The Breuning Version

Wonderland, November 2008

A legion of Viking snowmen with carrot horns stand guard on a snowy hillside. Men with naked chests painted in army camouflage pose in toothsome ethnic masks against a series of kia-ora jungle sunsets. A sheepish man on all fours is smothered in spaghetti. These are but a handful of the strange creatures who inhabit the mental landscape of Swiss artist... 

Olaf Breuning enjoys courting controversy. In his thirty-minute film Home 2 (2007), an obnoxious American yokel on a world tour discovers the delights of Papua New Guinea. He bumbles around, gives away all his money and his t-shirt to a group of kids who are rooting about in a rubbish dump, puts on a gorilla mask in a remote village and generally acts in a culturally crass manner. In one flashback, after splashing around in the shallows with some Ghanaian kids, he announces: “That was so nice to be swimming with the Africans… out there in the wild!” Breuning claims the piece is about confusion in a post-globalisation world, but many critics have refused to get the joke. “The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth,” hissed The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment, while Laura Cumming of The Observer insisted she would be taking “good care” to avoid Breuning’s work in the future.  

The 38-year-old is delighted by the fuss. “I like to offend people. At least when you do that you are generating some kind of discussion. When people are angry about some of my work, at least I know they have taken the trouble to try to understand it. I would be more disappointed if people just thought it was ‘nice’. And no one has hit me so far.”

In person, Breuning is engaging and affable. His Swiss-German accent is all curtailed syllables and curt, guttural inflections. He chuckles when the opportunity arises, is seemingly relaxed, and – shock horror – ordinary. In fact, the most surprising thing about him is that his formative years were far from the unconventional ordeal his art might lead you to believe. He was born in 1970 in the picture-postcard perfect town of Schaffhausen in northern Switzerland to Ursula, a housewife, and Olaf senior, a musician;  and experienced “a nearly perfect childhood”. Well liked by his contemporaries at school, cocooned by his parents’ stable, loving relationship, the young Breuning looked to those closest to him to gain inspiration. His grandfather and uncle were both painters, and his father played harp and slide guitar.

Then came the turning point that led to his life in art. “When I was 14 I had been wondering where my special gifts were,” he explains. “There were people in my class who were into electronics, and I was just bumming around, chasing girls. Then my father gave me a camera and showed me how to develop in a dark room. I became obsessed. I just made one photograph after another. It was clear to me I just wanted to learn photography.”

Breuning squirreled away popular culture references that he would later effectively employ in his pieces. He absorbed the music of Talking Heads, Eurythmics and Grace Jones; the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman; and the sculpture of Jeff Koons. He cites as influences everything from sci-fi to horror via Vikings and haunted houses. His photographs, installations and films feature a recurring vocabulary: face-painting, eyeballs attached to inanimate objects, long cheap wigs, naked breasts or direct movie allusions (Independence DayE.T.2001Lost HighwayThe Shining).  

It’s no surprise to learn that, above all, Breuning wants to make art for the many. While his grandmother was still alive, he would show her a piece. And if she liked it, he knew it was good. “Since she died, I still try to talk with a universal language which as many people can understand as possible. In my 2002 piece, Lady G, I took a picture of a naked woman on a horse, which told of my desire to reach out to everybody – an image of a nude lady is something that people from Africa to Japan can understand. Then I put pictures of planets on her butt cheeks. I placed images of something as unfathomable as the universe on an immediately understandable image.”

These days Breuning splits his time between Zurich and Manhattan, where his days proceed in a similar fashion. He rises at around seven in the morning and then goes for breakfast at the SoHo bistro Balthazar, before beginning work at his Lafayette Street studio at ten, which he shares with his six assistants. On the way to “the office” he will always give money to the same homeless person. In the evenings he will go running or hang out with his wife, fashion designer Makiko Aoki. 

He says his favourite work is the 2002 piece We Only Move When Something Changes. This photograph shows protesters in front of a concrete wall daubed with a CND sign. They seem mobilised for battle: one sits on a quad bike; two more perch on the bonnet of a Range Rover; others appear to have settled into a tent they have pitched. All sit or stand erect, seemingly defiant in the face of opposition, and would appear to be a formidable force for change if they were not all wearing red clown noses. “As human beings we always have this sense of failure,” Breuning explains. “‘If only we could make a better world,’ we think to ourselves. But it is just not possible. The piece is sarcastic. I mean, we have enough resources on the planet for everybody but we don’t know how to handle it. Intellectually we know how to do it but we don’t do anything about it.”

Breuning’s most recent major showcase was in March at the Whitney Biennale in New York. He took inspiration from one of the exhibition buildings, the 18th century Upper East Side Armory for an installation called The Army, thirty miniature metal soldiers with identical spherical bodies and different heads resemble sci-fi robots marching as to war. “I thought it would be funny to do something with the idea of the military, especially because I knew I would be exhibiting in an old armoury building,” says their creator. “I decided to make this army with the same bodies but different heads, which I thought was amusing because an army with different heads cannot function.”  

What concerns him now are the big questions: “You cannot repeat yourself. If you do thirty of the same things, you get bored. I am always looking for new ways to express the world. I have opened up my antennae. I go to films, I listen to music – I like to do what normal people like doing.” 

Breuning is convinced that he is just a regular guy. “My art is more interesting than my personality,” he confirms. “I am a person who has a big imagination. I can speak about things that are different from me. But I would not cut my ear off in the name of art. I suppose the best comparison I can come up with is Woody Allen, who is not an extreme guy at all, but he makes extreme things.”

Olaf Breuning is at Metro Pictures in New York from October 11 to November 8.