Olaf Breuning


Olaf Breuning arrived in Australia for the first time in July 2006 to exhibit ‘Home’ at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), Brisbane. The exhibition was part of a joint project with the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney and was co-funded by the Pro Helvetia: Swiss Arts Council who supported the show travelling from Brisbane to Sydney and later on to Gertrude Contemporary Art Space, Melbourne. The exhibition at the IMA was coupled with an installation by Queensland artist Sandra Selig who presented a new work in the adjacent galleries.

To my mind, Olaf Breuning is one of the most interesting and innovative visual artists working today. His practice highlights the entrenched discursiveness of contemporary art, finding inspiration from fashion, film, advertising, music and any random aspect of everyday life. His appreciation of the seemingly dumb, and preoccupation with rhetorical forms of critique made me think of the legacy of such artists as William Wegman and Richard Prince who, like a lot of artists that they influenced after the 1980s, are situated somewhere between the ‘conceptual art’ and ‘post-pop’ labels. The familiarity that Breuning’s visual collages evoke, their sheer watchability, belies an astute understanding of a variety of visual codes. His great skill is in the way the intelligence behind the construction of the work does not beg to be recognised. The playful sense of humour that his work emanates is passively absorbed by the viewer and often deflects the complexity behind its informal appearance. For the IMA exhibition the artist produced a new work titled Miss Loot which consisted of various cheap, faux tribal objects (bought at the Loot home wares store) arranged to form a kitschy and primitive-looking monument that took watch over his installed photographs. Also on display was the sculptural work Ghosts 2003; a group of individually designed white sheets draped over bases to form a collective of not-so-scary ghosts. These were installed directly opposite the enigmatic double projection Home 2004, from which the exhibition took its name. The signature style of the overall exhibition was a kind of hazy playfulness, incorporating references to amateur cultural constructions as if belonging to a type of folk art. This haziness that Breuning’s work generates is perhaps better expressed with an anecdote about a middle aged woman who came to the front desk of the IMA after watching the entire screening of Home and said to the attendant ‘That was great, I’m going to tell my sister to come… it really shows why you shouldn’t take drugs’.

The following text is a transcript from our discussion at the IMA studio apartments before the opening of the show.

Wes Hill: In looking at your work, the American artist William Wegman comes to my mind. Are you familiar with his practice?

Olaf Breuning: Yes, though the big difference is that I never work with dogs.

WH: I’m thinking of his early video scenarios without the dogs, the spontaneity and playfulness of those works and also looking at the drawings in your book Queen Mary 2006 which has a sensibility that is similar to Wegman’s book of drawings. I suppose what I should ask you first is: Do you think about your work in an art historical sense like this or do you see your practice as fitting into a more immediate pop cultural setting?

OB: It’s me and the world. Me as a human being in 2006 and born in 1970. What I have to say and my philosophy is in my art. I am not an artist who references art in general. Sure, I studied art history and I have a knowledge of the traditions… I know William Wegman and a little bit about his work but I think now art should be about letting artists think about the tradition of being a human being in this life.

WH: So does the playful nature of your work result in a lot of arts writers not taking your work as seriously as artists who display more pathos than you?

OB: No, quite the opposite. There is so much writing about my work that is very dry. But I mean, I don’t read these texts anymore and don’t blame me when I probably don’t read this text. I’m not interested in that most of the time because I just can’t hear anymore this thing about ‘pop culture’. I mean, what is pop culture more than the real life out there?

WH: Are you saying that it is an old argument?

OB: No, my early work had a lot of references to film and pop culture, music, computers and that type of thing. But I think it is kind of funny how people, especially in the art field, speak about pop culture like something that is ‘out there’, but hey, that is the mainstream language. I’m presently a hundred times more interested in that language. That’s five billion people we’re talking about, it’s not like a small island of specialists sitting there with a big knowledge of art history; something that is their own private language. I mean it is something that I respect very much because I’m an artist and I like people thinking art historically in this way. But often for me when I think about my own work like this… now that I say it, it sounds a bit hardcore and I’m probably not really like this at all, but when confronted with ‘oh your work is like pop culture’…

WH: So you defend yourself because when people talk about your work and its relationship to pop culture it’s as if the two are separate entities?

