Life-defining, watershed moments, they don’t happen every day. Those incidents and accidents that either reveal an artist’s future path or shoved them off the one they were on, the pivotal experiences in the narrative of people’s lives that helped them find their artistic identity and fundamentally shaped their careers. From Chantal Ackerman’s jump from film to fine art to Luc Tuymans’ first major solo show, we’ve dug into the past lives of a merry crop of contemporary art world denizens to shine a light on what they consider to be the most significant moments in their careers. Nine stories about the past’s effect on the present, and what it might all mean for the future.
Chantal Akerman achieved critical acclaim for the film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles when she was in her twenties. She went on to become one of the most important and respected directors of her generation but in 1995 she had a change of heart and shifted her attention from the world of cinema to the freer spirit of art. She’s oscillated back and forth between the two ever since.
In the early ’90s the head of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Kathy Halbreich, approached me and suggested I make a video installation, something I’d never done before. At the time, I was looking for funding to make a film and I thought that this could be the solution. In the end the project was put on hold because of lack of funds but I found the money on my own and went ahead and started filming what became ‘D’Est’. That was 1993.
Then in 1995, Kathy approached me again to tell me that the funds had been raised for the video installation so I began playing with the material I had already filmed for ‘D’Est’ and it became a 25-part video installation shown in my very first exhibition called ‘D’Est au bord de la fiction’. It was exhibited at Brussels’ Bozar, at Jeu de Paume in Paris, in Minneapolis and in New York… it basically toured the world. I was living in Paris at the time, working on the most commercial film I’ve ever made – the one with Juliette Binoche, ‘Une diva à New York’, and I realised that I enjoyed making the installation much more than I enjoyed making the film, which really felt mechanical.
I had never thought of making art or being an artist until Kathy approached me. I had always had this romantic image of artists that came from the grand masters, like Rembrandt. I saw myself as a director, maybe a writer, but never an artist. It was a turning point for me – an extraordinary renewal in my life – in the sense that I totally embraced the freedom of making art. It gives you so much more freedom than cinema. Films are so complicated, you have to write a script and follow it, and even though I make films that are quite out of the ordinary, it’s always going to be much more formulated than with art. Films are always made as part of a team, there’s a system. Art I can make all alone in my studio. This feeling of being able to push further and further and be more and more free – that’s what interests me about art. I really didn’t know much about art in the beginning, and I just followed my intuition.
I can’t say that I’m part of a school or anything. I also don’t want to know what sells and what doesn’t because then you’re restrained again. I still make films and write books – I do a bit of everything. And I’m still driven by the same forces as in cinema. What I like best, apart from the freedom, is the relationship with the space. It’s so different from being in a cinema where people sit down in a room. Every time I have to install something, I have to adapt it to the space and it makes me feel a bit like a magician.
Pablo Gonzalez aka Sozyone was born in Brussels and spent his youth immersed in graffiti culture and ripping up the mic with rap outfit Da Puta Madre before making the switch from street to scene. Here he talks about two seminal events that changed everything: the release of the album ‘Une Ball Dans La Tête’ in 1995 and his first major gallery solo show in 2005.
In 1995 my life was just like the TV series ‘Fame’. In my school, it was exactly like that show. There were about 40 of us, a loose-knit tribe of people hanging out together and everyone had different projects on the go. A bit like a collective. There were four of us in Da Puta Madre and our music was closely related to our graffiti style. Making tags and doing rap concerts was our life. We saw ourselves as an artistic project, not a band, and we made music just to accompany our graffiti. People had told us that it was impossible to make a real hardcore rap album in Belgium but we didn’t see why, and in 1995 we released ‘Une Ball Dans La Tête’ which made a lot of noise. It brought us on tour to Canada, France, Switzerland… all over the world. It was crazy. We’d only made this album for fun and our style was “Fuck everything”. That album marked me.
Ten, fifteen years later people say it was an important album but at the time I didn’t realise how important it was, and how important that year would turn out to be for me. We were pioneers without even knowing it. We lived in the moment and we were spontaneous and we tried to avoid over-thinking anything. We forced ourselves to be natural (which is a paradox, I know) and I’ve been trying to stay faithful to this spirit in my work, even now. Since then I’ve told myself: if we’re able to make an album that was sold in shops, bought by loads of people and written about by music critics… we can do anything. So we made films, and more albums, short movies, exhibitions.
The success of the album really opened my eyes to the fact that it’s possible to live the rock’n’roll lifestyle. It gave us confidence and motivation to continue. It made me realise that it’s possible to survive financially from art, that I’d never have to work again in my life. In 2005, I was living in Brussels and making graffiti and I decided to start making artworks on canvas. It took me a while to get to that point because even though I’d been to art school, I had a problem with contemporary art and the fancy bullshit that surrounds it. But then Alice from Alice Gallery contacted me and invited me to do a test project in this abandoned building. There was a whole new generation of gallerists that had emerged at the same time as street art and Alice was one of them. She was really cool. It was the first time I had worked for a gallery and it was a mini expo and it went really well, so we decided to do the real deal.
So many other things happened after that. Someone from Carhartt was at the show and he told me he wanted to work with me for their new campaign. That gave me worldwide visibility. They organised a European tour of my work and ever since then it’s been like a domino effect. So many doors have opened. I guess it was just the right time, and the right gallery. I was so surprised and happy that lots of people wanted to buy my stuff but I was almost sad about it, too, because I haven’t got a single piece from that exhibition. I often try to imagine what my younger me would think of my older me now. It’s a huge motivation to know that there are people behind me who like what I do and when I make a new mural, a new tag, I want it to be impressive because I know there are all these people behind me.
Today Pablo is based in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife Claire.
American artist Kim Jones emerged from the performance art landscape of ’70s southern California. His Mudman alter ego – a shaman-like figure who strolled the streets of LA – was as well-known as his controversial Rat Piece performance, in which he burnt rats alive. Here, he takes a look back at the LA of 1979, the year when Jasper Johns bought some of his drawings.
In 1979 I was living in a one-bedroom apartment on Venice Beach with a bathroom and a closet for $125 a month. I didn’t have a proper job; apart from making art I did some modelling here and there. I was basically living out of my pants. I was known a bit for my Mudman performances and I had already done a few exhibitions, mostly in alternative art spaces, but it was hard. My Rat Piece performance in 1976 meant that lots of people didn’t want to have anything to do with me. But I had a lot of energy and I used to go from gallery to gallery to present my work, but most of the time they’d just say “We’ll give you a call” and I’d never hear from them again.
Then I got invited to the LAICA in ’78. It was around the same time the High Performance Magazine was launched, which put a lot of us performance artists on the map. I was more connected to the people on the Venice boardwalk than to anyone in the art world, but all of a sudden lots of things started happening and I got invited to participate in a panel talk with Paul McCarthy. One day I ran into a friend that I had met in art school in ’72 – ’73, Tony. He worked at a printmaking company called Gemini on Melrose Avenue, and he offered me a job there as a janitor. I started working two nights a week. The place made prints for major artists like Hockney, Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns and all these guys would come to Gemini and we got to talk to them. Everyone who worked there was an artist. Sometimes I would draw on one of the printmaking stones and one day Jasper Johns noticed it. It was a small drawing of a baby being torn apart by two wolves. He was surprised I could draw and asked me if he could see more of my stuff, so I brought my portfolio along the next time and straight away he bought five of my drawings.
It’s a good feeling when someone you respect likes your work and it’s nice when someone buys your stuff. But of course it doesn’t really matter for my art. I just get a kick out of making drawings. It’s hard to say, but I probably would have kept doing it anyway, even if I hadn’t succeeded. After buying those drawings in 1979, Jasper continued to support me. When I moved to New York in 1982 because I was tired of LA, he recommended me for a performance grant at the American Academy of Arts. And my first gallery only called me up because Jasper had told them about me. We were never really close but were in contact on and off and he helped me as much as he could. I don’t think you can do it on your own, I just can’t see that happen. You always need somebody to support you. It’s got a lot to do with contacts and getting help.
