Olav Westphalen is a German artist educated in America and currently living in Sweden whose work has been exhibited around the world. His most recent solo shows include A Junkie in the Forest: Doing things the Hard Way at Galerie Georges-Phillipe and Nathalie Vallois in Paris, France; and Flip-Flop Factory at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, China. Previous shows include 1 D-Mark at the Polytechnic University as part of The Drachma Project in Athens, Greece; Prow: The Prequel with Peter Rostovsky at the Sara Meltzer Gallery in New York, N.Y., U.S.A; and Desert Dreams, a performance at Studion, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden.
He earned a MA from the Fachhochschule fur Gestaltung in Hamburg, Germany, and an MFA from the University of California at San Diego, in San Diego, U.S.A. He currently teaches at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm.
Westphalen’s work is often funny and irreverent – much like the man himself. We met in his Stockholm studio and laughed over coffee and cardamom buns.
You were born in Hamburg, Germany in the 60’s. Not so long ago, but an entirely different world.
It’s funny, because to me it always felt normal to be born under those circumstances. Now you realize, “Man! It’s a long time ago.” Both my parents were academics but it was totally understood that my mother would stop working when we came. It was actually only because my father got sick at the time that she basically went back into professional life – which was very, very good for her.
My parents were economists. My father was from a pretty rich family, my mother was from a normal, educated middle class family— high school principals and priests and so on, the protestant mélange. But they both lost everything in the war. So it felt like there was this very pragmatic, thrifty, practical, do-it-yourself attitude because you had to somehow build it all up again, but at the same time this wistful longing…
But it was really normal. Middle of the middle class, suburban. The one exception was that when I was quite young— in the mid to late 60s— we lived in Latin America for two years. My parents were doing development work and so we trekked around and lived in five or six different countries over two or three years.
Do you remember that time?
Yes, what you remember as a four or five year-old. I remember the nanny, the garden, the apricot tree, how the neighbor’s daughter got bitten by a snake in Chile and they had to draw lines on her foot to see the infection moving up…
But it was more that it pulled us out of the whole German context. Coming back was a bit of a cultural shock for everybody, maybe most for my parents. They’d had a pretty entrepreneurial student life and they got these jobs that let them out into the world, and somehow coming out of it they thought it had to be this way: that you have to come home, settle, buy the house, raise the family, have reliable jobs… In the case of my father, he became a bank director and I think he just hated it his entire life. But that was just what you did. Those markers were very much still intact. You marry and then you have children and when you have children you move out to the suburbs so you can have a big house…all these things were just unquestioned.
They had been in a student acting troupe, my father was a violinist…all those things just kind of fell off. So I think in a way I had a very sheltered and comfortable childhood but it was also kind of heavy because you felt like, “No one’s really having fun here.”
In light of all the expectations and conventions we are talking about, I imagine your parents may not have been too enthusiastic about the fact that you wanted to become an artist.
It’s funny, because both my parents and their parents and families on both sides, were real bildungsbürger – they loved art, they would go to the shows, they would even collect a little bit. But in a way their appreciation for art went along with a complete lack of respect for people who were making art. Art was something to understand, to enjoy, to discuss, to own, to go look at on weekends, but it wasn’t something you made. It was almost like going to a restaurant vs. being the kitchen staff. There was really this very, very solid bourgeois self-satisfaction with the side of the industry they were on.
Of course their reaction when I started getting interested in art was always, “Oh but do something practical.”
So, when did you become interested in art?
I spent my childhood and youth goofing off in ways that are not so different from what I do now! [Laughs.] I had two very good friends. In the American nomenclature we would have been “art nerds,” but they didn’t have that then. The fact is that we had a very elaborate tree house that we spent pretty much half the year in. While other people were out smoking on the corner or racing their mopeds after girls, we would sit up there and have tea and cookies in the tree house. And we did a lot of radio plays. This one friend had a big basement so we would sit down there. Probably people thought we were smoking pot or jerking off while instead we had this reel-to-reel tape and were doing improvised radio plays. For days!