OB: It’s maybe this arrogant view of people in the art field to underestimate pop culture. These people out there who always say ‘Don’t go to see this blockbuster film because its shit’. I mean ninety percent of it is shit and stupid probably, but perhaps because I’m Swiss I don’t want to make negative priorities. My thing with art is that I want to become neutral with information because I value all information as the same thing, something new can come out of it.

WH: Do you think that what we are talking about has some sort of historical precedence with an artist like Richard Prince who was initially understood as being quite removed from the pop cultural fields to which he was referencing despite his own claims to the contrary? Prince’s early work in particular seemed to get hijacked by certain theorists who understood it in relation to the theoretical concept of the ‘death of the author’ whilst overlooking the autobiographical and entertainment-driven elements in his work.

OB: Sometimes I think that every artist will probably have to go to a shrink to find out really why they do certain things. You’re right, some artists are very referential to their knowledge of art theory and it might be good art; for instance, with Sandra Selig’s work—I like very much this piece in the IMA exhibition but in its relationship to art history, automatically the viewer feels compelled to think more about it because it has a tradition. In my case you will probably first think that it might be stupid or ‘the artist doesn’t give a shit’ sort of thing.

WH: You mentioned before about being neutral and perhaps that was a Swiss thing. Did you mean that tongue-in-cheek or do you think that it really is a typical characteristic of Swiss artists?

OB: It was more of a joke. The neutral part I guess is more about being a child of postmodernity and realising that there are various languages in this world and I’m inclined to give each language its own space. I’m not one of these people to say ‘I’m going to make a work about the plague in the middle ages in Vienna’. I never could talk like that or make work like that.

WH: You don’t instigate these references in a literal, linear sense?

OB: Right. I like to use references but I like to have them together and to appear and disappear and that kind of thing.

WH: One of the references that came out for me was to the movie Gummo 1997 and to the spirit of bad acting or perhaps some of the elements of low budget 1970’s films by John Waters. I’m interested in the influence that Waters, and possibly even Fassbinder, have had on your work.

OB: I think Fassbinder is more of an influence because of how he worked; he worked with his friends or a very close group of people. I mean sure, I’m a big fan of Ed Wood and even John Carpenter who makes big budget movies that are kind of strange. In my case I consider myself an artist not a filmmaker but I like very much this kind of in-between zone where you don’t know whether it’s a film or an artwork.

WH: You’ve said before that you admired Matthew Barney; can you talk a bit about that?

OB: I admire Matthew Barney and people like him who have an incredible output. You cannot match quality but you can match that there are certain people who have an incredible output. His films I think are horrible.

WH: Why?

OB: Because of the editing. It’s two and half hours, it repeats itself… some people might like it but if he would just shorten down the whole thing to sixty minutes.

WH: Do you think it could also be a narrative issue?

OB: I don’t think so. For example, Pirates of the Caribbean 2006 or Superman Returns 2006; both films go for about two hours, Pirates of the Caribbean is bad film, I didn’t like that one but we learn from Hollywood, we sit there and we don’t fall asleep most of the time. It’s something that I would say is intrinsic or is part of the rules of film. Music is the same. In art it seems to be the case of ‘when it’s more complicated it’s more interesting’. So for me I always use the terminology ‘arty-farty’ and Matthew Barney gets me to think arty-farty. Like the Dogma films; that is complete arty-farty for me. I don’t think it is necessary to film someone from the back, from the front and from the side when two people are having a normal conversation; it’s too much trying to make it special only to be special. So that is something that I don’t like too much, but I’m sure many people do like his movies. I mean, I speak really from my perspective; I don’t want to judge it. I still think Matthew Barney is a genius.

WH: Lets talk about the part of Home where it turns into a type of mid-movie song. Was the filming of these teenagers, who perform a type of amateur-metal music video, predetermined or was it more spontaneous and interactive?

OB: Home was about the idea of making all different small stories go together, it didn’t really matter what the stories were. A friend of mine told me that there were these kids in England that he knew who were sixteen or seventeen and made this heavy metal music; that sparked my interest. So it was arranged and I went there for four days and recorded the song in a studio with them. I thought what was funny about these young kids was that they liked to make all these pranks all the time, so it took maybe one or two days to get them relaxed and then it was very quickly shot. We had a deal in which they could use the music video but I could do whatever I wanted. I thought that they could learn some things from me and I could see into their world a little bit. I remember I took them out to dinner in the only Chinese restaurant in town and it was the first time they’d been out properly so when we would order drinks they would order like ‘two pints and two Jack Daniels’. They were interviewed in the local newspaper where they were quoted saying how I paid for them to go out and the bill was ‘two hundred and forty-nine point three six pounds!’ or something like that. So they had a great deal of fun themselves.

