Eat, Drink, Sleep, Paint: Jonathan Meese and The Dictatorship of Art
Berlin-based painter Jonathan Meese discusses his upcoming exhibition in the Glue Factory, art as instinct and the polarising responses to his work
'ART IS THE TOTAL POWER, ART IS THE CHIEF, ART IS NR. 1, ART IS HUMPTY DUMPTY, ART IS NO PROBLEM, ART IS DR. NO, ART IS TOTAL BEAUTY, ART IS BABYANIMALISM, ART IS TOTAL FUTURE, ART IS TOTAL RADICALISM, ART RULES, ART LEADS, ART FORMS, ART IS THE SUM OF ALL EVOLUTION, ART IS THE TOTAL GAME, ART IS TOECUTTERISM, ART IS TOTAL LOVE, ART IS NO IDEOLOGY, ART IS NO POLITICAL SYSTEM, ART IS TOTAL ACTIVISM, ART IS TOTAL NEUTRALITY, ART IS TOTAL INSTINCT, ART IS “TOTAL DICTATORSHIP OF ART.”' So begins Meese’s kindly polemical 13 pages of blue biro on unlined paper, in which he answers all 50 questions we submitted to him in excited and upbeat coiling handwriting.
It’s this same affirmative and forward motion that led to the decision to export Meese to Glasgow this month. While Linsey Young – director of unconventional Glasgow gallery Young Team – was in Berlin, she was introduced to Jonathan Meese through a mutual friend who sensed they would get along. They discussed Akademie Isotrope, a Hamburg-based reaction to the art school as a formal institution. This pedagogical experiment first operated out of a bar-cum-exhibition space, then later in the connected flats on the ground floor of an apartment building. They decided to somehow transport to Glasgow this same spirit of irreverent, collective and direct activity. Thus in October Pump up the Vampire, Pump up the Vampire, Pump up the Vampire, Smell! will take place.
Describing how the show has been formed, Young‘s enthusiasm for Pump up the Vampire elides the efforts that were no doubt expended taking care of all the pressing practical hurdles – permission from Meese’s gallery, premises, funding. Instead, Young speaks with some amazement at the ease with which the project seems to have come together.
Speaking to Young and Meese, it comes across that instead of substantively setting out the shape of their Glasgow project, what they have created is a procedure that allows for work to emerge. Meese describes “a big and powerful installation.” This work will be constructed from materials “bought and found in Glasgow.” Meese will complete a short residency in the Glue Factory and the work he exhibits will be completed between his arrival and the opening of the show.
“Many people love my work, many hate it and hate me personally” – Jonathan Meese
During Meese’s time in Glasgow, he’ll visit the Barras market, where he will source a lot of the materials that will form his installation. Collecting in this way builds him a “protective wall against reality.” However, he is not precious with his collections. In one particular documentary Meese pulls some books from the library shelving installed in his home at the time, saying “these books are so important, that I can cut them up and rip pages out because what’s in them is needed somewhere else.” With his collection of skeletons and infamous library of porn, he disrupts the usual tidy environments of consumer goods.
Building work from collected objects and materials is an exciting revival of how Meese worked when he first started showing art. At that time, “it was mainly installations because I needed to show what I had [the objects he had collected]”. In this way Young satisfies her primary objectives to establish an environment in which Meese could return to making the kind of work he produced while in Akademie Isotrope.
The involvement of writer and academic Roberto Ohrt also engages with the legacy of the Akademie Isotrope, as Ohrt established the group. As well as writing the essay for the exhibition publication, Ohrt is also the inspiration for the show’s title. In a meeting with Young, Meese described Robert Ohrt as “a vampire that pumps the blood back in.” Young too describes Ohrt as giving “life and energy to things in a pleasingly sinister way”. Meese will also be writing and drawing the publication in collaboration with Ohrt, and it will be available at the opening. It was important to Young that the publication was not expensive, and it has been priced at £10 to make sure that anyone who wants a copy can afford one.
Meese gives a sense of what will take place during his occupation of the Glue Factory when he speaks about what takes place in his usual workspace. There’s nothing casual or cool when Meese discusses the value of his studio: “My Atelier is my castle, my bunker of Art, my life line full of canvasses, oilpaint, acrylic colours, colour, colour but also black and white… it looks as though I am dancing through the atelier because I work on a lot of paintings simultaneously. (Art is duty. Meese’s duty is Total Art).” Painting for Meese is a vital activity that is “generally speaking totally easy, but totally exhausting. It has simply to be done, the dictatorship of art demands it. […] Art is like sleeping, eating, drinking, digesting … Art is the total balance of pressure.” In short, for Meese “ART IS TOTAL INSTINCT,” as he begins his interview responses.
Meese expands on what he considers to be “instinct” and contrasts it with ideology and reality. On the one hand, “Art is based on instinct, not creativity. (Art is Babyanimalism).” Yet, “ideology is always against Art, Ideology is against evolution, ideology tries to manipulate people and ideology washes brains, disgusting ideology creates culture-zombies, ideology creates optimised mediocracy… we're starting to live in the most shallow times.” Ideology and reality operate imperceptibly and ubiquitously, reactionarily pervading good taste and good behaviour. But Meese assures that “working and playing without ideology is the most natural thing to do.” It is for this reason that Meese identifies “instinct” as the most beautiful part of the body, “situated in the heart. Art is Heart – BLOOD.”
Meese repeatedly speaks about art as instinct, something that is more than necessary – in the same way it feels a bit funny to describe the blood circulatory system as “necessary.” In this way, for Meese a lot of the luxuries that are not studio practice are treated as excess. For example, he does “not really go to openings any more, too many people, it’s too much.” There is no room for these diversions as he is extremely busy, so that in the evening he prefers to sleep. When asked about sports, he responds, “Meese’s favourite game is sleeping.”
In opting for a handwritten response, Meese allows for one complete and instinctive expression, uninterrupted by breathing or clearing the throat. This unforgiving immediacy of his artwork, and communications generally, have polarised reactions to his work. He admits: “Many people love my work, many hate it and hate me personally.” His understanding is that “maybe 'radicalism' combined with role playing frightens in a world of political correctness. Art is no entertainment programme, Art is an order…” Though Meese speaks over and over in affirmative statements, the tone isn’t patronising: there is no restatement of general knowledge. These are exclamations that are made in the face of the easy assumptions of common sense.