Aris Kalaizis

I Have Nothing to Say - Perhaps That is Why i Paint

Aris Kala­izis on paint­ing in times of crisis, the social rel­ev­ance of art, and the humble­ness of begin­ning. An Inter­view between Stephan Schward­mann and Aris Kalaizis

Aris Kalaizis, The Empty House | Oil on wood | 16 x 24 in | 2013
Aris Kalaizis, The Empty House | Oil on wood | 16 x 24 in | 2013

Schward­mann: We com­mence our dis­cus­sion in an atmo­sphere of gen­er­al dis­il­lu­sion­ment regard­ing our sur­round­ings, which used to be per­ceived as rel­at­ively stable – such as nature, our afflu­ent soci­ety, or (glob­al) polit­ic­al con­fig­ur­a­tions – yet which appear to have sud­denly begun to erode. The visu­al arts have always had the abil­ity to cut through the cer­tain­ties of our per­cep­tion, and they have thus estab­lished a long tra­di­tion of per­sever­ing in the face of irrit­at­ing ambi­gu­ity without collapsing.
Is the artist, or rather is artist­ic cre­ation able to depict a pos­sib­il­ity of intro­du­cing the concept of “bewil­der­ment” as an ele­ment of nor­mal­ity in a pos­it­ive light into our cur­rent mind sets and men­tal deadlocks.

Kala­izis: As we know from the most recent his­tory of the 20th cen­tury, art has often taken on a com­pens­at­ory char­ac­ter and has thus fre­quently paved the way toward the dif­fer­ent, toward the new. In prin­ciple, art has always acted as a kind of cipher code for life in soci­ety, regard­less of wheth­er the artist accepts or rejects the com­plex of prob­lems asso­ci­ated with exist­ence in soci­ety. The rejecters, in oth­er words those who have had no desire to enter into a race with real­ity, have often been able to impart a more subtle mood of their times with­in their texts or pictures.

S: Per­haps I should reph­rase my ques­tion. You take the pos­i­tion that the artist should stay with his brushes, that he can (de)code most effect­ively from a dis­tance. Nobody wants to politi­cize aes­thet­ics – d’accord. I would like to ask – going bey­ond all the pseudo-rel­ev­ant news regard­ing the mar­ket value of paint­ings and pieces or art or regard­ing their orna­ment­al util­ity – wheth­er art and along with it wheth­er the artist him­self shouldn’t get involved in the struc­tur­ing of a civil soci­ety – in pub­lic or inter­dis­cip­lin­ary dis­courses, com­munity and/​or school pro­jects, etc. 

K: You raise the issue of the dis­crep­ancy between eth­ics and aes­thet­ics, which doesn’t really need to be raised since I believe that a bit of mor­al­ity is to be found in every poem or paint­ing. On the con­trary, I would claim that we are exper­i­en­cing an overrep­res­ent­a­tion of the eth­ic­al in the art world. You only need to look at the most import­ant large-scale exhib­i­tions. But an ever increas­ing num­ber of pub­lic exhib­i­tion ven­ues also see them­selves as duty-bound to this approach. I view all of this as much too ration­al­ist­ic, much too sci­entif­ic. After all, art has noth­ing to do with know­ledge, and know­ledge has primar­ily noth­ing to do with art. I also believe that the ges­tus of the avant-garde – to equate itself with real­ity – has been exhausted. Often in exhib­i­tions I can per­ceive no dif­fer­ence between journ­al­ism and art. How­ever, with art – as I under­stand it to be – a win­dow should be opened onto anoth­er world in which the laws of ration­al­ity are made power­less. I find that artists should advoc­ate the aspects which they alone are able to do and not the aspects which they are also able to do.

K: Slo­ter­dijk claimed years ago: “The mod­ern work of art is a wit­ness to the concept that human con­tri­bu­tions to hap­pi­ness are indeed pos­sible.” How­ever, accord­ing to him, this was only if they kept them­selves out­side of the realm of the art trade, oth­er­wise they would “col­lapse”.

K: With all due respect for this thinker, I would still only con­di­tion­ally agree with that state­ment because first of all I would dis­tin­guish between the work of art and the artist. A work of art can­not defend itself from being caught up in the art trade. How­ever, an artist does have the abil­ity to pos­i­tion him­self accord­ing to the demands of the mar­ket. And speak­ing of the mar­ket, we have to men­tion the gal­ler­ies. Without them there would be no mar­ket. Of course, the artist can – as often hap­pens – con­tin­ue to feed the mar­ket with more paint­ings without under­go­ing much reflec­tion. But he can also observe this mar­ket from the corner of his eye, ana­lyze it, and then con­tin­ue work­ing and mak­ing fine adjust­ments to his pro­jects. For myself, I decided to pro­duce few­er pic­tures – which are then pro­duced more labor­i­ously. Basic­ally, there are not more than 8 – 10 works per year. I don’t do this in order to cre­ate a short­age. I pro­duce few­er works in order to raise my work up to a high­er qual­it­at­ive level. Later, I am often dis­ap­poin­ted in ret­ro­spect; that is what illu­sions are there for, to be dis­ap­poin­ted. Still: all in all, it has been worth­while to pause and reflect. But I basic­ally con­sider the mar­ket – in order to come back to your ques­tion – to be the best place for judg­ment and eval­u­ation. Incid­ent­ally, in fin­an­cial eco­nomy, it wasn’t the mar­kets which failed; it was rather the con­trol mech­an­isms over the markets.

