Little was known about Adrian Ghenie until recently: along with Mihai Pop, he founded Plan B Gallery, famous for putting Cluj on the international art map with a new generation of artists, and he has emerged as Romania’s best-selling contemporary painter and one of the most-appreciated in the wider world. Adrian Ghenie is representing Romania at the Venice Art Biennale (May 9th – November 22nd, 2015) with his project, Darwin's Room (curator: Mihai Pop). We talked on a February afternoon in his Berlin studio, about failure and success, about textures and faces, about fear and fiction.
You were born in Baia Mare, in 1977. Did you have the typical childhood of a painter? Did you get colouring pencils for your birthday and then start drawing frantically?
Not really. As Baia Mare was quite rural, lots of houses with gardens, hills nearby, it was more like a typical Tom Sawyer childhood. Lots of fighting, gangs, wandering the hills, stealing tomatoes, things like that, nothing special. My folks had nothing to do with painting. They wanted me to be a doctor, like my dad, and painting for them was just something you hung on a wall. And nothing more. We didn't have any books on art at home, I went to local art school of course, because there wasn't anywhere else to go. I spent my summers in Constanța, at my aunt's, who lived in a nationalised house, which had belonged to a former Greek shipping magnate, an amazing art-deco house, destroyed by generations of tenants. You just can't imagine how much texture it had and what a fabulous house it was, a mix between Toate pînzele sus! and Grand Budapest Hotel, split up into all sorts of doors and little rooms, where all these people forced in by the communists during the 1950s were living, strange old bags, old whatshername, that drunk, a defrocked priest, such vivid colours… Do you know what's changed since the Eighties? Not just in Romania, everywhere. Textures have been replaced. A superficial, easy-clean world has appeared, mountains of laminate, polystyrene, double-glazing, plastic, we now use spray-on, ready-to-go things. Romania of the 1980s was a hard-to-clean world of textures, it gathered dust. If I go and visit Constanța now, they've replaced everything, they've taken out the old windows and put in double-glazing, they've replaced the old floors which saw 4 or 5 generations with laminated flooring… This changing of texture in the world has led to a change in our behaviour too, the way we look, our hairstyles. We have a different texture now too. And if we're talking about this... They made me change the windows here, against my wishes. I rent this place, I don't own it. I'll have to change the windows because the owner has decided to replace them all in the whole building. And you know what's strange? These new ones are much more efficient, long-lasting, and yet, emotionally, you like the old ones better. In a way, Romania back then was much more humane, texture-wise, it had its imperfections, it had its mistakes. I'm not referring to the political structure. Compare that plank of wood with this window here. You just can't help yourself. We live on a spaceship. I'm really not the type who says, "In my day...", but you can't help not suffer, it's obvious you start feeling nostalgic because that was your childhood. Just recently I saw a video of a TVR1 show covering the elections, sometime during the ’90s, with Rațiu, Cîmpeanu, Iliescu. The armchairs were made of velvet, there was a carpet, a vase with flowers, plants… Now take a look at a modern studio: human silhouettes cut out on a digital thingy, you don't even know what texture that space has. Everything's at the mercy of a socket. If the socket blows, then the background is gone too.
Getting back to the world you grew up in, you were saying that there weren't any art albums. How did you find out that painting was the best way of expressing yourself?
That's a whole chapter on its own: Auntie Rodica. She was a family friend who, besides being nice, was interested in art. She had art albums, had been to Leningrad, had albuns of Repin and Aivazovsky. She noticed that I was talented, she said, 'Look at this kid, he can draw!' and she used to draw with me. Or she would make time to come over to ours for a bit of art criticism, she'd bring her albums with her. She was a chemist, so nothing to do with art either. But she had a way of putting things and of giving you the feeling that what you were doing was really important. My mum would say: 'What's that child doing, has he done his homework?' but she would say, 'Leave him alone, woman, he's drawing!' Somehow, it became a kind of addiction, whatever I did, calling her up to say I was coming over to show her what I'd done. I've recently made it up to Auntie Rodica. I did a piece, Pie Fight, which is in fact her head, and now it's hanging at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
What did you draw when you were a kid?
There were three categories. Freestyle, they were kind of a disaster. Then copies of all the kitsch paintings at home. And then Auntie Rodica brought me her albums which I made copies from. And you know, there are some details you just couldn't make up. If I'd tell a westerner, they'd think it was worse than Kafka, even. And I mean I'm talking about '92, not '86. One day, I remember that I'd been given an album and I wanted to paint a copy and realised I couldn't do it using aquarelle, I didn't know why exactly, but I just had a feeling that it wouldn't turn out right. So I was tempted to go and buy some oil paints. I'd been mixing up my dad's old door paint, and I'd caught the bug. I'd noticed that you got a different result if you painted with your finger… And I said to myself that I needed some colours so I went to the Fondul Plastic paint shop. Just imagine, I was a 14 year-old teenager in his own world of painting, and the lady there, a really nice woman and taking my side, told me that she could only sell me paint if I were a member of the National Union of Fine Artists, due to the situation of the company then. And because of that, the only colour she could sell me was violet. And a couple more shitty colours, something like burnt umber, which were useless to me. But my neighbor below us, whose husband had been a big shot in the secret service during communism, was the Director of Fondul Plastic. And so, with friends in the right places, I got hold of white. White was the unicorn, the Holy Grail of Fondul Plastic. After a whole series of friends in right places, I managed to put together a reduced, but basic, palette of colours.
