How to look at everyday things differently

by HRM on November 16, 2012

Artist Jonas Hohnke on Paris vs. Berlin

Jonas Hohnke

Jonas Hohnke is a conceptual and installation artist whose work has shown in several group and solo exhibitions across his native Germany and in Belgium. He completed a residency at the Paris Cité internationale des arts in September.

On the afternoon of our meeting, Jonas arrives at a small seventh- arrondissement bar on the abandoned yellow bicycle he’s been navigating the
city fromsince summer. He found it bent against a fence somewhere and had been watching it for a while (he explains as we order the beer on draught), butseems to be the only one who uses it, and he likes forgoing bus and métro for an immediate street view. My bank card is locked again, apparently, and we commiserate a minute on the small exasperations of the foreigner in France. There are perils and privileges to acting on a nomad itch, but Paris has been good to us, we agree, as conversation turns to home – artists in New York City, and Germany, in and outside of Berlin.

– Emmeline Butler

How is the art scene in Paris different from the art scene in Germany?
Paris is like a museum itself, with its actual museums all housing masterpieces, while the contemporary art scene since the mid-twentieth century moved more to New York and London. Now especially it’s in Berlin. There are still very good gallery shows in Paris, but I think in general the museums here are more important for the art world, at least at the moment. The art scene in west Germany, where I live, had big days in the nineties, with the Becher photo school – photographers like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Candida Höfer, who are all well-known internationally. I think the most expensive photograph ever sold was by Andreas Gursky for, I don’t know, 4 million dollars. And Joseph Beuys taught at the academy of fine arts in Düsseldorf in the sixties.

Jonas Hohnke

Maybe in ten years we’ll talk the same way about the people working in Berlin today, but I think now, while everyone has the chance to “get big” in Berlin, the result is more ephemeral. There are so many artists working that there is always a next “big thing” coming, and then the next one. It’s like parts of New York – before about ten years ago, everyone could live in Berlin without a lot of money, but as soon as there’s the first gallery, there’s the first Starbucks, and no one can afford to pay rent. The art scene moves to another neighborhood, and then to the suburbs, or a city that was never known as an “art” city.

What are your favorite places in Paris, and how do they inspire your work?
I like the Île Saint-Louis, because it’s next to my studio, and it’s a nice place. My favorite place to go running is the Jardin du Luxembourg. I think there have been so many artists inspired by Paris for the last few hundred years that it can be hard to find new things here to inspire you to make something new. Paris hasn’t changed very much, everything is still very old, and I would need more time here to work on something specific to Paris. For exploring the city, I think I prefer maybe Belleville and the north of Paris, but my favorite place is still my studio. I need a quiet place to work, and the Cité is perfect for that. The visual artists and musicians who live here are from all over the world, so we’re learning from each other’s perspectives, yet our main interest is still the same.

Jonas Hohnke

You started out studying as a painter. How and why did you end up making installation pieces?
As a student, I started in photography and painting. It wasn’t until I decided to quit both that I felt I could really work, because my work was no longer about one or two special media I used but depended on ideas, and I could use everything.

For example, in one installation, I hang towels. The idea is that everyone changes and builds objects everyday. It’s not about what Beuys said, that everyone is an artist – I don’t think that is my opinion – but I think that everyone makes sculptures and pictures. It’s more about how to look at everyday things differently, in the context of art.

In another, I made a wall painting of the temperature meter from my old car, which I installed in the exhibition space. As the visitor walks close to it, and walks left and right and back, he goes from cool to hot and back. In the end I modified it so there’s a text you read as you walk across. One is a series of screenprints – in German, we call it a Siebdruck – on which I printed screens, like colanders, that you use in the kitchen.

Jonas Hohnke

So I don’t think that studying art is about learning technical skills – everyone has to develop those for themselves – but rather to discover what you can express, or what you want to express. It doesn’t matter if someone is a good painter if the content of their work isn’t interesting. When you go to a museum, you can appreciate seeing a truly beautiful painting, like “oh it’s so nice”. But for me, it’s not important that a painting is nice, like the later paintings by Picasso were not considered “nice”. When Picasso invented methods for representing time in his paintings, transforming his figures until they didn’t look human in order to tell whole stories, with timelines – an idea like that is more interesting to me than whether a painting is beautiful.

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