Martin Eder: “It’s all about dedication” (the complete interview, 2008)

Snippet from the pre-interview chat

EQ: …So you are saying that there is no difference for you between doing a painting and, for instance, taking a bath?
ME: Yes, it’s all the same. It’s all about dedication. In fact, I have installed a bath in my studio…

The interview

EQ: Let us talk about ‘Die Armen’ (‘The Poor’). The title implies something. Do you want the beholder to pity these women, to feel empathy for them?
ME: I don’t want to be that clear about it. The title is difficult to translate into English. ‘The Poor’ implies poverty, but in German it can mean something else too. These women are not poor in a financial sense. What all these women have in common is that they have been mistreated by the outside world. On various levels. Some more than others. Some physically, others mentally. One of them has died. Another one is psychotic. Another one of my models is an actress who got stuck in her role. ‘The Poor’ is a relative term, but because all the photographs are of women you could ask yourself if women are the poor in society.
EQ: Why are there no men in your photographs? Don’t you like men?
ME: Well, I do like men, sometimes. But I don’t like the men’s world. But ‘Die Armen’ is not about feminism or woman’s liberation.
EQ: In the past you seemed to prefer not to disclose the meaning of your work. It was up to the beholder to find meaning. But with a title like ‘Die Armen’ you point the beholder in a certain direction.
ME: No, not really because the title is a hype. The title is far from the truth, it’s not what you see in the photographs. I don’t think these women should be pitied. Also, I think it is very boring to tell the beholder in advance what to think. If some artist is too educational I totally deny the work. I really hope that a lot of people will deny ‘Die Armen’ too. That’s a good thing. Because for me its more valuable to be denied and to be accepted. To be accepted as an artist, is the end.
EQ: Do we hear your punk-roots talking here?
ME: No, punk is very accepted. I recently heard someone say ‘my grandpa was into punk’.
EQ: You were born in 1968, right? So, you were ten years old when The Sex Pistols were happening.
ME: I only witnessed the second generation of punk.

EQ: What do the women in ‘Die Armen’ represent? They are all damaged in one way or another. So, it isn’t very likely that they represent the average contemporary young caucasian European woman.
ME: It’s sad, but I think they do… They are all friends of mine, or people I know. I didn’t cast them. It’s not a like a gameshow where you look for damaged people. They are regular people, from my neighborhood, friends and friends of friends. I was really suprised to hear all their stories.
EQ: There is a saying: every picture tells a story. Every photograph in ‘Die Armen’ does tell a story without being specific.
ME: I didn’t want to name every photograph by giving information about what these women went through. That would lead (the beholder) into the wrong direction. It has nothing to do with cheap picture journalism where people are victimized. I hope that when you look at my pictures you can feel something is wrong.
EQ: It strikes me that some of these women are really strong and proud, maybe because of what happened to them. Some of them even look at you with a attitude of ‘this is me and if you don’t like it, fuck off’.
ME: Yes, a lot of them grew stronger because of what they went through. It is that feeling that sets ‘Die Armen’ apart from your run of the mill nude photography which can be very exploitive and can turn very easily into pornography.
EQ: Are the women in your photographs victims of society?
ME: No, they are products of society.
EQ; Don’t you think that they are being victimized by they way women are portrayed in mass media?
ME: Some of them are, yes. There is one exemple of young woman that had a lot of beauty-surgery. But after a while these operations had to be done again because of the fact that they conflicted with her body.
EQ: Are others, the ones with piercings and tattoos, not fashion-victims too? People are made to believe that a piercing looks cool and this desire to be cool is a manipulation. People also take a piercing or tattoo to mask their physical and mental insecurities.
ME: True, but in my case the photographs show how something disasterous can take place in your household, in a corner of your room, under your fingernails. The really sad things take place in childrens rooms, in employment centers, on the street, wherever. These women that I have photographed are all friends of people I  know. After I take their picture, I will meet them again. It’s very personal and private. The shoots were very intense. Sometimes I just had to stop taking pictures because of the stories the women told me. In a way, these women are also reflecting myself, or aspects of my social life.

EQ: Is there a relation between the women in the photographs and the ones in your water colours?
ME: No, the water colours are, how absurd it may sound, meant to be like gems, like crystals, diamonds. Something which creates so much desire in the eye of the beholder that he wants to devour it. The water colours are very seductive but at the same time as banal as possible. They trigger a sense of sexuality, but on an unconscious level, like with the small fluffy animals.
EQ: Some of the women in ‘Die Armen’ pose in a similar way.
ME: Yes, but the water colours are so exaggerated that the women become mere objects of desire. The women in ‘Die Armen’ are the opposite, these are real people. When I adress these water colours to mainly male buyers, I also show how the world functions. Like James Brown said, it’s a man’s world. Unfortunately, because I do not like that. Maybe it’s absurd to show naked women to show that we live in a man’s world… but I think it works because it deconstructs the way we see the world through advertising or music video’s. The sad thing is that it’s not going to change. Women’s liberation in the sixties and seventies seems not to have taken place. Every is declining, it seems. I don’t know if I can say this as a male, but I do believe that all the things that were gained for and by women are rubbed out by the younger generation that seem to be mindless followers of the popular culture.
EQ: Have you ever sold any of the water colours to people who wanted them for the wrong reasons?
ME: In the beginning, yes. When they were cheap people thought they were funny little paintings of naked girls. After the work got really expensive people learned to understand them.
EQ: So, we only consider something to be art when it is very expensive?
ME: Yes. At first I sold them for $ 100, but even then there were people who understood what is was all about. Those few people helped me to bring my work to the public.

