Interview by and with Stefan Banz.
A Self-portrait

Stefan Banz (S): Don’t you think that readers of this interview may have certain reservations when they realize that by interviewing you I am in reality interviewing myself and therefore essentially undermining the duality that is intrinsic to an interview? After all, I am not only me, because you are me, too. Is that too complicated?
Stefan Banz (B): It’s quite conceivable that some people might have reservations. But I am not really convinced that I am actually nothing else but you. At least, we’re not in the same position. While you are posing questions, I am trying to answer them. A double standpoint, you might say. All of my work basically revolves around this "double standpoint" of being inside and outside of something at the same time. Jacques Derrida called this the disintegration or the displacement of metaphysics. So with our interview we are in the midst of a great tradition of reflection.
S: It reminds me of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, too. In his last book, published in 1991, "Midas oder Die schwarze Leinwand" (Midas or the Black Screen)—a kind of film in writing—he sits across from himself and talks to himself, as if he were both the same person and someone else.
B: There are a lot of examples like that.
S: Yes, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his movie "Last Action Hero", where he plays two roles: the hero and the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the US they thought the movie was too complicated so it was the only box-office flop he’s ever made.
B: I don’t understand why the idea of conducting a conversation with oneself should be complicated.
S: Maybe that’s how people feel about it. That’s life!
B: You could almost call it a simple world!
S: Can you tell me something about yourself and your life? Where were you born? How did you grow up?
B: Do you mean my life or yours? (laughs and pauses briefly, making his alter ego feel uncertain for a moment) I was born on September 11, 1961 at the District Hospital in Sursee as the eighth and last child of Sophie and Bernhard Banz-Mahnig. I have five sisters and two brothers. My youngest sibling, a sister, was already six-and-a-half at the time. My father, born in 1916, was 46. My mother, born in 1920, 411/2. I grew up in Menznau, a small village with a population of one thousand, situated at the foot of the Napf Mountain about thirty kilometers from Lucerne. My father had a small house painting business and was elected village councillor shortly before I was born. He held this office until a few months before his unexpected death. He collapsed on June 16, 1984 in the lobby of a hotel in Warsaw, Poland. Cardiac arrest.
I grew up in Menznau in the more or less sheltered atmosphere of my family although my father was already a severe alcoholic by then, but he had the good fortune of overcoming it completely with medical help. He did gymnastics as a young man and was active in the founding of the gymnastic clubs of Willisau and Menznau. My oldest brother, Bernhard, Jr followed in his footsteps, and became a member of the Swiss National Gymnastic Team in the sixties. And his gymnastic club from Lucerne won the Swiss Team Competition three times. My brother Alexander had barely turned 22 when he died from injuries sustained in a car accident. He was a passenger on the virgin journey of a white Alfa Romeo sports coupe and had the accident on the day of my entrance examinations. I spent four years at the gymnasium in Willisau, a small, historical village six kilometers from my hometown. I finished up my baccalaureate (majoring in sciences) at my place of birth, Sursee, fifteen kilometers farther away.
S: What was your first encounter with art?
B: Actually I grew up with music. At the gymnasium I sang with a rock band named "Food for Fools." But more about that later. My first contact with works of art was through my father. I must have been about ten when he used to bring home little cardboard pictures that you could buy at certain gas stations. About 8 x 11 in. size, they were reproductions of paintings. I remember "Boats at the Strand," "Gypsy Caravan" or "Sunflower" by van Gogh, Monet’s "Poppy Field," and various seascapes by Dutch masters of the 17th century. When I was twelve, I visited my sister Cécile in Basel for a few days. She took me to the Museum of Fine Arts. It was my first confrontation with real live, full-scale paintings and sculptures. Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the plague made an extraordinarily deep impression on me. From then on I was especially interested in painting but the idea of becoming an artist myself never occurred to me. Nobody had ever encouraged me or thought that I had talent,. On the contrary, my teachers considered me singularly untalented, especially in comparison to my prematurely deceased brother Alexander, who had already painted wonderful pictures in his teens and yet had not managed to get into the School of Design. So from the start I wanted to become a film director.
S: What motivated you?
