© Andreas Pohlmann / Burgtheater Wien

The director Barbara Frey met the artist Katharina Fritsch, whom she has admired for many years, in her studio in Düsseldorf to talk about Arthur Schnitzler’s play Das weite Land (The Vast Domain), which portrays a society prepared for violence, and about Fritsch’s own work. Katharina Fritsch was recently awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement by the Venice Biennale.

Barbara Frey: In the play, the hotel owner Aigner tells the lightbulb manufacturer Hofreiter that the soul is a vast domain.

Katharina Fritsch: This whole panoply of intrigue ... it makes you think of the Hungarian plain all spread out there! (Laughs) If you go up onto the mountain in Grinzing, then you can see as far as Hungary, and maybe the soul is like that, too.

BF: That line is pure kitsch.

KF: I think «soul» is a terrific word. When I was a child, I always imagined the soul as a flat, cotton-wool cloud. People don’t talk about the soul anymore at all now. I don’t know whether the soul is something that’s as non-binding as Aigner thinks in the scene with Hofreiter. Non-binding, as people in the Lower Rhine say: «It can be like this – or it can be like this.» Love, deception, infidelity – oh, people are all so complicated, so non-binding, the play seems to suggest. The art historian Robert Fleck said that in the Slavic languages everything always implies its opposite. That would be interesting!

BF: The essence of a cliché is that it is not binding.

KF: But I like kitsch, like lots of artists. There’s some-thing boiled down about it. I also like souvenir shops and flea markets. People accuse kitsch of being inauthentic – but imagine what the world would be like if it only consisted of what was authentic...

BF: The blah blah in Schnitzler’s dialogue is nothing but a masquerade. Fundamentally, everything that is said feels like it’s being said by a secret agent.

KF: The apparent idyll darkens with the first stage directions. The play itself drifts from society small talk into this incredible dynamic. As early as the end of Act One, there is this monstrous dialogue between Genia Hofreiter and her husband Friedrich.
The people are modern, contemporary people. Frau Natter, with her red car by the walls of the cemetery ... that might be a Ferrari now...

BF: What interests me is the link between production and bodies. The women’s and men’s bodies, the light bulbs, the fetishisation of objects and terminology. As long as production and expansion keep going, no one has to bother about ideas. But it all starts with a death and it ends with a death. Violence seems to be normal.

KF: The light bulb is interesting. It has been around since the 19th century – and now we have LEDs. Candles and fires were beautiful, direct light sources. Industrialisation brought the light bulb. When I was a child, light bulbs always made me sad. But without light, there is no life, and no production.

BF: And without light, there’s no darkness. The light manufacturer, Hofreiter, creates a lot of darkness.

KF: He is simply a modern man. A founder, a doer. A woman’s body is a trophy to him. That’s why he makes a move on young Erna, she’s luscious. The other women are interesting, more sensitive than the men, but they’re doomed.

BF: Are they really? They’re hard to read. That’s challenging for the men. They either react aggressively or de-spondently.

KF: In the big scene between the Hofreiters in Act One, where he is cynical and manipulative, at one point, she says: »I’m just looking at you.« (Laughs) That’s wonderful! There’s nothing crueller than that.

BF: The whole play’s world of lies, intrigue and rejection is basically incidental; it’s necessary to keep the plot going. But at its heart, we are plunging into a void.

KF: It’s about the disaster that’s just about to happen. Seen historically, the young men there on the battlefield were used as cannon fodder in a fully industrialised war. At the same time, the characters on stage seem cultivated, educated and tasteful. They’re ahead of the game.

BF: That’s what makes it so dangerous.

KF: But there was already some level of social awareness. There were workers’ movements and progressive thinking, despite the hardcore capitalism. Everyone hoped for a better quality of life – to which Hofreiter’s light bulbs made a decisive contribution. The duel between men was a remnant of the Hapsburg monarchy. Not legal, but tolerated and, it seems, socially acceptable.

BF: If you strip away that historical patina of the duel, Schnitzler’s characters seem rather more familiar than is entirely comfortable. We know these people, because we belong to them. What is uncanny is their uncivilised quality, their willingness to use violence that shows through everywhere.

KF: It’s interesting that, generally, people in the play speak very badly of artists: they’re real idiots. It seems obvious to talk derisively about musicians and writers. Did Schnitzler see himself in the character of the doctor, Mauer, or as one of the artists? Either way, he would be an outsider.

BF: I think Schnitzler saw himself in all the characters, even the women. That’s what I would infer. He was an extremely observant person and he was curious about different perspectives. And also, Schnitzler the doctor was, just like the writer, a diagnostician: sharp and merciless. It’s noticeable that there aren’t any real friendships in the play. They’re more associations. And also, there’s no tenderness of any kind.

KF: The men need the women simply as back-up, essentially. The compliments that Hofreiter makes to women are hollow and intended to cultivate his own allure.

BF: And they’re supposed to conceal his aggression. Still, Hofreiter is a murderer, an extinguisher. He can click his light bulbs on and off as he wishes. The entire society is prepared for violence, and they also shrug their shoulders and accept the violence of individuals. This makes it all the more interesting for the theatre to sniff out the few sources of warmth that are there, and to find the traces of complicity, affection, vulnerability and humour.

KF: One source of warmth could be the character of the actress. By comparison, Genia is more the sleepy type. From time to time, the women act like they are the victims, but emotionally, they are perpetrators. Genia’s line «I’m just looking at you» is treacherous.

BF: Hofreiter’s trouble is that his wife has always seen through him before he’s even started putting his side of things.

KF: She knows how violent he can be. That makes her partly responsible for his violence towards Otto, Genia’s temporary lover.

BF: But it remains unclear whether she could have predicted this ultimate outcome. In Schnitzler, there is no good or evil.

KF: He’s merely presenting how things are. And asking whether society was ever any more responsible. Ultimately, it’s about responsibility. Then, as now, refusing to accept it is a sign of being out of your depth. Schnitzler’s society before the First World War is out of its depth. In order not to notice this, it lives inside a kind of capsule, cocooned by prosperity. People go to hotels, they climb mountains, they play tennis. And they have affairs.

BF: This is where Freud’s life and death instincts come in. The constantly changing love affairs are intended to drive away the fear of death.

KF: We ignore death. It doesn’t get talked about.

BF: Another interesting thing in Schnitzler is the world of sport: people play tennis and climb mountain peaks and they talk about this all the time. In today’s cities, the space given to advertising for fitness, building your strength and selfimprovement is vast now. The same is true of finding a partner.

KF: Sport as addiction. During the pandemic there were times when I didn’t move at all. Like a tortoise. That was my demonstration against Covid! (Laughs) The craze for sport is also a sign of anti-intellectualism. The humanities have been squeezed out by the natural sciences. Everything is ultimately chemistry. That’s why I find the notion of the soul so interesting. This is not a mechanical term: it can’t be used anymore. Artworks, for example, have to have a soul. A lot of today’s art is soulless, it’s got some kind of «branding». This is non-binding: you don’t actually know anymore who actually created it. The gallery? Companies? Or an advertising agency? When a visitor to a gallery ran into a display case full of my Madonna figures and everything was broken into a thousand pieces, I got three lines asking if «my studio» couldn’t simply make them a new one, 30 years later. I don’t do industrial production! But even they can’t make you a car from 30 years ago!

BF: In your art, it’s noticeable that, particularly when there is radical material objectification, there’s an enormous amount of soul in there.

KF: It’s all done by hand: manufactured. I actually only ever make prototypes. Things that look as if they have been produced industrially, as if they’re missing a signature. But they’ve got a signature. The assistants I employ are all artists. We produce everything together, it is conventional artistic work, not an industrial process. What determines its soul is that when the artwork is finished, there’s always got to be something that slips away, a moment that can’t be controlled, and that is what creates a tension and gives it a life of its own.

BF: The question is: at what point do we feel that something is «imbued with soul»?

KF: My entire life is there in my works. Everything that cannot be put into words, every conceivable atmosphere is stored up inside my objects. This also has to do with the very complicated production process. So, these objects take on more and more. And they serve no purpose. They’re just there. They’re kind of like children who have become independent. You can look at them and nothing happens – but suddenly your perception shifts and you see them very differently, even if it’s just for a few seconds. It’s about shifting out of the everyday. For example, these black vases standing here. You can clearly recognise them as that but suddenly, for a moment, you can see something different. My grandmother used to have a vase like that on the piano, there were chrysanthemums in it.

BF: The vases are sculptures. I can’t imagine putting any flowers in them.

KF: The vase is simply an object. It’s not intended to have flowers in.

