Interview and portrait by Judith Carnaby
Olaf Breuning is a multi-disciplinary contemporary artist, originally from Switzerland, who has been living and working in New York City for more than 10 years. Olaf is internationally known for his work that is humorous and often absurd, based on his observations of human experience and reflections on current cultural and political issues. Gleefully trampling traditional boundaries of artistic practice, Olaf works with photography, sculpture, installation and performance, films and drawing to realise and communicate his ideas.
As the artist-in-residence for the week-long 180 Creative Camp, Olaf created a simple yet beguiling photographic work as part of his residency. Making the photograph involved the assistance of many participants and staff from the camp, from location scouting and sourcing materials through to body painting – a hands-on way to understand his creative process and the execution of his ideas. An engaging and open person, Olaf talked to me about his work, enjoyment of ironic humour, and the space for illustration in the contemporary arts.
‘The Protestors’, 2014, by Olaf Breuning.
Created during 180 Creative Camp, Abrantes, Portgugal.
JUDITH CARNABY: Can you begin with telling me a little bit about your art practice? How did you begin working as an artist?
OLAF BREUNING: I went to art school and studied photography, but I knew before then that I wanted to be an artist. After art school I had a time when I just worked for myself, without having any exhibitions, but then I had one exhibition, then two, three, four, five. All of a sudden I had a lot of galleries representing me, and I became known internationally as an artist. I have worked for 15 years now, more or less all over the planet.
How does drawing fit into your art practice? Do the drawings you create exist as works in themselves, or are they a way to generate ideas for your photography and other mediums? Or are they a combination of those things?
It always starts with drawing. In New York, I have my routine in the morning, and I do the same when I am overseas. I go to the same restaurant in the morning, I have a coffee, take my sketchbook and I write down ideas. I think my drawing started there. I used to use drawing to make sketches for ideas, which I still do today. At some point I realised the stupidity of my drawings, because they‘re so simple, and I started to work on the drawings for the drawings. I have made two drawing catalogues so far, called Queen Mary I and Queen Mary II, both made on the Queen Mary from New York to England. The catalogues consist of a few hundred drawings I did, very simple ones.
‘Yes No’ (Queen Mary II catalogue) and ‘Good Time’, by Olaf Breuning.
Your drawings are often very funny, humorous observations of life and experiences. Do you enjoy observing people, and is that the basis for your drawings?
When I was a teenager I started to observe life, and I would say that’s why I am an artist. I was always an observer. I would always try to analyse why, and I would mostly answer it with an ironic answer. I like using irony in my work very much, and I like it in speaking, it helps me get through life. And my drawings especially, they point out very simple needs of human kind, like sexuality, like food. I try to point out very simple universal problems that we have as humans.
You have turned some of these pencil drawings into large metal sculptural works. How do you feel about the shift in scale, turning such small intimate drawings and observations into more monumental works?
Drawing is beautiful because all you need is a piece of paper, a pencil, a table and a chair, and yourself, and you can make a drawing. And that’s the power I think drawings have, it’s so simple. But it’s also cool, when you have that simple beginning, and then 2 years later you have several tonnes of steel standing there. That’s also interesting. But for me they don’t have too much to do with each other, they’re two different processes of working.
Detail from the Metal Sculptures series, 2011, by Olaf Breuning.
Your line drawings are very simple, as you say, a pencil and paper, and your photography is very vibrant. Also your sculptural works, like the ‘Clouds’ work that you did in New York City, are very bold and often use a lot of colour. How do you approach colour in your work?
Just simple line drawings with a B pencil on letter size paper, that is something I will probably do until the end of my life. Because I use a lot of colour in photography, and my sculptures and films, I am very happy to keep it really really simple there. Also it is strong because the same drawings, that are originally on letter size paper, I print them on T-shirts, on bags, on pins or as enormous big wall drawings. I like the simpleness of the drawings on paper, and that when you print it on a t-shirt it maintains the same simpleness. I’ll definitely keep that in my drawings – never ever colours!
Could you describe the process of creating your photographic works? Do you approach it differently to your drawing? Sometimes the photographs seem to be a record of an event or performance, and sometimes they are look very staged – flat compositions of colour, form and content.
Sure, it’s gets more complicated than when you are drawing, but the photographs too, are a simple idea. I always have simple ideas, it seems! But photographs take a lot more time to make happen because you need people, you need accessories, you need a lot of things. It’s another cup of tea than making a drawing, but that is also the charm in making photographs. I like people in general, I like working with people, and that is the reason I don’t want to be someone who sits in the studio and makes drawings or paintings. I like to go out into the world and work with real things.
‘Clouds’, 2014, in New York City, by Olaf Breuning.
Humour, a sense of the absurd, and ironic observations play a large role in your work. Is humour is a useful tool for you, and do you try and use it for a particular purpose?
It’s not that I try to use humour, I try and be real. I think what I’m doing is being real to myself. If I met a person and they never smiled, I would run away from them. I cannot stand people without a sense of humour. And humour for me is a very smart form of communication. Often it is a fine line; humour can be very stupid, very idiotic, but it can also be a kind of power. Animals, for example, they don’t have humour, they don’t smile, they don’t make jokes. I think humour is actually a high process in the intellectual capacity of human beings and for me, it is the tool I want to use to explain the world. People like Woody Allen do this, whose particular humour I like very much. I would rather speak with a smile about the tragedy of life than with a very serious approach.
‘The Gardeners’, 2008, by Olaf Breuning
The theme of this Creative Camp is ‘The Power of Storytelling’. Your work is vibrant and engaging with considered and challenging ideas. As an artist, do you think of yourself as a storyteller? How do you feel about communication in your work?
Communication is very interesting and it is something I think about a lot. In contemporary art there is one level where you can reach people with no art education or background, with no sense of more than flowers on the wall, and there is the other level where you get too extreme and you only reach the academics, only the ones who studied art history. Storytelling is very difficult. I try to reach an audience in an honest and direct way. I want to reach the in-between group, who are educated, who are travelling, learning and thinking about the world like myself. When I think about the perfect audience for me it would be a thousand Olafs…! You know what, if people are happy about flowers on the wall, I really have nothing against that. I’m more aggressive against the artists who make these kind of abstract things that really no-one gets, just some insiders in contemporary art. That I hate the most and that I cannot take anymore, that bullshit. It’s just such a boring attitude.
It can be hard to create work that communicates ideas clearly enough, but really challenges people’s thinking in a deeper, and sometimes more abstract way. Yesterday we saw a live-action projected drawing project that was a simple idea and beautiful to look at but seemed to lack deeper engagement. How did you feel about that project?
You know, that is a good example. The project was very nice, but it was too easy for me, really too easy. I feel like people would think, oh it’s cute, and that’s about it. I don’t want to make something that is just cute. I want to make something that challenges you when you look at it, and think, oh what the fuck is going on, why? That question for me, at least, has to come up as an artist. Coming from contemporary art, we are trained to think about it differently. For example one way a contemporary artist could have approached that project, would be as a community project for the city, where for one month all the people of the city could write their complaints, like say ‘Fuck the Mayor’ or something. The problem with that work was that it was very decorative. Art should have one step more than being decorative, because when it’s decorative then it’s just decorative, and you can do whatever you want. As an artist that next level is important. What I think makes an artist, is someone who has an outside vision on the world. I personally still believe in that a little bit. And in the last few hundred years it was like that; very creative people, writers, Shakespeare, all these people, they were so talented, people with such another point of view, that when you read it it was striking. I cannot do it, you cannot do it, it is just something really really extraordinary. And that is something I do love in art, when there is something extraordinary in it.
Selection from ‘The Art Freaks’, 2011, by Olaf Breuning
It is interesting to explore where illustration and contemporary art meet and merge, and why some things are deemed more valuable than others, particularly when illustration is talked about purely as a commercial art. Contemporary artists also work in a commercial world, but perhaps it is just a different idea of commercial?
Yes yes yes. And what is very interesting now, and looking to the future, is that until now, contemporary art was the holy space of creativity. The museums are built for contemporary art. Galleries show contemporary artists, or the art fairs, they handle contemporary art. That is something for now – contemporary art doesn’t know what it’s doing at the moment. It’s very market driven, so a lot of contemporary artists, they just produce art-like looking products for over the sofas of rich collectors. So I guess there’s not one stream of contemporary art that makes it any better than all the other commercial arts. And that is really interesting. It is really interesting for me here at Creative Camp because I am surrounded by people who are not in the same world. I work in the hardcore contemporary art world, but then I see the people here are all creative, they all do their things. That’s great. That’s why maybe in the future the term creativity has to be newly formed, and not be attached to a contemporary artist any more. But still what I said before, the level needs to be high. It is the border line to just being commercial and mainstream.
Has the way you might talk about illustration, or other creative practices, changed through your participation in this camp, which includes many people that work in a way that is different to the contemporary art world?
I mean, in the contemporary art world, there are people who use these tools; Raymond Pettibon, for example. He is a very famous contemporary artist, who comes from, I would say, illustration. Also, David Shrigley. There are a few people working in that space, definitely. Contemporary art has the space for all these mediums, with a certain level of critical thought. But sure, I don’t know so much about illustration, but know that it’s a big world and a big industry. For me it would be good to learn more about other ways that people work. For me here in this camp, I really realise that I am in the ivory tower of contemporary art. The world seems so big in contemporary art, but I have seen so many other people working in other ways and areas and that is very very cool for me. I think the most important thing in this week is that people talk with each other, that I talk with people. Perhaps I think, oh, this person is completely in another world, and perhaps they look at me and think, what the fuck’s he talking about? But at least you talk about things and you feel a connection in a way. Life is very beautiful when you care about lots of different things, and don’t live isolated in your world.
‘Smoke Bombs 3’, 2013, by Olaf Breuning
Thanks so much Olaf! For more information, and a trawl through his impressive body of work, see Olaf’s website.