Who: Vicky Leandros Where: Café Grosz, Berlin When I ask…
Who: Jonathan Meese
Where: Berlin, Germany
Jonathan Meese is considered the Enfant Terrible of the German contemporary art. A genius. A provocateur. Born in Tokyo as the youngest of three children, Meese grew up in southern Schleswig-Holstein in Germany under the care of his mother. Even today, he is regularly drawn back to his hometown Ahrensburg. The attempt to study economics was aborted after a short time, as well as his art studies: art cannot be learned. Today, Jonathan Meese is one of the world’s 100 most important modern artists. I visit the shy, arch-friendly exceptional artist in his gigantic studio in Berlin’s district Prenzlauer Berg, a former pumping station of the Berliner water undertakings. A conversation between two North Germans in capital exile. With a lot of tea.
MyStylery: I don’t see you in your Adidas outfits anymore. What happened?
Jonathan Meese: They are just too warm for me at the moment. With the cold snap they will come back. Sometimes you have to break your principles a bit.
MS: Will you ever break with the principle of not having your own email account?
JM: No. Although I read my mails every day. I do not have a cell phone either. I would probably spend a lot of time with it. That’s too much for me.
MS: How do you call people then? There are hardly any telephone boxes left.
JM: I mainly do not talk on the phone. At most with my office. Actually, I only communicate via my iPad or by letter. I need my freedom and want to focus on my work.
MS: Tell me something about your everyday life.
JM: I’m constantly in a routine, which I do not want to leave. I get up, don’t have breakfast, but drink my six, seven cups of tea. Then I go to the studio or travel to prepare for exhibitions. I love to sleep and sleep a lot, at the moment ten hours. I can easily lie in bed for 16 hours without being depressed. I read, watch TV or videos, preferably 80s music videos on YouTube. I love old series like “The Avengers”, “The Persuaders” or “Star Trek”. What a great time. That’s when I get sentimental. The tears come to me when I watch “Bambi”.
MS: How can one imagine your creative processes? What inspires you?
JM: I can get started anytime, start a new painting right away, or continue working on another. Blockages are foreign to me. I may have a problem with reality, but not with art.
MS: In what way?
JM: I find the reality so awful that I want to distance myself from it. It goes so far that I have neither political, religious nor any other views. I’m not interested in any of that. My focus lies solely on art.
MS: As a citizen and artist, do you not have a political responsibility? After all, this country also offers you a lot of freedom that – as you can see in Turkey – is not self-evident.
JM: I’m convinced that you have to do your job. A firefighter is a firefighter and a taxi driver is driving a taxi. Everyone should do what they do best.
MS: You use religious and political symbols such as swastikas in your work.
JM: For me, these are only motives that I work with in art without any ideological meaning. With the Hitler salute I abrogated politics. I made it clear that this is art and neutralized the gesture. Everything is allowed on stage. As an artist, you should never let yourself be tempted for political purposes.
MS: Don’t you want to express anything with your art?
JM: No. I do not distinguish between religious crosses or swastikas. Only in the arts I can be radical, including murder and manslaughter. Not in reality. I limit myself to real crimes, wars and other horrors. I have nothing to do with that. Wars belong to art, to the screen, to the film, to books.
MS: But they are happening in reality. You read daily papers and know well what happens.
JM: I even buy newspapers like a madman. But what I read there, I feel as an imposition and as a great oppression.
MS: Why do you provoke this radicalism when it is ultimately meant without a statement? After all, you have been reported four times because of the Hitler salute.
JM: I like to provoke because I trust art a lot. Art can govern us. Berlin, Germany, the world, the universe.
MS: Are you looking forward to Angela Merkel becoming Chancellor again?
JM: I do not care about that.
MS: And what do you say about right populist parties like the AfD?
JM: I do not care about that either. I cannot have an opinion on that. That would be a betrayal of art. For me, the future does not consist of political parties. All the political empires have perished, ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece. Survived, however, has the art. Therefore, art must be left to rule. How exactly, I do not know, just try it out, that’s the motto. Everything will evolve and organize by itself, that’s for sure.
MS: Without a degree of order and regulation, we would have ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ on this planet, don’t you think?
