Was born in 1980 in West-Berlin. He graduated from HBK Braunschweig in 2009. His work has a conceptual art background, but also uses typical tools and approaches from cinema. The scope of his work ranges from video performances to short film, video installations and photography. In his current project “The Swimming Reindeer”, Wilhelm explores themes from deep prehistory and reinterprets a 13 000 year old sculpture. His previous project “Contact” describes the mechanics of online “love”-relationships in contemporary Europe. I see Wilhelm as an artist whose art creation is truly rooted in our shared reality and who has an urgent need to comment on it, and therefore a will to influence it.
For the second episode of the Návštěva project, I chose the part of Wilhelms work which I see as experimental and expanded documentary, particularly the part of it which is focused on German identities. In these three works, Wilhelm offers several options to view current Germany from an insider’s view. He updates well-known images of Germany with his view of a place that is struggling with old hidden traumas, xenophobia and prejudice.
In “Heim” (Home) he draws a very intense, grim and scary line between the very nature of jokes and pure hatred, while in “Peter ist tot” (Peter Is Dead) he touches our relation towards photographical representation and narratives that we create to identify ourselves, asking if those are as individual as we tend to see them. In “Kiki Der Kriegshund” (Kiki The War Dog), Wilhelm tells an intimate story of a Wehrmacht soldier’s dog during World War 2, inevitably raising uncomfortable questions for a non-German audience about collective guilt, questioning the comfortable postwar paradigms. Finally, by questioning us as viewers he also reminds us of the very relentless character of war, the cruel division it creates. The very nature of distinguishing between "us" and "them".
author: Jan Martinec
Clemens, in 2009 you graduated from art school and seven years later you are still active in the art world. You had many shows and residencies around the world, so, were the last seven years nice and easy, or quite the opposite?
Seven years is a long time to sum up, let’s say, there were different periods. I like to look at my artist career as a small plant. It needs rain, sunshine, shade, not too much wind, not too many parasites etc. It needs fertilizer, constant attention and care. It needs to grow but it also needs to rest sometimes. You can’t force it to grow, it needs its own time.
Being an artist seems to be not the only role you have in art world - you also produce two festivals (greenerontheotherside.de, iseevideofestival.com) and go literally around the world with them, to China, USA, Northern Europe, and even Prague. How do you manage to maintain your art practice while keeping these projects alive? Do you understand these as two different practices?
I seem to have a lot of energy, perhaps because I used to be a long distance runner in my youth? I am a very curious person, and I believe that artists need to feed themselves from many different sources. Traveling is a great way of learning, if it is done with an open mind. I started my video festivals with the intention to share the opportunities that were given to me with my artist colleagues whose work I liked. When you arrive at an artist residency, it is much more interesting for any audience if you bring along the work of your favourite colleagues than if you arrive only with your own work to show. With video art, this is pretty easy to manage, it is easy to transport. I keep learning a lot about making work from following my colleagues work and from presenting it to different audiences. After art school, it is much harder to organize regular art input. It often feels like the projects develop quite naturally, because when I do my research for a new work, I always come across so many interesting artists’ work, which can then be incorporated into the festivals.
In your video “Kiki The War Dog” you work on the past of your own family, particularly your grandfather's war story as a soldier of the Wehrmacht. For me, this is one of the most difficult tasks for an artist, to talk about your own family, the closest people you have. There is no distance, a lot of complicated emotions, hidden blocks, traps of sentiment and so on, therefore not the easiest space to operate in. Was it difficult for you?
I totally agree. Making work about your family is tricky, and it can go wrong very easily in many ways. In the particular case of “Kiki The War Dog”, I tried to avoid to talk about my family too directly because the story could have happened in almost any family. I hope my voice-over carries the emotional part of the story?. “Kiki the War Dog” is the story of the “French” dog Kiki whom my grandfather saved from getting shot after the German invasion of Paris. Kiki becomes the German troop’s mascot and travels through Europe all the way to Russia where he gets very ill. He then is given to my great-grandmother in Bavaria during home leave. Kiki becomes her substitute of a family and witnesses the end of the war and the occupation, and becomes a father and pacifist - at least in the eyes of the people around him. The life story of Kiki was written down by my great-grandmother for her grandchildren. I discovered this hand-written account along with many photographs of the dog, as well as some 8mm-film documents - and felt that I had to turn it into a film because the story is quite abnormal and almost surreal.
