True Lies at the Albertina
Xenia Hausner (XH) In Conversation With Elsy Lahner (EL)
EL: For your exhibition True Lies at the Albertina, we’ve concentrated on the staging of your pictures, and in the catalog we shed light on the processes by which you prepare for painting. In concrete terms, how can we imagine these processes?
XH: The outer process in the studio is rather elaborate and occurs in several stages, starting with photography and moving toward a functional reconstruction of the necessary scenery and lighting setup, which is important for my work—basically, it’s like a low-budget film set. The inner process is what’s actually interesting. It functions by means of moving forwards and backwards, through contradiction and questioning. By the time the “staging” you mention comes about—from the collection of raw material to the fragment of a narrative—a lot has been scrapped. Daily contradiction is obviously something that drives me. But at some point, the time is ripe, and the stroke of liberation comes through painting.
EL: Isn’t it difficult to change course repeatedly while working on paintings that depict several figures, such as the Exiles series, with all the effort that involves?
XH: Yes, surely, at times it’s unsettling for everyone involved. Shooting with a new script every day—what a horror! (Laughs.) But in my pictures, it’s often artists, actors, and art students who do the acting, and they don’t view a detour back through preliminary stages so negatively. They have a basic attitude of solidarity—even, for example, when the picture is almost finished, and I add a new figure that shakes up the composition, so much so that three other figures have to be shifted around. It sometimes means pulling the lowest brick out again.
EL: Even if you’ve photographed the setting, you don’t actually paint from the photograph. You work with models in front of the constructed scene.
XH: Yes, because I need the kick of working live! And I take pleasure in looking. A dimple in the flesh—that gets me going as a painter. While shooting photos, I’m also open to chance occurrences that happen in the studio. Painting is an open and irrational process, spontaneous and contradictory. I don’t want everything to be fixed already from the outset. Something unresolved has to resonate as well, something I can discover. That’s what’s exciting. The picture often takes a surprising turn that I have to engage with.
EL: So much precision beforehand—the spotlights, the constructed sets, all the markings on the floor, the abbreviations for the positions of the lights, constructed train compartments, cut-up cars, and so on—only at times to discard it all again?
XH: ”Discard” is not quite right. It’s more that it all sometimes breaks apart and something new emerges from the fragments. Ultimately everything I work on is ambivalent and fragmentary. Fragments of life without a clear answer. I wouldn’t even want to dredge up and understand everything. Leaving things in the semi-darkness is absolutely sufficient. The message is equivocal, and life is not black and white. The situations in the images are ambivalent, but the viewers can still read them because they’re affected by them. They read the image with their own life experience.
EL: This raises the question of how you come to form these pictures in your mind?
XH: Daily practice and constant wakefulness—a routine of attentiveness. Or, in other words, antennae tuned in to whatever oddity I’m currently preoccupied with. With the “odd shapes” series, for example (amorphous forms, paintings that are not geometrically rectangular; pp. 198, 201, and 218), I’ve developed such a perceptual automatism that I collect not only quotation marks and baroque volutes, but pull out my cell phone for every dog puddle in order to capture this latest instance of the wealth of shapes.
EL: Let’s get back to the level of content—for example, Rosemaries Baby. The painting is based on a piece by Christoph Ransmayr, Die Unsichtbare (The Invisible), which you saw at the Berliner Ensemble. What happened next?
XH: I was magically drawn to the choir in this play. The swaying figures appeared with these strange masks.… So I invited the actors Maria Happel and Boris Jacoby to my studio in Berlin and they summoned up the entire monologue in a kind of quick, mumbling run-through, which I photographed. But essentially, all these moments of associative stimulation lead only to one’s own inner life.
EL: Your inner life, and then the people pressed together in an overfilled train car in Exiles—how should we imagine the connection there?
XH: What happens in the world has to coincide in some way with an internal clock. The material is inherent in me, but there’s also another level, an awareness of the world and what takes place around us. This thrusts itself in front of the internal material in a strange way. The train stands not only for migration in the present-day sense, but for rootlessness and lack of belonging in general. A life of powerlessness, of not arriving, is familiar to me. Xenia means “the stranger”—a name that sounds nice, but that doesn’t make life any easier. (Laughs.)
EL: We’ve given the exhibition the title True Lies. What does this mean to you?
