Once again Sebastian Heiner journeyed to the Far East to paint. From 2004 till 2008 he maintained a studio in Beijing as well as in Berlin. Soon artists, curators and gallery owners living in China’s capital started to take notice of him. At the end of his duration, works Sebastian made in China were shown in Beijing and in Germany in highly acclaimed solo exhibitions. In 2010/2011 he worked in Shanghai where he shared a studio in the North Bund Art Zone with painter Liu Gang. Now, in December 2012, he realised a long cherished dream of spending several months painting in Thailand’s Capital Bangkok. Sebastian has been fascinated with the Far East since his first trip to China. His bond with the Far East is a result of his interpersonal experiences he made while working with his fellow painters. Is it possible, however, to perceive a bridge between Europe and the East or even a daoistic principle in an abstract painter’s works of art, as authors of previous catalogues have claimed to see? Would it be possible to detect influences of the local culture in the works made in Thailand?
The artist himself values the conclusion that a mere change of location from Berlin to bigger and even more vibrant cities would bring about a liberation of the self, prompting more creativity. He considers Beijing and Shanghai hellholes and Bangkok, too, describing it as a city that devours its inhabitants. Patrick Dreher, author of the catalogue produced in Beijing in 2007, confirms the chaotic character of Chinese metropolises which makes the inhabitants seem to suffer more than that it enables them to find pleasure. Bangkok too makes this impression on occasions: travelling by bus from one part of town to the other can take up to three hours.
Sebastian Heiner presents his method of painting with explosive colours and the quality of a performance. He throws paint onto the canvas, squeezes oil paints from tubes, spreading them across the canvas using hands, arms and improvised spatulas. He uses brooms and fly swatters for structure. Is this the kind of art that reflects the chaotic appearance of overcrowded megacities?
Many other European, American and Australian artists come to Bangkok as tourists. They get to know the city and make contacts with numerous art schools and with a slowly developing gallery scene before they begin to start making art. Unlike them, Sebastian Heiner found a studio in the urban area away from the tourist highlights after a short period of preparation and began painting straight away. It almost seemed as if he wanted to avoid too much contact or a too long stay and the intense influences of a foreign culture. The paintings he made there don’t show figures or narrative elements like faces, extremities or Chinese characters as the ones he made in China. They are solely abstract paintings.
The artist rented a studio in the art collective V64. In 2011 this group of more than seventy artists acquired a complex of mostly single-storey warehouses grouped around a central square. Here they set up around forty studios, a gallery, an academy of fine arts, a music school and a coffee shop.
Befriended Thai artists living alternately in Germany and Thailand suggested the collective to Sebastian Heiner. The artists from V64 are cosmopolitan, too. Many have studied abroad and stay in contact with galleries all over the world. Off the big highway, Chaeng Wattana, half way between the Chatuchak weekend market and the old airport, Don Muang, V64 is an oasis of piece and creativity.
Bangkok is many things at the same time: a city of big shopping centres and busy boulevards where new hotels, offices and malls are built and where night markets are set up at rush hour. Bangkok is a city of small winding quarters, where people go about their day-to-day business, where they find essential supplies and never have to leave. Bangkok is the city of widespread suburbs divided by multi-lane roads, huge crossings, overpasses and urban motorways set on concrete pillars. On leaving these main roads via one of the side streets lined with flats and office buildings, one arrives at small street markets and almost rural areas. Here one can find typical Thai houses made of wood standing on stilts among banana plants and bougainvillea in full bloom. V64 is situated in such an area.
The Thais accept their capital city with Buddhist calm as something given and unchangeable. It takes them hours to get to work as they push through crowded elevated and underground railways and sleep in buses which stop hours at crossings or slowly saunter through smaller districts. In the evenings several hundred Thais do sports in the parks. On every available open space they practice aerobics to music blasting from mobile stereos or copy movements by a skilled dancer. They often eat at street restaurants or mobile cook shops standing directly near the road. They celebrate Buddhist festivities or the King’s birthday by the thousands and travel many miles to the countryside to see their families for just a few hours.
Everyone can try their luck in Bangkok. One hundred thousand Thais leave the province for the capital city every year to open up a shop or a small restaurant, to learn, study or to join the army of employees and workers. Political and social unrest between low-income earners of the growing middle class and the governing irrupt over the capital as unpredicted as a storm. Damages are quickly repaired and the pain of many is forgotten in an instant. Rather than thinking of Bangkok as a place of chaos, Thais must think it an organised city with multifaceted appearances and social structures.
A foreigner going about his work here will never find out if he stands among millions of individualists or among a society with clear structures. What seems anarchic is in fact regulated in public life by traditions as well as family, religious and state rules and established beliefs from above and below. Many try to overcome social pressure by limitless consumption in a globalised consumer world. This conflict is a common theme in Thai art today and can be found in painting, graphics, installations, videos and media art.
We create chaos in our heads. We sit on the balcony of our ten story apartment building and look down at the city where millions of lamps are surrounded by futuristic illuminated sky scrapers, neon signs and back lights of a never ending line of cars. We meet people who look at us with much friendliness, openness and with a thousand questions waiting to be asked but who seldom reveal their private life to a foreigner. The small things quickly become important. Thais are masters of design, of decoration and quick improvisation. Makeshift constructions last years. Traditional buildings make place for new ones made up of concrete, aluminium and glass. The camera captures old Chinese temples, slums, run-down cinemas next to shops filled with international brands, bold colour combinations on house walls, odd concrete constructions, flower markets with heaps of orchids, and inseparable knots of electric cables hanging dangerously close to the pavement. Sebastian Heiner describes these scenes with photographs and texts on his internet blog.
His oil paintings, however, do not reveal these scenes. The theoretical background of his art are non-representational tendencies that originated in America before the 1950s, such as Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting that manifested in different forms. Jackson Pollock created Drippings by dripping paint off paint brushes and tubes onto the flat lying canvas. He also fabricated a rich impasto of colour, sand, and broken glass, using sticks and knives to form relief-like surfaces. Franz Kline visualised gestural expression and the action of painting with black beam like characters. Robert Motherwell sets forms against carefully composed colour spaces. Graffiti and scribbles inspired Cy Twombly to a pictography in which he cultivated the All-over, an invention by Pollock, where the artist fills the entire image area in a uniform manner. The act of painting was the main focus for all these artists. Pollock considered the act of painting a subconscious but also spontaneous expression of mental state and said about himself: “When I am in the painting, I am not aware of what I am doing.”
At around the same time in Europe stylistic variations of gestural painting evolved, namely Arte Informale and Tachisme. In Paris in 1947 Jean Fautrier made the transition from figurative to informal art in paintings made with three-dimensional material while Georges Mathieu established an enhanced form of Action Painting in public shows. Like a fencer, Mathieu attacked huge canvases with explosively jotted daubs and informal characters. “Painting itself became the subject matter. Colour gradient and shape became the actual content.” (Karl Ruhrberg). In Germany Emil Schumacher designed visual landscapes of outstanding colour and composition that shared no relation with the real world. He created them with much physical effort and a sharp intellect. After long periods of meditation, Karl Otto Goetz wrote gestural lines in wet paint with a dry paint brush, a process that was to become known as “psychic automatism”. Fred Thieler created colourful image spaces well into the Eighties. Clouds of colour, almost cosmic in appearance, whose surfaces were sprinkled and sprayed contained trickles and dry crusts of colour pigments that gave his paintings a three-dimensional and eruptive edge.
While the protagonists of the middle of the 20th century generally concentrated on one formal principle that extinguished them, Sebastian Heiner can today revert freely and develop the entire repertoire of creative possibilities that informal painting offers. One of his artistic “heroes” is Emil Schumacher. Schumacher’s inspiration is reflected in Heiner’s paintings by the use of a highly sensitive and intellectual intersection in the relation of colour application, form finding and composition. Heiner’s way of painting is, however, pure Action Painting, as was handed down to us by Pollock, Mathieu and Goetz. It bears a strong internalisation, a discharge of subconscious creative energies and “psychic automatism”.
We depend on written documents concerning artists of the 20th century. Heiner, however, can make use of performance and documentary videos. They are additional material and art forms in their own right. Video journalist Peter Wollring documented a painting performance by Sebastian Heiner in Shanghai. Titled “Subliminal Session”, the video shows the artist painting on the rooftops of his studio without an audience present. An electronic soundtrack by Sebastian Drichelt accompanies the action. Not far from the river Yangtzse, rooftop views capture the Yangpu District with its run-down and abandoned industrial buildings. Close-ups of tower buildings, bridges, harbours, passing freighters, dull housing and littered backyards constitute less a contrast than a meaningful background for the artist’s almost brutal way of painting. Heiner lashes oil paint onto the canvas and mixes in sand and other materials. Using hands, arms and a spatula formed out of a drink carton, he creates form and composition. He is in the picture, as Pollock would say. He is in his own space of creativity which isolates him from the surrounding wasteland. During a public performance in Bangkok on the occasion of the anniversary celebration of V64, the artist created the concept for the later revised painting “Circulation”. We can see an intensified use of spray paints in this painting. Another video of the artist at work is made.
A glimpse into his studio in Bangkok shows that producing paintings and completing them are two separate processes. On the studio floor we can see paints, tubes and makeshift painting utensils from the last painting session that form a rather bizarre sticky carpet, while beautifully colourful artworks hang on white walls. Even here ugliness and waste set the stage for perfect aesthetics. One wouldn’t exist without the other. We can organise the paintings into three categories: paintings which show explosive movements of colour and structure, weaving and erupting in different directions; paintings emphasising three-dimensional characters and gestures and a third category where colourful shades and crusty surfaces create a calm All-over. The artist sees experimentation, the desire to release new energies of colour and periods of contemplation all as equally important. As is also the case in Emil Schumacher’s paintings, the viewer can detect cosmic energies and the vastness of the universe. The newly developed star shaped paintings made in Bangkok are an experiment but point in the same direction. Heavy golden frames similar to the ones the artist devised for some of his paintings from Shanghai are an expression of aesthetic completion and separate the artwork from the production process.
Beijing, Shanghai and Bangkok offer opportunities to experiment. In these magacities, Sebastian Heiner creates his artwork. The artist retreats from the chaos to a system of aesthetic processes he created for himself. Nevertheless, his artworks are full of life. Titles which were decided after the paintings were completed do not describe the subject matter but rather tell of the experiences from the time of their making. Without Heiner’s reflections on living in cities marked by human megalomania and without his performances and videos we would know little about his art. Perhaps his art really is closely related to the philosophy of the Far East, for the main principles of Daoism, the “teachings of the way”, also apply to his work. His drive is a constant observing of the world. His work principle is to go the way which holds darkness and light, Yang and Yin at its centre. The highest principle, however, according to the Chinese historian Sϊ Ma Tsiën (163-85 B.C.), is the awareness of not knowing and the return to cosmic law.
Axel Feuss – Bangkok January 2013
Translation by Jessica Hodkiss