Adrian Ghenie and Navid Nuur

On the Road to … Tarascon

Conversation, July 2013

Loading publication, please wait…

Navid Nuur We should start by talking about how we met, so that people can get an idea.

Adrian Ghenie Actually where have we met? In Cluj or…?

NN It’s quite interesting; we met in New York in 2009 I think; because I went to the Armory Show for the first time, together with Plan B. You and Mihai were staying in an Italian hotel and you left this hotel because you had your own place to stay and you told me: ‘You have to say at the reception desk that your name is Adrian and then you can stay in my room.’

AG But wasn’t it the Romanian Cultural Institute?

NN Yes. They arranged for this hotel! That I remember really well.

AG Yeah, yeah… my plan was this: it was my first visit to New York and I had my fantasy about this city, so I didn’t want to stay in a place offered by the Romanian Institute because it would have kind of ruined the magic, you know? I had this kind of reservation and distance towards the Romanian institutions, so I booked my own place…

NN But it was a nice meeting, you saying to me: ‘Hey, you can stay here, but you have to call yourself Adrian and then we meet later.’ (Laughing)

AG Oh, OK… so it was then… but that was in fact my second time in NY. This second time was the same for me, they wanted to offer me accommodation but I constantly refused them… it was a kind of turn off for me.

NN (Laughing) Yeah, I can imagine… But I haven’t seen you in New York that often. Sometimes you were there at dinner and then you did what you wanted to do…

AG Yeah, because it was the first time in New York and New York is such a giant cliché, but you have to…

NN …of course! You have to go through all those things to actually find your own place.

AG Exactly, you have to do those walks and find those angles and places you remember from movies and say: ‘Oh my God! I’m here! Finally!’ It’s some sort of an orgasm. And then you are done.

NN So, in the meantime we have met here and there, I think. About two years ago we had his discussion, when you told me: ‘I wish I had in my practice more room to do abstract works because I’m intrigued by how color resonates and how, for example, an apple looks better when it gets worse over time, how this color has an energy.’ At the same time, I was telling you how I wished I had more of this visual historical practice, which is fixed on one thing, because I do everything – that’s mostly my practice. So there we were talking about our small frustrations…

AG But I remembered when Mihai showed me your stuff. Before, I had a reserve towards conceptual works. I saw that the things we exhibited at Plan B or other things had a concept, but the body of the work was not attractive, there was always just an idea and when Mihai showed me your work I said: this guy also has a natural talent for texture; the way all these textures come together is very painterly, it had these qualities… you don’t just put an object next to another one and then you formulate the idea behind it. It was almost like I didn’t want to know, what I saw was convincing enough. I always find this difficult to achieve and a sign of real talent. Then I told you once in Basel, when you did this projection on the back of a trashcan, that I thought it’s one of the best paintings. I’m jealous…

NN (Laughing) … but for me it was also a way to find out that you have a broad mind which feeds also from other dimensions, instead of only your own.

AG … from the outside people might think we are the most unlikely artists to collaborate…

NN Completely… It’s because you have to open your mindset to feed yourself from opposites and different components and that’s how we met most of the times: having these conversations and hanging out in a way… yeah, it‘s true… because ‘on paper’ we definitely do not match… which in the end is healthier.

AG It’s about research. People tend to simplify my case saying that I’m a figurative painter. Of course, this is an excuse; I’m interested in figurative painting, not in the image, but rather in how to experiment with the figurative, to build it with different components. Because the figurative traditionally became conflated with this sort of imitation of reality, but it was the bricks you built this figurative representation with, that I wanted to change, so as to incorporate most of the research or experiments made in painting in the last century – from avant-garde to abstract expressionism – and with that, to create a new figurative. And the result is a portrait and you think this is it, but it‘s not…

NN Often your portraits and paintings refer to histories which are not documented, although people know, talk or gossip about them… And then you partly represent them, by channeling yourself to their set up, since it wasn’t assigned an image yet.

