In 2003, when I made this documentary, Matthew Barney had just completed the Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002), the Sistine Chapel of our times. Perhaps, five hundred years from now, the Cremaster will not be considered one of the masterpieces of European civilisation, but in other ways Barney’s Magnum Opus – five films whose length varies between 40 minute and 3 hours – is art on the scale of Michelangelo’s frescoes – in its visual richness, artistic innovation,allegorical and symbolic strategies, spiritual meanings, and size.The Cremaster is not only a set of films, it is a Gesamtkunstwerk of drawings, sculptures and photographs, using a diverse array of materials from pencil to Vaseline, and an equally diverse array of styles, from the abstract doodle to costume drama. In 2003 an exhibition of these works filled the Guggenheim in New York.
Born in 1967, Barney grew up in Idaho, and studied at Yale. There he excelled as a sportsman and enrolled in sculpture classes. He put the two together, and began producing a series of works from 1987 onwards, which enlarged the physical attributes of sport and biological processes into metaphors for artist creation. Taking as a model, the way muscles are built up in sport by encountering resistance (being strained and then healing stronger), Barney began trying to draw while encountering various ‘restraints’. In one early performance, he scaled the walls of a gallery, using rock-climbing equipment as if he was scaling a mountain. He made small drawings suspended awkwardly above the floor and smeared himself in the sports and body medication, Vaseline.In their form these works shared the utilitarian aesthetic of seventies body-art by Vito Acconci or Marina Abramovic, but, in the Cremaster Cycle, Barney translated these themes into colourful and complicated allegories, full of characters in strange costumes, incredible locations and bizarre storylines.
This was body art in fancy dress – Baroque conceptualism! The theme of the work was the process of creation from the moment in which ideas are conceived until the moment before the finalisation of the work. Barney drew parallels between the period of development of the human embryo, when its sex is not yet determined (the Cremaster is the muscle which raises and lowers the testes), the period when an artist is actually making a work, and sporting competitions, whose outcome is uncertain.Here was a work of art whose meanings had been very precisely formulated by the artist, yet were difficult to work out without reading extensively on the subject. To me this was one of typical pleasures and problems of art. The work looks great, you walk round it, contemplate it, and try to work out what it says. Often you get it wrong or you just can’t tell. Still somehow it’s a great work of it. That’s why most documentaries on art spend all their time ‘explaining’ the work. But in my film on Barney, I wanted to get to a moment before that – analogous to Barney’s moment of creativity in flux – when I was still trying to work out what all the symbols and stories in the work meant – and I wanted to see how the artist and his entourage of curators and interpreters would react, if I got it wrong.
If Gregor Schneider was a film-maker, he’d be John Carpenter or Wes Craven. He is contemporary art’s answer to the Horror movie, an artist who makes sinister and disturbing rooms, corridors, hallways and other interior or enclosed architectural spaces. In 2007, he exhibited “White Torture” in Hamburg – a corridor and linked rooms, all in white, like a hospital, that smelt suffocatingly of wet paint and plastic. It was full of doors, some of which were locked and some of which lead into cells. In London in 2004, he showed ‘The Schneider Family’, in which he took two neighbouring terraced houses and created identical scenes in each, not only in terms of the interior décor, but with actors too. There was a man in the bathroom of each house who appeared to be satisfying himself, and, in another room, a little girl wrapped in a plastic bag. That is typical of Schneider. His work has incredible precision. It uses the discipline and simplicity of minimalism, but it also often has elements that seem to come from cheap TV drama.
Schneider’s best-known work is still his first, Haus Ur, which he exhibited at the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2001, winning the Golden Lion. The artist is said to have begun making it in 1985, at the age of 16. It was originally the house that belonged to his father and that Schneider grew up in – an average-looking several-storeyed building, which Schneider had transformed into a giant installation full of sinister rooms, each with a different character.
There was a room of scary banality, with a low ceiling that was just white walls and skirting boards and carpeted floor. There was a room that was lead-lined and sound-proofed. There was a room, like a bedsit with a kitchen and a single bed in it. And there were secret partitions, rubbish-strewn corridors and doors without handles on the inside. Sometimes Schneider packed up the rooms he had made and sent them around the world in exhibitions. He also photographed the rooms and sold these images as works.
Much of the greatest art seems to be produced from personal suffering and to express universal human trauma, like the twisted figures in the paintings of Francis Bacon, the fat and felt of Joseph Beuys or the dark Expressionism of Max Beckmann. Schneider’s Haus Ur seemed to me to be a bona fide example of art that had to have come from terrible experiences. Yet, nothing in what I had read about Schneider gave any indication of what the biographical source for his work might be. So I decided to dedicate one of my Art Safaris to trying to find out about his youth. Schneider invited me to visit him at Haus Ur. He was a great host, friendly and polite. He. He showed me around his house and around town, even taking me and my producer to the local discos one evening. He took me round the lead factory his father owned, and showed me the deserted homes in empty German villages where he collected materials and found inspiration for his art. But it was difficult to get him to answer questions about his childhood. Still, sometimes, silence speaks louder than words.
I’ve always liked Isms. A hundred years ago there seemed to be lots of them. Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism… in the early twentieth century hardly five years seemed to go by without the arrival of a new Ism. But in recent years, I had noticed a terrible dearth of ‘isms.’ Artists, I was told by many curators, were now too individualistic to fit into the old-fashioned, Modernist ‘grand narrative’ of the ‘ism’, aka the collective movement in art. I never agreed with that point-of-view, since I think human beings are always part of shared historical and social forces, artistically and politically.
