After meeting Christopher Kline in Turin and seeing both his work and two wonderfully contrasting performances, Isis Magazine was keen to talk more with this Berlin-based artist.
IM. Ritual is defined as 'a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.' You refer to ritual often in your work but it seems your approach is looser - setting a series of conditions in place and letting the situations play out. Is that a fair assessment?
CK. In the performances I've done with Snakebraid and Wooden Veil, I'd consider them proper rituals. What was a bit unusual about them was that their objectives were either very abstract or non-existent, whereas most rituals are characterized by their purpose. For example, with a wedding or another rite of passage, they are a means to an end, a method of transformation. With these performances there are loose ideas of what certain actions and moments may mean, and which the group has all agreed upon after much deliberation. But there was never a clear goal like raising the dead or baptizing something. We were focused on the metaphysical qualities within the ritual itself and where it can take the participant and observer. I would equate our approach to that of certain abstract painters. Not in an angst-ridden and cathartic way, that can be quite obnoxious, but in an explorative and playful sense, when abstract painting is at its best and manages to distill something quite meaningful.
In my paintings and drawings of late there is more of this kind of 'setting a series of conditions' that you describe. But this is how most craft-based work, especially involving textiles, is created: with limitations. As with a carpet, you have the width of your loom, you choose a set of colors and a design and then you simply put in the time and repetition, and at the end of the process you have this beautiful thing with imperfections, but overall there's not much 'chance' in it, per say. You're just using some kind of tried and true system for achieving a particular result.
IM. You work with the layering of histories - found objects, fabrics, carpets - things that themselves are the products of processes, often with their own heritage - placing and grouping, recontextualizing, revealing and veiling...Can you tell us what you're looking for in these connections?
CK. If life all exists in a kind of wound-together moment, I like to look at all of the past on an even playing field. For example, when looking at books about ancient Egypt, my girlfriend (or wife, depending on when this is published) Sol and I became equally drawn to the images of the archaeologists and workers who were 'discovering' the tombs as the tombs and mummies themselves. The same happens when we see the Surrealists and Cubists taking inspiration from tribal art. We can't really see 'African Art' without this take on it anymore. To a person in the present, which is all of us, the past is the past and the difference between 200 years and 2,000 years can be very difficult to comprehend and internalize. Of course things that happened a few moments ago feel different. But that fades. So I often try to give equal footing to things I've made which have taken me a lot of struggle and time with, perhaps, some piece of metal I found on the street, or some old piece of clothing from a flea market. My criteria becomes a little more abstract as to where I place importance, where I get sentimental about a molecule's history. Maybe somehow a tiny part of this discarded scrap was once a mineral that was once an animal one million years ago. Maybe it has a story to tell. Like with fossil fuels. Or things made from wood and plants which get a lot of their molecules from carbon taken from the air. You usually can't know for sure, but sometimes you get a sense of it having that extra something, like it's a witness to a moment with some subtle importance.
IM. Your practice involves installation, painting, publishing and music-making. Is there a crossover in result or do you have separate objectives?
CK. I feel that all of my work up to this point has been just trying to get my chops together, just kind of swimming along gathering strength and perspective. I'm not so satisfied with my output, I see how I could do something much more interesting, but I feel that I've gotta keep trying and failing. It's like if you wait until you're retired to try to write a book, and you haven't been working on your skills of writing and observation and synthesizing the two, your book will probably be pretty horrible. So I'd consider everything I'm doing just a kind of process of experimenting and learning. I don't have some over-arching statement to make at the moment, but I do feel that all of my projects have a purpose and connection, even if they're failures. If people get something from them along the way, that's excellent. I've just got to keep taking risks, following visions, pushing myself to do things I might've been afraid of in the past. I'm well beyond just happening upon some break-through, like say, with a rock band of 18 year olds. Young people can just reach for the sky, without a cloud of preconceptions and limitations. That's how so much amazing music has been made in the last 80 years, young people not giving a shit. I've lost most of the naivety that's needed to make something really pure and simple at this point, so I'm trying more to build something solid from the ground up. It will take a while.
IM. I'm struck by how much I simply enjoy your work, taking it in without any feelings of bafflement or aesthetic grappling. I get the feeling that you enjoy this work too. Of course there is room in Art for every facet of human life but the gentle pleasures of solitary or communal creation - be it quilting, building a group shelter or shelling peas while humming - seem to be your energy source. Can you talk a bit about your motivations?
