The Man Who Dreams Pictures

This is the story of a man who, if the Wall had not fallen, would have missed out on his life. It is a story that begins in grey tones and explodes in the colours of freedom. This is the story of Norbert Bisky. We met the artist before his major solo exhibition during Berlin Art Week.

The last time that the author of these lines met the artist Norbert Bisky in person was almost exactly three years ago. We danced together at the 50th birthday party of the literary agent Matthias Landwehr on the terrace of the Helene. kilde Hotel, up on the cliffs over Tisvilde, a very wholesome and uplifting seaside resort just outside Copenhagen, and since this celebration was so memorable, the author didn't want to deny himself the opportunity of asking Norbert Bisky for another dance - this time, however, for a quick-step through the alphabet of his life.


This weekend, you are opening Trilemma, your biggest solo exhibition to date in Ber­lin. The pictures that are leaning against the wall behind us, waiting to be hung over the coming days, are spectacularly vibrant. The new Bisky cycle is complete. ls that a relief! Yes, and I just love this feeling. Of course, there is always some kind of conti­nuity in one's work, but every new picture is a new challenge actually - and hence also the opportunity to start out over and over again. That can also put one under pressu­re. Sure, but when pressure means adrena­lin, then I think it's a good thing. How long have you been working on your new cycle? Since the beginning of this year. Have you painted every day? Yes, but I paint every day anyway. Writers suffer from writer's block, do artists experience this type of failure? If I don't know how to go on, I turn up the music. How many paintings are going to be on show? Eight )arge pictures and a wall full of works on paper. And what do we get to see? The trilemma. Come again? Situa­tions in which there are three unfavourable possibilities, which can all be discounted as options - and yet, you've got to decide on one option or other. Uh-huh. Yes (laughs). So, what's the trilemma Norbert Bisky's in? lt starts with still making paintings at all, which is absolutely absurd in an age of Instagram and so on. Are you on Ins­tagram? No. What on earth could I post? Your pictures would be sure to get a few likes. Oh no, rubbish. I have totally diffe­rent timing. Are the new pictures darker or brighter than the works before? All in all, relatively evenly-matched. What does this say about your current mood? That I'm balanced, relatively at least. In addition, I've been struck by the fact that this time there are no dissevered body parts. Are you apprehensive about critics' reactions to the exhibition? No. 


What question bores you more - the ques­tion about your famous father, or the question about the almost equally famous Bisky boys? Both are okay - sometimes I just don't want to answer them. We are surrounded all the time by images, soci­al media, cinema, television, magazines, ads. ls it difficult in this situation to put up one's own pictures against a flood of images? Today, there are infinitely more images and pictures than twenty years ago, but they are also much more fleeting, evanescent. They whoosh through in the feed and are abandoned to oblivion. That is why painting is magnificently anachroni­stic - its half-life is immensely longer. Are pictures mightier than words? Absolutely. Simply in terms of my biography. I had to endure a Jot of verbal garbage. And yet your pictures have rather word-intoxicated titles. They have names like Zentrifuge ( Centrifu­ge ), Rotz und Wasser (Crying One's Eyes Out), Quasar (Quasar), Virenschleuder (Virus-Spreader), Freund Feind (Fri­end Foe) and so on. I keep an ongoing list of names - although just now I'm tending towards English titles, which probably has to do with Trump's being elected. Because of Trump, I now read the Washington Post. ... whose subtitle is "Democracy Dies in Darkness" ... A fantastic line! Which Bisky would fit? He would be bright, very bright. Do you have moments without any pictu­res? I dream pictures. 


There are those who say that the König exhibition is Norbert Bisky's big come­back show. That's nonsense: I've always been around. Why does the art market love so much to praise its children to the skies, bury them under ground, and, in the end, dig them out again in triumph? I'm afraid that's true of all human vanity fairs. Doesn't it get on your nerves that art has today become a speculative commodi­ty? One shouldn't take it personally. 


lt would be an understatement to say that you come from a moderately politi­cally aware family. Hence this request for a brief situation assessment: Herr Bisky, how is Germany faring these days? I think that, historically speaking, things are going exceptionally weil for many peo­ple in our country. Unfortunately, on the other hand, we are for the first time seeing a situation in which incredibly evil people are coming out of the woodwork, opening their big mouths and having the nerve to say things and call for things that jeopar­dize everything that go to make a city like Berlin, for example. Or jeopardize my life. And these sinister figures with their even more sinister thoughts make my blood boil. They threaten everything that I enjoy and that makes up my life. Which is why I am also prepared to go to great lengths to stop them. 


