Volume 17 - Jurgen Teller
Writer_ James Oliver
Juergen Teller has had a huge impact on what I do. He takes life for what it is, something I don’t experience too often. As our discussion swayed from topic to topic, Teller – adorned in a cut-up knit hat, red down jacket, chinos and sneakers – was always open and well spoken, seemingly unmoved by the fashion industry despite the hugely important role he has played in it. I think this speaks volumes about a man who many consider a pioneer, and I believe this open-minded thinking and his ability to turn a situation on its head makes him equally as relevant in the art world.
No matter what he shoots, it never fails to capture attention. His latest show at Blum & Poe in Tokyo, which centered around frogs on plates, is evidence of this.
How did the concept for the Teller Ga Kaeru exhibition come about?
Juergen (J): I’ve done pictures with plates for a while. I quite like that you’re surrounded by them three times a day. I had this show at the Bundeskunsthalle where I used plates as props and sculptures, and I put pictures on them. I also curated a show with Robert Mapplethorpe in November, which I spent a lot of time on. I started by looking at Robert’s work on the computer, then I went to the foundation in New York and spent a whole day looking at all of his stuff. They showed me originals and I realised he used a considerable number of plates in his photographs. There was this black background with a stack of plates and a man standing on it, which I thought was bizarre, then I saw these beautiful pictures of frogs and thought, ‘Why on earth has he done that?’ It was so arresting and so beautiful that it really stuck with me.
After that, I wanted to do something similar – obviously in my own way, with colour and more jumping around. I did maybe four different sessions and I had a lot of fun. Everything was done in my studio. There were about twenty different kinds of frogs and two frog handlers taking care of them, making sure they didn’t jump around too much. There was a lot of action in the studio – it was fun.
That must have been bizarre…
J: It was! And the more you got into it, the funnier the frogs looked. They looked bizarre and other-worldly. Their feet looked almost alien-like, and they were doing really weird things. It was kind of like that fairy tale, where if you kiss the frog it turns into a prince. So, that’s the story with the frogs.
What’s next, turtles?
J: [Laughing] We’re thinking cows. We already tried with an Indian cow, but I had problems getting it into my studio. My studio entrance is big, but not big enough to have a cow walk through it. I was told that the cow would have to be trained for a couple of months, but it became super complicated so I gave up on it. I’m actually going to revisit the idea, though. A friend of mine, an Indian girl who is an architecture critic, wanted to do something for a magazine about my building. She suggested doing something involving pictures of us cooking together, but I thought that was a little too boring. So, I suggested having her on a cow, naked. A naked Indian girl on an Indian cow in my studio. But again, the cow would have to be trained for a long time and get used to carrying the weight of the girl so it doesn’t freak out. You see what I mean?
Sounds like quite the process. What else are you working on now?
J: I’m doing something with Boris Mikhailov for the Ukrainian Pavilion. I’m photographing him and his wife, his new work and his flat in Berlin. I’m going to design something which will be used as the exhibition catalogue for the Ukrainian Pavilion. I’m excited about that. I’ve known him for a long time and I like him a lot. He is fantastic.
This show in Tokyo was curated by Francesco Bonami. How did you start working with him?
J: I met Francesco in 1999 and he invited me to do a show in Florence. After that, we shot ‘Go Sees,’ the book I did about girls knocking on my door.
Francesco, how would you explain your involvement in Juergen’s creative process?
Francesco (F): It goes back a long way. We always stay in touch, and sometimes Juergen asks me to write about his work. It is very stimulating – the whole process and the ongoing conversations we have. For this exhibition, Blum & Poe asked me to curate something for Tokyo, so I contacted Juergen.
J: Things become, I would say, relatively effortless. We just talk and then I ask him for his opinion, and then it’s kind of like ping-pong. It’s fun.
Have you worked with Blum & Poe before?
J: No, this is the first time. I haven’t done anything in Tokyo for a long time. I really like the gallery – the space is really good. When the shutters are up it’s really, really good. The location is interesting, too. AM Gallery is just around the corner, where [Nobuyoshi] Araki is showing now, and Rat Hole is only about 10 minutes away.
Where do you think your creative drive comes from?
J: Just the excitement of doing things, you know. I kind of use it as a catalyst to experiment, have fun and be energetic.
And where do you usually find inspiration?
J: From direct contact with life. I got completely inspired two nights ago when I met a woman. I’ve never seen anyone like her in my life, so I tracked her down and did some work with her last night and this afternoon.
When you don’t expect things, something comes along, like that thing with Robert Mapplethorpe. When they asked me to curate it I immediately said yes, I didn’t have to think twice. But then I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ I didn’t want to have all of his famous pictures in it, so I had to really work hard to put my stamp on it. That is kind of how I stumbled across the frogs. I wouldn’t say I ripped off his idea – I made something else out of it. I guess I get away with it because they’re on a fucking plate.
