Lost in Movies
Matt Saunders on Udo Kier, Fassbinder,
and His Love of Cinema
Keaton, Helmut Berger, Hanna
Schygulla - Matt
Saunders' works obsessively appropriate his personal movie icons. In "Freeway
Balconies" at the Deutsche
Guggenheim, the young American is represented with an homage to Udo
Kier. The model for this video work was more than 600 drawings on
which he paints the face of the cult star. Part of this series is on view
in the IBC-C,
Deutsche Bank's new headquarters in Frankfurt. Achim Drucks
interviewed Matt Saunders in the latter's Berlin studio.
Saunders, aus der Serie Udo, 2004,
The face of the young man
wearing sunglasses repeatedly melts away. It becomes blurred, gets sharp
again, dissolves completely in black color areas. Matt Saunders' video
work Udo pays homage to the camp glamour of the actor Udo Kier.
Once regarded as a kind of German Alain
Delon, today Kier is at least as legendary as Helmut Berger. Since the
late sixties he Kier acted in various genres, including trash productions
such as "Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält (Mark of the Devil),"
Hollywood blockbusters, Madonna videos
and particularly auteur films by Rainer
Werner Fassbinder and Lars
von Trier. Saunders' moving black-and-white drawings are underlain
with a melancholy soundtrack. The motif stems from Andy
Warhol's Dracula, in which Kier plays the vampire. In Saunders'
video, which is part of Freeway
Balconies at the Deutsche Guggenheim, his flaring face repeatedly
appears to briefly emerge from collective pictorial memory, only to
disappear again. The artist shows Kier as an idol who perfectly embodies
the coolness of the late sixties and at the same time as a symbol of
vanity and vanitas.
Saunders in his studio, Berlin, Juni 2008
When visiting Saunders'
studio, you are almost immediately confronted with icons of European
cinema. In addition to a nearly life-sized Asta
Nielsen flanked by an elegant greyhound hang two portraits of Hertha
Thiele, a German film star of the early 1930s. The medium of film is
the central reference point in the work of the 33-year-old American, who
has lived and worked in Berlin since 2002. He appropriates film pictures,
removes them from their original context, processes them in several steps,
and transfers them to paintings, drawings, or videos. Like Karen
Kilimnik or Elisabeth
Peyton, Saunders deals with phenomena such as camp or celebrity
culture. However, he concentrates on stars who are outside the mainstream
and with whom he has a very personal affection. He transforms their
pictures into works that tell of his obsessions in a way that is full of
feeling yet completely devoid of sentimentality. Apart from Udo Kier, they
are primarily actors who starred in Fassbinder and Warhol
films, as well as Matti
Pellonpää, who plays the role of social outsider in films by Aki
Kaurismäki. For his video Double Matti Saunders drew the
Finnish actor more than 1,500 times. Saunders confronts this challenge
with an almost conceptual approach: In order to force himself to
continually find new solutions when drawing, he makes rules for himself.
For example, he sets his alarm to go off in 20 minutes and after it rings
begins the next drawing. Or he works exactly five hours on one drawing.
For some time now the artist has experimented with a
19th-century reproduction technique, cliché
verre, photographs based on drawn models. On transparent paper,
Saunders draws negative pictures of film postcards or publicity stills.
Then he lays the drawings on photo paper which he then exposes. This
process gives rise to peculiar hybrids that link the gesture of the
drawing with the smooth, shiny surface of the photograph. He also used
this technique to realize works for his contribution to the statements
section of this year's Art
Basel. At the center of the installation was the changeful fate of
Hertha Thiele. A celebrated star until the Nazis took power, she refused
to act in propaganda films, was banned from her profession, and immigrated
to Switzerland in 1937. To get by, she had to work as a maid and as an
auxiliary nurse in a psychiatric ward, until she could act again in the
GDR in 1966.
Hertha Thiele (Kuhle
Wampe, 1932) #2, 2008
the artist and Harris Lieberman Gallery,
Drucks: What fascinates you about Hertha
Matt Saunders: For several years it was just the
two performances. I first saw her in Kuhle
Wampe, with her hair cut short and wearing a tie, and was really
taken with that performance - and also with her style and androgyny. (It
reminded me, on the surface, of a figure like Edie
Sedgwick.) I also saw her in Mädchen
in Uniform, which is a completely different performance -
incredibly girlish. Later her life became a kind of narrative for me
because I was so interested in finding her. I'm fascinated now, watching
her films, about all the empty space in the public record of her career
outside of those films. That void is like the deep unconscious underneath
the experience of watching her perform.
Saunders, Hertha Thiele (1975), 2008
the artist and Harris Lieberman Gallery
dedicated your project for Art Basel to her…
installation in Basel was a portrait of her - all transformed through the
process of hand-drawing the negatives to print photographs - pulled
together from many sources. So it also encompasses my own changing
relationship to her image.
There seems to be a kind of
tenderness in the way you work with these images.
There has to
be an emotional pitch, by which I mean the emotional content of the work,
there has to be a motive, there must be a connection, but I don't want it
to be too sentimental or too nostalgic. At the same time, it is definitely
not impersonal - not neutral.
"Hertha, Second Book" at
Galerie Analix Forever, Geneva, November 2007
play a very important part in your work. How did that start?
I was younger, I was painting a lot at night, and watched videos to keep
myself company, especially these late Warhol movies like Trash
or Dracula. I was particularly interested in unscripted moments and
accidents that happen in front of the camera and are embraced as part of
the process. I am drawn to things that are clearly, beautifully imperfect.
I started to take Polaroids off the screen to capture something of this.
That became a series of paintings on canvas. Keeping qualities of the
photos, like the format of the Polaroid or the frame of the television,
was meant to reveal my own action - my own state - of watching the film. I
am not a particular film buff, but I am a sort of obsessive personality
who gets very touched by things and these performances can become big
players in life.