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The antiquarian’s dilemma

Lotte Konow Lund in conversation with Christian Messel


Christian Messel’s drawings are detailed and meticulous, the result of painstaking work. At first glance they put you in mind of old dry-point etchings, with lines that trace every detail to the tiniest minutia. Stepping closer to contemplate their subject matter, the impression is that this too could be taken from times long past, although, when you let the image sink in a little, you recognise that these are depictions not of any particular time or place, but of several simultaneously. The juxtaposition of different eras, actions and objects produces an absurdity reminiscent of early 20th century surrealism, produced using a technique that has more in common with collage than dry-point. Among Messel’s motifs we find the famous depiction of George Washington crossing the Delaware during the American Revolutionary War, but in this drawn version, the original image is cut in two, a vertical line dividing what was once General Washington into two halves. Messel has swapped the two halves so as to make the general a mere accessory to a scene in which a group of men are struggling to get their boat safely across the river. In another picture, we see Robin Hood shoplifting from a modern grocery store, as seen from the vantage point of a CCTV camera. Then there’s the angel split down the middle, one half portrayed as the heavenly figure we all know, the other dissected and anatomised like a carcass we’re likely to find in a butcher’s shop, adorned with numbers to help us identify the best cuts. Messel is a collector, or, as he likes to describe himself, an antiquarian. He hordes books and pictures because one day they might come in useful. For our conversation, he turned up with a large bag full of books, which he pulled out one by one, as and when required.


Lotte Konow Lund: When I look at your work I’m reminded of Norwegian postmodernism in the 1980s and 90s, artworks that played with reality or were forever questioning the nature of originality, or were asking what constitutes a picture or history. It was a period when art mixed absolutely everything together, almost like a premonition of the digital revolution with its endless torrent of images and anachronisms.


Christian Messel: The exploration of representation in art began long before postmodernism, perhaps even long before modernism. I take my inspiration from a very different era. It was a combination of the artist John Heartfield and the art critic and theorist John Berger that started me on the path I’ve been following, and both of them should be regarded as modernists.


That’s very specific. How did you arrive at these two?


As a student at the artacademy, I was confronted with a lot of theory that was pretty highbrow, or to put it another way, a lot of theory I didn’t understand. I was just 22 when I started there. (At this point Messel dives into his bag and re-emerges with two books, which he lays on the table between us: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and a catalogue of John Heartfield’s work.) While still at the academy, I found Ways of Seeing on a flea market, and purely by chance, I was reading Bertolt Brecht’s theories about the theatre at the same time. Brecht believed one had to construct something, something artificial, something imagined, in order to show reality. And that in turn tells me something about Heartfield’s collages. Moreover, Berger has also written about Heartfield.


Let’s take Heartfield first. Who was he?


A German artist. He was born as Helmut Herzfeld, but in 1917 changed his name in reaction to World War I and the anti-English sentiment that had built up in Germany. He was part of the Dada movement, but eventually began working with anti-Nazi propaganda, because the political situation made it necessary. In the 1930s he worked for a while for the magazine Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung or AIZ, which was a kind of radical left-wing illustrated magazine. Heartfield worked closely with George Grosz, another member of the Dada movement, who incidentally also changed his name. Together they developed a theory that art had been changed in a revolutionary way by the introduction of collage as a form of expression after World War I. Revolutionary because it meant you didn’t have to paint things. If you need a pair of trousers, you just find one somewhere else, cut it out and paste it up, and mass-produce it. Not only did it save you from having to paint, but the picture was also there for everyone.


Quite a few of the Dadaists worked with collage. Are there other Dadaists that interest you, apart from Heartfield, perhaps Max Ernst?


I’ve looked at a lot of the Dadaists. Heartfield and Ernst quarrelled. Heartfield believed that the political situation made it a moral obligation for artists to work politically, whereas Ernst felt that declaring everything to be political was “typically German”. In his view, it meant you couldn’t even go to the loo without turning it into politics. Heartfield was explicit. He had a direction and a purpose, whereas Ernst’s work was more desultory.


