Cyril Helnwein, son of renowned Austrian born artist Gottfried Helnwein, has been taking photos since he was 10 years old. Since then he matured extraordinarily, having his work collected by Marilyn Manson, Lisa Maria Presley, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher et alii, as well as being shown at various galleries worldwide. His last exhibition in Vienna was his “Beautiful Disasters” series at Yoshi’s Artgallery in 2014, and now he is back with his new series “Lost Garden” at Ho Gallery Vienna.
For your new series “Lost Garden” you pictured amazons amidst woodlands, their faces hidden under animal’s skulls. The initial concept was creating a series of instant-film photographs shot in a woodland setting, but when you were reading through a National Geographic article, your original concept began to evolve. Could you elaborate how during the early stages this article altered your original concept?
I’ve always had a strong interest and appreciation of animals and nature (growing up as a young child, I practically lived at the Natural History Museum in Vienna), so when I read the article I got the idea to do the animal skulls to hint at the disappearance of large amounts of animal species (in thanks mainly to humanity). The photos don’t scream “save the whales” or “stop logging the rainforest” in your face, but if you look at the whole series I think you could get the idea. And I’m all for saving whales by the way, as well as leaving the forests alone.
How flexible are you after a project has started, how far do you allow yourself to deviate from the “original track”, or is there always room for improvisation, for some looking left and right?
It depends on the concept, but usually the beginning is fairly open to go any way it flows. I find that the best ideas only come once you start shooting / working. I’m sure it’s the same for writers, musicians or any creative people.
How can one person who is no artist of any kind imagine the procreation, birth and growth of a project like this anyhow?
To sum it up: it’s a lot of work (laughs). At first the ideas have to be thunk … that’s the easy part. Then each scene is carefully planned; film, cameras and lenses are set up; all the skulls have to be made; models have to be arranged; and of course the weather has to cooperate. After the shoot is done, the photos have to be scanned, printed, framed, shipped, etc.
For this exhibition I even made the frames myself (old reclaimed wood from various locations, an old Amish barn in America, railway sleepers, rafters from am Irish farmhouse roof that was replaced, an old doorframe, etc). Each frame is totally unique and has it’s own story.
All in all, I estimate spending around 1 to 2 weeks of fulltime work per photo.
Your father once told me, he sometimes retouches his works, years after creating. If we come back to the analogy of incarnation: compared to a human person, what status do your pictures have when they are finally presented in some gallery or published in a magazine? Are they, for you, as their father, “grown-ups” who “moved out” or are they still in their development phase, a “nursery child” when they finally have a dialogue with a recipient?
Once a photo is exhibited and sold, it’s basically finished for me. With paintings it’s different – there’s always a little touch here and there one could do, even after it’s hanging in a museum or some art collector’s home. A painting is one-of-a-kind; a photo can be printed several times (however my editions are usually very small in number, around 10 or so). Of course, if I were to repeat an exact same photo shoot, I would know what to improve or do differently this time around.
Initially the project was titled “Forgotten Garden”. What made you change it to “Lost Garden”? Can one read this as your personal commentary on conservation?
It was a working title, but in the end I settled on “Lost” instead of “Forgotten”, simply as it sounds better phonetically. Originally the working title was just “Arboretum” but hardly anyone knows what that word means (a garden of trees, from the Latin word arbor = tree).
Did you, by any chance, delve in either the 2012 novel or the 2015 series “Zoo”? For centuries, it says, mankind has been the dominant species. We’ve domesticated animals, locked them up and killed them – for food, for sports and fun, as collateral damage, or maybe even just because. But now, the story goes, all across the globe the animals have decided: no more. Do you think a plot like that likely – and would you see it “fair”?
I’m not familiar with it, but what you describe reminds me a little of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. It’s quite unlikely that animals will unite against humanity, but I think if we humans don’t change our destructive and greedy ways, then we will be our own destruction and the animals won’t have to lift paw or claw.
In recent years expressions became louder that we are overfishing the oceans and operate a disastrous livestock. How do you see the animals’ role as a food product?
I’m not a vegetarian myself, although I think it’s a very wise choice. In my family, some of us are vegetarians, and those of us that do eat meat try to stick to organic and free range.
