Portraits of Artists 74

Conversation with Elke Krystufek

Silvia Eiblmayr: What you are now describing in tourism is something that you also represent and, in a further sense, the artwork represents. To the spectators you represent the exotic. I would say that they are searching for the exotic in continents such as Africa. They also search for it in history, in classical history, and it has to do with art and beauty. That's a second aspect of tourism that you describe and that you experienced with your parents. At the same time, you represent the artwork itself. The way you are sitting here, how you are dressed makes you a kind of walking artwork in a sense. On the other hand, you are not really, of course. And exactly this kind of ambivalence that you are staging here is what fascinates people very much about you. On the other hand what they recognize is split – there is a kind of aggression towards you – we'll talk about that later. Would you agree that in a way, you represent the artwork itself?

Elke Krystufek: In a way, yes. But I think I also show that everybody is like I am, because everybody designs and styles themselves.

SE: Do you represent another level, or are these levels interrelated, so you reflect the art world specifically – the narcissism, the voyeurism and the exhibitionism of the art world?

EK: No, it's because it's the world I'm living in now.

SE: Yes, but it's part of your artistic practice. Lots of people – behave in the way I described – they are part of the art world. But they don't work artistically on these issues, on narcissism and exhibitionism or voyeurism.

EK: I think that they do, but it's not as obvious.

SE: Yes, they do, but as an artistic practice this is something specific that you are doing.

EK: Yes.

SE: When you made up yourself today, are you quoting artists – artists that you consider important for your own work?

EK: Well, certainly Cindy Sherman.

SE: Yes.

EK: And, I don't know, Andy Warhol.

SE: Certainly Andy Warhol, or – through Andy Warhol – Marilyn Monroe.

EK: Yes, also. For me it's important that I also position myself in the context I want to be seen in, because I realized if you don't do it yourself, somebody else does it for you. And you realize, if somebody else does it – it doesn't turn out so right. I have often been put in the context of Viennese Actionism, and that's something I hardly ever thought of when I started to work. I think I'm also working on the misunderstanding that people have about private life.

SE: I would like to talk about that point right after.You are reproached for claiming authenticity for yourself. I think that's why people connect you with Viennese Actionism. This was, in my opinion, also a misunderstanding as to the Viennese Actionists. What do you say about this authenticity that you are said to claim as an artist, as a woman?

EK: Well, I think I am showing that it's not possible to have this kind of authenticity in art shows or in the public. I think I'm showing the impossibility.

SE: I agree with you. And I think it's remarkable that it's of used symptomatically in relation to women. On the one hand it's expected of them to be the authentic, to say the truth, and on the other hand to lie, to simulate. This is a dialectical figure that goes together. You could say it's two sides of a coin. Do you consider yourself as a cliché, both as a woman and an artist?

EK: Certainly not, because when I'm making art I don't think of myself as a woman.

SE: You conceive of yourself as being what?

EK: I think something transsexual or both sexes. I don't think really of sex when I start making art.

SE: You don't think of your gender when you start making art.

EK: Yes.

SE: I would like to continue, because this concerns the question of the mirror, by talking about your paintings. In the exhibition there is a series of self-portraits of yourself where you always paint your face in a rather schematic way. Could you say more about that?

EK: When I started making these paintings, I also thought about passport pictures, because they have the same frame. I also thought usually a passport picture is made to define the identity of a person. I thought that in a way it's very limited, but also it's very important, it's limited to the face. I also thought when I make these paintings I create different versions of passport pictures. Because these pictures could represent my passport picture.

SE: One of these or all of them?

EK: I think one of these, because a passport picture also shows only one version of a person.

SE: In these pictures or paintings, you are very strongly focusing on yourself as if you were looking into a mirror. This means you are also working on the function of the gaze. Could you talk a bit more about the gaze, about the way your gaze is being staged here or structured here?

EK: It's because when I make these paintings, I make them with the mirror. I look into the mirror and it creates this kind of look that's very serious, sometimes even sad. It takes me about two hours to make a painting. And then I also look back at the viewer, because my eyes are completely open. I look at myself, but when the picture is finished, I look at the audience.

SE: You look at the viewer as if the viewer were also a camera. You don't look at him as if he were a painter.

EK: Why not?

SE: It's this very concentrated, focused gaze into another person's eye or into a lens – one could also say into the lens of an apparatus. This is at least the way it appears.

EK: For me, it's not only the gaze that's conceptualized, but the whole idea of these paintings. I was looking for a formula like Robert Ryman had with his white paintings. And I found out that, what was white for him, is for me the image of myself, because I'm continuously working on the image of myself. And it's something that is always available to me, and it's also something very simple. There's a reference point for me. It's On Kawara with his date paintings, because this is also a formula that's being repeated. And I always write the exact date on the back side of the painting. So, it shows my face at the time when I did a painting. And it's also a kind of an image of the date.

SE: I would go on and immediately ask you – you also contextualize yourself with the text that you are wearing on your body now. Could you comment on that?

EK: It's by a Swedish artist. His name is Karl Holmquist. I think you can read it, "Give poetry a try". And he gave this to me during a lecture by Catherine David about the Documenta. And I thought it was kind of a funny, but touching comment on the lecture. Because, I think language is usually very limited in the art discourse, when you talk with critics or curators. Artists usually have another kind of language. So I think that wearing this – is also a criticism of these limitations.

SE: Are you aiming for a poetic structure in your work?

EK: Yes, certainly.

SE: So, once more a reproach that comes from a lot of people: that you were making your privacy public and there couldn't be anything private left for you, given that you show your body and yourself in the context of your studio, and in all these different kinds of "mise-en-scènes" you are showing in the photographs in the Secession.

EK: Well, it's certainly not true that it's my private sphere, because it's something I'm taking into public, consciously. And I am always styling myself, and I design the scene where it's put on so it's a kind of fiction of privacy. I take some of the aesthetics of private life and private living spaces into the public spaces. I was testing out the function of chaos. To me, it was a possibility to conquer a room. I also found out it's a structure that is very antifascistic, because there is nothing you can control about it. You cannot find an order. And I think that's also something people haven't yet realized.

SE: I agree with you that this heterologic quality of your work is definitely something that goes against certain norms and regulations. Of course the issue, or you could even say the token of chaos and of dissolution has been one that has been used in modernism for a long time. I want to question you a bit further. This is, of course, an implication in the question of the private you show your body, you are working on pornographic issues, you combine given pornographic images with sort of pornographic stagings of your body. Could you say more about your sexual self, about the fantasies of this sexualized body that you represent in your artworks?

EK: I think that my body, and how I represent it, also shows the experiences my body has made in society and how society deals with my body or the female body. Because, I also have eating disorders which are caused by certain structures in society. I think they are caused by violent gaping and by all these role models I have to deal with. And for a while, I was really trying to become one of those role models. I tried to exercise and be very skinny and eat very little and look like the bodies that are usually in advertising. And then I always had eating disorders, especially bulemia.

SE: You were talking about yourself. You found that being yourself was not the way you first thought it would be as this ideal, beautiful woman.

EK: I think I believed in this ideal image more than people usually do. I was really trying to be it. A lot of people see it, but they don't if they look like that or not. And I really wanted to look like that and try out how it is. And then I found out it didn't necessarily make my life better to look like this because, for example, I didn't have any friends at that time who really liked me. And also I found out it's just a fiction that was very hard to keep up, because I like eating, and somehow after a while I decided what I really preferred. I think I'm also working with the idea of failure. I think in a piece of work you can see the whole history of failures that made me do certain installations or performances. So, I'm showing that these images are constructed, although they don't really work. Or they work only for very few people, but they claim to work for everyone.

SE: In the "Kunsthalle" you did a kind of scandalized performance. You installed a real functioning bathroom there. You took a bath and after taking the bath you masturbated in public. What was your intention in this performance?

EK: The title of this piece was "Satisfaction" and for me it referred very much to the art context. It also had to do with the financial possibilities, because the "Kunsthalle" has quite a big budget to make such things possible, so I was finally able to realize this installation with the bathroom, which I already had wanted at the "Aperto" in Venice 1993. When I arrived at the "Aperto", they didn't produce anything. I found out they didn't do it because they don't have the money and the possibilities and the "Kunsthalle" has. They really set it up it the way I ordered it. It had all the things that I really wished to have in my apartment, like a bathtub and a CD-player and a record player and an ironing-board, and, I think, a cooking plate or a coffee machine and a television. For me, this installation was the perfect room I would really like to live in. I have to talk about it. And another part of it was that I invited somebody I had wanted to get to know for quite a long time, and this was the rock & roll singer and producer Kim Fouley. He cancelled one week before the opening. So, I got the money to fly to Los Angeles to make a videotape with him, and he sang two songs for Vienna on this tape. I think in our first telephone conversation he asked me if I was masturbating to his pictures, because I was such a big fan of his. I liked this idea, this combination of admiring somebody and the physical effects it can have, because I wasn't sure if it really happens. One art critic who interviewed me, told me that's something girls really do. And I couldn't imagine that it works for a woman to masturbate to a picture. But for me it works to masturbate to a sound. And it was all a comment on this title "Satisfaction" which is also a song by the Rolling Stones, "I can't get no satisfaction". So it's all about the purpose of making art. I make art to get satisfaction. So it refers to the whole institutional context.