You were 12 when the Revolution happened. How was it for you? Did you understand the world was changing?
I was in the seventh grade. We lived in Baia Mare on a street where a lot of secret police guys lived, a good area, so to say. And they didn't talk much, those secret police guys. My dad was away in his own world most of the time, he'd spend the whole day in the garage, most likely depressed. My mum, on the other hand, had no clue about politics. She'd been in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of '68, during their invasion, but she was really happy, thinking it was some kind of military parade. She was one-of-a-kind, a starfish. She didn't understand, she didn't see. It was exactly this kind of perception of hers, amnesia after 8 minutes, which fascinated me when I began painting stuff related to history. I would ask her what it was like, she'd travelled through Poland and Yugoslavia… I loved how she used to tell stories about that world, without using any kind of political filter. It was like her brain just couldn't translate what it meant. As if someone'd tell you about Hitler's Germany without mentioning the Nazis. On the evening of December 21st, I remember we got a phone call from a relative in Cluj telling us that tanks had entered the city. There was a kind of excitement, as if something was happening, I'd heard about Timișoara, I'd tried tuning into the Hungarian channel, but there was just fuzz, but I saw some tanks through the fuzz. The next day, on December 22nd, we woke up and took the sausages to be smoked, that was our priority. I heard a rumour about something to do with Milea, but I had no clear understanding of who those people were exactly. At one moment, I was in the kitchen, my mum said to turn on the TV quickly, and I turned onto Caramitru, after that it was clear what was happening. My brother's 14 years older than me, he was an engineer then, and building a bridge over some river, somewhere in Maramureș, and I was worried. 'Where's my brother, does he know about this?' My brother showed up about 3 or 4 in the afternoon with a truck full of silver fir trees. That was his moment of being a revolutionary, he'd raided the party tree nursery and cut down the silver firs. I was happy when they shot Ceaușescu. I can't say I'm sorry, not even now. At one moment I went to my room for about 10 minutes and had an ecstatic thought of being able to eat pineapple now. Huge amounts of pineapple. The disappearance of that bastard was associated with a huge amount of pineapple which would appear in my life the next day. Strangely for me, the Revolution is associated, Dada-like, with exotic fruits and the impression of being able to go to places where they grow. Frustration followed though, because there were another 15 years of being handcuffed.
Let's jump to you graduating from university. What were you doing from 2001 to 2005, when the famous Plan B opened? Did you already have a "career" as a painter?
At university, I was as anachronistic as the time and place I came from, I was interested in a kind of mystical symbolism which had brought me some success, locally. When I left uni, I didn't know much. A strange period followed, in the sense that I didn't know where to begin. I lived with my mum, I didn't have an income, we both lived off her pension. I painted a whole load of kitsch stuff for 50 Dollars or Deutschmarks, I bet people will turn up with them now to auctions. I still had friends at uni, living in halls of residence, and I used to hang out there, watching videos, playing computer games, Star Wars, that kind of thing. I had a makeshift workshop made out of planks, in my gran's garden. You still needed visas to get out of the country, but where would you go? I'd go to Budapest whenever I made 100 Euros, from one day to the next, so I could get to visit a museum now and then, but I still ended up at the classics, I wasn't really with it. In 2002, I managed to emigrate to Austria. So like each and every Romanian, I thought, "Great, this is it!" And there, the feeling that I didn't understand anything just grew stronger. And so, about 6 months after arriving in Austria, I gave up painting. I told myself I'd do what everyone else did, learn the language, get a resident's permit, and find a job.
In Austria I was pretending. I tried to reinvent myself, wandering around Vienna, learning German, but I didn't even manage to learn that properly in the end, I just didn't have the patience. I did some paintings, but only as a quick sell, on special order: some guy's mountain hut, that kind of thing. But there was one place I really loved, the MuseumsQuartier, which had an amazing bookstore and good coffee. I spent a lot of time there, relaxing, looking at everything on display, and, at one point, something matured within me. In 2004, I didn't even have enough money to stay in Vienna any more, it was a really shitty situation, so I went to Sicily for a while. In the end, I came back to Romania, like a kind of strategic return. I already had a visa, so I could go back to Vienna whenever I wanted. During that period, Victor Man and Șerban Savu also came back. We'd been classmates, tutorial partners in fact.
Șerban had won a scholarship to Academia di Venezia, Victor had moved to Israel. When I came back to Romania, they were also trying to come back too, also after a series of failures.
