Jürgen Klauke und Elke Backes

Jürgen Klauke

Jürgen Klauke und Elke Backes

From an observer to someone being affected or – What does my taste in art reveal about myself?

Photos: Sarah Schovenberg

Cologne, 15th March 2018. A former warehouse painted with graffiti. How fitting is what I think when arriving. This is exactly how I imagined Jürgen Klauke’s studio. The building is as unconventional as his art. He has been setting standards in the development of conceptual photography, body art and performance since the late 1960s. His oeuvre also includes an impressive collection of drawings. The series DR. MÜLLERS SEX-SHOP ODER SO STELL’ ICH MIR DIE LIEBE VOR gave me an initial impulse to examine his work.

Jürgen Klauke Atelier

Studio outside

I have hardly ever experienced such discussions on art. Reactions varying from attraction to repulsion to shaking one’s head or commenting “Oh! It’s pretty weird. He must have taken a lot of drugs” to questioning whether I would hang up something like that at home.


1977, 13-teilige farbige Fotosequenz, je 50 x 40 cm, Installation: 50 x 520 cm

What struck me above all was that my acknowledgement, “I think it’s great”, seemed to make  conclusions about me as a person. But how much does my taste in art actually reveal about myself?

To answer this question, I would first like to find out how much of his own personality Jürgen Klauke put into his work.

I eagerly enter the house. A covered courtyard leads to the living area and to the studio. The stage and the toilets lined up on it suggest that the courtyard is obviously used as a studio as well. This must be where the BRANCUSI-ENLOSSÄULE was created.



Inside the living room, the artist’s special passion for collecting things becomes apparent immediately. Numerous African and Oceanic sculptures claim here their existenz, next to the large library.

We start our conversation with a cup of coffee.

Breaking the ice is a “significant” common thing we found out while getting to know each other – we have the same birthday. After promising to congratulate each other every year from now on, we carry on talking about art.

Jürgen Klauke und Elke Backes

“Compared to your early, provocative works, your recent works seem rather calm. Have you become more well-behaved?” “Older, more sensible, a little wiser, but not well-behaved,” Klauke answers with a mischievous smile. “If I had kept my way of life of the 70s and 80s, you probably could have visited me at the Melatengürtel [the central cemetery of Cologne] … I think my work is still unconventional; only the subject matter has changed. It’s just that most of the topics I worked on, in the beginning, have been completed – nothing is more boring than repetition.”

“A great deal has indeed happened as concerns the issue of gender. Nevertheless, people’s reaction to your photos shows that this kind of confrontation is still provocative and polarising in our day and age where taboos are seemingly breaking down. It is hard to imagine how this reaction must have looked like in the past. Were you identified with what you portrayed in the photographs?” I ask.


EINE EWIGKEIT EIN LÄCHELN, 1973, 9-teilige farbige Fotoarbeit, je 30 x 40 cm, Installation: 30 x 360 cm

“Sure. This is inevitable when you yourself as an artist are in the photo. Being accused of narcissism, speculations about my sexual orientation, the whole programme, etc., etc… At that time, we were all more or less politicised. Instead, I decided to look for the so-called revolution in everyday life and to react to the issues of the time with my art. It was above all standing against the Wilhelmine educational model still prevailing at that time, which had internalised post-war society and the subsequent society of the “economic miracle”.

His performance HINSETZEN. AUFSTEH’N. ICH LIEBE DICH. EIN DIALOG from 1979 immediately comes to mind, which stirred me up incredibly. As a viewer, you literally experience a personified inner conflict, you become more and more restless and can hardly stand the scenario at some point. (You must look at the whole thing, no fast-forwarding for a change!)

“Performance and body art were part of completely new forms of art. They were part of this development. What inspired you?” I ask.

“We made quiet a few gastronomical experiences, leaving the studios to explore new things in life,” Klauke reveals with a meaningful look. “If I had a compelling idea, I spontaneously called Horst from Roxy [Horst Leichenich was the owner of the cult pub Roxy] or Herman the German [the photographer Hermann Schulte] and we arranged a session. I prepared the setting, lighting etc. so that the two of them only had to take the photos, more or less. Everything was very experimental. The search for new visual languages and visual spaces finally led me from taking single pictures to large photos via sequences. Presentation needs more effort these days, but I am still in control of everything.”

Jürgen Klauke und Elke Backes

“Is the strong emotional expression in your photos and performances because of a talent for acting?” “No. This has nothing to do with acting. I do not tell a story, but represent the conception of human beings by means of visual questions. I serve as material for the message of my photos. The subject – or rather my guiding principle – is the constant confrontation with the ‘aestheticisation of the existential’, as I call it. It is this irresolvable conflict within ourselves and the wonderful failure associated with it that makes our existence quite entertaining unless we go mad in the meantime. The choice between staying in bed and sighing or roaring laughing.

