Interview: Artist Erwin Olaf
We take a look at how Amsterdam-based Dutch artist Erwin Olaf has brought us on a journey via film and photographs that reveal vulnerability of humanity.
In Erwin Olaf’s world, you’ll find the most impeccably-dressed and styled ultra-glam models set against elaborately-staged theatrical backdrops with painterly lighting, producing evocative, sleek and painstakingly-composed images of formal perfection that look like an ad for Bottega Veneta, Diesel or Moooi, or a fashion spread for Vogue or Elle (which he incidentally has done). They’re almost too beautiful and too perfect to be real, then he injects a touch of quiet drama into his incredibly-powerful and expressive tableaux that present a nuanced vision of today’s society and its ills, contradictions and taboos. Almost against nature, he mixes unparalleled beauty and fundamental aspects of the human condition – solitude, fear, anguish, love, violence, loss, mourning and melancholy – going into a difficult subject with incredible depth, as he works in series. The ultimate storyteller, he always conveys a narrative through photography and film, even if the actual story is unclear.
Olaf underlines the autobiographical nature of his oeuvre, where most of the time the starting point is his private life, from growing older and the notion of domestic bliss to intense travelling and staying in countless hotel rooms. He says, “If you want to know me, look at my pictures. They are autobiographical. When you create art, every detail should be you 100 per cent. Photography is me. It’s my life. It’s my lifestyle. Some artists make nearly always the same kind of art. For me, my life is too dynamic and I’m too restless. I’m waiting a bit to decide on my next step, but maybe I’m going to minimalise and make something that is very rough because I want to surprise myself again. If I want to be a money-maker, I should make my most successful series until I drop dead, but it feels dishonest, and I think that people will feel it. You see artists that you think don’t mean it anymore; that was what they were making 10 years ago.”
Olaf continues, “I like to talk about the technique of photography… but I also always want to talk about an emotion that at that moment of my life is important. The series ‘Rain’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Grief’, which I made in 2004, 2005 and 2007, has for me a lot to do with 9/11 in the United States. I’ve always adored the US for creating a lot of freedom for us after WWII, and I wanted to make a very positive series to celebrate it. I was inspired by Norman Rockwell who made very positive American paintings, so I thought I’m going to build a set for the first time in my life, but when I took the first picture, I was really disappointed. There were four people being funny and, at a certain moment, I thought, ‘This is not what I want to tell.’ So then I created a picture, ‘The Dancing School’, with only one man and one woman, who don’t move and don’t make jokes; they just stand there. Then I had my story because what I wanted to say is that we had a wake-up call, that this happiness of the ’50s, this sugar world, didn’t exist anymore. And that we were now as a Western society between action and reaction. Something has happened and before you can react, I’ve taken a picture. That was what I wanted because I was paralyzed. How shall I react? What will be our future? You don’t have to answer.”
In the first 20 years of his career, he had boldly venerated the abnormal, the deformed, clowns and drag queens, unconventional models and powerful subjects who appropriated their own bodies; while in his works of the past 15 years, still portraying the unspeakable of today’s society, his characters are alone, ignore one another or have zero physical contact. He is now more serene and meditative with the arrival of a different state of mind and a renewal of his art.
“I had a turning point around 2001,” Olaf notes. “Before that, I made very strong, aggressive, outspoken, demanding, ‘look at me, this is what I think’, one-way photography, which I still like. Then you grow older, past the age of 40, and a big relationship ended after 23 years. You start to rethink, no, I’m not always right, but I’m still influenced very much by my youth, when I started to live on my own, and I went to the cinema a lot, watching movies by Luchino Visconti, Kirk Douglas, Jacques Tati and Federico Fellini, a wide spectrum of directors. They made their movies in the ’70s and ’80s, and I was always super intrigued by this very precise way of working and creating emotions and your own world with only celluloid. Since young, I’ve created my own fantasies and dreams. I don’t like reality too much.”
Born in 1959 in Hilversum in the Netherlands, Olaf studied journalism in Utrecht. News writing wasn’t the right fit, so he was delighted when an insightful teacher proposed photography and put a camera in his hands. A photojournalist documenting the world around him at first, the domain of fantasy had always fascinated the perpetual dreamer, so he quickly exchanged the streets for the studio and an army of set designers, stylists and hair and makeup artists. Setting up shop in Amsterdam in 1985, he became an overnight success when he won the 1988 Young European Photographer of the Year Award in Germany for his first series, ‘Chessmen’, portraying unlikely models bound and dressed in ostentatious costumes depicting chess pieces, which recalls the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel-Peter Witkin, who revisited the concept of the model and the ideal of ‘beauty’ with his imperfect and deformed figures, celebrating the strange and grotesque that are somehow appealing. From then on, he realised he could make a living as an artist. Olaf began working on paid assignments like posters for theatre groups and movies and, starting in the early 1990s, became an internationally-renowned advertising photographer, picking up numerous prizes for promotional campaigns for major international brands like Levi’s and Heineken.