S: You could counter that by say­ing that the less acutely people are able to sense the “con­tri­bu­tion to hap­pi­ness” made by art, the more there is to be paid for it – in the form of an art subprime invest­ment: there are only a few people who under­stand the invest­ment, but every­body believes in vague rat­ings and thus in a secure appre­ci­ation in value. Does this not blatantly des­troy the cul­ture of receptiv­ity which you have pro­tested against, yet which is neces­sary for your art?

K: First of all I would like to advoc­ate prais­ing the dis­tinc­tion. With all due respect, your ques­tion is too impre­cise for me. Cer­tainly, there are only a few buy­ers of con­tem­por­ary art who act in a self-determ­ined man­ner. Yes, the major­ity of buy­ers is like the rest of human­ity, not self-determ­ined, always depend­ent upon the opin­ion of oth­ers, and con­tinu­ally con­firm­ing that humans are like sheep. The type of investor which you men­tioned might have got­ten cold feet in the light of the cur­rent situ­ation and rightly jus­ti­fies your com­par­is­on with art invest­ments. How­ever, there also exist some pas­sion­ate art col­lect­ors of vari­ous pro­fes­sions who observe an artist over a longer peri­od of time and pur­chase indi­vidu­al works at dif­fer­ent points in time. These people fluc­tu­ate between being poor and rich. Their pas­sion is col­lect­ing, real col­lect­ing, obsess­ive col­lect­ing, and it occurs not infre­quently that this brings them to the brink of fin­an­cial ruin. No ques­tion about it, many people would like to pos­sess art, but only a few are able to do so. That is the way it always has been and the way it will always remain to be. Still, the won­der­fully demo­crat­ic approach still applies – bey­ond all cat­egor­ies of pos­ses­sion – that art – ini­tially – is there for everybody!

S: The dis­tinc­tion is surely import­ant, but would you go along with my claim far enough to assert that the social sig­ni­fic­ance which art takes on is the res­ult of sta­ging by the media – with the well-known results?

K: No ques­tion about it, there isn’t any­thing I would say against that. In this con­text I would only crit­ic­ally add that there is not only main­stream paint­ing, but there is also main­stream journ­al­ism which addi­tion­ally cements this sta­ging in the media. This type of report­ing is not invest­ig­at­ive work and uses unfiltered second- or third-hand information. 

S: In your work there is a cent­ral sig­ni­fic­ance to the depic­tion of rela­tion­ships between people and to their sur­round­ings which are indis­tinct, irrit­at­ing, and usu­ally lat­ently threat­en­ing. What do you suf­fer from? Are you play­ing with the viewer’s fears of the abyss? Or does, in the words of Fran­cis Bacon, “a really good artist have to …make a game out of the situ­ation today”?

K: At the moment I am only suf­fer­ing from your ques­tion. Do you really mean that a paint­er has to suf­fer in order to achieve a con­vin­cing portrayal? 

S: To ask ques­tions means to pose hypo­theses, and there are at least three in the above ques­tion. What is so insult­ing about mak­ing con­clu­sions regard­ing pref­er­ences in per­cep­tion based on the moods in your paint­ings? It is neither a suf­fi­cient nor a neces­sary con­di­tion for cre­at­ive pro­cesses, but it is a pos­sible one. So, the ques­tion remains.

K: I am an Epi­cur­ean. I am not a Chris­ti­an. For that reas­on alone, I could con­sequently nev­er receive strength through suf­fer­ing. I have to be moved by the sub­ject of the moment. And I achieve that only by being moved, which leads to a joy in real­iz­a­tion. It doesn’t mat­ter wheth­er I am depict­ing some­thing light­hearted or some­thing tra­gic. Even if I ima­gine depict­ing the suf­fer­ing of a cru­ci­fix­ion scene – even though you might ask what sig­ni­fic­ance a cru­ci­fix­ion has in our times – this could only be real­ized – speak­ing for myself – with a cer­tain joy. And in fact I believe that paint­ers such as Rib­era and El Greco in execut­ing their cru­ci­fix­ion scenes and even paint­ers like Grüne­wald in his por­tray­al of the Isen­heimer Altar must all have felt joy, oth­er­wise this suf­fer­ing would not be able to move us as it does. When my fath­er died, I also believed I had to over­come my suf­fer­ing through paint­ing. As a res­ult, noth­ing was cre­ated, not one page, no paint­ings at all. The suf­fer­ing was so great inside me, because with the loss of my fath­er I had also lost a friend and I was basic­ally at a loss for words, without lan­guage because mourn­ing deman­ded too much from me to be able to evoke an appro­pri­ate form. Today I know that you first have to get through such situ­ations before they can take shape. People who suf­fer make oth­ers suf­fer as well.

