IN CONVERSATION WITH HANS ULRICH OBRIST
PORTRAIT BY JUERGEN TELLER
Helmut Lang is one of the most enigmatic and complex figures in
contemporary fashion. A master who dominated the minimal and
androgynous 1990s, he was famous for the rigour and discipline of
his designs. The fashion people's fashion designer, Lang no longer
designs clothes - although the brand carrying his name continues -
a fact much mourned by connoisseurs who talk wistfully of his fi t,
which remains unmatched. Here he talks to Hans Ulrich Obrist
about where his new creative freedom has led him.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I wanted to talk about the exhibition you
recently opened in Hanover at the legendary Kestnergesellschaft.
Obviously, it's very big. What is the show's concept and how did
it come about?
Helmut Lang: There was not really a concept to begin with. I gave
myself the working title Alles Gleich Schwer [roughly, "Everything
has equal weight"], which I thought worked well because it is
about the creative equality of work, somehow, the importance of
mastering every process one is interested in, regardless of what one
is attempting to achieve. I also liked the idea that on a democratic
level everybody's work is equally respected. When everything
about the exhibition was more or less determined, I also thought it
would be a good title to give people a general thinking tool, to help
them consider what kind of weight they actually want to contribute
to everything that concerns them in this changing world. I think we
live in tremendously changing times, and I think that one has to
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 says
in the press release, it is "a move away from the physical body's
articulation through clothes" into something else, which is more
installation, more art practice. How did this transition happen? Is it
something you have thought about for a long time or is it something
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 accident
and that the clothes came with me. That said, I have always
worked with art in much smaller ways. I think the first bigger thing I
did was in 1996 with Jenny Holzer at the Florence Biennale, where
I presented a scent installation.
HUO: I remember - that was Germano Celant's pioneering exhibition,
which brought fashion designers and artists together. Can you
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 someone
interesting to work with, and we both wanted to do it, but we also
both wanted to be as smart as possible about it and not just exhibit
a dress and a piece of art. So, we worked together on a poem about
the human condition, and I created a scent which represented the
smell a human being leaves behind either in a room or on a piece
of clothing. The smell evoked the feeling you had for this person;
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 each
other and exchange thoughts. Shortly after, there was exhibition
with Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer and me in Kunsthalle
Vienna; I think in 1998. In that exhibition I did the Séance de Travail
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 started
telling me a lot about you, and that she had met you, so I was
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 about
each other, and that has not changed over all these years.
HUO: Can you tell me more about Séance de Travail?
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 reflections
collapse into one single plane. From the moment the viewer
looks into the mirror he can see himself and becomes part of the
artwork itself, but he also becomes part of the observation. When
this piece was originally made in 1998, a fashion show was a rather
exclusive thing, and the general public was completely excluded
from it; in this piece the viewer is where all the cameras would
normally be, where all of the images are being transported out. The
viewer is merging with it, but is also reflected in it, and in 1998,
this breaking down of exclusivity and the viewer's own reflection
was interesting. We changed the colour for the Kestnergesellschaft
from a very strong red to a very soft pale rose, but otherwise it's the
HUO: In Vienna in 1998, the installations you were developing
were a parallel activity - almost a parallel reality - to your work in
fashion. It seems that something has changed, and that ideas of art
and installations have gained a much bigger place in your work.
It is now exactly 10 years since the show in Vienna and your new
solo show somehow marks an arrival in the world of exhibitions.
Do you feel like you have left the world of fashion completely or is
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 grounding
my life and I decided at one point to pick it up and to act seriously
on it. For a short time I thought it was possible to do both fashion
and art seriously, but if you want to do it really well you have to
dedicate yourself to one medium, and then eventually you can
cross over, once in a while, in a collaborative effort. I just had to
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, and
give it all the time it needed. I felt the need to present something
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 next
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 me
at the same time as the Kestnergesellschaft, and I thought it would
be a good idea to do one small thing before the big show here.
I used a found object, a huge mirror ball, as raw material, and I
treated it with different media. The idea behind it was about the
Janus mythology, the idea that we live in a world with the internet
where we are all connected, and where we are all observing and
watching, and in return are being observed and watched. I thought
that this multi-mirrored object would be a good metaphor for that
kind of communication. In the next room are some pieces I have
been working on over the past two and a half years, called Surrogate
Skins, and which I would call "flat works". They are made up
of many layers and each layer is differently treated, presenting a
different prospect, or has different content on it. They start to have
their own life as you make them, and they accumulate in such
a way that you could actually stop at any point. The last layer,
which goes on top of it, is the skin layer, which makes all the other
layers invisible. I wanted to achieve a piece that was not within the
classical framework of a painting, a sculpture or an installation. It's
interesting to me to actually find new forms or new media to express
what I would like to express.
HUO: What is the process when you work on an installation
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 collections, either?
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 equally
and try to find the right balance between the content and form.
There is not a determined idea at the beginning of the work; there is
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 call
them "plant beds". I like the idea that these "beds" collapse into
the same idea, in that they have both life and death at their core
so they really engage with the idea of the creation of existence.
Each one is like a life form in itself. I got really interested in the
duality and also the sameness of the idea. In the same room there
is a piece called Three, which is also made out of found objects
used as raw material. They used to be eagles, which you probably
saw in the New York store. Each of them is made out of one piece
of mahogany, and what was interesting was that they have such a
traditional and explosive content and are highly ornate. As a sculpture
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 that
your shop was always a laboratory for exploring your interest in
art. You used to exhibit lots of different artists, but you also experimented
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 exhibition?
