I DONâT WANT YOU TO KNOW WHO I AM
Nadja Sayej interviews Artists Anonymous
âAnonymity is the truest expression of altruism.â â Eric Gibson
Artist Anonymous is a collective group of five unknown artists currently working in Berlin. If we look past the initial mysteriousness, weâll see their identities are not meant to hide anything at all. If anything, they are revealing what the rest of us are overlookingâthe honesty behind the artistâs ego.
Why do you conceal your identities?
Nils: Itâs a long story and we try to make it short. Like in AA, you just say your first name here. To be a member, you canât take any drugs. And we donât take any new members. Artists Anonymous is about working together, really working together. We paint together on one canvas, because itâs about the work, not the ego of the artists. We believe in the work. We want other people to see the work first, then the people after.
Astrid and I are in Berlin. Thereâs a drug scene here. Thereâs a middle class existence, and to break out of it, people like to live life with drugs. I had the biggest problem in drugs; I had a really big problem with it. I couldnât do work with others, it put so much distance between us.
Astrid: We donât just share a studio; we work really closely together. With the way we work, itâs almost impossible to hide things, to keep it apart from the other person, to be clean.
What is the goal of your collective?
A: Itâs important to have a mission or a goal, but we didnât come together in Artist Anonymous to make a manifesto. It was an emergency situation, we had a bad time in our lives and we wanted to stay together and help each other out. We couldnât work alone anymore, making artwork. It became a new way to do it together; we lived together for a long time, worked together for a long time, and as artists we became closer and closer. And then we had to start thinking about what our goal is.
N: I could never do this alone, what we are doing. You have to open yourself up; itâs about finding out what weâre doing here. Thereâs 20,000 years of painting and you have to stop and ask what youâre doing, âWhat is it all about?â Itâs a very existential way of thinking for us, finding out about what itâs all about. If I was alone, with the tough things in the art worldâthe paranoia, the jealousy, the things that happen along the way of showing your artâI wouldnât have had the chance. But together we can put our experiences in our work, which is what art and life are about.
What is the âHungerâ painting about?
N: Itâs a diptych that has both a negative and a positive. Itâs much like photo film, inverted from the original.
A: After completing the paintings, we make an inverted photograph of it. Itâs called an âafterimage,â like when you look at the sun and directly, and whatever you look at after will have a blue or black spot in your eye. Your eye makes the second image.
N: Hunger is actually one of our performance pieces. One of us runs around with a camera and watches everything. Itâs about having the feeling of being alone, but without hurting yourself. Itâs about staying sober. Feeling how it is to be alone, really alone. We made photographs and performances and thatâs where Hunger comes from.
A: Itâs not so easy to talk about. Itâs like we invented a superhero alter ego in Hunger, and sheâs like an ancient mythological character. Itâs like a goddess or an Amazon, this is our archetype.
N: We were analyzing her, our superhero as who she is, abused. The piece is not a human being anymore; itâs somehow a sign, our apocalyptic warrior.
As artists with no names, how are you treated differently in the art world?
N: We had a really tough time. It was really hard to deal with it. The art world just wants a certain part of youâlike an arm or a legâbut not the whole body. But itâs not like that.
A: We still get the reaction where people are interested, but are unsure about the connection between the name and the work, and the responsibility that comes along with that.
N: Most art groups focus on carrying on, so it will not fall apart. But weâre more of a band than a collective. Everyone can paint but thereâs no main painter. Everyone can play every instrument, but weâre not musicians. Weâre artists. Weâre not art designers or illustrators. We are artists.
A: Just like sometimes in order to make a huge photo thereâs an acting part of it, where I have to act. But Iâm not an actress.
N: We are the images that we make. We play with everything in the images. Sometimes we do take something in from the outside, but itâs never the main theme. We are the actors, the painters, the photographers, the protagonists of the whole thing.
How much is the work about your non-identity?
N: Totally. Itâs very important. Itâs so much about the non-identity, and its always changing. Together we are each 1.6666 of an artist, while alone we would be only 0.5 of an artist. Somehow, you lose your identity, your self in the group. And together, we find it again. We are married, Astrid and I. We couldnât do it before, and then we could. Our son is 10 and I didnât even meet him for a long time. We had so much bullshit in our lives. Weâve known each other for 14 years and came back together to each other about 4 years ago. Itâs important to be anonymous. Itâs important to give the ego away.