B: On one hand, movies fascinated me, their ability to conjure up a world of illusion, their suggestive powers, and their monumentality. On the other hand, my father had two great hobbies. He traveled around as much as he could possibly afford to. And he was always taking pictures of his trips with a Super 8 and a reflex camera. We had a lot of cameras at home. I grew up with them. Spontaneously shooting films and taking snapshots was our daily bread: I was about sixteen when I made the first of my five Super 8 film shorts. Although I was a complete filmmaking wallflower and didn’t know any of the tricks of the trade, I still wrote a detailed screenplay and then staged the shoots with the help of my friends at various locations. I also started writing poems—like almost every teenager. And I had a great talent for organization. I was only ten years old when I staged Olympic games in our neighborhood with disciplines and point systems that I made up myself. Prizes for the winners came from my own store of toys. Up until 1973 these Olympics were staged two or three times a year—always during vacations. I organized a circus as well, in which any kid that could perform a trick was allowed to participate. We pitched a tent around a big apple tree. The branches were the bars for acrobatics and gymnastics. The circus was very popular in the village and we ended up with a fair amount of pocket money. That same year in Menznau, there was a big bazaar to raise funds for a new kindergarten. A wrought-iron specialist donated an abstract, iron object and I spontaneously offered to give a eulogy. That was the first time I had ever gotten involved with a so-called work of art.
S: So why didn’t you become a director after all?
B: Because at the time—while still in school—I was too naive and inexperienced. I didn’t really understand the cinematic idiom. As a result my work was technically too amateurish, too weak, and it flopped. So I decided to study art history and German at the university. Unfortunately, that meant I had to make up for the Latin I never had in high school because I majored in sciences. That was a real headache. But in 1984 I decided to open a gallery in Lucerne anyway with my future wife, Sabine Mey, which indirectly led to the founding of the Kunsthalle Lucerne in 1989, of which I was the artistic director until 1993. The rest is clear.
S: But I’d still like to concentrate on your biography for the moment. What you’ve told me so far leads me to think that you have always tried to do several things at once. It seems to me that in a certain sense "the simultaneity of the other" runs like a kind of thread through your life and your art.
B: I’ve never really thought about that before. But you might not be so far off the mark. I was born at the beginning of the sixties, which makes me a child between generations in a way. I was born into the technical and cultural optimism of the late postwar years but was too young for the upheavals of 1968. I’m a child of the seventies. But I still felt the impact of the sixties through my brothers and sisters. I grew up with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the CCR, … John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Muhammad Ali were my first heroes. But my active involvement with music didn’t begin until the seventies. Though deeply influenced by the famous jazz festival in Willisau that I religiously attended every year, I still never really believed that this would ever be my kind of music. I was looking for something between the Rolling Stones and more visceral improvisation. My first really significant idol was Frank Zappa! He totally ignored all isms and styles in his lifetime and yet he was deeply rooted in the zeitgeist. He was wide-ranging and contradicted the purist ideology in which I was personally embedded at the time (and still am, to a certain extent). Either you were part of the free jazz scene in Willisau and pooh-poohed the conventional and "banal" outgrowths of pop, or you were part of largely entertainment-oriented popular culture. But a mixture of the two was absolutely taboo.
S: But even if you were entirely focused on Frank Zappa, you still cultivated a form of purism (though maybe a lonely one). On a second level, Frank Zappa’s diversity of styles ultimately emerges as a constantly recurring style, don’t you think?