EQ: Back to ‘Die Armen’. Is there a distinct relationship between painting and photography?
ME: Yes, but it’s a destructive one. A painting is a like an account where you invest in time, in quality and dedication. You can see it, in these little gems like a Vermeer where you stand in front of it and wonder how small it actually is but you cannot leave for it’s such a fascinating thing.
EQ: It’s magic.
ME: A totally magical thing. But a photograph can be too, but it is a fragment stolen from time. It’s the opposite of a painting. I am fascinated by the idea of this frozen moment in time. There is nothing added on, you take it as it is.
EQ: The American natives, the indians, thought that by taking a photograph a piece of their soul was stolen. Your photographs can be seen as landscapes of the soul.
ME: I’ve never considered that, but it might be true. With a photograph you take something away. A photo-shoot is very exhausting for the model. After an hour they are tired. At first they are neurvous, then they relax and the magic moment, when the best photos are shot, comes after twenty minutes or so. After that they just get very tired and you have to stop. Modelling for a painting is different. By the way, I think that posing for a nude painting is something from the past, it’s out-dated. If Rubens had a Nikon-camera, he would have used it.

EQ: Are you easily irritated when people say that your work is kitsch or they fail to see the irony or double meaning?
ME: No, I’m used to that. A lot of people don’t understand my work but that doesn’t bother me. It’s more valuable to me when someone who doesn’t know anything about art tells me they like a specific work or even detail of a work, than when I get a good review by some an art critic.
EQ: How did the women in ‘Die Armen’ react to the photographs?
ME: They seemed very happy. Some were really proud.
EQ: Like I said before, some of them look at you from the picture with a strong sense of pride.
ME: I think it had to do with the process of taking the pictures. I don’t use a lot of technology. I have a simple camera and I use only natural light. There is no sense of being in a studio where things need to happen.
EQ: What can you do with photography than you can’t with paint?
ME: In a painting you can invent. If I want to have a train coming out of your ear, I can paint that.
EQ: You can with photoshop…
ME: Yes, but that is not what I consider photography. It’s collage or composition. In painting your brain is involved, in photography it’s your eyes.

EQ: What’s next? More photography?
ME: No, I’m preparing for paintings now.
EQ: Installations?
ME: No. My days are too short, I’m really lazy, I can only focus on a few things at a time.
EQ: One last thing. You once said that every age and every generation gets the art it deserves.
ME: It’s true.
EQ: So, you give your generation the art it deserves?
ME: No, it has to do with my personal idea of what I consider art. I prefer art that has a slight notion of society in its day and age. I wouldn’t say political art, but something on a social level. You need to consider the quintessence of the era you’re living in and if you have done that than maybe some art will result from that. That’s what I mean by getting the art you deserve. The present day and age needs an art that does not need to be critical but needs to ask questions…. But I don’t have a clue too, I’m just a traveller in this world. But I have some private questions that I need to find the answers to. An answer for myself. To help me in my struggle, in my work.
EQ: It seems that your generation of German artists is more or less involved with what’s going on in the world today.
ME: The thing about Germany and German people is that they don’t seem to like themselves. They don’t like the fact that they are German. Some compensate this by being extra-German…
EQ: The German art-world labels your work as neo-realistic.
ME: That’s total bullshit, I’m not realistic at all.
EQ: ‘Die Armen’ is, isn’t it?
ME: (silence) It’s very hard to be realistic because reality itself is not really real.
EQ: That’s another discussion, Martin. But with ‘Die Armen’ you touch upon something that is quite real, namely how seemingly average young European women are damaged by their enviroment.
ME: Yes, ‘Die Armen’ is a very old-fashioned approach to an artistic production.
EQ: How does it compare to your new paintings?
ME: I don’t know, I haven’t started on my new paintings. But I’m thinking about all the time. Thinking what I could possibly paint after these photographs. I don’t know yet.
EQ: You are at the threshold of a new beginning?
ME: Yes, unfortunately it feels like that. I hate changes. They are always painful (laughs).
EQ: ‘Die Armen’ was a departure from everything you’ve done before?
ME: Yes.
EQ: How difficult was that, psychologically speaking?
ME: Very difficult. I had to fight a lot forces.
EQ: In your mind? Also in the art world?
ME: Yes.
EQ: Are you concerned with the forces in the international art world?
ME: No. (laughs). Only with the ones in my mind.
EQ: Before we started the interview you said that painting, photography or even taking a bath is all the same thing for you.
ME: It’s a question of intensity. If you really want to do something or not. There is a song by Roky Erickson called Think Of As One. That title says it all.

ps. Het complete interview met Martin Eder, gehouden het terras voor het GEM begin juli 2008. Eder was dermate in zijn nopjes met het gesprek dat zijn agent mij vroeg om een transcriptie om te gebruiken voor Eders website of eventueel een boek. Van dit alles is nooit wat gekomen. De versie van het gesprek dat in AD Haagsche Courant is gepubliceerd is hier te vinden: