Interview

with Frank Kunert

Frank Kunert

Frank Kunert
Photographer

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Frank Kunert

Frank Kunert
Topsy-Turvy World

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ISBN 978-3-7757-2132-5
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Frank Kunert

Frank Kunert
Topsy-Turvy World. Ten Postcards

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ISBN 978-3-7757-2186-8
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Modelled on Life

Art Journalists Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas in Conversation with Photographer-Artist Frank Kunert

Mr. Kunert, in your pictures apparently familiar scenes have a tendency to suddenly switch over into the theatrical and absurd. An oversized cleaver can be seen sticking into a small butcher's shop, and a bar entitled "Zum Tunnelblick" ("down by the tunnel") is actually built in a tunnel. How do you come up with such unusual ideas for pictures?

I'm interested in buildings that have a past, whose fronts show scratches and traces and so have stories to sell about people. And sometimes when I'm out walking and looking at these houses it sets off a train of thoughts in my head, and then later something comes out of it which reveals itself as an idea which I can perhaps use in a picture. But often my works are also based on a play on words, thoughts, or meanings that happen to be on my mind at the time. For example, my starting point with the bar you mentioned was the expression, "light at the end of the tunnel." I proceeded to take this literally and played around with it. I can't really say now how many beers were involved!

Precisely this play on words, this taking absolutely literally everyday turns of phrase and ideas, is also something that struck us about your work. It often seems to use estate agents' disingenuous language to generate the most absurd visual ideas. Have you ever had any bad experiences in this area?

One might think so from my pictures. As it happens, I've been lucky enough to have so far avoided any traumatic experiences of that kind. But since houses play such an important part in my pictures it seems obvious to me that I should occasionally refer to the way words are used in property advertisements. For it is precisely when they're writing advertisements that people try their hardest to make language excite great expectations. The question is always: what would the writer or the speaker like to say, and what does the reader or the listener actually hear? And that's where my play on meanings begins. And though the titles of my pictures don't actually lie, they can nevertheless be somewhat misleading.

Your carefully measured black humor is reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon models, such as New Yorker cartoons. In the picture Streichelzoo (Petting Zoo) unsuspecting children happily climbing a slide will find themselves landing in the cage of a hungry lion - or so the viewer imagines. Have you always enjoyed having fun with horror?

In "real" life I'm usually not nearly so mean, and perhaps when I retire into my quiet little room I need to make up for this a little - actually it's been like that since I was a kid. That's where I can try out things that I wouldn't otherwise dare to. But I do try not to be offensive in my humor or to look down on other people. So until now I haven't come across anyone who has seen Streichelzoo as being cruel to children. Probably because people can perfectly well tell the difference between what's just a mean joke and what's genuinely offensive. Now and again I get asked by people who have seen the picture whether I have any children - but more jokingly than anything else. Apparently young mothers like buying postcards of Streichelzoo and my picture Kinder! (Children!) which shows a children's slide that leads directly onto a highway.

Some of your pictures have a certain wistful melancholy about them. The fronts of the buildings are gray, the plaster is peeling off them, the houses have long since seen better days. What is it about the untended parts of cities that attracts you?

The rather decayed facades of suburban houses are extremely evocative for me, they have stories to tell. Stories that have to do with fading splendor, transience, longing for happiness and also failure. I myself live in a part of Frankfurt that could hardly be said to be known for its flashy new buildings. In these places you can see how individual human beings struggle for their small corner of existence, and though I can be impressed by noble skyscrapers put up by banking corporations, the housing estates you find thrown together round the edges of cities seem to me far more noble in their imperfections. Here the traces of life reveal themselves far more clearly. It may not always be very nice, but it's a lot more exciting than a sterile new development that doesn't have any history yet.

In many of your pictures, though, there is also the theme of escaping from just this gray reality. So there are houses with diving boards like in a swimming pool, and even a heavenly airport terminal just above the clouds. You're actually really a very optimistic person, aren't you?

Yes, I think so. Of course the starting point of the fantasy of a "better world" is often a gray sadness. Perhaps it's the small attempts at escape that I like so much. The desire for consolation or sudden liberation arises precisely when it seems to people that they can't go on. And, with a certain degree of irony, I try to confront this longing. On the whole I see my encounters with everyday life and its hidden dangers as positive. But sometimes a visual anarchy is also my way of confronting my own helplessness.

Many of the artists you've worked with are today succumbing to the superficial charms of virtual media. Digital imaging programs are helping them create new visual worlds. But you are quite deliberately going in the other direction and building models out of cardboard, polyurethane, and discarded everyday objects. You sometimes take up to two months working on a single piece. Why this commitment to working slowly?

It's true that my working methods don't come across as being particularly state of the art. But perhaps that's why they interest me. I suppose I could also simply say that I'm not very good with computers - which happens to be true. But if I really were interested I don't think it would be utterly beyond me to learn what I needed to use one. One reason I'm sure of is this: I think that when you look at my pictures they have a quite different kind of materiality than the kind they would have if they had been assembled on a computer - not better or worse, but just different.

You might see on closer inspection - or even at greater distance - that many of the brushstrokes, and the play with definition and the lack of it, refer to slight shifts in relations of scale among the models. And this way of making them ensures that in the finished picture everything works together, as if it all came out of a single mould. And it is in the process of building itself that I gradually discover what my original idea for a picture amounted to - as well as the message, the atmosphere, that I actually have in mind. Sometimes I find myself thinking for hours about what the door of a house should look like.

Sometimes I take some walls down and put some others up again. Touching things directly is important for me - handling things and trying them out. And I think that is probably the most important reason for they way I work. Perhaps this way I also get more easily to the bottom of things, even if it can take quite a while in terms of time. It may be that a computer would make this kind of work too abstract for me. And I also get a lot of fun out of playing around with found materials. I have a couple of drawers full of discarded packaging and other small things I've picked up, which suddenly acquire an entirely new purpose.

A cheese packet can be turned into the glass on a front door, the lid from a dental floss packet can mutate into a strip light in a tunnel, the plastic packaging around pills ends up as toilet cisterns. And it's a genuinely exciting moment when I've got everything to the point where I can look at the whole thing through a camera for the first time. Suddenly the miniature house on the screen looks almost like the real front of a house - excepting the odd irritation or two.

Could you finish off then just by telling us what you're working on at the moment and what kind of exciting project you might be interested in in the future? Do you think you might be interested in building a couple of small towns?

Well! I don't really like to talk about what I'm working on at the moment. I tend to become terribly secretive about that kind of thing. While I'm still working on it no one gets to look at it and I don't talk to anyone about it either. And my plans always develop bit by bit, so I can only see what direction they're taking over the very short term. So I'm afraid I can't tell you anything about what direction my work is moving in at the moment. I do have a sketchbook for drawings and ideas, and a lot of sudden ideas find their way into it, but often it's only later that I realize whether they were actually good ones or not. The least I hope is that I won't stop having ideas. But somehow they also seem to keep coming by themselves. And whether that might perhaps become a whole town depends on the idea for the picture and the thoughts are behind it. And perhaps also on whether I will ever be able to afford a bigger studio. Because the one I have at the moment would be too small for a whole town.

May 26, 2008

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