In a poetic sense?


Yes, you could say that.


And you prefer things that have a direction and a purpose?


In Germany it was a period when the social fabric was falling apart, which makes me more sympathetic towards the person who confronted the political circumstances. Looking at Heartfield’s collages, you see they’re not social realism, but they tell you something about the social realities. On another level, there’s the question of whether art can or should assume such a political and social role. Heartfield was true to his convictions. He gave up exhibiting in galleries entirely when he started working with political propaganda. He stopped working as an artist.


As you say, society was falling apart, so maybe he was taking the easier option? Don’t you think that one can address social realities just as much by articulating something in a poetic language? Basically any artist who used a form that wasn’t to the liking of the Nazi regime was condemned as “degenerate”, even those who were not explicitly political but who challenged contemporary norms of perception by using abstraction or absurdity to express themselves.


Yes, but for me as an artist, the way I should relate to society, or to politics – for me it’s an ongoing dilemma. (Messel bends down and pulls another book from his bag.) I want to read you a quote, something I found by the surrealist painter Magritte. He wrote this to the Belgian Communist Party:


The only way that poets and painters can fight against the bourgeois economy is to give their works precisely that content which challenges the bourgeois ideological values propping up the bourgeois economy.


Do you agree with Magritte?


I don’t know. I think the only way I can express my political opinions is to put them into my work. But I don’t know if it then just boils down to posturing. The things I make can only be bought by people who can afford them, who then hang them on their walls. You know what I mean?


Yes, of course. You’re not the only one to feel that dilemma. It’s the same for most artists.


I think it’s in The Moment of Cubism that John Berger wrote that every ism of the early 20th century had its roots in ideology, and every single one of them was an attempt to escape the logic of the market. Which they all failed to do.


Which brings us back to Berger. At least it can’t be said of him that he betrayed his ideals. When he won the Booker prize in 1972, he gave some of the money to the Black Panther movement in England and used the rest to finance the publication of A Seventh Man, a book he worked on together with the documentary photographer Jean Mohr and which tries to humanise immigrant workers in Europe. He insisted that both recipients were important to his own political work and standpoint. I myself borrowed the title for my latest exhibition from one of his recent books: Hold Everything Dear.


As I’m well aware.


You said you found Berger’s book on a flea market while still at the academy, but what impact has it had on your work?


It’s his way of reading pictures that has stuck with me. He goes through the history of painting, reading it politically but with such sensitivity. Berger points out something I find very interesting, that it isn’t so much the great iconic works you have to understand, but rather the smaller, mediocre works. It’s those that really represent a particular era. The works we see as great today were the ones that stood out in their own time. Velázquez, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Picasso, they’re all artists who were unusual to their contemporaries. Which is what makes it interesting to find the ones who make up the backdrop for those who stand out. I’ve tried to find pictures that are typical of different periods. Very often they’re pictures I don’t like that much, but they’re pictures that say something about their time.


You often use historical and art-historical references?


I try to make connections. For instance, I did a series of portraits from different eras and put them together. The idea was to show how little we and our relationship to power has changed. We still use just as many symbols of power, although now we’ve added a kind of folksiness to the power portrait. Like when you see a picture of a guy in a suit but with a hard-hat on his head and a shovel in his hand; you know immediately he doesn’t really dig for a living. He’s posing, and he’ll drop the shovel and the helmet the moment the picture’s been taken.


So there’s always been something absurd about the power symbols we humans use? It reminds me of a sentence from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, where she highlights the ridiculousness of power symbols by suggesting, as a parallel to the classic masculine gala uniform with its gold braid and medals, that women should get a tuft of horsehair on their shoulder for each child they’ve nursed.


Since you mention Virginia Woolf (Messel pulls To the Lighthouse from his bag), she’s an author who makes me question who and what is important in a story. She kills off people in curly brackets.

The symbolism of power has shifted, although not that far. Think of the American election campaign. They strip to their shirts and roll up their sleeves, but not to do physical work.


