“It’s always good to have one German in a group,” Tobias Urban of mischief-and-art-making supergroup Gelitin tells Louise Brealey.
If the gentlemen behind Jackass were German-speaking installation artists with giant brains, they would be Gelitin. A two hundred-foot pink wool rabbit on an Italian mountain-top; a fountain of a man pissing in his own mouth; and a 35-foot chute of naked bodies down which greased-up members of the public were encouraged to slide. These are just a few of the art anarchists recent exploits. Not challenging enough for you? Try constructing a cantilevered balcony out of a window on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center.
But their most controversial act to date, insists Urban, was a show in Paris called La Louvre. “The Louvre sold their name to a Dubai company for $700 million,” he begins. “So we said, ‘We can get the name for free, we’ll just call the show that. But the gallery said no. So we said ‘Okay, we’ll call it La Louvre’. And then they wrote a letter to the lawyer of the Louvre. Can you imagine? Any lawyer will say no. If Andy Warhol had written to the lawyer of Campbell’s Soup they would have said no!”
Urban is a very droll man. He is also a very thoughtful man. And he speaks in full sentences. This last may not sound like the greatest accolade of all time. But it’s a rare trait, and worth noting. It also means that the conversation printed below is verbatim. Our encounter took place on the telephone (all the Gelitin boys – Urban, Florian Reither, Wolfgang Gantner and Ali Janka – are holed up in their Vienna studio hard at work on their new Art Basel Miami show). Urban’s tone, even filtered down a long-distance line, is drily sweet. He often sounds as though he is just a word or two away from laughter.
WONDERLAND: Okay. So. Let’s begin. Why make art as a foursome?
TOBIAS URBAN: When we were students, we were 17 people. They became doctors and we ended up as four. We are basically the leftovers. It’s much more fun working together. You can tell each other how good you are.
WONDERLAND: You certainly look like you’re having a lot of fun in your Cleaning In The Nude video piece. Quite a few erect penises.
TOBIAS URBAN: Yeah. Yeah we were. I saw this thing on YouTube about the last exhibition in New York and this guy said, ‘These guys have way too much fun to be taken seriously.’
WONDERLAND: Do you agree?
TOBIAS URBAN: I think humour is one of the most serious things in life. Also if you take life seriously you have to cry all the time and I’m not a person who likes to cry all the time.
WONDERLAND: So, you all knew each other when you were kids.
TOBIAS URBAN: Yeah. We met at a summer camp in 78. I came from Germany and they came from Austria.
WONDERLAND: How old are you?
TOBIAS URBAN: I’m not sure when the others were born, but they were born in the 70s.
WONDERLAND: And when were you born?
TOBIAS URBAN: I am the oldest. But the story changes, you know?
WONDERLAND: I noticed. [Laughs]. Your age is different in every article…
TOBIAS URBAN: Yes. It depends who is in power. If the Nazis had won the Second World War, the Polish would have been the bad guys…
WONDERLAND: Does Gelitin avoid personality or encourage difference?
TOBIAS URBAN: We’re not like a political party; political parties avoid personality. We //are //personalities. We didn’t start an artistic career to become zombies.
WONDERLAND: So who plays what role in the group?
TOBIAS URBAN: I’m usually the artistic person. I’m counting tools and sorting nails. Ali is the creative director because he always likes to put the last bit on it. Wolfgang is the president because he’s a very natural president: he always screams, especially when he’s drunk. And Flo takes care of the food, where we go for food. And I am the German, which is important. We have a couple of galleries and there is always one German working there. Nobody likes him, but he’s there.
WONDERLAND: You don’t live together, like The Monkees, or anything like that?
TOBIAS URBAN: No. We also usually don’t have sex together. It happens sometimes but it’s not the usual.
WONDERLAND: What effect does your work have on the public?
TOBIAS URBAN: Very often they smile. It’s like a liberation. Like when somebody dances really embarrassingly at a party – you think, ‘If he dances like this, I can dance however I want to.’
WONDERLAND: Is there any sort of an ethos behind what you do?
TOBIAS URBAN: There are less and less possibilities to do things in the world. If somebody does things nobody thinks is possible, then everyone’s perspective broadens. So that’s what we do. If it’s art or not, I don’t really care. The good thing is, if you say it’s art, it’s art. Nobody can say it’s not.
WONDERLAND: What inspires you?
TOBIAS URBAN: I don’t know… anything that’s around me. From porn to music, anything that you see, comics, books that I read. Even sometimes art, but not very often. Sometimes we are told, ‘You cannot do this, this is not art.’ We made this fisting video to show in a gallery and they said, ‘You should show this in a private video booth.’
WONDERLAND: Sorry, I couldn’t quite hear you. Did you say fisting video?
TOBIAS URBAN: Yeah.
WONDERLAND: Oh God.
TOBIAS URBAN: It was this video where Ali and I are double-fisting a guy.
WONDERLAND: Oh no!
TOBIAS URBAN: And this was my introduction to fisting. I’d never done it before and I’ll probably never do it again. But it was kind of interesting. We wanted this guy to be on stage in London in a box, with just his arse coming out, and if we don’t know what to talk about we just grab into his arse and take out something like a ball with a name or a theme written on it, so we made a test video.
WONDERLAND: And what happened?
TOBIAS URBAN: We filmed it. But he didn’t show up for the actual performance. We gave him what he wanted the day before.
WONDERLAND: [Laughs]. So this video we shot, this guy said if we didn’t show it in his hometown, he doesn’t care, anywhere else. So we showed the video and then there were the arguments about pornography. But pornography is all around us. You just have to go onto the internet. If you read the statistics, a third of males watch porn every day. It’s part of our visual language. It’s not exceptional.
WONDERLAND: When was this?
TOBIAS URBAN: In 2006. They shut down the exhibition a week early. [Laughs]. Usually they do that with us.
WONDERLAND: Any other major scandals? What about the Arc de Triomphe sculpture?
TOBIAS URBAN: Yes. In Vienna in 2003. I was really angry that we gave a national platform to local politicians. Politicians usually like to create problems that they can solve, because they can’t solve the //real// problems, which are too difficult. So they stand in front of our sculpture and say, ‘We have to protect our children from erect penises.’ It’s total bullshit. They built a house around it. Did you read about it?
WONDERLAND: Yes. Wasn’t Prince Charles coming on a visit?
TOBIAS URBAN: The Guardian called us and asked us if we did this because Prince Charles was coming. And we said, ‘Somebody who wants to be a tampon should not be scared of a statue of a man peeing in his own mouth.’ Nobody talks about the innocence you create… The fact is that usually what you see in the public space is a huge commercial for BMW, or for the new Nokia blah blah i-Phone. And then you put this guy in a yoga position with a hard-on peeing in his own mouth with the socks down and with the tee-shirt round his neck. And you are giving an image of someone who doesn’t need anything. And he for sure doesn’t need the new i-Phone, because he’s happy peeing in his own mouth.
WONDERLAND: What about the balcony you made on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center? It’s all over the internet that it was a hoax. But you did do it, didn’t you…
TOBIAS URBAN: Yeah we did it.
WONDERLAND: Why lie?
TOBIAS URBAN: In America they sued this guy who climbed it in the 70s. They sued him for $750,000.
TOBIAS URBAN: So then you start to think that it’s not important that we prove that we did something just for them to fuck you up for the next fifty years. And then there was this collapse of the towers. And then before you know it you have something to do with //that//. And they can do whatever they want to you. You don’t fuck with these authorities.
WONDERLAND: You’ll be in Guantanamo before you know it…
TOBIAS URBAN: Yeah. Seriously. For four or five years.
WONDERLAND: So what did it feel like standing outside, up there on the 91st floor?
TOBIAS URBAN: We try to do things that are very natural. You are in this glass prison breathing artificial air and the most natural move you want to do is to step out. So that is what we did. We built a little house around the window inside the room so no one saw what we were doing. It took us a month to find out how to take out the glass without breaking it. We trained how to take it out with suction cups. And then we had our balcony.
WONDERLAND: For how long was it in place?
TOBIAS URBAN: It was out two times for about twenty minutes. It’s like if you step out of an aeroplane. It’s too beautiful. You puncture this skin that is not allowed to be punctured.
WONDERLAND: What’s your favourite Gelitin piece?
TOBIAS URBAN: One really good one was in Australia where we dug a tunnel to the Chinese restaurant. A Hole To China. It was super-beautiful. The organisers of this festival gave us this left-over empty space in a shopping mall – one of those places where you want to shoot up heroin – and we didn’t know what to do. But we found out that there was a hole in the floor, so we opened the floor and there was just sand and we started digging. And then we had the choice between the jewellry store on the right side or the Chinese restaurant on the left side.
WONDERLAND: What did the festival make of it?
