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Jonathan Meese
Visit of Magasin exposition with artist

This discussion took place when Jonathan Meese arrived at Magasin to make the wall painting shown in the central room of the gallery. The moment was proper to ask him some questions about his work. Starting from formal questions it became a two hours friendly conversation about life, art, obsessions, sex, rules and everything…

INGE : No one seems to ever talk about your father being from Wales.

JONATHAN MEESE : In fact that information is a little bit wrong. I always say he is Welsh but he was only born there. He is English.

I : English ?

JONATHAN MEESE : English. So the people thought my father was Welsh, I also thought that for a very long time. Right after the war, he was a very young man, twenty or something, he went to Japan and he fell in love with the country. He stayed there for forty years. I lived there my first three years.

I : Do you have memories from Japan ?

JONATHAN MEESE : No. My mother and her three children moved back before while my father stayed in Japan. Then there was a divorce two years later, but he always came to Germany. He was always in Japan and then he went back to England to die.

I : And did you visit him in Japan ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes, twice. He was strange looking, very odd. He was a very romantic man. I was totally afraid of him cause he was very impressive. I couldn’t talk to him except in Japanese and English.

I : Your mother is from Amsterdam ?

JONATHAN MEESE : No, she is from Stuttgart. She worked as a secretary and we didn’t have a lot of money. She is 76 now, a very tough woman.

In the central room where JONATHAN MEESE has just finished his wall painting

FRANÇOIS : And what about this wall painting ? Do you have maps to plan before you work ?

JONATHAN MEESE : It goes. I knew I wanted to do something about Napoleon. Not because I’m here in France, but I’m doing very much about this figure. I did some bronze sculptures in Germany. Coming back to your question, I just start.

LUCIA : But for example, you took yellow and black. Only two colors : did you choose the yellow because it’s a particular color or why ?

JONATHAN MEESE : In fact it’s yellow because of yellow. But it’s the perfect color. Red is not clean. Well, only red would have been clear, but now to add red is totally wrong, is totally a mistake. Yellow is better than red, but I know it now, after seeing the painting.

FABIEN : But is it a choice and has it something to do with the other paintings that are here ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I think so. The thing is, I wanted to use black and then Philippe said to me : “it has to have color”. I don’t know, maybe no, maybe yes. And then, ok, I trust him because we’ve known each other for such a long time, because he knows these things. And then we opened the yellow and when I looked in the pot I was not so sure, but when it was on the wall I knew immediately yellow is super, is the right one and red is not ok. Its instinct, it’s love towards art. It has to go, it has to rock. It’s difficult to explain why. It’s not my hand that is doing this, it’s not important, you can cut it off.

FAB : It’s not your hand or not your head ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Both. No connection. I don’t believe in this. Or there is a connection but is not important. I cannot trust in this hand.

I : So we can say it’s just a physical connection ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes. You have to let go.

FAB : But are you connected to something else ? To the space here ? Is it important for you to be here and to make something with what is already done ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes. Because it has to be done for the sculptures, not for people who come here, not for me. My taste is not important. The sculptures have to be satisfied. When we are gone the sculptures talk to each other and say : “Oh, this painting is ok”.

FAB : And if it is not, they tell you ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes, totally, and they are very angry or they give a sign that it is wrong.

FAB : There is a relation between the sculptures ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Could be, yeah. I think so. Automatically.

I : Maybe something important is that these are all very specific characters. They all have names. They are not anonymous in any way. And they are all characters that come out of your pantheon of people from different times, eras and places. Are you giving them a chance to be all together ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes. I like this idea that in this room the things talk to each other. They tell stories.

Approaching to a sculpture

I : And this is Wagner ? Why does he have two faces ?

JONATHAN MEESE : It is Richard Wagner. He has many faces of course : face of a child, specially, also of a peasant, a hard working man.

I : And now you are going to do something concerning Wagner, if I understand….you are writing a play and getting a big production together.

JONATHAN MEESE : Yeah, but is not particularly about Wagner. Is more about Ezra Pound.

I : No, I mean you are being like Wagner with many faces and interests.

JONATHAN MEESE : Oh, yeah, ok. Thank you.

I : And you are doing the scenario, the play, the costumes, and the sets, and…music, is it an opera ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Could be. It could be an opera, or maybe a spectacle, maybe a performance. We are just in the starting situation.

I : And you are directing ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes. We had a meeting last night with the actors, with the light people. This is now in the beginning. The premiere would be in January.

I : In Berlin ?


FAB : So you have very short time…

JONATHAN MEESE : Very short, but I need the pressure. Otherwise is not interesting. I will really start working on it at the end of November.