XH: I take it mainly as poetry and let it act on me. It’s similar with my picture titles—they aren’t descriptive but strike a chord about what’s happening. But when you think further, there’s this longing for clarity, for certainty, that you can use for orientation. This is what we then call truth. We always live with our respective assumptions of reality, most of which turn out to be fallacies, to be truths-for-the-time-being. “True lies” are thus a part of our deliberative process; and the phrase claims that, in spite of our experiences to the contrary, there are such things as hope and confidence, although we only count them as values because we assert them and insist upon their veracity. Every work of art, if it’s successful, brings forth the truth through lies. The painted, captured, composed uniqueness is the lie, which conjures up the subject’s truth. Through the invention and the fiction, we learn to understand the world better—that’s what art is about. I paint novels, invented stories, which the viewers can bring into alignment with their own lives.
EL: Which can of course be entirely different for each viewer.
XH: Definitely, and this should absolutely be the case. I’m sometimes totally fascinated when I hear what people imagine about my pictures. Ultimately the image only has to be suitable as a projection screen—it has to supply this dual ground. I don’t offer any instruction manual or reading guide. On the contrary. Unambiguous interpretations are boring. Life is a question mark. Art has to be mysterious, nonconformist, and irrational.
EL: Your models assume their roles and yet, to a certain degree, remain themselves. At the same time, they become actors in your staging.
XH: It is always a balancing act. Actors are not naïve in their methods. But in working with me, no one’s required to be an acting virtuoso, but rather a type. Contrary to their self-perception, models are not passive objects, they are protagonists who act. I take up the trail with them and pursue it further. Painting and creating are sensual and function through unbridled experimentation. Whoever allows themselves to get involved in this process in the studio backs the creation of the picture. They insert themselves into the picture, so to speak, or, as I just read in connection with Adorno, they can only be seen in perspective by our approaching still closer, by moving in—a remark that makes me truly happy.
EL: I would like to talk with you about another, larger subject. You work predominantly with female models. How did this happen—probably starting with yourself as your first model?
XH: My very first model was actually my mother, as well as the beauties from the illustrated magazines of the fifties—I drew large versions of them on a board with chalk.
EL: Thus, the first recognizable pattern? There’s this piece from 2003, Das Weibliche Maß (Female Dimension). Two women are connected or “measured” by a large ruler or yardstick. One could say: women as the measure of all things.
XH: Yes, exactly. Downright prophetic from today’s perspective—the anticipated reversal of the balance of power. Or, as Daniel Kehlmann puts it, measuring the world from a female perspective. Women are a pivotal element in my work. In my pictures they act as representatives of all genders.
EL: Although, in Ken Park for example, a man is sometimes the central figure.
XH: Yes, they do appear every now and then—as objects of longing! My female gaze entangles them affectionately and critically. But otherwise I process the human themes with a female cast. Women are more multifaceted and complicated than men, they can do more and are more interesting formally. My figures are no pin-up beauties, but rather distinct personalities. I find them better suited to art. Once I would have said they’re the fairer sex—I would phrase it differently today …
EL: In fact, you don’t depict women as “the fair sex.” You completely release women from all clichés. In your work, the woman is neither seductress nor is she in the role of victim. Women can be anything in your paintings.
XH: And they should be! They have to be strong and multidimensional. In my work they are self-confident and wistful at the same time—a toxic cocktail. They’re often seen as especially critical. I don’t even notice this anymore, probably since I’m so exhaustingly critical myself. (Laughs.)
EL: Your works are thus a kind of alternative world—the entire history of art is dominated by men, and here and there a tantalizing woman is represented from a male perspective.
XH: You might say my figures are sensual but not sexist. With their indiscrete gazes, they are in dialogue with me and of course also with the viewers. They are not victims and they act from a position of strength—that is presumably their weakness in the present-day discourse. And the price is high for the freedom they’re grasping at.
EL: Jessa Crispin summarizes it well in her essay when she says that it’s less a matter of the kind of gaze as of what gazing upon an object does to oneself as a viewer. It could also be seen entirely differently: as women play every role in your work and even embody the male world, they offer everyone a chance to identify with the persons represented. It’s thus not our gaze upon someone that’s meant, but the roles we ourselves take on in the situation represented. As you said before, it’s essentially about recognizing ourselves in these roles.
XH: Yes, and if I’m allowed a simplistic remark in conclusion: two thousand years of patriarchy have led us to the misery of the current social crises, so let’s give it a try with female intuition—and with female reason! Salvation is not assured, but at least it’s conceivable.