What must art do and achieve in order to age weil? Fortunately, this assessment is precisely something we artists have no influence on. How does the place where a picture is exhibited impact on it? The inci­dence of light always changes the percepti­on. In the final analysis, however, pictures - so long as they are strong pictures - have a completely independent reality of their own. This is the fascinating thing: canvases were invented to make pictures transporta­ble, that is, as a mobile counterpoint to the picture that is forever fixed on a wall. One could almost say that canvases are histori­cal e-mails. So, where a picture hangs is a matter of indifference? Theoretically, they can hang in any hellhole, yes. Neverthe­less, one feels compassion when one sen­ses that Munch's Scream has to spend its days pitifully in some billionaire's murky cellar ... But the picture will outlive and outlast the injustice and the owner. And thereafter it will have an even more power­ful aura. One of your most explicit works welcomes incomers in the entrance foyer of the Berghain. Oh, don't you go and ask me now what the picture shows ... What does the picture show? That's something that everyone should discover for himself, please. I've always been a fan of Wolfgang Tillmans's Vagina, which used to, ahem, welcome guests to the Panorama Bar. I couldn't have put that better myself.


Herr Bisky, could you reveal what your favourite colour is? At present I like trans­parent colours, i.e. colours like translucent turquoise or ltalian Brown, which don't entirely cover the surfaces, but are rather a shimmer. Yet your pictures give an ener­gy-laden impression. Weil, I use many colours. New ones, too? My colour flirta­tion of the season is cobald violet. Which colour is difficult? Green. And which is especially sad? Violet grey. Which colour is always used up first? Blue-black. You paint in oils. Have you ever, as Warhol did, tried to paint in pixels? Fascinating for sure, but not my discipline. Can we at this point talk briefly about the Bukkake pic­tures? We should do, in fact! lt was only when doing my research for this interview that it struck me that the white blotches in the boys' faces are not pleasure-driven remnants but the white grounding of the canvas. Yes, so what? That's ten years ago. lsn't the grounding the dialectic counter­point to Bukkake? Haha.


Anyone who exhibits in the KÖNIG GALE­RIE can only come out a winner. Yes, this space is truly spectacular. Was it your wish or his idea? Johann König is one of the most courageous people I know. We gradu­ally drew closer in the course of some very good conversations. König's deconsecrated church St. Agnes is, as it were, the power­house of Berlin's Neo Mitte, a key particle accelerator in the magic quadrangle com­prising St. Agnes, the Schinke/pavillon, the Grill Royal and the Berghain. True. ls this your Berlin? Yes, of course. And - at the risk of this being misunderstood - it is precisely within these co-ordinates that the mix, the medley that defines the modern, progressive, cosmopolitan Berlin can be found. lt is important for me to be a part of this. For more than twenty years now, I have been living in Friedrichshain - life there has never been better than it is today. Please believe me: I know what I'm talking about! 


Who were the heroes of your youth? My heroes had Russian first names: they were all of them Russian partisans. And the heroes of your art? Naming them is more difficult: there are so many of them. Begin­ning with Goya, Balthus and Picasso - and moving on to my teacher, Georg Baselitz, to whom I owe a great deal. lt is said that you spent your afternoons as a student in the Prado in Madrid. I was terribly poor and my studio was smaller than the can­vas, so I went to the Prado and copied the old masters. Which pictures there made a special impression on you? Goya's black pictures, especially Saturn Devouring one of His Children - but I also spent a Jot of time with Jacob Jordaens and Jusepe de Ribera. Whom do you paint for, first and foremost? For myself. 


A few sommers ago, you swapped your studio for a studio in Tel Aviv. How did this experience change you? We haven't got enough time today to discuss that in sufficient detail. Chopping it brutally down to size, I would say that I travelled to Israel and there recognized how fragile and decidedly, uniquely precious our living conditions are. At the same time, I miss this vitality that keeps life in suspense, on ten­terhooks, in Israel every second of the day. Nowhere have I feit more alive. Simply for that reason, the first thing I'm doing after the opening night is to travel to Tel Aviv. 