KARLA : How is it related the idea that you perceive art as a formula ? And how do you conceive as a formula all these political, social references or even sexual ones ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I think that all these political, sexual, social references are like a fruit, if you squeeze them, the juice will come out and this juice makes the formula. But we have also to put aside our opinion of art, we have to let the formula show itself. We always take ourselves as the measurement for everything, but art has her own measurement, like politic. Politic is not done for human, it is made for politicians, art is done for art, nature is done for nature. If you put your judgement, your opinion, your taste into things, that will become fashion, but this is not art. So we can discuss about ice cream flavors, so I like chocolate, but we are discussing only about taste and I don’t care about it, I don’t know. What I like or not is not the purpose of art, it’s not important if I look tired, if I am homosexual, politically correct, nice, good looking, woman, baby, fish, animal. My mood, why I’ll do it, if I’m intelligent or not, is not important. To be creative is not important. There are no rules. You can’t say : "hey, this guy paints good" because nobody knows and nobody knows what is good painting. You can’t learn art, it’ s impossible. Art can’t be taught, can’t be learnt, everything you say about it is wrong and to know this, is good. Nothing is known.

I : And “Doctor No”…

JONATHAN MEESE : “Doctor No” is totally allowed because he is Doctor No and he says "No".

I : This sculpture is also you. It’s called “Suzy Wan”. Who is this ?

JONATHAN MEESE : It’s my female side, of course. She is a Chinese figure.

I : Isn’t it a brand ? A brand of Chinese food…

JONATHAN MEESE : It could, well, it’ s something connected to China. Doctor No is also connected to China, he is one of the evil guys of James Bond. I’ve always respected this guy so much.

I : And what about this “Mama Johnny” ?

JONATHAN MEESE : It’s the Colossus of Rhodes, it’s one of the seventh world wonders. It’s the figure that stands where ships go through.

I : So it’s not you, but it’s called “Mama Johnny”…

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes, but what’s Mama ? It could be Mama Earth. The mistake is to think that what you see about me it’s me. A photo is never a person. This is very important.

I : What about the writing “Pompeji” ?

JONATHAN MEESE : In Pompey you can find small figures which nearly look like these, very sexual. I will go to Pompey in November cause I want to do a preparation also for my play.

I : Are there connections between these three sculptures ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Absolutely, it’s a dynasty…a family. They are all friends and one of them is the boss.

I : Which one ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Nobody knows. They all want to be a boss. It’s fight…or it’s love. If everything goes well, the boss is art. If it goes wrong, it’s the human being. That’s why I believe in dictatorship of art. I think if art is the dictator we can stay in love because art is not interested in harming or making us slaves. If you have human leaders they always want to make slaves, they always want to make bad things with human beings. But if you have art or nature as dictators they are not interested in doing something bad to us. I believe, in my childlike point of view, that art is the dictatorship of the future.

I : It’s a very romantic idea.

JONATHAN MEESE : Absolutely, but I totally believe in it. I think all the sciences at the moment show that art will take over. One day all politics will be gone and art will be the leader. Art is not the opinion of the artist, artist is not a politician cause this is again slavery. No way. It’s like Beuys who he wanted to be a politician or is like a professor who tells a student : “Hey you have to do this and you have to paint like this, and this is important”. This is finished, I don’t believe in this. That’s why I will never be a professor. Art has to be the policy, not the artist’s opinion, not me as a person. Reality is bad, only dream is good. And I think that in the future art will be more and more important.

I : What about the commissions ? For example in this exhibition there are three commissions : one for a History Museum, one for a collector ’s home, and one for a theatre. How these commissions differ from your work when it comes from you ?

JONATHAN MEESE : If the authority gives me this commission, it’s ok. And if it gives the freedom for whatever is necessary, it’s ok. Then I’m also very happy because it’s a normal hierarchy. They don’t say “you have to do this or that”, they only give the measurement or something like that. Then I decide what is good or not. That’s why I like theatre so much…because I’m not responsible.0 There is always somebody who leads me : the register, the master, the boss. I need limits, I need the person with the whip, like my mother who said : "you have to work, you have to get up, you have to do the sculpture”, otherwise I’m too lazy.

Entering the room where the series Aegidius Suite is (a work realized in 2006, commissioned for a private collector).

I : In this room you created a sort of portrait gallery, similar to the sculptures, where you gathered different characters from different times and spaces and put them all together. Is there a boss also in there ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes, they are always looking for a boss. It’s the nature of things.

