Christian Jankowski

21.12.18  |  Article by Philippa Snow  |  Art, interview, Magazine  |  MM15 Click to buy

"The Hunt", courtesy of the artist

PS: I’m trying to think how best to define the quality that I especially like about your work. I think the best way of saying it would be that if you were to describe a number of the pieces in a single sentence, that sentence would almost be like a one-line piece of surrealist fiction — the auctioneer who strips at an auction, or a man hunting with a bow and arrow in the supermarket, and so on. Do you tend to start out with a fixed idea of the way the narrative of the work is going to play out? Or do you think about situations first, and then go from there?


CJ: It can work both ways. In many cases, there are also different stages that you reach before that final idea emerges: so for example, the supermarket piece actually started with me wanting to go into the park in Hamburg, where I lived at that time, and hunt down real animals in the park, and eat them. But I didn’t really want to kill the animals; and even before then I was doing a test and practising with the bow and arrow in my apartment, shooting at random stuff. I was shooting at a cornflake box, and I saw the arrow sticking in it, and I thought, wow, this is so much better than any rabbit in the park. So sometimes it’s a more natural development as you come closer to the actual performance. “Performance” is maybe a strange word — but the handlung, the action. The idea of making an experience stands at the middle of everything. Also, all of my artworks have components that are performative, and one part of that is that really, I want to have an experience that I find challenging, or to experience something that I have not seen before.

“I must say, I have a soft spot for art that gets a bit naked. Or totally naked! It’s always very seventies.”

PS: Do you see the action and the experience as being the primary artwork, and the video as being more of a necessary document? Or are the two equally important?


CJ: Each is as important as the other. Maybe in the beginning it wasn’t. As a teenager, when I got my first photographic camera, I took my best friends out and we were making what we considered to be funny photographs of ourselves doing activities. “Pranks” is perhaps another strange word to use, but we called it a “panik.” I didn’t know, or I didn’t think at the time, that this might be art. Only in retrospect do I see that there are some parts already in there that are related to the work that I’m doing now. Then, it was more about the experience being important; but the more I became interested in art, and the more I was thrilled by the images, the more important the frame and the perspective, and the image-producing aparatus became. It’s about content and form, and sometimes one is better than the other, and in the best artworks both are good.

"The Hunt", courtesy of the artist

PS: I actually think “prank” is an interesting word. It implies a certain level of interaction with the public, usually by surprise; and it also suggests a certain degree of humour. I think it would be reductive to say that the work that you make is “funny,” but there’s a note of satire. It’s witty.


CJ: Maybe it’s something to do with the thing of touching on taboos, or power structures. I like to transform stuff from the everyday — something that’s reachable — and then use this as a way to make the viewer’s own small world, or their perspective, a little bit bigger. This is how you escape from the frames that you set up around yourself, or the frames that are set up around you. That’s one thing that’s more important to me than humour. I’m also quite careful now, when thinking about pranks, or about using humour: because also, this is a very quick niche, so that everybody says this is such a funny artwork and so on. Anyway, in the end, I think it is humour using us! I’m also sometimes called “the artist who makes art about art.” And in many cases, I think this is not especially beneficial; I think it’s nice when the recipient has the chance to get everything they personally want out of the work.And what you learn in humour or in art can often be used in the real world. But regarding your response to the word “prank” — I think that everything for me definitely started with this slightly teenage feeling of starting to feel more powerful than you did when you were a child. That’s a very natural episode in everyone’s life: that you somehow start to feel a bit more rebellious against your parents, or against school, or against any kind of given frame you face in daily life, no?


PS: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned the idea of being “more careful” with the way you make art now. I was going to ask you about your interest in collaborating with people from outside the art world, and especially with people from other professions, because in this instance I think there’s always an ethical consideration. You have to be careful not to patronise, or to exploit. You manage to do that well, I think.


CJ: The simplest explanation for that would be that I identify as an outsider in the art world, and as somebody who is not inside the art world. So I see them as my partners in this. The other aspect is that their minds are not set up to think in terms of making artworks — they are free from all the crazy thoughts I have — so that what they do inside of my artwork is to behave according to their own ethics and their own ideas about themselves. Sometimes I want something from them that exists outside of their usual context; and I definitely need their knowledge, and their perspectives, and their vocabularies — because for me, that brings in a different world. I could also say that it’s about a lack of confidence in creating my artistic style, because it’s also to do with the fact that when I was first working as an artist, I was working as a painter, and I did not have much success. Then my first work that was video and performance was a big success, so I was sort of pushed in that direction by the reactions of other people. By chance, the first professor I wanted to study with, who was Sigmar Polke, was also not really in school much at that time. Actually he was never there — it was the end of his time at Hamburg — and so I ended up with this artist Franz Erhad Walther, who works with objects that are put in motion and activated by spectators. And to activate those sculptures is an experience for the person who has activated them; you have an experience handling Franz Erhad Walther’s sculptures. So I was somehow driven towards this notion, even though it was something that I hadn’t completely understood at first: for me, he was very influential. I was also influenced by the idea of context art. It was the beginning of the nineties when I was at art school in Hamburg, and context art back then meant people like Mark Dion or Julia Scher that adopted different professions and acted them out in the art world. Mark Dion, for instance, was working in the Thames in London, digging the dirt out of the river and finding these old pieces of stone and ceramics, and displaying them — the whole laboratory from the dig was shown as an artwork, so he adapted the profession of the archeologist. Julia Scher dressed up as a security guard inside a museum. So I was interested in this way of working; but I also knew that when I adapted it myself, playing at being another profession, it didn’t feel right. It would have been too similar, too late. It would have been like my painting attempts, where it was almost thirty years later, and I was painting stuff that looked like Rothko and Cy Twombly. I didn’t want to be the person who does context art ten years too late. And in myself, I had this feeling that it was not necessary for me to mimic these other professions when I could just invite them and work with them. One thing that helped me in this way was my experience as a musician, because as a teenager I played in different bands, and at some point I was playing free jazz; so the idea of a session where you are listening, and someone is playing, and you respond to whatever comes, is something that helps me with communicating with people from different professions, different worlds. It helps me to engage them: because you have to find something that’s interesting for them. The project itself needs to offer a reason for those people to engage with it. Arno Verkade [the auctioneer in Strip The Auctioneer], who you mentioned earlier, needed to be convinced — but also, he needed to have a challenge set for him that he personally found interesting.


PS: Tell me about the thinking behind your having the actress Nina Hoss curate your retrospective in 2016. Because with acting as a profession, there’s this inherent winking at that tension between reality and constructed reality, and the idea of people’s roles, and the interchangeability of roles, all of which seems to be something that characterises your work anyway.


CJ: Yes. You know, it’s also interesting to revisit this project, and to go back to the moment where this idea first came about. It was a combination of many things, similar to the session idea, where I think you have to listen and to look around, to consider what materials to work with. The catalyst was an invitation to work with a new gallery, because the gallery I had been with for sixteen years, Klosterfelde, had closed. Two years after this, I had been offered a show with this other gallery in Berlin, Contemporary Fine Arts, and it was around the same time as I was about to curate Manifesta 11, in Zurich. So I told them, I’m very happy to do an exhibition with you, but purely in terms of time and stress and organisation, I cannot do a large new production The gallerists told me that they had already had the idea of doing a survey, a retrospective, because they thought it would be a great introduction, and that people had not seen the older work so much. Then, two things happened — the first thing was that the show was scheduled to open at the same time as the Berlinale, which is the big film festival in Berlin. Completely by coincidence. So that was one part. The second part was that I thought it would be great to work with one actor, or one actress, to curate my show for Contemporary Fine Arts, parallel to Manifesta and parallel to the movie festival. There were some larger influences up in the air, major factors up in the air, and I took components from these things; and of course the poster production and and poster campaign for my show then became its own experience — because I had made a new portrait with Nina Hoss for it, and it was all over the city, so in the context of all of the film posters that were out at the same time for the Berlinale, people were thinking, oh, is this a new Nina Hoss movie? What a strange title… Even the poster was bringing together these two worlds. So on the one hand that’s how it started. On the other hand, I was working with an agent for actors who I really respect, and I asked her, who do you think would be open, not just to using the opportunity as a little joke, but to really watching and revisiting my work carefully, and really helping us to make a good selection, and a good show? And this agent immediately said, Nina Hoss is the person; she’s great, and it’s very likely that she would be interested in doing it. So I met her, and from the very first moment it was the right energy. I must say, I have worked on some survey shows, but Nina watched sixty films; she spent several weekends just watching movies, and it was unbelievable for me to see her one month later, talking about all these details, some of which I hardly remember from certain projects I have not watched for years. I was very touched, and I was very honoured. It was beautiful to see what a great job she did, and how she didn’t follow the most expected arc. She even insisted on some architectural ideas, and a wall that was constructed overnight by the gallerists had to be moved.

“I like to transform stuff from the everyday — something that’s reachable — and then use this as a way to make the viewer’s own small world, or their perspective, a little bit bigger.”

"The Hunt", courtesy of the artist

PS: I suppose also with someone who’s acted in film and television there’s a certain crossover, because they’re used to film as a medium — but their outlook on it, or their experience with it, comes from a different place.


CJ: Yes; and on the other hand, there is its relationship to my role as a curator at Manifesta. Should I curate my own retrospective at the same time? No. Should I ask the gallerist to curate my retrospective, at his own gallery? Also no fun! It also meant that a lot of film people came to the opening because of Nina Hoss’ involvement. It was really crowded, and a lot of her colleagues came by the show. By the way, I also just this summer did a whole campaign with the Schaubühne theatre — this is the theatre that Nina works with in Berlin — photographing all of their actors. And it’s out on the street now! There are posters from the campaign all over Berlin. I will send you some pictures from it. See, now I’m thinking about this word “prank’ again; but it actually is based on this photographic genre around sleeping pranks. I asked the actors there to fall asleep backstage in their theatre, and let their colleagues write on them, dress and decorate them in any way they liked.


PS: Oh, that’s great!


CJ: We photographed them either sleeping, or pretending to sleep, so that they didn’t know which of their colleagues was working on them. Before they opened their eyes, I also interviewed them about their feelings about the process, so there is always a quote that goes with every portrait. I’ll show you — I’ll send you some pictures.


PS: I’d love to see them. It’s another example of one of these experiences that you were talking about; but then even the placement of the posters on the street becomes yet another thing, where the public is going to interact with them as well.


CJ: Yes, the reason I was bringing this up was to say to you that this kind of reaching out to different fields, in many instances, has another resonance. The reason for doing a project is not always so that another one can come out of it; but I have seen many moments where other people in the participants’ world then used the outcome elsewhere. They would not call it artwork, but they might call it something interesting, or something strange. For example when I worked with the weightlifters for Heavyweight History, they were taking it to the world championship of weightlifting a few months later! They were building up a tent in which they showed my photographs, and also the video — the weightlifters themselves asked if it was okay to bring my artwork along to show to their international colleagues what they did.


PS: It’s interesting to think about something like that having a new life, and a totally different life, somewhere else.


CJ: Yes, for me that is almost the nicest thing that can happen. It shows that it has a meaning for the people that were part of it. They bring it to new contexts; they have their own interests in it. And through their specific background, they bring it to their world, and that new world can relate to it. They are moved to discuss it, and to show it to other people in their field. The same thing happened in the religious world with The Holy Artwork, or in a therapeutic way with Create Problems, or Desperately Seeking Artwork. There are works that are constantly shown at Bible seminars, and different churches — Casting Jesus, et cetera.


PS: I was going to ask you what you were working on most recently, but I’m assuming it’s the collaboration with Schaubühne, right?


CJ: Well, that is my most recent finished project. At the moment, I am preparing a show for Kyoto Art Museum (@Kcua), which is a solo show in September.


PS: Are you happy to talk about what might be in it, at all, or…?


CJ: I’m actually still working on it! I can tell you how far I am so far. I think it will be three new works, all of them made in Japan. I was there for a week, about a month ago. One is related to the work Walking Logic, but it’s developed in a new direction — I was walking through the forest with a speaker system on my back and a microphone in my hand, and I had students and professors from Kyoto Art School with me, and also other actors. So we were about thirty people hiking through the forest, up and down the hills, and I was giving a talk on various topics to do with life as an artist; and I was also mimicking animal sounds. And I had a Japanese translator who would translate if I was saying something about, for example, art and the economy. So after my lecture, every few sentences, the translator would translate everything I was saying to the audience — and then I would start mimicking animal voices. My idea is that in the final film you will see us walking through the forest, and we will cut out my lecture part. So what people will see and hear is me making animal noises, and then handing the microphone over to the Japanese translator: and when she takes over we will hear — in Japanese — my really deep and sometimes tragic considerations about artistic life.


PS: That’s great. Another bit of the surrealist fiction I was talking about before.


CJ: So that’s one project that I’m working on right now. The other project is working with Kinbaku [Japanese rope bondage]. I don’t know if you know it, but it’s an art form practised by these rope masters. There are a lot of photographs of half naked women by Araki that fit into this genre…


PS: Absolutely, I’m familiar.