And we drew a lot together. That’s how I got into cartooning initially, in high school. I would doodle away at the back of the class constantly. I remember my main high school teacher asked me, “What do you want to be?” And I said, “I think I want to be an artist.” And he said, “Oh, what a pity. You’re much too intelligent.” [Laughs.]
I also had really naïve ideas.
I did think that it would be a life of constant adventure and excitement and that you would be allowed to indulge all your infantile and adolescent needs. I really did think it would be a lot more fun that it is. I mean, I love making art but the art world is like any other world— it is a petty, micro-managed social world. It is very much about networking as a business activity. I had thought we would all be friends and talk about exciting things and drink and have sex and do crazy stuff all the time! I really thought it would be pure freedom.
Really, you mean that’s not what it’s like?! [Laughs.] So, tell me more about how you moved toward art in the first place.
Out of high school I started doing cartoons. And at that time I was actually thinking of going into writing. I did a bunch of freelance writing, worked for some newspapers and so on, but somehow ended up making cartoons for those newspapers. I was there [at the newspapers] for free, but I was paid if I published something.
What did you do after high school?
In Germany, right out of high school, you have to do the civil service. You lose two years. It isn’t the case anymore, but it used to be eighteen or twenty months. So for two years I did social work, first in a hospital and then with handicapped children.
Did you enjoy that time or did you think they were wasted years?
Well, maybe it was too long. At that age, you really want to get going. And it really slows you down. But in a way it was very useful. Working in a hospital is actually quite awful, rather depressing work conditions because there was no time for anybody even though everyone was trying to do their best.
The other thing was back in Hamburg where I was from. And that was actually pretty cool. It was decent money. I moved back into my parents’ house for that year, so I had no costs. And it was a small, old home [for handicapped children]. The woman who ran it had Polio; she was basically a cripple herself. The home started when she was hiding handicapped children in the 40’s. There were stories about her, this tiny person, how the SS would come and try to load up the kids and she would chase them off with an umbrella.
It was good, it gave you perspective. Because then you go to art school and think it is all about yourself. When the narcissism gets too much, you can look back on that time.
When you were done with the two years with the civil service you went straight to art school?
I listened to my parents, which was both good and bad. They said, “Can you at least go to the design school, it’s a bit more practical. You’ll learn some skills…” But it’s completely different, you know?! But, anyhow, I did that. I dropped out after a year, because it wasn’t what I wanted to do. But the upside was that I met a handful of really interesting people there and, also, an American artist who was teaching there. I became his assistant and that is actually when I really began learning about art. I had learned about art history before, but that is when I really learned the skills and started thinking what it might mean to be an artist and what the contemporary problems would be and what kind of world I was moving into.
Tell me about dropping out of the design school.
I was pretty dissatisfied with the design school so a couple of friends of mine and I left, got an old school building, and started our own school there. It was basically having a studio, making work, and then we would trade studio work for critiques or seminars, mostly with this American artist but also with some others.
Hold on, slow down. You just created your own school?
Well, we were four or five people who really just wanted to make art and were dissatisfied with always being told, “Okay this is art, but could it also be a poster for a radio concert…?” So we got this space and had a fairly big shared studio space. We would work there. And the way we would create structure is that we would work as studio assistants or do installation work for other artists and in exchange people would come over regularly and hold classes. So we kind of improvised our own school. There were never more than eight or nine people in it.
Did you have other jobs to support yourself, besides working as a studio assistant?
This was the eighties in Germany, everything was dirt-cheap. But yes, if you have no money, dirt-cheap is still expensive. I did those comic strips. That is how I did it, somehow.
You didn’t have to do any awful jobs?
