in conversation with Vincent Honoré
Vincent Honoré I wanted to start with your studies. What did you study, John? And where?
John Bock I studied Art and Economics, in Hamburg, in the ‘90s.
VH Why did you study Economics?
JB I thought at that time it was a good choice. I also finished my studies with a diploma.
VH Did the Economics studies influence your work?
JB In the beginning yes.
VH In which terms?
JB The diagrams, the theories, for example, and also the formulas used in marketing.
VH Were you studying something specific in Economics?
JB Marketing in particular.
VH And in Arts?
JB No, but I decided very early to begin with performances in combination with sculptures.
VH So, from the beginning the sculptures were integrated into the performances.
JB Yes. I first created minimal objects and then later I used the objects in performances. And this is what I still do today.
VH On a different scale. Your process evolved dramatically.
JB It changed. I started to need assistants, I created spaces and then I made movies with me and friends. We traveled to find settings… So it grew, but the main idea remains the same: that the sculptures speak. When you work with actors, you direct them and you explain the piece, then you know what the sculptures can tell. So, in the name of the sculptures, the actors tell stories.
VH How would you describe your practice? Would you say you are a sculptor or a performance artist?
JB It goes all together: performance, movie and sculpture. I need the sculpture in the movie but also in the performance, and I need the movie in the sculpture. All is interdependent, connected.
VH How does your creation process start? Do you start with a sculpture or with a script for an environment, a performance or a movie?
JB I start sometimes with the sculptures, and sometimes with the idea. Improvisation plays a crucial role. For example, I can start writing a script for a performance, but when I play it live, I improvise a lot, which allows for the work to change or evolve. But when I do a movie, the process is different. The production for movies is expensive, you have to know what you do as you can’t change it later. Also when you direct a scene with dialogues, you have to work with the actors, you have to explain it in more details. The actors work for theatre and movies, but not with sculptures. When an actor has a gun in his hand he knows what he has to do, but when the actor has a sculpture in his hand, he doesn’t know what he has to do. You need to explain.
VH The sculptures, the installations, the performances are all linked and sometimes they are unraveling into movies. Do you usually start a project from scratch or do you use existing or preexisting artworks, ideas or concepts that you used in previous exhibitions for instance?
JB Sometimes I use existing objects and transform them by bringing them into a movie, which is what I often did in the past: I created the object and later decided to include it in a movie. For example, for my first movie I wanted to use an object but when I filmed it, I eventually decided not to include it. Later I used the object for another movie. When I wanted to do a Western movie, it was different. Everything was built.
VH What is your relationship to theatre? Did you study theatre or performance art?
JB No. For the last movie, Hell’s Bells, I worked with Bibiana Beglau, she’s a star in the Residenztheater Munich, and Lars Eidinger who is also a theatre star in Schaubühne in Berlin. This is very interesting because they bring a new energy and their talent to the movie. It is very enjoyable to work with them: they know how to act, speak and move in the space. I’m very happy to work with professional actors. In the past, I used to work with non-professional actors. This was sometimes difficult, they were very shy. Some directors like to work with non-professionals but I now prefer professional actors, for me it’s more intense. Such as with the actress Lisa Müller-Trede: she was my ‘quasi-me,’ she worked and acted in more than ten of my movies. She substituted me because I decided, a long time ago, that I didn’t want to perform anymore myself. She did it better than me.
VH I’m asking about the theatre in relation to a quote from you I read in an interview. You declared: “My installation is a stage for the audience, for me and my ideas.” I was interested to hear from you about this notion of stage linked to the installation, the installation as a stage.
JB I think I didn’t say ‘a stage.’ My installations are not stages like in a theatre, they are environments. I call them environments in a space: in an environment the audience can enjoy both the actors and the objects as well as the combination of the two. Eventually I call my installations “sum mutations:” they happen behind the movie with a combination between the objects used in from the movie and the movie as part of the installation. And this installation is like a sculpture.
VH Would you say you are more interested in the action or in the reception of the artwork?
JB I’m very interested in both. My right eye looks in the direction of the action and my left eye looks in the direction of the reception.
VH How do you consider the audience: participants, actors, spectators?
