A wide-eyed interview with homegrown up-and-coming artist Gideon Kiefer

Last week we presented artist Gideon Kiefer’s intriguing portfolio of drawings to the world. Now we’re pulling up a chair with the affable Belgian, who admits he’s only recently begun to “take his own work seriously” to talk new projects, nightly terrors and artists’ egos.

Can you tell us more about your latest work?

Right now I’m preparing an exhibition in Mumbai, India. I call it the equirectangular project. I like to work with themes and stories, create a new world, in a way. This new project is inspired by Google street view, where you can have a 360° look around. I am trying to create artworks that reflect this feeling. For the drawings, I imagine a person inside a sphere who is looking at a landscape all around, 360°. It’s a bit hard to describe, actually. I’ll also draw people who are outside of the spheres. The images can be quite alienating. It’s about how something like Google street view takes away a certain magic and about our (fake) perception of reality and our memories. You can revisit places you’ve been as a child, go back in time, in a way, and realise that the place actually looked really different in your own memory. And before you go on a holiday you can just check Google street view to check everything out – there’s no surprise anymore.

How did you get in contact with the gallery in India?

They approached me and other artists at Art Brussels. We got in contact with them through Geukens & De Vil, the gallery that represents me. I’m going to India in November, we’ll have to build the exhibition ourselves. That’s going to be interesting!

How has your art developed over the years?

I don’t see that much of a development because I only recently started to take my art really seriously, about three or four years ago. I had a rather bad illness and realised that I needed to change my life and do what’s really important to me. I had always been drawing, but didn’t try to make it as an artist, make a living out of it. I was doing different jobs to earn money like working in bars, doing some illustration work, teaching. I still teach a bit, a few hours a week, and now have a lot of time for my art. I don’t think my art has changed a lot over the past years, maybe on an intellectual level, but not my drawing style.

What influences and inspires you?

Daily life. And I read a lot, fiction as well as non-fiction. The last book I read was ‘The Fountainhead’ from American writer Ayn Rand. Sometimes art can inspire me, but I don’t want to copy other artists. I like Elmgreen and Dragset, for example. Life inspires me the most. Ideas come to me all the time, while sitting on the train or when I hear a certain song. That’s why I always carry a little notebook with me. If you don’t directly write down your ideas they can fade away very quickly. Another thing that inspires me are my dreams.

What kind of things do you dream about? 

I have a sleeping disorder called ‘night terror’ that gives me quite intense nightmares. I’ve had them since I was a child. People think I must be suffering from some trauma, but I’m not. They’ve just always been there. When I wake up in the morning my room is a mess because I trash things in my sleep. So I can’t sleep in the same room as my children, for example. I don’t directly transform these dreams in drawings because it’s hard to describe a dream and when you try to draw it it’s always a disappointment. But they undoubtedly have an effect on my art. My art is very multi-layered, and sometimes you can glance a hint of them through a soft sketch in the background of a drawing, for example.

What is the message behind your work?

There’s not really a general message. At my exhibitions I can see that everyone sees something else in my drawings. And I don’t really want to explain them, it takes away the mystery.

What do you hope people will take away from your art?

It’s hard to think about the viewer, it actually freaks me out a bit. I’m always very nervous when I have to show my art, even just to my gallerist. The only person about whose opinion I really care is my wife. She always gives me a grade from 1 to 10 with 10 being the best one. I never got a 10 though! When she gives me a 7 I know that I failed. I appreciate her taste and she has a complementary view on my art which is really helpful. So when I show my pieces to the gallery I already know what’s good and what’s bad and usually the gallerist has the same opinion. But it really blocks me to think about the viewer. Once my gallerist told me – he had kept it from me for quite a while – that there was a waiting list for my artworks, and everything I would do was basically already sold. But I have to get that out of my system, so that I don’t lose my motivation and self-criticism.

What would you have been if you hadn’t been an artist? 

A film director maybe. Or an archelologist, searching for old bones and ancient cities.

How would you describe the art scene in Belgium today?

I think it’s very interesting and thriving. I love Belgian figurative art. I have the impression Belgium has quite a lot of artistic activity compared to other countries, but maybe I’m wrong. Some of my favorites are Hergé, Luc Tuymans, Michel François and Francis Alÿs.

How important is your environment in shaping your work?

Art is a lonely business. So you have to get along very well with yourself, something I always have. I just try to make my surroundings as comfortable as possible. I need a comfy place where I can read my books. I have a little studio at home where I do my small-scale drawings and then there’s another studio in Ghent where I make my large-scale works.

What legacy do you want to leave behind as an artist?

That’s a hard question and it says a lot about your ego. Maybe it’s a hidden way of fighting immortality. But that’s a very absurd effort.

So you have a huge ego?

I guess all artists do in a way, even if they are introverts. Why else would you draw something for ten hours? Why do you have to bring your idea to paper and not just let it be inside your head? And I guess it’s comforting to know that when you die something stays, especially for your loved ones. I collect stuff from people I love, from friends and family. When I look at a painting from my grandfather and I see a splash of paint, then that’s the result of a movement he made with his hand. But in the end, when you’re gone, you’re gone.