There were moments when it got really tight. But, it’s funny. I remember once – and this was kind of the low point – I was really hard up for money and I saw one of those signs, “Guaranteed so and so much an hour! Consulting, no experience needed! Call here!” I thought, “Oh fuck, this is going to be bad.” But I called anyway and I biked pretty far away from downtown into this shabby little industrial neighborhood, this shabby little office, and this guy with a cheesy suit and a handshake that almost broke your hand and he said, “Fill this out!” And then they gave me this five page contract where you had to say what your parents did, education level, what they made, you had to talk about yourself, and all these nondisclosure things…They left me in a room with this and then came back and were like, “Let’s get started!” And I said, “I haven’t signed this because I don’t really know what the job is yet…” They were trying to badger me into signing this. I was a kid! And these two big business guys were over me, saying [in a scary voice], “You have a problem with authority!” I rode home on my bike thinking, “What the fuck was that?” It was some kind of exploitative scam.
But the funny thing is that on my way home, I stopped by a friend’s house. And he told me that someone had asked him to do some illustrations and he didn’t know if he could handle it. He basically didn’t have the guts to do it. So I said, “We’re doing this together.” And it turned out that it was for one of the biggest illustrative magazines in Germany and it happened to be Ingmar Bergman’s biography.
So we did a half-year series, every week, about Ingmar Bergman’s biography. They came out really nice and they were very well paid. My friend was a very, very crafty draftsman but he wasn’t much of an ideas person. So he felt like, “I have no idea how to do this.” And I thought we could do it. If I were on my own I probably also would have shit my pants.
That collaboration with that friend of mine and another friend – who is actually my best friend now – the three of us started doing cartoons together under the same name and that is still going on. We’ve been doing it for twenty years now. In Germany we are quite well known.
[Pulls down cartoon books from his shelves and flips through them. ]
Cartooning was actually my main income during the time I was at design school.
I would do funny things at times, for money.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done for money?
In high school I had a job that was really fucking frightening. It was for a pharmaceutical company. You’d go in and do hard physical work: weighing things, cleaning things. They had one medicine they made that was for Epilepsy, and everybody [who worked there] would fall asleep on the way home on the bus, knocked out. Because you’d breathe this stuff all day! And there was another drug that was for Gout that was about draining your body, so people were pissing all day.
It doesn’t sound safe or healthy at all.
It was awful. The worst thing was that they had these huge stainless steel vats and you had to go inside them with like a high pressure steam thing and clean them. But the stuff they had in there was some kind of hydroscopic acid so, basically, when you were in there you felt like your skin was really burning. You would take the mask off and around the mask you were all red and pink, like baby skin. And this is in Germany in the late 80s! That was a tough job.
So, why did you end up going to graduate school in America?
I was working for this artist building installations, and he was good friends with Allan Kaprow – Mr. Happening, 60’s pioneer – and I was an admirer of Kaprow’s. I had written my final high school thesis on his work. He was this legend. But [when we met] he was this friendly little man with a beard. And we talked. And he said, “Well, maybe you should come study with me in San Diego.” I thought, “Okay…” [Laughs.]
So I went out [to San Diego] just for three months to check it out and is was great. It was the first time I was in an art school environment where I felt like, “They are talking about the things that I’m interested in.” So I went home and realized I needed to get a Fulbright in order to afford it, because of course in Germany no one saves money for education.
And American price tags, who can pay them?
Exactly. Imagine coming home and telling my parents, “I need fifty thousand dollars!” They had of course helped me a little bit before, but they were super thrifty and conservative with money, coming out of the experience they’d had of losing everything.
So, back to America.
Right. So, I realized I had to apply for a Fulbright in order to afford the art school in America, but in order to apply for a Fulbright you need to have a degree. So I went back to that design school just for one year and did all the course work. I hustled for one year and got the degree, then applied for the Fulbright and got it.
Was America a very positive experience for you?
It was both. It was very alienating also, very creepy. I mean, Southern California?
All these people in spandex jogging all the time? Everything is by car? But of course it’s beautiful too. But as soon as you leave the coast and go inland it’s dusty and poor. And then there’s Mexico, which is exciting but also kind of shocking, because you realize: this is not just a badly run country, this is a very well-run backyard for this other country. This has to look like this, so that San Diego can look like that.