It is in his personal work exhibited in art galleries that Olaf finds the most satisfaction. Here, nothing is taboo: homosexuality, old age or handicaps. Intent on opening the eyes of people to the realities of our world instead of denying them, he remarks, “Every two or three years, I made my own series because I felt a need to express myself and do something with the knowledge I gained through paid assignments. At first, it was 80 per cent assignments and 20 per cent my own work but, since 2004, it’s 80 per cent my own work and 20 per cent assignments. My personal work is the best, but I cannot do without the paid assignments. They keep me independent. I earn money through commissioned work, advertising or portraits, and save it until the moment I feel the need to do my personal projects. This keeps me very independent from the art world, which has its rules and regulations, while the world of advertising doesn’t eat me up because I also earn money through my own projects.”
In one of his later series ‘Berlin’ (2012), rather than constructing sets in his own studio, Olaf creates tension through shoots in locations of historical significance during the interwar period, like the building in front of which John F. Kennedy pronounced the legendary phrase ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ or the swimming pool where high-ranking Nazi officials like Hermann Göring came to bathe. Children are metaphors of the power accorded to youth, which is reproaching the generation before it of all the damage it has caused. A boy with slicked hair parted in the middle and black leather gloves pointing an accusing finger at an African man in an athlete’s outfit laden with countless medals, which could be read as Hitler’s annoyance when black athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, references the conflict between knowledge and ignorance.
In a return to Olaf’s early work dealing with the nature of the human body, the pure and less constructed series ‘Skin Deep’ (2015) embraces the naked-self considered shameful and offensive through nudes of different race and sex, set in an 18th-century mansion in Holland that he had photographed then reprinted its walls in his studio in a veritable trompe-l’oeil. This series is still part of his ideal world, but it is less structured, and therefore closer to the ideal of purity. He discloses, “I think there is nothing wrong with the body or sexuality, so why should we hide so much? It’s softer than my earlier work because I created that out of frustration and not knowing where to go with my sex life. Now I like more the comfort of the body and the beauty of skin. Asian skin is one of my favourites; it’s so beautiful in photography, in light and darkness, in black and white, and making shadows. We should be proud of our bodies. And it’s the history of art. In the history of art, we always see the human body, so why should nudity be taboo? This was for me a very political statement hidden in a series of aesthetic nudes.”
Taking on new roles, Olaf’s non-photographic projects include designing the Dutch euro coins that have been in circulation since 2014 and working in exhibition design for the first time earlier this year as the scenographer of the hugely-successful exhibition ‘Catwalk’ at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam presenting a large selection of its fashion collection, which he’s termed “a highlight of my life”. In the pipeline is an exhibition for his gallery in Berlin, which will include two new statues, one of a woman in wood, referencing the 2016 New Year’s Eve mob sexual assaults in Cologne where the mayor responded by blaming the victims, and the other of a man in marble placed inside a box because during the President of Iran’s visit in Rome, classical Roman statues were covered up so as not to insult his modesty. He relates, “I don’t want to be too angry; I only want to start a dialogue so we rethink what we’re doing. Our freedom of speech and freedom of thinking, of being who we are, we can’t give that away. So this is for me more political than ever, but I’m really worried and angry.”
For now, Olaf continues to dream and hopes to take his exhibitions to the next level by creating an atmosphere and an entire world combining film, sound, photography and sculpture, where the viewer is influenced simultaneously by each of the different mediums. “I’m now thinking about doing a project in Singapore because I was really impressed with the city, like what I had done in Berlin a few years ago,” he remarks. “I would like to extend all over the globe, taking the major cities that are in transition, then working with my fantasy based on their history to make something with them. I don’t want to be repetitive in my life. I feel that I’m at the end of a cycle, of one chapter of my oeuvre. I don’t know what the future will be, although I’m now busy with developing a feature film script together with a Warner Bros. producer in Holland because I want to flex my muscles. One of my goals is also to do an opera in the future.”
This article was first published in Art Republik.
Text by Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle