When not producing a set for the Staatsballett Berlin or painting pseudo-sexualized Germans, Berlin-based artist Norbert Bisky, tries to hop on the first plane to Brazil whenever possible. In the last year alone, Bisky headed down to Sao Paulo and Rio five times. However, until his latest exhibition, “Paraisopolis” (through April 13 at Berlin’s Galerie Crone), the country remained outside of his artistic purview. The results, a return to abstraction and a toning down of sexuality in exchange for culture politics, are rather surprising. One might have expected the country to send Bisky even more fervently towards his all-baring proclivities. He spoke with Alexander Forbes about why that wasn’t the case, society’s obsession with violence, and what Europeans can learn from Brazilian culture.
This is the first series of paintings you’ve done based on Brazil. What is your relationship to the country?
I’ve been traveling to Brazil for nine years now, almost ten. I’m really in love with the country. After so many years I had enough courage to start painting about Brazil, or at least things related to my visual impressions of the country. I had a lot of doubts before starting. It is difficult to leave the perspective of being a tourist. But eventually I developed certain clear associations and decided to start with the colors, the light, the beach parties, and their rich cultural scene, which is also quite unknown over here. I recently heard a discussion on German TV, which said that South America’s problem is that they lack an art history. It’s nonsense. Brazil especially, has a specific art and cultural tradition that goes back for 500 years. This painting is called “Tropicana” because it’s a bit related to the clichés that we have about Brazil. It plays on my own position coming there to the famous beaches in Rio and watching half naked Brazilians.
Where that is clearly a beach scene, there are other paintings that are quite abstract. What is the reference in those?
There are three called “Anthropophagia,” which is something that plays a big role in Brazil’s art history. There was a manifesto in the 20s that describes the cannibalistic way in which the Brazilian culture has taken from both native, indigenous cultures and those of the European settlers. The idea is that through eating and digesting all these different cultures, they produce something uniquely Brazilian. I felt it had a strong connection to my work and what we do in Europe as well, constantly consuming and manipulating images.
It’s quite interesting to have a country of immigrants that so earnestly coopts the indigenous culture that existed before them. I’m thinking in comparison to the melting pot analogies used in the US or Multikulti in Germany.
It’s one thing that I really like about Brazil. At its best, the cultural life is really a mix and a model of what Europe could also look like if the countries would open up. We are constantly surrounded by these discussions about immigrants. There is so much fear. I compare it to my own past growing up in East Germany, a closed country with an overwhelming amount of fear. But then I go to Brazil, and they have problems, they have racism, but you go to Sao Paolo and there are all these different micro-communities: Lebanese, Japanese, Syrian, Jewish, etc. They all mix.
Much of your previous work seems to deal with issues of socially learned repressions. In Brazil, though to some degree a stereotype, it is certainly more open than Western European and North American cultures. How did that affect your practice or what you’ve produced?
It allowed me to go back to what I was doing in my very early work, actually. I started out as an abstract painter in University. I then realized that everyone else was painting abstractly, so I went and developed something else. But Brazil gave me the freedom or a path to leave the figure. You sit there on the beach and see the naked figures. But I’ve done that 500 times. It’s kind of a contradiction, but having it right in front of you allows you to do something else.
The body is still in there, limbs mostly, but you remove them from a whole. Is that a violent gesture?
Yes, again related to Brazil. One of its other great contradictions is that it’s a very beautiful place but also a very violent place. It’s changing a lot right now, but you can see the violence. In Europe, we absolutely live in a violent society, but it’s hidden from view much more. I’ve been interested in violence for many years, especially in the beautiful or attractive parts of it. There is a reason why we have so many Hollywood movies with exploding bodies and killings. It’s a strange phenomenon: we don’t want to suffer from violence, but we want to see it. I’m just watching. I don’t want to make political commentaries or be more intelligent that the viewer. I’m repeating things that are in society and are in my life experience.