Hi Bernd, nice to see you at 2chairs. Let's start with your background. What did you do in your previous life?
I don't see both aspects, which have been part of my life for the last 30 years, as separate items, they were heavily intertwined all the time. I generally saw my day job as a supporting act for my family and my artistic endeavours.
I came to Berlin in 1979 to study chemistry. I was interested in biology but no places were available, so I chose chemistry instead. Coming to Berlin is an entirely different story, as at the end of the 1970s you couldn't simply move into East Berlin, it was all about permissions, etc.
I met my future wife in 1982 and we got together to form a family and have children. Our first son was born in 1983, and our two daughters followed in 1986 and 1989. My wife worked and supported the family while I studied. I made my PhD in chemistry in 1989 and with the incorporation of East Germany into West Germany, I lost my job at the university.
Looking for a job and being unhappy about the way the "reunification" happened, in particular the sudden re-introduction of §218 into our lives, made us decide to look for a place to live outside of Germany. There were a few options, but we finally settled for Belgium in 1992, where I took a job as a scientific administrator with the European institutions. Initially, it was a five-year contract, but we quite liked it in Belgium and stayed for nearly 30 years, during which I worked in many different positions in the institutions. The jobs supported my family and artistic activities well and were mildly interesting at times. I always say that I worked for 8 hours, spent 8 hours with the family and made art for 8 hours. Thinking about weekends, holidays and the occasional sick leave for burn-out due to boredom, this might not be too far off the mark. And I didn't sleep a lot those years, 4 to 5 hours were mostly sufficient.
Since school time, my main problem has been that I can't stand hierarchal structures, which was also the reason I left my job in 2020. That sounds very solid. How have you come up with the decision to be an artist?
I am a late bloomer when it comes to art. No family member has been an artist ever, and no supportive parents, grandparents or teachers. I have some very weak recalling of art classes at school which only left the feeling pressure and boredom. I spent my last school years at a boarding school where we created some kind of clandestine social club to counter the overly ideological indoctrination at the school. We would listen to music and read books which were not part of the official cultural doctrine in East Germany, not everything was on the index, but often difficult to come by and certainly not recommended by the system. Some people would write their own texts or poetry there, and as I wasn't interested in writing, I became the visual guy starting to draw.
But my real initiation wanting to become an artist happened in the early 1980s. Being in Berlin at that time and frequenting the protestant student group of the university, I heard a presentation by Dieter Schmidt, the leading East German art historian, on surrealist art and Max Ernst. Schmidt was already banned from public speaking and could only present in secrecy using Church settings. This presentation and especially Ernst's painting "The Attirement of the Bride" blew my mind, and I decided to paint in the surrealist style. Surrealism has deeply influenced me since.
Of course, that meant that studying art was out of the question. I wasn't interested in socialist realism, but more importantly, I didn't want to leave Berlin. The only art school in East Berlin was the Kunsthochschule Weissensee, which was the most ideological one of all. Besides places were very limited, rejections for several years were the norm (you had to prove your desire to be fully committed to becoming an artist, even at the price of starving) and I didn't have a suitable portfolio as surrealist style drawings and paintings were just suspicious and prone to immediate rejection.
In the late 80s, I was in contact with a number of artists in East Berlin, which were quite famous among the young generation as they had introduced performance art into the East German art canon and were part of
the Permanent Art Conference in June 1989
. Today they are mostly forgotten. But even there, I didn't get any encouragement, our understanding of what art is and for whom to create it, was just too far off. And they wouldn't accept any other ideas than their own.
So I buried the idea of studying art. The question came back from time to time over the years, but it would have always meant leaving Belgium and putting the burden of supporting the family exclusively on my wife, something we weren't ready to do.
Meanwhile, I realised that it was also the fact that I wouldn't have lasted long in an art school. I can't stand unfounded hierarchy (you are better because of your position not of your achievements) and the egomania in the art education establishments would certainly have driven me away anyway.
As painting is difficult if you have no training, I moved first to printmaking, building myself a printing press (the private possession of a press was forbidden in East Germany), and later works on paper in general, collages in particular.