Interview and artist photo by Semra Sevin
"Art has an enormous power to transform."
Artist and curator Jonny Star (b. 1964, Düsseldorf) lives and works between Berlin and New York, coming from the urban subculture of the '80s in Berlin (West) via a study of psychology in the city, extended stays abroad, co-operating a Berlin cult bar, fashion, farming, and Fine Arts. Star’s oeuvre, spanning more than two decades, blends a variety of materials and media such as bronze, photography, fabrics, and elements of installation art. Her ensembles explore biographical experiences, sexuality, gender roles, and identity and how it is perceived by society. The symbolic and the functional, the serious and playful, and the found and created are combined within a bricolage that Star employs as an artisanal and material method. Orchestrated situations and exaggerations--playful, humorous and ironic on the one hand, and mystical-mythological on the other--provide motifs for her symbolic and oft-quirky imagery. Star’s work has been shown internationally since 1996. The art project “Superuschi” is Star’s current platform for her curatorial activities.
Semra Sevin: Jonny, you are an artist who developed within the Berlin of the '80s. What did the Berlin of the '80s look like and how did that affect your artistic work?
Jonny Star: Berlin used to be separated by the wall then. I arrived when I was 18 years old. I also traveled within Europe, and internationally. While I was traveling, I lived on the streets or in squatted buildings. In Berlin people didn’t lock their apartment doors, even in houses that weren’t squats. I used to live with several people in a rental apartment and we just broke through the wall and made a hole in order to connect to our neighbours. In those years in Berlin it was easy for me to be self-sufficient, earning my money by working in a collectively run bar comprising up to eighteen people. The collective was run in an un-hierarchical way, and our bar was like a living room, transformed into a meeting point for different people. The collective met weekly to decide on the organizational structure for the coming week.
Every two months we completely redesigned the interior of the bar. I was not aware of this at the time, but this was the beginning of my artistic career, at that time having just quit school to experience the Berlin life, living in the alternative undercurrent of the city which ran in parallel and in stark contrast to the more conservative lives lived by others. From the outside we might have seemed chaotic, but the freedom that this city offered, gave us a vital platform. Berlin had a unique status, as it was still separated by the wall and surrounded by East Germany. Some rules that applied to the rest of Germany, didn’t apply to Berlin. Therefore this city used to offer a neutral place for all young men, who because of their convictions, didn’t want to do their military service. They fled to Berlin to avoid military service and to be able to live freely. The gay scene gathered in Berlin as well. Houses were squatted like in other cities of Germany in the 80s, but Berlin was even more free because of its particular location.
SS: How did the Berlin punk scene influence your life and work?
JS: I was part of the punk scene and had left home to live in Berlin amongst peers that were also young and united in opposition to the ideals of the previous generation. This was very common at the time in Berlin, people as young as thirteen and fourteen who had ran away from home to live as squatters in Berlin. This city offered a space and social infrastructure that protected those runaways. Instead of becoming homeless and slipping into criminality they arrived into a protective self-sufficient structure ruled by the spirit of collectivity and free expression. Technically some of us were homeless. Practically, we had an alternative safe structure. Those who had to or chose to leave their families, formed new families, as I did. I had stronger connections to my new family members in Berlin than to my biological family. Friendships were formed that still exist today and that strongly connect us up to today.
We had the feeling of “no future” so we did what we wanted. At the time we were not aware that life would change as much as it did with the fall of the wall. Many of the punks had traditional educational diplomas and careers later. The punk scene was cheeky. We women realized that the student revolts, feminism and worker revolts of the '60s and '70s were not potent enough, and that in the end, the old structures of oppression still dominated, especially for women. Even within the punk scene you had a very macho culture, directly reflecting the patriarchy. In response, I decided to walk around topless, just like they did. For years, I used to cut the crotch of my stockings and I wore them as arm covers that left my top nude. We used to have our collective meetings in front of the bar on the streets, my friends and I used the streets as a think tank, which was a conscious decision. Public space belonged to the people. Being a punk meant to do everything yourself, to be creative and not accept capitalist structures, to create your own structures. It’s a form of being, which in the end translated into my art and into my being as an artist. I have always liked total free fall and abandonment into a situation and a subject.
SS: When did you feel that you are an artist and that you will declare yourself as such?
JS: In those times I was intuitively very creative in many different ways. Even though I went back to school to get a high school diploma and then a university diploma in psychology, I continued to express myself in various artistic forms. The school I made my high school diploma at was a self-organized school. The students chose the teachers. As we were a women’s class, we chose female teachers. As a result I was surrounded by feminists at the time and could express myself as a feminist. I really loved that. I not only designed interiors at the bar, but I also expressed myself with the clothing I wore, styling myself in diverse ways. The collective feeling and collective Berlin life strongly influenced my art work and still does.
