An email Interview with Agnes Janich by Sabine B. Vogel
SBV: Your work is divided into 3 main subjects: war, love and family. Why did you choose these kind of controversial subjects? Where is the relation between these three?
AGNES JANICH: I was asked by a museum director lately – Why do you touch on such used up topics? And I said There’s nothing I can do. I’m being myself. I’ve long since stopped trying to be someone else.
SBV: It seems that your works in these three series circle around violence – why are you interested in violence?
AGNES JANICH: My works are always about people, human emotions. Male artists, it seems to me, have a talent to be fascinated by the medium, by the sheer pleasure of putting the brush to the canvas. To me, it’s more about what I put in there.
War makes you an uncanny puppet in the hands of the Creator. Love, well, what better opportunity to be hurt. Nobody ever gets so close to us as the one we love and nobody can ever hurt as much as they do. With the family it’s all the same, maybe more perverted because we grow up to believe that parents would sacrifice everything for their child. Then, in war and in everyday life, they prove different.
An addiction to people which I think I have means to me an addiction to trying, and failing, to understand, how can we do such things to one another.
SBV: War is the title for your works dealing with the 2.World War, especially the Holocaust – why did you title it with such a general term and not name it?
AGNES JANICH: My projects about War and Annihilation aren’t just about the Shoah or the Holocaust. They touch on the war in Iraq, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, nuclear weapons and PTSD. I worked with tens of Iraqi vets, I interviewed their girlfriends.
I feel I can not compare pain.
SBV: Is your interest in this subject biographically motivated?
AGNES JANISCH:Yes. Till I was 6, I believed all people go to, and some die in, a camp. When I grew up, I learned some people go there, come back and don’t even tell. I couldn’t understand.
SBV: These works are partly based on visual metaphors like barking dogs (Man to Man) or soaps (Cleanliness Is Goodliness)– why did you choose such innocent images?
AGNES JANICH: My friend used to laugh that each romantic conversation of ours ends up in the sterilization of women in Dachau. Be it in bed, with me half-undressed, or at dinner – that was it with me. Never an out-of-the-camps moment. [It's different now. I think my projects about Love, they rescued me. They were a reason to move on, to put on colorful clothes back again. Even when it's hard.] After a certain thousand of images of women with babies torn from their bellies and men burned alive you long for a language that would touch people without hurting them.
I walked through the forest surrounding Bergen Belsen in a hurricane. I visited Ravensbrueck in a blizzard. I ate little. I looked a lot. For 5 years I read only survivor’s testimonies, about 500 of them. The effort, when you compare it to a life with a daily intake of 400kcal/day, seems pathetic. But at least I was trying. I don’t think my audience needs to go there.
Openly portrayed violence has an adverse effect on many people. Beauty and softness, they seem to go further in talking about that same thing.
SBV: Why did you show Man To Man in the special context of the Sharjah Biennale 2009 in the United Emirates?
AGNES JANICH: I suggested an older work, also touching on Annihilation. Jack Persekian found Man To Man in my portfolio and invited me to do it there.
Why the Holocaust in the Middle East? Because the victims, they were all, we are all, people.
SBV: Relating to memory, to the Holocaust and the horrible time of the Nazi reign is a recurrent subject in the arts - are there any artists or works on similar subjects which you are particularly fond of? Do you have any artists which were influential for you?
AGNES JANICH: My inspirations are myriad and a mystery to myself. In terms of other artists, there is something negative which - contrary to the existentialist concept of freedom for, not against, which I fully believe in – influenced me.
These were works that explore extreme concepts using extreme methods. I preferred to do to myself what some artists did to others.
I cut myself for so many films of mine – good and bad ones, also those I later deem unfit for showing. I fell off stairs and scratched my breasts till they were bleeding. I talked about my private traumas, yet I always found the audience could relate. People often cry at my openings. They tell me their personal stories. We correspond, we build a bridge. But I can’t imagine talking about someone else's pain without them asking for it to be told. I can’t imagine being honest about what I do not know.
SBV: Where do you get your inspirations and most influential thoughts from?
AGNES JANICH: My life. The lives of others close to me. Feelings, emotions, pain, laughter, hunger, fear. The reality of being human, the reality of us all. To me, if a work of art touches the heart of at least one human being immensely –it did it’s job.
Sabine B. Vogel, freelance art critic and curator, living in Vienna; since 2002 teaching at the Universität of Applied Arts, Vienna; since 2004 board member, since 2008 president of AICA AUSTRIA