Brigitte Bardot out of Monsters
During last summer's Venice Biennale, Felix Gmelin's two videos with people running with red flags around an empty city, "Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II", became one of the most talked about works. The work is both a tribute to his father as much as it discusses how revolution has turned into fashion today, something he continues in his new work "Flatbed, The Blue Curtain", exclusivly online for NU-E.
By Ronald Jones and Robert Stasinski
Ronald Jones: I happen to be reading Carol Loebs’ book on Lucinda Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter, who grew up in a household filled with artists and creative people. Felix, your father was a filmmaker and theorist, your mother an internationally known violinist. What was it like to grow up in that kind of home?
Felix Gmelin: My father, in my childhood, always spoke to me as an adult, so in that sense I never had a childhood. But I guess Mrs. Joyce, if she is still alive, is spending all of her time taking care of her father’s biography and bibliography. What a nightmare. What I do is misuse my inheritance, I’m happy I don't have to administer it.
RJ: Still, you, like Lucinda knew yours was a creative family from your earliest memories?
FG: Yes, sure. There was never this Ivan Turgenjev kind of story where the father says: Well, I can’t be sure whether you’re a genius or not, so I think you should become an accountant my son. Then you will get a job, even if you are mediocre. There was never that kind of a question.
RJ: So you grew up in the assumption that you could have a successful life in the arts?
FG: Some artist friends of mine have had a hard time finding out there is a profession called artist or even finding a novel for the first time. Some of them are pretty aggressive about having grown up in an environment that didn’t give them this information. In that sense it was easy for me to get going.
RJ: You were encouraged to be an artist in every sense?
FG: I wanted to be a successful accountant, but I wasn’t very good at it.
RJ: So how did your father’s films come to your attention?
FG: Well, I always knew there where films, and knew he had been filming from what my mother told me. But I only had a vague idea about what he was doing when I was a kid.
RJ: And how did you find them?
FG: By a coincidence. I saw this film about Holger Meins at a film club directed by Gerd Conradt. I asked him if he remembered my father and then we spent the next day together. Later he sent me a copy of "Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne", since my father was in it. This was two years ago. Then last year I also inherited my fathers archive.
RJ: What did you think when you first saw the film?
FG: I thought Wow! I was working on a film script that was about inheriting a large archive of sculptures or something. I was thinking I would use this film as a detail of my own one. As a material in a scene about someone looking at what is left of an inheritance, trying to fit all the pieces together. But the more I was working on the project, the more the flag film grew and out-shined everything else. So one morning I thought: OK, leave the script and use only the flag film. Do something with the film. Suddenly there appeared this idea about a remake of the film.
RS: When you first decided upon remaking "Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne", how did you compare the political situation that contextually surrounded the making of the first and the second film?
FG: I was of course very touched by the events of 11 September 2001.
RJ: So you saw this film before 11 September 2001?
FG: No, but quite soon after. This moment really changed my way of thinking in a way, aesthetically and politically.
RS: I would, for a moment, like to focus on the difference between the first and the second film. Could you expand on how you perceive the differences that would arise when making a second film?
FG: I was thinking very documentary, as an artist or filmmaker I can build a structure. We shot the film only once. Everything that diverges from the original concept is ok, I was thinking. Just let things happen as they happen.
RS: Did you see your film as a documented performance or in more filmic terms, and how much did the act of performance play in with the original film?
FG: I think my film is both. It is a performance made for the camera, but not for an audience on site. Some people in the streets interact spontaneously of course. The original film was inspired by art, but it was never presented in that context. Gerd mentions Andy Warhol and Eadweard Muybridge as influences in a text, so performance was not an issue at that moment for him, I suppose. The general reaction towards his film in 1968 seems to have been that it was far too poetic and had no potential for raising the masses against the oppression in German society.
RJ: Your career has been long and substantive. But we know you as a painter. Could you tell us something about your decision to shift from painting to film? Were there political sentiments? Have you stopped painting?
FG: The leap from painting to film basically came due to a subject I had, which could not be made in painting. I was trying to prove something. I was trying to build a new Brigitte Bardot out of monsters. Since you cannot prove anything with painting I had to use photography. That is how I came to use photography, film and documentation.
RJ: I understand that you made "Farbtest II" two weeks before Iraq was invaded. Mindful of that context, and the political statement that your father and Gerd Conradt made in 1968, do you think it transferred into your reinterpretation of Farbtest?
FG: Well that is my question. All of these phenomena seem to be coming back, but also as re-makes in the fashion industry. Just the other day I received an opening card with an image saying, "Burn the flag, dick, shit". It was an old polemic statement towards the Swedish flag. But the other side was showing logos of all the sponsors of the show. I am interested in the way that revolution has grown into fashion today; you can see the word revolution on almost every poster, selling Nike shoes or whatever. At the same time people around us are getting more and more political.
