Robert F. Hammerstiel in Conversation with Brigitte Huck

BH: For your latest art project which is being exhibited at present at the Landesgalerie Linz in the Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum you went to a DIY store. This has had an affect on the aesthetic form of the work. A type of cultural criticism?

RFH: Yes, DIY superstores and furniture shops, pet shops and garden centres, as well as the relevant product catalogues and advertising brochures have interested me for a very long time now and are oft the starting point for an artistic work.

I'm interested in pre-fabricated objects, mass-made industrial products, the fact that one thing looks identical to the other. They all stand in neat rows on a shelf waiting to be put to possibly different uses. This transformation from the identical to the individual is a really exciting idea! That's the one thing. The other thing which fascinates me is the feeling associated with these objects and prefabricated components that they are pieces of stage-scenery. Something in their purpose has been planned ahead, anticipated.

Of course, dealing with such mass-produced prefabricated components involves a critique of our civilisation with its dependence on commodities and its consumerism. My work is not however intended to be a work about this phenomenon nor is it intended to report on company policy or to criticise DIY enthusiasts who design their own homes. Rather I should like to investigate mechanisms for depicting reality (symbolism, stage production, appropriation, usability) and their outward forms (re-presentation, artificiality, pretence, imitation). Starting with everyday objects, with a look at domestic conditions, I'm interested in the need for security, home, comfort … and the wishes projected by these.

BH: I think the major impression as far as the viewer is concerned is the aspect of the artificiality of the world that you show. This world of the fictitious is, however, created by the totally objective use of ”real” materials. The result is something downright alarming: from a chronicle of prefabricated components is formed – a no-man's-land.

RFH: It's precisely this ”in-between” state that I want to work on. As human beings we are born into a world which we don't really understand. We don't know where we come from or where we're going to; we don't even know exactly why we're here. So we try to create ”handles” to hold on to: tasks, definitions, designations … and a home to suppress our fear of the unknown. In my work I want to set in motion this feeling of uncertainty, even alienation.

BH: You were successful in that, particularly with the video-loop Alles in bester Ordnung IV. The artificial world of the installation is reflected into another medium and becomes a type of multiplied ready-made. As in Andy Warhol's works, the dominating structural characteristic of the film is repetition. The repetition freezes the message, I feel, and at the same time it irritates. You can't shake off the feeling that behind the idyll there is nothing but neuroses.

RFH: Behind the idyll which I show are emptiness and stagnation and also a feeling of going round and round in circles. An emptiness of gestures and rituals. All the protagonists in the film which you speak of are caught in their stereotypes. – The idyll in its true original sense really means a type of peaceful, primitive state which is perhaps also accompanied by a feeling of happiness. My work is not intended to be critical towards the idyll but to question ready-made idylls, preconceived desires and longings – promises, e.g. the promises of advertising and of the product that with his purchase the consumer will gain some ”added value”. The advertising slogans in front of the prefabricated houses in the ”Blaue Lagune” development, a place – like DIY superstores – to which I keep returning, speak for themselves, ”The house that gives pleasure”, ”A house for life”, ”Your ideal house”, ”All your dreams under one roof”, ”Our house will make you happy”, ”The house with future”… Often I use such quotes or product names in my work as titles as they betray the lie and the abyss, and at the same time something of the glitter of the supposed idyll shimmers through.

By the way, the repetitions in the film Alles in bester Ordnung IV are not technical loops which I have joined together but repeatedly acted-out representations of the same scenes. They all are slightly different, and yet they are the same. This underlines still more this vacuum of stereotype actions as if everyone were doing everything the same every day – a horror vacui.

BH: What you're saying is really interesting! And I looked at it very sloppily – I thought they were loops! So it's not a matter of repetitions at all but of serialism? A type of repetitive serialism? The film draws the viewer's attention to a very specific aspect of the action, a gesture, a motif, in order to point to what is special about this moment. So concentration as a strategy, and as a second strategy the time element is added, change through time. Even if these changes are scarcely discernable.