Please tell us about your recent hometown exhibition.
J: That show just opened two weeks ago. It’s a relatively big space so it was a bit daunting for me. Also, my mum lives there with my family, and she made me promise not to put any naked pictures of myself in it. She didn’t want all of the neighbours talking about it, so I agreed not to [laughing].
I kind of wanted to do the whole show about home and Germany, but I got really muddled up in it and couldn’t find a thread. I remember my mum calling me and asking so many questions: When is the opening? Where is the dinner? Are your cousins coming? Blah blah blah. I didn’t even know what the fuck I was doing for the actual show. I actually asked her what I should do. She said, ‘These countryside people are not that cultured, you should put Arnold Schwarzenegger, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss in – that’s what people here want to see.’ She actually had a fucking point, so that’s what I did. I took her professional advice for the first time in my life. She also told me to include the photo of her in the crocodile’s mouth. She said she gets people coming up to her in Berlin asking if that’s her, which I thought was hilarious.
I was flying into Nürnberg a week before the show to install everything, but I was still struggling. I decided I had to do something right there, on the spot – anything. I was so freaked out by what my mum had been saying, worrying that I’d bring shame on the family and embarrass her in front of the neighbours. I thought my cousins and old school friends, who I kind of don’t know anymore, would come and say, ‘Oh my god, this is just stupid! The whole show is stupid, they’re all bad pictures.’ So, I took a video of myself as an alter ego. I used my middle name, Dita, dressed up as a typical German-looking guy – Birkenstocks, knitted socks, terrible leather jacket, bad jeans, a long-haired wig and glasses – and I spoke in a heavy Franconian accent. I walked through the whole exhibition with a plastic bag, pointing at pictures and kind of slamming the show. And that’s what I mean – ideas come from direct involvement with life.
That video idea was just thought up on the spot?
Yes, because I was desperate. I always work till the last possible minute, where I’m open for change. If I plan a shoot, I’m not sitting there months in advance with everything worked out – which is fucking stressful. I wish it went the other way, though. I get very nervous and very desperate very often. I have a lot of self-doubt.
You mentioned old friends turning up and criticising your work. Do you take criticism on board?
Of course. Well, it depends who it’s from. My wife is my fiercest critic, I’m usually shaking when I show her something [laughing]. She only flies in for the opening of big exhibitions, and that’s the most important thing for me. I’m always like, ‘Oh my god, what’s my wife going to think?’
But that’s not a bad thing, right?
No, it’s a very positive thing – it’s a good thing. Equally, I am very curious as to what Francesco thinks of my work.
Does he have any influence on your shows?
J: He takes me to other places and gives me new ideas. Sometimes I get too close to everything and it all becomes unimaginable, but Francesco suddenly puts two and two together and shows me things that I would never have seen. He does it in such a bonkers way that it opens up a completely new universe.
F: He simply provides me with material, I think about the material and give him feedback.
How has your style and approach to photography evolved over time?
J: It is freer. My thoughtfulness and my playfulness – I just do it now, and I trust myself. I try certain things, and even if I fail, I don’t care. Before, I would think everything through and I was too shy, but now I just go ahead and do it, then work with it very carefully afterwards. The digital medium gave me more freedom too, as it’s more flexible. Also, I now have everything in-house, so I can play around with the layout and everything. That freed me up and helped me out a lot. Before, with film, it required much more time and money.
How do you differentiate your approach to fashion photography and fine-art photography?
J: I don’t really change my approach at all. But what’s different is that I do the non-fashion things for me, just really to please myself. With fashion photography, if you do a fashion campaign or a fashion editorial, there is a purpose. Whether I want to or not, I have to photograph a Céline handbag. And that’s the difference. But in terms of approach, I do both in the same free-spirited way.
How long have you lived in London?
J: It’s going to be 31 years in September. It has changed a hell of a lot – especially recently. It’s not that good anymore. Thank god I’m not living in America!
How does the city influence you?
J: The city itself, I don’t know. London gave me so much – so many opportunities. It gave me the freedom to be me. I’m sure it has changed now, but in the old days in Germany, you had to do an apprenticeship, work for a photographer and study just to get a piece of paper allowing you to work. But when I came to London, it was just like, ‘do it.’ London gave people a chance. If people there liked something, they didn’t care if you were green, black, blue or yellow, and they didn’t care about your background. If they liked the product, they gave you a chance. In Germany, you had to prove yourself and follow certain steps.
When I first moved, working with people in London really opened my eyes to things I had never seen before: music, pop culture, art – the whole thing was very exciting. But now, the mood has dampened. Everywhere you go, everybody is talking about this Brexit thing. Everybody is worried about how it’s going to be, and for the first time in a very, very long time, I suddenly feel like a foreigner again.