B: That’s certainly true. But it’s not really the point. Everybody who shows individuality naturally has a restricted and recurring vocabulary. That applies to Frank Zappa as well. But in contrast to many other artists, Zappa is not only synonymous with stylistic diversity, he was also one of those extraordinary people who manage to embody a kind of symbiosis between mind and body, tradition and rupture, without smoothing out all that is paradoxical or different. Zappa—not unlike Muhammad Ali—is a synonym for unconventionality, paradox, directness, nonchalance, discipline, skill, defunctionalization, social/ political commitment—and genius. Frank Zappa was the symbol of freedom for me—the polar opposite of bourgeois. He demonstrated that the artist has to have the unconditional right to self-determination in order to really be able to be what he is and do what he wants. Frank Zappa is also a good example of how being an insider and an outsider at the same time leads to creative and productive results. He didn’t just make a mix or a collage of every conceivable style, because by blending so many distinct musical phenomena he came up with new forms of expression. He was one of the first to consistently and creatively rout the avant-garde. And he showed us that unconventional music, music that doesn’t simply go with the mainstream, can also be successful and influential if you are imaginative enough to invent creative marketing strategies and don’t follow trodden paths. In many respects, I thought Frank Zappa was an absolutely trailblazing and independent personality. But I didn’t confine myself to him although his early music in particular, like "200 Motels," made such a great impact on me. I was interested in and influenced by everything from the Doors to Jethro Tull, from Pink Floyd to Roxy Music, from Carla Bley to John Zorn, from the Clash to the Stranglers, from Nirvana to Everlast, from Orson Welles to Michelangelo Antonioni, from Roman Polanski to Francis Ford Coppola, from John Cassavetes and Dennis Hopper to David Lynch, etc.
S: Then you might say that your tendency or your inclination to express yourself in a variety of media and also to keep switching roles between production and critical reflection is motivated by a very specific artistic tradition and is not simply a conceit.
B: It has nothing to do with a conceit. I’m looking for insight. Insight and emotional involvement. I don’t deny that in the past some people in the art business in Switzerland have taken an obstinately negative stand on my output and my activities, and that I’ve often been accused of stylistic disunity, of being too intellectual in my work, and of daring to tackle things that are out of my league. I have certainly taken a longer path to achieve a modicum of success but that’s not decisive.
In the tradition of the fine arts, there are in fact great models, people who have pursued grandiose paths of diversity, of concentrated and compressed fragmentation. Just think of the inventor, draftsman, painter, and royal designer Leonardo da Vinci. The 20th century’s pioneer in this respect is probably Marcel Duchamp. In painting there was Francis Picabia. And above all Bruce Nauman, who, like Frank Zappa, transformed medial diversity into a distinctive aesthetics of his own. Donald Judd or Barnett Newman must also be mentioned in this context. In fact there are many more examples than one would think.
S: I want to return to your biography again. Didn’t your personal background actually exert a substantial influence on your various activities?
B: It certainly did. Since I don’t come from a rich family and already became a father while I was still studying—Jonathan was born in 1987 and Lena in 1989—I was always trying to be as economical as possible in making a living. So all the factors were mutually dependent: education, fun, art, art theory, curating, writing, designing books, earning money. Curating as my real aim in life only enjoyed a brief reign at the very beginning. I soon realized that despite my organizational skills, this aspect of the trade went against my grain. Too much politics and compromise. But it was my livelihood. When I decided to give up running the Kunsthalle Lucerne in order to devote myself to my own projects, that did not mean entirely abandoning organizational activities; it only meant a shift in emphasis and improving on curating as an instrument of financial security. Initially this took me to an international electrical engineering company for which I designed an entirely new visual image. Shortly afterwards, young Iwan Wirth of the Hauser & Wirth Collection (now Gallery) asked me whether I’d be interested in working for him in an advisory capacity, which I did until 1997. I organized his exhibitions, designed his catalogues, wrote essays for him, and worked out proposals for projects.
S: You did all that to ensure your financial survival as an artist?
B: Yes!
S: And what about today?
B: Since 1997 my situation as an artist has improved considerably, and I have not had to accept any jobs in the trade since then. I’ve been able to concentrate entirely on my own work. And the past two years have been by far the most productive and fruitful period in my life.
S: Which finally takes us to your work. In 1992 you organized an exhibition, «Der Anbau des Museums» ("Cultivating the Museum"), with Jacques Derrida, Wada Jossen, Theo Kneubühler, and Harald Szeemann. Would you consider that an artistic product?