Without Jasper’s support things would have been very different – he made everything so much easier. I mean, without him I would have never gotten together with my first gallery in the 80s, which was such an important step. I’m not sure when was the last time I spoke to Jasper, but I’ll never forget the doors he opened for me.
Belgian painter Sam Dillemans, whose work is firmly rooted in the old European tradition, is perhaps best known for his powerful portraits of boxers and writers. Having practiced drawing old masters from a very young age, it was a gift from his mother that inspired him to pick up a paintbrush for the first time.
It has always felt natural to make art. I couldn’t live any other way. I never asked why or thought about it or made a conscious decision. I’ve just always had this urge to draw, especially the works of the old masters, even as a very young child. I first started to paint when I was 14 years old and living with my grandmother near Leuven. My mother gave me one of these big, heavy, expensive books about Van Gogh and I was blown away. He completely churned me up. I had already made lots of drawings inspired by the old masters – around 100, I think – but it was the discovery of the work of Van Gogh that really enflamed my urge to take up a paintbrush.
I had to go to school during the day which meant I could only make art at night. Grandpa wasn’t to know what I was doing because he wanted me to be fresh in the morning, so I had to close all the little gaps in the door so that he couldn’t see that the light was still on in my room. I would sleep at school the next day. Ever since I discovered Van Gogh I never stopped painting and now I’m 48. Discovering his work was a major turning point for me, just like my discovery of literature, especially Russian novelists like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Pushkin. Van Gogh opened my eyes to what is good and what is not good. It’s pure, it’s oil on canvas, there is no system. He is so direct and lucid, and so fatal. He doesn’t show images of sentimentalities, but rather he depicts trees and faces and changes art just with that. Totally simple themes, just like Picasso.
Most of the big champions try to incorporate political or contemporary issues like wars etc. but they’re so lost in their subjects that they forget to paint. That’s why Cézanne changed art with a few apples and Van Gogh with a field and El Greco with a hand. Themes are not important, they’re even dangerous. Now they’re writing booklets to explain art pieces – but art is not literature. When you need to explain an artwork like that, there’s something wrong with it. Even today my art is still inspired by Van Gogh and the other grand masters I discovered as a kid. Stravinsky said that without the old masters we cannot be modern, we cannot renew. There are a few like Francis Bacon who didn’t copy the big masters in the beginning, but that’s very rare. My teachers were the old masters;, and I only went to art school to get material for free. Studying their work, understanding why they would paint a line at a certain spot and not anywhere else, that taught me a lot. In the ’80s, with Joseph Beuys and all that, this idea was not very popular, so I was quite isolated but I always stayed on my path. Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era. I don’t feel like working with most Belgian galleries anymore. Why would I give them 50% of the selling price for hanging my pictures on the wall? For handing out glasses of sparkling wine? They don’t give anything back. Today’s art world is fucked. Art, literature, music,… these are the things that count.
I’m influenced by great writers and painters, but that’s not to say that there is a direct link to the books I have read, but it created a psychological platform to start from. After Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Pushkin, I read Flaubert and German writers like Stefan Zweig or Hesse. Strange, perhaps, for someone so young, but these books completely changed my view of the world. They showed me that life isn’t that simple. They showed me that humans are not that great, actually, and that people can be dangerous and barbaric. Balzac’s characters are bad people – but there’s humour at the same time. The influence of the grand masters puts you in your place, makes you humble, keeps your feet on the ground. They’re the best teachers – and it’s all for free.
Sam Dillemans lives and works in Antwerp. At the time he was working on the last of his writers series. His book Authors is out now on MER. Paper Kunsthalle.