A hundred years ago, animals were raised on a family-run farm and people actually ate relatively little meat in comparison to today. The farm animals lived relatively happily and were healthy, and there was a connection between the farmer and his herd. Nowadays this is all done by big corporations behind closed doors, on a huge scale with no thought to animal welfare or even how they are raised. It’s just an enormous industry with tons of political lobby power and the animals are raised in such unhygienic environments that they can only survive if they are pumped full of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.
On top of that, they are given hormones to grow bigger and faster. For example, chickens with breasts so big that their hearts can’t keep up and fail, so they’re given more pharmaceuticals on top of that to help their hearts. And then people wonder why they are fat or get cancer; have immune disorders or diabetes; why little girls start menstruating much earlier than normal, and so on. Put diesel into an unleaded engine, it’s not going to last long.
Cat and Hornbill with Dragon Tree, part of “Lost Garden” (c) Cyril Helnwein
Last time we were talking I asked you, if male and female bodies are working differently in front of the camera, which you approved. Whilst the woman – when it comes to the human object – is always pictured more prominently in your work, why did you use females only this time? Has it something to do with aesthetics, with the symbol of the female body being a “birthmachine”, to quote Giger, or with the misconception of the female being the “weaker” one when it comes to man versus woman?
Yes, women are of course the ones who bear and raise children (strictly physiologically speaking). But I also think there is truth to “women are from Venus and men are from Mars” statement – usually it’s men that are the uncompassionate idiots who destroy, have to beat their chest and go to war. Women are about new life and growth, the exact opposite. And aesthetically they are far superior.
In “L’Ève future”, a novel by French Symbolist Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the fictionalized Thomas Edison hands out a machine-woman to his friend Lord Ewald, an android he created in an effort to overcome the flaws and artificiality of real women, and create a perfect and natural woman who could bring a man true happiness. I am not talking to the man Cyril Helnwein right now, but to the artist: What are you looking at in women, what are you searching in them – what makes them “perfect” for you?
I find the idea of a robot woman, like “Stepford Wives”, abhorrent. As a photographer I like to work with models that are creative and spontaneous, something a robot surely isn’t.
When it comes to humans, “beauty” lies in the eye of the beholder but often asks for symmetry. Where lies the beauty, the uniqueness and the peculiarities in nature?
As far as I know nothing is perfectly symmetrical or static, even in nature. A harmony actually consists of a minus and a plus, a negative and positive, a push and a pull. An interesting experiment one can do: take a frontal photo of your face, then on the computer select only one side, copy and flip it horizontally. You will look very different!
Where would you place the notion of “beauty” in your art? Or asked differently: When it comes to aesthetics of the living world and the other world, the fine arts, are there adjectives, values that work in one, but not in the other – or maybe even get a totally different meaning?
Artists have the freedom to play with and define beauty or aesthetics in whatever way they choose, there are really no rules. Of course there are technical things like composition, balance, etc. But an artist can turn this around and use imbalance too. In the end it just depends what the artist wants to convey or affect; and if it can’t affect the viewer in some way, then it’s not art.
In your pictures, flaws play a prominent if not important role, and since flaws also do make people interesting and natural, I had to think of Philip Roths’ novel “The Human Stain”. Stains are the original sin, stains are strongly and inseparable connected with simple existence, our human stains are the marks, the imprint we leave in our natural environment. Is this the reason why your pictures tend to be unpolished, rough – with flaws, exactly – as well?
If there’s a flaw in one of my pictures, I was either too lazy to fix or notice it, or I did it on purpose. I’ll leave that for the viewer to decide.
For “Lost Garden” you constructed a series of handmade plaster-of-paris skulls, some based on extinct and endangered species, sized to fit a human body. Is there a reason you worked with the skulls only and did not use various body part replica?
The skull is the most interesting part of a skeleton; it’s also where we believe the soul is housed.
How did you select the animals you wanted to use? Which ones did you use actually?
Mainly on appearance but also due to their extinct or endangered status. There are rhinos, triceratops, great auks, walruses, cats, piranhas, elephants, crocodiles, gila monsters, deer, rats and more.
Normally, the skull is hidden beneath muscles, flesh and hair and lives through your voice and the look in your eyes – we all know the saying, “the eyes are the windows to the soul”. Is there anything in particular you noticed when you had all these empty sockets before you, from cat to crocodile?
The most beautiful animals can look really monstrous if you only see the skull.
Does the women’s position in the pictures somehow refer to the animals’ skulls they are wearing?
