“This is the hard core”.
Provocative is the word. Elke Krystufek’s work is highly controversial. She is entrenched in the idiosyncratic struggle between sex, art and money. Her work warns that when a portion of the triad breaks down the remnants are left to fend for themselves. When communication lines are severed new words arise to bridge the gap. The thoughtful determination of these relevant idioms delineates the path to growth. Krustufek eloquently reminds us, “We need to talk again.”
Working across a variety of performative media including photographs, videos, paintings, and mannequin installations, her work often involves issues of narcissism and self-censorship in the audience, by using popular culture with a personal sexual iconography.
In the interview, Elke Krystufek talks with us about Female Sexuality and Social Taboo.
Selina Ting, Autumn 2009, Paris
Venice Biennale – Tabou Taboo
Selina Ting [ST]: In your project conceived and realized for the 53rd Venice Biennale, entitled Tabou Taboo, you chose to represent male nude models and portraits of exclusively male artists. This is a very different iconographical choice from your self-portraits in the past years. When did you start painting male figures? What are the ideas behind the choice of these figures?
Elke Krystufek [EK]: I started with male figures as a student when I painted, for example, my teacher Arnulf Rainer, my father, male friends, Andy Warhol, etc.. Over the years, besides the self portraits, I have also painted lovers and boyfriends, historical personalities, poets, a scientist, a yogi, actors, theorists etc.. I am always interested in painting other people, but at the same time, I like the idea of following a persona over the years, so the portrait becomes a pattern or a structure, like all the variations on the theme of the square.
ST: Can this “female painter VS male models” be seen as a hijack of the traditional male discursive power in the representation of male/female sexuality?
EK: Yes, but there was already an important project before Venice. On several occasions, i worked with the gay male artist Sands Murray-Wassink who asked me in 2002 to pose with him naked together which resulted in a series of photographs and a couple of performances. After the feedback on those works, I became interested in exploring the differences between working with a heterosexual model and following a professional procedure of letting my assistant choose someone whom I did not know before and had no personal projections involved during the painting process other than approximately one hour conversation before and after the shooting.
ST: Is female gaze and overt female desire still a taboo in the society today?
EK: I think it is still not discussed so often or a commodity that this female gaze exists. A lot of exploration on the female or feminist gaze is still to be done and has to transgress into mainstream culture.
ST: The way you extend the painting, drawing, writing from the canvases onto the walls and pillars of the pavilion makes the entire space become one single piece of site-specific work. The omnipresence of the artist is so strong that I have the feeling of witnessing a post-performance scene in which your brushwork becomes a performance. How did you feel when you were working there?
EK: The working situation was very difficult as the pavillon was not ready to be a studio when I started working. Part of the first work phase was to transform the pavilion into a studio with the help of my team. Usually it takes me some time to get accustomed to a studio and it can be some months or years until I have a sufficient painting mood to really paint in the manner I intend to. The pavilion was a very interactive space, with lots of visitors during the whole time of the production, so the mode of painting reacts on that situation, and in that way working there had performactive aspects.
ST: By replacing “Austria” with the word “Tabu” on the wall of the pavilion, do you mean to represent people (regardless of their nationality) who share your attitude rather than a country? And that our identity is no longer Nation- constructed but can be self-defined through the choices we made?
EK: That would be really utopia to represent people who share my attitude, but I like that way of reading of the sign. I think that identity is still very nation-constructed: with every border one crosses, one is aware of the passport one carries. Nations still have their histories which define them and quite often still a lot of local customs and languages.
ST: In fact, what does “Identity” mean to you?
EK: Identity is something that my profession allows me to modify more than other professions would. On the other hand, I have already written some art history defining my identity as artist which is something I have to work with now. For me, it is interesting to move around in different social contexts and perceive the different reactions, no matter this body of artworks is known to the people I meet or not. There are a lot of layers to be known and not being known and, of course, they are constantly developing.