So I went to school and really had to learn fast. I thought I spoke good English, but then you walk into a seminar on photo history or aesthetic theory and you realize, man, this is a different kind of English. It is different content, but also different language, terminology, mannerisms!
But that was a super good time in terms of making work and playing. Because it was far away from the art world, one could really play and try things out. I see a lot of art students here [in Stockholm] and also in New York who are already angling for their gallery or thinking, “Is this going to be sellable?” That’s legitimate, but also a lot less interesting.
California is also great in that if you want to build something or burn something or blow something up, you just go to the desert and nobody gives a damn!
What was life like as a graduate student?
I lived in campus housing with roommates. You got a nice studio on campus, you teach significantly, which I thought was very interesting. I think I learned as much being a teaching assistant as I did in my own courses. It was fantastic.
You work in your studio, and then you walk down to the ocean and swim or surf, and then you go right back up! First I thought it was disgusting. I would teach some undergraduate section and these kids would come into class in their wet suits…and then a year later I would come up in my bathing suit!
You finished graduate school in California, what happened after?
At first I had tried to stay, because of a relationship. But with the Fulbright Fellowship there is this home-return rule – you have to go back to your home country for two years.
What did you do when you moved back to Germany after graduate school in the States?
I was lucky. When my time was up I moved back and a complete fluke happened. A friend of mine had sent me a little newspaper clipping about a new stipend, a one-year stipend paid by Philip Morris, in Berlin, a full year with production money, studio, catalogue, exhibition…
I thought, “Fat chance.” But I sent something in and got it.
Amazing. You owe the friend who sent that to you.
I do owe her, big time. So, I moved to Berlin. But there was this very brief time between when I came home, around Christmas, and when I started this stipend in Berlin. There were two weeks in-between when I stayed at my parents’ house, in my old room, and to this day I have nightmares about that time. Because even though I knew I was going to go to this really, really prestigious grant, being back in that house was really like: This is what failure would feel like, having to move back in. Being back in that role… [Shudders.]
So I stayed in Berlin for a year, did a lot of work. That was really great in terms of visibility and getting into the art world. I stayed a little longer in Berlin. But I would go to California in the summers to do some teaching and some shows. I did a residency in Northern California around that too. And met someone there and then moved back [to the States].
Do you recall what it was like the first time you sold a piece of art? What did you sell?
But see, this is funny because I actually don’t remember. I mean, drawings and cartoons happened quite early and quite regularly— that became like a regular income. And writing was similar. Writing was something that I understood the economy of much better than the gallery world.
Most of the shows I had in Berlin where in museums, not in the gallery world. I showed with one or two galleries briefly there. But it was actually more as I moved to New York that I began to understand, because New York is all about the market. But it was kind of antithetical to my work. A lot of what I did was performances or installations that would fall apart if you moved them. I did a bunch of shows in art centers and non-profit galleries and then people became interested and it became more commercial. There was a moment when I started working with a very hip gallery in New York and also a very pushy guy in Germany. So there was a time when I was thinking very commercially: when is the next art fair, etc. But now I am pretty far from that.
It’s funny, I was thinking about this for this interview: I can really look back and point out several moments when I avoided a possible career. You think about making it or not. Well, the most dramatic thing is that I would get into situations pretty fast, and then go, “Hmm, I don’t want to do this…” For a while I was writing for television in Germany. I was a gag writer for a big show, and it was good money. Everyone else was talking about what Porsche they took to work today, which Breitling they had, and I thought, “Man, this is a mistake. I need to leave.”
That’s not what you wanted.
No! [Throws his hands up and laughs.]
Why do you think that is?
As soon as something really becomes a job job, it becomes a whole lot less interesting to me.
What about teaching, isn’t that a job job?
Well, if I was in a college and I was giving “Intro to 20th Century Art” every spring, I think I would…
Again, this is interesting: I had a tenure track position at Tyler [School of Art] in Philadelphia when I was still in New York. Everyone said, “Wow, that is such a great job…” I did it for two years and then my first group of students was graduating and I just felt, “I don’t want to be here without them.” So I quit! People were really angry. Telling me, “You’re quitting a tenure track job? What are you doing?!” But I didn’t like it.
