Re-Reading: “I’m not interested in ordinary beauty”
A Conversation with Marc Brandenburg

In our new series “Re-Reading,” we present interviews, articles and essays from the ArtMag archive that are worth reading again from today’s perspective. Whether because the respective artists, curators, or authors are currently in the spotlight with exhibitions or projects, or because their voice of yesteryear contributes to current debates. In the ArtMag interview to follow, Marc Brandenburg, whose exhibition “Hirnsturm II” is on view at Städel Museum until January 30, talks to Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the occasion of Brandenburg’s 2011 exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. In the interview, the artist discusses motifs and strategies in his work that are still valid today—and talks about his love of Barcelona and Michael Jackson, and why he thinks it’s good to be an outsider.
Published in the May 2011 issue of ArtMag

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: The sky is such a bright blue; you must have fantastic weather in Barcelona …

Marc Brandenburg: Yes, and it’s CSD terror here today. Gays always have more than enough reasons to go out onto the streets, but this “carnival of pure joie de vivre” is simply awful. I gave it some thought, but then I went to the Plaza Catalunya instead, where there’s been a 2revolution" going on for the past few weeks. The entire population supports the protests, and everyone is involved in one way or another. Well, what do you expect with 20% unemployment? Now, after many long weeks of protest, the square—which is in a wonderful central location— has mutated into a hippie village. There are even tree houses here, totally abstract.

What made you move to Barcelona for almost three months?

There’s so little to distract me here. Actually, there’s nothing. I live at a friend’s place who works all day, which is practical and gives me peace. I don’t have to talk, and I can work when I want. It’s all very pleasant. I don’t have any connection to the art scene here. Most of the galleries show paintings with colorful suns and other handicraft nonsense. And going to the beach every day is impossible. In short, I can concentrate on what’s essential.

You worked quite a bit on the preparations for your impending exhibition "Drawings" at the Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Yes, and it’s actually my first large solo exhibition in a German museum. There was a smaller exhibition at the MMK in 2005, in connection with the Karl Ströher Prize, but this time it will be around 80 works on show, a pretty large number. The exhibition takes place in the gallery of master drawings, a huge, windowless room in which the entire show is submerged in black light to make the drawings glow in the dark. The black light installation is nothing new in my work, but I’ve always wanted to do this in a larger museum space.

There was also a black light installation in your last exhibition "Version" at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York in June. In an interview, the curator of the Studio Museum, Thomas J. Lax, reiterated the central role that light plays in your work. In particular, he connected the ultra-violet light with places that stand for a carnivalesque or hedonistic culture, elements of which appear in your drawings, such as amusement parks, casinos, clubs, bars.

Oh, God … you know, chance plays a role here, too. When I walked into Kumpelnest 3000 one day with a roll of paper I’d just bought under my arm—a Berlin bar that has a black light hanging above the bar—I discovered the black light effect as a form for presenting my works. The light evokes nightlife or entertainment culture; this is close to my intent. But I’m really interested in another effect altogether—I want the art to become the center of things.

What do you mean?

It’s a tragedy when people regard exhibitions as a place to get together or represent something and they fail to concentrate on the art. You get pulled into the space in a completely different way when it’s illuminated solely by black light.

Because you completely lose orientation?

Exactly—it’s basically the negative counterpart to the white cube: a big black void in which pictures float in the air

. And what kind of pictures are these?

They’re images I’ve been making since 1998, when this shift into the negative took place in my drawings.

If you look at works of yours from over ten years, the people and things in them are almost all in “drag,” that is, wearing costumes or masks: there are demonstrators, clowns, hooligans, plastic toys, carousel figures, transsexuals, eccentrics. What attracts you to a motif?

I’m interested in anything that departs from what’s perceived as a social norm. This can be homeless people, demonstrating Neo-Nazis, or hooligans—completely eccentric and unique people, but also people on a fan mile or at a parade, where it’s acceptable to be dressed or to behave in an extreme way. There are situations that are very important for my motifs, for instance when people or things fall out of their ordinary role, or when they’re playing their role way too much. They’re too costumed, too monstrous, too hard, ecstatic, or militant. For a moment, a mask or a collective ritual or a comic figure suddenly turns into something alien, empty, or inscrutable, and these things become frightening for a variety of reasons.

And fascinating.

Exactly. I have to feel attracted and repelled at the same time. But I’m not interested in depicting a freak show or something bizarre. If I draw my friend Reinhard Wilhelmi in a skeleton costume or naked and wearing a rabbit mask, then I’m not asking him to dress up—he just happens to be running around like that. And I’m often a part of what I draw. These are frequently people or things from my immediate surroundings. When I’ve photographed demonstrators, I was usually one of them. At the same time—and that’s this back and forth I’m talking about—I always feel a little bit outside of it all. This feeling of being different is something everyone knows from their youth; in my case, it was extreme. I was heavily influenced by the Berlin punk scene of the late seventies and early eighties. I was thirteen when I started going to clubs. I come from a pretty violent family, and I grew up as a double minority: a black, gay German-American. But for as far back as I can remember, being an outsider was the only conceivable way to live. It’s influenced my whole life. There’s an underlying feeling that’s basic to all youth and protest movements that plays an important role in my work: the need to clearly differentiate oneself through clothing, music, political beliefs. On the one hand, you close yourself off from the outside world, but at the same time the original personality disappears behind a look, an attitude, a representation. And that’s like a uniform, a shell.