S: Let’s return to the top­ic I brought up before regard­ing the inde­cipher­able web of rela­tion­ships between the “act­ing” char­ac­ters in your paint­ings. You often emphas­ize that form­al ques­tions such as light, col­or effects, com­pos­i­tion, etc. take pre­ced­ence over the emblem­at­ic con­fig­ur­a­tions in your work. Is it pos­sible to sep­ar­ate these elements?

K: Well, the char­ac­ters are also a part of the com­pos­i­tion, but I believe it’s basic­ally true that the indi­vidu­al ques­tions regard­ing the form­al com­pos­i­tion of the paint­ing are more urgent, even though I would admit that my paint­ings have become more nar­rat­ive over the years, or at least allow for a cer­tain inter­pretab­il­ity. How­ever, the sever­ity of the back­ground of the paint­ing has always remained the basis, the found­a­tion which often cre­ates the start­ing point for these fre­quently ambi­val­ent webs of rela­tion­ships between the char­ac­ters. This back­ground is more than a mere stage, since the back­ground of the paint­ing opens up more in-between spaces dur­ing the course of paint­ing. And these in-between spaces have – in a form­al light – the same sig­ni­fic­ance for my work. In these in-between spaces I often vary my paint­ing; if one part of the pic­ture is painted more lib­er­ally, this occurs when I have the inten­tion of sink­ing my teeth into anoth­er part of the pic­ture, in order to solid­i­fy it. And this oscil­lat­ing between the pos­sib­il­it­ies is always present – to my chag­rin – both in the design stage as well as in the exe­cu­tion of the paint­ing. Cre­at­ing a com­pos­i­tion is fre­quently even more time-con­sum­ing than execut­ing the paint­ing itself. My goal is the con­struc­tion of an inven­ted micro­cosm, which doesn’t exist in our world, but which appears as if it really did exist. No, to return to your ques­tion, I don’t choose to become the hench­man of that which we are con­stantly bom­barded with in the press and media. One doesn’t become a paint­er because one has ori­gin­al ideas, because one has developed a cer­tain atti­tude toward polit­ics and his­tory, which in any case is all too human. We can only find our place as paint­ers when we devel­op a spe­cif­ic visu­al lan­guage. How else could a paint­er define him­self? The sub­jects of paint­ings have nev­er played a great role for me. There isn’t any sub­ject mat­ter which plagues me, and abso­lutely none which would be able to sat­is­fy an academic’s view­point. The import­ant thing is to per­sist, and this can evoke the most man­i­fold ele­ments. Also, I have noth­ing to say; per­haps that is why I paint.

S: You were born here and grew up here and you have exper­i­enced your artist­ic devel­op­ment for the most part here in Leipzig. Is there an explan­a­tion for you why such a biotope was able to devel­op here in this rel­at­ively small city?

K: When I began my stud­ies in paint­ing in Leipzig in 1992, nobody was inter­ested in paint­ing. I wasn’t able to sell a single paint­ing dur­ing the entire course of my stud­ies. And in spite of this, my decision to study at that unfa­vor­able time was abso­lutely cor­rect, because my fin­an­cial cir­cum­stances forced me even more to drive my pro­ject for­ward, and it was that which made me robust. A dif­fer­ent wind is blow­ing today at the Leipzig Academy of Visu­al Arts. The great major­ity of the stu­dents is lured by the prom­ise of suc­cess, where­as true artists nev­er ques­tion the con­di­tions for art. At the Academy’s round­about exhib­i­tions, prices are occa­sion­ally nego­ti­ated, and one can often even find price tags, which I find intol­er­able. Of course, stu­dents of paint­ing do require money to live on. The prob­lem is only: If money comes before the actu­al design of the paint­ing, then people who are on the course of a jour­ney, and stu­dents – as all human beings – should be noth­ing else, will be less required to ques­tion them­selves and their work. But I don’t want us to mis­un­der­stand each oth­er: I don’t believe in the edu­ca­tion­al value of poverty, I only believe that a young paint­er should have to exper­i­ence a peri­od of humil­ity, because a defeat has more power to bring someone for­ward than suc­cess, which often makes one frivol­ous. If you mature later and also have a little bit of luck, then you get everything back. And is there any­thing more beau­ti­ful in a human life than to pur­sue such an activity…

©2009 Stephan Schward­mann | Aris Kala­izis (Source: Magazin KREUZER 04/2009)

© Aris Kalaizis 2024