Kati Heck - 2009 - When the Fluttering Anus Buries the Struggling Classes, the Idea Takes Off [EN, interview],
At Break of Day
To rage and ramble
In the Greek tragedies
The actors wore masks
Because they didn't really exist
Not the struggles of the heroes
Did they enact, and their inevitable downfall
But their wondrous birth
From the world of speechless animals.
Dr J.S. Stroop, "The Birth of Reason
from the Spirit of Escaping Intestinal Gas”
When the Fluttering Anus Buries the Struggling Classes, the Idea Takes Off
A conversation with Kati Heck
- What is special about your paintings is that you have arrived almost out of necessity at a very recognizable, personal pictorial space because you paint realistic portraits on almost untreated canvas with very thin layers of oil-paint, as if using pastels. You rub miniscule amounts of oil-paint into the absorbent canvas, layer upon layer, until you are exhausted. Out of respect for your friends whom you depict, you strive for a degree of perfection that is so difficult to achieve that at a certain point, when you are totally spent, you have to give up and finish the figures in a schematic way.
Kati Heck: True.
- Yet you are actually an artist who creates and comments on a world that is all your own, a world that takes shape in your paintings but also in woodcuts, drawings, coloured-in photographs, sculptures and crazy theatrical scenes with self-made props. The form of your paintings is unique, but it is subordinate to a poetic world that also exists outside those paintings.
Heck: That's right. Painting as such doesn't interest me. Suddenly a painting becomes interesting because all kinds of people have lofty things to say about it, for example if you suggest that I paint sausages because I need a brown section in the foreground. I like painting sausages because then I can work with broad sweeps of the arm. Even when I was studying, I wasn't interested in paint. In fact, I still paint with tubes I bought when I first became a student… Of course I have mastered the techniques, not because of an interest in painting, but just because I need those techniques to serve my subject…
- This morning we went to see your exhibition at Stella Lohaus. The first thing that struck me when I entered the gallery was the magnificent clarity of the paintings: the economy with which compact, enigmatic images are poised in front of the neutral background of the bare canvas. There are three paintings on show, including a triptych. You started work on the central panel of that triptych exactly a year ago, in March 2008. You couldn't find a motif for the top of the painting and then you tried to introduce an area of colour, reserving blank spaces for the figures. By August the painting was so chock-full that you couldn't take it any further. Is that why you started again with an untreated, light-brown canvas as your background?
Heck: Yes. After the last time you saw it, the painting became twice as full and the background was really nasty. Actually it went wrong even at the preparation stage. Do you remember? In some places there was too much oil and in other places there were chalk smudges.
- The figure on the far left of the central panel is holding a multiple balance or mobile, suggesting the work as a whole is a justice scene. What is the meaning of that image? One of the symbols hanging from the mobile is a cut-off finger. The first version of the painting also featured a giant, unattached finger supported by two cartwheels and pointed upwards like the barrel of a cannon. In the 'Sniffing the visitor' painting, there are also several fingers separated from a hand… But first the beguiling mobile: does it represent something?
Heck: You're right in thinking it refers to the state or to judicial authorities, but first and foremost it is a mirror of the triptych. The right-hand panel is depicted on the left of the mobile, the left-hand panel on the right. The green coins refer to the banknotes in the panel on the left, where you also see the rich people having fun with Andrew Webb's ‘Aristocratic Hairline Machine’. The brown coin refers to the wages of the proletarians in the right-hand panel. The central panel features the young prostitutes. All those things refer to Otto Dix' ‘Großstadt-Triptych' [Metropolis Triptych]. Together the left and the right-hand panels are called ‘Flotte Finger fangen Fische’ [Nifty fingers catch fish]. The central panel is called ‘Jucken tut’s meist an der Wurzel’ [It usually itches at the root].
- In the left-hand panel the rich person is sitting on an orange cushion. In the panel on the right, at more or less the same height, are several orange smudges, which are pretty well the only uncontrolled elements in the painting. Are those smudges there to balance the painting as a whole?
