The renowned artist, novelist and critic discusses Berlin, the meaning of place and the body of the artistby Beta Nzos / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
beta_nzos@ John Berger-you don’t know me-but my friend Uli Seitz said she spoke with you yesterday about your exhibition of drawings (“Bodies-Places”) in her gallery in Berlin. I think she mentioned that I might try to contact you by e-mail… I am an insomniac and a couple of nights ago I was sitting up in bed at 4am, laptop on my knee, earphones on, listening to an interview with you in Australia. john_berger@ I don’t remember any interview… beta_nzos@ But there was one. For a radio station. They must have called you long distance from Australia to that high place where you live (excuse me, I mean Haute Savoie). john_berger@ Oh yes, there was a phone interview. So how did you find the interview? beta_nzos@ I’m into fiddling with my web-radio in the dark-can’t sleep anyway and it suits my overall sense of disorientation … bodies … places … john_berger@ What now? Who are you and what do you want from me? beta_nzos@ Well, Uli said you would only give one interview about your show in Berlin-and I want to take a shot at this honour. It is true I am not a journalist, but I am an observer with a keen eye and I’m interested in the language of drawing. I have also already studied your drawings for the show and even felt them between my fingers with Uli’s permission. I was allowed to spread all the works over the gallery floor (using protective tissue paper) and it formed a sort of land map of many various sized sheets of paper, a landscape of lines. After concentrating for a while I began to hear real motorbikes rumbling and smelt the hot rubber tyres. I see tyre tracks rip across the surface of the drawings-wonderfully aggressive. john_berger@ You weren’t imagining that, I did use real motorbike tyres to run over the drawing surface. beta_nzos@ Then the floor is surely the logical place for the drawings. john_berger@ What does Uli Seitz say about that? beta_nzos@ She said maybe one drawing could be placed under shatterproof glass on the floor in the second room, if you agree with the idea. john_berger@ What is your experience with bikes? beta_nzos@ Not much recently. But I do get a buzz from man-machine relationships-whether sitting on a motorbike or holding a power tool. Both are equally dangerous. Power and Powerlessness. Switching on and off. That’s the way I feel with machines that I am close to-my laptop or my Black & Decker tools. Vibrations, heat and odours that produce nervous pulsating energy in a human’s hand-the same hand that writes with a pen or draws heavy graphite or crayon lines. That’s what I wanted to say to you: your lines are excited-and that’s what’s exciting for me-I retrace your charcoal and graphite paths like electronic vectors in my mind’s eye. john_berger@ You talk like an artist. Are you an artist or an art student? You are too unguarded to be an art critic. beta_nzos@ With respect, it’s not important who I am. You’re the famous art critic, writer and artist. I am just an anonymous observer. E-mail and the internet allows us to be what we want to be at any given moment. In this moment I am “beta_Nzos.” (Beta is the term for test versions of software and “nzos” means “no dos,” my opinion of a certain software company. Also, I know that Betanzos in north west Spain-the place of departure-has a special meaning for you.) Anyway I would like to be the one “journalist” to make the Berlin interview (virtual event) for Prospect magazine in London. john_berger@ I love the “virtual” interview. For once an interviewer who is creative and alive! beta_nzos@ Thank you. What time is it with you? john_berger@ It’s 22:43 on the display of my fax. beta_nzos@ Good, then I am really “alive”-it’s 22:43 here too. OK-the next step is to update Prospect and send you a list of ideas/fragments/short questions over several days. john_berger@ So-to the next step. I agree. beta_nzos@ So here we are, 9th November, two days before the show opens (and incidentally the anniversary of Kristallnacht and the fall of the Berlin wall). Don’t forget I don’t exist. I’m just a nameless wandering companion of your dog-like character “King” somewhere out here “in the streets” of cyberspace. Here are a few more questions. Berlin is a city in a constant state of flux. This is your first ever show in Berlin-your drawings at Galerie Seitz and your ideas will also become part of this city’s flux. What do you think about the way the British Council chooses to promote British art in Berlin, with its stress on “Cool Britannia?” Isn’t this a perversion of the observations you made in your seminal television series Ways of Seeing? john_berger@ Berlin is a city in a state of flux. Yes, that’s what I like. Flux, movement, transition. beta_nzos@ And about the British Council? john_berger@ About the British Council in Berlin I know nothing and have no opinion. beta_nzos@ Can’t I provoke you?