Is it restlessness?
I think it is about: Are you developing something, or have you already arrived? Do you feel like you are actually still working on something or has it become a craft, a production, an industry?
I am very, very suspicious when things become reified, when there is no longer an interesting question or process but when it becomes this thing, this process. You look at big careers, and you realize that is what people do. They start with something and then they reiterate it again and again, and they solidify it, and build a rhetoric, and start defending it…and suddenly it gets bigger and bigger. I think few really good ideas survive that, actually.
What is your idea of success?
Maybe success is if you wake up one morning and you don’t feel that you have anything to prove. That’d be nice.
You’re not there yet?
I go in and out. [Laughs.]
I know some very successful artists who are among the unhappiest people I know. I know people who, when they put their ATM card in the machine it shows them they have 450,000 Euros, and they tell me they feel poor. I know people who have something in pretty much every modern art museum in the Western world, and they bitch about the fact that Lawrence Weiner has one more.
On some level, if I want to be naïve or romantic, I would say the best moments are moments when you feel you are onto something, whatever that may be. When you are really onto something and not just pushing the envelope. With me it has a lot to do with some notion of conviviality or community or working with others. When they work well I really enjoy collaborations. When making art becomes a vehicle for being in the world in a way that is both meaningful and dealing with people around you in another way. Which is not about who’s cooler or how we can define the hierarchy, or who’s going to walk away with the profit, but which really is this moment when work becomes something sensual, when it’s about love. It’s cheesy, but it’s something like that. When your work allows you to step out of your roles and predictability.
I think the one thing that is really traumatic for artists is when you don’t get your work out there. Because in some way, it is always about address. You want people to see it and react to it.
So success might not be so much about the idea of selling, but about getting your work out there.
Being asked is important. And that is tough. Right now, I am in the middle of my life and I’ve moved into teaching. As soon as you move into teaching, things get calmer. And then I moved from New York to Sweden. It’s quiet compared to three years ago. Sometimes it bothers me. But I have two little daughters, so maybe it’s okay.
How have things changed for you since you’ve become a father?
I always felt the same, that I wanted more time with my work and that I was happiest when I could slowly develop something, when I was really allowed to let things grow. But in hindsight, I realize I wasted a lot, a lot of time! [Laughs.] I think I drank a lot of coffees. A lot. At the time you are moping around in the studio, on the phone, looking at magazines…I’m not saying it’s unproductive time, because a lot of things happened. But… Now, when I know I have five hours or a day, then I really get down to it.
I hear that from a lot of artists and writers who say: What was I doing before I had kids? So, do you have any advice for young artists?
If they don’t enjoy their work, then they should really, really get out of it. Enjoy is maybe the wrong word; if they don’t get something from it, if the work itself doesn’t give them either a sense of urgency or excitement or insights, if it is not a tool to understanding themselves and the world better, then I would stick with my parents and say: go be a designer instead.
Or get a half-time job. Boris Vian was in the patent register, sitting in the patent register writing great books. Duchamp was a librarian when he was in France. Not so bad, you know? You go home from the library and do your artwork. It’s not bad to be a little pragmatic.
Also, it would be depressing if you arranged your entire production, your work, your life, round a career plan that doesn’t work out. And there are so many factors! Most of the important things in my life were by accident. Biking home and stopping by my friend’s house, running into Allan Kaprow, or getting a newspaper clipping with this grant sent to me that happened, without me knowing, to fit me perfectly.
So, it is about being open and not being too judgmental. In a weird way, you could say that by not going to the fine arts academy in Hamburg but going to the design school instead, I disqualified myself for the art world in Germany but I also think It allowed me to go a very different route and to come back with work that was much more relevant for the time.
So, you should be open to the changes in direction which life may have in store for you. You can’t really plan it.
I think planning is stupid.
And, in the end, I think it is about being able to play, seriously.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Images courtesy of the artist