“TOMAK… That’s a hard-hitting artist’s alias resonating like the crisp sound of a slap. The artist, a well-known rebel figure of the Austrian art scene, likes to refer to it as his nom de guerre, perhaps because his work furiously and proudly crusades against the bourgeois codes that dominate the contemporary art world. Taking different forms, TOMAK’S art is forceful, affirmative and uncompromising. It’s a world in which the aesthetic experience is an instinctive force that must knock down any judgment shaped by socially accepted rules. For the “Posterboy of Antikunst,” it’s by this, as an anti-artist, that one can assert himself as a real artist. Based Istanbul caught up with a rebel with a cause.
Art is not about solutions – it isn’t science. Art is about how you approach a question.
Has it always been somewhat obvious for you that you’d lead your life as an artist?
You work under the name TOMAK. What is its meaning and why the need to perform under such an alias?
As Gerald Matt, the former Director of the Kunsthalle Wien, said: TOMAK is a “nom de guerre” – like Lenin. I’ve been using that nom de guerre since I was 16 years old. It’s like Batman. If no one knows who you are, you can get away with anything.
You come from Austria. Would you say that your social and cultural background has had any influence on the way you work? If so, how?
Altdorfer, Waldmüller, Markart, Schiele, Klimt, Gerste, Kokoschka, the philosophers – the Vienna Circle, the Fantastic Realists, the Vienna Group, the Actionists, Franz West, and for example, the great scientists like Sigmund Freud and so on … This is my culture and this is where my art comes from.
Your work was recently exhibited in Istanbul during Art International. However, you have a very critical discourse on how the art market works, stating that there is a blatant lack of understanding of art from the buyers and even the galleries. How do you position yourself regarding today’s contemporary art circuit?
In some obscure way I am part of this weird circle. But I am too outstanding and my art is too outstanding for this. I stay far away from those people referred to as “artists.” Most of them are lost in a cloud of political correctness and decoration.
In your opinion, are the institutional places such as the galleries and museums the best places to exhibit art and for the viewers to fully appreciate or get immersed in an artist’s universe/work?
My work has been exhibited in the most important museums for contemporary art in Austria, including the Albertina, Kunsthalle Wien, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Museum of Applied Arts Vienna, and the Joanneum Graz. Art that isn’t shown in a museum isn’t art.
There is a dark, gloomy and almost tortured vibe in your work. Would you say it translates to a pessimistic vision of the world?
No. My life has always been beautiful and I like beautiful things. Beauty is all I need to survive. What is beauty? What is torture? Torture can be beautiful. I was influenced by the work of the musician John Zorn. One of his pieces is called “Torture Garden.” Art is an aesthetic phenomenon. That’s the only way to look at it. There is no morality. There is nothing. No stupid god. No stupid rules.
For each of your artwork, do you have a specific idea of the kind of experience in which you want to bring the viewers? Is the interaction with the public something you have in mind when you’re working or is your creativity more of an inner journey?
I’m always working for an audience. But I don’t give a f*ck about their opinions. Take it! Swallow it! But leave me alone!
You paint, you sculpt, you do collages, and you do text-based art… What pushes you to explore all these different art forms?
I get up in the morning and this tiny little man in my ear tells me what to do. So I have to do it.
Is this artistic versatility a way to avoid a creative routine and challenge yourself?
The whole thing is about variation. It’s like playing – the way children play. I do arrangements. I’m putting things together and sometimes it works. Then the tiny man in my ear is happy.
Many of your drawings also contain quite large sections of handwritten texts. What do you aim to convey through this combination of text and images?
My drawings are texts. Everything is a picture. So a text is also a picture. And if there is enough space to draw something next to these texts, I draw the right thing or, ideally, the wrong thing on these sheets. My chaos is against the cosmos. In my best works I’ve destroyed the “meaning.”
Does your literary identity, your writing style matter as much as the pictorial part of your work? In other words, for an artist like you, would the distinction between writer and painter make any sense?
“In the beginning was the Word,” they say. So it is! There are always headlines in my paintings and drawings. There has to be a headline on everything. That’s entertainment!
Your self-portrait is a recurrent feature in your work. What attracts and interests you in this practice? Your gaze is often disturbing, almost threatening. Is that how you see yourself or want people to see you? TOMAK is the main theme of my work. What is a TOMAK?
One of your first questions was about this persona. This figure guides me, lets me create new images. It has allowed me to invent a new autobiography – a different past and an exiting future. “What is truth?” another man once asked. That is the most urbane question that has ever been asked.
In a recent interview you gave for Art and Signature, you sounded very disappointed and upset by today’s intellectual decrepitude. You said: “That’s just how it is, humankind is kept stupid. Then an artist comes along and criticizes that. Art exists to sharpen the senses.” In such a context, how can an artist shake things up and improve the situation? In the interview, it felt as if this anger was one of the motors of your creative impetus. Am I wrong?
Maybe it isn’t anger. It’s the ANTI-way of thinking. The curator Elsy Lahner (Albertina Wien) came up with the name TOMAK – Posterboy of Antikunst. I’m an Antist. Art’s primary task is to offer a different way to look at things. Art is not about solutions – it isn’t science. Art is about how you approach a question.
What are your upcoming projects? Any precise projects or ideas of where you want to take your work in the near future?
I’m currently working on my “Black Series” and I’m preparing one of the biggest shows I’ve ever done with my gallery Lisabird Contemporary, where I will present my new book TOMAK MALPRACTICE. That will have to be enough for this year.