On the complex between artist and her work
ST: What inspired you to paint and draw and photograph yourself?
EK: Strangely, it started with the idea of creating something more lasting than my abstract paintings and installations before. Probably also being looked at as a women with all the reactions I received as a student and later as a young female artist regarding my gender.
ST: Today, can you still recognize yourself from the autobiographical work you have produced in the last 20 years?
EK: Yes, after stopping with the self-portraits between 2006 and 2008, I know I started to like them without having the urge to continue painting them. It seems quite unique to have some of my early work still at my disposal to look at and show with a distance of ten or fifteen years. Although I have changed and developed on many levels, especially some of the drawings have a kind of immediate intensity that is different from some of the more reflective work I have produced in the last three or five years.
ST: On the one hand, your work gives the impression of exposing your private life with a narcissistic obsession; on the other hand, your truly private personal life is in fact well protected from the public. It seems that the persona we saw on the canvas is artificial with an artistically constructed identity.
EK: I think it is interesting to have a persona to work with, but of course it needs a private audience to make a distinction between a person and a persona.
ST: How do you understand the notions of “private”and “public” in life and in art?
EK: A “private life” really depends on one’s history. Refugees in camps or prisoners do not have much of a private life, for example. Very wealthy people often have a more developed and protected notion of privacy. With the constant collection of data on our lives, privacy is questioned in a new way. As an artist, I felt that making the link between some private information and some public features has a certain power.
ST: In what way is your “artificial figure in different guises” related to and differed from that of Cindy Sherman?
EK: My aesthetic is certainly very European and influenced by Fluxus and Arte Povera Elements. To me, Cindy Sherman is very clean while the aesthetic of a lot of my works threatens people in a Dieter Roth way or is even more irritating because it is done by a female.
ST: Does an artist’s body separate from herself/himself once it becomes an instrument of her/his creation? How do you relate to your own body in the creative process?
EK: After a while of working with my body, I noticed that I could not find any answer from the reactions of the audience what body means. The more I read and worked about what happened during the holocaust, the less I could work with “body as material”. As a young artist, I did not have the body-mind connection I have now which allowed me to do certain pieces. But, as a message to the public, I would advice any artist to work on developing a body-mind sense of unity rather than making works out of the split.
Female sexuality and Feminism
ST: In your performances and performance videos, such as Satisfaction (1994) or Share the Night (1997), you seemed to subvert the hierarchy of the voyeur and the object of the gaze by accentuating on female sexuality. Can you discuss this strategy?
EK: Again, I don’t think that art really has the solution for developing female sexuality. I rather have the feeling that all strategies failed regarding who gazes at whom, because sexuality simply is not about that.
ST: Can you tell us about your work “Elke Krystufek reads Otto Weininger” (1997, Secession, Vienna)?
EK: The work was made in 1993 for the Salzburger Kunstverein. In a way, I find it still relevant, because of the theme of a male and a female identity in one body. Maybe also because of the way the text adds additional meaning to existing images of other artists, which are also quite old now in a way. It’s strange to think about 1993 in 2009. It becomes like the 70s.
ST: Some critics said that you are “more radical than Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas”. How would you comment on this remark? How do you find their work? Do you feel any affinities with them? Why?
EK: It think it is true, maybe because of geographical reasons, because there was never that much money in art in Austria and in the other countries I lived and worked in, as in London with the constellation of Saatchi, White Cube and the YBAS. And probably because my approach is more intellectual than personal, I find a certain pleasure in playing around with ideas, regardless whether the receive press or recognition or financial rewards. A lot of my work still could not be shown in major public institutions, because there is very little framework that helps the audience to understand and digest the images. There is no personal story to relate to, like with Tracey and for a lot of images I show, the aesthetic has not been designed much to make it more visually pleasurable as an artwork. Nevertheless, I adore Tracey Emin’s work, for example, because, due to her more violent personal history, it is more radical on that level than mine. And I adore her ability of having been able to create an economical powerful status out of such radical work. I also like Sarah Lucas early work a lot, but am not fond of the cigarette sculptures, for example. It is also more unclear what it means regarding a female position than Tracey’s. I feel more affinity with Tracey’s work, but I also have met her personally on a couple of occasions and I was very touched by her as a person.
