Art & Stories
Artist Jonathan Meese at work
Jonathan Meese is considered the enfant terrible of contemporary German art. A genius. A provocateur. Interview with Birgit von Heintze, author and lifestyle journalist.
Jonathan Meese is the enfant terrible of the German contemporary art scene – equal parts genius and provocateur. Born in Tokyo as the youngest of three, Meese was raised by his mother in Schleswig-Holstein, where he’s often seen in his hometown of Ahrensberg. After graduating high school, he started and then quickly abandoned an economics course. Art met the same fate; he believes it’s not something that can be taught. Today, Meese is considered one of the world’s 100 most influential contemporary artists. I paid a visit to this introverted, exceptional artist for a tête-à-tête – one North German exile in Berlin to another – in his vast Prenzlauer Berg studio, once a pumping station for the Berlin Waterworks.
You’ve stopped wearing your Adidas tracksuits. What happened?
It’s too warm right now. They’ll be back with the next cold snap. Sometimes, you have to go against your own principles.
Any plans to go against your principle of not having a private email account?
No, even though I do read emails every day. I don’t have a cell phone, either. I’d probably be on it constantly. It’s all a bit too much for me.
So how do you call people? There aren’t many phone booths left.
I rarely call people. At most, I’ll ring my office. The bulk of my communication happens via iPad or by letter. I need my freedom, and I want to focus on my work.
Tell me a little about your average day.
I have a routine I follow consistently, which I wouldn’t want to give up. I never eat breakfast, but I’ll drink six or seven cups of tea and then either go to my studio or travel to set up an exhibition. I love sleeping, and it’s something I do a lot of. I get around ten hours a night at the moment. I could easily spend 16 hours in bed without getting depressed, either reading or watching TV and videos. Preferably ‘80s music videos on YouTube. I love old shows like the spy series The Avengers, The Persuaders! and Star Trek. What a wonderful era. It gets me sentimental. Watching Bambi makes me cry.
What does your creative process look like? What inspires you?
I can start on a new painting anytime, and I can just as easily pick up something I’ve already started. I don’t get blocked. I may have problems with reality, but not with art.
What do you mean?
For the most part, I find real life so horrific that I have to distance myself from it. To the extent that I don’t have opinions on politics, religion or anything else. None of it interests me. My focus is my art, and my art alone.
As a citizen and an artist, don’t you have a political responsibility? After all, this country grants you so much freedom, which isn’t always par for the course. Just look at Turkey.
I believe everyone has their job to do. A fireman is a fireman, and a taxi driver drives a taxi. Everyone should do what they do best.
You use religious and political symbols in your work. The swastika, for example.
They’re just motifs I use in my art without attributing ideological meaning to them. I suspended politics when I performed the Hitler salute. I made it clear that it was art, and that neutralised the gesture. Everything is allowed on stage. As an artist, you can’t let yourself be held back by politics.
Don’t you want to make a statement with your art?
No. I don’t draw a distinction between religious crosses and swastikas. I need art to be radical, and that radicality doesn’t exclude murder and homicide. Reality is different. I steer clear of real crimes, real war and other atrocities. They’re not a part of my life.
War is the stuff of art and the big screen. War is for film and books.
But they happen in real life. You read the news; you know what’s going on.
I actually buy newspapers compulsively. The things I read in them, though, strike me as impositions. It’s incredibly depressing.
Why are you so provocative in your radicality when you don’t actually want to make a statement? You’ve dealt with four legal complaints for doing the Nazi salute.
I like being provocative, because I believe art can achieve a great deal. Art has the power to govern us. To govern Berlin, Germany, the world, the universe.
Are you happy that Angela Merkel is still chancellor?
I couldn’t care less.
What’s your take on right-wing populist parties like the AfD?
Again, I couldn’t care less. I’m not permitted a political opinion: That would be a betrayal of art. For me, the future isn’t about political parties. All political empires fell eventually: Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece. But art survived. So it follows that art should be handed the reigns. I’m not sure how that would work, exactly. We’d have to give it a shot, as they say. Everything would fall into place and take care of itself in keeping with evolution. That much is certain.
Wouldn’t we have total chaos on this planet without a certain degree of order and regulation?
I envisage Germany as being more like a massive hotel run by the people who are most suited to the job. Not dictated by religious or other motives, but by love and respect. I don’t like all these categories. I don’t drink my tea as a right- or left-wing citizen. I don’t even drink it as an atheist. The rebel in me says it’s time for something else to take the wheel.
Was politics never a topic at home when you were growing up?
My mother never pushed a political agenda. When I was 18, I voted for every single party on the ballot paper, and I’ve not voted since. It reminds me of the Weimar Republic. It’s ancient history, and it doesn’t affect my life. My studio is a politically neutral zone. No politics allowed.
There’s something very convenient about that attitude: I’m not interested, so I’ll ignore it.
I don’t ignore it: I engage with it, but I don’t take sides. I don’t let myself be used, not by anyone or for any cause. All the evil things in this world are rooted in political ideology. As soon as we get involved, we make ourselves culpable. That’s something I’m scared of, so I stay out of it. It’s why I’m one of the best artists alive [laughs]. That’s my contribution.
Do you steer clear of reality in other spheres, too?
I suffer at the hands of reality, but not at the hands of art. Reality makes me feel uncertain, but in the art world, I like to play the troublemaker. I don’t do that in everyday life.
You’re an incredibly friendly person. Is your friendliness sometimes misunderstood or even taken advantage of?
Yes. Sometimes to quite an extreme extent, which is why I’m so exhausted. I’m radical in my art and friendly in real life, and that’s often abused. I get countless people writing to me every day. Everyone wants something from me. Young artists think I have time to help them and don’t get it when I turn them down. I’m not a guru.
How do you protect yourself against the demands made of you?
By sleeping. Or saying something extreme, which manages to alienate some people. For me, that’s a defence mechanism of sorts.
That sounds challenging…
Sometimes, it’s almost unbearable. I don’t want to come across as an arrogant person, because that’s not me. But my time is limited. I basically have no availability until 2022.
You strike me as a gentle, sensitive person.
Yes, that’s true. But only to a certain degree. When I’m at the breaking point, I flip out.
That surprises me. That’s something you’re capable of?
You bet. I can get loud and angry. But I’m also good at making up. I don’t forgive people who betray me or stab me in the back though. My mum says I bear grudges; I tell people when they overstep boundaries.
Critics have accused you of producing inflationary art.
I definitely have a greater output than Picasso. But they’re all originals, and none of them are made by assistant teams. Maybe some paintings are better than others, but love has gone into every single one of them. I won’t let people use that criticism to get rid of me.
Is your production driven by creativity, or is it more about making money?
It’s never been about the money. That’s why I make a pretty decent living [grins].
For a while, you slipped out of the public eye. Were you affected by the claim that your art had lost its edge?
Patience is a virtue. In cases like that, it’s best to keep producing. Now more than ever. I’m particularly fond of the one I did called “Die Wurstkönigin auf dem Senftopf” [The sausage queen on the mustard pot]. It’s very detailed. I discover something new every time I look at it.
How long do you spend on your paintings?
That depends. Sometimes my mum comes along and says, “Oh, Johnny, that could do with a splash of red.” Or she’ll say, “That looks like a dog; why don’t you add a tail?” And then I’ll do that. Some days, I only make a single mark.
What are your weaknesses?
I can’t throw anything out, not even a Coke bottle, because there’s a chance I might use it again for a painting. I’m a terrible hoarder.
But not a compulsive one, I hope…
If it weren’t for my mother, and if I weren’t successful, it’d be a problem. It started when I was a student. In my early twenties, I realised that I couldn’t get rid of anything. I saw art in everything – in the Bild newspaper, in every single magazine. I saved it all. Today, I spend 1,000 euros a month on newspapers alone. I’m starting to run out of space, even here in my studio. The people in my life are at their wits’ end.
What sets you apart from the crowd?
My hermit skills. I’m very good at being alone. I never feel lonely.
But are you ever truly alone? Your mother is always around.
I never felt I had to cut the cord. I have tremendous respect for my mum. For me, she’s authority incarnate, second only to art. We’ve got a little team going. Mum is in it for the long haul. I’m eternally grateful to her for that. Anyone who crosses my mother is out. That’s unforgivable to me.
Would you say you’re a mummy’s boy?
Yes, but in a positive way. It would make me happy if more people honoured their parents the way I do. The older generation needs to be included; they’re part of things. In this day and age, they’re often cast aside. My mum is 88 years old, and I still trust her with everything. I never rebelled against her.
Has your mother accepted your girlfriend as the woman by your side?
She had to. It can be difficult for both of them. My girlfriend and I have been together for 26 years, and she knows that my mum is part of the package.
You all live in the same house. Are there sometimes conflicts?
We work well together as a team, and things have a way of taking care of themselves. If nothing drastic happens, it’ll stay that way. I need to be surrounded by people I can trust. I know my mother will die one day – probably before me. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But with a little luck, we’ll have another 10, 15 or even 20 good years together.
Interview by Birgit von Heintze,
Author and lifestyle journalist