So then came Plan B…
Yes. At one point I met one of my brother's friends, Mircea Pinte, who's an art-collector now. He had a simple problem to solve : he'd just replastered his new house, and the plasterer had brought him about 25 paintings from Ando, the company that makes you identikit abstract paintings. Mircea said to me 'Why don't you help me pick something out, because I don't know how ?' So I went to his place, and I said, 'Mircea, this is a pile of shit, but I can help you though. You can either choose some of these and you've sorted your problem, or you can begin a collection, which might take a bit of time, you'll need a bit of guidance, and after about a year or two, you'll have something good hanging here, and it won't be Ando.' Mircea agreed and asked how he should pay me and I told him I'd like to open a kind of gallery. I went to talk to Mihai Pop about it, who had been taking care of Galeria Academiei and already had experience, and Mihai said : 'OK!'
In September 2005, we opened Plan B with a Victor Man exhibition. We called up everyone we knew, just like you do for a wedding. Jane Neal came too, the art journalist who wrote for different magazines. She wrote us a review for Art in America. For our first Plan B exhibition, can you imagine that?!… We were the first Romanian gallery at that time to have had such an important review. More exhibitions followed during that year. We put in the hours, we snoozed in chairs, we turned on the old tiled terracotta stove. A gallery requires you to be flexible, one artist wants mirrors on the ceiling, another wants I don't know what… If I couldn't make a living anymore, then I'd be able to do it as a carpenter, I could renovate your flat. All the exhibitions which followed were conceptual. It was then I learned how to look at conceptual art and new media. I can say it was a period of me coming back to life, of relaxing. And it made me feel like painting again. But I'd lost all ambition. I just took some canvasses I had lying around at home and started painting (the beginning of Stalin’s Tomb) inspired by a little second-hand book about a USSR Congress when Khrushchev tried a move to get Stalin removed from the mausoleum where he was buried next to Lenin. Khrushchev had no clue about how to get that criminal out of there, so he orchestrated a kind of mystical happening during the congress, a veteran female bolshevist, who'd been a bolshevist since the age of 2, stood up and said she'd dreamed of Vladimir Ilyich the night before. And he'd told her that he didn't feel good at all with Stalin lying next to him, in fact he stunk to high heaven, and he was telling her so she could tell everyone at the congress that he'd like to be alone in the mausoleum. The proposal was put to vote, and on that night they sent in an excavator, took him out, made a 6-metre deep hole, stuck him in it, and they poured in 6 metres of reinforced concrete, they totally threw him out. I wanted to paint this whole story somehow. So that's how the first two paintings came about. After a while, I showed them to Mihai, he liked them, and said if I made several of them, we would put on an exhibition at Plan B. So, in September 2006, we held the If You Open It You Get Dirty exhibition.
In the same period, Jane came to Romania, she told us that she knew a gallery in London which had a branch in Zurich, and that the branch director, Juerg Judin, might be interested in doing a show together. Judin already knew Mircea Cantor, who was in Paris, and wanted to come here and meet us. In September, he came to Cluj and saw my exhibition, and then in November he organised Cluj Connection, a group exhibition, which I was in alongside Mircea Cantor, Victor Man, Ciprian Mureșan, Cristi Pogăcean, Șerban Savu and Gabriela Vanga. The Zürich exhibition was an instant hit. Overnight I went from being a total nobody, just imagine that during the summer I'd been a nobody reading about Khrushchev and some Russian lady's dreams, while in November I'd already received a proposal to work with Haunch of Venison. Haunch was a big deal then, I mean just think, at that time they had Bill Viola, Richard Long, Damien Hirst. A list of at least 6 artists who I'd learned about at uni. In November, we were already working with them. That's how it went…
Did you guys end up being grouped together because of people like Jane Neal, or were you close anyway?
We were close. You could say we were a gang. A gang with its own tension, I mean don't think that there was endless love between us or anything.
How do you see yourself without them ?
I can't, I don't think I can see myself without them. I don't know if you can ever look at an artist in vitro, completely out of context. In all of us there's some interest for things which can be transferred from one to another, we're not completely separate. For example, at the beginning, each one had his own way of seeing things based on his life history. Șerban Savu, who'd spent his whole life in a block of flats in Mănăștur, painted what he saw from the balcony. Victor Man lived in an old, nationalised house on Horea Street in Cluj, next to the station, an Austro-Hungarian atmosphere, old furniture etc.. He'd always had a feeling for the past, a sort of nostalgia for a lost world whose tracks were still visible, dirty, grand, old doors, the way his grandma cooked. Everyone talked about Romania, but it wasn't an abstract concept, it was a kind of flavour, a nuance, something between worlds. Like the layer of jam in a cake – without it it's either too sweet or too dry. It's about that, not about illustrating or narrating something. What I'm interested in, for example, is a certain kind of texture, a specific dirtiness which wasn't to be found just in Romania but in the whole of Eastern Europe, dirt induced by a specific ideology, a specific way of life, a mixture of a rusty, old Dacia, ’50s furniture covered in bric-a-brac, my gran's old mouldy carpet… Each one of us has his own aroma, that kind of nuance. To me it seemed like Bucharest artists were really interested in narrative, in explaining, in making political statements. We had no wish to explain ourselves ideologically. We weren't necessarily thinking about that. The world we lived in has its own texture which was different, and each of us tried to capture that in our painting (Ciprian did the same, only in new media). For you to look at a painting and have the impression not that you understand the historical background, but that you can smell a certain type of mould, which isn't there because people forgot about their old things, but because people were forced to forget them. There's a whole thing behind it.
