German artist ATAK landed in A’town last week for his exhibition ‘Greetings from Berlin’ at The Bries Space. I sat down with him to talk about art, life in East Berlin and more. Charmed by his gentle aura and the way he speaks about his work from the heart I could’ve talked with him all day. Enjoy this first City Furniture interview!
Welcome in Antwerp. It’s not your first visit. You lived in Belgium for a while. Do you like it here?
Yes, I was invited to do a jury here and I was very surprised by the Belgian culture and how friendly the people are. When they asked me to teach here, I liked the idea. This was around 2007. I started teaching in Ghent at the academy. I do like Belgium, the only problem is the weather. (laughs) When I was in Ghent during springtime it was the same weather as in autumn. I also was in Antwerp for two days before during the art event ‘Lange Nachten’ about Berlin culture organized by Brecht Evens, one of my old students.
Your exhibition is called ‘Greetings from Berlin’, your hometown. In which area do you live?
I travel a lot and also lived in Sweden for a period, but Berlin will always be my hometown. . I moved over twenty times, but for now, I live at the border of Prenzlauerberg with Pankow. It’s a place where a lot of artists live. It changes more and more and became more commercial with the years. In the beginning I lived in Mitte, but it was to touristic.
I really like Berlin, it’s such a beautiful and spacious city.
Yes, it’s a bit like here, but bigger. Sometimes that’s not so nice, when you know a concert is a the other side of the city. Specially during winter when it’s very cold, you don’t feel like crossing the city. But I still love Berlin, the rhythm of the city is very relaxed. When I go to London or Paris I find it to be much more stressful.
Could you say Berlin is part of your identity and who you are as an artist?
Absolutely, I’m from East Berlin and after the wall broke down everything changed. In East Germany there were no comics. You only had one magazine, which was good. But you couldn’t go to a kiosk and buy Asterix or something. Comics were an Imperialistic, Western medium. My grandmother lived in West Germany and smuggled comics over the boarder. When someone in our street got their hands on a Lucky Luke album, everyone in the street would read it. It would be passed on until the pages were almost destroyed. When the wall came down and I was in a comic store in West Berlin for the first time it was strange to see all these new comics. I was so used of reading worn dawn copies that had been passed on.
After the wall came down Berlin became a capital of creativity and change. Can you still feel this wave?
Not so much as the period after the wall. It was absolute anarchy. Techno music also started in this time and there were a lot of clubs in basements. But the culture wasn’t clear, it all seemed a dream. We made the best of every day. The new generation can not understand how this felt. Like my kids, they were born after the wall was taken down. They have no relationship to the East Germany I grew up in. And that’s ok, but they won’t understand.
I really love the stories of my mother who went to Berlin when the wall was still there. She even smuggled some records into East Berlin and went to secret basement parties. I really wish I could’ve been in Berlin at that time.
Yes it was cray (laughs)It’s almost like a treasure. I remember people bringing in cassettes with music. And you would just listen to it for a month. It was the same with comics. Today everything is on the internet, but it’s not real. Like online music, for me music is very important, when I work there’s always music. From The Beatles to old Jazz and the Beastie Boys! When I listen to it from my computer, I can not feel the same feeling. I have too much music, it’s so easy and it almost feels less important. I remember when someone used to smuggle a record and you would have it in your hands, it was like magic. It was the same with comics. It’s good to miss something almost.
When did you decide you wanted to make comics yourselve?
Already at the age of 12 we would make our own comics and I dreamed of becoming a comic artist. But I never thought it could be possible. Later, when the wall came down, I was in the army and thinking about making art. But the army is almost like jail so I couldn’t do much. I used to draw a lot and make comics for myself. It was almost like therapy or just a way to tell a story. Then after the wall came down me and a group of friends made the very first version of a comic fanzine. It was ‘Renate’.
Renate is known to be very avantgarde. Could you imagine it would have such an impact?
Not to begin with. First of all it was not easy to print a magazine in East Germany. You needed a lot of administration to get the right permissions. But at that time a friend of us started with her own printing company. The machine she had was old and our zine was printed really bad and looked a bit like trash. It was not our intention, but it matched with what we did. At that time what I did for ‘Renate’ was really hardcore punk.
Didn’t you feel restricted?
At this time comics were very low level in German culture. Higher level was literature, theatre and painting. But that gave us a certain freedom. The public wasn’t really interested, so we could do what we wanted.
Renate wasn’t only a magazine, it was a group. We had a meeting every week and came together to change ideas. When there was an event of the Berlin comic scene and you represent your work in a team, you have a better reputation. At that time you don’t think about it that way, but now I recognize that. It’s not the same for artists who are alone. When you are a group there’s a different energy, power almost.
In a next interview for this blog I talked to Michael Marcy a Belgian collector of vintage furniture. He said something very simular, that some movements only come to live when young, kindred spirits come together.
