The unforgettable voyage

Auguste Petre

An express interview with curators Prof. Bernhart Schwenk and Swantje Grundler on the occasion of Jonathan Meese’s exhibition Meese’s Odyssey


“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.”

This is what the ancient poet Homer wrote in his famous and ground-breaking Odyssey. The protagonist of the story, Odysseus, wanders for ten years, trying to get back home after the Trojan War. In spite of difficulties, he retains his heroism, which over time has become a commonly used metaphor for wisdom and courage. Homer’s epic poem has also often served as a source for artistic interpretations. This time, curators Prof. Bernhart Schwenk and Swantje Grundler have chosen to intertwine the ancient Greek poem with the life story of the recognised artist Jonathan Meese. The resulting exhibition, Meese’s Odyssey, is on view at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich until March 3, 2019.

With a forward-looking and provocative approach, Meese has secured his role as one of the most important figures on the contemporary art scene. Born in Tokyo and having travelled to many different places in the world, he has finally returned to his fatherland of Germany, where he lives and works in Berlin. His oeuvre, as well as the journeys of his imagination, cover various different creative practices, including performance, installation, painting, drawing, and sculpture. These factors call to mind a kinship with Odysseus. The current exhibition is a compilation of more than 100 extremely diverse works of art that mark various steps along the way of Meese’s private and artistic life. The curators of the exhibition invite visitors to join in this grand voyage of an artist., for its part, invited the curators to reveal a little bit more about the exhibition itself.

Photo: Jörg Koopmann 

Jonathan Meese is, undeniably, one of the most remarkable representatives of contemporary art. Nevertheless, I would like to ask how you arrived at the idea that precisely his works should be shown at this exhibition, at the Pinakothek der Moderne.

It all began a year ago, with a conversation about Mondparsifal, which Meese created for the Wiener Festwochen and the Berliner Festspiele. We both had the impression that, with this work, Meese had entered a special phase – a moment of pause, of simultaneous retrospection and contemplation of the future. And we found that interesting. It resulted in an extensive conversation between us curators – an apt way of approaching Meese’s “stories”. It was clear from the very beginning that this exhibition would present him from a different, lesser-known angle: the contemplative, multi-faceted and mellow aspects of his work, with an emphasis on his use of language, text and writing.

How did your curatorial collaboration with Meese proceed? Was he willing to engage in the formation of the exhibition?

Our dialogue evolved into an in-depth exchange with Meese, and during a visit to his Berlin studio in January 2018, the title emerged and the exhibition concept became more concrete: Meese’s Odyssey. This conversation with Meese can also be found in the golden pocketbook (published by Walther König Publishers), which serves as a navigational aid to the exhibition. It was then suggested to us by Meese that we should both select the works and curate the exhibition. In this way, there was a deliberate outside perspective, and not just a carte blanche for another installation or action space, as Meese had often arranged in the past. He was evidently in search of a sparring match. Our plan was to show the entire Meese cosmos in a concentrated form, in a large, square hall.

Photo: Jörg Koopmann 

Tell us more about the conceptual idea behind Meese’s Odyssey.

Jonathan Meese, in his role as an artist, makes no distinction between the various genres of art. As a performer as well as a painter, he works with text and imagery; he draws, he designs artists’ books and photo collages, he designs theatre scenery, he stage-manages. It was this attitude that we absolutely wanted to do justice to. The exhibition brings together 103 works of art, all of which are extremely diverse and most certainly out of the ordinary. In addition to large-scale paintings, there are also numerous miniatures: sculptures and model rooms from 1996 and assemblages from between 2010 and 2013. We also had the privilege of being able to view a collection of works from Meese’s own estate, works that are particularly close to his heart. It is precisely these works that, in our opinion, might challenge Meese’s predominant media image and possibly also alter it a little. There’s actually a gentle, humorous and strikingly precise artist under the martial gestures and suit of armour.

The title of the exhibition suggests that there are some similarities between Meese and Odysseus. What, in your opinion, is it that joins them?

Themes such as “oral tradition”, “transcription” and “tales of adventure” are woven into a central storyline; they are not only a part of the great epic but also embedded within the work of the artist. The Odyssey serves as a meta-narrative for Meese to spin his own yarn, to weave in his own stories. His repertoire of characters is drawn from history and mythology, literature and film. Villains such as Nero and Caligula, Dr. No and Conan the Barbarian, as well as characters such as the Moomins or even Barbarella crop up in his stories. In this exhibition, Jonathan Meese, like a modern Odysseus, embarks on an imaginary journey with multiple stops. It is here that encounters with varyingly ambivalent protagonists and scenarios take place and which the artist, in his archaic role as a symbolic liberator, confronts bravely though not always victoriously.

Photo: Jörg Koopmann 

The annotation of the exhibition mentions that Meese’s art can be labelled both timeless and contemporary. Do you believe that this adaptation to a specific concept justifies itself? What’s your definition of a “timeless” and a “contemporary” piece of art?

The subject of the Odyssey is timeless. As a child, Meese immersed himself in the great tales of the Western world that have shaped our culture. His mother read the stories to him over and over; he later went on to endlessly reproduce them through radio plays and films, in a way that he could tinker with the characters and scenery in the stories. And he continues to do so today. Through his continuous retelling of his and our stories, our view of time changes.

Is there a certain work included in the exhibition that you would like to particularly highlight?

Meese has designed a topography, a kind of coordinate system, for our exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne. This floor diagram, printed on carpet material, defines the museum hall as a personal space. Meese’s Odyssey might take place in just a room. At the centre, a volcanic gorge opens and marks the middle of the treasure map: “Zielsetzung K.U.N.S.T.” (Target Setting A.R.T.).

On the occasion of the exhibition, facsimiles of Meese’s books Die Monosau (1996) and Marshall Marshallson IV (1995–1997), 500-page books with narratives and drawings, will also be published.

Prof.Bernhart Schwenk and Swantje Grundler. Photo: Jörg Koopmann