I : So this work is a commission for someone’s house. All the 27 characters go in group…

JONATHAN MEESE : Yeah, this is the group for the entrance of his house.

YUKA : These characters, where do they come from ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I think it’s like when you are sitting on a river and you want to wash clothes. You put the net and then you have the nuggets. And then one nugget is Napoleon, one nugget is Ezra Pound, one is Stalin, one is Pompey. If you wash more and more, the larger it is. Bigger. Why, I don’t know. We have to ask the river. The river gives the material….

FAB : But the filter too…

JONATHAN MEESE : And the filter, yea.

FAB : But it’s a choice too. Who choose the filter ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yeah, but it’s not important. If I don’t choose it, somebody else will ; or the nature will choose it itself. I mean, I believe and I have the feeling that nature creates art on its own. Like a volcano, storms, leaves or how the insects are built…like a storm that comes from the ocean, where these elements are. I think this is art and it’s created by nature. But many people think you create art, but I don’t think so.

L : But in the first room you choose some precise characters (actors for example). You did a selection because we can find the same characters very often in your work, so this means that there is a sort of premeditation…

JONATHAN MEESE : But the choice is so mysterious. There will never be a rule for that.

FRAN : So you think there is a kind of inspirational power coming through you ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I think there is a power that comes like this (he whistles), but it doesn’t come through. It doesn’t even touch me. If it touches you, then you are dead. Your brain is dead. Because then you think you are important, but the artist is not important. If you think you are talented, then it’s finished. Then it’s just stupidity. I think. Because how can you justify this ? People say : “ Oh, you are talented”. But what does it mean ? What is talent ? Doing this, like this (whistles again, pretending a movement like if he were painting) it’s not talented. It’s just doing something.

I : And you’ve liked the collaborations you’ve done with other artists ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Very much. I liked to experiment and work with other people that are hermetic like me.

Referring to the series of Jörg Immendorff

I : A question about the palette that is represented in Jörg Immendorff’s portraits. Are you that palette ? And why did you want to present yourself as a palette in these pictures about Immendorff ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I think it’s a way to keep distance. To keep the necessary distance to this person who is like a god. I mean, whether I like him or not is not important. He is a God in itself. Then I had to be something and the palette is something that is totally charming and I stay separated, in a respectful distance. And I play the child. I’m the childish palette. What else could I be ? I’m not his student. This icon is a friendlier way to present myself as one of the tools in order to paint. This is much more interesting.

I : How do you work together with Immendorff ?

JONATHAN MEESE : There are two or three different ways. For example, I started the work, sent him the pictures, and he finished them. The other way was that I came to him and we worked together at the same time on the same stuff. There is also another way that’s not happened yet in which he sent me something but I never did something until now. I have to do, it means that we will continue. It’s a direct work together and also sending the material. Has to do something with respect, just to say I trust you that you finish it in a good way.

Talking about his first works

I : What about the eight pictures or the portraits of the person with the hat ? Is that meant to be one person, variations of one person or is it several people ? Someone had the idea that it was maybe an homage to Pablo Picasso’s painting which is apparently quite similar to…

JONATHAN MEESE : Yeah, the base is Picasso and Van Gogh.

Last room where there are lots of collected stuff

JONATHAN MEESE : Here, you can see some stuff that I did in art school. Let’s say ten, fifteen years ago in Hamburg and I was very naïve first. I started to paint and draw when I was 22, very late.

I : You were a writer ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I was writing a little bit, but not so much. And I was not thinking about writing, I just did it. Then I started to paint and draw and I loved to do it. And people started to tell me : “If you really like to paint and draw then go to some school.” I said, “Why not ? Ok.” And someone told me : “if you are really interested in art, then you should go to an art school, an art university and you will learn how to do be an artist.” And I said, “Oh wow. Why not ?” And I made preparations and was accepted in Hamburg when I was 23 years old.

I : The paintings in the first room were made for this occasion ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Not all. Lots of them were made before. Then I started art school and after half a year I stopped painting and I was just collecting stuff. I had a very good professor. He always said to me : “Do what you want”. He always laughed. Then after two or three years I noticed : “Hey, here’s something wrong. I don’t want to do exams…I just want to play. Because these people can’t tell what art is. They don’t know more than me”. We are all children ; we have to play. Then I went to my professor and asked him whether it was ok to just play, and he said, “Yeah, do what you want”. But if you look at me I was totally child. You could have broken me very easily, but nobody did. I was very lucky.

I : And then you didn’t stay in art school ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes, I stayed because I had a little room, very comfortable to work. I liked it. The only thing I didn’t like was they were giving me notes, grades. How can you get a note for that ? It has nothing to do with what I’m doing here. And in 1998 I started working with a gallery.

Approaching to the vitrines

I : Where do these objects come from ?

JONATHAN MEESE : From everywhere. From markets, from shops. They are all independent. It’s not my choice, it’s not a selection. There is no rule behind, or at least, I don’t know.

I : This is also the base for Kokain, the scenography for the Berlin theatre ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes, you have to do things, to come to this level. If you always think and make the theory before, then you are stuck and you are unable to do anything. Of course many things are wrong or bad or not interesting, but who knows what is good painting ? You can put a thousand people inside here and everyone would say something different. It’s all opinions. The only way to escape is to do nothing or do everything. And I’m neutral also to my things. I don’t care, that’s why everybody can arrange this.

I : And what about the characters in the posters ?

JONATHAN MEESE : These characters create anti-reality, a new world, as in the cinema, because, once again, I’m not interested in reality. That’s why all these people that do movies about Pollock, Klimt, Picasso, Basquiat are so bad. Because it’ so silly to pretend to understand their works from their personal lives. How can you present an artist like this ? You don’t have any respect. It’s rubbish, it makes the art weak and accessible, but art is a mystery…I think it’ s impossible to draw an artist into reality. The fact that Jackson Pollock was drinking it’s not important. It’s what he did, those beautiful paintings, that’s are what’s important. That Klimt had sexual relationships and was interested in sex, it’s not important. He did wonderful paintings. This is something that has to be shown in the films and not the personal problems of the artist. It’s absolutely uninteresting. This could be shown by a documentary filmmaker and not from the point of view of an artist. The people always try to make the direct way : if you take drugs then you are in another world. This is not true. You are in another world when you are in another world. You are not a very interesting person cause you drink a lot.

I : But also you are interested in other artists, for example Van Gogh….

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes, but I’m not interested in their personal lives.

I : But you represented them, you did portraits of them…

JONATHAN MEESE : Yes, but in a very impersonal way. Of course I may be interested as a person on how they lived, but it’s not important for the art.

FAB : So there is no relation between your personal life and your work.

JONATHAN MEESE : Exactly. This is the point. Impossible !

HAEJU : Have you ever exhibited outside the museum or institutions ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I did performances couples of times.

H : What’s the relation between your work and the outside ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Nobody knows. I think it’s possible that a parallel world could exist, and maybe the streets and the normal life will disappear, cause it’s too boring.

FAB : It’s quite Zen…

JONATHAN MEESE : A little bit, but Zen is too much connected with human beings and therapy and art is not a therapy.

Y : What do you think about mass media ?

JONATHAN MEESE : It’s only an invention. It’s a weapon.

FAB : What about the curatorial planning for this exhibition ? Did you conceive something with your gallerist…with the Magasin ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I was here during a performance a few months ago, but I never looked at this room before. I’m not really involved in this step. I just make the things and the people I trust put them on. They did what they wanted, with so much love. The artist is not important, the curator is not important, not even the museum or the director. Only the things are important. If the things are super they can be presented everywhere : in a river, or throw them into a volcano, or in the toilet as long as they are fantastic. If they are not fantastic they will disappear.

FAB : Who are these people ?

JONATHAN MEESE : Friends, people from the gallery, also you could build up this. I was surprised, I came here like a child, like a visitor, just today, and I felt good.

FRA : Why did you choose wooden bases for the sculptures ? Because it doesn’t look like a contemporary art exhibition, but more as a kind of display for a naturalist history museum.

JONATHAN MEESE : It’ s a tradition. And experts told me that this is ok, and I trust them…because if you leave me, I could also choose to put them on the floor, in a car, on red pillows. I’m lucky because I have always dictators behind me.

FAB : When art will come over as dictator, what will happen ?

JONATHAN MEESE : I will be absorbed, there will be human beings, but we won’t be the measurement ; something else will take over, like in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Odyssey with the Big Eye or the Black Monolith. It’s something abstract. That will be the master.

JULIJA : How did your family approach to your work ? I just ask you because I’m an artist too and my family doesn’t understand what I do.

JONATHAN MEESE : My mother always helps me, but she didn’t like my performances because she didn’t want to see me suffering. I was the black sheep, but I couldn’t change, I had to go on and on and on…

Interview by participants of Ecole du Magasin and Inge Linder Gaillard (exhibition coordinator) in the occasion of Mama Johnny exposition at Magasin (21 October 2006 - January 7, 2007).

Grenoble, 20 october 2006

Transcription and editing :
Lucia Pesapane
Karla Roalandini


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