London-based artist duo BeckerHarrison currently have two shows up in Berlin, both organised by Galerie Hiltawsky. Holy Shit, featuring black and white works is on view in the Gallery’s main space in the Tucholskystrasse, while Naked Truth, a full-colour extravaganza can be seen in a temporary space in the Potsdamer Strasse. Both shows autocratically take the visitor on a visual and mental journey, but you really need to see one to best understand the other (both exhibitions have strong leitmotifs of politics and iconography; yet, the former focuses a bit more on a political overtone, while the latter uses a more iconographical one.)
The duo travel and conceive their project ideas together; first German-born photographer Carolin Becker snaps the basic image, capturing what is realistically seen and then British-born painter Simon Harrison paints onto the image what they felt when they came upon their subject, creating an overall transpondence of both sight and emotion. Don’t let the screen fool you, people! What appears to the eye to be just photographs are mesmerizing artworks that always offer a (painted) element of what (visually) wasn’t originally there. I met up with them at the Soho House in Berlin to discuss their work. I was immediately intrigued with how they use politics and iconography in a truly novel way; what impressed me about them further was the energy they brought to the table and how it fuelled our talk: they are truly one (or a guess I should say‘two’) in a million! It was one of my favorite interviews ever….
You know, at first, I didn’t quite get that you’re works were comprised of photography AND painting. I had to see it live to really grasp what you’re doing…
CB: That’s our art. It’s a double take. Sometimes it’s a triple take. You look at it and wonder, does he really have a machine gun? Then you see its painted on after awhile.
I was wondering that, too. I was asking Christian (Hiltawsky) that this morning: if the pieces in Holy Shit were painted, too, because I couldn’t see it at first. Then he started to show me, and I was like ‘Whoa!’
CB: That’s what we do. We don’t re-touch. I give Simon a (photographic) print and he puts it up in the studio and starts painting. We do everything together, from the first to the last second. We go on trips together, and think about the story we want to tell, and we usually experience the ideas in the same way. Like when we were in Jerusalem, we just wanted to go there and see what it’s like. We wanted to be open-minded. We had no ulterior motive whatsoever. We were sort of like tourists. A friend of mine, she’s working on a huge project there, Jewish and from a wealthy well-known family, so she had permissions to shoot and photograph certain places where you usually wouldn’t be allowed to go. So she invited us to come with her, so we just tagged along.
SH: And we got some shots—like when you walk into the gallery in the Tucholskystrasse, immediately on the right there’s the big shot of the crowd.
CB: The image is of the Wailing Wall, there’s only one building there, and that’s a police building…
SH: and it actually connects to the wall—it comes straight off of it, and we were there, standing above the crowd. Everyone else has to take his or her photographs from much further back, so the angle is from somewhere you normally cannot photograph.
CB: There’s no other photo like that. No one, anywhere, as far as we know, has taken a picture from that viewpoint.
Pretty amazing. That was the first painting I saw in the show where the painting element started to come out, but at the same time, too, it almost feels like what you painted on top in reality actually is there. You know the wall and you know its not there, but it really makes you wonder…
SH: That’s a classic reaction to what we do. The idea is that we create an illusion within an illusion. So what you have first is the illusion of ‘Is that really there?’, and then the next one is ‘How did they get that there?’ Then, when the viewer finds out how we got it there, they’re like ‘I still don’t get how it got there!’ I sort of get this vision of the viewer walking around in their head, and they see something of ours and trip, and then they trip again, and then they trip again and then they try to catch up with themselves. I really like that, that someone will look at a picture and say ‘Is that painted?’ and someone says yes and shows them, and they are still left wondering ‘how?’ What I like about it is the synergy, the way when we work together, Carolin takes the picture and then she has the trust to give me her work and say ‘do something to that.’
CB: Well, we’re doing it together, so we usually have the same ideas and it works.
But I also like how the balance in the pictures works. You are a partnership, and its not that it is 50/50, or half painting / half photography or whatever. In the end, it’s sort of a paradox in a way. For instance, in the Tucholskystrasse, everything seems very photography-based in a way, but I don’t think people realise how much painting work goes into it than with taking the photos.
CB: I just go ‘click’ and the he’s busting his ass…
SH: But that’s a nice paradox, though, isn’t it? If people look into it further, like you are doing, there’s yet another little trip in the mind. Like, there’s that tiny bit of painting there, but it takes much longer than all the rest of this big bit. It’s just a nice kind of sense of layering in it. The idea we had from the beginning was that if all it needs is a tiny thing, than that’s what’s on it. If it needs a big thing, then that’s what goes on there. But whatever happens, when someone looks at it, it has to look like one object. As long as that idea and that feeling are continuing in the artwork, then we know we are doing it right.
I really like how the politics play out in your work, it’s not dogmatic. Like, in the Holy Shit show, I was thinking today about the Rabbi with the gun in his hand, or the Je suis Charlie picture, it’s kind of in a way what kind of prejudice is being put on the picture, but at the same time, its not…
CB: We are not judging. We don’t point any fingers. We are just observing, and if you don’t like it or if you don’t like the art that’s fine, but its what we saw AND felt: I photographed what we saw and Simon painted what we felt.