Yes and I use the same approach with my students. I’m not the kind of teacher that just says something is correct or not correct. I create energy to make something together and talk about it. When you are alone you have no immediate reaction. When you’re in a group you have reaction from outside, you can work with that feedback.
At a certain point you stopped contributing for Renate. Was there a specific reason?
We came to a point where I felt we should do a magazines with Renate that was more professional. That created a discussion, not everyone wanted that. Someone said everyone should be able to participate, but I believed we had to make a selection in order to keep a certain level. That’s where I left Renate. Before it was like my baby, but then I felt like going my own way. It came very natural.
Your work is very much inspired by the 80’s German Punk scene. Are you a punk?
My name Atak comes from Attack a band in the 80’s that made Industrial noise Punk music. In that time we had a lot of agression. East Germany was like a prison and we had to break out of it. I’m still a Punk yes. I don’t wear a uniform. To me the Punk philosophy means that everyone can be an artist. Everybody can make something meaningful. If you have an idea you can just start. You can learn skills if you have to, but it’s not a must. It’s about destroy and start a new.
How do you translate this in your work?
My work is very close connected to this punk philosophy. For example the targets. In Germany there’s a long tradition of targets of almost over five hundred years old. An unknown painter would make a big target for celebrations and people could shoot at it with a gun. When I was young someone I knew had a gun and we used to go to the woods and shoot targets. I really like the idea to create something to destroy. Destroying is like a game, it’s like a theatre. Like when someone destroys a guitar in a band. That’s what I wanted to do with those targets. I made over four hundred already. It’s very connected to the punk philosophy, it’s more of a game and it’s made to destroy.
One of the other things you show here are illustrations for novel that will come out in November. Can you tell more about this project, that’s obviously something very different than a comic book.
Those are illustrations I made for a story of Marc Twain. I read the story when I was fourteen years old and I was really in touch and fascinated. It’s a very strange story he wrote in the last twenty years before he died. There are four different versions that were never published during his lifetime. After his death biographers edited two versions together. It’s a very philosphical story set in Austria during the Middle Ages. There’s an angel that comes down and crosses the path of a group of young boys. It’s a story, but also a philosphical discussion. When you’re fourteen years old you’re not busy with philosophy. First I thought I wanted to make a comic out of this, but the text is too good, you can’t cut it. The publishing house Alvin Paris asked me for some work and I thought of this story almost immediately. It hasn’t been published in French before. I wanted to make it in one year, but finally it took me three years and I now have over two hundred images. It’s not a graphic novel and not a childeren’s book, it’s something in between.
Illustrating a novel like this one is something completely different than a comic book. Did you use a different approach?
Some of the illustrations you see here were painted on papers with previous illustrations on. When, after a while, I didn’t like the first illustration I would just paint over them. That gives a new dimension, sorth of depth to this work. Sometimes I’m a bit afraid of a white paper (laughs) so when there’s already something on, it makes it a bit easier to work. In the comic scene everything was done in black and white and with limited budget. Comics are more graphic. Painting over a painting helped me, almost like a dialogue with the previous image. It’s also like an aura. People can’t see what was before, but they can feel the depth. Ofcourse you can’t print that aura in a book.
Is literature as important to you as comics?
Yes, I’m a big fan of Marc Twain and American literature. When I was younger in East Germany I thought it would never be possible to become a comic artist, so I wanted to become an illustrator to have a connection between literature and image. And also you can work from home and listen to your music. (laughs) And you have the freedom to do what you want, play with a story trough images.
Your also showing your work Toy Box, something completely different.
This work is almost 17 years old. It was my first exhibition in Paris in a very small gallery. Actually it was a comic gallery, but I wasn’t interested to show my comics there. I think it’s strange to hang comics on a gallery wall. You have to read a comic at home or in a train, but not in a gallery. So I wanted to show something different. Like I said before comics were a treasure for me when I was young. It’s the same feeling with toys. I thought about the connection. I had a collection of toys from the flea market and other countries. The idea was to make a cover version of those toys. The text underneath is like a comic or even a poem, always written in the language of the country where it’s showing. There’s not always a connection with the text and the toys, but somehow there is. This Mickey Mouse is form East Germany. You didn’t had the right to make Walt Disney stuff, so they just made a different mouse. A bit taller and whiter. (laughs) When I made this I had the idea of a band. All the toys fit in this box that you can take on tour. This box has travelled to a lot of places over the years. The toys are really old and worn-down, so it will show one more time in Paris and then the music is over. (laughs)
How was the opening here at the Bries Space?
It was really nice to see some of my old students from Ghent here at the opening yesterday. Some of my students are making very nice work now and I’m very proud of that.
Belgian TV Canvas will air a documentary about you this weekend. What can we expect?
Yes, they came in Berlin for two days to talk about my work. It was good to talk very concentrated about my work. It’s not easy to explain it in ten minutes, but I took my time.
You can visit ATAK’s exhibition at The Bries Space till November 4.
The Canvas Connection with ATAK will be aired on CANVAS on Sunday October 21, Monday October 22 and Saturday October 27.
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