So imagine how excited I was in 2002, when I picked up a copy of Nicholas Bourriaud’s book “Relational Aesthetics”! Today Nicholas Bourriaud’s text (first published in 1998) is the best-known art theory book of the last ten years, and on the reading list of virtually every art school course in the world. In it, Bourriaud outlined a new ‘relational’ theory of art, in which the viewer interacted with and formed part of the art work. Bourriaud claimed that a handful of international artists were creating art according to this new theory – Liam Gillick, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Rikrit Tiravanija, Philip Parreno, Carsten Hoeller, Angela Bullock and others – and he organised a few group exhibitions of these artists works in the late nineties. It all sounded like a new Ism.I had a few questions about Bourriaud’s book, It was written in quite a complicated French way, so I wanted to talk to him about it. I wondered how the artists felt about being placed in a group together, and how ‘relational’ they considered themselves. So I decide to make a film about it. I had no idea how controversial this subject would be. Some artists seemed to be embarrassed by the thought of belonging to any group, and many denied they were relational. Liam Gillick slammed the phone down on me and told people I was dangerous. And there were a couple of other curators with competing names for this new movement such as ‘Art For Networks.’ Still Nicholas Bourriaud and Rikrit Tiravanija were very helpful, and convinced me that a new ‘Ism’ really had come into existence.So what is a relational work of art? One is Gonzalez Torres’ neat rectangle of boiled sweets, in silvery wrappers (you are free to take one and eat it), laid out of the floor of a international museum of contemporary art; another is Carsten Höller’s wall of violently-strobing light bulbs that fill your entire field of vision; a third is Liam Gillick’s sheet of mauve Perspex hanging just above your head, and entitled “Discussion Platform”; a fourth is Tiravanija’s Thai meal cooked for forty people attending a cool NY opening.
In the years since I have made this film, there have been more and more relational works of art. Relational artists have had retrospectives at the Serpentine (Tiravanija), won the Turner prize (Jeremy Deller), decorated the new Home Office building (Gillick) and filled the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern (Olafur Eliasson). Nicholas Bourriaud, meanwhile, moved on, and invented another ‘ism’ at the 2009 Tate Triennial – ‘altermodern(ism)’. Let’s see if it catches on.
Maurizio Cattelan is the world’s funniest artist. His ultra-realist works of art are three-dimensional cartoons about the contradictions and follies of the art world, art history and, beyond that, of Western civilization.
Born in Italy in 1960, Cattelan made his name with sculptures like “The Ninth Hour”, a waxwork of the Pope struck by a meteorite (1999) or ‘Him’ (2001), another super-realistic waxwork, this time of Hitler as a little boy kneeling in prayer.
He stuck his Italian gallerist Massimo De Carlo to the walls of his gallery with wrapping tape and dressed up his French one, Emmanuel Perrotin, in a penis outfit.
He made a portrait of supermodel Stephanie Seymour for her husband, art collector and newspaper magnate Peter Brant, in which he created a bust of Seymour protruding out of a wooden plaque like an nineteenth century hunting trophy with the head of a stag.
In recent years, Cattelan co-curated the acclaimed Berlin Biennial in 2006.Cattelan’s works of art seemed original and important to me because although they were always simple images, they tackled big issues – Fascism, religion, vanity – with great humour and precision. So I asked him if I could make a film about him. Maurizio said I could make my film as long as he didn’t have to appear in it. It would be okay, he said, because he had a double, Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni, who posed as him and always did his interviews. But for me, that was a problem. It would be very difficult to make a film about an artist without the artist in it and not disappoint my beloved television viewers.
Yet I could not pass up the opportunity to make a documentary about an artist I admired so much. I had to think of a clever way of persuading Maurizio to appear at least briefly in my film.Ever since Marcel Duchamp and his urinal, artists had been taking things from the real world and plonking them an art gallery and calling them art. I had always felt somewhat resentful of this, because often those things looked fine and were much more useful in their original real-world location.
Cattelan’s hyper-realist waxwork sculptures were descendents of the readymade, in the sense that they were replicas of things in the real world. I decided to use my Cattelan film to take revenge against the readymade. I would bring Cattelan’s sculptures to life with look-a-like actors – and then try to get those sculptures to interview the artist.
The climax of this process came at the Venice Biennale 2003. I knew Maurizio would be there. He had once made a work, in which a person in a huge Picasso mask stood outside MOMA in New York, greeting visitors like a character from Disneyland.
Inspired by this, I had a huge mask made of Cattelan’s face and I walked around the Venice Biennale in it, hoping Maurizio would be so impressed he’d talk to me. He did eventually come to speak to me, but I think his motivation was the opposite of what I hoped: I think he thought my work was terrible and he was worried that visitors would think it was one of his, and the only way he could stop me parading around as a Cattelan was by finally letting himself be filmed on camera with me….
30 min series about verious artists of the international art scene
for BBC4, TV2, Arte, ZDF, YLE, SBS
Nominated for a RTS award 2004
Winner NRW Sonderpreis Kultur, 2007 (GRIMME PRIZE, 2007)
Bronze medal, NY Television Festival 2007
Limited edition “Curating – A Game of Skill” commissioned by Deutsche Bank for Berlin Guggenheim, 2007