“Within the system, working against the system”
A conversation with Christian Jankowski

Christian Jankowski is the James Bond of conceptual art. He continually challenges the art world with his clever and adventurous projects. Whether looking for the perfect person to play Jesus, as he did in 2013 in his video work “Casting Jesus,” or exploring the tourists’ paradise on the Arabian peninsula for five days blindfolded in his performance “The Eye of Dubai” in 2012—Jankowski continually develops new strategies for taking the conventions of the art and entertainment industry to the point of absurdity. Beginning on June 12, his film “16mm Mystery” will be on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle as part of “Checkpoint California—20 Years Villa Aurora in Los Angeles.” Oliver Koerner von Gustorf talked to Jankowski about the destructive power of the gaze, Hollywood’s special effects, and his plans for “Manifesta.”
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: Your film “16mm Mystery,” which can be seen as part of “Checkpoint California” at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, was made in 2004 during a residency at the Villa Aurora.

Christian Jankowski: Yes, that’s when I spent three months in Los Angeles.

How did you come up with the idea of collapsing an entire high-rise building for this film?

It wasn’t even my idea. For me, this project was about the power of film. In Los Angeles, it seemed natural to do something on the film industry. Hollywood cinema is known for its elaborate special effects, and that’s why I was mostly interested in this genre. I became acquainted with the Strause brothers through a producer who’s also an art collector. Among other things, they did the special effects for The Day After Tomorrow. At the time, chance had it that they wanted to get involved in directing, and so they were open to my proposal to collaborate. People who do special effects generate these images according to the requirements of a script, a director, or a producer. I asked myself what would happen if these people were given the freedom to create an image of their own choice. That’s why I proposed that they should make a film about me, about how I walk through Los Angeles with a film projector, a screen, and a film to a particular place, where I set everything up and project my film, and how the power of this mysterious film brings about a change in the environment. In other words, they could have done all kinds of things—they could have created a jungle growing behind me, or a dinosaur doing somersaults. I said to the Brothers Strause: “You’re making this film, you’re doing the effects, but don’t tell me what effects you’ve decided on. When it’s finished, I’ll come to the opening and let myself be surprised over what happens in my film, and what it leads to.”

But the collapsing buildings bring 9/11 to mind.

Yes, they do. I showed the work for the first time at MoMA, not very long after the attacks. I was nervous thinking about how it would be received and interpreted.

I found it pretty interesting that a lot was written about special effects and disaster films in reference to September 11.

Yes, that’s true. Many people who turned on the TV on September 11 thought at first that it was a special effect. And then they realized that it really was the news they were looking at. I think people have always been preoccupied and fascinated by the search for big, powerful images and the idea of catastrophe, of the end of the world. Religions have always worked with this power of images, for instance purgatory.

Like in the Baroque painting by Lucas Valdes, which inspired you to make this work.

I discovered this painting entirely by chance in a museum in Seville. I was interested in the idea that a painting could talk about an image. The motif is as follows: a picture is carried through the streets of Seville in a procession, and due to the power of this picture, a building caves in. The painting demonstrates the power of painting and the power of God, which is reflected in this picture within a picture, which the viewer can’t even see. In Valdes’s painting, only the reverse side of the picture is shown. This is why, in 16mm Mystery, I consciously decided that it should remain a secret what film I am actually projecting; this is why you can only see the projection screen from the back in my film.

Next year you’ll be curating the Manifesta in Zurich, which focuses on the themes of work and profession. You’re planning to leave the usual theory aside, and you’re considering listing the various items of the show’s budget in the catalogue, in other words, making the conditions of production transparent.

Actually, I’d say that in terms of Manifesta, I’m interested in professions and perspectives on life and the worlds that professions entail. It’s about themes such as profession and calling, to answer to a call to do something, or professional honor. I’d like to make my own production conditions transparent. But it shouldn’t take up too much room, and it doesn’t mean that I’m closing myself off to theory. I find mediation very important. I’d like to address many different audience groups, which as a result of my concept come from a wide variety of different professions that aren’t necessarily accustomed to “art speak” per se. I’m concerned with understandability, also in text.

For Manifesta, you’ll have to find participants from many different professions. How do you convince an undertaker or a baker to take part in something like this?

You have to try to find people that are somehow exceptional in their field and have a certain understanding of how they come across, or are held in especially high esteem by their colleagues. People always like to use art for some purpose or other. That doesn’t even have to be a negative thing, if it points out certain grievances, for instance. So art could also be used to spark discussion and to carry themes that these professional groups are involved in into the wider society. On the other hand, art also carries new themes into these professional areas, and in the end, surprising things can come out of that.

So it could also be a social worker or a kindergarten teacher.  

Absolutely! And that means, first of all, that I’m looking for special people recommended to me from their professional field. And then I have to meet with them and see if they’re interesting. More often than not, they feel recognized. It’s actually a very nice thing when someone contacts you directly and tells you that of all the master bakers in Zurich, you make the loveliest croissants. And you think, wow, people actually noticed what I do. And then it’s a matter of finding out if the person concerned feels like getting involved in a journey and expanding his otherwise very goal-oriented handicraft as baker—to put his work in the service of art. To many people, this is really attractive. I often noticed this when I asked people to do something for art. The results are often much better than if you offered them a few hundred Euros. If they get a work of art from me in the end, or if they can be seen in an exhibition that they can take their friends and relatives to come and see, it enriches the lives of these collaborators or co-authors. To this day I still have contact to many of the people I’ve worked with in the past. Real friendships have grown out of this.

You’ve been working as an artist for 20 years now, and you’ve always reflected on the art establishment. To what extent have the two sides—the business and your work—changed since the early nineties? Have things become harder?

Actually, I’ve always been lucky. Somehow, things always worked out. Is it harder or easier? It’s hard at the very beginning, when you don’t know if you’ll manage to concentrate completely on your art, or if you’ll be forced to work on the side in professions that have nothing to do with art. Happily, I received a scholarship early on and I was included in a few larger exhibitions while I was still a student. Has the art changed? Art has to change, because at first you’re an underdog, of course, and this weaker position gives you completely different possibilities for addressing power relations. You only accept a different kind of criticism from an established artist. But when he tries to play the young radical, it’s as though a 50-year-old were playing the role of the teenage lover. You don’t buy it. In my previous projects, I often intuitively worked within the system against the system, in other words, subversive and conformist at the same time—it’s sort of like saying yes and no simultaneously. Like Till Eulenspiegel. That’s a hackneyed metaphor, but it’s similar to the position of court jester. He has his function within a certain context, and he’s allowed to hold up a mirror or to turn power relations around for once. In the end, this simultaneous yes and no is very good for art. As a viewer, I like it when I see something disturbing. I often find the art uninteresting when you can feel too much what the artist wants to say and what you’re supposed to learn. It’s only when I ask myself if I’m even allowed to laugh at a certain point or not, if it’s nice or not, if it’s embarrassing, pathetic, or highly moving—that’s when things get interesting. I find this lack of clarity to be the most engaging thing for the viewer, because that’s where he can discover himself the best. One person says one thing about a work, his colleague sees something completely different—and already they’ve started talking to each other about it.

Checkpoint California – 20 Years Villa Aurora in Los Angeles
June 12 – 28, 2015
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin