PARNASS – Interview with Xenia Hausner
1) How is the Corona crisis affecting you? How and where are you working? What occupies your attention? What do you think about the virus and its effect on our lives? How are these thoughts reflected in the way you work or in what you are working on now?
I’m at Traunsee in my studio and working here. For artists the situation is easier. They’re stuck with themselves anyway. Life in Corona times makes little difference for me, but watching the news is dramatic.
Corona will have a lasting effect on our lives. Nothing will be the way it was. Emergency measures will be maintained later as some kind of new normal. We should prepare for that now. Some of that will be good, some of it scary. All that flying for next to nothing and mass tourism will decrease – which is positive for the climate. What will remain however is interpersonal unease and distance. “Safe distancing” will be legislated, and we’ll have to get used to skipping spontaneous enthusiastic physical warmth. You might say we’ll be living in a world of cool heads. That’s all interesting to me because I paint people and especially interpersonal relationships. Up to now these relationships are usually based on body contact. That might become a vision from a vanished world. Once we get used to wearing masks, the portrayal of a naked face will take on a new status, one associated with special intimacy. In Western democracies we have always considered totally covering a face as undemocratic. Now we’ll have less that separates us. On the other hand, an app will be able to take totalitarian control over us. It’s the price of survival. A pandemic is a dramatic reminder that we are a part of nature. We are back to the essentials: survival.
2) What does the postponement of your exhibition at the Albertina mean to you? What had you already prepared, what were you still considering, what was already complete?
Everything had been prepared already including the catalogue, published by Hirmer. Still, the postponement gives me the possibility to react to the current upheavals and maybe add an additional twist to the exhibition.
3) “True Lies” – have I understood correctly that the focus will be on the effects of staging? How should we imagine these works? What is your angle? Does it have any connection with your occupation as a stage designer? What experiences can you integrate and what appeals to you especially about this type of art?
It has nothing to do with my occupation as a stage designer, but I suppose I was somehow in theater mode because from the very beginning the fiction gave me a kick – and because a lie well done can grip your heart. “If you dare not go beyond reality, you shall never conquer the truth.” Which is to say, we learn how to understand the world better through invention and fiction. That’s what art is all about.
4) You also designed the stage set for the performance of the Rosenkavalier in Berlin and received much recognition and praise for it. What did you especially enjoy about this work? What was particularly challenging? After so many years devoted exclusively to painting, what made you return to set designing? Will this continue?
André Heller asked me and that’s why I accepted after all these years. He is a cross-over artist, a universalist. The interdisciplinary atypicality interested me as an artist. And then during the work I realized that this material was made for me. In my work you might say that women take on all roles. I explore relationships through female figures. In the Rosenkavalier the main characters are women. No one takes the trouser roles seriously. It’s the pretense that’s more important – and that’s what makes it interesting. This gender play is totally topical and modern. Which is to say, you might think of the Rosenkavalier as a semiconscious trailblazer for our present debates on diversity. Working together with Heller and Arbesser was an act of providence. We are kindred pathfinders.
5) What does “femaleness” mean in your work? And is there a storyline in your work or do you have other intentions – like wanting to irritate or leave things open or let viewers to figure it out for themselves?
I have always painted independent women, long before the call for quotas and the “me too debates” grew louder. In my opinion, women are simply more presentable in art. They are more multi-faceted and complexer than men. They can do more and they are more interesting formally. My figures are no pin-up beauties but distinct personalities. They are pivotal in my work. In my pictures they represent all gender affiliation, although in my pictures you do occasionally find men as objects of desire! Still, my female gaze entwines them with critical sympathy.
6) Thanks to its practically photographic form and amazingly strong associations, your “Exiles” series is particularly moving. How did these images evolve technically as well as in terms of content? How important to you is the message in your work?
A message by itself has no value. The pictures also consist of colors and pleasure and irrationality. When a picture works, it is an expression of its time which an artist tries to imbue with a sensual impact. My pictures have no clear message. They are fragments. It is not my intention to present clear solutions. Life is not black and white. The situations in the paintings are ambivalent, but a viewer can still read them because they affect him or her, and they can be read through your own experience. Art should move things and stimulate thought.
7) Some early works are also supposed to be shown at the Albertina, better said, will be exhibited next spring. Could you please give two or three as examples and briefly explain why they are important to you?
Well, a very early picture is, for example, “Renate Ankner”. She was my neighbor in Berlin. She had cancer and was already in that ambiguous condition between rational hopelessness and imagination in flight. We never discussed it, but it was clear to both of us that she wanted to see the picture through to the end. That’s exactly what I tried to portray. “Liebestod” (love death), a later picture from the 90’s is full of lies from the start. Peter Simonischek plays my dead father Rudolf Hausner. The casting was not physiologically accurate but overwhelming in its artificializing death – deader than dead, you might say. The range between truth and lies is visible in my “Exiles” works. We constructed a train compartment out of cardboard in my studio, got to take parts from wrecked railroad cars from the Austrian Railway (ÖBB) and squeezed people into an oppressive situation. But not real people from the railroad platform of course. I’m not a reporter. Reality seeps into me through the filter of my insides and experiences a sensual shift. That’s how it’s possible to see what’s interesting about a retrospective: the story of the development of a life in art.
8) Last but not least – and hopefully soon in a virus-free future: what artistic plans/dreams are you waiting to tackle, or maybe there are already works in progress?
Yes, exciting times and global upheaval are what we are experiencing. The forced retreat and the misery of the world will steer the focus of art to other subjects. There will be a demand for depth. The fun and games society is off at recess.