To me, this film is more about the horrors of any war, and how they affect an average family. Kiki is an interesting by-stander, a side figure of history. He witnesses the perhaps craziest part of the twentieth century in his short dog-life, but he manages to overcome all the troubles that the people cannot handle - just because he is reacting out of his animal instinct.
I hope this dog’s life story can add an interesting angle on WW2, a topic which seems to be quite exhausted already and is always tricky for artists. It took me a long time to even touch the subject, since so many things have been said about it already, and it is really difficult to find an artistic language to speak about the war.
Last year when I showed this film in Scotland, many in the audience were moved to tears. Afterwards, some people told me that it was the first time that they saw that the Germans were not only evil people - and that there was suffering among the common people on every side of the front. On British TV you can have WW2 and Hitler every night, but you mostly hear about the heroic victory.
In “Peter is Tot” we go through a life story of a dead man. Although, the work seems to circle around photography and its role in our contemporary life, I couldn't help noticing a second theme in the background of the story, the “memento mori”. Is this intentional or could it be just any other story? I personally deeply enjoy pathos in art, but I do not find it often in works that I see. What is your position on that?
“Peter is dead” is a film which I made only from photos which I found in the trash can of my building in Berlin. Somebody had thrown away somebody else’s photographs. I felt the urge to save them and give them an order - years later this lead to this film about Peter, the Berlin truck driver and bar owner.
Yes, I agree, there is a memento mori moment built into this film, quite intentionally, but it is a bit hidden. I believe that death gives meaning to life - precisely because it is the end. Like a story or a joke, which only makes sense when it is finished, an individual life appears more meaningful when it is over. When someone dies, the complexity of his existence usually gets reduced to some pretty random facts: he liked to drink beer, he drove a blue truck, he had a small bar etc.
It is quite obvious that photography and death are always connected, since a photograph always captures a moment that has already passed. People in old photographs are already dead which makes the pictures uncanny, because they still seem to be looking at us. I am certainly drawn to photography because I have a deep interest and fascination for death - and story-telling. I often wonder why death is so hidden and almost taboo in Western society?
Pathos is a very big subject. I think you can have pathos in a work if it is not connected to the author or artist. And if it is balanced with humor. I find pathos unbearable when I feel that the author does not have the capacity to laugh at himself or his creations.
I think that your work, although rooted in video art, quite often uses typical tools of classic cinematography like a linear story or actors and as well overlaps with the documentary format in some ways, Your work is being shown on film festivals as well as in contemporary art galleries. Do you actually distinguish between those somehow and is it even relevant for you?
No, seriously, I think all these format have much more in common than what separates them. What is the difference between short film and video art today? I don’t like to think in these separate categories, especially not when I am making work. These discussions often bore me.
I like the saying that “being an artist is a political statement”, but do you think that art and artists could actually be a relevant force in contemporary society? Is art in any thinkable way influential to “the world”?
Yes, absolutely. Art is always political because it takes up public space. Art that only happens in your basement and is never shown to anybody is not art at all - it is just masturbation - because there is no other, no recipient. Art is a language, it needs at least two people, and I think we can agree that language is always political? There are actually no politics without language. Can there be art without language? I don’t think so.
Therefore art has a strong influence on the world. Artists have a strong influence on society. But that does not mean that it is necessarily always a positive one, right? Doesn’t it all really depend on your definition of art? Is art only what you find in museums and galleries? I think Joseph Beuys was quite right in saying that everybody who works on the society, who is an active force in the shaping of a society, who works to help the community - is an artist. I think art is not only made by professionally trained artists. I believe that any society is kept together by shared stories and images - and those are also made by artists. Therefore, isn’t a society an artwork created by its members?
Thank you & may the force be with you!