There is such an enigma around the artist. Sometimes people of non-artistic occupations might find it difficult to imagine what artists do behind the scenes. From what do they earn their living? Where do they get their inspirations? Why do they always seem to have an urge of expression, at times for such obscure topics? And most importantly, do they ever eat? Speaking from my former academic self, artists used to seem to me such a mysterious group of people mostly due to the unclear circumstances of their physical and metaphysical being.
Physically speaking, the link between bread and butter and artistic practice is, to the least, vague. For that reason, many artists I know, even those who are lucky to find a place in the competitive artist hub of Berlin, suffer from a precarious existence. There is always a long process of establishing oneself. Unless one is from a wealthy background, those years of self-establishment means small side jobs, delayed payments, and social subsidies if one is lucky enough to live in a welfare state.
A photographer friend of mine once complained to me that he was asked by his clients for his hourly rate, which to him was total disrespect for all those years he spent climbing up the art ladder behind the scenes. Unlike non-artistic work, where there is usually a direct link between labor (intellectual and manual) and value, the value of artistic productions is something that needs to be established, via fame, popularity, quality and quantity of work, and reputation, etc.
Now having voluntarily or involuntarily joined the club myself, and having dealt with some real life issues of a “starving artist,” the first thing I realized about the artistic existence is how much it owes itself to material resources. One needs to pay for food, so one doesn’t starve, a roof, so one doesn’t freeze in the winter, drinks in a bar, so one’s heart gets warmed by friends and love affairs, and taxes, so one fulfills the duties of a lawful citizen. So what do artists do behind the scenes? First and foremost, they need to pay for bread and butter. As my producer M always says, “a bread-and-butter gig is coming in, I have to kick you out.”
Metaphysically, artists always seem to inadvertently attach themselves and their art to some larger-than-life, too-complex-to-resolve crises within or without. It seems as though there is not a moment they are not in deep thought about life, being, Sein, Dasein, the relationship between man and nature, humanity, and so on. But recently having become a member of the artist club, I realized all of this is but an image of the artist that either the artist gives to him- or herself to create enigma, or one that society gives to the artist for lack of a better understanding.
So what do artists do behind the scenes when they are not “arting,” besides bread and butter? We go to the lake, after packing our bags and backpacks with melons, carrots, rice cakes, bathing suits, towels, and books to read on the shore. We discuss the possibility of spotting crocodiles in the lakes of Berlin. We dry ourselves in bathing suits under the sun, and squint our eyes against the joyous sunlight dancing on our tanned faces. We lie down on the beach blanket and let our thoughts drift away. We go to a Biergarten and order Weinschorle and the last pretzel hanging on the wooden rack. What else do artists do behind the scenes? We cook Chongqing hot pot in a stormy summery evening, trying to figure out when the International Space Station would pass by the night sky of Berlin.
Every time my cinematographer J and I discussed our documentary project, we chatted about the progress of his apartment renovation. When we waited for our flights to China at Berlin Tegel Airport, he told me that he would finally have a freshly renovated apartment to live in, with divinely beautiful new wood floors he couldn’t wait to sleep on. And I bet that the dairy entries during his stay in Shenzhen would be full of names and descriptions of different Chinese dishes and liquors.
An artist friend of mine Pocobelli recently started his own podcast. The idea was for it to be an artist journal, recording the art he sees in town, the journey of his creativity, the sources of his inspiration. He told me that he started an artist journal because he realized that most of the people who bought his artworks were people who found something in the piece that touched them deeply, like an old piece of memory resurfacing through the artisan hands of another. So he started the artist journal as a channel for his audience to know more about him, the artist as himself behind the scenes. In his own modestly pioneering way he rendered what’s behind the scenes of an artistic production prior to and in a sense more important than the artwork itself.
So perhaps, the concept of creating enigma around an artist has become obsolete. And perhaps, now more than ever, before art becomes art, an artist becomes an artist, art and its creator would need to be grounded in daily life, in the last pretzel, rice cakes, artist journals, and bathing suits.
One day, after drilling a few holes into the walls of my new apartment, my photographer friend M picked up the Surrealism book, Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents, on my coffee table. I said, I wanted to be part of an art movement, just like the surrealists in the 1920s in Paris. Referring to my irrevocably romantic conception of an art movement, he added, “These guys were actually making art out of the experiences of their everyday life. Surrealism was the outcome of their frustration about the time they lived in.” I found myself agreeing, yes, art is that which springs from everyday life. From our conversation I was determined to start an art movement from gossiping about my artist friends and our little bubble.
The blog post is in remembrance of the exceptionally long summer we had in Berlin in 2018.
Check out Pocobelli’s podcast: Artist Journal by Adrian Pocobelli.