artwork forms but also in our inmost convictions. Which means that a lot of things became deluded because of that and now the artist has to talk, has to give speeches, you have all these educational things with children in the museums, this and that. In a way it is belittling the public pretty much, which I think is not always a good thing to do: going down to this didactic level to actually block out the confrontational element of an artwork which seems reduced now to something that is incarcerated within a fixed format such as a museum or gallery. That has taken away some power of it, I think, and it would be nice to actually level it a little bit and give a chance to a visitor to make up his/her own mind, and not to underestimate them.

KB: On the other hand, if you claim your art is to be received in an intellectual rather than emotional manner but at the same time its form and message are so subtle and ambiguous that makes the task very difficult and asks for a viewer with a very well developed cultural and historical competence.

LT: I am not so sure about it because, as I previously said, I had an experience when people grasped the message anyhow. I came to painting at the worst moment an that was decisive also for perceiving me as an intellectual artist. Then together with the source material it kind of added up to all these connotations that were made around my work.

KB: You seem to have this unbelievable sensitivity to the total or totalitarian component of things such as politics, religion or even medicine. Where would you say this comes from?

LT: I do not know. It is the fascination with things that evoke some kind of serious and overwhelming consequence. I think powerful people are not necessarily intelligent but definitely people who start processing systems and realities bound to have these consequences. I find this premeditative element in the idea of power and all its surroundings and in what the by-products of this are. I find them so interesting because they are reminiscences of the things that had happened. Look at the city! Look at how predominantly present the past is!

Luc Tuymans "Come and See", Zachęta National Gallery, May 31st - August 17th, 2008.

curator: Magda Kardasz.

1)Chief of the Reich Security Main Office, Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia considered by Adolf Hitler a possible successor, KB.
2)It was built in 1934-1937 according to the project by Paul Ludwig Troost, as the first monumental propaganda building of the Third Reich. The museum, then called Haus der deutschen Kunst was opened in March 1937 and showed what the Third Reich considered the best art of Germany. The inaugural exhibition, Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung, was planned as an answer to the condemned modern art, presented at the exhibition Entartete Kunst.
3)Tuymans experimented with the medium in 1980-1985. He wrote many screenplays and shot many films. In 1985 an individual exhibition of his paintings was opened in Palais de Thermes in Ostend.
4)At the press conference in Zachęta Gallery, Warsaw, Luc Tuymans said that when he was 5, during a family reunion, a photography album was presented in which on one of the photos from the period of the world war two, there was a cousin from the Tuymans' father's side, a Fleming, with his arm raised in Heil Hitler gesture. The artist mentioned a complicated situation of Belgium, where there actually existed two languages and two cultures: French and Flemish, and where emerged many ideas inspired by Fascism in the inter-war period, which lead to aversion towards French speaking inhabitants of the country and to collaboration with the Nazi. Cf. Jacques Derrida, "Comme le bruit de la mer au fond d'un coquillage..." in: "Mémoires pour Paul de Man", Edition Galilee, 1988.