The U.S. as inspiration
There is something about America that is so incredibly interesting to me personally. Maybe it has something to do with its size? It’s so huge, and the “important” cities are on the East coast and the West coast, so the big middle is more or less left to ferment at it’s own leisure, and that is going to make for some interesting scenarios. It probably helps that I'm European and have that disconnect that lets me fully appreciate American as an obsessive outsider.
Literature and Music
Literature and music have always played the biggest roles in my inspiration, which might be strange because a lot of what I do is visual. But to me these two fields of art are extremely visual.
Blues I got into old blues music in my teens, and it was the first music (or form of art) that truly and utterly blew my mind. It made me feel at home in my own skin, which at that age when you're trying desperately to belong or fit into some cultural world, is not that easy. Being obsessed with 1930s blues at sixteen didn't exactly help me fit in with my age group any better, but I stopped caring at that point because what I had found took the need away. I had supreme confidence in how cool this music was. Other people's opinions didn't matter anymore.
It honestly didn’t have that much to do with the pain or emotion of the blues, but rather the power and the honesty. It’s hard to describe, but at the time when I was about fifteen, a Charlie Patton song had that kind of impact for me that you’d normally get from a heavy metal song.
Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Leadbelly, Skip James, Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, etc. -- those guys really took care of my artistic sanity. I owe them a lot.
Fashion and styling
I was always fascinated with bygone decades. Different time-periods interested me for different reasons, and the only time period that aesthetically really bored me to death, was always the present.
When I was about sixteen I began to make use of my friends, brothers, neighbors and whoever else crossed my path, by putting them into these photo-shoots where I’d try to recreate as authentically as possible a specific time period or social theme. We did Ellis Island, where everyone looked like immigrants from the late 1800s. We did a Jewish family at Sabbath. We did the 40s, the 30s, the 70s, a Catholic school-kids shoot, the Victorian era, Irish farmers, and of course that is also when I first started styling people in the early 60s style.
That 60s style stuck. I went back to it again and again, because honestly I thought it had an addictively ugly quality to it. And when I began shooting scenes to draw from, that became a consistent background.
I wanted my characters to vaguely come from the conservative, ugly, small-minded life of the early 60s. It’s always been a strange and fertile backdrop for the scenes I wanted to create.
I don’t feel my work is necessarily autobiographical, but aspects of it could be. The scenes are coming from my head after all. I take no responsibility for what goes on in there.
Films in Helnwein’s work I've been making films since I was about fourteen. I took my dad's camcorder and began to film everything until I was about eighteen. Brothers and friends and siblings of friends were used for these projects. I recently discovered lots and lots of bizarre video footage. Stuff that would actually fit in pretty well at Art Basel.
Later on I started making films as an extension to my static work at art shows. I did mainly drawings at the time, and it felt very necessary to have another element involved that took the show a little further. In the films there were suddenly so many more layers to work with. Movement for example and choreography. Getting to work with music was another big kid-in-a-candy-store moment . And also editing -- as much as it drove me insane to edit footage, it was instantly also completely exciting and addictive.
With time the films in my shows started to develop, and I think with the most recent film installation (Cops and Nurses, 2013)
I’m doing something different than with the early films. Besides the fact that this film has twenty nurses and twenty cops in it, has more elaborate set designs and was filmed with two million lights and a RED camera – it also wasn’t so much an accompaniment to the paintings and oil pastels anymore. Cops and Nurses was more the main thought – the main statement that would then perhaps instigate artwork. It has a totally different pace than the other films.
Feminism I think naturally, without me having to try much, feminism has always been part of my DNA. I’ve never thought in terms of what a woman’s role is or a man’s role. Growing up with my parents, I was never stopped in anything I wanted to do – there was a lot of freedom and so I never had any traditional mind-frame for any conservative life pattern. There was nothing I thought I couldn’t do because I was a girl. I also never grew up thinking I needed to marry a man to survive. That success would hinge on a rich or successful man. The idea was always to DO something in life. I also grew up with relatively little attention to what I dressed or looked like in my teens – which was pretty liberating.
In this day and age, one of the really frustrating things is that there is SO much attention given to the way girls and women look and how they dress and what they should look like and what the ideal body should be and the pressure to be physically perfect, or to have this kind of ass or a thigh gap or to be continually turning on men and boys. With social media and selfies it’s going out of control. Woman and girls are constantly reminded where they "fall short" and all attention is sucked up in this frantic obsession to get attention for looks dictated by a popular culture that is at an all-time-low. It’s a stupid and demeaning game. It promotes the idea that a woman’s body (something not even of her own making, but rather the accidental pairing of her parent’s DNA) is her main value or route to success. I understand the trap. Especially if you’re a teenage girl and you suddenly get attention and admiration from boys for being “hot” – obviously that will suck you in and it’s flattering. It has an innocent side too, but right now it’s a little out of control generally speaking – with little girls learning how to put on make-up for school from twelve-year-old youtube stars and trying to take butt pictures like Kim Kardashian and sending nude pictures to boys in order to be liked.