JB The audience in my case doesn’t play with me, they don’t act with me: they look at me. Their feelings are activated in the installation, but not like in a happening, Kaprow-style. Normally I do something, or my actors do something, and the audience follows it: they see it, they smell it, they feel it, they hear it. And it’s important for me that they stand within it: I don’t produce pictures, I produce ‘bubbles.’ In the bubbles there are more possibilities than in a picture: it’s confused, the audience has more choices.
VH They have to inhabit the installation.
JB This is the point, to be in it and not to stand at a distance as you do in front of a sculpture or a picture. The audience melts into the installation.
VH I see a huge library behind you…
JB My office, yes!
VH I know language plays an important role in your creation. I wanted to ask about your relationship with language and fictions.
JB This is a good question. Language is only a cream that I use at the end of a creation. When I plan a movie, the dialogues come at the end. First come the sculptures and objects giving the general direction. Another source of inspiration can be actors such as Bibiana Beglau and Lars Eidinger. They implant ideas, deriving from their personality.
VH Your work is informed by a number of sources, from science, economics, theatre, cinema, and art history. But is there a specific field that informed your creation more than the other?
JB You forgot the meat market, the universe, the shoe shops, the bookshops, the T-shirt shops… Most people write that I work in theatre, in fashion, in everything, but I don’t. I use these fields, but I can also sit alone in a space on a chair… Now the next question is: are you a Dadaist?
VH No, I was not planning to ask this question. I know you are! I read something you said which I really liked. In an interview you said: “I work with problems, I work with mistakes.” Can you elaborate on this?
JB With problems and mistakes. This is true. Problems trigger creation and thinking. For example, you may not feel comfortable in a white cube gallery, then you create the exhibition in the stairs or the cellar: you have a problem and this problem challenges the work. Mistakes can be the beginning of new creations. My objects are diagrams. I called them diagrams, and the diagrams are mistakes. They are sometimes broken or they don’t work very well, but anyway I don’t intend to bring results or truth. I propose broken scenes, I propose broken minds and broken actions. Nothing is healthy in my work: my work is sick and it needs a cure. This is the point. I’m bold and dirty. I watched Berlin Alexanderplatz by Fassbinder, it’s a nice movie. Everything is dark, everything is grey and the characters are lost in their emotions. What a great idea to make a movie with a lot of emotions, but in the wrong way, everything collapsing. I’m not interested in finding a good scene for society. I am dismantling the visage of society.
VH Which brings me to the notion of humor in your work, which has been mentioned a lot. But, actually I find your work quite sad.
JB It’s a good point: the sad man. I have been doing it since ten years, but most people who don’t know my work so well think there is lot of humor. Sometimes they ask: “why did you make a movie about a serial killer or why so so many characters die in Hell’s Bells, why do you use torture?” Yet, they say: “your installations are very funny.” To which I answer: “no, not too much: it is a horror installation!” My movies are more sad, depressive and dark than overtly funny.
VH The humorous or absurd elements in your movies and installations make them even darker, it is a fundamental part of the dark side of the work.
JB It’s the dark side of the moon, I think. It’s very true.
VH Can you tell me a few words about your film Hell’s Bells, a Western that was shown at the Panacée in Montpellier lately?
JB It was a great experience for me, thanks to the opportunity that Sadie Coles gave me by funding it. I worked with professional actors Lars Eidinger, Bibiana Beglau, Laurenz Leky, and Frank Seppeler. It was a great work with them, it felt very inspiring. It’s a simple story: an unknown female character comes in with her daughter… No, it’s actually a very complicated story. I can’t explain it in a few words, except to say that in the end the bad guy dies but the kid is worse than the bad guy, he is like the devil. My daughter plays the kid.
VH It is a 90-minute movie, isn’t it?
JB Yes, 90 minutes.
VH Did you conceive it as a feature movie that could possibly be screened in movie theatres?
JB I think they would not like it. It is possible, but the movie industry is different, you know.
VH What are your next projects, John?
JB I finished a new movie for an exhibition in Austin, Texas. It is a little spooky barbershop story: I worked with elderly people, they tell horror stories and the female barber dies in the end. No, she doesn’t die in fact. The characters are very much… like ghosts. It’s a little bit like a minimal theatre, like Beckett’s absurd theatre.
In conversation with Vincent Honoré
All images Copyright: John Bock
Courtesy: Sadie Coles HQ, London