And you can no longer tell this shell apart from the body. It merges completely with the "masquerade," becomes one with it. In your drawings, it’s no longer clear if you’re looking at skin or plastic, a person or a doll—or what light, shadow, or matter are. Somehow, you get a feeling that the bodies in your pictures are hollow or empty, that they shine from within.

It’s important to my work to attract attention to the surface, to the textures of things—and to make it clear that it’s a representation of something. I’m more interested in the structures of things than in meanings and stories contained in the motif. This emptiness at the heart of the images, this white shining through is important. People often talk far more about the “queer” context of the motifs than about the drawings’ formal or conceptual aspects. It goes as far as connecting the reversal of black and white in the images to my skin color and interpreting that as a statement against racism. But they forget that I’m not just copying something 1:1, or drawing in the negative to create a certain effect or preconceived message. The documentary and biographical nature of my motifs and photographs is very important, of course, but even more important for me is the laborious act of reproduction, which consists of many working steps.

What are these steps, exactly?

I begin with around 30 photographs that I take of a certain motif. In the end, I select maybe three, which I reverse into the negative on the Xerox machine, playing with the brightness and contrast. After that, I scan them and digitally alter the negative versions on the computer. Over the past several years, I’ve gotten more and more extreme with this. There are now many individual enlarged crops where you can only make out abstract smears and the viewer has no idea what the original motif might have been. Then I take these digitally manipulated images and draw from them, or more precisely, I copy them by hand.

Which is a very time-intensive proposition.

Yes, with the large drawings it can take weeks. My slow working method means I’m sitting in the same position for hours and engaging in a very monotonous activity, which is primarily task-oriented. Sometimes, the drawing process sends my body into a trance-like state. Owing to the time spent with a single motif, the work takes on another urgency and importance, particularly in an era in which we’re bombarded with millions of images on a daily basis. For me, it’s an act of appropriation, a ritual with a clear performance character, with the sole difference being that there are no viewers present.

Are you concerned, then, that the treatment of the motif should be as virtuosic as possible? Your drawings are often admired for their technique.

To be honest, it turns my stomach when I get complimented for my drawing skills, even when I know it’s meant well. I find it wonderful, of course, that my exhibition in Hamburg is installed in the “Gallery of Master Drawings,” particularly because I try to subvert this concept of skill. I regard the element of technique in my work coldly, as a tool. I see myself as a part of a gigantic image machine; I do my job. In the truest sense of the word, I work through the images that bombard me, the things I see or have to see. One of my series is actually titled “Brainstorm.” The act of drawing leads to new reproductions. The drawn motifs serve as designs for stickers or plastic foil that I use for new images, site-specific works, or in public space. This can be a 45-foot-long storefront window in Berghain that I designed in silkscreen, or just a sticker on the street, which I leave around like a tag.

Why have you adhered to the medium of drawing for over a decade? You could also work digitally.

I know that many people are fascinated by the medium of drawing and I use that to attract people, to divert their attention to things or situations they wouldn’t otherwise spend very much time looking at. A good example of this are the pools of vomit that I photographed in Paris a while ago. I’m not at all interested in recording beauty in the usual sense, but I find it everywhere I look. And these pools really seemed worth drawing. They have these wonderful abstract forms, and that’s how the viewers see them at first until they realize what they are. It’s then that the reflex of looking away sets in. In my work, I try to animate the viewer to look in a precise way, without preconception. The puddle of vomit is both an abstract composition and a documentation of latent, usually male violence. The act of throwing up, spitting, pissing also serves to mark territory. Cities are full of this. At the same time, the vomit is associated with aversion, excess, addiction, abundance, disgust. You just have too much—and you want to throw up. I’m fascinated by ambivalence of this kind. Reinhard might seem camp or bizarre in his cheap skeleton costume, but he has an unbelievable style and radiates a high degree of seriousness. The drawing I made of him can be read as a snapshot-like document. It can also recall vanitas paintings, medieval death dances, and also, of course, very contemporary themes connected to death and dying, such as nuclear contamination, AIDS, and war.

Your drawings often depict phenomena from contemporary life: demonstrations by the anti-globalization movement or by Neo-Nazis or snowman parades for environmental protection. Despite this, they seem strangely timeless; on the surface, they resemble the 1960s and 1970s motifs that repeatedly appear in your series. For instance, it’s not Lady Gaga that keeps turning up as a contemporary pop cultural icon, but rather Michael Jackson and Yves Saint Laurent, who are really legends from a past era.

That has several reasons. I think Lady Gaga is a great artist, although I’m not crazy about her music. But she’s too much of a phenomenon of the times for me to draw her. I’m interested in people who embody something very contemporary and progressive, but appear to stand outside of the time—who leave their mark through an individual style, an attitude, or a vision and simply can’t be classified. And this can be Reinhard Wilhelmi, Michael Jackson, or Yves Saint Laurent—whose legendary nude portrait, which Sieff shot according to his instructions, helped create a totally modern, confident image of the homosexual. On the other hand, Michael Jackson blew apart the boundaries between race, gender, and age. He was the most radical entertainer of the 20th century. His incredible wealth enabled him to transform himself into an artificial figure of undefined race and gender. Besides this, he “fathered” three white children. I don’t think there’s even an upper middle-class African American family in North America that has succeeded in adopting white children. And that’s a very political demonstration of power. With all its tragic aspects, it demonstrates how far we really are from a truly free society.