… Much has been said about the relationship between politics and art-and about the dangers of sensationalism in contemporary art. You don’t want to go down that street today… fine, so let’s take another street-how about a personal experience you had in Berlin? Is there an event that bonded you to the “streets of Berlin”- maybe one that you have written about? john_berger@ Yes, there is. A late afternoon of a few years ago comes back to me vividly. I’ll send you something I wrote at the time. [See attachment] beta_nzos@ Thank you for sending “On No City Plan.” Being an outsider, a foreigner-is that a stimulus for making art? john_berger@ Yes, it begins with storytelling. The storyteller is, equally, in the story and outside it. All art perhaps involves moving between one or two or several “places.” You’re inside what you’re drawing, and you are outside the drawing, watching it. Simultaneously in two places. The artist is never in a single place-and in this he’s like a foreigner, trying maybe to create a temporary home. beta_nzos@ Simultaneously in two “places”? john_berger@ Yes, in another way too. Art questions what is, longing for something more, something further. Ruling power mostly defends and justifies (usually with lies) what is. Hence a potential, and often open, conflict between art and the powers that be. And so being an outsider, like being a foreigner, can be a stimulus. beta_nzos@ And the isolation of a foreigner? john_berger@ Being a foreigner/outsider should not mean isolation. The idea of hospitality is essential for art-beginning with the song and theatre, and continuing to concept art (when it is good!) Question: In cyberspace everyone is a foreigner? Over to you, beta! beta_nzos@ Yes. If in the future, free access to the internet becomes a citizen’s legal right, that would enable everyone to freely cross national borders and the place of their legal domicile, at any time. At that point, everyone will become a kind of foreigner. Back to the pictures. Tell me about the “toggle switching” between making art and seeing art. I am aware you can’t simply turn off your disciplined brain, especially as an art critic. john_berger@ Nothing has to be switched off; everything possible has to be switched on. I’ve seldom been an art critic; I just try to understand, I try to approach certain works-be those works in the Chauvet Caves or an installation by Cristina Iglesias. In front of old master paintings the best way I know of approaching them is to try to draw them: not in the spirit of “copying,” but with the aim of trying, if only for a split second, to touch their energy. True drawing (which is not what I claim to achieve) is to do with touching. Touching the subject (whether it is figurative or not) and touching the paper. A certain familiarity with previous art-if one is not an academic-enhances the sense of touch. Discipline is not a question of the brain-it’s a question of trying to control energy and the consequences of energy for other people. Question: How much has the “language of drawing” to do with the language of the body? beta_nzos@ When I see your motorbike drawing series your lines tell me about your body’s physical strength. I visualise you arched over the drawing surface using forceful swing movements from the shoulder and upper arm, maybe the same muscles you use with tools or a shovel. I think about stories you have told about your rural life: I see a “worker’s” drawing with a pencil held in a dirty fist. You’ve talked about the “need to draw”-is this in your case a form of “sensual escape”? Or are you trying to link emotions from “an earlier state of your being” to the future and to a place of new ideas? john_berger@ Escape, no. A way of moving out of the shell of the self, yes. An outgoing. And of course, one can leave the self through the senses. It is through the senses (though not exclusively) that one perceives what is outside the self-and then these perceptions confirm something within the self, of which one was previously unaware. This confirmation is mysterious-it’s one of the sources of the human sense of mystery. The whole world is mysteriously within us. When I do a drawing-and it may be, it often is, a bad drawing-I have the feeling of other lives coming to help me. If it’s bad, it’s because I wasn’t open enough, or patient enough, or wild enough, to receive what they were bringing to me. I don’t believe-insofar as art is concerned-in “new ideas”; I believe in the urgent need to discover what is already there, but has not been seen (at least by oneself). Again the masters help us-not to do what they did-but to have the courage to see what is waiting to be seen. Question: what would you like me to draw next? beta_nzos@ My answer: “John Berger’s big wild works” that’s what I want to see next and I already see this tendency in your motorbike “track” drawings. I have in mind the huge red monochrome working-drawings in the museum in Pisa-the drawings they once used to make full-size frescos. You once said something like, “writing carries with it, the heavy burden of responsibility”-does that mean that drawing is “lighter” for you? john_berger@ Is drawing lighter than writing? What makes writing heavy is the weight of the mother tongue-not of a particular language, but of the mother of all languages. She is there in your head watching what you write. Whereas in drawing, the language, the mother of drawing anywhere at any time, is there in your body. And she allows clumsiness because she’s there in your body, not in your head. Sometimes she says: Why don’t you draw with your left hand? beta_nzos@ Have you ever thought about making very large concept drawings for large projects to be realised in heavy materials? john_berger@ No, I have never thought about it. But I like the idea. In certain circumstances the body-in all its vulnerability-seeks the heavy because it offers a protection. See the megaliths! beta_nzos@ What about “speed” symbolism of your motorbike drawings? john_berger@ The speed of motorbikes (and speed has everything to do with mass and weight) is often thought of as brutal (and it can be), but it can also whisper of an extraordinary tenderness… beta_nzos@ “Whispers”… bring us back to the starting point of this conversation-me sitting in bed in the dark at 4am-listening to your Australian interview. Thanks for both experiences.