CK. Thanks. I try to just deliver the vision. I am not the most brilliant or skilled person, but I've found I'm fairly proficient in delivering and realizing ideas. I work hard and compulsively. I also tend to work quickly, as if each vision could slip away with the days and weeks and die. There is a sense of urgency. Which sounds kind of paradoxical if you see me sitting at a table for days at a time slowly drawing out these paintings. Most of my visual work is not explosive at all, but for me I feel a lot of weight until it's completed. I enjoy things in a way, but I think people who know me would agree that what drives me isn't happiness or a desire for fun, it's something almost sick... or something beyond myself.
As for the beauty in my work, I feel that there're enough horrible and ugly things existing in the world that there's not much need to hold a mirror to it. Maybe some things need a magnifying glass... things which are unjust, things which are unfortunate. But in art, I don't have much tolerance for people making ugly things because usually these things don't take me anywhere. I respect the first artists who pushed the bar, the people before us who made it so that art can literally be anything, opened up minds. But, ok, we get it. Shit on a plate. That can be art. A copy of an advertisement. That can be art. So what. Now you've gotta take it to another level. You've really gotta try. Being clever or poetic is not enough.
To me, it's like dressing punk. Punk was amazing because of its context, its timing, it was fresh. To dress punk now, to me, is like copying Impressionist watercolors or something. It's retro, it's lost all of its original meaning. Now it's just another thing to look at, to pretend you're a part of. But what's missing is the only element which made it important in the first place. And the art world today is very similar to this.
I'm sure people could find retro elements in my work. Of course everything comes from something. But I consider it to be the duty of people of my generation of artists to make leaps of faith into their visions, to not just reflect their world, but to make it better, to change things in this kind of timeless, classic way which is unpredictable until it happens. When I see people lazily following styles, trends, keeping up with the current 'slang' of contemporary art, I find it sad; People wanting to be a part of something under the pretense of trying to be different. I prefer old things which were made before the idea of "cool" was invented. A lot of works of art being made at this point in time will be viewed in 20 years the same way we now view a character saying "Bogus, dude!" in an early 90s movie. And a lot of this work is ugly and, worse, boring, but the greatest shame of the whole situation is that there are some really brilliant young minds who instead of being encouraged to really go to the outer limits of thinking, learning to innovate, they've just learned the vernacular of the gallery world. They've learned to give the current visual language their own minor tweak, and make something which starts selling. Of course not every young artist is a visionary, but I consider it the fault of the art schools who are teaching in a career-oriented way. If we're not careful we'll end up with an art world of Richard Princes who are constructed rebels without much substance, without much variety in their ideas, but with an incredible amount of money invested in them. 'Too big to fail,' as they say. And it's so boring.
All that said, this is why I always grapple with my project Hush Hush, which is, debatably, doing just what I'm complaining about: regurgitating more shit into the world. So "it's complicated." I can't let things be too simple for myself... can never get a solid party line together to tow, which always makes me vulnerable to criticism.
IM. Tell us about your use of personas, masks and costumes...I'm interested in the apparent removal of 'Christopher Kline' from much of your work - not just in terms of masking and teamwork but in the use of what amounts to camouflage. This is obviously a rare tactic in the contemporary art world where celebrity is deemed a characteristic of substance. Why are you doing this? (that's not a challenge by the way!).
CK. Masks are actually a good metaphor for me in general because they allow the wearer to escape their identity a bit, their social sense of self, and lose themselves. Masks also allow the observer to enter into another world, to see that there is very obviously some kind of designation between this moment and a normal social moment.
My initial idea for how I would work was that I would never use my real name, never associate my ego with any of my projects, simply be like a worker in the shadows of all of these ideas, a kind of maintenance man for a clock tower, keeping it oiled and running. I did this up until about 2010 when life had kind of exploded in my face and I realized that this plan was very idealistic and for it to work I would likely be very poor until I was very old. And I can deal with not having much money myself, but I also had other goals, like having children, having a life which requires resources. Even many of my creative visions require a lot of resources: a budget, people, enthusiasm, systems that are in place. So I gave up on this idealistic notion of completely separating my Self from my output, and sucked it up, and in this way became a kind of normal adult. Because to really gain notoriety and attention, it seems you have to have a solid identity that people can follow.