B: I was the curator and director of the Kunsthalle Lucerne when I mounted that exhibition but it undoubtedly influenced certain basic artistic decisions. It makes no difference to me that I was a curator at the time because the concept was based on the idea of putting on a show with people in the art trade who do not consider themselves artists. The show itself was the work of art. Wada Jossen is a gardener and frequented the art scene in Lucerne in those days. Theo Kneubühler was arguably Switzerland’s most influential art critic and theoretician in the seventies. Jacques Derrida and Harald Szeemann speak for themselves. Following my instructions, they all got involved in the exhibition and together we extended the idea or the concept of the museum in architectural, substantive, and biological terms. To me this exhibition is a kind of paradigm and it paved the way for my subsequent activities, which circle around the metaphor of the garden. I have always been concerned with what it means to trespass on all those separate little art gardens, often staked out with bourgeois care, and to question conventionalized allocations of competence—particularly since these issues mirrored my personal situation to a certain extent.
S: Is your well-known video piece "Door to Door. Break on Through to the Other Side" of 1997 related to these issues?
B: Yes, certainly. It’s a very good example of how my basic interests are visualized in new and different ways depending on the medium. "Door to Door" is a prototype, a perfect metaphor that shows how hard it is to "break the rules." It can be read in two ways. In the bourgeois neighborhood where I live, I am conspicuous as an artist and considered suspect because (unwittingly) I don’t conform to the rules. I don’t leave the house at 7 a.m. and come home at 6 p.m. And (in the eyes of my neighbor) I try weird and useless things out in my garden, which bothers him. Suddenly he breaks out of the (sacred) confines of property ownership and social conduct by becoming downright abusive and finally storming into my garden like an enraged bull in order to beat me up. On the other hand, one wonders whether the video is real or staged, so that the conflict starts all over again on another level. So, in a certain sense, I consider "Door to Door" synonymous with the art trade!
S: With the exception of "Door to Door", you are best known for your photographs, and for a long time they were criticized for being "voyeuristic" and "privatistic."
B: Are the photographs really my best known work?
S: Well, they seem to have had the greatest exposure. How did this important and vital segment of your artistic oeuvre come about and why do critics often call it "voyeuristic" and "privatistic"?
B: As briefly mentioned at the beginning of this interview, I grew up as a kind of child photographer because it was a passionate hobby of my father’s. There are several reasons why I gradually started to take an artistic approach to photography. On one hand, I was looking (possibly unconsciously) for a primarily sensual and visual form of expression, maybe in order to compensate for the rational requirements of being a curator. But actually the primary reason was economic. The desire to be both an active parent and still do something artistic played a decisive role. And then photography was also a kind of continuation of curatorial and critical activities. It’s one thing to focus on something and push the release, but quite another to select and combine the photographs as I did recently in my book, "i built this garden for us", published by Patrick Frey in Zurich. In addition, my approach to photography was not primarily interpreted in artistic terms. But this circumstance made me realize that photography is actually the most abstract medium there is.
S: What makes you say that?
B: Because photography is not an event that takes place in time, like life (or sculpture and painting). Photography—and by that I purposely mean the snapshot (because any other kind of photograph is more painting than photography)—is usually 1/125th or 1/60th of a second of so-called reality. It is a now, without a before and without an after. This makes photography completely abstract as opposed to reality and it fosters misunderstandings. My intention was (and still is) to make snapshots that in many ways actually cause but also imply or address this misunderstanding. My photos are often considered explicitly painterly or are even called "painting," which is absolutely true and also completely false as regards the product, because—as I’ve already pointed out—a snapshot cannot be painting. It can, of course, suggest painterly components. Moreover, I always try to compress the moment of my shot so that it pinpoints unusual dualities or multiplicities: idyllic-disturbing, harmless-dangerous, loving-brutal, sentimental-shallow-repulsive, substantive-aesthetic-sensual, etc.
S: So, as you see it, photography never represents life. Then does that mean that life is what we read or project into the photograph?
B: Exactly. I often compare it to writing. When I claim, for instance, that any given word in a text is an exact representation of the reality, the content, the intention of this text, then you would most certainly contradict me. But in a way, photographs do the same thing, even though we persist in thinking that they’re different. Naturally, there are always nuances. There are these almost infinite linguistic links, for instance, and, or, that, in order to, etc. But there are also other words—idyll, demarcation, eerie, freeze, etc.—that have a much more concentrated radius and yet still remain semantically ambiguous. Those are the moments I tend to look for in my pictures, moments of an intrinsically concentrated or condensed duality, like very specific words, in which many different levels of meaning are distilled without being confined to consistency of content.