I think it’s very important to counter-act this obsession. To give girls the ambition and inspiration to create things and do things – and also to cause a revolution against the mainstream bullshit ideals force-fed by social media, reality tv, entertainment, and sadly a lot of pop culture.
Film as an inspiration
Film-noir is an influence. But not so much from actual films that have I’ve watched, but rather books I’ve gone through with film stills in them. I love the lighting and the incredible, almost ludicrous tension that exists in some of those scenes. I especially like it if I have no idea of the context. I love that way-out-of-proportion drama. Someone could be holding a stapler and it would make your heart go faster if the characters are lit right.
Working as a visual artist as well as a writer
As a kid I drew, made films and wrote, so it's not really something new that I'm doing at this point in my life. I always found it easier to focus on a bunch of stuff, rather than just one thing because there's a lot of cross-inspiration that goes on. One thing generates ideas for something else, and different channels of artistic expression are better suited for different ideas . I was never one of those artists that are passionate about sitting in their studios and painting all day and night, getting lost in the process of the technicalities and enjoying the details of the work and the smell of the paints and turpentine. I'm relatively impatient and I have far too much going on in my head at all times to be able to concentrate on just one thing alone. Ideally I am always working on about three projects at the same time, which enables me never to get stuck or hit a wall on any of them.
The more, the better. There is nothing relaxing about taking time off for me. I get antsy within two days of not working on something. The only times I feel lost is when I'm not actively getting something done. It's the worst feeling for me, and so I set things up that I always have a writing project going besides my studio work and that I'm learning instruments for spare time or forcing friends to participate in photoshoots.
Writing I desperately love writing. I think you'd have to feel pretty strongly about it in order to go through some of the terrible lows and bullshit that comes with writing something like a book. But it's ultimately so gratifying and the highs are so high that it's become a kind of comfort -- always thinking of the story that I'm writing or the possibilities of stories that I have the freedom to write. I love words and language. A good idiom can really make my day or week or year. I also really love bad language if it's good. I love the amount of work that I have to deliver in order to put together a novel. I love that I can't fake it and that when I'm done I have this thing that I created and I have no clue how I ever pulled it out of my ass.
Also, as a writer life becomes more palatable, because everything is a potential gold mine. You start to ingest things differently. Even the most mundane, boring or terrible events in your life now have that second aspect of being potentially useful.
People like to ask if it's weird that I am an artist when my dad is who he is, and whether there's been any disadvantages to having him as a father, or whether it was hard for me to find my own identity, etc. etc. The answer to all of that is: no. It's been far easier than I could have expected.
Although I'm very close to both my parents, my dad has never gotten involved with what I do. Not in the least, and although his work was around me all the time as I grew up and of course I soaked in inspiration from him that way, there was never any direct influence from him. We have completely different artistic urges and subject matters that involve us. He's never given me lessons in drawing or painting, and the actual technical advice he gave me I can count on one hand. I really liked being left alone in terms of figuring out my style. I stayed away from art schools too for this reason. I didn't want any interference other than inspiration form other works of art that I admire.
I don't talk to my dad at length about my work. He doesn't give me critiques or opinions. I really appreciate that about him, because he gives you full leeway to be who you are as an artist. We talk a lot about art in general though. Other artists, music, writers, old architecture, etc. Those are really inspiring conversations to me, and have far more profound effects on me than someone actually trying to discuss the details of my own work. My dad’s viewpoints are incredibly broad and fascinating. I’m always surprised at how he sees art. And that’s why going through a museum with him is a very different experience for me than going by myself. I get so much more out of it with him.
I have no obvious answer for why I moved to L.A. It’s a town that should naturally repel me. For some reason it did the opposite. I didn’t know anything about LA at the time I moved here, and had no interests in the movie industry, no interest in the California weather, no dreams of becoming a movie star or surfing. But for reasons totally unknown to me I was drawn to that town. I really wanted to move there. Then, of course, I hated it when I got there. Nothing made much sense to me, and I couldn’t relate to all the social bullshit and world-famous insincerity. Nobody seemed to care about the things I cared about. There is so much substitution of culture with the worst kind of entertainment. And the city was huge and confusing and nasty.
But the idea of moving away was never an option, and about two years into my existence in LA, I suddenly felt at home there. After scraping through layers of “LAness” you come to a creative core of sorts, with a whole universe of strange, like-minded people. And surprisingly enough I found a possibility there to create art with more dignity and honesty than would have been possible in any of the official art centers of the world.
I owe a lot to LA. It’s the fakest place in the world, no doubt about it; but I found some kind of very genuine quality there that was completely unexpected. I honestly love that city.
Banjo I was given an old banjo from the 30s, when I turned twenty-one I think. My parents gave it to me because I was so in love with the way it looked in a shop window in our town in Ireland. I had it for a few years and admired it like a sculpture. But then there was the point where I couldn’t find a good reason not to finally learn how to play. So now I play clawhammer banjo.