This sounds very entrepreneurial, of course, a bit self-serving too. But it's also that to hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity can be very cowardly. You're not risking so much, so you don't care to the same degree about what you're putting out there. You often don't properly consider your audience. You literally don't invest yourself. There are exceptions, of course, but in general it's what I've learned. As an extreme example, look at all of the shitty graffiti around. These people are all ego, no dignity, and they spit on other people who are trying to live with some. I'll always think of these African guys who had a shop on my old street here. I saw them cleaning a graffiti tag off of their shop's nice new white delivery van one day. These guys probably risked a lot for that van, they worked hard, they maybe even came half-way across the world for a better life. And they're here trying to have some kind of respectable, dignified way of being, and some anonymous idiot has to ruin their day, ruin their van. It almost made me cry. Writing your fake name all over the place is a horrible and selfish thing to do.
Of course if you're committing a crime it's best to be anonymous, but I think the anonymity also affects the things that are made and the way they're made, the attitude. So I decided to start putting my real name on my works, and it's always possible to make something anonymously at any point in the future if that seems helpful for the situation. It's important to try and not take it too seriously, to not let yourself become a 'brand', not get very attached to this name you were given when you were born, to stay unpredictable. It's nice to have fans I suppose, but brand-loyalty is something different altogether. It's disgusting.
So to finally answer your question, I do use my given name as a kind of base for people who are interested in what I'm doing to go off from. But I still keep that original goal close to my heart, to try to escape my own identity and personal short-comings, to make things not because of how I am, but despite it.
IM. Who is interesting to you in an art historical perspective?
CK. I'm inspired by Andrei Tarkowsky, Philip Guston, David Bowie, Werner Herzog, Yayoi Kusama, Mike Kelley, Stanley Kubrick, because these are people who really took their visions to new heights, people who continually challenged themselves and rose above stylization. They're people who have a complex narrative they're spinning, and you can see their growth despite their personal short-comings. I'm also inspired by people with a more steady and basic vision like Amish quilters or Moroccan carpet weavers or Ukranian women who've made incredible pysanka eggs over the years. These are people who quietly carry on a tradition without much regard for their own mighty role in history. And they have been innovators of their craft in subtle ways.
Then there are also people I find inspiring who fall into the category of "Art Brut", which can be more problematic. I was recently at the Collection de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, which was amazing. Going around reading all of the biographies of the artists, it was upsetting to find that almost all of them began with either a history of being abused as a child or suffering permanent psychological damage in one of the World Wars. And many of them suffered from schizophrenia or other illnesses. But what they were making was truly inspired. And piece-for-piece I'd say that the quality level at that collection is on par with or better than most modern or contemporary art museums. But it's a different kind of inspiration. With famous artists you can aspire to have some of their genius and skill, even if it seems like a long-shot... but with people who are "outsiders" it's really something you can never hope to be. You'll never get there. The harder you try, the more embarrassing it is. So I love to look at all of the paintings and drawings, at the intensity and detail, and try to relate to that almost maniacal commitment, but know there's an impossibility engrained in them.
IM. You work closely with Venezuelan artist Sol Calero - how does that inform your own practice?
CK. Sol and I have had a running collaborative art project for the last 3 years largely based around the idea of subjective archaeology and craft work. We also run a project space here in Berlin called Kinderhook & Caracas. I think that we both inspire and push each other, and are also there to keep the other one in check... keep our feet on the ground. Sol comes from Caracas, which is different than the small town I'm from in almost every way, but somehow our perspective on the world is strikingly similar. We respect the same kinds of people, we have a kind vision for life that makes sense together. We trade ideas and criticism on our solo works and also make a lot of projects together. Both of our bodies of work also straddles the line between a more 'conceptual' or researched approach with something more intuitive and hand-made. We have a lot of care for materials and quality, and this kind of makes our work flow together with our life pretty seamlessly.
IM. I love that Set Mosaic piece from your recent performance at Hau2 in Berlin - it looks like an enormous plotting table for psychic manoeuvres...
IM. Thanks. That performance at HAU2 was a big step for me, my first foray into the world of theatre, which is a complicated and difficult one. I'd love to continue writing plays and making sets in the future. It's a very different way of focusing the viewer's attention, and there's a huge learning curve coming from more art-context-based performance.
IM. What's next?
CK. I had a solo exhibition at Lüttgenmeijer in Berlin which just came down, and I've been on a roll with some new paintings and quilt collages since then. Now I'm preparing for a few exhibitions this fall, mainly a collaboration with my wife Sol Calero on an exhibition at Toves Galleri in Copenhagen in October. I'll be trying some new kinds of sculptures for that I think. In the long-run, I'd like to start making films and more theatre works so I can incorporate writing, music and performance with making objects and environments. It seems like a logical step for me, might feel less schizophrenic. I'd also love to make a really excellent album in the next couple of years. Let's see what the future brings and what I bring to it.