The breathtakingly high heeled shoe floats on a carpet, abstract patterns are shiny burned in enamel. They seduce the viewer to take a closer look – and then let them discover something surprisingly different. The theme of queerness resonates in the colorful, very reduced painting and art of Ulrike Müller. She is considered a representative of genderqueer art and is part of the queer-feminist collective LTTR. Her art is about exploring body and identity politics; the duality of the sexes is questioned by blurring boundaries. The Austrian lives and works in New York. She has been exhibited at biennials in Cairo and Venice, and her work has been shown in important museums from Düsseldorf to Vienna to New York. Now the 49-year-old has received the € 30,000 art prize from Böttcherstraße in Bremen. Ulrike Müller spoke to ntv.de via Skype about life with Covid-19 in New York, queer art, high-heeled shoes and why it is better known across the Atlantic than in Germany.
ntv.de: Congratulations! How does it feel to get one of the oldest and most respected art awards in Germany?
Ulrike Müller: It was a great surprise. The selection of nominated artists was very sensitive.
And you asserted yourself against top-class colleagues. Is it sad that you can’t go to Bremen right now?
Yes, but I haven’t been traveling since February and haven’t left New York State since. In 2019 I was on the road a lot through my participation in the Venice Biennale and exhibitions in Vienna and London. But actually it was clear that traveling was unsustainable in the long term.
Do you miss Europe?
I already have the feeling that I am more or less stuck. New York has changed so much with the pandemic. Cultural life is very different, social life is severely restricted. I ride my bike a lot now, which was not the case before. I live and work in Brooklyn and am currently in Manhattan once or twice a month. Before, I was there almost every day – there was always a reason to go into town, as they say here.
What is the mood like in the city and in the art scene?
It’s hard to answer because I’m only part of the art scene. The music industry is idle, cinemas are still closed, there are no live events, only the museums have gradually reopened with a safe margin. In the city itself there are currently a lot of queues for all kinds of occasions – from organic markets to museums.
Is this an everyday life that you have got used to in New York?
It’s like we’ve all somehow moved to the country without leaving our homes. The conversations change because this shared cultural consumption such as films or exhibitions does not exist as a topic of conversation. What I find very important, however, is that in New York the collective experience of vulnerability and the physical level of this disease have a direct impact on the Black Lives Matter movement.
So with increasing vulnerability and sensitivity, has the pandemic increased awareness of the BLM movement?
Especially among white middle-class Americans, the feeling of security has not held, and thus the potential for another form of solidarity has arisen. People also had time for daily demonstrations. All of this has to do with the fact that you sit at home and react differently to the news, take it in and relate it to your own situation.
How do you protect yourself from the virus? In New York the numbers are rising again.
I always leave the apartment wearing a mask. I only have social contacts in groups outdoors. Eating in restaurants is allowed again, but as long as it’s still possible outside, I’ll do it there too. The question is what solutions are there in winter.
We ask ourselves that in Germany too. In addition to increasing solidarity, deceleration and awareness of vulnerability, has the pandemic also achieved anything positive?
That is different across the population, depending on income and economic situation, and therefore difficult to answer. For me, this deceleration was good for a moment. But I do notice that there is a certain level of stress all around because there are so many imponderables. I experience everything from anxiety to escape fantasies. And now this insane US election campaign. In combination with the pandemic, this is difficult to bear. I wish I could participate and choose.
Are you really considering going back to Europe after 18 years in New York?
I found it difficult to experience these different risk assessments when interacting with family and friends in Europe. In New York it has been clear for months that you wear a mask and that it is not negotiable. There are no group events, no birthday parties. No, this is not the time to go. I believe it is important to see traumatic events in the context to the end. The pandemic is a collective experience, which somehow also has to be ended collectively.
The jury of the Art Prize Böttcherstraße describes your art as “one of the most precise positions in the field of contemporary feminist and queer painting discourses”. To what extent is your art queer or political? For example, if you look at the wonderful carpets with abstract high heels, you will not see this reference immediately.
Yes that’s true. I am not interested in an illustration of otherness that can be read immediately as a life plan. It’s not about queerness pointing to myself, my body or my choices. I want to activate viewers to question certain things that have to do with self-image. One of the things that I’ve seen time and again in Europe is the tendency to jump to conclusions.
Using the example of a very high pump …
… to infer being a woman (laughs). But that is not laid out in the picture. There is no reference to which body is in the shoe. I am interested in objects such as the shoe as an open carrier of meaning that appear different depending on the context and the viewer.
But that has to be the high-heeled shoe and cannot be the sneaker?
I haven’t thought about that yet (laughs). The high-heeled shoe is more provocative than the sneaker.
How did you get into high heels?
Colors, shapes and certain perspectives in which tilting figures are created are important to me. That means I try to make objects and images that suggest certain, even contradicting, readings. A long time ago I photographed the high-heeled shoe on the sign of a cobbler in New York. Then I signed it, and it would probably disappear in the drawer for ten or fifteen years. When I started working with enamel, I took it out. Suddenly he was really charged.
You grew up in Vorarlberg – how far was it to New York in 2002?
It was long and had many detours. I studied art in Vienna and then worked with other artists in Vienna for a few years. However, I had no molded artistic practice; that kept me very busy. I wouldn’t call myself a natural. In New York, at the age of 30, after completing my one-year training in the independent study program of the Whitney Museum of American Art, I was lucky enough to receive a one-year scholarship. During this time I found an active, great, queer feminist environment, which was very important to me.
That sounds like a liberation. Why did you become an artist?
My art studies indicate my interest, yes, but I was an art student, not an artist. My training in the tapestry master class, the textile background, certainly has to do with gender-specific expectations. Also with the fact that art was not immediately conclusive and accessible to me, that there were all sorts of questions. What do you trust yourself to do? In New York it was suddenly almost the reverse of your question as to why I became an artist: Here I asked myself whether I have to be an artist? It wasn’t easy, but after my first year the direction was clear.
You are better known and more successful in the USA than in Germany, why is that?
That has to do with presence and visibility. My artistic formation took place here, my work has not yet been seen that often in Germany.
You work with very clear forms, with materials like enamel and wool in their carpets. Is the latter a reminiscence of your home country Austria?
Not consciously, no, I wouldn’t use the term home like that. For me, carpets are also carpets, they can be presented lying down or hanging. This emphasizes their dual status of work of art and everyday object. With wool or enamel there are uses and this tactile familiarity that the works have. Certain materials convey certain content. In the case of enamel, the association is, for example, “bathtub”, “kitchen”, but also “jewelry”.
And suddenly abstract images can be seen on the enamel. From art to the here and now, what gives you hope?
The knowledge that people are creative – that it doesn’t have to be what it is right now. Many think about the current problems. About problems that are very obvious and that there cannot or will not be just one person who can solve these global problems. It has to be tackled together.
Juliane Rohr spoke to Ulrike Müller via Skype
The exhibition Kunstpreis der Böttcherstraße in Bremen 2020 can be seen until November 1st in the Kunsthalle Bremen, Am Wall 207, 28195 Bremen.
On October 27, instead of the award ceremony at 7 p.m., there will be a conversation with Ulrike Müller in the Kunsthalle’s Instagram Live Story.