Artist and art-networker Thomas Eller on his ego versus his self… and his new “digital baroque” house.
Eller has lived two separate ‘lifetimes’ in Berlin – first from 1985 to 1995, and then again since 2004, with a nine-year stretch in New York in between. Through his past positions as head of the German ArtNet, as one of the directors of the Temporary Kunsthalle, and foremost as an artist, he has collected lots of experience (not to mention contacts) from the Berlin art landscape.
Thomas, you started as an artist who was reputed for his self-portrayal art. Then came curatorial projects, ArtNet and podium discussions – what’s the inner logic?
When I started as an artist I found that there wasn’t any reliable ground to stand on. It was the time of post-punk, the atomic bomb was to be dropped on our heads. “No Future,” “Stop Making Sense”… that was the general feeling we had. In this cultural environment, the only point of departure – really for anything – had to be myself. So I started doing these weird photo sculptures of myself. I wanted to be an empty vessel that could be filled with anything I could relate to. I called this “perfect suspense,” a form of existence in possibilities. That‘s still where I draw my energies from, that black hole at the core of my universe.
You seem to have this aura that exists without a gallery. Any thoughts on this?
“Free your mind and the rest will follow…” – so many people are trapped inside themselves. Ironically they can’t become themselves, because they try too hard. Nietzsche once said: “Höre auf, dich etwas anzugehen!” which translates into “Stop being concerned with yourself!” Which goes completely against all of today’s (self-)branding.
That’s an ironic statement for someone who’s been infusing not only his personality but his self in his work… as a serial self-portraitist, aren’t you one of those egomaniacs after all?
By mass-producing “myself”, yes, I completely inflate the currency of myself. But in a time of “BIG EGO” as the ultimate resource in a hyper-capitalist society, I am trying to throw the wrench of “self” into this machine. No big ego would ever think of creating so much self-consciousness as I do. The difference between ego and self is that the “self” goes out into to the world and comes back differently because it actually experienced something. Ego just wants to assert itself.
Speaking of egos, who do you think has the real power in the Berlin art landscape?
Power lies in institutions – people give them importance. [Udo] Kittelmann does not give his institutions the importance we would like them to have, which is not entirely his fault. Thomas Köhler has very subtly turned Berlinische Galerie and is continuing to grow its status. Ellen Blumenstein is a strong personality and might turn KW around again. Of course, the private sector is VERY influential. The founders of Gallery Weekend wield enormous power. But none of that really arrives in the Berlin art scene – so how important is it?
In your opinion, does importance in the Berlin art scene transcend to other places?
In fact, Berlin is so fascinatingly multilayered with people from everywhere and all walks of life that it stuns me how most people in the art world still keep staring at the old power pyramid as the only thing to aspire to. Does the MoMA really still hold the holy grail of art? If one places too much importance on the old failing model, one might just miss the world that is alive under the radar of all the power brokers who mostly deal with yesterday’s ideas.
How do you rate Berlin’s level of importance on the world art market?
What’s so wonderful is to see all these lovely people doing what they are doing knowing how difficult it is just to sustain this, not even thinking they could succeed in major ways. New York had something like that and it was killed when the money came flooding in. The only difference is that there is little faculty here to appreciate this. Germans are generally less excitable. In a bigger picture, our time will be seen as the golden age of relatively innocent experimentation. What we need is a little more competition for excellence and ideas. Let’s give people more to think about!
How do you view yourself in this context?
In the 1990s I was actually quite well known as an artist, before I left for 10 years. When I came back so many new people had arrived that didn’t know about me… in an economy of attention, it seems that it doesn’t matter what you do, just how much airtime you get. I am getting good airtime in Berlin, yet I think it is much more important to keep doing what I do – that is why, four years ago, I decided to focus on my artistic practice and leave the institutional world. Why do I matter? Because I am free and I am honest.
What about your latest project, the (digital?) house you are building on Anklamer Straße?
It comes straight out of my deconstruction of photography. We all know that photography really is ideology built into a camera – nobody sees like the camera does. I’m offering to re-examine the monocular organisation of space-time. Which is the other aspect of my artistic work, besides the deconstruction of ego. So… the house project is a digitally baroque strategy of folding a pictorial notion of space onto the architectural actual space, creating a novel idea for how image making can be part of an architectural process.
Originally published in issue #117, June 2013.