Do you have a specific work rhythm?
I work from December to March, I mean really work, I have no life apart from that, from dawn 'til dusk. At one moment you get into a kind of trance, as if you're dancing, like a dervish. At the beginning you might feel a bit sick, then you dance for a while, and, if you've got the right rhythm, you can stay in it, kind of like warming up, then just moving by itself. If I asked you to dance right now, you might be clumsy at first, but after a few moves around the place, you'd be fine. So I prefer getting into this whirling motion and then I don't come out of it for about two months. I don't paint with a brush, I paint with a whole load of tools, in fact, I throw colours around in one big mess, I have to be in the right state. It exhausts me and depresses me. I have the feeling the world is far away and that I'm a loser. That's it, exhaustion. And you're all alone, it's an idiotic occupation because you go home, open a door, shut it again, you're on your own the whole time. You're alone with your own stuff, it's not something you can share with others.
When did you realise you were a 'successful painter’?
When I was painting Stalin’s Tomb, my series of graves, I would look at one of my works in my mum's kitchen, at home, where I would paint when she wasn't cooking, mostly at night. It was a colourless piece, a grey thing, in fact it was a stove lid turned the other way round, covered in dust. In a way, this work contradicts that whole list of reasons why someone would like a painting, it's got nothing about it to like. Some time passed between the moment I painted it to when it was exhibited. I spent a lot of time with it, it was really just like a grey stain, it was almost like my own personal secret, as if only I knew what it was about and there was no sense explaining. I knew that, for anyone else apart from me, it would just be a grey stain with a handle. I never understood why there was such a fuss about that piece at the Zürich exhibition. At that time, it was a complete mystery to me…
Have you found an answer for that in the meantime?
Sort of… We like things from the darker side of life. Somewhere, inside us, we feel attracted to this. And I think there's something present in my work, something malefic, because it's the work of someone interested in those type of things, but not from some positivist, Western perspective. I totally believe in this layer. If someone told me it didn't exist, that it's a by-product, a chemical reaction in my brain, then they'd be giving me an answer I'm not interested in.
Have you ever been interested in exploring your own subconscious?
I've never had psychoanalysis.
Not even keeping a dream journal?
No. And do you know what? I remember two moments which you could consider kind of creepy. I've seen two car accidents close up. One with five dead. I was about eleven, a lorry drove into a Dacia in front of me, it pushed the car into the railings, it crushed it, they all turned upside down. Basically that's like a tank driving into your Dacia. On Calea Turzii in Cluj. I was right there, at a zebra crossing, and I saw the whole thing. People had already gathered around, there was a band of people at the front, and I knew the moment would come when the victims would be pulled out from the car. I said to myself, 'Mate, do you want to see or not?' I had to make a decision. I said, 'I'll watch, whatever happens.' I saw exactly the kind of thing that only images from Auschwitz can rival. Two firemen pulling out a body with its insides all hanging out, and not just one, five of them. Just like meat stew. What's strange is that it didn't affect me, I didn't dream about it. Later, when I went to dissection classes in the first year of uni, I looked with a kind of curiosity, not with any negative connotation. And when I was between 10 and 12, my dad gave me a book on Buchenwald to read, it was a novel, in fact, with pictures too though, which told you how people had murdered others at Bergen Belsen and Buchenwald. I was totally fascinated and horrified, and I couldn't put the book down. I think there's a layer in all of us we don't talk about, which we've covered with shows like Duminica în familie or Oprah, where conversations about human nature are a kind of la-la poetry, every day we make up lies that we're rational animals, we talk very little about this, we prefer Oprah to thinking about what's forming in that layer and really hard to express in words. I mean, look, people might say that I'm an arrogant bloke, famous for his indifference to socialising, replying to e-mails, but they don't know how much I'm interested in people, in the sense that I prefer not interacting with them because I can observe them better when I'm not talking to them. Often when I am talking to them, I find out the least. I'm also interested in finding out what's going on with me, it's me who's part of this whole thing.
Is that why you appear in a series of self portraits?
Yes, Self portrait as... I'm neither an historian nor a philosopher, I'm not reinventing the wheel. If someone asked me how I see painting, I'd say that, after it lost the illustrative rôle it had in centuries past, when, because there were no video cameras yet, you had to illustrate certain things, painting is the only medium for expressing the visceral nature of the world. Any painting is the result of a physical interaction, you can't imagine how inert a colour is when you put it on your palette, the decomposed version, blobs of colour awaiting transformation. They're only transformed through a choreography which can't be prescribed, there are no recipes, nor knowing exactly what quantities to use, what follows is a Brownian motion dictated by my insides, by my moods. If my meniscus is playing up, then after two hours of standing up I'd need to sit down. And then I'd paint in a chair, it's a completely different dynamic. Your health issues, your limits, you can see all these in what you paint. It's all about your viscerality. No other medium can do that.
