Bjørn Melhus is Berlin-based artist. Mary Cook is a Brooklyn-based artist.
Mary Cook: First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your fourth show at Roebling Hall, The Castle, The Meadow and The City. You certainly have been quite busy over the years. You have been studying film, and you have exhibited extensively overseas at the Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the LUX in London, as well as the Whitney Museum in New York.
Bjørn Melhus: Thank you, Mary. It’s my pleasure.
MC: Your work is so multi-faceted. You are known to explore a hybrid of figures and constellations by way of a narrative fragmentation of pre-existing sounds and images from popular film and music. Your work also appropriates from many feature films, such as “The Wizard of OZ” in Far, Far Away and “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden” in Auto Center Drive, while touching on the rhetoric used in advertising, a field that you formerly worked in professionally. Would you view the question of communication in the media world as your primary concern?
BM: Many people cook it down to that point. But yes, my work is multi-layered. Communication, of course, is one aspect of the work. There are other aspects in the work and often it is maybe the most obvious aspect and maybe that is why people often only write on that point.
MC: So, who is Bjørn Melhus? You use yourself as the central character in your video works. Your work must be very personal.
BM: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean I feel it is really important to bring the critical point of view into the personal, into an intimate sphere because that’s how we function. We share our intimate sphere with the public sphere all the time. The public sphere, what I mean is not just the media—everything includes our personal and private intimacy and make something with it. I see my stories and my characters—I mean the characters are, as you can see, templates to create a story, but the story is just like a psychological model for itself. The dialogue that is exchanged between these templates can be seen as an inner dialogue between art of an own ego or personality.
MC: How do you begin a project? Do you start off with a particular idea or format and then build around that? A specific storyline? What you want from beginning to end or have you—how do you choose your dialogue, in terms of appropriation?
BM: It is very different each time, with each piece. First off I can begin with any idea. If there is any idea such as a topic that I really find interesting for a while and then I decide I really want to do something with that. At that point I am going into research and looking at more and more stuff, if it’s movies or TV shows or whatever. I need voices for my work. My work is based on text, on time, and on researching and finding these parts that I can appropriate the story. So the story happens. I am doing the sound editing first. I am doing my little storyboard and I worked out the details of the stories. It is still a narrative because I am the storyteller. The overall idea is there before and that is like the way I work from the piece and sometimes I even just start with some images.
MC: Great! Let’s talk about your recent show at Roebling Hall. In terms of your references, you appropriated from “Rebel Without a Cause,” a lot of “East of Eden” as well.
BM: Yes. Cool. Auto Center Drive is an important piece for me. Because the Meadow is an “open continuation” of Auto Center Drive, so what happens with the Jimmy character, the main character of the film, I wanted to keep Jimmy’s lines as he has in Auto Center Drive generated with “Rebel Without A Cause” and “East of Eden.” Basically, these are all lines when James Dean had addressed his father.
MC: Like when James Dean’s father was wearing the apron in “Rebel Without A Cause?”
BM: Yeah, yeah. That and even later when “East of Eden” when he is at his father’s bed, when his father is dying. It has something to do with a certain search—I was interested in these lines and to oppose lines from Jim Morrison Play, that is the fire scene from Auto Center Drive. But Auto Center Drive at that time plays a lot with the self-invention of identity of what are we, how we create our own identity. This of course relates to what is perpetuated by American capitalism.
MC: Growing up with the television on. Being exposed to marketing…
BM: Yeah, but not just that. I think it is a basic idea. It goes back to when the first immigrants came here and left Europe. Europe is always much more connected to a certain tradition. Now it had changed. But look in the past, you couldn’t just leave your family tradition, the class where you came from, and do something completely different. Which is, basically, the American idea from the dishwasher to the millionaire.
MC: You were born in the 60s. Part of the earliest generations to experience television’s increasing popularity.
BM: Yeah. Yeah. 1966. But let’s go back to Auto Center Drive. This is a story of these invented characters and all the characters in Auto Center Drive dialogues are taken from icons at a young age. And through that they got really immortal. They live forever. They are young forever. Because they died early.
MC: They are immortalized by their popularity.
BM: Yes! Yes. I mean look at aging icons.
MC: Elvis Presley.
BM: Yes. But I mean he died still at the right time. Yes, he had aged but he was still young when he died. He was my age when he died. But how about someone like Michael Jackson. See his problem is that he is still alive. He should have died a long time ago. Yeah, I mean this is true. I mean his albums they would sell even still much better if he was dead by now.
MC: But of course we still hear about him. Press. Press. Press.
BM: Yeah, but I think the two people who sold the most, who did the best merchandising, were Elvis Presley, number one and I think Kurt Cobain, number two. Now he sells even more in merchandising.
MC: 1992. An unforgettable year for many.
BM: Yes, but it had to come. I mean this is important. So in Auto Center Drive all my voices are taken from Jim Morrison, James Dean, and Janis Joplin.
MC: Tell us who says, “Can I tell you a secret?”
BM: This is James Dean.
MC: In what part of the film does he say that?
BM: That is the male character sitting in front of the TV and this female alter ego sitting inside of the TV.
MC: And the man sitting in front of the TV is stroking the screen with his hand, saying “Are you in there?”
BM: Yes, yes, exactly. She appears in the beginning and disappears at the end and of course it a mirroring. It’s an image of the other side of both the other gender part of the character. That is one side. Yes. On the other side of course they want to come together but they are divided by two different worlds. They cannot cross the line and really come together.