RFH: Repetitions are indeed the focus. The stringing together of what is always similar does in fact result in a type of loop, like a hamster wheel. The idea that all processes always move every day in the same smooth courses and that everyone always carries out the same actions, is rather hopeless and frightening. And yet that is what our everyday lives are frequently like. In well-learnt, familiar gestures and patterns we feel secure. Of course I want to address all this in my film Alles in bester Ordnung IV, also the fact that a measure of security and usefulness in life appears to be guaranteed by parameters of order and also by cleanliness and correctness.

However, the starting point for the repeated images strung together is the production of advertising films. Every scene is filmed many times and then the best is selected. My critique of the content and the visual emphasis is, however, not aimed at the making of advertising films, but rather at the advertising strategies behind them. At the centre of my film is man as an actor in a world which has long since become a commodity and a calculation. It is aimed at revealing the deceitful mechanisms of rationalised and constructed ideals of an apparently perfect, sterile, politically and socially correct world. By frequently repeating a small number of actions, ”playing the scenes to death” and mechanising the actors, a sense of desolation, of emptiness, is meant to be created – of being somewhere in between, at the periphery, somewhere undefined and yet in a concrete location which is supposed to be a home, as if the familiar were suddenly alien.

BH: The installation in the Wappensaal (Alles in bester Ordnung III), complete with summerhouse, barbecue and children's toys is a perfect stage-set which couldn't be more banal in its perfection. At the same time, this perfection is totally artificial, and the artificiality is of the unpleasant type: the aspiration pattern for the happy family is in truth a ghost train.

RFH: I have nothing against aspiration patterns; they are everywhere and are only too understandable as I mentioned at the start. The installation in the Wappensaal is for me the so-called ”establishing shot” for the film of which we were speaking. It is the static starting point and the apparently untouched end point of a movement in between. The everyday objects which are lying around everywhere as if they had just been part of a game, a leisure pursuit, are all unused and new. Everything is still as shiny as on the first day as if it had just been taken out of the packaging. It is this change-over from the objective and distanced showing of new objects as in a supermarket to the clear indication of use which interests me. Domestic stage-sets, constructed living décor, cinematic directions for use… such as we find them in DIY stores or garden centres are always very exciting for me because of their ambivalence: these unoccupied living quarters, these comforts which have been installed with the strategic aim of signalising security.

The interface between public and private, between outward offers, solicitations and perhaps even constraints and inner feelings and emotions, the interface between external and internal, between attribution and allusion, visible and invisible, between real and associative, between the general image and its relationship to reality, is always the focus of my work.

BH: You are addressing many extremely complex questions. It seems to me that the most important thing of all around which everything in the exhibition revolves is the attempt to clarify the concept of the ”ideal”. When you show ideals typical of our social system in your various scenarios, they express a lot about prevailing social conditions. What could be the strategic implications of this analysis?

RFH: People always expect artists to offer solutions to life's problems or at least to point these out. I, on the other hand, understand my artistic work in general as a catalyst, as a visualisation of the strategies of mechanisms for portraying political, economic and social processes.

The resulting behavioural patterns and codes which emerge between mass-manufactured ready-made products and their individual uses according to personal preference are the subject of my artistic discussion. Status symbols, comforts, ideals, purpose-built devices and other indicators of domestic conditions serve to animate and reflect my topic; also the significance of visualising something and again the significance of the image which we project upon it. Involved is the relationship between reality and appearance, installed illusions, the idea of images of identity which is marketed, recreated reality… Often the simple confrontation of real objects and facts with one another is sufficient to create strange visual relations, even comic details; frequently, however, they open up areas of emptiness, forsakenness, desolation, alienation, even anxiety, hesitation, indecision.

BH: I think we agree that conversations like this can make a major contribution to understanding a work, and thank you for the interesting discussion.