BF: There’s this serialism with Schnitzler: just like all the light bulbs Hofreiter produces look the same, all the people have to be similar. Anyone who is distinctive, who sticks out from the rest, is dangerous and you can’t read them anymore. Hofreiter finds his own wife weird when she refuses to join in with the general merry-go-round of affairs. He cannot see his wife as a female object that is part of a series, which he would prefer to do, as it is easier, because she won’t permit it. Suddenly he sees something in her that makes him afraid. And he can’t find his way back to the view he has become accustomed to: this «other» remains.

KF: He loses the context he’s used to. De Chirico described this: when you take away the terminology, you can’t classify things anymore. If the vase is no longer called a vase, then it ceases to be one. Children who don’t know any words identify with objects, because they don’t give them names and use them to distance themselves from them. It was like that for me as a child. Everything had a soul, everything was me. When the fabric of language isn’t there, the fabric of society isn’t there, either. Everything is a fetish. There are no coordinates. That’s very important to me in my work: the black hole we look into. Death, infinity – for a second, it becomes visible. It’s falling into the void, because what’s familiar has gone. In Act Five of Das weite Land, any kind of trust has gone. Everything becomes extremely eerie. This is the atmosphere of the brink of war: violence breaks out. And from that point, anything is possible. Music has already died at the beginning of the play: an artist kills himself, a Russian pianist, you could say he’s doubly exotic. He had to leave, because he no longer fit in this world without art. But no one finds his death a catastrophe.

BF: A society with no compassion. No one has anything to do with anyone else. People live like strangers, in non-binding relationships, and the encounters between men and women are especially ritualised and routine.

KF: It’s true now, too, that men have very different needs from women. When I was child, I was always more interested in what the boys were doing. I was thought of as boyish: I never had any dolls, but lots of soft toys. I hated handicrafts; I didn’t like girly things. There was more going on with the boys, they were always concocting things. I was always interested in space – going outside, exploring everywhere, building dens – though I would be a princess too, because of the glitter.

BF: I’m still thinking about the idea of the soul.

KF: It’s identifying with something: you make something and it acquires a character, it becomes a creature. You appreciate it. You don’t throw it away. I’m so bad at throwing anything away, because I think, someone made this! This is material – we’re material, too! Disposable consumer society is crazy, the constant overproduction. It influences how we treat each other, every creature and art.

BF: We alienate ourselves from being alive.

KF: You can also see that in the soulless architecture that gets thrown together out there. It’s all alienation. Schnitzler’s light bulb was still pretending to imitate a candle. An LED light doesn’t imitate anything anymore. It is cold, white, technical light. The cities have been cleared up, they’re clean, they don’t have a mouse that can hide away in some little hole. Here in Düsseldorf, trees are the enemy. Apparently, they only make things dirty. The city’s architecture reveals all its brutality. Basically, it no longer has any human scale.

BF: The question is always how we orientate ourselves when we talk about a human scale. Now we mock the duels of Schnitzler’s time. We see them as the remains of a barbaric society that followed a notion of honour that we seem to have «overcome». Yet we encounter incredibly violent phenomena today that are derived just as much from a questionable and often inhuman morality.

KF: We carry out character assassinations and create shitstorms. A lot of duels have been moved into the digital space. And our desire for a baddie is unchanged. People crave stories about nefarious individuals, even in supposedly civilised circumstances. Could you make theatre if this wasn’t the case?

BF: Absolutely not. As long as anyone can remember, the arts have been populated by villains and despicable characters. You can’t make it in any art form with only noble characters.

KF: There’s this constant quandary. There’s so much political correctness in art now that you can’t create art anymore. For example, I use lacquer and paint that you’re not supposed to use anymore if you want to protect the environment. But those are the best lacquers and paints! When I started in the 80s, you were allowed to be much more ambivalent. I took a spray can into my painting class and irritated one of my fellow students, who asked me: «What is a flower supposed to do when it is run over by a tank?» I was the tank and he was the flower – and I thought that was great. There is a joy or a power in «evil». I have also used materials that have caused me harm. Now, fortunately, there are also industrial pigments that are not so harmful and have the same intense glow. Nevertheless, whenever you do anything, you’re always doing something wrong.

BF: But it is important in art – and in life in general – not to know in advance what you’re going to do. Then you wouldn’t need to do it. You want to discover things!

KF: I never know what will come out of it when I make something. It’s unknown territory.

Translated from German by David Tushingham