Born in Tokyo in 1971, the painter, installation, and performance artist Jonathan Meese attended the Hochschule der Bildenden Kunstein Hamburg. Upon graduation, Meese exhibited his second solo show at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin and had numerous solo shows in Germany. His most recent was ‘Young Americans’, at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin andModern Art in London. His work has been featured in international group exhibitions, including ‘Generation Z’ at P.S.1 in New York.
(All images courtesy of Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin)
“Will stand out on the street, with a hammer in my hand” — this is how Jonathan Meese says we will recognize him when we go to meet him in his Berlin apartment. And he does, but it’s no Thorlike weapon of war he is brandishing; it’s a little tool your next-door neighbor might use to force a nail into the wall to hang his wedding pictures. Soon the conversation centers around a more dangerous and exciting presence when we visit his gallery, Contemporary Art Berlin, which is conveniently located in the same back alley in Berlin’s hip “Mitte.”
Meese, now thirty-five, began to attract international attention at the first Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art in 1998 with installations like “Ahoi de Angst”, a room plastered with images of various pop and political figures suggesting an adolescent’s homage to violence in the previous fifty years. Often as busy as his installations, his solo performances are characterized by military-style garb, salutes and primitive vocalizations. In the tradition of Actionist art, these works employ performance to further develop conceptual pieces.
Like his art, Meese is at the same time extremely concentrated, almost monomaniacal, and all over the place, no limits seeking delimitation. We all followed his drive, talking, pointing, interrupting, pausing to look up an image or to just sip some coffee. This is the conversation that ensued, between the three of us, back in the virgin days of the year 2004.
Jonathan Meese: Saal is a very important word, because it means “hall.” Everything started in a hall — all revolutions started in a hall, like in Richard Wagner it’s this “Saal” where Hagen von Tronje is sitting in front to protect the hall. Adolf Hitler was also in this Brauhauskeller, which is a hall, too. It’s always a room, or a temple: this space where something happens.
“Saal is a very important word, because it means “hall.” Everything started in a hall”
— all revolutions started in a hall” — Jonathan Meese
Born in Berlin, Germany in 1967. He obtained a BA in Philosophy and Drama from Lang College of the New School University and a MA from the Graduate Faculty of the NSU. After eight years as a senior level aide to the Green Party in German Parliament, he returned recently to the Arts and Academia. In 2003 he co-curated the exhibition “Regarding Terror: The RAF-exhibition” at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. He works as a director, most recently with his own play “Durch einen Spiegel ein dunkles Bild”, at the German National Theatre in Weimar, Germany, where he opened this Januarywith “Die Räuber”, by Friedrich Schiller, co-directed artist Brock Enright. He writes frequently on politics, arts and philosphy in publications both in the US and Germany.
Felix Ensslin: Saalbefreiung, the liberation of the hall.
JM: I don’t want to give so many explanations. It’s just, uh, for me this word is somehow something that you put everything next to. Saalbefreiung, Saalgott, Saalfreiheit, Saalbibel. Like this word Erz — arch — you can also connect everything, Erzmenschen, Erznahrung …
Sue De Beer
Born in Tarrytown, New York. She obtained a BFA from Parsons School of Design, and an MFA from Columbia University. De Beer has exhibited internationally extensively, and her most recent exhibitions include a solo show at the Whitney Museum at Altria in New York, “Greater New York” at P.S.1 in New York, “Zur Vorstellung des Terrors: Die RAF” at Kunst Werke, in Berlin, and the 2004 Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York. De Beer currently lives and works in New York and Berlin.
Sue de Beer: Okay, let me just check that this is recording …
Producer Frank Castorf, born in Berlin. In 1992, Castorf became director of the Volksbühne — the People’s Theatre (Founded in 1914 by a workers’ association, the Volksbühne is one of the symbols of Berlin) In 1992, Castorf took over as director of the theatre, reviving its revolutionary, avant-garde tradition. Attracting both praise and controversy, he has managed to crystallize passions with performances that are provocative, political, decadent and extremely popular among Berliners of all generations.
FE: Our interest in you and your work came out of talking about your installations in staging a play and creating stage sets, so it is interesting to hear that right now you are working in the theater in collaboration with the director Frank Castorf at the Volksbuhne in Berlin.
SB: Is this your first set, or have you done this before?
JM: I have only done it for myself. I mean, all these installations are somehow stages, in fact, where I also performed and did my things, but it is the first time for somebody else.
SB: Does each installation usually have a performance? Do you build the installations for the performance?
JM: Not all of them, but if I feel fine and the situation is ripe, then I can do something there, … to make it a temple, to make it suitable for the situation.
SB: And how is it different building a piece for an actual theater rather than building one for exhibition?
JM: Um, uh, my first idea was totally, ah, without connection to the theater. I just did what I wanted to do, and I gave this idea, this, this Eiserne Kreuz (seen below), an iron cross in the theater. And I didn’t think about the rest. But then, now I have to think about the rest, and it’s quite hard because you have to convince all the people who are involved. But this is okay for me because I like somehow this being a slave. I think this is fine.
SB: Can you talk a little bit about this longing for passivity, Jonathan?
JM: Um … for me this is … um … I need this to relax a little bit again, because I was so much on power, and energy, wasting energy, that I am a bit tired at the moment. And I need somebody who I can look up to and say, okay, I believe in what you are doing, and I can do something for you. This is so nice. It is also hard but in a different way. I really respect Castorf because I think he is a genius and marvelous and can bring me something that is important for my life, and I want to be his slave, his good slave, and I want to do something that is good and suitable for the situation. And that’s…what makes me…happy.
SB: And your exhibition at CFA [“Curry Expo,” which ran from March 23 to April 16, 2004, is a collaborative exhibition. Was this also part of this drive to have another kind of energy through your work?
JM: Yes. To involve people because before, I mean, not working with other people meant that I had to do everything. That was also good because I have some, some strong wishes and some, some strong laws to tell people, but this makes you very empty after a while. And I did … I mean … performances between 1998 and 2000, and then I stopped for three years because it was so exhausting to do everything. And now I’m starting again a little bit. I had a pause of three years.
SB: When did you go back to performing?