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Lost in Movies
Matt Saunders on Udo Kier, Fassbinder, and His Love of Cinema

Buster Keaton, Helmut Berger, Hanna Schygulla - Matt Saunders' works obsessively appropriate his personal movie icons. In "Freeway Balconies" at the Deutsche Guggenheim, the young American is represented with an homage to Udo Kier. The model for this video work was more than 600 drawings on which he paints the face of the cult star. Part of this series is on view in the IBC-C, Deutsche Bank's new headquarters in Frankfurt. Achim Drucks interviewed Matt Saunders in the latter's Berlin studio.

Matt Saunders, aus der Serie Udo, 2004,
Deutsche Bank Collection

The face of the young man wearing sunglasses repeatedly melts away. It becomes blurred, gets sharp again, dissolves completely in black color areas. Matt Saunders' video work Udo pays homage to the camp glamour of the actor Udo Kier. Once regarded as a kind of German Alain Delon, today Kier is at least as legendary as Helmut Berger. Since the late sixties he Kier acted in various genres, including trash productions such as "Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält (Mark of the Devil)," Hollywood blockbusters, Madonna videos and particularly auteur films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Lars von Trier. Saunders' moving black-and-white drawings are underlain with a melancholy soundtrack. The motif stems from Andy Warhol's Dracula, in which Kier plays the vampire. In Saunders' video, which is part of Freeway Balconies at the Deutsche Guggenheim, his flaring face repeatedly appears to briefly emerge from collective pictorial memory, only to disappear again. The artist shows Kier as an idol who perfectly embodies the coolness of the late sixties and at the same time as a symbol of vanity and vanitas.

Matt Saunders in his studio, Berlin, Juni 2008
Photo Achim Drucks

When visiting Saunders' studio, you are almost immediately confronted with icons of European cinema. In addition to a nearly life-sized Asta Nielsen flanked by an elegant greyhound hang two portraits of Hertha Thiele, a German film star of the early 1930s. The medium of film is the central reference point in the work of the 33-year-old American, who has lived and worked in Berlin since 2002. He appropriates film pictures, removes them from their original context, processes them in several steps, and transfers them to paintings, drawings, or videos. Like Karen Kilimnik or Elisabeth Peyton, Saunders deals with phenomena such as camp or celebrity culture. However, he concentrates on stars who are outside the mainstream and with whom he has a very personal affection. He transforms their pictures into works that tell of his obsessions in a way that is full of feeling yet completely devoid of sentimentality. Apart from Udo Kier, they are primarily actors who starred in Fassbinder and Warhol films, as well as Matti Pellonpää, who plays the role of social outsider in films by Aki Kaurismäki. For his video Double Matti Saunders drew the Finnish actor more than 1,500 times. Saunders confronts this challenge with an almost conceptual approach: In order to force himself to continually find new solutions when drawing, he makes rules for himself. For example, he sets his alarm to go off in 20 minutes and after it rings begins the next drawing. Or he works exactly five hours on one drawing.

Matt Saunders' Studio
Photo Achim Drucks

For some time now the artist has experimented with a 19th-century reproduction technique, cliché verre, photographs based on drawn models. On transparent paper, Saunders draws negative pictures of film postcards or publicity stills. Then he lays the drawings on photo paper which he then exposes. This process gives rise to peculiar hybrids that link the gesture of the drawing with the smooth, shiny surface of the photograph. He also used this technique to realize works for his contribution to the statements section of this year's Art Basel. At the center of the installation was the changeful fate of Hertha Thiele. A celebrated star until the Nazis took power, she refused to act in propaganda films, was banned from her profession, and immigrated to Switzerland in 1937. To get by, she had to work as a maid and as an auxiliary nurse in a psychiatric ward, until she could act again in the GDR in 1966.

Matt Saunders,
Hertha Thiele (Kuhle Wampe, 1932) #2, 2008
courtesy the artist and Harris Lieberman Gallery,

Achim Drucks: What fascinates you about Hertha Thiele?

Matt Saunders: For several years it was just the two performances. I first saw her in Kuhle Wampe, with her hair cut short and wearing a tie, and was really taken with that performance - and also with her style and androgyny. (It reminded me, on the surface, of a figure like Edie Sedgwick.) I also saw her in Mädchen in Uniform, which is a completely different performance - incredibly girlish. Later her life became a kind of narrative for me because I was so interested in finding her. I'm fascinated now, watching her films, about all the empty space in the public record of her career outside of those films. That void is like the deep unconscious underneath the experience of watching her perform.

Matt Saunders, Hertha Thiele (1975), 2008
courtesy the artist and Harris Lieberman Gallery

You dedicated your project for Art Basel to her…

The installation in Basel was a portrait of her - all transformed through the process of hand-drawing the negatives to print photographs - pulled together from many sources. So it also encompasses my own changing relationship to her image.

There seems to be a kind of tenderness in the way you work with these images.

There has to be an emotional pitch, by which I mean the emotional content of the work, there has to be a motive, there must be a connection, but I don't want it to be too sentimental or too nostalgic. At the same time, it is definitely not impersonal - not neutral.

Installation view,
"Hertha, Second Book" at Galerie Analix Forever, Geneva, November 2007

Movies play a very important part in your work. How did that start?

When I was younger, I was painting a lot at night, and watched videos to keep myself company, especially these late Warhol movies like Trash or Dracula. I was particularly interested in unscripted moments and accidents that happen in front of the camera and are embraced as part of the process. I am drawn to things that are clearly, beautifully imperfect. I started to take Polaroids off the screen to capture something of this. That became a series of paintings on canvas. Keeping qualities of the photos, like the format of the Polaroid or the frame of the television, was meant to reveal my own action - my own state - of watching the film. I am not a particular film buff, but I am a sort of obsessive personality who gets very touched by things and these performances can become big players in life.

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