24. November 2004
Arts and Culture of the South East, Ireland
Brendan Maher
"...When I look at a work of Art I ask myself: does it challenge me, does it touch, move or inspire me? Do I learn something from it, does it startle or amaze me - do I get excited, upset? That is the test any artwork has to pass: can it create an emotional impact on a human being even when he has no education or any information about art? I’ve always had a problem with art that you can only understand if you have a degree in art history, and I have a problem with theories in general. Most of them are bullshit anyway. Most critics and theorists have little respect for artists, and I think the importance of theory in art is totally overrated. Real art is self-evident. Real art is intense, challenging, enchanting, exciting and unsettling; it has a quality and magic that you cannot explain. Like the Blues, a poem of Rimbaud or Rembrandt's late self-portraits. Art is not logic, and if you really want to experience it, your mind and rational thinking will be of little help. Art is something spiritual that you can only experience with your senses, your heart, your soul. Think of Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Mozart, Howling Wolf, Goya, Bukowski or Robert Crumb - do you need to know the theories that some busybodies might attach to their art in order to experience it? Marcel Duchamp said: "The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from the bipolar action gives birth to something - like electricity." These two poles is all you need.
With regards to growing up in Austria, you describe your childhood as being “a horror.” That’s an extraordinary word to use. Obviously this period has influenced your work. Why was it a horror?
I was born after the war. Vienna at the time was generally in a very depressed mood. There was a sense of despair. In the memory of my early childhood everything was so dark, and all the grown-ups I saw were ugly, grouchy and rude. Nobody talked much, everybody seemed to be in deep grief - everything was heavy and dead serious. I remember empty streets, dark and cold churches with pictures of tortured saints, ruins of bombed houses, rust, rubble, no colors, no sound. I was born into a fucking twilight-zone, that's why it was horror.
Were they coming to terms with their complicity with Germany in the Second World War?
No. No one talked about anything. As a child I just found that it was an unfriendly place to be. I never saw anybody laugh, I never heard anybody sing. I had no idea what was going on - I had the feeling I was landed on the wrong planet, and there was only one thing I knew for sure - I didn't want to be there.
It was a very common thing for people in Europe following the war to look to American Culture to escape that despair and darkness. I think specifically of the German film director Wim Wenders who also would have searched out this other world, away from this darkness. Was that the same with you?
It was the same for the whole generation. There was an enormous void because the Nazis had destroyed and suppressed all free expressions and arts. Museums were looted, books were burned, and anybody creative or visionary was either dead or in exile. 1000 years of Jewish culture was wiped off the face of earth. It was the final triumph of stupidity and mediocrity. Which consequentially led to total destruction: bombs had flattened whole cities - Dresden, Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin etc. - Gothic Churches, Baroque Palaces, museums, libraries, opera-houses - most of it in rubble and ashes.
An era of the greatest art and architecture was turned into dust. There was such a silence, such a void, when the war was over. Everyone was hastily trying to get rid of the past - to bury everything - their history, their identity and their memory. Our parents' generation was spiritually kind of dead.
And into this vacuum of our childhood gushed America with Coca Cola, blue-jeans, cars that looked like spaceships, movies, comic-books and rock 'n' roll. America presented a mythical world of modern wonders and miracles. There were beautiful rebellious angels like Elvis, Jimmy Dean, Brando and girls of unearthly beauty - things that we had never seen before in our so-called real world.
And for me and many of my friends it was also the encounter with a man that was probably our greatest inspiration: Donald Duck. The impact of this culture shock on us was enormous.
Interview: Brendan Maher
Photographs: John Crowley
Design: Paul Callanan

The text was corrected and edited by the artist.
This edition of start coincides with the ‘Helnwein In Tipperary’ Exhibition which takes place in the South Tipperary Arts Centre this winter.
Austrian-born Gottfried Helnwein has exhibited in Kilkenny and Cork in recent years, however this is the first time that his work has been shown so close to his home and studio in County Tipperary.
The landscapes in the exhibition offer the local viewer a chance to re-look at familiar locations now presented in a heightened state through the twin lenses of realism and romanticism.
The heightened sense in these paintings creates an active link with Helnwein’s other work, a central theme of which is the manipulation of the individual by those in authority. This work crosses into uncomfortable territory. The viewer becomes entangled in conflicting concerns regarding what is happening in the image, an impotence in preventing what is happening in the image (and by proxy, what happens in reality) and an unease that even the creation of the image has altered a moral boundary. Nonetheless, Helnwein addresses the viewer only with the image. The Artists task is complete. The matter is now left to the viewer.
In contrast, Helnwein points out that his Irish landscapes are devoid of human traces. They have a purgative quality. Like a brisk walk in the depicted hills, they allow the senses to gather, the lungs to be filled and calm to be restored. They are complete in their epic and idealised form. Amidst the clamour that emanates from his other work, these landscapes sing a redemption song for man offering us a suggestion of Eden before it was ruined.
Brendan Maher
Main photographs: John Crowley All other images reproduced by permission of the Artist. Design: Paul Callanan start c/o South Tipperary Arts Centre Nelson Street Clonmel County Tipperary Ireland.
No part of this magazine can be reproduced without permission. © start2004

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