Exactly. I can picture Obama on stage, in his shirt sleeves, making small but distinct gestures. A man at work, one of the people. At least when it comes to campaigning.


I also brought this along (another book emerges from the bag), Leo Huberman’s Man’s Worldly Goods. Here’s a quote for you (he flicks through the book) “Say ‘1649’ to an English schoolboy and he’ll respond with ‘Death of Charles I’. He wouldn’t think of answering ‘Introduction of turnips and other root crops from Holland’.” And that’s a subject I’ve been working with for the past three or four years. Looking at history from a perspective we’re not used to.


Could you give me a specific example from among your pictures?


There’s a drawing I did from an iconic photo of US General Douglas MacArthur wading ashore on Leyte Island in the Philippines in 1944, when he uttered the words “I have returned” (this harked back to his words “I will return” of two years earlier, when he was forced to evacuate the American base from the Philippines back to Australia). I decided to draw the powerful figures in the foreground and the lower ranking soldiers in the background with the same degree of detail and precision. This I did by letting the lines get broader the further in the foreground they were. Usually things in the foreground are drawn in greater detail, but here I devoted the same amount of time to the drawing of each figure in the picture.


Do you think of this as a kind of democratisation of the picture? Each element should contribute equally to the viewer’s experience?


No, my point is to question the power structure in the picture. What I’m saying is that what’s in the background could be just as important as what we see up front.


With such an iconic picture, which most people will have seen, isn’t it that we carry the real picture inside us, so that the balance of power is in our own minds rather than in the circumstances of the picture?


That’s certainly true, but it isn’t the individual picture that really matters to me, but rather the way we read such iconic images. I don’t believe my art really changes anything, but it might just prompt people to think about these issues of power. If you wanted to rewrite history, you’d have to be a historian.


You also have a number of works that address power politics in this exhibition, but at the same time they apply a meta-perspective that considers the issue of art as an investment.


Right. For example, I’ve made a collage that combines images of two sculptures of a man and a woman, which I intend to mass-produce as something I can give away at the exhibition, apart from one copy which I’ll frame and hang on the wall and which will be for sale. So this will be both a work that addresses power and gender, and a statement about art and investment.


There are two sculptures, the upper body of a man and the lower body of a woman that overlap. In what way is this about power and sex?


It’s about the different poses we expect men and women to adopt. And the curious thing is, this is something that’s exactly the same today as it was centuries ago. Or even worse.


In this collage the rough edge of the paper where you’ve cut it is very conspicuous. What’s the significance of that?


It’s something I’ve often wondered about myself – and which brings us back to Heartfield. But there’s something of Brecht in this as well, in that it’s a deliberate reminder of the method of construction. In my drawings, the transitions tend to be seamless, as they are in digital manipulations. There are choices here that can represent a dilemma – whether the finished work should announce that it’s been taken from somewhere else and where it was taken from.


Once in a while, in fact quite often, you use humour in your work. For example, you’ve drawn a postcard with oversized pumpkins. They’re so big they don’t look real. You’ve put them on a cart in a landscape, and as I understand it, parts of the drawing will eventually fade away completely.


In the art world, it’s really important that inks are permanent and stable, because drawings are bought as investments. When someone buys a picture, they usually get a certificate with it guaranteeing or explaining the materials that were used. I did a drawing of a horse-drawn cart loaded with three enormous pumpkins, but over time, all the surroundings will disappear leaving the owner with nothing but three pumpkins.


Isn’t it a bit anachronistic for artists to take a stand against being treated as investment objects by distancing themselves from their craft, at a time when it is increasingly important to inform the buyer on how to store and handle artworks in order to safeguard their investments as best possible?


Yes, and in this work the buyer does get an investment, but something that isn’t exactly what it seems to be at the time of purchase. The idea is that you buy a wonderful picture, but after a while you’re left with something rather vacuous, but it’s an investment object all the same.


On top of which something happens to the sense of scale. The pumpkins were enormous, but once the context disappears, they end up rather small, right?


