Pablo Larios You’ve named works after friends like Helene Huneke (Huneke, 2016), Tämur (2013) or Frank (Frank’s Affliction, 2016). Other paintings contain esoteric references (Hermetic Order of the Golden Privation, 2016) or ones to scholastic philosophy or theology (Duns Scotus, 2015). Given these near-private addressees or historical referents, I wonder: how do you imagine your audience for these paintings? Is painting something private or public?
Michaela Eichwald Huneke and Tämur are important people for me, though naming pictures after friends is an exception. And ‘Frank’ is me: it’s the Anabaptist name I adopted five years ago in Munich. Things only remain hermetic and esoteric as long as you don’t look closely enough. Once you do, everything becomes clear. I don’t paint in public. And I paint these pictures for whoever wants to look at them.
Pl Painting has often returned to the question of its own apparent superfluity and redundancy. The Latin expression cui bono – ‘who benefits?’ – featured in the title of your show last year at Overduin & Co, Los Angeles: ‘Quo vadis gnothi sauton und cui bono?’ Could this also be applied to painting? If there’s too much art to begin with, then why paint? – Cui bono?
ME The question ‘cui bono?’ is fundamentally interesting and these problems of painting are endlessly beautiful and inexhaustible. I actually tend to find other art forms boring and superfluous in comparison. That daft Latin-Greek-Latin title was meant to mean something like: ‘Where are you going, self-knowledge, knowledge of the work, self-reflection, reflection on the work?’ And, finally, who benefits from you wrestling and struggling with the problems of the self – self as case study, self as raw material – and the tasks, aims and justifications of your actions? Has this struggle, dilemma, negation and deliberate creation of difficulties already become a kind of end in itself? Is it something inappropriate that only struggles with itself, and that is supposed to act as proof of my own righteousness? What does it yield? Is it even interesting? For whom?
Pl Is that not for an audience to judge?
ME Yet what should I think when the work elicits either praise or silence? There’s the question of what, at best, the things one creates might mean. What that might ideally look like and whether I am even able to direct and influence it. Isn’t it something that must be left entirely to the Other? The feeling of self-evidence or epiphany cannot be generated. Either it happens, or it doesn’t. Of course I always hope that all this self-questioning and torment, which arises from the sense that something’s not good enough, will lead to better results. But that can only happen if the tension and expectancy are real, not by falling back on familiar routines.
Pl On your blog uhutrust.com you combine everyday observation with critical commentary on art. Where does the name ‘Uhutrust’ come from?
ME For a while it was my password. My first modem had ‘Trust Communicator’ written on it. In 1999, after I had intervertebral disc surgery, ‘Uhu, the power animal’ appeared to me at a health spa after I was more or less forced to take part in one of the ‘guided meditation’ or ‘psycho-travel with music’ sessions provided by the behavioural therapist there. Although I was very reluctant about the whole setting, I got caught up in it and at one point in the story – ‘a path leading deep into the woods, and then, suddenly, a clearing!’ – we were asked to visualize which animal we encountered in the clearing. The giant owl looked at me with its yellow eyes and said: Don’t be afraid any more. Or at least not so much.
Pl Afraid of what?
ME Afraid of life. Afraid of people. Afraid of having to do things one shouldn’t or does not want do. Obsessed with thoughts of escapism.
Pl Something a format a blog can offer – and maybe art too – is a manner of showing one’s self that is exposed but also protected. Engaging while being free of other forms of obligation. Is showing a means of escape?
ME When I started Uhutrust in 2006, I wished to make my so-called ‘work’ better known without having to pander directly to anyone in person. Creating a discrete place one can visit briefly and then go away again, without saying hello or goodbye, without having to apologize. After initial problems with finding the right form and the right tone, the blog soon began to more or less write itself, especially between 2007 and 2011. When I said this recently at a congress organized by Kerstin Stakemeier in Nuremburg, I was teased by Alleine Irren [Monika Rinck], who said anyone who thinks they’ve found their tone and voice may as well get themselves fitted for a wooden suit. And she’s right about that. Today, Uhutrust is showing signs of paralysis and is prone to feel that everything’s been said before, and said better. This feeling has made it sheepish and whiny. There’s no need to hide this, but in the long run it’s not a good look. Last year there were too few stimuli for development, too little meaning, too much bad temper. Added to which I got a bit ill and had to deal with that. With the meaning of life in general and mine in particular. My objectives.
