CONVERSATIONS Mousse 25
Stars in Her Lies: Michael Krebber
by Michael Krebber and Ruairiadh O’Connell
Michael Krebber wants to make the scene. He’ll do it wherever he finds a stage, really. After all, the art stage is the right place to make an impact, and this new endeavor has been lit up by the positive signals of Broken Neon. It is the start of a series… In a conversation with his student, the artist Ruairiadh O’Connell, amidst the shacks of western ghost towns and the vestiges of a childhood torero costume that have migrated toward new political battles, Krebber tries to explain what it means to be post-…
RUAIRIADH O’CONNELL: In the text for Miami City Ballet, you mentioned a faux Western town. Did you ever witness the Wild West show, or a drunken shoot-out?
MICHAEL KREBBER: The village that I visited was actually only a house on the top of a hill, and to access the village you had to walk through a courthouse. Next to the entrance gate there was a gallows with a doll hanging from it. When I arrived, the owner was just about to pee on the doll, and another person was watching him. As I approached, I noticed they both had small pupils. The house had three or four rooms. One was really huge. You can see the outside and the entrance in my photo with the two armchairs and the space behind the window with the curtains—that was the stage; a two-square-meter stage. To the left, behind the stage, there was a church where you could marry somebody with a real priest. When we were at the bar I sat in a huge chair—a cross between a barstool and fauteuil—and the other man told me hysterically that the night before a woman had been sitting in this chair and she had opened her blouse and shown her breasts. Another time when I came into the bar, there was a young woman singing Western songs. She had a beautiful country voice. The friend of the owner was a regular at the main pub in the neighborhood, and everybody made fun of him. For Carnival once he dressed up as a woman and then at following Carnivals, gradually started to wear women’s clothes for longer periods of time, until eventually he always dressed in drag. He liked to be asked to lift his skirt and show his black panties, which he always did immediately with the greatest pleasure, acting coy. This summer I visited the village again with Simon—Denny, who did the conversation with Isa Genzken in Mousse 22—and the house of the second man didn’t exist anymore—it had always been a permanent construction site—and the Western town had become ruined and lost. It turned out that the owner was sued by young hustlers for child molesting and went to prison and maybe never came back.
ROC: So it really is a true ghost town now—a complete, honest tragedy. Köln has the most outrageous Carnival in Germany—did you ever dress up, like the man in drag?
MK: Sure, I dressed up every year when I was a child. My mother had a friend who was a tailor, and every second year I was allowed to choose a new costume. One year I wanted to be a Spanish torero and my grandmother brought the hat, banderillas and red rag from Spain, all child-size.
ROC: You were involved in the 1968 demonstrations, weren’t you?
MK: Yes. In fact, the red rag from my costume became part of a red flag that I carried during one of the demonstrations. In 1967 I wanted to go to a sit-in and the following demonstration against the Six-Day War, and I got the idea for a placard to carry. I found a small bamboo stick that my mother had used to hold up flowers and attached an A4-size piece of cardboard to it. I wrote: “For final peace in the Near East” on it in German. The demonstration ended with a rally, and everybody was waiting for the renowned SPD politician Heinz Kühn to speak. I remember there were lots of TV cameras around and one of the TV people came down to me, gave me a marker and asked me to correct my spelling. I had written the German word for “final”, but instead of the correct endgültig, I had written entgültig. But the story with the torero rag is embarrassing, because when I told my flute teacher that somebody had torn the rag off the bamboo stick, my teacher asked me about the meaning of a red flag and I couldn’t say.
ROC: The flag you mention appears in your painting Das politisches Bild, which is currently exhibited in the show Miami City Ballet. You were 14 when you painted this work; why have you kept the painting hidden until now? Do you still have the costume tucked away?
MK: I destroyed the painting when I had finished it, but then kept the pieces in the cellar where my mother recently found them. I took them to a restorer who put them together again. The torero costume may still exist, but I think now I should get to the issue of failure and what I like about it, or how I started showing artworks of mine that were not so good according to my own evaluation.
ROC: Are you having a difficult time with the exhibition? You just said that you have restored the 1968 painting. Has this restoration meant a transformation in the piece? This is reversed with the neons, which were then deliberately broken—is your evaluation of failure constantly evolving?