S: Does the size of your photos play a role in this respect? Usually we see large-format works of yours. Do you have a standard format?
B: Most of my pictures measure 150 x 225 cm, about 5 x 7 feet. They’re so big because I’m interested in how reality keeps shifting around, which is an omnipresent part of life as well. Like that wonderful story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, "My Cousin’s Corner Window", where the cousin looks down on the marketplace and describes what he sees to his cousin who is also sitting there looking out of the window. Interpretation, critical reflection, and perception are here demonstrated as the multiple displacement of reality, thus revealing how relative they are. Coming back to your original question about why I am often accused of being "voyeuristic" or "privatistic"—my photos depict my personal, immediate surroundings, mostly unpretentious pictures of my children, my wife, myself, my apartment, my garden, pictures of excursions, on vacation, etc.
We always relate photographs to our own selves, which goes back to the tradition and history of photography. In my work I exploit this act of relating something to ourselves. I show my children much larger than life, than "reality." The resulting shift in reality in viewers’ minds through the enlarged physical presence of the object, "photograph," intensifies the representations and their content. A very small photograph has the same effect. But since family-album photography traditionally entails small formats, smallness is, by definition, a less suitable instrument. Representations of landscapes are basically more complicated, because we are less likely to associate a certain size with them. But even format and what it expresses is relative because it always depends on the place where a picture is located, hung, or perceived. People in extremely enlarged photographs do not look as monumental in large spaces as they do in smaller rooms. Conversely, small photographs in big spaces look tiny and lost, etc. We’ve heard all this before ...
S: But what is it that makes your photographs "voyeuristic" or "privatistic"?
B: Misunderstanding.
S: What does that mean?
B: The word voyeurism generally refers to the revelation of something people think should not ordinarily be made public. The first misunderstanding is the widespread assumption that my works show a slice of reality, specifically pictures for the family album. The fact is, however, that my photographs are art and that I simply make use of a technique, that of the snapshot, that is also used by the public-at-large. But, as I have already tried to explain, photography cannot represent reality.
The fact that my subjects are my wife and children causes the second misunderstanding. It is true that I take pictures of my personal environment. But in point of fact, there is nothing private to be seen! The pictures are archetypal; they are pictures of things familiar to us all that affect us all. So here we are, facing the duality of perception again. My photos address everyone, no one can except him/herself. We are all linked up with them. That makes perception so complicated. We can never be detached. As viewers we can never be only on the outside or only on the inside; we can only be both or neither at once. The same complexity applies to the making of the photographs as well. My subjects—my wife, my children—always know if and when I’m taking pictures of them. And they always have the chance to detach themselves at the moment of shooting, just as I am always part of the scene in a certain sense.
"Voyeurism" is different. The classical voyeur observes his subjects without their knowledge, like peeping through a keyhole. Marcel Duchamp’s treatment of this phenomenon in his last work "Etant donné ..." is superb: he explicitly compels us to be voyeurs over and over again. An astronaut looking down at the earth from outer space without being part of it is also a voyeur, as is someone sneaking up behind a house, like a sniper, and shooting pictures with a telephoto lens.
S: So you would claim that your pictures are neither "privatistic" or "voyeuristic"?
B: Not just "would": I do. In classical terms they are definitely nothing of the kind! But if you take certain subtleties into consideration and analyze the production of the works and their reception in view of being simultaneously inside and outside, etc., then you can no doubt find traces of something that might be defined as private or voyeuristic. But the artistic visualization of everyday life and one’s immediate surroundings is actually an age-old tradition. Think of the magnificent Dutch genre paintings of the 17th century: ordinary scenes charged with highly sophisticated symbolism.
S: Is your work explicitly rooted in this history?
B: Just because I mention these works to illustrate a point doesn’t mean that I’ve been directly influenced by them, although I must say that Jan Vermeer has always fascinated me. But I’ve been influenced much more by painters like Diego Velazquez and Edouard Manet. I also studied Caspar David Friedrich’s oeuvre. And then there’s Caravaggio, of course, the great inventor of light and shadow. A past master of illusion, whose works still lead to great misunderstandings today. My 20th century favorites include Marcel Duchamp, Hans Emmenegger, and Francis Bacon, but also Bruce Nauman, Aldo Walker, or Georg Baselitz.