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 drawn
to the maypole. I think it's a formal opportunity; it carries horizontal
and vertical communication and I like that its symbolic aspect goes
in both directions. It's the idea of connection - it evokes connections
between people, or the circle of nature. Also in this room are
two paintings called Network, which are made out of lace, and
also another one from the Surrogate Skins series. The last room
has a gate installation and some sculptures made out of recycled
or manufactured bumpers. They are about the idea of end pieces,
but also pieces that have a history of impact or abuse and are also
protective. For me it's also a way to fi nd new surfaces outside of the
classical frame, so to speak, a replacement form for the classical
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 big? Are
there any as yet unbuilt Helmut Lang roads?
HL: No, I think I am quite dedicated to art right now.
HUO: Have you ever thought about venturing into architecture?
In fashion and artwork, have architecture and design ever been
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 respectful
of the energy they can create. I think if you are a visual person,
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? Fashion
designers working with artists - something you pioneered early on -
are now widespread; almost every brand now works with a contemporary
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 it
a much nicer experience. I will soon be preparing a project for
the Deste Foundation in Greece, which will involve some level of
curation of fashion and art work; so yes, I follow fashion as much as
I follow everything else, like political, ecological and cultural issues.
Of course, I have years of experience, so it just takes me a second
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 an
artist, which is why exile is frequent. I am Swiss and it's the same
in Switzerland; it's the small country thing that pushes artists into
exile. In the 1990s you were fascinated by Paris, but now you live
in New York. Can we talk a little bit about these cities: what Vienna,
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 been
important for my work. Vienna actually has good artistic quality
and, in retrospect, it was a rather good environment to start. The
environment there feels very critical and also somehow local, and
it sent me, as you put it, into exile. Then I chose Paris to present my
work from 1986 onwards, so for a while Vienna was where I did
most of my work and Paris was where I presented and discussed it.
HUO: Vienna has produced some amazing artists of our time, like
Maria Lassnig, the Vienna Actionists and Franz West. But in its
narrowness it is also slightly claustrophobic. What was it like in
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 countermovement.
As you say, exile is partly a reaction, an attempt not to
be overwhelmed by the local situation. It is a good ground from
which to formulate your voice. I loved being there and it was only
in mid-1997 that I decided to move away from Vienna. I was always
travelling, always between two places, and originally I thought
I would move to Paris, where I had lived for nearly two years. But
then I started to go to New York more often. Paris had become
kind of convenient, because I knew everything and everybody -
it had become like a bigger version of Vienna. So New York was
the bigger challenge, and I took it and I have not regretted it so far.
It was the right time to come to New York and get an idea of how
it was then, and shortly after, the idea of money took over completely.
It has been interesting to live through these times.
HUO: Going back to Vienna, it has produced amazing avantgardes:
fi rstly, in the early 20th century with Klimt and Schiele and
the whole Secession, with architecture throughout the 20th century,
and again after the Second World War. For a small country there
has been an astonishing sequence of avant-garde movements - have
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 own
spin and similarly, Vienna became a melting pot for different nations
and ideas. I think that all of these movements were created because
of that, and it has continued for a long time even though the empire
has disappeared. Growing up, I was not that interested in what have
become the traditional artistic revolutions in Vienna; I was much
more interested in contemporary art, but I think you can't escape
traditions in any case. It just becomes part of you, I guess, part of
your basic education and things you see. I had a good relationship
with Elfie Semotan, the photographer, and her husband.
HUO: Elfie later became Martin Kippenburger's wife
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 and
Kurt, particularly in his studio seeing how he was fighting to start
his work, actually made me understand how I worked in fashion.
I didn't work with the typical inspirations of a fashion designer,
and that always made me wonder if I was doing the right thing, but
seeing Kurt work gave me an understanding of many things. There
was also a common understanding between us, so we didn't have
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 interested
in pioneers. We need to protest against forgetting! There is so much
amnesia in the world, so I am very, very happy that you mentioned
him. Are there any similar pioneers in fashion who have inspired
you or did all of your inspiration come out of art? Did you have any
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, because I
am interested in the form. I had no formal training in fashion, so
I basically learned as I was going along. I wasn't that familiar with
the history of fashion either, which was an advantage because it
made my ideas of how to use fabrics or how to use shapes and forms
very uncomplicated. So I didn't really have a hero back then.
HUO: You say you sometimes collect things with very little value.
Do you consider yourself to be a collector? Do you have any kind
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, things
that have no financial value attached to them but that animate me
or make me think. In my work, I sometimes use something I have
had for 10 or 15 years, so I am inspired by something after a long
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 minimalist
or a futurist, but you always managed to escape those "-ist"
definitions. Over the last 10 or 20 years, at least since the 1990s,
the art world has gone beyond these "isms", but in fashion there
still seems to be an obsession with backing someone into a corner.
I thought that might be one reason why the art world suits you more
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 an
idea is only interesting if it is the logical consequence of opulence,
a reaction against it: you don't just set out to be minimalist; it's
a distillation of an opulent procedure. I was never interested in
being labelled with a certain perception and then actually having to
oblige and fulfill it. I am interested in being as open as possible, but
I think you should also try to convey your real intention. For
authentic reasons I was never interested in being labelled, as it limits
one's own and others' abilities to see or feel. I also find it outdated.
We are on the brink of a new chaos and we have to let go of all
perceptions and rules.