MK: Oh yes, I am having a difficult time with this exhibition. An evaluation is not even evolving. This is pure drama, and I try hard not to be coquettish with this. What I want to do may be a very normal desire: to go on stage, whatever or wherever the stage may be, and to make a joke that suits my tastes. Now, I could lie or be honest, both are fine. The first step is that I do not like what I do, but I do not want to give up, and still I want to try and succeed in providing quality, beauty, quick-wittedness, and whatever I wish for in a specific moment. You do not even have to be good, whatever that means, but here something comes into effect that I call “art”. It is a stage with the rules of a stage, not those of a studio. The restoration of the ridiculous political painting was done only for myself. But then it was there and provided me with a kind of humor that I wasn’t able to create artificially at the time, and still it is not easy to find the right dose and color; and of course everything has to be handmade. It is not easy to be fake and still be funny. As for the Broken Neon signs, I made them as a series for Städelschule, and at the time, I thought a bad joke would be a good joke. I called it a positive sign after a period of crisis that could help finance some projects, which it actually does or did with the help of the people who bought one, and then some of the signs arrived broken; I liked that, and asked a shipper to construct serious transportation boxes around them to fix this damage, and they turned out to look like children’s coffins. I liked that even more. I cannot call this “good art”, but who knows, maybe it is; I think a clown could go on stage with these and act with them in a way that he might get away with, or maybe even make a good joke.
ROROC: You say it’s only now that you are beginning to have an “effect”, and this is mentioned in the press release that you wrote, saying that this is the beginning of a series of “new” exhibitions. Does this mean that you have accepted struggle as a motivation? Or, instead, that you have displaced yourself from what you decide to show on stage. That you have learnt how to walk onto this stage with a separation between you and the work? For instance, the way that the painting has now become a joke—whereas before it was junk.
MK: Displacing oneself from one’s own work (or from oneself) is a basic method for anyone, whether one is an artist or not. Only now, when you go on stage, this is what I meant. A stage could also be this: a person never going on stage, and for some reason, somebody else finds out about this, and it has an effect on him or her. I just answer step by step. Maybe it is boring to call an exhibition the beginning of a series—that is also a theatrical trick. You can do anything and call it the downbeat of a series and even a series of “new” things… and then it is a downbeat in a series of “new” things… but of course, then you have to take the next step. There is the example of Paul Swan never coming back on stage from behind the curtain, because something was always wrong. He couldn’t find the right shoe, etc. but you have to come back. When I applied to acting school in Berlin, I was asked about my age, and they thought I was already too old; so I answered, “I could offer a bit more.” On stage, I proclaimed, “To be or not to…” and they said, “Thank you, that is enough!” I am still sulking that they didn’t let me in. I know myself that I really have no talent, but I still think I would have been good.
ROC: So the installation of the exhibition must have been a bit of a battle? You fighting in front of a jury again. Being able to finish your sentence.
MK: That is mean, being able to finish my sentence!
No, I have not yet finished my sentence! I am still fiddling around. Fiddling around or not, I really wish for beautiful art. I can enjoy Poussin without wanting values to be brought back into art, but I cannot look at a single work of art anymore and consider it to be something that contains everything. That doesn’t mean that it has changed, but maybe that I have changed, and hopefully I vote for the right consequences. Art could be a comic booed off stage, as well as a painting executed by a proper cowboy. But because it became too complex, I can only think in combinations. “A” would make sense for “A”, but not for “B”, and so on…
ROC: You mention the word “vote”—like taking a side in decision-making. You titled one of your pieces I can be rented. Is walking on stage each time challenging your perception of this? That you enjoy changing characters?
MK: There is a lot in that question; for example, the representation of deciding not to be predictable. I would like to try to be post-author, post-dandy, post-against-authenticity, post-split-personality and so on. I once found the picture of subtraction in additive mode. I don’t know more complicated machines. At least for a moment, I was able to recognize and construct simple Turing machines, like the ones that can copy themselves, that can add, subtract or multiply. It is not so easy to skip a year in school.
Originally published on Mousse 25 (September-October 2010)