Heck: No. The orange comes out of small, very expensive tubes. 150 euros a tube, I think. I never use it, because orange doesn't work for me. It always goes wrong. At a certain point I squeezed the tube empty onto my face and it landed on the canvas.
- The bulging trousers of the worker lugging the huge pickle on his shoulder is reminiscent of Malevitsj.
Heck: The day I did it was the birthday of the futurists and I thought: 'I'll give him futuristic trousers'.
- The skirt in the 'Sniffing the visitor' painting is made in the same way: you create an illusion of light because you allow the untreated canvas to show through.
Heck: Yes, I really enjoyed painting that skirt and those trousers. I just did it with the same paint, wiping it away to create a layer that gradually grows thinner.
- The dark-green background in that painting is reminiscent of the dark backgrounds in Velásquez's and Manet's work, giving the impression you are looking at a classic painting, but at the same time you left the background unfinished at the top left, which is droll.
Heck: Yes, probably for that reason several people thought the painting was based on a classical painting, but that is not the case. The paint came from a little pot of dried up chalk board paint I found at home. It's not immediately obvious that it is chalk board paint because I thinned it. Suddenly there was no more paint left in the pot and so I couldn't finish painting the background. That's why I also wrote with chalk on the painting. You can still wipe it off and replace it with something else.
- You used several colours of chalk one on top of the other.
Heck: It is psychedelic, multi-coloured chalk for children… The painting shows a rich kid paying a visit to simple folk who judge him by his smell. I tried to imagine how this would work, what it would look like… I'm not the sort of painter who spends a lot of time thinking about matters of background and foreground. I just ask myself what I have to put in the painting to fill the picture or space.
- Hence the potato-like figure in the painting in the middle?
Heck: That's a reference to our performance collective Bissy Bunder. In our best show Julia Wlodkovski was a potato. But it is also a middle-class potato, a polder potato, a reference to potatoes in our daily lives, to Van Gogh's potato eaters. The pickle in the panel on the right is a reference to the German expression ‘saure Gurkenzeit’, which suggests a time of scarcity… That is also the subject of ‘Der Anus Flatterer und sein Bingo’.
- What does the title mean?
Heck: The main character is an anus which flutters like a butterfly, and he is happy because he can bury the two classes: the wealthy and the less privileged. ‘Regnet’s bei ihnen auch immer hinein?’, "Does the rain always come into your house as well?" the poor man asks the rich man. "Das kann ich nicht behaupten", the rich man answers: "I wouldn't put it like that". The fortunate, fluttering anus buries the struggling classes and the idea takes off. If you hung the painting upside down, the rain would come into the rich man's house as well.
- Are you the fluttering anus?
Heck: I am all four characters: the wealthy, the less privileged, the fluttering anus and the running idea figure.
- What are those squiggles on the leg of the stool in the right-hand panel? A lucky accident?
Heck: Something like that, yes. When I draw or paint a chair, I always want to attach a drawing of a gallows to it. I was doing that when I suddenly recognized my initials and turned it into a signature. Adding your signature is always precarious. Suddenly I become very clumsy and end up with a dirty spot. Here the solution presented itself automatically…
- Who is the figure in the fur coat in the left-hand panel?
Heck: That's Peche, a friend and diplomat. He started off with a horse's head, then a crocodile's. But that didn't work… The man with the turkey is Holger, my brother's best friend. He is afraid of fear. He never goes outside, unless it's to come and visit us… The turkey was called Jos. He always came and sat with us, especially when there was a party; he liked to show off. He was very fat. One day he fell into the pond and it took four men to get him out. The drooping crest on a turkey's head can change colour and shape like a scrotum. If the bird is in the mood, that gill turns deep blue…. Look, I know I invited you to write something about my work, because everyone insists there should be a text about it, but I detest all these explanatory articles about art and art that needs an explanation before you can enjoy it. The more I tell you, the more the spectator's eyes are guided and the less he or she can see.
- Perhaps if you provided a commentary for all the paintings you have ever made. But you don't. We've talked about five works. So the readers probably have an idea of what is important to you, without us telling them everything about all the paintings.
Heck: That sounds like a good plan.
Montagne de Miel, April 10th 2009