During that time the wall came down and Berlin was reunited. I realized that as a child and adult and during my time in Berlin, I was expressing myself artistically through so many forms, with my hands, fashion, design, room installations, photography and more. In 1993 and '94 that desire became so strong that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I still had some trepidation towards the art scene itself as it wasn’t as inclusive as I hoped. As an artist who didn’t have a formal education in an art school within a country that appreciates institutions and diplomas, I was an exception and the art world was ignoring artists without a diploma, no matter what talent.
So I had an inner struggle for a while whether to call myself an artist or not. But in effect and as described in my previous answer, my life was an art installation in itself, the way I dressed, the way I created spaces and my life. In 1996 I had finished my psychology studies and started to work in a women’s shelter as a professional psychologist. In this time I began in earnest my artistic practice, using my evenings to create the ceramic figures which I would later cast in bronze, and the series of self-portraits, which I would go on to use in my Soft Objects series 17 years later. I realized my practice was expanding, and needed more space, so I focused on executing my female porno statue series in bronze; these comprised the first installations I exhibited alongside my photographs of more ephemeral sculptural work from this time. This was and still is until today, twenty years later, still the way I work, in series and installations comprising both three-dimensional and two-dimensional works.
SS: How does the Berlin of the '80s differ from the Berlin of today? Those must have been exciting times, with some similarities to the '70s in L.A.
JS: Every generation can have a great time in Berlin I believe, even if it is much more conservative today than before. Today we can discover East Berlin, which is great. After the wall came down, I spent most of my time in Berlin Mitte, today one of the posh areas of Berlin. Mitte had pop up, cellar and underground bars and exhibitions which weren’t in white cubes. Suddenly we had so much space available that was very affordable. It was also a very exciting time for people from the West Germany and East Germany to meet for the first time; we would sit in cafes and tell each other our lives. I realized that West Germany practically bought the East and its companies--a whole country was dissolved. For me, on the contrary, my life and structures just kept on going as before. Then the techno scene came into Berlin and the party scene became less appealing to me. At some point I was also tired of Berlin and felt a strong desire to connect with nature. Some people moved or spent time in the countryside around Berlin; all my life I was drawn to organic food production, farms, communes in the countryside, so in the late '90s I decided to spend time in the Allgäu mountains and Portugal.
The pressure of not having a diploma from an art school and not being able to be part of the Berlin art world had became so great. Legally I wasn’t allowed to apply for any grants, stipends or financial support because I didn’t have a diploma from an art school. I felt so isolated that I decided to take a break. Today, with the change of laws, it would be illegal to exclude me. I never sculptured as beautiful as in Portugal. But Berlin kept on drawing me back, as it gave me the feeling of a home. As a feminist, I couldn’t stay in the Portugal countryside, so I came back to live in Berlin in 2005 and continue my life as an artist. I was very active within the non-commercial scene of project spaces. Until today, I have had exhibitions in commercial spaces, however there is still the question: if my lack of academic background is related to whether I have a commercial gallery or not. Now that I am older and I have accumulated a large body of work, I am being taken more seriously.
SS: You have spent time in New York the last years. What differences do you see to Berlin?
JS: Berlin has more space for creativity and possibilities for creative space. Public space in Berlin is still freely accessible and a space to express yourself. In New York, laws and attitude don’t seem to allow space for free thinking and creative self-organized spaces anymore. In Berlin we can still use public space in a more liberal way and if you don’t have money, you just go to a park and sit in the grass and chat with a drink or a sandwich and your friends. Social status and wealth isn’t necessary in Berlin to have a comfortable life. I don't know about the future, as all metropoles as Paris or London as well, seem to undergo a certain development. And if it changes in Berlin, then I think artists and people will move to a new space.
SS: What are you working on currently, and what is it you want to transmit with your art?
JS: I am working on a bigger installation that I will show in a solo show this September in Berlin. For this I am showing eight new bronze figures which I have just completed casting at Skulpturengießerei Knaak in Berlin, new collages and paintings and six bronze works from my archive. All of these works will comprise the installation entitled The Circle Room, relating to the circle of life, and the endless return. The process while creating a bronze is what I like about the bronze figures most. Piecing together elements from nature, found objects, transient, perishable things, and rendering the forms permanently in bronze.
With my art I want to articulate subjects of love, self-love and community. Those are core things we all have within us and carry into the community. Thus, we see a part of ourselves reflected within my work. I see an artist as sort of a shaman, with the power to initiate a thought process in the viewer and the power to affect people. If you look at my large pillows on the ground during my openings, you will see that people will sit on them and become part of an installation. They will bring the pillows and the artwork into life. My hands and materials have a great importance in my work. I reuse materials in different ways. The fabric I use for my pillows and soft objects, I might rescan and print it, and create a painting with that print. To me, my work is like a spider web, with many junctions which are connected to each other. Things will go and come back, like in a cycle, like in the universe.