Odd Nerdrum, Jadran Sturm & Åsa Lie. Interview - talk 15 January 1999. Kunsthal Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Topic 1: To be contemporary & try to avoid similarities with other art.
ODD NERDRUM: That is an intricate/difficult/complicated question. Difficult… A very strange question. I don’t try to avoid being similar to other… with art, but I am not working with art. This question does not really concern me because I do not identify myself with art. To be contemporary actually means to be an artist. I do not feel contemporary in my work. I perceive my work as old-fashioned. It does not have a frame of actuality in our time or locality.
JS & ÅL: But are you not addressing people living now?
ODD NERDRUM: No… not the human of today, I could just as well address people living 200 years from now or 100. People/humans of the past or in the future. I don’t have any such security. I don’t think I am specifically addressing people of today. I definitely don’t think so... This relationship to being contemporary is something I would call ‘to be local in time’; to be interesting at a certain time in a certain place, and I do not find that interesting. I am not interested in that. Instead I have gathered it all into a kind of synthesis. That everything should be in a language as understandable as possible and that is not very similar to the art of today, it is quite far away from that. Contemporary art is based on that an artist is supposed to go into art history in the same way as an art historian. When the artist produces something he or she relates to it with the eye of an art historian/critic. I have the feeling that when I am working it is more like working with soap opera or glamour. It is emotional and not art criticism or history of art.
JS & ÅL: But in the past you were more political. For example in the painting “The murder of Andreas Baader” from 1977-78. It had a message to it’s own time.
ODD NERDRUM: I don’t think I wanted it to have a message. It was more a fun… an obsession with describing a double reality, a true story which was double. At the same time it was also important for me that the picture synthetically belonged to an artistic expression which had an air of eternity over it. The time when no one remembers Bader will quickly be here. Young people today do not know Bader. It’s gone. If one does not include the perspective of eternity, then the whole piece of art is lost.
JS & ÅL: Many of your paintings are concerned with relationships between people. Is this not a typical contemporary topic? Communication between people. How we, humans want to develop relationships & communication with each other. And to create a utopian civilisation. Those are pretty contemporary topics.
ODD NERDRUM: Maybe… to think like that?
Topic 2: People claim I am a stranger in this civilisation, but they don’t have any advice on how a stranger can exist. Before there was no-mans-land or holocaust. What do we have today?
ODD NERDRUM: These questions are very difficult… (Laughing) I think it is possible to live today… protect oneself against society… Perhaps one can start to live in the same way that one starts Chinese, Italian, Japanese or Mexican restaurants. One can make homes that are copies of Greek homes, Ancient Greek homes or perhaps baroque homes or one can surf around, to find where one prefers to belong. One can play that one lives in the tower of a castle even if one lives in an apartment. I really believe in this. We can live in a world, play until we find... Yes… we can live at least to a certain extent in the 15th century or at the time of Jesus Christ. I can actually do whatever I want. I can choose the world I want to be in, but then I might need to be a bit wealthy so that I can protect myself. It is obvious that one must protect oneself, I know that. But still... I think it can work well.
JS & ÅL: How can one protect oneself?
ODD NERDRUM: One can protect oneself by having enough money to be able to pay off the wolfs so that they don’t destroy what you have.
JS & ÅL: How does one get money?
ODD NERDRUM: You get money by going to the stock exchange. Speculating in shares…
JS & ÅL: What about if one also wants to be accepted & respected by others?
ODD NERDRUM: Respected? Accepted?
JS & ÅL: Yes, if you don’t want to play theatre or exist mainly through compromises. Or if you are unwilling to be some kind of clown.
ODD NERDRUM: I understand. I believe one must be such a big egoist that it is possible to avoid the big tendencies that cut of your head. What we call fascism and things like that. It is about egoism. When you are egoistic enough you avoid such things. You become an incurable individualist and in that case you are sailing in your own sea anyway. What is very enjoyable for the individualist is to find this kind of “happy spaces” to be in and to live in.
JS & ÅL: Do you think you have succeeded with that?
ODD NERDRUM: No, I have not succeeded with that, but I can see that I am trying to live an old-fashioned life. A non-modern life. I think I am managing that quite well. It will never be perfect.