SH: Carolin shoots the ‘seen’ and I paint the ‘unseen.’
CB: For instance,
One of the monks pushed me over in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, I had a nun swearing at me and in the Church of the Flagellation, where they say Jesus Christ went on the cross, there was a group of Indian Christians who had massive wooden crosses and they would carry them around. I was trying to talk to as many people as I could, to get different experiences, and I asked one of them where they got the cross and he told me there was a place you could rent them down the street. I was like ‘Really?!’ He said ‘Yeah’ and then asked if I wanted to carry it for awhile.
SH: It’s funny, people will look at what we’ve done and will make value judgements on it and will assume that we have a political agenda. But, anyone who’s been there knows exactly what we are talking about. You can’t avoid it. The whole place is militarized. The reason it got there through the facts of the crusades and the militaries is effectual history. It’s like how you say, it’s not about being dogmatic. No, it’s just facts. That’s what it’s like.
I feel that without this element your images would be too pretty, too one-sided. It kind of evens it out.
SH: I like that. That’s a nice scenario. I hope that a lot of people feel that way. It’s a by-product of the energy we get when we work, it just comes out in the pictures. An artwork is an expression of the temperament of the artists.
CB: Like with the image of the Monk with the machine gun—I’ve shown it to many people before we put it up, and they look at it and start laughing. I’m like, ‘Great. That’s exactly the reaction we want.’ You look at it, and you’re like ‘Oh my god.’ People just smile. I also think religion at the moment is such a big topic. It’s a perfect timing for us.
FM: You know, I’m Christian and I see what people say about Christians, but I am not dogmatic about my religion; it’s just what I need personally. It’s interesting because I feel like I have always been very non-conformist with stuff and I feel almost that my religion now, it makes me feel almost rebellious again to be like ‘Yeah, I am religious, I believe this stuff.’
CB: But the Christians there, you have the Roman Catholic, the Greek Orthodox, and the Armenians. They fight like cats and dogs. I think what the main problem is in Jerusalem you have those three big religions and they don’t communicate with each other whatsoever. The Jewish stay in the Jewish community, even the house across from you or next to you could be a Muslim household, but they do not look at each other or ask questions, they don’t talk.
SH: It is without doubt the most complicated place I’ve ever been to. It’s like if you got three balls of string and unravelled them and just threw it all on the table, you get hives thinking about untangling it all. What you said about your attitude to your religion, that it’s what you need personally, that’s what I think. Religion should be a personal thing, not something you force into other people’s faces. It’s interesting, at the opening of Holy Shit, there was a little old lady who was laughing at the image of the priest with the machine gun. I asked her if she liked the picture and she said it was her favourite one there, and that she was Catholic. I thought that was a triumph, you know? That a Catholic is looking at that and she thinks its funny, for all the right reasons, too. I think our work has a sense of humour, I find it’s easier to be relaxed and fell less self-important when you’re laughing. I think that’s what comes across.
CB: But I also think it’s interesting when people have different opinions about it.
SH: I think that’s an important point, that art is open to interpretation. Full stop. It’s going to mean something different to every person. I like that.
FM: I always found that interesting with art history, when they talk about symbolism, like with what the artists meant with different elements in the imagery. How do they know?
CB: Right! Like, did you talk to the artist? (Shakes her head)
FM: I really wanted to ask you two specifically about this. You are using some strong forms of iconography in your work, like with the second exhibition Naked Truth and the imagery from Da Vinci’s Last Supper. It was funny, because all the press for that show—the website, on Facebook, etc. it only showed one image from the show at a time, so I was thinking it was just one image, but when you come in the space, it’s multiple images, all slightly different… It’s funny how the iconography of the image makes you overlook how each image of the series is actually quite different….
CB: They are all different.
SH: It goes back to the idea of creating the illusion. Shooting that series was one of the craziest experiences I ever had. The whole craziness of it, we went to Bangkok and hired 15 Lady Boys.
CB: We hired 15, just to make sure we got the 12 disciples.
SH: Just in case some of them didn’t show up. Then, the interpreter took them all to McDonalds to do their makeup, before they were brought to the shoot. Then, they all came walking through the hotel lobby with their high heels on and the staff was like…
CB: it’s interesting with them, because they do sort of want to be women and have known this since they were really young. But if they were to get the operation to become a full woman, they can’t work as prostitutes anymore. They would lose the money and on top of it their boyfriends are all straight—they all have families or whatever and they want them like that. They don’t want them to have an operation. They feel that would make them just like another woman, so for them it’s really hard. Only one of them ‘Holly’, whom we worked with a lot, we saw her two days after the operation. She had done an accounting class during the day and at night she was working as a prostitute, so she had a job to move on to. She was very clever, very sweet.
FM: Did working specifically with these Lady Boys add something to the piece?