Too a small degree but not to the extent of trying to be that animal directly. The model’s poses are collaboration between the model and myself, mostly their origination with a little directing from me.
In some species, males or females may have some growth or feature in their skulls that is absent in the other sex, for example, male moose and deer grow antlers, but females do not. Did this play a role in your choice of selection?
None of the animals I used have antlers, so I don’t think there were any defining male or female features. I did one of a Chinese Water Deer, but as far as I know neither the male or female carry antlers. Instead they have these long tusks, making them look like vampires.
What happens with all the stuff you happen to use for your pictures, not only the skulls, but also various objects from your earlier series?
Some of the skulls will be on exhibition and are available for sale. The other stuff from previous work is mainly costumes or props that I keep in storage.
Crocodile in Grass, part of “Lost Garden” (c) Cyril Helnwein
When your father bought the house in Tipperary years ago, he said he just needed a garden surrounding it since he needs to be connected to nature somehow. Are all of the family “rural” people and what benefits do you draw compared to artists living directly in the urban “art scene”?
I think an artist needs both the quiet calm of the countryside to focus and work, but also the chaos and madness of the city to be inspired.
When being in nature, are these moments where you draw inspiration or moments where you wind down and relax?
Why did you decide to settle in Ireland, whereas the greater part of the family has found a part time second new home in LA?
With three young kids the constant flying back and forth all the time is not so easy. And personally I’ve always felt more at home in the country than in the city. I’ll take a quiet pub with old men, a fireplace and a perfect pint of Guinness any day over a Hollywood nightclub full of people trying to get noticed and the latest annoying hit being pounded into your brain. (Editor’s note: “A perfect pint of Guinness” was one of the topics we captured in the interview in 2014.)
When you come back to the town you lived in until the age of 8, Vienna, every now and then – how did the city change over all these years?
From my childhood I remember Vienna as a totally black city – all the beautiful old buildings were covered in years of soot and pollution. And I never noticed how black it was until I came back years later and saw all the buildings after they were cleaned. I guess it’s a greener city now too with less car pollution and so on.
But then I see tragic things that they do with the old architecture – building modern square crap on top of it or tearing it down completely and putting a concrete box with plastic windows there instead. That is unforgiveable! Nobody gives a shit about these buildings or thinks they’re beautiful, except for the architect that built it and his ego. And in 20 or 30 years they’ll be torn down again to be replaced with the latest hype. But the beautiful old buildings will always be there as something irreplaceable and unique to that area – that’s what you see on the postcards, not some building that you wouldn’t know if it was in Shanghai or Dallas or Frankfurt.
The press says that one can still see Viennese humour in your work. How would you describe this humour comprehension?
I love the Viennese sense of humour, from the rude waiters to the witty expressions – it’s the best! Sadly, a lot of it is untranslatable. For example “Geh Scheißen, du Oasch!” compared to it’s English cousin “Go fuck yourself, asshole!”, seems to carry more finesse or something a little more thoughtful and creative (laughs).
It’s suggested that Ireland is strong in relation to the written word and music. Visually – in the Visual Arts and Architecture – the country seems to be at a disadvantage. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Ireland was suppressed for 800 years – genocide with millions starved in the famine or shipped off as slaves to the Americas. Even the Irish language (Gaelic), Irish sport (hurling) and wearing green was forbidden. I guess no one could afford to buy a canvas or oil paints, so the cheapest form of art was literature, poetry and music. The Irish were always renown for their poets, bards, monks and scholars.
After all this questions on your new series it might sound featherbrained, but do you somehow feel enervated when you have to not only talk, but even explain your art?
Not at all.
In 2014 the New York Times called your family the real-life-Addams family. Would you say, that this very superficial perception really works?
Artists are always going to be perceived as unusual I guess, but for me the real freaks are the ones like Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, the Kardashians: extremely boring, thoughtless and plain mediocre.
Aside from that, how do you see the Addams’ family’s development from their initial dark satire to plain and cheap pop culture, most notably in the movies of the early nineties and the musical?
That’s a question an expert on the TV series better answer, I haven’t seen much of it and I didn’t even know they made a musical out of it.
Be sure to catch Cyril Helnwein’s new exhibition “Lost Garden” at Ho Gallery (Wollzeile 17, 1010 Wien), starting from 13th of April. For more information and current updates, please check the Facebook event.