AG Sometimes the most efficient way to do it is to take a cliché, story or a character… For example I’m not necessarily interested in Hitler or in the reality of his story. Or in Van Gogh or Ceausescu… but their story is a cliché which was transferred to our minds through books, films, etc. And we have a fantasy about that. It’s also the case with Van Gogh, the reality of his existence and then the cliché.

NN Yeah, absolutely… and also how it evolves for people, how they perceive it.

AG And I told you before, what intrigued me about Van Gogh is this difference between the reality of his actual existence which was a complete nightmare from top to bottom and Van Gogh the cliché, which is a beautiful fantasy: you see South of France, colorful landscapes, the idea of an artist who is rebel and independent and how he’s going there to find his freedom and beauty and so on… And so his art became really positive in people’s mind.

NN That’s always the problem when it gets picked up and people cling on to it, but they don’t cling on to it from an inner content, they cling on to the surface of what they hear or what’s left of what they see. It’s also interesting how aesthetics change, if you see a nice sunset - or for example ‘Starry Night’! That one is psycho! If you think about it, it’s one of the most psycho paintings ever! If you want to control all these stars – all these works are so much about control – if you’re trying to control all the surface, to touch it, it’s super frustrating.

AG You know, when I was a teenager and I saw for the first time his works in a book, in the art academy, I was always afraid to read The Letters. Some colleagues were really into that and they were recommending them to me, but I was afraid. I wanted to look at a Van Gogh painting and that was it! I was afraid to find out more about his life. Most facts about his life are well known. So, even if you don’t read too much you know something about it. His life was the embodiment of a nightmare: my nightmare. It was exactly the life I didn’t want to live. Because it had in it a weird contrast, a tension. This guy had all the necessary qualities, but at the same time all the beauty of life was refused to him, including his celebrity. He had nothing! I always thought looking at his portrait: ‘OK, probably he is an intelligent person, average looking, as most people were in his time’. So he was not physically disadvantaged, he was an intelligent person, but at the same time he couldn’t connect with his world at any level. Every decision he took was either idealistic or completely wrong. I mean, for example, the only woman he had a relationship with was apparently this prostitute who was constantly taking advantage of him; and he looked at her from this religious perspective, like he had to save her; so that was again, a complete waste of time… and then he moved to the South of France… he tried to be friends with Gauguin, this ended up in a disaster…

NN But you see these things just by looking at the way he makes his drawings and paintings … it’s so forced in a way to push it like that…

AG That was for him basically the only way to experience life.

NN Yes! And that gap from his real life was filled up within the paintings, because that’s controllable, that’s something you can fix.

AG The other thing I was thinking about, when I was talking with someone, is that I remember visiting Paris in 1999 – long story about how I ended up there because it was complicated to leave Romania without a visa – and I arrived at Musée d’Orsay and I remember that the only painting I had seen in my life that made me sick – I almost wanted to puke for about two seconds – it was that self-portrait, which I am using now. I look at it now and I feel sick. All that frustration and all that anger that he had… that he can feel the world but he cannot connect with the world was all depicted there, in that look: ‘I see you, but I cannot touch you.’

NN As with everything that he has done, especially in his later periods; all the drawings, all his paintings, you need to look at them with punk music in the background… because it’s so tough. And I don’t understand why people like it so much, to be honest.

AG That’s a schizophrenic thing because he’s so successful, especially with soft-core people, all these elderly ladies, who start to paint…

NN Yeah… Jesus… I know… the classic amateur course…

AG … and this entire ‘Sunflower’ thing … they had this amazing impact on very bright, solar people. Of course, also dark people like Francis Bacon had an eye for it. I almost hate Van Gogh… I mean I don’t hate him, because I did not meet him… Somehow I hate his life; I hate the fact that he was almost cursed by somebody.