WH: I thought they were American teenagers until toward the end of the song when they go out into the street and you become aware that they’re in an English village. It seemed to highlight that there is a ‘placelessness’ about the genre, that although these visual and aural codes might have made me think of a specific American music genre they are easily adopted by teenagers in other countries who use it as their own form of cultural expression.

OB: It is also a very English thing. With people like Richard Billingham or Martin Parr there seems to be a romanticism about poor, fat, ugly people, where, in a way, they criticise it but in other ways they celebrate this kind of culture. So I see it very much as about English culture. But you’re right, it’s in England but had the kids come outside to the foreground of a trailer, it would be America.

WH: Could you tell me how the sculptural work Ghosts came about and the nature of your collaboration with Bernhard Willhelm?

OB: The nature of the collaboration is a funny story. Six years ago I designed some clothes for a video; Bernhard Willhelm saw those in a catalogue and copied them. He made bags and sweaters with the same design. A lot of people would ask me, ‘Oh are you working with Bernhard?’ and I would say, ‘Bernhard who?’. So one day he called me up and asked me to do a collaboration. I liked his work very much and we agreed to make the Fall fashion presentation together in Paris. I made a film and designed the ghost costumes, he made the costumes. You can see them also as a part of Home. Also on my homepage (www.olafbreuning.com) you can see the film that I did for Bernhard called Ghosts. Since then we became friends and I guess we will do other things together in the future. I really like his work very much.

WH: Your photographs bring to mind the early twentieth century German photographer August Sander. He seems to share with you a ‘set-up but snap-shot’ quality and also a weird, muted whimsical sort of effect. Do you know much about the historical and technical side of photography and portraiture to which Sander belongs or do you relate to the medium more in terms of digital editing and collage?

OB: Sure in Sander’s time maybe photography was more of a technical thing, but I think August Sander was maybe more interested in the staging. He was probably also very interested in making a kind of collage as well. As a photographer you know that to have the finished photo, there are a whole series of events that lead up to that moment of taking the photo, whether its walking up to a mountain in order to take a photo or whatever. Even in still-lifes you build up the picture and then make the photo, then you have in print all the actions you did for that. So in a photo like Easter Bunnies 2004 that I did on Easter Island I remember not only the final print but the events that lead up to the photo, the surrounding twenty-four hours.

WH: This sense of a bigger event or circumstance behind the finished artwork also seems to be the case with the recently published Queen Mary drawings. Did you want to say something about them; are they the beginning of a new body of work?

OB: Yes I made all of these drawings… in the beginning of my practice I use to make sketches for new photographs, very simple ones. For this book I made drawings on the Queen Mary boat that travels from America to Europe. I was on the boat for six days doing these drawings and I’ll be doing more for a show next year. I really like it; it’s something very simple and stupid.

WH: They really have that element of making something out of nothing which a lot of your work has.

OB: Yes, that’s a really nice thing and that’s why I think painters have an incredible profession, I’m almost jealous of painters who just have this canvas in front of them that they have to create something on.

WH: So do you think that this ‘something-out-of-nothing’ aspect comes through in your video work?

OB: No, the video work is a nightmare, drawings are easy. Video work has time restrictions which are really such a pain in the arse and also working with say, ten actors… it really is like ‘never again’ because it’s horrible. Drawing is easy because you can just sit down, you can do it watching television.

Olaf Breuning, Home, 2004. Film still, 32 mins, double projection. 

Olaf Breuning, Allah is Big, from 'Queen Mary' series, 2006. Ink drawing. Courtesy the artist. 

Olaf Breuning, Miss Loot, 2006. Mixed media. Courtesy the artist and the IMA. 

Olaf Breuning, Home, 2006. Installation view. Photograph Richard Stringer. Courtesy the artist and the IMA.


‘Home’ by Olaf Breuning will be exhibited at the Australian Centre for Photography, 2 March – 14 April 2007 and Gertrude Contemporary Art Space from 18 May – 16 June 2007. 

Wes Hill is an artist who is currently a PHD candidate at the University of Queensland undertaking research into the critical reception of Jeff Koons. He practices as Wilkins Hill.