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Interview with Abner Preis: Hitting the heart with a story
by Edo Dijksterhuis

Amsterdam, Jun. 2014: The first time I met Abner Preis was at Scope in Miami. He succeeded in making me and my companion dress up like superheroes: masks, oversized gloves, glittery capes, and a fluffy toy animal as a personal mascot. While we were assuming our best victory poses Preis was snapping away. Still, whenever I look at the picture he sent me afterwards I have to smile and part of me feels the urge to leave my everyday Clark Kent incarnation in a nearby phone booth and go rescue a school bus full of kids dangerously hanging off a bridge. I guess I share that feeling with the more than one thousand people in Brussels, Kolkata, Istanbul, Miami, and many other cities around the world Preis has photographed over the years for his Superhero Project.

Empowerment with a smile and a wink is what Preis’ artistry is about. In his interactive public performances and mixed media installations he reaches out and lifts up. The story is his most important form of expression, sometimes told intimately sitting face to face at a small table, sometimes brought with circus-like bravado including a band, lots of props, and countless extras. Emotion takes precedence over aesthetics here although the aesthetics always closely follow the nature of the narrative, the medium being crayon, sharpies, textile, or blowtorch on paper.

Preis has one basic rule: his stories always end well. Which is not to say that they’re not slap-in-your-face offensive at times or politically incorrect: like the tale of Donkey Dan, a boy born with the large black penis, or stuntman Red Bulle who ends up in prison for giving away sponsor money to the poor. At TETEM in Enschede the installation/performance Born Again is currently on show: a theatrical pilgrimage about reincarnation. In September, Preis will be performing at the Van Abbemuseum, and later this year his work can be experienced at HMKV in Dortmund as well as the Kunsthalle in Vienna.

Abner Preis, The Superhero Project, Brussels; Courtesy Harlan Levey Projects Brussels

Edo Dijksterhuis: Why is storytelling so important?

Abner Preis: Storytelling is in our human DNA, we’re born with it. Storytelling is a very old way of communicating, an instinctive tool to express what we want, need to say. It takes a message away from politics, takes away the jargon, the theory, the historical baggage. In that way it can be about everything and be for everyone. It’s a big job to try to make it work, a great responsibility. But making literate art—because that’s what my kind of storytelling aims to be—is no different from what Caravaggio was doing when painting his religious scenes. People went to church to see them and be changed emotionally and psychologically.

ED: Oral history is often considered more culture than art. How do you fit storytelling into the generally accepted idea of art?

AP: It is a challenge, I admit. There are certain rules to making art; we’ve learnt them in school. Storytelling is not factual or tangible; that’s what sets it apart from the traditional art forms. And that’s why I create works based on my stories: installations, videos, drawings, books, which I use in my performances.

But the answer to the question whether storytelling is art really comes down to the artist and his intentions. I believe in Joseph Beuys’s idea of the central character as maker and distributor of information. The storyteller is in the position to project stories upon objects, video, installations and so forth. But I try to bring the observer to become part of the story: by taking off his shoes before entering an installation, putting underwear on his head, sticking fake tattoos on his arm, dressing him up as Michael Jackson. It’s not because I want to make fun of people but because I want to draw them into a group and say: let’s go forward together. It’s a question of empowerment.

ED: But does that mean you want your art to be some kind of therapy, a means to affect and improve people’s lives?

AP: It’s difficult to create a piece you don’t have to defend as either art or therapy. I aim to make something new, something that goes beyond art or therapy. My job is to make the audience jump. I want them to jump beyond what they are looking at or hearing. I want them to jump beyond themselves.

the HONORDANCE dance dance dance from dogs of shame on Vimeo. “The Honor Dance” As  a part of a show at gallery Gabriel Rolt, this video was shot as a three day work shop based on “The Honor Dance” a competition between the Rock and Rollers and the Vikings.  All the participants made their costumes as well as the Choreography. Presented by: Gallery Gabriel Rolt


ED: Could you give an example?