S: Your "Baby Bacons": what moved you to make tiny copies of over fifty works by Francis Bacon in the first few months of 1999?
B: There were several reasons. For one thing it was an enjoyable challenge to see if I actually had the necessary skill. I was daring myself. But the decision to copy Bacon and not Richter or Monet is related to my background. Francis Bacon was my ticket to contemporary art when I was a teenager. He showed me the way.
S: But why copy him? We’re all familiar with the works of Sturtevant or Mike Bidlo.
B: I’m primarily interested in the use of covers in music even though there are interesting examples of appropriation in art as well, like "Le déjeuner sur l’herbe" painted by Edouard Manet after an etching by Marc-Antonio Raimondi, who in turn used a Raphael as his source. Shifts of this kind produce new originals. But it’s even more fascinating to think about how the Rolling Stones recorded a cover of a Chuck Berry song and now everybody talks about a typical Stones piece although it’s common knowledge that it was a Chuck Berry creation. I wanted to know what happens, what kind of a reality shift is involved, when I paint exact small-format duplicates of works by Francis Bacon. I also liked the idea of being able to mount a major retrospective in one small room. Actually, Francis Bacon himself appropriated practically everything he ever painted, for instance, Eadweard Muybridge’s small-formats, some of which he transformed almost one-to-one into large-format Bacon paintings (e.g. "Two Figures", 1953). Bacon painted mainly after reproductions in books and magazines. He also had his original paintings photographed and used the results as the source material for new works. Francis Bacon had a very idiosyncratic way of appropriating.
My "Baby Bacons," are in turn, painted after reproductions of his paintings. And I made sure that my format was smaller than the standard reproductions in the big Bacon monographs.
S: It seems to me that your "Baby Bacons" are investigating under what circumstances new originals can emerge. You steal a glance at the original, via the detour of a copy or a cover. That’s an interesting aspect and also ties in with some of the issues we’ve already addressed, like authentic or fictional, real or imagined, etc. Were you also interested in the content of Bacon’s paintings?
B: A lot of people are shocked by Bacon’s art. They think they are seeing the undisguised mirroring of abject emotional depths and nauseating visions of horror. To me he is the ultimate aesthete: he eliminated the misunderstandings that cause unnecessarily emotional and rash behavior. Bacon takes back everything he purports to show, and in the process, he heightens and blurs it, and ultimately makes it beautiful. Francis Bacon actually has a greater affinity with artists like Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko than with the expressionists. He was a conceptual artist, and I have attempted to blend his idea of conception with mine in order to reassess the question of the original.
S: A question which, in your case, always seems to be interwoven with the question of reality, or shifts in reality. I’m reminded of your huge water installations, like the one you made in 1996 for the Offene Kulturhaus (now renamed the OK-Centrum für zeitgenössische Kunst) in Linz.
B: Yes, there is a direct relationship in a way. In Linz I had the privilege of being able to fill a marvelous eight-meter-high space of 220 m2 (c. 26 ft. high & 2400 sq. ft.) ankle-deep in water. If you stayed outside the room and didn’t become part of the work, there was something intensely meditative about the installation. The water was as smooth as velvet. But there were also these reflections that architecturally doubled the size of the space. This duplication had several metaphorical implications. The reflection disappeared as soon as you stepped into the water and became part of the work. Then ripples were generated that refracted the light and bounced it off the walls. Having become part of the installation, you also became the subject for those who had not yet entered the room.
If you waded far enough into the room, you suddenly ran into a giant photograph (180 x 260 cm / c. 6 x 8’) on the floor of a child with its head face down in a basin of water: another situation in which reality shifts. Real, tangible water on top of a figurative, two-dimensional subject that tempted one to link the two elements in order to construct some kind of meaningful story, etc. … I pursue the argument endlessly, to confirm or underscore the paradigms of being inside and being outside, of the shift in reality, of misunderstandings, and also of visual emotion, interaction, suspense, etc. I can only say that the mental expression of the work is directly comparable to "Baby Bacons", even though the means are entirely different.
S: Does it also relate to your work "Echoes" of 1998, commissioned for Grosshof, the custodial jail outside of Lucerne?
B: Yes, exactly the same considerations were involved, except that the medial implementation was based on a different instrument. I decided to use lettering because the brief stipulated that the work must be designed so that it cannot be exploited as a potential means of escape, converted into a weapon, or offer concealment.
But the exact same aspects—the use of metaphor, the layers of meaning—are involved. The work consists of 84 names of well-known people and one of their works (or achievements). These are people who fought for more humane prison conditions or were once jailed themselves, and thus offer specific means of identification for inmates (and staff). Such names as "Muhammad Ali / When We Were Kings," "Nelson Mandela / Long Walk to Freedom" or "Mata Hari / The Eye of Dawn" not only offer patterns of identification but also have a critical effect. They are both embodiments of hope and accelerators of emotion. All this leads to identification in the sense of a "here-and-now" but it also opens up mental spaces far beyond the prison confines. You might say that the work offers imaginary or metaphorical means of escape. And without consciously realizing it, we become part of the work ourselves in the act of reading. The mental space that opens up is also a kind of hideout because it may veil or mask or dematerialize the reader’s own infringement of the law. And it can function as a weapon in fighting depression, lack of self-esteem, or feelings of being buried alive. Ultimately it is an encouragement, a plea for creativity, and an imaginary critique of the inalienable laws of justice, which are essentially governed by point of view. I have also tried to incorporate this thought in my (unpublished) detective novel, and it also reverberates in the two-part sculpture, «Zwei Brüder» ("Two Brothers", 1999), in which two white, polyester mannequins represent Jesus and Dracula. Their bodies and their physiognomies are identical. Dracula is distinguished only by the length of his eyeteeth, and Jesus merely by being called "Jesus." Jesus has the telltale marks of the vampire’s bite on his neck and Dracula has "assumed" Jesus’ stigmata. Good and evil have (not) been exchanged. They are two brothers with expressions that seem both enamored and melancholy. They are dazzling white and immaculate, bloodless and stiff.
S: In the past two years, you have added a new medium to your palette: video. How did that come about?
B: Film was originally my favorite child. But making a film has always been very, in fact, too expensive, especially without the necessary equipment. So for a long time I didn’t have the money to produce videos although I’ve had a Hi8 camera for years. But following the Door-to-Door event I bought a digital mini DV camera, and the time had come to purchase the editing equipment I needed. I bought a Casablanca system and, at long last, was able to implement some of my ideas. I worked explicitly for exhibition spaces and produced video loops that are basically an extension of photography. I’ve made about 150 short to very short episodes or loops or whatever you want to call them. In a video the "reality shift" from small to big is even more imposing than in a blowup. But the pictures themselves are more realistic in a video because they’re moving pictures and take place in time. In my work, abstraction is largely a matter of soundtrack and noise and the way I design and assemble the continuous loops. A lot of my videos run both forwards and backwards; they consist of several parts, each of which requires a video beam. The sound is often extremely slowed down to underscore the melancholy, the mystery, and the ambiguity of the pictures. The pictures themselves are like my photographs inasmuch as they are snapshots of my daily life: concentrated, ordinary moments of absurdity or absurd, unusual moments of the commonplace.
S: In closing, I would like to talk about your new piece, "Gulliver," created especially for the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art. It seems as if you have tried to unite all the concerns and phenomena we’ve talked about so far in a single work.
B: As you know, not only this new installation is called "Gulliver" but the entire exhibition (in 11 rooms) that was on view at the Migros Museum from January 22 to March 19, 2000. The exhibition is indeed an attempt to bring together works representing a variety of media—photography, video, installation, and painting—in order to make manifest that they all share similar or comparable concerns and are essentially discrete only in terms of their medial implementation. In this sense, "Gulliver" may indeed be the unconscious attempt to unite this mental accord among various forms of medial expression in one single work.
S: Why is it called "Gulliver"?
B: Because it is inspired by Jonathan Swift’s "Gulliver’s Travels". This marvelous book was the godfather of both the installation and the exhibition as a whole.
S: Does it attempt the artistic conversion of a literary work, comparable to filming a book?
