NICOLA RUBEN MONTINI IN CONVERSATION WITH VANESSA MITTER

Edited by Nicola Ruben Montini, art & culture editor Milan


Vanessa Mitter I Am Not Here To Entertain You, Field Project Space, The Bun House, October 2011, curated by Karl Weill

I met Vanessa Mitter at The Why Gallery in London in December 2008. At that time, The Why Gallery (now closed) was run by a group of students from Chelsea College of Art & Design of London, in primis by Ada Yu, a very talented young photographer from Kazakhstan. I was being invited to take part in a performance show alongside Vanessa Mitter and O.B. De Alessi.

In spite of the very few people who showed up to see the show, the whole night was amazing. I remember viewing the artist, Vanessa Mitter as a kind of maudit Virginia Woolf. She declaimed her poems and some of them were, basically, a collection of swear words. She was brilliant. I was really fascinated by her voice, which was full of grace and a kind of raw anger.
A couple of months later, I went to visit the MA interim show at Chelsea College of Art and I saw, for the very first time, her paintings. They stood out from the rest of the exhibition, because you could easily say there was something in them. They were not merely an exercise on a two-dimensional surface. Furthermore, they were not extravagant or lazy works by a bourgeois individual. They were absolutely interesting, something different from what we usually see at student art shows or anywhere in art system galleries promoting young artists.
In November 2010, Vanessa Mitter invited me to take part in a live art show that she was curating. ‘The Dandyism of Contempt’ (January 2011) turned out to be one of the most exciting projects I have been invited to take part in. Artists such as: Mark McGowan, Brian ‘Dawn’ Chalkley, Jack Catling, The Skinjobs, Robin Bale, Douglas Park, Adham Faramawy, Alec Dunnachie, Pauline A. Amos, John Wild, James Gardiner, Kiki Taira, Lennie Lee, Frog Morris, Karl Weill and Edward Cotterill, made for a very strong performance show.
We continued our collaboration for a show, FORZA NUOVA which I curated in Venice during the 54th Biennale of Venice, July 2011. Vanessa Mitter performed on the bridge that links with the Campo dei Gesuiti in the Canareggio area on the north side of the lagoon. She read out her Mock Modernist Manifesto (Aesthetics of Emptiness) against an overwhelmed audience, who were not used to seeing such an intense performance. Furthermore, the passers by and the policemen who surrounded the area, were shocked and involved in the action. She used the invective of the Modernist manifesto to question the superficiality of the media driven world we live in today. Idealism was replaced by a kind of deliberately dumb irony. The artist struck a hymn of praise to the realm of fictional life-style. This performance was staged for the first time in Peckham Town Square for a performance event in London in 2009.


Aesthetics of Emptiness, mock Modernist manifesto, Forza Nuova, Cannaregio, Venice, June 2011

NRM: Vanessa Mitter is a visual artist, musician, writer, curator, what else? Can you talk a little bit about yourself and your work?
VM:I make paintings and drawings, as well as devising performances and writing. I am interested in a use of alter egos and in autobiography. In all of my practice, I am playing with the gestural and with the performative and exploring their complex history(ies).
One of the major connection points between my painting and performance work is this intertextuality. There is a use of alter egos, particularly in performances. I recently curated a sculpture and live art/performance show using one of my male alter egos, Karl Weill. I am still considering how best to document this work and work in future.
I have played in various bands including ‘The Battle of the Roses’ (next gig, the 02 Academy, Islington, London in February 2012). I am a classically trained violinist but I do a lot of improvising these days. However, I view this as separate to my practice as a visual artist.

NRM: Why would you need to create a male alter-ego?
VM: For me, it’s not necessarily about need. It’s about a desire to do so. The particular male alter ego I have created started to appear in my work a few years ago, both in paintings and in performances. His name is Karl Weill. He also curates shows or at least, he was the inspiration for the last show I curated. The press release was constructed through the use of a fictional interview that he gave (which was obviously invented). He’s the long lost brother of Kurt Weill, the German composer. He’s situated in a particular way. He is a very particular kind of character. For me, he is able to express a spirit of dandyism and of bohemianism. He is definitely of his time and he moves in time. For the last show, he became an artist working in Paris whilst the Paris riots of 1968 were happening. In some ways, he is a parody of a bohemian male artist. His character is also very much related to an artist I have known. For me, the creation of a male alter ego is difficult because this could, potentially, be viewed as anti-feminist. I have also created female alter egos. Saint Joan appears in various guises in my work. I believe that the creation of alter egos is a way of being able to speak in different voices and play different roles and to be able to construct layers of languages, whether in painting or in writing for a performance. It frees you to actually be able to access, perhaps, parts of yourself, which maybe you wouldn’t in other circumstances. With the construction of an alter ego, you are free to be something or someone else or to make as someone else.