AP: This September I’ll be working at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. My idea is to change the name of the museum into the Van Abnermuseum—mostly because I think it’s funny. As I handed in this proposal the reaction of the museum curators was astounding: ranging from laughter to anger, touching on the discourse of power, history, and the meaning of the museum—something I never quite expected. Once the concept was accepted, I wanted the project to have a deeper meaning. I will take the audience on a journey, a pilgrimage to see differently. There’s going to be a program outside the museum exploring the outside world, life in Eindhoven. The working method relates to those of the Situationists and Dada, and has to result in something like the ten commandments to seeing differently. Upon entering the museum, which is going to be a ritual, and ascending to the “holy” objects inside, I want the imagination to be recharged. It’s nothing new. It’s as old as the prehistoric paintings in caves. But that’s the power art has. And there is great power to be had by making art.

ED: How badly do we, contemporary Westerners, need this transformative power of art?

AP: I always refer to boxing when talking about this. A boxer protects his head and body by holding up his fists. Nowadays our heads are under constant attack, we are bombarded with information. So we draw up our fists high, leaving the body—and more importantly, the heart—open. That’s where I strike. On a one on one basis people can be told about and shown beautiful things.

I have told stories in very different situations: at Art Basel but also at a neighborhood party. The stories don’t change, the spell doesn’t change. For some people that’s a scary experience but quite a few are ready to be as vulnerable as me, the storyteller.

ED: Your stories always have a happy ending. But it doesn’t mean they are sweet, feel good fantasies. Quite often there’s a politically incorrect or cruel twist. What’s the importance of combining these two ingredients?

AP: My humor can be quite dark. Some stories are very sick and crazy but are still considered sweet and nice. That’s the great thing about a happy ending. It’s a challenge for me to see how twisted I can make it and still end happily and keep me and my audience laughing.

Personally I’m a pretty dark guy. But that part of me shouldn’t be inside the work. The work is about the natural instinct to build, make, give. Every artist wants to give. Art is about giving.

Abner Preis, The plague Doctors; Courtesy Harlan Levey Projects Brussels


ED: What is status of the drawings, installations, videos, and books you make to accompany your performances? Are they artifacts or can they also function as autonomous works of art?

AP: It’s important for a work to also have a material form. Part of the reason is practical. I cannot be present day and night to tell my stories, however much I would love to give everyone personal attention. But it’s also about the nature of the object as relic. The objects I make remind the audience of what they’ve understood or not, what they’ve liked or not.

At TETEM the audience was invited into a special universe. They had to take off their shoes, walk through water, get on a spaceship, land on an island, and go through a gate which basically meant they entered death. The objects, made out of textile and paper, were tools to create a world representing a full life cycle.

But yes, these works could also work on their own. I do not make a distinction between an autonomous object, which stands alone, and a tool, which stands with others. Buckminster Fuller once wrote that the world is being destroyed by specialization and I stand by that. It’s more interesting to say why something is the same rather than different.

Abner Preis, Born Again, Installation view at TETEM kunstruimte, Enschede, 2014; Courtesy Harlan Levey Projects Brussels


ED: What do you think about the current social and political climate, which isn’t exactly very supportive of the arts, at least not in the Netherlands?

AP: I have always been an outsider in an world based on funding. Now the time is against funding and in a way that creates a freedom to allow new ways of expression to grow. As an artist you have to make a choice: be different or fall between the cracks. In the Netherlands at the moment art is questioned at all levels and I would like to see it go beyond traditional paintings and sculptures. I would like an artist to take a one million dollar production budget and not make a work but to buy AK47s and fly them to Uganda. Let’s see what kind of impact that kind of art would have.

ED: You’re no stranger to crowdfunding. The Superheroes project was largely funded through Kickstarter by selling $100 prints to at least 120 donors. How does this way of financing tie in with your artistic mission?

AP: The people buying the photograph are not just paying for the print. They are paying for the idea of others getting dressed up as superheroes. They want to share that idea. The Wu Tang Clan is planning to sell their new album Once Upon a Time In Shaolin to only one customer—five million dollars for a single copy! I rather sell thirty thousand people a work for one hundred dollars.

At the recent Art Brussels my gallerist Harlan Levey sold the story “Motherwolf and the Moon” as a multiple, edition 300. Buyers get an mp3 file and a plaque with the text “During the day things grew and during the night things rested in peace.” Almost half of the works have been sold already even though the market for the story is a very new market. That’s what makes it really exciting.


Edo Dijksterhuis 


ArtSlant would like to thank Abner Preis for his assistance in making this interview possible.

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