You're on the art market now, your work is being sold for higher and higher prices. Do you feel that market expectations restrict your freedom?
As an artist, you have the same problems society does: you have to take your daily dose of freedom. The market's like the rising of the sun: you can't stop it, there's no sense in getting annoyed with it, you don't control it. It's always been there and always will be. It's the stupidest thing to imagine that something exists which doesn't come under the market's radar. In fact, the market doesn't mean Sotheby’s, it's a kind of convention between a few people who believe in what you're doing, they invest a certain amount, cultural or financial, so that sometime, at the end, someone will say, 'I want it, it's mine!' The whole Sotheby's thing has nothing to do with me. My paintings are not mine. They were painted by me, sold to some collectors a few years ago, and they resold them. People have the impression that I make loads of money from it. But it's not like that. Whether the market's behind you or not, when you go into your studio it's the same problem, particularly because Sotheby's or the market are not the only sources which can influence your freedom. The opinion of a very close friend can be much more devastating, or an awful press review, someone who accuses you of God knows what. You have to earn your freedom every day. But in Romania there's still this naivety of splitting the world into the market and outside of the market. People say, 'Well you've had commercial success, but in the museum world, you've had nothing.' But there's no such thing as in vitro commercial success. Those people paid $2 million for what? Commercial success is mostly the secondary effect of your success as an artist, first of all. Bacon and Warhol were in the same auction as me. I'm not saying it's OK for me to be there. It seems to me I'm much too young. And nobody asks me when they do these things. Maybe I'll tell them at one point, 'It seems a little crazy, at 37, for me to be selling a painting at Sotheby’s for almost $2 million. It's stupid. Much too early, much too much.' Some parts of the market work strangely. But I have absolutely no influence over that.
Have you ever felt a kind of guilt projected onto you because your work sells well?
How do you explain this? Where does this idea come from?
In Romania, there's an old tradition of explaining someone else's success through the occult tale, 'Yeah, right, I know better than you how these things happen...' It's a tradition which will never die. And then the conspiracy story follows. That doesn't affect me at all. The whole thing with Sotheby's, hyped up by the media, has put me on an island. But I never gave any kind of statement, I haven't said anything, I don't feed it. And I have another theory: somewhere between 25 and 45 years old you've got a sort of 'primetime,' in this timeframe it's a complete waste of time explaining anything or giving interviews. You can all think what you like. After 50, then we'll do some clarifying. Until then, life's amazing. I'm not the type of person who likes going on holiday. I just don't like it, I get bored. I'm a workaholic. Maybe I'll make a film at one point… I don't want to sit in press conferences, I don't want to explain. I don't have time for that. In a world where everyone wants to communicate something, it's precisely communicating which becomes irrelevant. I don't want to communicate anything any more.
Do you feel any kind of fear hanging over you when you go into your studio?
I don't necessarily feel afraid, but I do know exactly what I'm going to have to go through when I come in here and decide to paint until a certain time. I know that the secret to any good artwork is managing failure. The secret ingredient for any piece of art, whether it's literature, painting or something else, is, in fact, something like the following: you start off amazingly, and then, somewhere along the line, you really fuck up. If I've started something at 3 in the afternoon, at about 9 in the evening I'll be standing there with a cigarette in my hand, saying, 'My God, I've really messed this shit up, at 5 it looked incredible, but then I kept saying I should fix it up a little.' At that moment, you've got two choices: you can light up another cigarette and say, 'I'm going home to sleep, I'll come back tomorrow all fresh and new,' which is just foolish. Feeling fresh won't solve anything. I didn't know this at the beginning, I learned it in time. In fact, at that moment, your brain wraps up the situation tragically, in economic terms: you've lost six hours, you've used up all these supplies. You make yourself a failure checklist, you should feel frustrated, down, but, as things went on I noticed that there's another part of your brain which tells you: 'Don't you realise that right now you've got a once-in-a-lifetime chance?' There's a unique moment of liberation, now that the piggy's officially dead in its sty. Now you can allow yourself to say: 'What would happen if I took that detail which I slogged over for 5 hours and threw a bit of yellow over it, the one colour that all of your painting technique know-how says you shouldn't put there? And I use exactly that yellow, and not just any yellow, but citrus yellow, and not just a little smudge, but five whole tubes, I squeeze them all out there. Then I notice that something's happened, nothing to do with my technique, but with a certain energy. I've played a kind of Russian roulette. And then, often, but not always, by destroying a face or some detail, things take on a new dynamic. This notion of managing failure is in fact the only way something can break through. The awful thing though is that I can't fake this failure, I really have to believe right up 'til the end that this little detail has to be that way. It wears me down knowing that I leave just before messing up.
It sounds like failure has become something essential to you…
Yes, it’s become a necessary ingredient. My series, Stalin’s Tomb, wasn't necessarily painted in that vein, it came through another type of failure, the failure of my life up to that moment, as an artist, as a person. Now I need that kind of failure somewhere in my studio. Success, just like comfort, kills art actually. People are going to tell me I'm a hypocrite for saying that. The big problem with galleries, for example, is that it's in their job description to ensure you a certain comfort level. It's very difficult to explain to them that it's exactly that comfort level that's going to kill their artists. I've got money, but I don't live comfortably. I pay rent, I spend all my time in spaces like this, I wear the same clothes every day, months on end, I don't have a car, I don't own possessions, I've just got one armchair I bought from an antiques store. I haven't changed my lifestyle. My bank balance has changed due to these things, but it's something beyond me, and the money's used to pay for all kind of things, to support a load of projects. My own personal comfort level hasn't changed at all. I don't eat caviar. I don't travel business class, I don't own suits… We don't empathise with success because it's essentially foreign to our nature. The more successful you are, the more of an island you become for others, a detestable creature. People who know me personally don't detest me, only those who don't know me personally do, because they loathe a media-made image: 'successful, young painter.' Even I hate him. The media tends to present a Hollywood version of your life. That's what Bacon used to say, until you're 50 there's no time for explaining. Leonardo da Vinci never gave an interview and that didn’t change much.
We haven't talked about colour. Why does your work sometimes explode with colour, while other times it's so very dark?
I'm classed as a portrait painter, the polar opposite of pure abstract art. There is distinct figuration in my painting. The reasons why I'm a figurative artist and I'm not really abstract are more emotional and are to do with how I relate myself to traditional figurative painting. The moment a painting comes close to figurative and I have to think in a figurative way, paint eyes, a mouth, that's exactly when I don’t find painting interesting any more. Any kind of narrating you try to do on a canvas is essentially not interesting, attempting to imitate texture using a brush is, in itself, a waste of time. That's why I haven't concentrated much on 20th century figurative painting, but on 20th century abstract painting. I've tried to create figurative painting, but using the building bricks of abstract: Pollock-like spraying, some things from Rothko, all those blobs you can see on my recent work which I took from Gorki, areas of decalcomania in the style of Max Ernst, all these are abstract painting tools. Somewhere along the line, my playing with them should generate figurative images. But I don't paint a tree trying to imitate its shadows or colours. A while ago, when I was thinking about how best to suggest a rotten old piece of wooden furniture of my gran's, I realised that the best way would be to use a specific kind of intervention à la Richter. I put Richter in my gran's furniture. I didn't take things from my classmates. Richter, just like Bacon, are already history, a ready-made tool, you can just take them off the shelf. That's what I've always found interesting, taking a bit from here, a bit from there, like a German Shepherd rounding up all his sheep, and to create figurative work using the abstract painting toolkit.
I was just thinking about the figures you rough up, you assault, you attack, a sort of unmasking of official history. How do you place yourself in terms of history: are you the one that rewrites the official version, the one who corrects it?
Not necessarily. I'm interested in history that’s linked to the the human figure. A certain type of deconstruction interests me, the same way it interested Picasso and Bacon. In the 20th century there were two moments when the way human figures were painted completely changed — Picasso and Bacon. Picasso's deconstruction is inspired by African art and the Middle Ages, he sometimes painted eyes on only one side of the face, but the figures are very decorative. There's no texture, no meat,they're just like a collage suggesting human figures. Bacon creates the same deconstruction, but it's all very carnal, you've got the impression that his model's a head that’s been cut off by a warlord and then stuck back on again. When I found an image taken from a film of a pie fight, completely by accident, I asked myself what exactly I was seeing, in fact: a man or a woman, with bits of cake running down their face. One eye is clear and looking at you, while the other is covered by smeared cake. A deconstruction is taking place, but it's not one created by me. My paintings look similar to Francis Bacon's work, but he was actually the one doing the deconstructing, using an internal mechanism, while I take them ready-made, already deconstructed, from the stock of images I have to hand. That's what's new in the world: you've got access to an infinite database of images and data. I haven't done anything else apart from just take from that, using the traditional deconstruction of human images, which the cinema world has supplied me with. I just scan my options and take whatever seems expressive enough or 'paintable.' People say that Francis Bacon is one of my inspirations. Yes, our work is similar, but he created them, while I find them.
How do you see the famous Degenerate Art Exhibition?
I'd class that along with the Holocaust, in a Dadaesque way, because they had the same roots, they are a result of humiliation. To me it's something like Nazis fleeing to South America and not being caught until they died. Humanity's failure, in a way. The whole time we create systems we think are perfect, we barricade ourselves in using law and economics, and then we mess up... Just like our whole legal system wasn't capable of agreeing those guys were monsters, this Degenerate Art Exhibition was also the world failing, society failing, it’s much more than people saying things like, 'It's such a shame about those paintings, I feel so sorry for those artists!' Those artists found another niche, they survived, I'm not talking about that. It's the same as burning books, these are failures. The failure of a whole system. It's not about the fact that some books were burned, there'll be other ones. But every now and then, this machinery called society totally botches things up. And from these things you learn so much. It's these things that make you realise that this whole construction is relative. Humanity's biggest failures weren't things like Napoleon's invasion of Russia, they were this kind of thing. The whole time we're under the impression that we're somehow scot-free, that we live in a democracy and 'these things won't happen again.' No way! To be capable of burning books in public squares or putting on exhibitions of Degenerate Art, you have to be part of a whole web of people. It wasn't just Goebbels who wanted to do these things. A whole load of people did, and I'm not talking about factory workers, but about cultured people, who came to the conclusion that that art was rubbish.