JS & ÅL: What is an old-fashioned life? How do you live then?
ODD NERDRUM: It is to live with, not just the type of food… like making jam for example. It means to work the whole day and not to have specific working hours. That I get up in the morning, that I get breakfast served in bed. That I live like a despot.
JS & ÅL: Was it not always possible to live like that for those who want to and have the possibility?
ODD NERDRUM: No. There are much fewer people who can live like that today. I think those who can don’t dare to live like that. Also the rich live like slaves. Yes…
JS & ÅL: Was it an advantage to have a “no mans land” and to have the possibility of getting expelled?
ODD NERDRUM: That would suit me very well. To be in “no mans land”. To escape from all the pressure you know…
JS & ÅL: Now we don’t have a place to be expelled to which is like a “no mans land”.
ODD NERDRUM: On the contrary! The Tibetans think so. That there is a valley in Tibet habited by perfect humans who are hermaphrodites and live a perfect life because everyone is hermaphroditic. I have heard that after the communists took over they became desperate to find those valleys were this occurred. Where the perfect life existed. Where all these hermaphroditic humans lived, but they have not found them yet.
JS & ÅL: But those people are not expelled from civilisation. On the contrary. They live in an ideal situation. They represent a dream world. Utopia.
ODD NERDRUM: Yes, they are a kind of divine humans, which the Tibetans are looking for. And who don’t exist in reality. That is what one believes here at least. Yes, a paradise image.
Topic 3: The mark of the developed intellect is that it can accommodate two contradictory ideas at the same time and make a discontinuous leap from one level of knowledge to the next.
ODD NERDRUM: I am very interested in the metaphors. The two-sidedness of the motives is fascinating. A topic is not interesting enough until it is multi layered. There is no vigor in a motive without many layers. One also learns quite a lot when one has been working on a difficult painting. That is my feeling. I believe that. But I believe in positive despotism. That means an exchange between people. I'm thinking about the fact that someone serves me breakfast in my bed. I can not see anything wrong in that. Because everything is a question of exchanges between people. Everyone has some specific possibilities and can to a certain extent do whatever they want. If one wants to become rich one can study economy and if one wants to be poor one can choose to become a professor in butterfly wings for example. So we can choose.
JS & ÅL: The problem is how to be rich and free. To avoid being a rich slave or free & poor.
ODD NERDRUM: I understand, but the point is just that to be… I mean that when you choose your profession, you also choose your own downfall or success. If one chooses to become an artist it is 99% certain that it will go to hell. So you should not become that. If you study economics on Oslo, 99% of all students will do very well and 1% will reach the top.
JS & ÅL: But that is strictly financially.
ODD NERDRUM: Yes, I am talking about success in society. The point is that no one can complain, because today everyone can choose what he or she wants. They don’t just have to choose between being proletarian or middle-class. Those kinds of things do not exist anymore. Today working class boys can play football and become multimillionaires, right? On football!!! There are no longer classes, who say that we are poor, we are suppressed by you etc. I had a choice. I could become an economist & managing director. I choose to do something else. I would have become much, much richer than I am. I choose to not do that. It’s that simple.
JS & ÅL: What about following your heart? One can not make choices based only on financial criteria…
ODD NERDRUM: Yes, but… It’s the same in love. If a girl is in love with a poor guy and chooses him, then that is worst for her. If she chooses a rich man, it will be to her advantage. Everything will be fine.
JS & ÅL: Perhaps not so much sex after a while…
ODD NERDRUM: That’s possible, but… there are many strange decisions we have to take in life. I feel a strong desire to jump out in front of the train when it is coming. So I have to step 3 meters back and find something to hold on to, to prevent myself from jumping. If I jump out strait in front of the train I will be killed and I don’t want to die yet. That’s why I don’t do it. Desire is something very egoistic. If you desire something, you also have to take the consequences of that. You have to study the market and see how it can go. I mean to become an artist… You never get the Nobel-price for example. You can normally never become a millionaire. Very few become millionaires, so the circumstances are very bad if one becomes an artist. And that should be taken into consideration.
JS & ÅL: It could also be a responsibility as an artist to improve or change the circumstances. One can not simply accept that it is like this.
ODD NERDRUM: There is not any real problem with that choice, because one simply chooses it. In a way one can say that today you can choose how your life will be. Can choose which life you want. Because things don’t have any meaning anymore. What one does, does not mean anything anymore. Things have somehow disappeared; one simply decides if one wants to be a success or does not want to be a success. I think it is like that. I also think one can be unlucky of course… and not become a success. But today it is the case that people without qualities are those who get the furthest. Andy Warhol was without any qualities, the same with Elvis Presley. They were capable of nothing. Can do nothing. But they have some kind of personal charm etc. Fixing and tricksing, and then they became stars.
JS & ÅL: Is that the case with David Bowie as well? (Has bought a painting from Odd Nerdrum.)
ODD NERDRUM: No, I am not talking about David Bowie. I am generalizing. I do not know very much about music. My point is that if you take a look at Andy Warhol & Elvis Presley it becomes quite obvious that they did not really know anything about anything. Andy could not draw properly. He copied some photographs and made something fancy out of it. Elvis stood there singing while rotating his hips, but had not made a single song himself. They are persons without qualities. And it is very interesting that our society somehow seems to worship… identification is with people who lack qualities. Cindy Crawford… is everywhere in advertising, she uses this or that detergent. She! What is she? She never did anything other than walk up and down one of those “catwalks”. She has in a way become successful without having anything…
JS & ÅL: There are many people who can’t do even that, so consequently the fact that they mysteriously succeed can be perceived as a quality, can’t it?
ODD NERDRUM: Yes, which is interesting because it illustrates a very strange world. All those who are worshipped can nothing, know nothing, just exist. In addition there is a very special type of people who tell us that actually everything is only a question of luck. It was just luck that I came here… It was luck that I became what I became… That is a pretty interesting form of determinism, because then you are not really responsible for anything. And therefore one must start from the very beginning again. With questions like; What is the human being? Is it fair to praise a human being? Where is the justice in that? What is the human being capable of, what is it not capable of? Because it is those without knowledge who in many cases have the greatest success. Become stars... That is very interesting. The fact that success has nothing to do with mental knowledge. I think nearly everything happens like that.
JS & ÅL: But you yourself are not an example of a successful person without knowledge. Or are you?
ODD NERDRUM: But, I have no success...
JS & ÅL: On the contrary, you are a success.
ODD NERDRUM: I am... I am what one describes as a big ‘failure’. I represent the smallest possible success.
JS & ÅL: No! You have to be a success if you have an exhibition in an art gallery of this format... (Kunsthal Rotterdam)
ODD NERDRUM: HERE???
JS & ÅL: Yes, this is an example of success. Absolutely!
ODD NERDRUM: Is it? Jesus Christ... I have never thought of that... Of all things. Nooo...
JS & ÅL: Ok, but from our point of view it is a success.
ODD NERDRUM: Yeees, in that case it must be an anti-success because I do not have the feeling that I am a success anywhere. But the point is that when we speak about justice we no longer have any right to speak about justice. There is no such thing as justice. It has come to an end.
JS & ÅL: Has it ever existed?
ODD NERDRUM: No... It has never existed, but we constantly demand it, and now it does definitely not exist. Because it is no longer a question of your abilities, now the only thing which counts is how you smile. In what way you can be funny. It has nothing to do with respect or admiration anymore, but depends on how funny you are.
JS & ÅL: Yes, but those who can’t smile... those who are not capable of being specially funny...
ODD NERDRUM: They are most similar to the animals, because they are not capable of that either.
JS & ÅL: Or perhaps we just can’t see their smiles?
ODD NERDRUM: No-no... Those who don’t smile remind us of animals because the animals don’t smile either. No, they don’t smile... They all look very Christian. No...
JS & ÅL: Is this not what we mean today, when we talk about being social? To smile. Many people want to be social or the only thing they are capable of is to be social. Yeees... to get a job, to attain anything...
ODD NERDRUM: They watch out! So they are...what one calls ‘worthy of respect’. They enter a uniformity that makes them respectable. They become worthy of respect. They get high respectability. Through that!
JS & ÅL: Perhaps they can be compared with old-fashioned soldiers...?
