I met Theis’ work before I met him, a dark and graphic and irreverent painting hung across the wall of the collective in which he lived. And I sit there thinking this is no work of an amateur. Which he isn’t. Educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, he’s exhibited his work globally, from Stockholm to Vietnam to Istanbul and back again. Whilst his roots lie in graffiti, it’s clear that the “massive stagnatated form” (as he puts it) was not the punktum to his creative yearning. He works in installation and painting and sculpture and… well we’ll just have to wait and see. But I didn’t get the idea to interview him until we fell out. He didn’t like me taking photos of him at a party and the lengths he went to show his displeasure was nothing short of a shock. I mean, take it easy right? No. This guy, in his shallow cap and neckscarf, soft-spoken and contemplative, had a razor edge. And I liked that.
A couple of months later and he’s fetching me from Enghave station, taking me to his studio in Carlsberg. We step into it’s vast desolation; an abandoned factory stripped to the cement support pillars, discarded furniture gathering dust, a chamber of echoes, bone grey light filtering through the tall sooty windows. But there are signs of life, spray painted walls, a forsaken canvas, a lonely polystyrene model of a genderless person. And then, behind a plastic sheet is a doorway to the studios. Plyboard walls cordon off the work spaces, tinny music playing from radio sets, hammering and banging and distant conversations. Theis works in the back corner, his canvasses hung on the wall, accoutrements scattered throughout. In the middle of the room stands a small table, stacks of fake hundred dollar bills, a computer and a mobile phone. I put down the beer, we ping a couple open. We sit and talk for two hours. Here are the best parts.
What was your problem with me taking your photo and putting it on Facebook? We got in a crazy argument about it last year. Are you just shy?
Well I think I’m a shy person in some ways and in others I maybe don’t give a fuck. But the problem that I have with Facebook is the lack of private space and private life it produces. I think there are some quite interesting things going on around Facebook, but I think it claims as much as it gives. I think the idea of having time and space to be an individual in your private life, in your private space, is one of the most important values in the idea of democracy. And I think that Facebook, Twitter, Google having the right to your private life actually threatens the democratic idea. So that’s why I’m very cautious about it. But it also has something to do with the general idea that it inherits. It’s producing this common sense that ‘Hey, I can take your photo! It’s just Facebook, it’s just for the public.’ Yeah but it’s my face!
You seem to be pretty interested in this issue of public space. Wasn’t the installation on Kultorvet, where you made a traffic bottleneck, dealing with this issue in some way?
That was a collaboration with Søren Thilo Funder during a period at the academy, where we worked under this umbrella called ‘Remix the World’, together with other artists as well. We had this opportunity to produce a work at Kultorvet and it was a lot of ideas really, if you talked to Søren there would probably be another graphic. Testing behavioral patterns in public spaces, the idea of being herded in, like cattle, and this idea of standing in line for something that has no function. And then there was this issue of a fence, comparing it to what a fence is in Palestine, the borders of Europe, fences in general, and what it would mean in downtown Copenhagen, in a shopping period, in a shopping district. And what one minute of delay would mean in the minds of people. One minute in delaying them from going to H&M or to a café. We created a scenario where you could observe people’s reactions.
Were people invited to witness?
There was an event going on but it wasn’t obvious. But that was also a theme that the work was playing with, awareness. It was delaying the traffic in the street. One could say, ‘What the fuck do I need your opinion for? Why do I have to be confronted with your project? This is public and you setting up this scenario, actually makes it your space.’ So one could say we were making a private space out of this, controlling peoples movement. But you can’t even compare that with how commercials claim space and with the text bombardment it confronts you with when taking a walk in the street and few people questions that. But if it’s an art project being presented, people tend to get provoked. It reminds me of a public sculpture Peter Land did in Albertslund. He made a big bronze installation, a public sculpture, and one or two days later the head was chopped off. And for me that’s like, what the fuck?
But wouldn’t you think that art won then? That it managed to incite some sort of reaction, even if it is to destroy a work, then perhaps it’s made an impact?