JM: I see Germany more like a big hotel run by the most suitable person without any religious or other guiding principles. Just with love and respect. I just do not like these classifications. I do not drink my tea either in terms of left or right politics. I do not even drink it atheist. I see myself here as a sting, by saying: Let’s do something else.
MS: Was politics never an issue at home?
JM: My mother never politically recommended anything to me. At 18, I voted and ticked all the parties. Never again since. I always have to think about the Weimar Republic. That’s all stone age. It does not matter to my life. My studio is a politically-free area where politics is not the order of the day.
MS: Your attitude has something very comfortable. After the motto, that does not interest me, so I do not have to deal with it.
JM: No, I do deal with it, I only don’t put myself on any side. I’m not instrumentalizing myself. By nothing and nobody. Everything terrible on this planet is politically ideologically justified. We are guilty if we participate. I’m scared of it. So I stay out. That’s why I’m one of the best artists in the world (laughs). That’s the contribution I’m making.
MS: Are you more remote from reality in other areas of life?
JM: I’m suffering from reality. I do not suffer from art. I’m totally insecure about reality. In art, I like to be the troublemaker. But not in normal life.
MS: You are an incredibly friendly person. Is that sometimes misunderstood or even exploited?
JM: Yeah, that’s partly really extreme and a reason for my tiredness. I am radical in my art, but in reality friendly, which is often exploited. I get tens of requests per day. Everyone wants something from me. Young artists think I have time to help them and do not understand if I decline. I am not a guru.
MS: How do you protect yourself against it?
JM: By sleeping. By saying something extreme. That then alienates one or the other. This is a kind of protection for me.
MS: That sounds exhausting …
JM: It’s hard to bear sometimes. I do not want to come across arrogantly, because I’m not. But my capacity is simply limited here. I’m actually busy with appointments until 2020.
MS: You seem to be a very gentle and sensitive person.
JM: Yes, that’s right. However, to a certain point. When the keg overflows, I freak out.
MS: I’m surprised. You can do that?
JM: Yes, I can. I get loud and choleric. But I can also get on with it again. If you betray me, it’s unforgivable. Mum says I am vindictive. I say the limit is simply exceeded.
MS: Critics accused you of producing too inflationary paintings.
JM: I’m certainly more extreme than Picasso. But they are all originals, created by my hands and not by any teams of assistants. One picture may be better than the other. But by design, they are all loving. I do not let this criticism put be down.
MS: Is this driven by your creativity or the profit?
JM: I never cared about money. That’s why I earn well. (Grins)
MS: For a while it was a bit quieter for you. Did the criticism, that your paintings are nothing special anymore, hit you?
JM: You have to be patient. In such a case, it’s best to do even more, especially now.
MS: I particularly like the work “The sausage queen on the mustard pot”. It is very detailed. Every time I look at it, I discover something new. How long have you been working on such a picture?
JM: That differs. Sometimes, mommy comes by and says, oh Johnny, there could be something red there. Or she says that looks like a dog, put a tail on it. And then I do that. Some days I paint only one stroke.
MS: What are your weaknesses?
JM: I cannot throw anything away, not even a Coke bottle, since I could possibly use it for a picture again. I am a manic collector.
MS: But hopefully not a compulsive hoarder…
JM: If my mother wasn’t there, and I was not successful, it would be a problem. This began during my studies. When I was in my early twenties I suddenly realized that I could not throw anything away. I’ve seen art in everything, in the BILD newspaper, in every magazine, everything is stored. I spend 1,000 Euros a month on newspapers alone. And even here, space is running out. The people who deal with me are downright desperate.
MS: What is your outstanding feature?
JM: Hermeticism. I can be very good with myself. I never feel lonely.
MS: Are you ever alone? Your mother is always there.
JM: A ‘cord clamping’ process was never necessary. I have an incredible respect for my mother. It is the authority of superlatives for me. Above that is only the art. We work here in a small team. Mummy contributes to the last breath. And for that I am infinitely grateful to her. Someone who is going against my mother is gone. I do not forgive that.
MS: Are you a momma’s boy?
JM: Yes, I am a momma’s boy in a positive sense. I would be happy if many more people would honor their parents like this. The old people have to be there. They belong to it. Today they are often deported. My mother is 88 and I still trust her. I never rebelled against my mother.
MS: Did your mother accept your girlfriend as a woman by your side?
JM: She had to. It’s not always easy for both. My girlfriend and I have been together for 25 years. She knows: I only exist in this package.
MS: You all live in one house. Does it also clash sometimes?
JM: We are a team that plays together. Things are self-regulating. And if something bad does not happen, it will stay that way. I need the people I trust in my immediate vicinity. I know that my mother will eventually die, and hopefully before us, because that’s the normal course of events. I hope for 10, 15 or 20 good years together.
MS: Artist colleagues refer to you as a sissy who runs through life by Mummy’s hand and that you haven’t fought any street fights.
JM: I don’t want that anyways. Again: My radicalism I live through art. Nowhere else. I’ve never been to a demonstration in my life (gets audibly upset). I’m not an artist jetting around the globe, going from one party to the next and doing art as a concept by the side. I hardly go to parties.
MS: How will it be when your mother won’t be there at some point?
JM: Disastrous. (Pause) That’s why I kind of annoy her a bit every day, because that’s how her circulation goes up.
MS: She’s your Minister of Finance. Are you able to take care of it alone?
JM: I’m being looked after by professionals. My mother made sure that I was financially very good.
MS: Many artists take drugs. Was that ever an issue for you?
JM: Some may have that impression. I have not used drugs in my life except alcohol. I like to drink wine. I do not need that, especially since I know it would destroy me. My drug is the art.
MS: You earn a lot, as you say yourself. What are you doing with all the money?
JM: I invest in studio space, in art and materials. And I have 40,000 books that are thematically arranged and kept here thanks to Mommy. I did not read them all. Books just magically attract me, as do bookstores.
MS: Your day starts with many cups of tea. Which variety do you prefer to drink?
JM: My father was English. So I really like to drink Earl Grey, I also like green tea, which is certainly due to my first years in Japan. I admit, however, to use tea bags. I’m too impatient for big ceremonies. I am an absolute man of pleasure in all areas. I drink and eat in excess. Of course, when I visited my grandmother in England, there was always the classic tea class. I definitely drink five, six liters a day. I am also an absolute milk fanatic, which my mother does not like so much because the adult supposedly can not digest it so well. But I always stayed a child.
MS: Is getting old a problem for you?
JM: I’m happy that I’m getting older. If I stay 25 forever, I can not do certain things. I regret that I did not do certain things as a young person.
MS: For example?
JM: Having friends and relationships. I was so shy, I never dared to speak to the girls. There were many that I found great and that I still remember today. (Laughs). I know, conversely, that some of the ladies were interested in me. I was too big of a dreamer who looked the same at age 18 as with 14. Although I looked very good. I somehow did not fit in. My first relationship was only with 24 when I met my girlfriend at the art school. Since then we are together. I am the total late developer and wished to have experienced more in the phase between 14 and 24.
MS: Do you sometimes have the thought of missing something in your life, the desire to throw everything away and run away?
JM: Nah. That would be out of the question for me. I am faithful and live monogamous. I stay with my decisions as long as they are not totally stupid. Midlife crisis does not exist for me. Something like this is prohibited, completely. That would be betrayal. Also for the art. Finally, I’m with an artist. Everything is fine the way it is. The condition for this is mutual trust and absolute loyalty. I hope it stays that way. Together we will grow old and big.
MS: Growing up? Artistically you are big. Is that the child in you talking right now?
JM: Yeah, I was not really in puberty, so to speak. It’s probably still coming. BvH
Jonathan Meese about Bayreuth:
“Bayreuth was such an enclave for me, a place that I thought was art and a work of art. But I noticed: No, it’s all about politics. That’s why I had to leave.”
His lunar parsifal was shown successfully in the context of the Berliner Festspiele, previously in Vienna, for which he rebuilt the Green Hill of Bayreuth in the Volktheater and staged the “Erzparsifal”. “I love Richard Wagner.”
Contact Jonathan Meese:
The interview series “Meet me 4 Tea” is sponsored by KPM – Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur Berlin. More interviews you’ll find here.