ART IS NOT ART? AN INTERVIEW WITH SEBASTIAN BIENIEK
Known for his clever performances, art antics and artworks full of irony and vocalized splendor, I was anxious about meeting Berlin-based artist and film director
Sebastian Bieniek, lest I should encounter a closed-off and overly sarcastic character. Nothing could be further from the truth. The artist who I had seen in videos with his act of grandeur and
brashness towards other artists, particularly during a recent Deutsche Bank art competition, was down-to-earth and incredibly lively while recounting his art performances and stunts originating
back to his student days, as well as his reflections on the art market and how it is changing.
When Deutsche Bank opened up their KunstHalle in Berlin on the cusp of spring this year with an open call for all Berlin-based artists to bring their works over to be placed on the walls – space permitting – more than 2,000 artists bundled up and headed out to the new KunstHalle, even lining up before dawn to ensure their artwork could attain a spot in the new art institution's 24-hour exhibition. Everything appeared to be running smooth and morale high, that is, until Sebastian Bieniek walked up and cut to the front of the line with his large, shimmering painting entitled "Bird Shit on 4 Square Meters Gold" (Vogelschiss auf 4 Quadratmeter Gold) in tow.
The absurdity of Sebastian's piece was accentuated by his loud boasting and proud announcement that everyone should go home because not only was the selection process rigged, but also that he was already notified by Deutsche Bank that he had indeed won the competition. While some artists appeared slightly disheartened, many were amused and others notably annoyed by the audacity of such a stunt. With intensive coverage online, skeptics who would never set foot in such a line or such an institution were pleased, thinking that the whole exhibition was a sham anyway and art was simply being used as a PR tool by the bank. Asking Sebastian if he waited around a bit after his performance to see if his piece could actually get into the exhibition, despite causing quite a commotion with security, he responded with a slight chuckle, "No... I went home at 2pm. I was hungry and it was lunch time."
Sebastian explained to me that actually this was not his first run-in with Deutsche Bank; in 1998, he staged a
ludicrous bank robbery while wearing a Freddy Krueger mask and armed with a piece of wood as a
gun. Needless to say, the bank nor the German Polizei were amused. Other performances of his that were not simply for provocation, but also motivated by implicit political and social commentary,
include his first art performance back in 1996 as a photography student at the renowned Braunschweig University of
Arts, where he plastic-wrapped his entire body and carried a cross – as a Jesus figure – while pulling seven shopping carts laden with
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Thirteen years later in 2009, while visiting the former Art Forum Berlin international fair for contemporary art, Sebastian showed up in a burqa and despite his VIP guest pass, was not allowed to enter. Changing into his normal everyday clothes, he attempted again to enter the fair and was permitted inside without question or delay. After entering, he quickly went to the restroom and changed back into the burqa and upon walking out onto the main floor, he was immediately pounced on by security guards and removed from the fair. Sebastian did not appear surprised nor phased, especially since Art Forum Berlin was "all about power and not about art – people fight for the market and it's becoming smaller and smaller each year." This also explains why he is not an avid visitor of art vernissages, which he likened to church and his experience growing up in a small catholic village in Poland – "it is as if everyone is looking at you and judging, like with communion at the church – they look at you to see if you are actually taking the communion and if not something is wrong. I would rather just focus on producing my own art."
So are the performances just a case of disillusionment or art-school-gone-bad? And why the constant provocation? Sebastian laughs with a devious smile as he explains to me some of his earliest memories of instigation and pranks, particularly an incident revolving his local church. In the catholic village where he grew up, every young male became an altar server. One day, however, while the priest was visiting his family – as priests in small catholic villages do – he greeted each of Sebastian's brothers, happily recruiting them to become altar servers, but upon reaching the ten-year-old Sebastian, his only comment, with a grimace, was: "But you not. You will become nothing." Apparently there had been one too many innocent pranks and jumping out from behind corners for the priest's liking – eternally deeming him unfit for the church, which was probably not the direction he was aiming for anyway.
To this day, Sebastian continues to be in constant play with the other and instigates to "see people when they do not have a mask
on." Provoking people and gauging their reaction allows for a deepening of his own reflection and understanding of his work. This is clearly evident from his active Facebook page where he engages in daily dialogue with the public, responding to both praise and criticism of his self-proclaimed
"masterpieces" and tag lines painted on canvas with sayings such as "art is not art" and "everything Sebastian Bieniek does is a masterpiece." Constantly evolving his style and making use of irony
(with underlying, or double, meanings that can flip the whole sense of the piece), as well as story telling to entertain and engage people, Sebastian is ahead when it comes to self-promotion, social
media and public engagement. As he notes, "art will be consumed differently, the market is constantly changing. Nearly every day, I make an artwork and post it on Facebook. You no longer have to
see art in a gallery or see the original." With over 40,000 Facebook fans and even having reached over 1 million people in one week, surely he knows what he is doing.
But how does one stay so motivated and driven so as to produce nearly a piece a day? He explains that he is always on the look-out for inspiration – but not forced – simply living in the moment and opening up all of his senses to freely perceive. He aspires to continue surprising and catching his audience off guard. "The way I produce art makes me happy and surprises others. When I am no longer surprising others or myself, then something has to change." The key is to harness one's story. "There is always a story. Everybody sings a song – but in a different way. You have to start with something. My next work is the next sentence in my story. It must be essential, the next step...".
Article written by Julie Anne Miranda-Brobeck for amuse-berlin