ST: Are you a feminist? Do you read any feminist theory? Do you refer to any feminist theorists / writer in your work?
EK: I am feminist and I enjoy reading feminist theory when I have time, I do refer to Judith Butler on some occasions, also Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray and Chris Kraus. Unfortunately, a lot of time now goes into developing my work structure and a lot of organizational framework. Lately, I have moved back to reading about the Pacific cultures again, which is for me a feminist endeavour because I am working on a project of an inquiry how the ideas of male artists, like the German expressionists, of a place that has the nature – human connection they perceived as “paradise” could or not be meaningful to a female artist.
On Being an Artist
ST: I read from the internet that you decided to become an artist in 1985, aged 15, and in the Vienna Secession’s show, I am your mirror, you did show some of your photographs taken in 1985. What motivated you to become an artist at such a young age? How did you arrive step by step?
EK: Art seemed to me a different form of social life, which it still is. It is very open what art is or can be and how it will develop, which connects a feeling of freedom with it. Before attending the academy of visual arts in Vienna, I was reading art magazines and drawing a lot, then came the first experience of starting to look at exhibitions and to understand what an exhibition is and can be and I am still constantly developing in many aspects, but the biggest struggle is to maintain enough areas in my life that are not touched by art or by the way of thinking as an artist.
ST: Have you sacrificed anything in your life (and what) to become an artist? Why?
EK: Nothing. I still enjoy the fact, that there are so many different ways of being an artist and I was very lucky that I could make a living as an artist already quite early.
ST: Is being a female artist an advantage or disadvantage for you?
EK: It is on many levels more difficult than being a male artist, economically for sure, and also to create female alliances the way male artists have been doing for centuries, etc. The most difficult aspect for me, it seems to find support to raise a child in spite of being successful and working with issues than can be at least seen as a bit confrontative for male identity.
ST: Do you feel comfortable when people say that your work descend from the Viennese Actionism and Egon Schiele?
EK: No, because my work descends from feminist positions like VALIE EXPORT and Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann and also from knowing Karen Kilimnik’s work from very early on. The queer aesthetics of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith have been very important for my video work. Also a lot of male artist who work with their identities have been very influential, like Urs Lüthi, Jürgen Klauke, Pierre Molinier and Sands Murray-Wassink, even though he is a bit younger, but our collaborations and dialogues have been a big influence. Raymond Pettibon also has been influential because of the text and drawing combination and how he integrates literature, music, politics, popular culture etc. into his drawings.
About the Artist
Elke Krystufek was born in 1970 in Vienna where she lives and works.
Her most recent solo exhibitions include Galerie Nicola von Senger, Zürich, Switzerland, Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna, Austria, Kestner Gesellschaft, Hannover, Germany; Responsible for a certain amount of Luck, Steirischer Herbst 2008, Camera Austria, Austria, all in 2009. Dark Continents, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, Florida, USA; A FILM CALLED WOOD…, Transit Art Space, Stavanger, Norway; Mother Observing, Galleria Il Capricornio, Venice, Italy; Power Change Initiated by a Woman, Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany, in 2008. Her group shows in 2009 include elles@centrepompidou, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France; Rebelle. Art and Feminism 1969-2009, Museum Moderne Kunst Arnhem, Netherlands; 53rd Venice Biennale, Austrian Pavillion, Biennale Venedig (together with Dorit Margreiter and Franziska and Lois Weinberger), Venice, Italy; EGO Documents, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, Switzerland. She is preparing for a solo show in Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles, CA for 2010.