B: No, not at all!
S: Then why is it called "Gulliver"?
B: Because Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is the book that has made the greatest impression on me in the past two years. It has an extraordinary currency, today more than ever it seems. It’s child-like, astute, critical, odd, funny, absurd, realistic, prospective, sarcastic, adventurous, inventive, and profoundly humane. It moved me deeply and made me want to produce a "Gulliverish" work of my own.
S: What does it actually look like?
B: It consists of two rooms. In the first one, right at the entrance to the exhibition, there are three huge photographs (150 x 225 cm/ c. 5 x 7 ’) placed in gigantically enlarged photo frames (280 x 355 cm / c. 9 x 11’ ) of the kind often placed on a chest of drawers and used for family pictures. In the first photograph we see a child with his mouth open wide revealing an enormous expander on the palate. The initial shock gives way to relief on realizing it is a harmless, hi-tech medical device. In the second picture we see an old red, folded and slightly dilapidated stroller on a piece of turquoise-blue plastic. The work is loud and very painterly in effect. In the third picture we have an ant’s eye view of two sheep with dark faces, looking like weird, colossal giants.
In the second room, 15 diminutive, white polyester rhinoceroses are grazing on 110 m2 / 1184 sq. ft. of real turf. Some are staring at a TV monitor, in which they see a similar but dark rhinoceros standing on the grass, immobile, like a still. Unidentifiable sounds are heard that could recall rhinoceroses. Since rhinoceroses do not have very good eyesight, we are not quite sure what we actually see on the monitor. Is it the same grass that we are standing on? Is the dark rhinoceros in the video a live animal in contrast to the polyester creatures on the freshly smelling grass? Can we experience the grass growing in the video as well? Etc. Every thought that occurs to us confronts us with a shift in reality.
Originally I had thought of hanging two large paintings (acrylic on cotton, 320 x 200 cm / c. 10 x 6 x 1/2 ft. each) on the wall within the area of the turf, the first showing a fig tree in bright sunlight on red soil, and the second one, a child—also on red soil—contortedly sticking out her tongue. We do not know whether she is doing this because of the fig tree (because there are no figs in sight) or whether she’s just playing around. However, while putting up the installation, I decided to retain these two pictures as an autonomous work,* like the full-scale, white polyester stuffed knapsack, which was first placed on a little rise in the grass but then finally positioned at the other end of the exhibition under the stairs to the administrative offices. In "Gulliver’s Travels", the knapsack is a symbol of great linguistic and communicative competence…
S: At the end of the exhibition, there was also a rectangular structure for visitors to walk into. Measuring 350 x 400 x 500 cm / c. 11 x 13 x 16 ft., it was painted black inside and out, and filled ankle-deep with water.
B: This black house is a kind of companion piece to my large, five-part installation (300 x 150 x 950 cm / c. 10 x 5 x 31 ft.) from 1996/98, "How many nights I prayed for this," in which gymnastic equipment, fixed to the thin walls of glass boxes, raises the issue of use. The minimalist intervention in the attractive, filigreed and transparent glass cubes is disturbing both physically and mentally. The equipment encourages interaction but it would not be advisable to use it. The conjunction of strength (gymnastics) and fragility (glass) provokes a permanent ambivalence between familiarity and alienation, attraction and peril, or a flush of adrenaline and paradox.
The black house is, at first sight, darkness embodied; the interior has only one small light. We first walk through a narrow passage and are wary of stepping into the dark unknown, where we suddenly find ourselves standing in water. If we take the time to overcome the spookiness and spend a few minutes in the water and in the room, our eyes become accustomed to the darkness and we notice that our own movements in the water are generating the waves of light reflected on the walls. Suddenly the dark room seems light and agitated although it is actually neither. The regularly irregular rhythm of the undulating light makes it seem as if the walls were in motion and produces a completely new, unexpected sense of space.
The spooky scenario, anticipated because of the darkness, turns into a sensual, trance-like, strangely disturbing, and yet ultimately soothing experience, provided that, in our anxiety, we have not tripped on the stairs and fallen fully clothed into the water … (laughs)
January 2000

*The two large canvases were not used in the exhibition after all.

Translation: Catherine Schelbert