NN Yeah, I agree… but also he pushed himself in such situations. But for us, before we got to Van Gogh, it was first and foremost about color, especially about these two colors: red and blue. I made these works with red and blue in which you can hear how the work was made and how I clay these colors together so in the end you have this purple ball. And for you, colors have a more historical reference, in which blue is royal, purple can be somebody smacked in the face, so these two colors have this kind of content which we both feel at home with. So the first works when we started to collaborate were… You actually made an abstract painting with colors chosen spontaneously and I shouted each color next to you and it resulted in a video. That video was put next to the painting and the set-up was exactly what happened in the studio, representing more an exercise to come somewhere close to an outcome, rather than to make a finished painting or to make a finished conceptual work. (another video) So I think from that point of view, when we took a closer look at color, and at the resonance between the shape and the brush strokes , we both came to see Vincent like ‘Oh, Jesus’- he is someone who also fits our concept.

AG I have kept an eye on this subject for a long time, since I discovered what Francis Bacon did with that painting of Van Gogh, ‘On the Way to Tarascon’. Apparently it was destroyed during the war, right…?

NN Yes, there is only a black and white photo left…

AG No, I think there’s a colored one as well… but I wonder if maybe there are several?

NN Oh yeah, I understand…

AG I don’t know exactly, but Francis Bacon did a series and the Van Gogh depicted there by Francis Bacon made me say to myself that this was the real Van Gogh. That was the soul of Van Gogh.

NN Yeah, it’s true. But why there are no others to take Van Gogh in such a way?

AG Some did installations after famous paintings, like ‘The Bedroom’, but what you see at Bacon is not Van Gogh. Bacon actually understood the right temperature of his existence and depicted it; and that was also I think because Bacon, who had a completely fucked up existence as well, was this kind of a ‘monster-angel’…

NN But I think he liked it

AG Yeah! He definitely felt a connection with Van Gogh’s life. Bacon lived in a different time and then the art world was developed in such way that celebrity could be quickly achieved if you were an artist, so he had a chance to be recognized pretty quickly and to make enough money to spare himself from a miserable existence. But probably if Bacon had lived in the time of Van Gogh, he would have probably had a similar, trashy life…

NN Yeah, who knows?

AG And I think Bacon also had a similar kind of vision: ‘this is how I could have been if things had gone wrong’. In this sense, I think that the only good side to the art world today, which is so ‘oiled’, is that it can provide you pretty quick with the financial means that will protect you from a miserable existence.

NN Yeah, I understand, but it’s really well ‘oiled’…

AG It’s too well ‘oiled’, but at the same time the Van Gogh ghost is somehow unconsciously haunting the art world. We like to fetishize history but at same time, deep inside, nobody wants to have his fate.

NN No, it’s true, and I think in these times it would be quite difficult for someone to become him, to choose to have his fate.

AG Even so, I have the feeling that somehow the whole art world is organized around this idea that no matter what, we have to stop or we won’t have again a Van Gogh case. Such a brilliant, genius artist – and we were so blind!

NN Yeah… but it’s also a classic, right? Not to acknowledge what was in your time and not to see that that person was ahead of his time. You can see it also in the history of sculpture. In Egypt they were making these fixed sculptures for 7000 years and the Greeks also wanted to achieve this kind of reality, so they started to trade, learning from them how to make such big sculptures… and then there is a certain sculpture, a certain boy which they have done, which was perfect; but it was too perfect and then they quit making perfect things. You have always this balance between being ready for something, something you want to achieve before your time and how we evolve in the Western society. In a way it’s also artificial to make someone so important after his time. It is what it is, you know? You evolve. If democracy continues and Muslim populations in Europe grow larger, they will vote for the Muslim Party, trust me, and in the next 100 years, art history will definitely look way different in Europe. It’s all quite temporary – even making Van Gogh this important now is still temporary in a way. That’s why I think it’s good to look at it also through what you’re doing, through your own eyes…

AG But the Van Gogh I’m trying to depict is one who is extremely angry; it’s almost like the ghost of Van Gogh who saw what happened with his works after his death and somehow he’s frustrated even after that!

NN I think that applies especially to this series that we’re doing: the painting that you’ve made, next to the painting that I’ve made, taken from his drawings. It was about pushing even further this energy that was already there, by using your skills and a computer in addition, and at the end, about analyzing from all these different angles that elemental Van Gogh - which is really not enough out there in the world I think.

AG The more I think of it, the cloudier it gets – what is the matter with this case? Because the more you think about it, the more you realize that it is a really fucked up case. There is a very dark shadow there and it’s perfectly camouflaged with all this beauty and color…

NN Exactly, I think that’s the word: it’s rather camouflage in beauty and color; it also indicates how we perceive certain aesthetics; if you show the ‘Sunflower’ painting to 1000 people, they will like it.

AG But it’s almost theological or similar to a treatise about the devil because the devil is always camouflaged in the absolute beauty.

NN (Laughing): Ha…yeah!

AG Looking at some of his paintings you say: ‘Yes! This is absolute beauty!’ But actually the foundation of this beauty is pure madness…

NN Yeah, yeah! If you look at the ‘Sunflowers’ for instance there is no sunflower left in this whole picture; by the way it’s hanging there in the painting, this sunflower is completely raped, visually harassed! It’s unbelievable with what violence it has been put together.

AG It became actually a religion; Vincent almost became like one of the Gods. The interpretation of his works – everything as you say – is part of this cliché, a litany, we have to talk about him in a certain way, we have to think about him in a certain way… you know? It has this kind of touristic quality; if you go to Orsay or all these French museums or all these Van Gogh museums in Holland, that’s always the busiest room. You have all these tourists, this crowd of people taking pictures.

NN It’s true. Also this research fetish: they put scanners on top of the paintings to see if there was another one underneath and how and when he started with which one and … Jesus…

AG It’s a fake detective job because they want to picture what? Nothing!

NN Exactly… and I find it quite sad… and then, we have news: ‘this cloth that was around…’

AG Yeah, exactly! And under the sunflower there was …another sunflower!

(Both laughing)

NN …and it’s like this! It’s pretty sad, yeah…but I think it’s because of this big collective ignorant group of people who want to be fed information. Just like gossip magazines, you want to know everything about Brad Pitt or about the new upcoming things that Lady Gaga does. He’s also included into this, even though he is dead.

AG You said that if he had lived today he would have had fans and…

NN Completely! If he had lived in our time, being as shitty as he was, a niche group would really cherish him.

AG Probably he wouldn’t have committed suicide…

NN No, no, no, no, no… He would have a lot of people around him… A lot of people! It would have been a whole wave.

AG They would have probably loved him… because he’s completely fucked up!

NN Completely… but I think he would have grown soft. At the beginning he would have been edgy and then he would have had his own group and then he would have got soft. I don’t think he would have spiralled all the way down.

AG No. Probably… eventually he would have started to be successful a bit, make some money, buy a house and then from that point…

NN …become sane. That’s also the context when you’re born. Now we’re two young artists, looking like assholes to other people for talking about Vincent like this and they would think ‘who the hell are you guys to think you know painting and push it in such a way?’ and maybe the professionals would beat the hell out of it critically…but I don’t care.

AG I’m not discussing the reality of the facts! It is more about the residue of his case in my head.

NN Yeah, yeah, of course! That’s something that is quite important… it’s actually more about our private internal clinging – cleaning your mind… you know? You have to push out these works to give them a place in the world, to give them a place within your own body.

AG In the last 20 years, I’ve been to the museums, I’ve been to Orsay to see his works and others, and I think I’ve looked no more than 5 times in a catalogue or a book with Van Gogh’s reproductions. I didn’t feel the need to look at that…

NN But there is no catalogue in the world that is a good catalogue, to be honest. They’re all about vivid colors and about having everything in. They should make a catalog which is really dark and nasty.

AG Every time I looked in a catalogue I was drawn by the beauty and I was like: ‘oh my God, this is so beautiful!’ But after a while, I was absolutely scared.

NN I know! The catalogues also pushed me towards having an angry position. It’s so unfair!

AG And I had no need to look again at this kind of thing for years. I have one of his catalogues here… but I’m afraid to look at it again…

NN Those catalogues are so bad! If they were to do a new one, do one where the whole…

AG What if we do one as a kind of experiment? Of course, it would be like an artwork, so it’s not like the kind of catalogue where you would have to ask for the copyrights, but a dark one…

NN Oh yeah! That would be a good project!

AG Even if it’s amateur printed…

NN It doesn’t matter! Something has to be out there… Just one book, then you can avoid all these… (Getting all excited)… Maybe we can even illegally put a PDF on the Internet so people can download it. I think it’s healthy to do one.

AG That would be an interesting thing… at least to have a session of conversations…

NN Yeah, because the power is also in the catalogue - not just in the paintings - because with the paintings that we do now, we try to spread this energy a bit more equally, with what we put in, but the catalogue part still needs to be conquered in a way…

AG Also, psychologically speaking, when you look at his painting and you see that there’s a huge amount of bright colors, these bright colors automatically connect with something optimistic, positive: yellow, green, blue - these are beautiful… so somehow that automatically blocks the perception of the dark Van Gogh, which is right under the surface.

NN Yeah, you have to look how he pushed everything together and why it is so tough … Yeah, it’s interesting to see this double side that he has.

AG That’s why I told you that I think Bacon got him right.

NN Yeah, and with this set up, which we are doing now we also used Bacon as the starting point to work from, because you need to connect with Van Gogh but you don’t want to use Van Gogh because it is so ‘wow’ and for us Bacon is…

AG …the middle-man!

NN Exactly! He becomes the mediator.

AG Somehow I’m working more with what Bacon did with Van Gogh, rather than with Van Gogh directly.

NN Yes! and from my point of view, I’m also paying more attention to the strokes and how he lays the colors because his paintings are actually rather sculptural, but the monochromes which I do in my own practice have a certain approach to the brush strokes. I know how to go deeper into each stroke and take it out of the context of what it was. I look at the psychological part of the stroke, instead of looking at the subject. I took that part from Vincent’s work and I also looked at your strokes and how I can fuse them in the paintings we’re doing. Yes, so we looked at it from different perspectives: the subject, its historical reference and then we mix them up in our own way… It was also interesting how our works evolved, It all went quite naturally: you did one part, I did another part, or I started with something and you came with another thing and that was because we both had the same understanding of Vincent and his practice – so it was not too weird or too difficult to find a meeting point for our practices.

… (Moment of silence)

AG Fucking Van Gogh… (Laughing)

NN Yeah… Absolutely! Especially the ignorant group around him… yeah… could you imagine? Having a poster of one of his paintings hanging in your bedroom?! I don’t know… I cannot imagine…

AG It would be the darkest image…

NN Exactly! Really…puff…

AG Probably nobody would have liked him in reality – not even us!

NN Yeah, I think not…yeah man…so… I’m happy that we did this! That we found time within our own practices to explore this personal feeling that we allowed to flow in our own practices…

AG I think this summer, on my way to Spain, I will stop one or two days to see the geography of … anyway that’s completely irrelevant because Van Gogh already has a symbolic geography! You don’t even need to go there… probably you go there and see what? A typical South of France landscape, touristic sightseeing of Van Gogh’s places. That means nothing…

NN No, that means nothing…

AG When people are making money out of it - this is another outrage for me. How many people made money out of this. Including us.

NN Yeah, including us!

AG making money out of his misery. The amount of money made out of this guy is shocking… when you’re thinking that he made no money at all…

NN It’s true…And the museum which owns so many Van Gogh works needs money to buy more works. So there is still money needed although they’re already making so much money with the stuff they sell…

AG This is almost like a Freudian thing. Like that Freudian idea that a teenager, in order to become an adult, has to symbolically kill his father. So I think that as an artist, in order to…

NN (Laughing)

AG … in order to become a mature artist you have to ‘kill’ the Van Gogh inside you!

NN Yeah, yeah, everybody has his personal list with whom they have to ‘kill’.

AG It’s not the same for the public as it is for the artist, the artist has to kill the Van Gogh.

NN I think we also have the right to do this, in the sense that we both work with matter. We’re on the other side of the curtain – like in theatre – where few people have access. But we know both sides and we are in the backstage, so we need to rearrange something also within our own mindsets in relation to that that. So, I’m happy that we did it. And also the catalogue is a very good idea!

AG A dark catalogue of Van Gogh…

NN Exactly! At least to have some images or some photos… or maybe just a video of the ‘Sunflower’ work and then we play some really tough music in the background, something to emphasize that darkness… a dark catalogue… maybe we should just take out certain lines of texts from his letters and overlay them on what he did. Otherwise, there are not too many works which we have done, just a few, but enough for us to have a set up that is logic. So there will be one diptych made by each of us thus resulting in two parts attached to each other, another work which I painted on top of your painting, and a kind of a hyper drawing…

AG The one you will do … the one you will paint on top of my painting – ‘On the Road to Tarascon’ let’s call it – and you will do this layer on top of it, basically the background. You have the silhouette and the background is the garden of Gethsemane (Laughing) which looked in that case exactly like a landscape in the South of France… When I started this series I would always think of the religious side of Van Gogh, because that explains something: how some of his behaviors, some of his ethics, some of his decisions came from this deep, religious feeling that he had at the beginning of his life. I was also a religious person as a teenager… so I kind of understand him a bit from that side. Devotion gives you a kind of natural disposition for, let’s call it, sacrifice. You also see your relationships with people around you from this perspective, which now I call arrogance: you want to save them.

NN But also I think that even if you are not religious anymore, you will always stay religious in a way because it’s about…

AG Probably the late Van Gogh was more of a mystical person rather than a religious one belonging to a religious institution. You can perceive this kind of mysticism. I mean I don’t want to make a psychological profile; this would be a complete amateur move…

NN Still we’re allowed… we’re artists (laughing)…

AG Yeah, but I think the way he related to people and his incapacity to connect with the world and be a social person had its origins in this religious period of his life.

NN Especially in those times there were not too many small religious groups that were that social.

AG Most of the artists in general are not religious. They are more liberal people, they are absolutely OK with a liberal, hedonist behavior… you name it… you know? But he was very ascetic or he looked like that to me.

NN Yeah…

AG …and also for him painting was almost like… seclusion… almost like a prayer, like a religious act.

NN Maybe because he just started to paint.

AG It was an act of worship and it implied a moment of ecstasy.

NN But nobody told him what to do… it was like a need. That desire of his, this need, was the deepest motivation one can have actually. To make painting when you have zero context of knowing what painting is.

AG As I said, for me under this layer that you see, which is the image itself that everybody likes, at the origin of that strength and tension, there is something very religious.

NN But why… why… didn’t he become an outsider artist?

AG Look, I think he behaved typically… he behaved like a monk somehow… or like an apostle.

NN He hung out with Gauguin… so …

AG Yeah but … that was more an attempt to establish a contact with a monk-brother …

NN Of course, but maybe that was because he already understood that he was also part of the art world and that he was not an outsider artist.

AG He had something very Franciscan; for him the beauty of nature or of the landscape was enough. Or at least he thought it was absolutely enough to receive or to make him happy and that’s kind of a Franciscan mentality. For me, let’s say that it’s a kind of a Dadaist association but I associate Van Gogh with St. Francis somehow. The same kind of schizophrenia, but one found peace in it, and the other went mad…

NN Yeah… I understand.

AG I can imagine Van Gogh going to this landscape and looking at this …

(Phone ringing)

NN It’s my daughter calling me… ah, she wants to see what we’ve painted …

(…)

NN (coming back): Is there anything else you want to share with people…?

AG Well, I think we’ve covered a lot… basically we can talk hours about Van Gogh.