This explains the humour that always resonates in his works, despite all the darkness and formal rigidity. While this could still be traced back to his excessive lifestyle and exciting experiments in the early cycles of his work, his changed way of working from FORMALISIERUNG DER LANGEWEILE (1980-1981) no longer bears this assumption. Since then, every so-called block of work has been meticulously prepared. An intellectual and substantive collection of material is followed by sketches, which then prepare a kind of storyboard in conceptual workbooks. As a result, up to 100 works are created from ten to twelve smaller blocks of work, which are then combined under a common title, as for example with SONNTAGSNEUROSEN, DESASTRÖSES ICH or ÄSTHETISCHE PARANOIA .

The studio also gives an impression of this structured way of working. Everything has its place here. Along the wall opposite the entrance are the computer working area, as well as two large drawing tables; in the middle of the room, there is a table with overhead photos of his current work HINTERGRUNDRAUSCHEN spread out. Around it, there are groups of works, sorted by the upcoming gallery exhibitions in Düsseldorf and Paris, as well as the exhibition in Basel. A collector’s heart starts beating faster…

Jürgen Klauke Atelier


We look at the photos on the table, philosophise about the things we see in them and choose our respective favourites. “I check the quality of the overhead photos as a whole, decide which motifs I want to select and in which format they should be printed. With the detail prints, I can see whether the black-grey sharp tuning works as well as the elements out of black,” Klauke explains.

Jürgen Klauke Auswahl

Joint assessment

“How important is humour in your work and to what extent can it still be planned with all this vast preparation?” “This can be planned through the respective titles, as well as the conceptual and pictorial intention. For example, humour in STEIGERUNGSPHÄNOMEN from the group of works SONNTAGSNEUROSEN was not created by chance, but as a conscious staging for images. By going deeper, I also like shedding some light on the darkness of our existence with a touch of irony. Exploited coincidences can also be helpful here. So I say to my photographer: ‘If something goes wrong – no matter what – always point the camera at it – it could help to brighten things up’ “.


1 Motiv aus STEIGERUNGSPHÄNOMENEN, 4-teilig, je 215 x 125 cm, 1990/1992

“Speaking of titles. What inspires you to find these subtle words?” “I read a lot; I like language. As soon as I get involved with a certain topic, I collect words, add them partly to the sketchbooks, start to form subtitles. The titles are a second level for allowing viewers to get to know my works,” Klauke explains. A quick self-check: What happens if I look at the pictures of ABSOLUTE WINDSTILLE  from FORMALISIERUNG DER LANGEWEILE, first with and then without subtitles?


ABSOLUTE WINDSTILLE, 1980/1981, 13-teiliges Fototableau auf Barytpapier, Installation: 180 x 170 cm

Surreal and funny are the first terms that come to my mind spontaneously. Looking at the main title FORMALISIERUNG DER LANGEWEILE (formalization of boredom), I then relate boredom with the idea of having put a bucket over my head. Darkness comes to mind, isolation, disorientation. Not so funny anymore. And now the subtitle: ABSOLUTE WINDSTILLE (absolute calm). It suddenly sounds like the apocalypse. From an observer to someone being affected…

All in all, kind of absurdly poetic. “It is this indissoluble conflict with ourselves and the beautiful failure associated with it that makes our existence quite entertaining unless we go mad in the meantime.” Klauke’s previous statement comes to mind again. His guiding principle contains everything that makes him and his work so exciting.

Failing, getting up, who doesn’t know this? As the author of the pictures, he is more than just material for the picture’s message. He is personally involved. It is his thoughts, experiences, perceptions, observations – his view of the world, which shape his philosophical thoughts and find expression in his pictures. The question asked at the beginning as to how much my taste in art reveals about myself, can simply be derived from what appeals to and touches me about Jürgen Klauke’s art. It is how he plays with the trivial and sublime, and it is irony, the critical and at the same time humorous view of what it is to be human.

Failing, getting up again and again. It’s nice when you can laugh about it …

More Information

… about the artist: http://www.juergenklauke.de

… about the current exhibition in the gallery Hans Mayer: http://www.galeriehansmayer.de/

… about the coming exhibition in the NRW Akademie der Wissenschaften und Künste: 2018-05-02-juergen-klauke-koerperzeichenzeichenkoerper.html

… about the last exhibition Hintergrundrauschen in the gallery Thomas Zander: http://www.galeriezander.com/de/exhibitions/hintergrundrauschen