TOBIAS URBAN: We opened the tunnel at noon so there is a lot going on in the Chinese restaurant. The organiser had to pretend to the sponsor that he knew what was going on and he went down with the video camera and was saying, ‘How fantastic, how fantastic.’ And he never ever talked to us again.
WONDERLAND: Is Gelitin the inheritor of any artistic tradition?
TOBIAS URBAN: Feminism.
TOBIAS URBAN: Serious. Look at their work. I feel related to them. Because they changed the image of female bodies a lot: the idea that you are not passive as a female; you are not the brush of an artist, you take it in your own hands. Like Carolee Schneeman, who pulled the poem out of her pussy and VALIE EXPORT, who gave herself a new name that was not her father’s or her husband’s and spelt it with capital letters, like a brand.
WONDERLAND: Does your work have a message?
TOBIAS URBAN: Um. No. I don’t want to change the world. I think the people who want to change the world are dangerous. People like Bush want to change the world. If someone wants to improve the world, I’m worried.
WONDERLAND: What do you want to do to the world: make it laugh? Think? Neither?
TOBIAS URBAN: Hmmm. I am just watching it. For me the world is absurd. We are now in this financial crisis. In 2006 Goldman Sachs paid $60 billion to its employees. And you think, ‘What do they produce? Do they produce refridgerators? What do they do? Do they make art?’ They just make money out of money.
WONDERLAND: And you find that strange?
TOBIAS URBAN: Yes. I just watch it. And think about it. Not really criticising it. That’s how it is. I’m not a better person or anything. I’m a person who happens to be an artist. And art is a very free system.
WONDERLAND: How long before an exhibition do you decide what you are going to do? A long time?
TOBIAS URBAN: No. Well. You have the idea somewhere in your head.
WONDERLAND: So somewhere in your head you have a 200-foot pink rabbit?
TOBIAS URBAN: Yeah, you have this 200-foot rabbit and you think, ‘How do I want it?’ And you think, ‘I want it that old ladies are knitting it, because it’s much nicer than a machine.’ So you feed the old ladies with sugar and tea and then there is a pink rabbit coming out. And then you have the rabbit skin lying in the studio for four years and you don’t know what to do with it. And then this person comes by from a gallery and they want to find a good spot for it.
WONDERLAND: I saw some pictures of the rabbit recently, he’s looking quite pale, isn’t he?
TOBIAS URBAN: He’s pale, yes. He’s getting quite grey. Now you can climb on from all sides.
WONDERLAND: Have you been back since he was first installed?
TOBIAS URBAN: I was there in September. We had a little third birthday party for him.
WONDERLAND: That’s nice.
TOBIAS URBAN: I always think, ‘Now it’s over with the rabbit’, but every year it’s getting more beautiful.
WONDERLAND: How long will he be there?
TOBIAS URBAN: Forever. I think you’ll still be able to see it in fifty years if you are lucky. Because even if it’s completely covered in grass, you’ll still see a form.
WONDERLAND: The archaeologists of the future will do an excavation and they’ll find your rabbit…
TOBIAS URBAN: Yes and can you imagine somebody coming from outer-space in the future and seeing the churches and people praying to somebody nailed to the cross. People are crazy. I always think when I go to church, ‘You are praying to a torture instrument. Take him down, please!’ I want Buddha, some old guy that sits down and is happy.
WONDERLAND: Okay, that’s it…
TOBIAS URBAN: That’s it?
TOBIAS URBAN: Okay. My date of birth you can say what you want. I don’t care if I’m 36 or 45.
WONDERLAND: How old would you like to be today? I’ll just put that.
TOBIAS URBAN: Um. 37 would be good.
TOBIAS URBAN: [Laughs].
WONDERLAND: Oh yeah, do you have a title yet for your new show in Miami?
TOBIAS URBAN: It’s a long one.
WONDERLAND: Okay… What is it?
TOBIAS URBAN: Hang on, I have to read it. It’s My Face Your Popo, Your Face My Popo, Restefick, Euroink, Pittosporum, The Freckled Show, **Our**Wonderful**Show**, I Say Goodbuy You Say Hello, I Say Hello You Say Goodbuy, Everland, More Is Less More Or Less, In 80 Tagen Um Die Welt, Dim Sum, New Chinese Art, Rubber Americard, Younger Bats Must Back To Bed, Old Farts, Culatello My Ass, Concord Is Here, Never Forget A Billion Has 9 Zeroz, Ass To Mouth, And Back Again.
WONDERLAND: Um. Thanks.
TOBIAS URBAN: You’re very welcome.
Words: Louise Brealey
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #16, Dec/Jan 2008/09