Herr Bisky, how were you brought up? In a very sheltered and cosseted way- and strictly communist. Perhaps too protec­ted for harsh reality. You attended an elite grammar school in the East. What mental picture should we have of Norbert Bisky as a schoolboy? Unhappy. I hated school. The best thing I learned there is the gift of being able to make oneself invisible. Did you have your coming out as a grammar school pupil or in later life? In real terms, later. What would the sixteen-year-old Norbert be likely to say about the man sitting here today? He would probably be a matter of complete indifference to him -and yet he would recognize in my pictures some things that he likes. ls it true actu­ally that the first homo film in the GDR, Coming Out was shot in your parents' apartment? Yes, it's true. But the filming was by no means as unproblematic as it might seem today. The whole time, I had to keep my younger brother, who was then six, entertained and happy in his room, so that he didn't disturb the work on set. And for that reason, I can't teil you much about it. At that time, your father was Principal of the Babelsberg Film Academy. Yes, precisely. How did the producer get the idea of using the Bisky family apartment of all places? I guess, he thought our apart­ment was what, at the time, passed as clas­sically intellectual and smoke-filled. Have you ever asked yourself what would have become of your art in the East? Nothing! In the GOR, I would never have become an artist, never in a thousand years! ls this why you decided to go to the Art Academy in Charlottenburg and not to the Hoch­schule in Weißensee? I didn't only want to go to the West - I wanted to get as far away as possible. And in those days, that meant becoming an American artist. That was my plan. On the way there, you landed up in Georg Baselitz's master dass. What was the most important thing that the old cur­mudgeon taught you? To never be afraid. To be self-determined, autonomous. To do one's own thing and carry it through, all the way. ls there actually a primal pic­ture by Bisky, the picture, the one canvas, that set you off on your way? Yes, there is this picture. However, it has no name. And it was never exhibited either. What is it a picture of? A kitsch parody of a happy scene: childhood in the GOR. 


You were brought up under Communism and today you are subject to the free play of market forces - is this how you ima­gined capitalism as a schoolboy? Not at all! ls money important to you? Basically not, no. But I am aware of the fortunate situa­tion that money doesn't have to be import­ant for me and that I can lead the life that I would like to live. Before you were able to live from painting, you worked as a waiter, folded towels, got taken on as a bellboy, and pulled wheat beer for Bernd Eichinger in the Schlosshotel Grunewald ... Which I was seriously bad at. Herr Eichinger wan­ted to teach me how to do it, but his efforts were only moderately successful. 


Did father Bisky like your art? By and )arge, yes. He liked the light, the colours, the Mediterranean feel. He couldn't relate so much to the boys. Which is totally okay. Absolutely! Did it get on your nerves to be always addressed as the son of Bisky senior? No, I knew that was something I have to come to terms with, and it was always clear to me that it makes no sense to deny my biography. You were born in Leipzig. If your childhood were a picture, what would it look like? Like the view from my window - a slightly faded, run-down street, built at the end of the 19th century. Decaying splendour, soon to become a ruin. A Jot of grey. A Jot of pigeons. Did you paint as a child? Yes, above all forests and paths through forests. Sounds super! Yes, in a way, but in a way also absolutely gross. Today, Nature hardly appears in my work. At the most as fire, or at times as a palm tree. My other L would have been L as in Leinwand, canvas. Go ahead! Have you ever screamed at a canvas? All the time. I am forever talking with the canvases. 


At the beginning of your career, you declared that you would set to work on the cultural refuse of the Russian colony that was the GDR and would conscious­ly paint "the GDR out of your heart and mind" in your pictures. That still expres­ses it pretty weil, yes. Painting also has a highly technical, a purely craft-based side. How, and above all from which side, do you approach a virgin canvas? Never from the centre - that's the first commandment. And which edge is the most difficult? The right-hand one - please don't ask me why. My other M would have been Mumbai. Okay. You were there, at close range, when in 2008 a group of terrorists decided to take their terror to the Taj Hotel and to downtown Mumbai. What happened? Put­ting it briefly, I was in the city to prepare an exhibition. On my way to our hotel, we were suddenly told that a group of Pakista­ni teenagers had landed from a boat in the centre of the city, heavily armed, and were in the act of taking the city hostage from a base in the Taj Hotel. Where were you? In another hotel, a few kilometres away. And that was sheer Juck. The staff barricaded the doors of our hotel - and we hid. I didn't meet my gallerist again until a few days later, back in Berlin. Because of Mumbai, you painted the Colaba cycle. Can pictures heal the soul? Definitely. 


When the Wall feil, you were doing your military service in the Army. Yes, in a bun­ker in Steffenshagen in Mecklenburg. On 9 November, however, nobody informed us at all: that happened only on the morning of 10 November. We were assembled for early morning physical training and the NCO on duty announced, "The Wall is open." We gestured weary disbelief: it was definitively too early for bad jokes. And then? First of all, we did a bout of early morning physical training. While all around you a country was collapsing. But not immediately. The Wall was open, yes, but we continued to do military service. For how long? In March, I did a bunk - and was arrested for it. Why? Classic desertion. I travelled home in the evening and the following morning the military police were at the door and put me under arrest again. How did your parents react? Oh, the times were rousing and upsetting enough. In those days, everybody had himself to take care of. 


What colour does the East have in your memory? Many tones of grey. Where did your first journey into the West take you? To Rendsburg in the vicinity of Kiel. Wow! Right (laughs). No, some relatives of ours lived there. My first real holiday was a trip to Amsterdam, shortly before I deserted. 