RJ: Are you offering any alternatives to a culture in which “revolution” has taken a form that - as Roland Barthes once observed - fulfils a pre-existing model for anarchy and thus merely acts out of the status quo?
FG: Having made the film, my producer Anna Sohlman at Hinden asked everyone participating in it, in front of her camera, to tell us what they felt about carrying the flag; did they believe in this sort of gesture or not, or was it just art?
RJ: Artists seem to have no real effect on the terrain of politics. But in fact does your film open the door to a reconsideration of art inspiring change?
FG: I think my father was pretty naive in his dream about ruling the world. I don't think changes come that quickly.
RJ: And our generation is not naive?
FG: Maybe we are as well. But only the lawyers of the RAF came to gain power in Germany,like Otto Schilly or Gerhard Schröder, not really the movement itself. We could learn from this.
RJ: Have we become nostalgic about the sixties, and cast a spell of historical amnesia over the failures of that generation?
FG: In Germany it was all black and white in the sixties. All the fathers of the nation had a brownish guilt in the past. It was very easy to identify the enemy. I loved my father so I cannot kill him. He was obviously trying to kill his father, but I do not know whom I should kill? (Laughter)
RJ: Rob, do think your generation is suffering from political amnesia?
Robert Stasinski: Well yes, there is a lack of knowledge I think about the sixties. "Das Kapital" is not anymore in the top ten of my generation’s reading lists. Now the discourse is scattered, I think. Making a film in the sixties had a certain avant-garde adherence to it, which made it instant politics. How do you in that sense regard the act of making a film today, Felix?
FG: The core of Farbtest was simple. My father was convinced that revolution would be the method by which the world would change. I guess that goes for Gerd Conradt as well, although he came from East Germany, which makes his intentions a bit more complicated. However, how do I challenge a father like that? What happens if I copy dad? Are you happy now, dad, me doing your revolution? I think my film is about something totally different, although I am performing exactly the same act as he did.
RJ: Haven’t you attached afterburners to your fathers work, after all you can be more pervasive than he could have dreamt of, your "Flatbed, The Blue Curtain" is online with this interview. Given the context of the Internet, have you changed the meaning of his work?
FG: My re-readings of the films surrounding my father really include that experience. On the issue of changing the meaning of a given image by interpretation I learnt a lot in the eighties from artists like Sherrie Levine and also the artist conducting this interview.
RS: Well, Ron was talking about the fault line between you as a painter at one moment and at the next you being reborn as a world renowned video artist. Could you tell us about your latest piece that involves both a painting and the film medium? In a way they infect each other in your new work.
FG: It is a film about a painting. It shows five painters painting "Guernica", but the image is reversed and reminds of the image you see on screens in the security controls at airports. Colin Powell made this painting into an icon for the peace movement after covering it up with a blue curtain. This he did while he was declaring war against Iraq in the UN-building. Suddenly copies of it where made all over the world. What I am doing is simply recreating this scene. The piece will be about four hours long.
RS: Is it a film or a painting?
FG: It is a painting shown as a moving image. I was thinking about an idea from the sixties understanding painting more as an act or a performance than being only about perception, introduced by Leo Steinberg. This had to do with Rauschenberg’s canvases on the floor, where the paintings became more of a protocol of an activity and made painting move towards performance. According to Alan Kaprow, this new notion of painting was the seed out of which performance grew. I wanted to focus on painting as an action, as a political activity, as an act of resistance.
RS: How do you look upon "Guernica’s" history, the documentation of it, and the artwork you are producing now?
FG: Just the other day I was thinking: Maybe I am not copying Picasso but I am copying the ones who are copying him; all the demonstrators.
RJ: Why would you imagine that "Guernica" is showcased in the UN building and what justifications were there to cover it during one of Secretary Powell’s statements regarding the pending invasion of Iraq?
FG: Genocide? What I am really puzzled about is the covering up, hanging a curtain over a painting really confirms it, I think.
RJ: Earlier you showed us some photographs taken during the filming of "Farbtest II". Tell us about them?
FG: We where rehearsing for the film and this Russian tourist, a woman came forth with a huge smile on her face, asking if her boyfriend could take a photograph with me and her holding the red flag. And now I want to pose a question to you: Why is she so happy? We did not ask her, unfortunately, maybe because of the language problem.
RJ: Well either we see extreme nostalgia or political amnesia of an earlier oppressive system.
RS: It’s like a scene from the movie "Good Bye Lenin", where the son is trying to hide from his mother the fact that the Berlin wall had come down. Hope she saw the absurdity of the situation, not just an historical colour of a flag.
—Ronald Jones and Robert Stasinski