CB: The interest is a double take from people. Like, there was this one guy who came up to me at the opening three times like, ‘They’re women, right?’ ‘No, they’re all men.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes I’m sure.’ And he wandered off and then five minutes later… ‘They’re really all men…?’ ‘Yep. They’re really all men.’
SH: That was a very funny shoot. The Da Vinci one, and when she asked me to be Jesus, I didn’t want to do it at first. But Carolin was like, go on, it’ll be fine. She sort of talked me into it.
FM: I was surprised, because on your website your hair is pulled back or sort of blacked out, and I didn’t realise at first when I saw the picture it was you until I saw you painting at the opening. I thought ‘wow, he’s a very powerful subject.’ You look almost like a vampire in it.
SH: If you look closely at the picture, you can see in my eyes, ‘Seriously, you want me to do this?’ (We all laugh)
CB: That’s maybe what you were thinking, but you do look like Jesus. Or Satan, (smiles) it’s great.
FM: I really like how that series is multiple renditions of the same motive, but I like how on the other side of the space are all the sort of snap shots, which sort of explain the background of the project. It sort of breaks it apart even more. There was one picture I wanted to ask you about, from a hotel room. Its of a blonde Lady Boy sitting on a bed. Very beautiful image.
CB: We took that at an ‘hour hotel’ on a different day.
SH: Do you know what they are, the ‘hour hotels’?
CB: The prostitute takes their client to an ‘hour hotel’ to have sex with them for one hour. We took photos there for another series; we did other things there, too. We walked in the room and the floor was so darn sticky, it was all sperm and used condoms, it was just disgusting.
SH: I basically went into the toilet and got a roll of toilet paper and just threw it on the floor and then started cleaning the floor. It was all stuck to my shoes and I was walking around trying to get it off. It was gross. The funny thing was how it looked when we arrived: there was me, Carolin, the interpreter, and the prostitute, right? We walk up to the reception and said we wanted to have a room. They just looked at us like ‘what is going on?’
CB: But they just gave us a bunch of towels and condoms and sent us off to the room.
SH: They must have thought, ‘what on earth is going to happen here?’ I had a big bag on my back with photographic equipment. You could see the look on their faces.
CB: And all the Lady Boys were so shy to do it. I was like ‘come on, this is easy!’ and they were like ‘no, having sex is easy for me’ (you know?) ‘I know I have an hour, and I know exactly what to do in that hour.’ They had never been photographed, but we got them to relax. We were there three times, three weeks each. Also when you look at the picture there’s one picture where I am laying on Holly’s lap and smiling. We made sure we had a really good relationship with all of them. We had a great time.
FM: What made you specifically choose the Lady Boys for that series?
CB: Well, we were interested in the works of old masters that old masters had to use prostitutes for everything because no decent woman would take her clothes off. So I thought to re-shoot the old masters with prostitutes, but with male prostitutes. It has to do with this female struggle with power and now I am in the position where I can photograph male prostitutes. A hundred years ago, there would have been no way!
FM: There’s a lot of kismet behind the symbolism of it, too. This beautiful Da Vinci picture that has been challenged so much over the years. Like, for instance, they say he actually painted Mary sitting at the table directly next to Jesus. There’s also a story from the bible pertaining to the pictures story, about Peter denying Christ right after this dinner. That they all look so beautiful in the picture but Jesus goes on to be betrayed. So for me, it’s sort of like everyone looks so beautiful in this picture, being there, being in the scene, but what kind of happens outside of the image. There’s also a lot of contrasts: male/female, the sense of what’s ‘good’ vs. what’s ‘bad’…
SH: I like that, I did actually think about the fact of it being Jesus and them being the individuals around Jesus and the androgyny in that character. It does kind of fit with what we did: you got Lady Boys who are men/women though out the whole thing and it is quite a poetic little twist. I like that point.
FM: How did everyone keep switching around in the different images of the series? It kind of looks like you are playing musical chairs…people kept switching places….
SH: Probably just being in the chaos of that.
CB: They were mayhem. Those Lady Boys have so much energy and they couldn’t keep their clothes on! It was hard to get them to sit down. They don’t know Jesus Christ, they don’t know the Catholic Church they didn’t know the (Da Vinci) picture. I had a print for all of them, I decorated the table myself with phallic symbols, water, bread, I did that all on purpose. But especially the fruit, they all were all phallic symbols. And you know, for Da Vinci, the number ‘3’ was so important, so we were trying to keep them in the groups of three, and they pretty much stuck to it. I pretty much had them for twenty minutes standing and sitting, and they had their little print outs of the original image to see where they were and who they were in the picture. In the end, it kind of just worked. They were pretty, good, pretty close to the original.
SHOWS CLOSE 28 FEBRUARY and 13 MARCH 2016 RESPECTIVELY.
two current axhibitions presented by Galerie Hiltawsky:
The Naked Truth / Potsdamer Str 85 / 10785 Berlin / 30 January – 28 February 2016 / Tu – Sa 15 – 20h
Holy Shit / Tucholskystr 41 / 10117 Berlin / 29 January – 12 March 2016 / Tu – Sa 14 – 19h
Images: Copyright BeckerHarrison