this issue contains
>> Jonathan Monk
>> Interview Elisabeth Sussmann

>> archive

"I’m not good at telling jokes"
Jonathan Monk recycles international art stars with a dry wit

He sends Sol LeWitt’s cubes off to the disco, pees a homage to Jackson Pollock in the sand, and encounters Andy Warhol in his coffee cup: Jonathan Monk is the art world’s biggest vampire. His postcard set The collectors’ leftovers can now be seen at Deutsche Bank’s headquarters in Milan. Actually, Tim Ackermann wanted to meet the British artist in his favorite pub. But then Monk got the flu, and the meeting fell through.

Jonathan Monk, The collectors' leftovers (Detail), 2003,
Deutsche Bank Collection

When asked if it would be possible to talk to him about his art, Jonathan Monk’s answer was "we can try." These were the very same words of Sol LeWitt; when asked for an interview, the American conceptual artist had given Monk exactly the same response. Unfortunately, the planned meeting doesn’t work out; the British artist has caught the flu and feels "pretty terrible." However, he kindly agrees to a telephone interview. He’s lying on a couch in his old Berlin apartment and says he’s put on two sweaters, just in case. Occasionally, a lengthy coughing spell interrupts the conversation.

Jonathan Monk, A cube Sol LeWitt photographed by Carol Huebner
using nine different light sources and all their combinations
front to back back to front forever, 2000,
Photo: Dave Morgan, Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London

"How was it when you interviewed Sol LeWitt?" - "Around six years ago, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and I flew to NY, then took the train up to Connecticut with the idea for the book that I was making. Then I asked if we could start the interview and he said: ‘we can try.’ He doesn’t really like to talk about the work he’s doing. After the long trip, the thought that we wouldn’t get anything was pretty scary."

Jonathan Monk, I saw Andy Warhol in my coffee cup for a second
and then he vanished, 2005,
Courtesy Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris

"How did the interview go?" - "In the end it was very good. I talked to him about taking books that he’s made and turning them into films, and he was actually interested in that. He didn’t encourage me, but he said he was very happy if that happened; when the book is out in the world, then it’s available for anyone to use to create something else."

Jonathan Monk, The space above Bruce Naumans head, 1997,
Photo: Galerie Nicolai Wallner, Kopenhagen

And Monk certainly did make something new out of it: for the photo book mentioned, LeWitt originally took a simple white cube and lit it with nine lamps in various combinations. Each individual lighting arrangement lent the minimalist form of the cube its own expressive appearance, which was then photographed. Monk took LeWitt’s book and used the photographs to make a 20-second animated film. Played in a loop, the cube looks as though it were dancing beneath a cheap disco light. What comes across as a gag actually follows the principle of "art about art" – a method of working that refers explicitly to already existing works and concepts. Monk himself cites the source of his "dancing" cube: A Cube Sol LeWitt photographed by Carol Hueber using nine different light sources and all their combinations front to back back to front forever – probably the world’s longest work title. At the same time, it is a homage to the father of conceptual art. Sol LeWitt is obviously one of the most important sources of inspiration for Monk’s work. The English artist, who was born in 1969 in Leicester, repeatedly demonstrates the validity of LeWitt’s influential guiding principal from 1967, according to which the idea is the most important part of the work in conceptual art. Yet there’s something Monk failed to mention during his visit to his spiritual father in Connecticut: for another work, he had himself photographed while climbing over one of Sol LeWitt’s Open Cube structures. Pretty much like a kid on a jungle gym.

My name written in my piss, 1994, Courtesy the artist and Gallerie Nicolai Wallner, Kopenhagen

If you want to put it meanly, Jonathan Monk is something like a vampire bat biting into the art world’s neck. The English artist hones in on the international ueber-artists, sucks a bit of blood from Bruce Nauman, nibbles a little on Duchamp’s fame. He likes to alternate his victims frequently, but one thing always remains the same: when he’s finally finished sucking, he’s grown plumper and the others look a bit paler. When Monk presents new perspectives on well-known artistic positions, some aspects become visible that are missing in these positions.

Another one of the English artist’s trademarks is the recycling of foreign works. Indeed, more than anyone else, he seems to breathe art, eat it, digest it. Monk can’t even pee without thinking of art history: when he peed his first name into beach sand in 1994, it was a homage to Jackson Pollock. The master of dripping is alleged to have experimented with that technique at a tender age as well.

My name written in my piss, 1994,
Courtesy the artist and Gallerie Nicolai Wallner, Kopenhagen

[1] [2]