Pl Your work seems quite productively pulled by separate contexts: considering an anonymous public, engaging with a specific scholarly and critical traditions, while balancing or contrasting this with a practice that strikes me as fundamentally private or personal. Reconciling commitment to the work with an awareness that art alone isn’t, or will never be, ‘enough’. In some works you seem to work against this rigour, by referring to buzzwords or micro-trends: one painting has ‘auction’ written on it (linking to current debates about abstract art and ‘flipping’), phenomena like the website Contemporary Art Daily or so-called Zombie Formalism, for example, appeared in your 2013 show ‘Knotti Times’. Your abstract paintings are made with a sensitivity, attention and aggression that’s anything but apathetic or vacant ...
ME I like debate. I’m unfortunately also addicted to the Internet, I’m always reading this stuff, although I prefer normal newspapers, reportage – I enjoy the language and ideas, if there are any. Much of my work is made within a tradition of critical engagement that I find lacking today – people are too cowardly to be open. As soon as you’re a bit ‘successful’ you have the additional problem that people become nicer still, and are never anything other than polite. I’m not sure if they do this deliberately or if they just can’t help themselves. Not wanting to be more deeply involved, or not being able to. People probably don’t ask themselves questions at all and don’t enjoy it. They think the questions have already been answered and concentrate on the smooth running of processes and on making compliments. I imagined ‘success’ a little differently. This doesn’t bother me at all, but sometimes I do wish there was a counterweight.
Pl What would be a counterweight?
ME More unguarded utterances. More life, more expression, feelings, involvement. Seriousness. Not the platitudes one hears: ‘I love your work!’, ‘amazing!’, ‘exciting!’. Deeper love, more serious love. Other people, other backgrounds. And to be able to laugh again.
Pl I think many now might wonder whether this model of the ‘counterweight’ – the situation of criticism you speak of – has ever really existed. People cultivate all these myths about the art scene in Cologne in the 1990s, of which you were also part, and its harsh self-critical antics …
ME Everyone recounts the Cologne myth from their own perspective. Many people today who think they would have loved it would probably have run a mile in the other direction at the time. Or been sent home immediately. I was lucky. From my perspective, it was a very good polymorphously perverse school with many original teachers where I could learn and experience what I wanted to know. In a direct, physical way. When it all got too much for me, I could switch to my other school, the university.
Pl Certain paintings of yours refer to the realities of an artist’s life, Knotti Times II. The Artist in her mid-forties (2013) for example. Others like Keine Narration (No narrative, 2016) or Keine Tradition (No tradition, 2016) look to the history of painting. These all profess an urge to engage with realities, or to escape or flee current systems. Would art better exist without the so-called ‘art world’?
ME Yes, but it would be different. I don’t even want to have to deal with terms like ‘art world’. It makes me think of people like Christian Boros, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Julia Stoschek or Nina Pohl. As I see it, there are hundreds of ‘art worlds’. I’m about ten thousand times more interested in other milieus. We can speak another time of how the artworks are made.
Pl Some discourse around painting today focuses on the relationship between abstraction and the ‘social network’ (this was one of the themes of Painting 2.0, in which you were included). Which, in its weaker instances, leads back to the culture of permanent affirmation you just dismissed. We’re left with the ‘empty’ painting gesture that thinks it enacts the same critical impossibility that produced it.
ME Network! Another one of those words! What’s there to be afraid of? Criticism is no problem. It creates values.
Pl There, it’s primarily an act of self-criticism.
Pl What comes next? What comes after the degree zero of ‘Absolution’, as you called a recent exhibition of yours?
ME What indeed. There has to be some kind of fitting response to this situation – the situation of annoying art, too much art, devalued art, hordes of empty, ambitious artists (who are really just project makers or designers) – I don’t have much hope of things getting better. Of course, I don’t know how much of that is personal frustration and how much can be attributed to the situation.
Pl So it’s a combination of creative surplus and lower standards. Today seemingly everyone is under the pressure to be ‘creative’ – in what strikes me as a massive collective betrayal of our age, the artist is marketed as the epitome of the creative individual, which is already the epitome of the self-actualized individual. Has art become a ‘job’?
ME You can call it a job. For aliens, or those who want to be.
Pl So what’s the alternative, considering the outlook? Being all alone?
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Michaela Eichwald is an artist. She lives in Berlin. Most recent solo shows include: ‘Quo vadis gnothi sauton und cui bono?’ at Overduin and Co., Los Angeles, and ‘Absolution’ at Silberkuppe, Berlin.
First published in Issue 25