Right. The picture references a kind of boasting postcard. It was an American genre in which people manipulated photographs, playing with the aspect of scale, enlarging things.


Everything used to be big in America.


I found it fun to use other people’s manipulations when manipulating something myself. We live in a world where, by now, virtually all photos are manipulated, but it’s done so effectively that we no longer even notice that something has been changed.


How do you relate to the people who buy your works? What are your thoughts about selling art?


It’s nice way to make money. But I try not to think about that when actually making art. When people have approached me with specific commissions, I’ve refused. In any case, the hourly rate would be so low that you wouldn’t end up earning much. But I’ve realised that sometimes you have to compromise with yourself. Like I did in the proposal I submitted for the design of new Norwegian banknotes.


You were one of several artists who were invited to take part in a closed competition to design the new Norwegian banknotes. I just have to ask, did you take part with a real desire to win? To me your proposals seemed very honest and direct, perhaps more direct than we’re used to when it comes to banknotes?


It was a project I was fully committed to, one where I could use the themes that were already part of my artistic work. The sea was a specified topic, and then there was a subsidiary theme for each note, otherwise we were given complete freedom. I should mention that it was a project I worked on together with Pati Passero, a graphic designer. (Messel bends down again and resurfaces with a catalogue of the competition proposals, which he passes to me.)


What was your approach here?


One of the themes we explored was portraits. It’s customary to depict famous people on banknotes, but rather than have famous Norwegians, we chose to include small portraits of anonymous people. We wanted to show people who could be anyone.


You mean it could have been anyone because the value of banknotes is something we’ve built up on the basis of democracy, in other words collectively?


Again it’s a matter of history. When you take the historical perspective, who’s been the most important?


I could say the same about the National Museum and the purchase of art. Last summer I greatly enjoyed reading Tian Sørhaug’s book Gull, arbeid og galskap (Gold, Work and Madness), in which he writes about what he calls the sublimation of money, meaning that money lost the anchorage it used to have in the real world when it was tied to the gold standard and has become something fluid. Sørhaug says that money is both a thing and a relationship. It only has value as long as we agree on its value. Which is precisely how we relate to art. Was your work on the banknotes an opportunity for you to think about and discuss value, in relation not just to money, but also to art and nationalism?


Yes, and to illustrate the point, one of our designs featured a plate with a couple of herrings on one side of the banknote, and an empty plate on the other. It’s well known that herring is a cyclical resource.


Did you use oil as a symbol in any of your designs?


No, because I think there are only two ways to handle the oil industry on a banknote: either we celebrate ourselves as an oil-producing nation, or we take a critical stance. If Norges Bank were to print a drawing of mine that’s critical of the oil industry on a banknote, it would be like providing a commissioned critique. Instead we chose to feature the whaling industry, a chapter of Norwegian history that’s now in the past. Much of our earlier wealth came from whaling. Latterly, things threatened to go drastically wrong, because we very nearly wiped out the last remaining stocks. But it has potential as an honest analogy to our more recent source of wealth, namely oil, which we still regard as self-evident.


But isn’t oil also a closed chapter now?


Imagine we’d put a windmill on one of the banknotes, it would be like spreading the lie that we’re an environmentally pioneering nation, when in fact we’re still pumping loads of oil from the ground. If on the other hand we put whaling on a banknote, that would be an acknowledgment of a historical fact.


Can a banknote be humorous? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a humorous banknote in the real world.


I think I have, although I don’t think it was meant to be funny.


You’re probably right in that. Which no doubt has to do with the disjunction between the supposed value of the banknote and what it depicts? Like a banknote from a defunct dictatorship. How about banknotes with slowly disappearing ink, like you use in your drawings?


Leaving something permanent? I could have used that still-life of a sumptuous table, and after a time the only thing that remains is one tiny fish.


That would really give us something to think about. You’d be doing the opposite of Jesus – reducing a meal that could nourish many to just one small fish, while at the same time the banknote would still be a specific financial instrument that wouldn’t lose its value.


Well, the first title I came up with for this exhibition was “The first will be last, and the last first”!

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