SE: Did you satisfy your audience? Was it also about satisfying the audience?

EK: No, not really. I think the audience wasn't really satisfied, because they got something they didn't expect. I think they felt kind of intimidated. From my point of view, it was a criticism of the audience, of the voyeurism that is also in the art business, the way people look at works.

SE: I agree. I heard also comments on your "Weininger Series" that you made a statement which kind of fell into Weininger's text and did not obtain any distance from Weininger and his phantasies about women.

EK: Well, I'm not sure if it was really necessary obtain distance, because I think he also shows a way of thinking that still continues now. (.)

SE: I agree somehow, except for the hatred against women. I think that one aspect in your "Weininger Series" and in all of your work is irony. Also parody. Would you see yourself as an ironic artist or a parodistic artist?

EK: Sometimes. But at the same time I am always serious.

SE: This doesn't say that irony and also parody are not very serious.

EK: I think on the one hand it's a parody, and at the same time it's not.

SE: Yes. To me that's an important point: it is and isn't, and that's the disturbing thing. You are blurring certain fields, contexts that are meant to be kept separate – certainly also a well-known strategy in art. You are blurring the spaces where, say striptease takes place and – you've talked about the sauna, the nude body. You bring it into the art context and make those so-called "private spheres" come together in the art context. But as you said before, so-called the "privacy" is only assumed, and it's privacy that embodies a certain relation of power as well.

EK: But my pornography is not something private. It's something public that's shown in public, and it's made for the public.

SE: I agree. And the same goes for the peep show. And when you work on those issues, it's a misunderstanding to accuse you of giving away your privacy or dismantling your privacy because this isn't private. The whole matter of the private and the public is being questioned and conceptualized in your work.

EK: People felt offended by the fact that I was very young when I became a professional artist, because there are all these clichés of how a career has to work. In the beginning, I heard a lot of rumours about who I slept with to help my career, and then I put out a name list of all the people I slept with during that period of time to show my point of view. From this list you could see how rumours can be true or not – because only the person who experienced it can know if it's true.

SE: Again, this work that was a reaction against the rumours also referred to excess. The rumour that she sleeps with everybody – that's another form of excess.

EK: I think.

SE: It's a gender-specific form that comes up here. The whole construction is gender-specific in that it's woman who is and has been said to be the excessive one, and she has to be limited. She can go as far as she is allowed by the people in power. You transgress these borders – you said it at the beginning. So your work is about transgressing certain normative ideas. (.)

EK: I very much deal with the people who invite me. And then I think people get afraid of me if they feel it's really about them.

SE: So are you symbolizing power by staging it with a gun?

EK: Yes. It's all about that influence of movies. I tried to find out what a gun really is, what a gun is in reality, and what it is in the movies. We don't realize it, but the image is so normal to us, we don't realize what kind of effect it really has.

SE: Are you relating the gun directly to your sexual organs in the cover of the catalogue of the Secession?

EK: No, not only. It also functions like a camera. It's something that you can look into.

SE: Yes. I would like to ask you, and it's my final question: you said once you live feministically, or in a feminist way, maybe that's the better expression – but you don't think of yourself as a feminist artist?

EK: Because I usually don't like the context in which some feminist artists work, or the group shows that are made about such themes. I'd like to be seen in a larger context than this – because I think feminism is a socio-political issue. It's not an artistic issue.

SE: I would counter and say it can of course be both. But this is something that has no general form of expression, or it's not a kind of ahistorical thing. Feminism and feminist art have their history. And I ask you now – given all you have been saying about dealing with your position as a woman in relation to violence, structural violence and certain clichés that you are dealing with – doesn't your work have a feminist impact in as far as you deal with these issues?

EK: I'm sure that it has. But, I think in order to position myself, I need to neglect it. Because if I were to present myself as a feminist artist, I would be somewhere completely different – where I don't want to be.

(Vienna, March 1997)