In fact, the responsibility for it is kind of spread out, it's not just what's-his-name's who took the decision, but the whole machinery’s responsibility. It reminded me of what Hannah Arendt said about the banality of evil...
Yes, and this is just one face of this evil. It's incredible how many failures of this kind we've managed to create in the 20th century. In a moment of madness, I watched tens of hours from the Eichmann trial, the whole thing's on the Internet. It's simply what they recorded on the scene, a trial which lasted two months. And every day there was a session lasting about two hours, let's say. And a gaggle of translators translating for you. And do you know what was fascinating after I-don't-know-how many hours? You go through exactly what happens to the judge on the rostrum, as in that, at one moment, you fall into a kind of stupor, a sort of bureaucratic hypnosis. At the beginning it's all very formal, everyone's standing up, Eichmann's accused of crimes, then the guy starts with all these papers, going into detail about how everything worked, and at one point even the judge says to him, 'Yes, thank you,' he becomes a partner. You realise how complicated the trial is, because there's a load of things that need to be cleared up, we're getting things straight for humanity, for the Jewish people, and so you say, 'Hang on, so if we're really talking, then let's go into all the details.' How many trains? How did it go? Who sent them? And you realise the accused becomes your partner, the judge almost says 'Danke' to him, he feels grateful and says 'this gentleman is clearing things up for us,' and then you're almost so bored you feel like saying, 'Ok, mate, enough now, I get it, so maybe it wasn't so...' If you go into so much detail, at one point this stupor takes over, it’s almost like evil becomes palatable. The Nazis, just like the Communists, knew that bureaucracy would create a kind of balm, a liquid so easy to slip into, which turns the situation to jelly, it makes it almost tolerable.
Why have you chosen to paint primarily dictators?
Because they're such a clichée and have generated the same visual baggage. It would have been completely pointless painting Beria because there are only two photos of him. I would've ended up in an elitist area which I hate. I want to work with exactly the kind of junk we all have in our collective mentality. That's why I've never used rare images of Hitler, Stalin or Ceaușescu, and why I've used the ones we all saw at school, the ones on book covers. I've gone along with democratising access to information, which is specific to our time. Fifty years ago you couldn't have done that. You had to go to the library and ask the lady there to give you some book or other and you might have found something in that. One of the big advantages of our time is that we have access to this huge collection of images. And I wouldn't like it to become classified, something only I have access to.
In a conversation with Mihai Pop, you said you read the daily press every morning. Do you still do that?
Yes. As I don't believe in information hierarchy and I don't believe a piece of news about Silviu Prigoană is less important than something about this or that crisis, it all tells us about human nature, I jump from one to the other. Because I often paint until late, I smoke a lot, and, when I wake up in the morning, I'm half-dead for the first hour. I have my iPhone next to me and go to Ziare.com or search for a name, something I dreamed last night. So I get to Ziare, completely in a daze, because I've just woken up, and then I see a piece: X has got new false tits. Who's X? Ah, it's her. I like the randomness on Ziare.com of associating 'Poroshenko has reached an agreement,' with 'First Romanian man to get breast implants,' and 'What's-his-name's hat has been found.' That's how I wake up. Then I choose something from there. For example, one day I saw that a certain number of years had passed since the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. There was a photo of Ribbentrop, Molotov, Stalin, and behind them was some panelling, and I was thinking: I wonder where this document which had such a huge impact on a large parts of the world was signed? What's that room all about? I mean the work it took… I searched for 'the building Ribbentrop-Molotov pact' and didn't find anything. Then I searched differently, I put 'Pact Building' through Google Translate to see it in Russian, and after about two hours I found it. It's a restaurant. I found a picture of two people having a meal, eating a fish, and behind them is the same panelling.
Have you used that information in any way?
I don't know, no idea. What I'm saying is that I like doing that kind of thing.
I find it funny you read Ziare.com and not NewYorkTimes.com.
I don't read The New York Times. And if we've got onto what's culturally acceptable and what's not... Tabloid news is like rummaging around in a rubbish bin. For example, for a while I've been interested in this disease some people suffer from, which gets worse and worse and nobody talks about it: dysmorphia. The worst form of dysmorphia is when you hate your body or hate a limb. Some people go to psychologists to get written permission to cut of their perfectly normal leg, because they're obsessed that it's revolting. They say, 'If I can't cut off my leg, I'll kill myself.' It's all explained in Greek mythology, Narcissus etc.. From the moment we had mirrors, and from the moment we had an anti-mirror called the media and saw all these cover images, we began suffering in silence from dysmorphia, began hating ourselves. We hate ourselves now more than ever. I sometimes meet art collectors who are cosmetic surgeons, and they tell me that 80% of their patients should be sent to a psychiatrist. The world is like an iceberg, and this is the unseen part of the world, what people say. All these obsessions are silent, but they affect such an enormous number of people. There's a very aggressive and dark partnership between all the industries – medical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic.
What's your relationship like with Romania?
From 2002 on, from the moment I left for the first time and have been travelling back and forth ever since, I've been able to understand Romania much better than if I'd have stayed there, and I have a much closer relationship now. I've fallen back in love with Romania precisely because I've been away. Over the years, I've realised how much I owe Romania, as my biggest asset is the fact I was born there, that I was there for a specific time period, and from that perspective I can understand other perspectives, more angles, relating to Europe, relating to the world in general. It's trendy to say that Romania is a complete disaster, but it doesn't seem like that to me at all. It's the first time in Romanian history that, physically-speaking, the whole population has been able to go abroad. At least one visit. Almost every Romanian you ask, even an old granny from this or that village, has gone to visit a relative in Italy. Your average Romanian has stepped out into the world and has seen for himself what it’s like. That seems essential to me. And as for me, I live in Berlin for purely personal reasons. I don't intend on dying here. It's the context of my life as it is now. I didn't come to Berlin because I hate Romania. It's probably the same kind of rationale Brâncuși had when he left for Paris.
Why have you decided now, at this point in your career, to represent Romania at the Venice Biennale?
Initially, when Mihai Pop suggested it, I refused. After which I realised that, besides the idea of representing Romania, I needed another reason, a purely artistic one. Painting has been quite foreign to the Venice Biennale, at least over the last 20 years. Even though there've been painting exhibitions every now and then, it hasn't been their favourite medium. People say that if you want to put together a country stand, you can't do a painting exhibition, you've got to do something complex, painting's much too traditional. So then I said to myself, 'OK, it's a good moment for a painting exhibition, to put myself in that hostile context and see how I do.' In a way, the circuit I've been in until now has something vitro about it, a kind of cocoon which you make for yourself. It becomes comfortable. The Biennale won't be comfortable.
Because there you see how good your painting really is, whether it has the power to persuade. And again, that type of pressure isn't comfortable, now, in a way, I feel a bit like a plane taking off, like the point of no return, I have to do this and I have to take it to the limit, it forces me into higher revs. There's going to be a horribly mixed audience, they'll all be there, from painting groupies to it's worst critics. And so that's why I said, 'At the end of the day, why not?'
Many people think you're playing it safe…
Not at all, it's the most hostile environment for painting you could possibly imagine. I'm not going to Venice to hit nails in walls and hang up paintings, I don't want to do a conventional painting exhibition.
Your initial project for the exhibition included Adam Curtis as a guest, the author of a series of documentaries about 20th century history seen from the perspective of power. I understand that whilst working on the Biennale exhibition, copyright problems appeared and that the BBC won't allow Curtis' material to be broadcasted outside of their programmes. How big a role did Curtis play in your project and how have you reworked the exhibition without him?
My invitation to Adam, to contribute to my exhibition, came as a natural result of meetings with him over the last year, in which we discussed how we can understand history from a psychoanalytical perspective. My collaboration with Adam Curtis has no deadline nor obligations, even though the BBC – through its well-known protectionist policies – finally decided not to allow his participation in Venice. Seven months of broadcasting Adam Curtis' work outside of the BBC and the Commonwealth is apparently unacceptable for them.
The visual busyness of Curtis' films, and the way he uses a catalogue of raw, juxtaposed images from history, have had a powerful impact on my painting over the last few years. My conversations with Curtis have rearranged the way I work with historical material, getting further away from narrating history and closer to history's contradictions. I'd say that for me (and for the proposal Mihai Pop and I made to him for the pavilion) Adam Curtis has had the role of a catalyst, which, with or without the films he put together to match my painting, has stayed intact.
Why 'Darwin's Room'?
From my point of view, Darwin is not a closed book, there was life before and after him, the paradigm he changed is much too large to have been fully digested. I have the feeling that everything which happened in the 20th century has its roots in him, from Marx to eugenics to modern racism. In fact, it's a totally current thing. Terrorists, for example, are fighting against a world which embraces Darwin. Western positivism, where everything's rational, has a cause and an effect, doesn't really match the irrational way of the old world, which they still believe in. Darwin is the person who, for the first time, proved something scientifically which took the God debate into a completely different area. And I think it hasn't been fully digested, not even now. That, let's say, could be its thematic explanation. It's essentially a painting exhibition, but it contains some ingredients which make it much more than that. I don't want to put on just a solo painting show.
A shorter version of this conversation appeared in Dilema veche, nr. 578, 12th March, 2015.
Special thanks to Corina Șuteu, without whom this interview would not have been possible.
Translated from Romanian by Delia Burnham.
Cover photo: Portrait of Adrian Ghenie by Oliver Mark, Berlin 2014