Giving Up The Ghost, ‘de Kooning, de Kooning, de Kooning’, curated by Dexter Dalwood, David Risley Gallery, Copenhagen, Jan to Feb 2011

NRM: In FRIEZE Magazine (issue 138, April 2011) Christine Antaya wrote about your paintings in the show, ‘De Kooning, De Kooning, De Kooning’ at the David Risley Gallery in Copenhagen. Antaya stated that ‘Vanessa Mitter’s heavily dripping portrait of a girl, brings to mind the work of CoBrA artists with their impasto and flooded surfaces’. Can you explain which artists you are more influenced by, if any?
VM: CoBrA artists obviously (laughs). My influences come from a lot of different sources, literary as well as visual. Charlotte Salomon. Her life was obviously very tragic. There was a use of autobiography but also, a naivety and directness about the way that she translated her life into images and text. I like that. Fantasy. Dawn Mellor, partly because of the use of alter egos and the extreme colour and the heavy application of paint, sometimes jarring. Cecily Brown is a painter whom I’ve looked at a lot over the years. The way she layers paint, the overloading of the surface and the way she pushes the medium whilst still saying something today, is exciting. De Kooning. I mean, that show I was in, was called ‘de Kooning, de Kooning, de Kooning’ but I’m going to New York in January and I’m going to see the major retrospective of his work at MOMA and I’ve seen very little of his work in the flesh and I’m really looking forward to that. Kurt Schwitters. Partly what interests me about him is that he was a kind of outsider in a way. He was rejected by the Berlin Dada movement. Richard Huelsenbeck ridiculed him as ‘the Caspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist Revolution’. Schwitters wrote an Absurdist play in response. There was an element of rebellion in Schwitters’ work which I really respond to. He was a misfit. Paul McCarthy is an incredible artist. In the show I was in, they were showing the 1995 film/performance, ‘The Painter’. What I also realize from that was that when I was studying BA fine art at Central St. Martin’s College, I remember viewing bits of ‘The Painter’ in the library and being outraged, just thinking that McCarthy was degrading the canon of painting, laughing at de Kooning and so on but years later, I’ve realized that there’s this kind of obsession and interrogation of painting in his work. At the time, I had never made a performance. I painted. In works such as ‘Tubbing’ (1975), there’s a major element of the grotesque and the ridiculous. There’s pornography and repulsion, disgust and food. I do think that he has a different kind of freedom as a male artist. Some of the sexual elements in his work, as a female artist, you’d be viewed very, very differently if you carried out those actions. I look at him and think that he has an immense freedom. I mean, there have obviously been female performance artists who’ve used the body but I think it’s quite difficult to go naked as a female artist today because, if you do so, you’re just objectified or thought of as naive. McCarthy’s interest in painting using substances when he covers his body, has probably altered some of my ideas about painting. Another artist before him who took paint off the canvas and on to the body was Gūnter Brus. His commitment was unbelievable. You only have to see the self mutilation performances he made after being traumatized by war. Both McCarthy and Brus have probably influenced several of my performances, in particular the use of substances, such as throwing tinned tomatoes over myself in ‘Mock Modernist Manifesto (Aesthetics of Emptiness)’ and the painting of my face in ‘I Am Not Here To Entertain You’. There is a certain element of slapstick and of the grotesque. I try to become gender neutral, a kind of alien. I make myself as androgynous and ugly as possible or I would be viewed primarily as a woman and it wouldn’t work. I think there’s a great deal of dark humour in my paintings and in my performances. I am very interested in Dada and particularly, in the absurd.
I like Bjarne Melgaard, Ansel Krut and Kai Althoff a lot. Their paintings are what I’d call dirty and intense.


The Rape (after Magritte), mixed media (cardboard, encaustic, oil and horse hair) on canvas, 91 ms (h) x 73 cms (w), 2011

NRM: Your work is very intense and sometimes aggressive. What is your position in respect to contemporary feminist discourse?
VM: That’s a very difficult question, I would say. I’m not sure if it’s entirely the right question, just because I don’t think I approach making work in that way. It’s a good question in terms of actually making me think about how I make work. I think that what interests me is art and artists. Obviously, women have been written out of so called ‘art history’ and the canon. There’s the famous, well trodden arguments in Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock’s ‘Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology’. It is important to be politically aware. There still is this difficulty of making your mark as a female artist. There is a sense nowadays that this isn’t a problem but I still think that problems exist. At the same time, you have to be very careful about making broad generalizations about male and female artists.

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