IN CONVERSATION WITH HANS ULRICH OBRIST
PORTRAIT BY JUERGEN TELLER
Helmut Lang is one of the most enigmatic and complex
contemporary fashion. A master who dominated the minimal
androgynous 1990s, he was famous for the rigour and
his designs. The fashion people's fashion designer, Lang
designs clothes - although the brand carrying his name
a fact much mourned by connoisseurs who talk wistfully
of his fi t,
which remains unmatched. Here he talks to Hans Ulrich
about where his new creative freedom has led
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I wanted to talk about the
recently opened in Hanover at the legendary
Obviously, it's very big. What is the show's concept and how
it come about?
Helmut Lang: There was not really a concept to
begin with. I gave
myself the working title Alles Gleich Schwer [roughly,
has equal weight"], which I thought worked well because it
about the creative equality of work, somehow, the importance
mastering every process one is interested in, regardless of what
is attempting to achieve. I also liked the idea that on a
level everybody's work is equally respected. When everything
about the exhibition was more or less determined, I also thought
would be a good title to give people a general thinking tool, to
them consider what kind of weight they actually want to
to everything that concerns them in this changing world. I think
live in tremendously changing times, and I think that one has
undertake one's own evaluation of what is important.
HUO: This is not your first move into
exhibitions; you've worked a
lot with art. It does mark a new chapter, though, because as it
in the press release, it is "a move away from the physical
articulation through clothes" into something else, which is
installation, more art practice. How did this transition happen?
something you have thought about for a long time or is it
that suddenly came into the work?
HL: No, it was very gradual. I've always
related clothes to their
artistic environments. I often say that I landed in fashion by
and that the clothes came with me. That said, I have always
worked with art in much smaller ways. I think the first bigger
did was in 1996 with Jenny Holzer at the Florence Biennale,
I presented a scent installation.
HUO: I remember - that was Germano Celant's
which brought fashion designers and artists together. Can
tell me about the installation you did?
HL: At the time, we were not sure what it was
supposed to be.
We thought it was a general account of where fashion and art
stood at that time. I thought that Jenny Holzer could be
interesting to work with, and we both wanted to do it, but we
both wanted to be as smart as possible about it and not just
a dress and a piece of art. So, we worked together on a poem
the human condition, and I created a scent which represented
smell a human being leaves behind either in a room or on a
of clothing. The smell evoked the feeling you had for this
that was the idea at the time.
HUO: So this collaboration with Jenny was
really your first installation?
HL: Yes, that was the first. Later, we worked
together on a project
in my stores and did other collaborations as a way to see
other and exchange thoughts. Shortly after, there was
with Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer and me in Kunsthalle
Vienna; I think in 1998. In that exhibition I did the Séance
piece, which is also now shown in Alles Gleich Schwer
as a retrospective
HUO: At that time I was editing a book of
Louise Bourgeois' writings
and letters, so I saw her quite a lot. At a certain moment she
telling me a lot about you, and that she had met you, so I
wondering how you became friends.
HL: I met Louise and there was an immediate
feeling that we could
talk to each other; I think we were both curious to know more
each other, and that has not changed over all these years.
HUO: Can you tell me more about Séance de
HL: It is a projection of a slightly
manipulated compilation of fashion
shows for the 1993-1999 seasons, put in a two-colour context
and projected onto a big mirror. The interactions of the
collapse into one single plane. From the moment the viewer
looks into the mirror he can see himself and becomes part of
artwork itself, but he also becomes part of the observation.
this piece was originally made in 1998, a fashion show was a
exclusive thing, and the general public was completely
from it; in this piece the viewer is where all the cameras
normally be, where all of the images are being transported out.
viewer is merging with it, but is also reflected in it, and in
this breaking down of exclusivity and the viewer's own
was interesting. We changed the colour for the
from a very strong red to a very soft pale rose, but otherwise
HUO: In Vienna in 1998, the installations you
were a parallel activity - almost a parallel reality - to your
fashion. It seems that something has changed, and that ideas of
and installations have gained a much bigger place in your
It is now exactly 10 years since the show in Vienna and your
solo show somehow marks an arrival in the world of
Do you feel like you have left the world of fashion completely
it still a parallel reality?
HL: I have outgrown the world of fashion as I
know it; I would not
take it up in the same form. Art has always been a thread
my life and I decided at one point to pick it up and to act
on it. For a short time I thought it was possible to do both
and art seriously, but if you want to do it really well you have
dedicate yourself to one medium, and then eventually you can
cross over, once in a while, in a collaborative effort. I just
make a decision - and I chose art.
HUO: Did something change with this
installation in Hanover from
your previous installations?
HL: After I decided to concentrate on my
artwork, it took me nearly
three years to find my life there, to formulate and experiment,
give it all the time it needed. I felt the need to present
that I would feel very confident about.
HUO: It would be great for the readers to hear
about the new pieces
and the chronology, how it happened from one piece to the
and how it was triggered. What was the working process?
HL: I can tell you a little bit about the
rooms. The first room, where
the Séance de Travail piece is, there's also a piece I
showed at the
end of 2007 at the Journal Gallery in New York. They asked
at the same time as the Kestnergesellschaft, and I thought it
be a good idea to do one small thing before the big show
I used a found object, a huge mirror ball, as raw material, and
treated it with different media. The idea behind it was about
Janus mythology, the idea that we live in a world with the
where we are all connected, and where we are all observing
watching, and in return are being observed and watched. I
that this multi-mirrored object would be a good metaphor for
kind of communication. In the next room are some pieces I
been working on over the past two and a half years, called
Skins, and which I would call "flat works". They are
of many layers and each layer is differently treated, presenting
different prospect, or has different content on it. They start
their own life as you make them, and they accumulate in such
a way that you could actually stop at any point. The last
which goes on top of it, is the skin layer, which makes all the
layers invisible. I wanted to achieve a piece that was not
classical framework of a painting, a sculpture or an
interesting to me to actually find new forms or new media to
what I would like to express.
HUO: What is the process when you work on an
as complicated as this one? Do you make drawings beforehand?
Is the practice of drawing important?
HL: No, not really. I don't think drawing was
even important for me
HUO: So you didn't make drawings of your
HL: Only at the very beginning of my career. I
start my art with
some materials and a lot of ideas, and I explore them both
and try to find the right balance between the content and
There is not a determined idea at the beginning of the work;
just an idea of material and texture and eventual outcome.
HUO: Let's move on in our tour through the
exhibition. What's next?
HL: In the same room as the Surrogate
Skins are things made out of
vintage oak beams filled with a layer of sheepskin; you could
them "plant beds". I like the idea that these "beds" collapse
the same idea, in that they have both life and death at their
so they really engage with the idea of the creation of
Each one is like a life form in itself. I got really interested
duality and also the sameness of the idea. In the same room
is a piece called Three, which is also made out of
used as raw material. They used to be eagles, which you
saw in the New York store. Each of them is made out of one
of mahogany, and what was interesting was that they have such
traditional and explosive content and are highly ornate. As a
they don't have a pre-implemented purpose; they are open to
HUO: It is interesting that they appeared in
the shop before the
show. I lived in Paris until 2005 or 2006 and I had the feeling
your shop was always a laboratory for exploring your interest
art. You used to exhibit lots of different artists, but you also
HL: When I was designing the store I never
liked the idea of a decorated
window. I thought the entrance should be a place to give you
ideas, a place to experiment.
HUO: Are there any more pieces in the
HL: In room number three there is a massive
installation, which is
drawn from the maypole. I can't explain exactly why I'm so
to the maypole. I think it's a formal opportunity; it carries
and vertical communication and I like that its symbolic aspect
in both directions. It's the idea of connection - it evokes
between people, or the circle of nature. Also in this room
two paintings called Network, which are made out of
also another one from the Surrogate Skins series. The
has a gate installation and some sculptures made out of
or manufactured bumpers. They are about the idea of end
but also pieces that have a history of impact or abuse and are
protective. For me it's also a way to fi nd new surfaces outside
classical frame, so to speak, a replacement form for the
requirements of painting or sculpture or installation.
HUO: You've created this project in Hanover,
and so many other
things, but are there still unrealised projects that are too
there any as yet unbuilt Helmut Lang roads?
HL: No, I think I am quite dedicated to art
HUO: Have you ever thought about venturing into
In fashion and artwork, have architecture and design ever
HL: Surroundings are always an important issue.
I never intended
to be an architect but I'm very specific about my surroundings
they are quite important for one's state of mind and I'm
of the energy they can create. I think if you are a visual
surroundings automatically become part of your material.
HUO: Now that you have left the fashion world
and are so focused
on art, what is your view on fashion? Do you still look at it?
designers working with artists - something you pioneered early
are now widespread; almost every brand now works with a
artist. How do you see the fashion world in 2008 or have
you just stopped looking at what's happening?
HL: I look on fashion like I look on everything
else. Now I can look
at fashion completely without feeling competitive, which makes
a much nicer experience. I will soon be preparing a project
the Deste Foundation in Greece, which will involve some level
curation of fashion and art work; so yes, I follow fashion as
I follow everything else, like political, ecological and
Of course, I have years of experience, so it just takes me a
to see what's going on.
HUO: I am also curious about cities. We first
met in Vienna in
the early 1990s. It's an unlikely base for a fashion designer or
artist, which is why exile is frequent. I am Swiss and it's the
in Switzerland; it's the small country thing that pushes artists
exile. In the 1990s you were fascinated by Paris, but now you
in New York. Can we talk a little bit about these cities: what
Paris and New York mean to you?