ODD NERDRUM: Yeees, those people have the discipline of a soldier… You see, I have no ideals. I have no will. I have no will that the world should be any better or worse or anything... Because I know that for every genius there exists a robbing murderer. There is nothing to do about that. The world is such that if you want to find the intensity within the genuine, you will at the same time find the criminals around the nearest corner. And if you eliminate that genetic quality in the human being, then everyone will become very inactive and very boring, but on the other hand we get rid of criminality.
To take that desperation and intensity in a stupid way ends with a murder. To take it in an intelligent way ends in something genial. It’s that simple. The world can never be anything other than what it is. And unfairness/injustice will remain whatever we do. The world has never spoken so much about peace and never ever has the world killed so many people as in this century. (20th century.) Systematically killed. Never has the world talked so much about peace and tolerance. So everything is a meaningless struggle against nothing and when people say that the world has become a better place that is a false development-optimism. Nothing exists which ever becomes better. Everything stays the same. Somehow, there is nothing. That is so sad. Nothing to come to. Everything is an illusion. A very sweet illusion. The world somehow is always the same. The only thing that can improve is the individual life. One can live a good life. One can give life a meaning. Either by drinking oneself to death or by painting oneself to death or by loving oneself to death.
Or one can carefully have a little sip of everything. As in a good epicure style…Where one makes sure that none of these things take over. But somehow that is like living in a comfort/consolation. One has to comfort oneself because having been born into life means being born into a consciousness of the tragic. But because we are born into the consciousness of the tragic we are forced to live, to not retreat from the tragedy until we die… and are liberated from it... Right? Because life is in many ways only a big agony/suffering. And everybody is hitting at each other. And so there is the question of how to avoid this... Fully avoid.
JS & ÅL: (Laughing.) That’s pretty dark...
ODD NERDRUM: No, it’s not dark. Not at all!!
JS & ÅL: It’s so light that we see it too well. Much too light. We see it too well; ‘All the shit!’
ODD NERDRUM: Yeeees... That’s an interesting way of seeing it... Yes-yes-yes... I have always been astonished by hate. Revenge and hate. That is such strange human elements. I have seen a lot of that in my life. I am just as surprised each time. By revenge and hate. No, of that I understand nothing. Entirely alien things.
JS & ÅL: It is even more difficult to understand hate than love.
ODD NERDRUM: Yes, but one talks much more about the evil than about the good. That is a paradox. We should only talk about the good to lighten up our existence, right? Chase anxiousness/fear away for a moment before it sneaks back in again to our life.
JS & ÅL: But enjoyment/pleasure is a combination of the good and the evil. To experience pain. Masochism, sadism..?
ODD NERDRUM: Pleasure? Pleasure is in many ways a taming of the evil powers. One controls the evil powers by enjoying life. The point is that only one thing matters in this world, to prepare oneself for death. One can try to be as comfortable as possible until one dies… Because being comfortable does not have any meaning either. It just does not. Everything is only a big meaninglessness that one must bear. Don’t you think? When you see a rainbow or something like that in nature, which has something… which kind of tickles your eyes… that is so incredibly beautiful. Then it disappears again! Then there is something about a child sitting and drawing, which has such a touching innocence about it that is very delightful… Then it disappears again! Don’t you agree? Like a hallucination on the water where it froths/lathers/foams/scum’s in crimson/scarlet when the sun goes down... Then it disappears again!
JS & ÅL: Is not this a kind of romanticism of nature?
ODD NERDRUM: What?
JS & ÅL: Romanticism of nature!?
ODD NERDRUM: Yes! It is both romanticism of the human and of nature. Love is the same. The touching moment when one gets the beloved one which one has longed for such a long time. Then it disappears again! That is how everything is!
JS & ÅL: Ok, but...
ODD NERDRUM: Everything is just small esthetical moments. To start demanding anything more… it is possible that people are busy doing that, but I know nothing about it. In that I have no interest. I have heard a lot about it. It means nothing.
JS & ÅL: To demand?
ODD NERDRUM: To demand any more than that! Somehow that’s just the way it is... Ok. Perhaps... I do not want to demand anything. It is much too big for me. To demand...