CJ: …with these women hanging from the ceiling. There’s a large scene in Japan, but it also became internationally known. I did a lot of research about this, and while I was there I was getting very interested in it. Maybe in a sense, it was my own cliché that I was taking with me to Japan, because these images by Araki were completely stuck in my head — it’s funny how, as an artist, you are tied to certain obsessions, to this idea of travelling and to giving the best you can of yourself from your art. You cannot escape it, even though it sometimes comes with problematic results. I just thought that the rope itself is a beautiful material; in Japanese temples, I also learnt later on that the rope has also a lot of symbolic connotations. And of course Japan has almost no metal! So while we were throwing people in prison in the Middle Ages in metal handcuffs, the Japanese became very professional at tying people up. The level of society you were considered to be in also decided how you were roped if you were tied up as a criminal.


PS: Oh, wow! I wasn’t aware of that.


CJ: So I was jumping into this world, a bit. Then I was meeting true Kinbaku masters. First, I met one and I said to them, I would also like to be tied and hung from the ceiling, together with my luggage. So everything I took with me to Japan was Kinbakued. I always travel light, with just my one piece of hand luggage and my computer bag; in the end I was hanging from the ceiling with my suitcase, and my computer bag, the three of us. I call it The Travelling Artist, that’s the working title right now. There is also a lot of mental travel involved, because when you’re tied up it really affects your thinking: I had to talk out loud after a few minutes because I could not handle it mentally, being tied like that. And talking to people allows the mind to relax. It’s only when the mind is relaxed that it doesn’t hurt. But then the second part was even more extreme! I went to this Kinbaku club in Kyoto called “Barbara.”


PS: The club is called “Barbara”? CJ: Yes, Barbara! It is a woman’s name, but also a Japanese play on words: Bar-bara translates as “Bar Rose.” The owner is a woman, Aska is her name, a Kinbaku mistress — she worked with Araki twenty years ago, even. She is a superstar in this field. She was definitely pushing me into things where I was thinking…huh. The first Kinbaku was all under control, all in a photo studio. But the last night before I left Japan we were in Barbara, and she said: “I can only do it here if you take your pants off.” [Laughter]


CJ: There were also all these Japanese businessmen sitting there, because normally there are no men hanging upside down under her ceiling; normally it is all models, all women. I also find this kind of gender reversal funny — of course “funny” is not quite the right word, but I found it great that she was the rope mistress, and I was the one hanging from the ceiling there. So I thought about my pants for a moment, and then I said, you know — I must say, I have a soft spot for art that gets a bit naked. Or totally naked! It’s always very seventies, if you think about Ulay and Marina or whoever.


PS: It’s very Carolee Schneemann.


CJ: And you sort of cannot do the Kinbaku if there is not also this fetish element in there, and I can’t be too cowardly to do so. So I put on this tanga that she wants me to wear, and I went there on this night, and she put me into quite extreme positions, in terms creating of funny images, and shocking images. So I think this will be the invitation card for Japan. [Laughter] I’m also working now on the rest of the show, which I think will be sculptures, which then will also be Kinbakued. Because when Aska — that’s her name — was tying me up along with my luggage, I also said: “you should not take these things off afterwards.” It looked like a spiderweb! A human being cannot really last more than about twenty minutes hanging from the ceiling, otherwise it really gets uncomfortable; but the idea with the sculptures is that I would work with her to Kinbaku the objects that I’m bringing. So as you can see right now, it’s all a process, even though September seems as though it’s not a long way away. The way I work can change even throughout the last days leading up to the exhibition; something may suddenly make more sense if it’s done slightly differently. I like to have control in a project, and also to lose control. I think that’s the balance for art in general. And that’s so nicely, symbolically tied to this Kinbaku, as well. There is also this part that is slightly obsessive, in art and in Kinbaku. Another example: I saw these pictures of what are mostly half-naked women, tied to objects. So now I think that it would be fantastic to work with Aska, my Kinbaku mistress, to tie people to certain objects. It’s really early stages — but if you imagine asking somebody “what is your favourite object?” and they say “my house,” and then they get tied in this fantastic Kinbaku style to their house; or to their favorite book, or to their work desk. Or to the representative or whatever obsession they may have. You know what I mean?


PS: Definitely. Everybody’s tied to something.


CJ: In the end, I named the show “Floating World.”

"The Hunt", courtesy of the artist