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An interview
with Olaf Breuning
by David Coggins
Olaf Breuning is a master of the Grand Guignol that is contemporary consumer society. His films, sculpture, drawings and photographs have the sensibility of Samuel Beckett stuck in nursery school, or maybe that should be a Looney Tunes with a Ph.D. He asks the big questions -- you know, those ones about the meaning of life and stuff like that -- but he asks them in the aisles of the Pearl River department store in Chinatown.

Visitors to the 2008 Whitney Bienial found themselves laughing uneasily at his film Home II, one of the highlights of the show. An enthusiastic traveler visits locations as disparate as New Guinea and Tokyo, his eyes unnaturally dilated like a zombie's. What had initially seemed to be a straight-ahead documentary dips into the surreal as the voyager's behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Dark humor seems to be on order, but who is the butt of the joke?

Breuning is having at Western liberalism, asking what exoticism is and what we want from it -- and he uses the most visceral terms possible. Home II is one of the defining art films of recent years.

Breuning's work shifts its form from show to show. His current exhibition at Metro Pictures combines large wall drawings of simple graphic illustrations -- stick figures and text -- with linear wooden sculptures, made of strips of wood glued together and painted black, like 3D versions of the wall drawings. The show is resolutely lo-fi, but also includes a gallery of black-light photographs. Word is that Breuning did the drawings for the show while on an ocean liner back to the U.S. Even though he lives in Brooklyn.

We walked through the exhibition during its installation.

David Coggins: The new show includes a lot of drawing and text -- itís got a childlike quality.

Olaf Breuning: Yes. I wanted to deal with the big questions in life. Questions everybody asks -- some people do it more, some people do it less, but especially teenagers. The first time you reach an age and think about life and ask "why this?" and "why that?" We lose that when we get older -- Iím 39 but Iím still fascinated with these questions.

One part of the show is drawings, the other part of the show is sculptures. The sculptures are like three-dimensional drawings.

DC: Since we come to these questions at an early age, did you choose a form that reflects the sensibility of a young person?† †

OB: They have a very straightforward message like the cave paintings in France. They speak about life in a very simple way.

DC: Some of your other film projects are incredibly elaborate. Is working in a more simple way a response to that?

OB: For me making art is just the flow of my life. Whatever my life demands I will do. A few years ago I had the urge to make some films and I still do. Now I just appreciate doing something simple and keep it simple in my mind.

DC: So you donít feel compelled to continue working in film?

OB: A lot of things go in parallel. Films take a very long time. And this kind of project I can spit out in one year, and I feel comfortable about it.

DC: A film is a collaborative medium. Is it nice to make this work on your own?

OB: Yes. My work has changed over the last 10 years, it always changes in different structures and messages. I get bored with something and move on. After a film I canít make another film. I do something with a different focus. Having said that, even when itís a very simple piece it triggers the questions that I have always had about life.

DC: The questions about life -- do you mean questions like "why are we here?"

OB: Yes. Stupid question, but valuable question.

DC: The wall drawings are very graphic.

OB: Yes, thatís a little dangerous. This work has to be carefully done so it doesnít end up like a cartoon. That is maybe the most difficult thing. Iím not the first person to make black-and-white drawings on the wall, there are artists who do just that. Keith Haring, David Shrigley, Dan Perjovschi. Combined with the sculpture this becomes a three-dimensional experience.

DC: In the past your work has dealt with popular culture and consumerism. Can you talk about how mass culture has influenced your work?

OB: My relationship with mass culture is always very good. Iím an artist who doesnít see a difference between mass culture and the art world. Popular culture is the reality we live in. The art world is such a small part of that, a fake reality. I got a little bit tired of people writing about my work and pushing it into popular culture -- itís a very antique way of looking at work. There have been artists from the Ď60s on who have tried to push their art into the real world. I think people still speak about popular culture because they are still stuck in a theoretical art world -- they think there is a high art and a primitive popular culture. But I believe we have to speak about that because itís our reality, what surrounds us. I think an artist has to speak about these things and not hide himself in some construct and deal with only specified things.

DC: Do you play on this hierarchy between the so-called high and low art forms?

OB: I think about that. But with this work I use a traditional tool to speak. I tried to find a language that anybody understands. I would not make art to offend someone. I donít really care about the art world. I care about it because itís my home, but my goal is to speak outside it.

I donít have the feeling that my work is misunderstood. Most people who like my work are the younger generation. The beauty of today is that anything is possible. Today if youíre avant-garde you donít have to fight against an establishment and be a wild child. Thatís crazy. You can be very open.

DC: Home, your film at the Whitney Biennial, is very hard to categorize. Itís like a documentary, but stranger.

OB: With Home I was very interested in what happens when a man from a Western culture visits other parts of the world. We think the world is a village, with the internet we can find anything. I had this character visit Papua New Guinea and Africa and Japan. Sometimes he doesnít get it, of he gets it a little bit and love connects him to the people he meets.

DC: When you see it, it feels very spontaneous, but it was quite carefully planned.

OB: I thought about it for a year and wrote a loose script and a storyboard. My friend Brian, the actor, and I have good chemistry. We had a small film team so we could still be spontaneous and it makes it look less structured.

DC: Do people ever think that the actor is you?

OB: A lot of people, yes.

DC: Heís such a central figure -- did you ever think about being in it yourself?

OB: I never thought about that. Brian was in an earlier film, Home I, and thatís when I decided to make a longer film and thought I needed a professional actor. Heís really a talent and itís easy to film him.† †

DC: Youíve done a surprising amount of work with zombies, a classic low-brow genre. Are you interested in the conventions of certain genres?

OB: That might be true. When I made reference to horror movies it was 8 or 10 years ago. At that time I had never really watched horror movies and then started watching them and was fascinated. Later I was more fascinated with China. Certain things trigger me and I follow them.

DC: Thereís a quality of curiosity to your work.

OB: Yes. I jump from subject to subject, but itís always the same brain, the same language. There is a stage, and I put my act on but I donít really care what clothes my actors are wearing. Itís more important what they say. I care about the message. The message is connected with my life.†

"Olaf Breuning, Small Brain Big Stomach," Oct. 29-Dec. 5, 2009, at Metro Pictures, 519 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

DAVID COGGINS is a New York writer and critic.