Must art be political? And does it become better in the process? A really complex question, on which I myself am forever re-gauging my stance, depending on my daily mood and the situation. I personally, however, would not like to paint any pic­tures that completely rush by the times I'm living in and are thus completely irre­levant, apart from their decorative value. Can a society demand an attitude from its artists? No. That must come from the artists themselves. For example, I am a great fan of Wolfgang Tillmans's intelligent way of getting involved in the debate about Brexit and Europe. 


"What! That's supposed to be art?" say the philistines. - ls the quality of art measurable? That's a question that never bothers me. There can never be enough art. How much torment does your art need? Weil, I really do put a great deal of time and existential energy into my pictures. After twenty years, do you take your art more seriously, actually, than before? I'm afraid so, yes. Do you enjoy it more nowadays, or less? Thank goodness, more. Much more! 


You've painted in Madrid, Mumbai, Rio and Tel Aviv. How important is it for you to sometimes stand back from, distance yourself from, your own day-to-day life? So important that I'd like to be a smoker, because then I could take more frequent breaks when working on the pictures. If one can't achieve any distance, then some time or other you go blind and no langer understand what you're actually doing the whole time. Is it increasingly more dif-ficult for you to find the time to travel? No, I take the time. Hand luggage or bulky luggage? Preferably travelling light, but always with watercolours in my luggage. Do you sleep, paint or read on the plane? I sleep. Gangway or window? Window. What major journey do you still have to make? Japan. 


How many black tones are there in your world? Oh heavens, many, very many. At the present moment, I'm painting with - as a guesstimate - 27 shades. If you had to choose: black or white? I can't choose. Oh, come on Then black. 


What does a day in the life of Norbert look like? Get up in the morning, have break­fast, leave the mobile off, go into the studio. Tea or Coffee? Coffee! How do you keep yourself fit? Boxing workouts, which is good, because I can get rid of energy there. Do you go out? Sometimes, yes. Do you go dancing? That's something I really enjoy! 


Can you reveal where your last holiday was? Over the New Year, in Rio. Are you more the city type or the country type? City, city, city! Even better: city beside the sea. Daytime or night-time? On holiday, preferably daytime, otherwise preferably night-time. 


What will remain when everything comes to an end? Nothing. Or light. 


Were the public artistic likings of the former Foreign Minister beneficial or, in retrospect, more of an impediment for your career? More of an impediment. And yet there was ever only one official appoint­ment, after Westerwelle had bought two pictures at Art Cologne. At that time, my gallerist said, "Hey, you must go to Wester­welle's office and help to hang the pictu­res." And although I was completely green behind the ears and didn't have a clue, I instinctively recognised that this was somehow a bit odd and so I put on a wig. Come again? I thought that I must some­how establish a distance, and so I put on this wig, semi-long, blonde hair. Which led to Westerwelle saying to me two years later at the Art Cologne Fair, "You've got a diffe­rent hair-style." Were you worried that you might get the reputation of being the Ger­man gay painter? That's something that art must be able to deal with. No matter where it hangs, in whatever office, on whatever executive floor, in whatever living room. Do you pay more attention nowadays to who is buying your art? Yes, I do. The Elections to the German Bundestag are taking place in two weeks' time. Do you know whom you'll be voting for? Yes. Have you ever voted for your father's party, Die Linke? Yes, in the Nineties. 


If one clicks one's way through Facebook, listens in to the digital echo chambers and strolls through Berlin in a not completely absent frame of mind, then one gets the impression that in this country aggression . .. ls sadly on the increase. And this wor­ries me greatly. At the same time, however, I think that people in Berlin - no, all over Germany - are at present pretty thought­ful and pretty cool. I think that Germany has become a really good, a modern and open-minded country. There are a Jot of good people around. That's why I trust that the pendulum will not swing in the wrong direction. 


If you had just one more day to live, how would you spend it? Painting, in my studio. Perhaps I'd go for a longish walk. Would you start a new picture? Sure. 


Herr Bisky, how long can one go on pain­ting in such a strength-sapping, energized way? Weil, Karl Otto Götz has just passed away at the age of 103. So, for a long time langer, a very long time. You want to make it to 100, don't you? At all events, come what may. After all, in medical terms it's no problem any more. On this reckoning, what phase of Norbert Bisky's creative output are we at now? The beginning!



Norbert Bisky (b. 1970 in Leipzig, Germany) lives and works in Berlin, Germany and Andalusia, Spain. He studied at the Berlin and Madrid University of the Arts and is one of the most successful representatives of contemporary figurative painting. The artist translates personal experiences of terror, journeys to Brazil, and influences from the media world into color-intensive scenes of beauty, sexuality, violence, and destruction. In Germany, Norbert Bisky is one of the most renowned painters of his generation.

His works have been shown in many international solo and group exhibitions, amongst others in the G2 Kunsthalle, Leipzig, Germ...
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