HL: Those three cities are the most important
ones in my life, as they
represent three different urban environments that have always
important for my work. Vienna actually has good artistic
and, in retrospect, it was a rather good environment to start.
environment there feels very critical and also somehow local,
it sent me, as you put it, into exile. Then I chose Paris to
work from 1986 onwards, so for a while Vienna was where I
most of my work and Paris was where I presented and discussed
HUO: Vienna has produced some amazing artists
of our time, like
Maria Lassnig, the Vienna Actionists and Franz West. But in
narrowness it is also slightly claustrophobic. What was it like
your childhood or adolescence?
HL: I think that if you are in an environment
like Vienna, it will
either silence you or you will somehow find yourself in a
As you say, exile is partly a reaction, an attempt not to
be overwhelmed by the local situation. It is a good ground
which to formulate your voice. I loved being there and it was
in mid-1997 that I decided to move away from Vienna. I was
travelling, always between two places, and originally I
I would move to Paris, where I had lived for nearly two years.
then I started to go to New York more often. Paris had
kind of convenient, because I knew everything and everybody
it had become like a bigger version of Vienna. So New York
the bigger challenge, and I took it and I have not regretted it
It was the right time to come to New York and get an idea of
it was then, and shortly after, the idea of money took over
It has been interesting to live through these times.
HUO: Going back to Vienna, it has produced
fi rstly, in the early 20th century with Klimt and Schiele
the whole Secession, with architecture throughout the 20th
and again after the Second World War. For a small country
has been an astonishing sequence of avant-garde movements -
any of these been heroes or influences for you?
HL: Not so much. You have to remember that
Austria used to be
a huge empire, in a lot of ways like the US: New York has its
spin and similarly, Vienna became a melting pot for different
and ideas. I think that all of these movements were created
of that, and it has continued for a long time even though the
has disappeared. Growing up, I was not that interested in what
become the traditional artistic revolutions in Vienna; I was
more interested in contemporary art, but I think you can't
traditions in any case. It just becomes part of you, I guess,
your basic education and things you see. I had a good
with Elfie Semotan, the photographer, and her husband.
HUO: Elfie later became Martin Kippenburger's
HL: Yes, but her first husband was Kurt
Kocherscheidt, and I used
to spend a lot of time with them. The time I spent with Elfie
Kurt, particularly in his studio seeing how he was fighting to
his work, actually made me understand how I worked in
I didn't work with the typical inspirations of a fashion
and that always made me wonder if I was doing the right thing,
seeing Kurt work gave me an understanding of many things.
was also a common understanding between us, so we didn't
to discuss things to the end, which I found reassuring.
HUO: It's interesting that you refer to
Kocherscheidt because he is
a wonderful painter who is often forgotten. I am always
in pioneers. We need to protest against forgetting! There is so
amnesia in the world, so I am very, very happy that you
him. Are there any similar pioneers in fashion who have
you or did all of your inspiration come out of art? Did you have
kind of fashion heroes?
HL: No, not really. I usually just find an
object or something like that.
I collect garbage sometimes, rather than valuable things,
am interested in the form. I had no formal training in fashion,
I basically learned as I was going along. I wasn't that familiar
the history of fashion either, which was an advantage because
made my ideas of how to use fabrics or how to use shapes and
very uncomplicated. So I didn't really have a hero back
HUO: You say you sometimes collect things with
very little value.
Do you consider yourself to be a collector? Do you have any
of collection or archive?
HL: I only have art pieces that I have been
given by friends, so I am
not a typical art collector. I more collect objects, garbage,
that have no financial value attached to them but that animate
or make me think. In my work, I sometimes use something I
had for 10 or 15 years, so I am inspired by something after a
time. My collecting is definitely more for inspiration.
HUO: I often read interviews from your fashion
years, and it seems
like the fashion world was trying to pin you down as either a
or a futurist, but you always managed to escape those "-ist"
definitions. Over the last 10 or 20 years, at least since the
the art world has gone beyond these "isms", but in fashion
still seems to be an obsession with backing someone into a
I thought that might be one reason why the art world suits you
than the fashion world.
HL: I always thought that it was just wrong
that creative work had
to be labelled for easy understanding. I think minimalism as
idea is only interesting if it is the logical consequence of
a reaction against it: you don't just set out to be minimalist;
a distillation of an opulent procedure. I was never interested
being labelled with a certain perception and then actually
oblige and fulfill it. I am interested in being as open as
I think you should also try to convey your real intention.
authentic reasons I was never interested in being labelled, as
one's own and others' abilities to see or feel. I also find it
We are on the brink of a new chaos and we have to let go of
perceptions and rules.