A: Itâs so close to yourself, you canât imagine people seeing that about you.
N: We feel a responsibility to give it our best. Thereâs no difference between us and our work.
Whatâs your one regret?
N: Thereâs a lot of things I wish I did do.
Is that the negative answer of the question?
A: Thatâs true.
N: Yes, thatâs the negative of my answer.
Have you had a negative experience with the art world?
N: Itâs hard. There are so many people who donât really care about art in the art world, those who are willing to look past whatâs obvious. Some people will never know their names but theyâre doing so much in this art world. As an artist, if you have a voice you are an artist, but if you donât have anything to say, if you donât have a voice then go and be something else. Being an artist is also having the responsibility to do things that are not nice or easy but somehow an artist has a responsibility to bring people to another view. This is the problem; this is what is not happening. The art scene is very boring. You can see a lot of good art but itâs always the same. Art is not about selling a painting, but you do have to make a living. It has to be seen for it to be art. Most of the stuff out there is just a waste of time.
A: We talk to a lot of artists here, we ask ourselves: âWhat does it mean to have this position as an artist?â Iâm here I have a place to live I have this choice to make art, to fight for my life. I have a very different point of view of the world because of what I do.
N: Art is about communication
A: We think a lot about that, âWhat is it for?â What will people get from that? We are anonymous so our work is not categorized like a âwoman artistâ or âCanadian photographer.â We had a group show in Israel and because we were âAâ for Artists Anonymous, people thought we were a surprise artist, a surprise guest. Itâs not about who you will see, its about looking at the work. The lesson is to look at the work.
Do people pressure you to reveal your identities?
N: No, not really. But I could show you how to paint. I canât paint like Rembrandt, but itâs not that hard to learn. Itâs very hard to make art, though.
A: For example with drawing, itâs important to be trained at school as a good draftsman, but itâs more important to learn what you thinking about in your work.
They donât teach you how to communicate?
N: No, you canât learn that in school, although you can learn how to respect it. Itâs great to be a draftsman, painter or photographer. But you canât just learn it by studying it. Itâs something you learn by doing. Astrid is not a painter but sheâs doing it. Itâs not about the painting or how well itâs done. Thatâs not the point.
A: There are many possibilities. Photos, for example, are not less valuable than paintings. All those techniques you learn at school are nothing if you donât do anything with it.
N: You can be a good painter but have nothing to say. That is our mission, thatâs what we want to say.
How can we communicate better?
N: Communicate with people who will accept you for who you are, and be fucking honest. Find the good people because there are so many wankers out there. Itâs like a fairytale book; all the people you meet in the beginning are the bad characters, like the foxes, you know? You never know.
A: Itâs like an adventure.
N: Weâre not just the superheroes; weâre the stupid main characters. Weâre people who are totally normal, people who you can identify with. Weâre asking questions and somehow, this is what we do.
Nadja Sayej is an arts journalist who works in New York and Toronto.
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Artists Anonymousâ universe is Yin and Yang. A negative in a positive environment, becomes a positive in a negative environment. AA use everything to build their pictures, be it through projections, from Nature or if itâs invented, itâs almost as if each picture were an installation or an object. It is not about simplifying things; rather itâs about expanding the universe, consciousness and perception. AA no longer limit their consciousness through drugs, thereby life is experienced and communicated fully through their work.
It concerns the expansion of the Universe or virtually to create or expose a new Universe. A Universe that forces itself into this one ever more, replacing and subverting it.
A picture also always has a positive, or a negative, similar to a sculpture and itâs mould, and AA show that because there is never either a finished picture or a truthful reproduction there can also be infinite reproductions due to the infinitely various methods of reproduction and possible viewpoints. There is still no âtrueâ image just because a choice has been made.
In the end itâs such that the viewer becomes part of the installation; the Mirror that Universes face themselves with. However the viewer isnât depicted in the mirror but nevertheless he discovers himself again in it and will be able to take something with him. Human beings pass away, the pictures remain, the tension, the force field that occurs between the pictures can be entered and experienced, everyone can become a wanderer between these worlds.
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