I guess that the artist Peter Land was upset by it. I’m not saying that because it’s in public, it’s ok to destroy whatever you want, but I definitely find it interesting when people interact in the public space. I think it’s funny that it can create that much anger and hate in comparison to a million dollar advert. Even in comparison to graffiti for example. Why is that not accepted then? I don’t think it’s a matter of what people are used to because people should be used to graffiti at this point. It’s been around for thirty, forty years.
So legalise graffiti?
That would kill it’s potential. It’s not a matter of if we’re used to it, it’s a matter of what we are being told. I don’t think it’s ok to claim a space as private just because you can afford it. I hate that only wealthy companies can afford it and not the public interest. In relation to this problem I think graffiti is asking a very crucial question.
Did you start doing graffiti with that idea or did that idea sort of come as a reflection afterwards?
It caught my attention because it made so much sense compared to playing sport or going to High School, when I was a kid. Coming from a town like Helsinge, I guess I was bored and graffiti made the whole thing fun, so I just did it. Now I have a much more political reflection about it and I think it’s fucking important in society and I love it’s persistence. Maybe some day it will be accepted in the mind of the people like advertising, I don’t know. It’s interesting. It doesn’t give a fuck about art or intellectual ideas or the police or the law and it just keeps going on. It keeps on inspiring people. I mean maybe it’s not developing that much in the creative sense, it’s just a massive stagnated form, but it’s there. And it just keeps on going and it’s all raw. I love it.
But a lot of it is fucking crap. It can upset me when people tag some buildings. Don’t you think people should be able to decide what the front of their building looks like?
People can decide how their living room looks like. I think there’s more to that subject actually because there are so many laws about how streets and buildings should look like. It’s not actually about what you think or what I think, the laws and rules dictate the aesthetic of our surroundings. This is a block which is red brick and that’s the look that we want here. And so that is being used as an argument with ‘the problems of the mosques’, they don’t fit in. It cannot be here because this is a red brick area and this is the aesthetic of the neighbourhood. But the aesthetic of how the streets look, especially in a city such as Copenhagen, is really retarded I think. When I lived in Barcelona in 2000, it was a graffiti heaven in some ways. It was so much more integrated into the local society as well as in the broader sense. The approach to graffiti was, why not invite graffiti writers to decorate the streets, the shops or whatever. Be in dialogue with these people. And what you had at that time in Barcelona was fucking beautiful streets, I’ve never seen anything like it. I think it’s different now though. But we can learn from that, especially in Denmark. Wouldn’t a big beautiful mosque in the middle of Copenhagen be contributing to the boring street aesthetic that we have and at the same time loosen up a lot of other issues? And why is it alright to have a Cult advertisement with a girl in the lap of a dude saying, ‘Fuck now, Ask later’? Nobody seems to stop it. And that’s why I just fucking love a throw up on top of that. Because for me it asks a lot of questions about what and how the streets should look like and why it looks like it does. Graffiti is this ongoing power that is asking the same question again and again and I think it’s a good question.
What’s the deal with the guy with the burning beard?
He was a well known Pirate called Blackbeard and it’s my own interpretation of who this guy was. He has been interpreted in many weird ways. For example you can get a toy figure of him, he’s been presented in Disney movies, and then there is the written history of who this character really was. He played an important role in the maritime space and the fight for the control of the sea in the start of the 17 hundreds. He was a thorn in the eye for the world establishment which makes him an interesting political character. There is a story about him, that he would light his beard and hat before charging his enemies for example. Pirates are interesting because they have been transformed over time, from truth to myth and now again the real pirates show their face. Today we see the romantic pirate, for example Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, and at the same time you have real piracy in Somalia right now. So the images of pirates I create is taking a view on the history of pirates, the pictures become like a merge of myths, contemporary problems and conflicts, put together in one image. Take this image for example [The expedition], it’s telling the myth of the Flying Dutchman represented as a supertanker just like those currently being hijacked in the Indian Ocean. There’s also the whole issue about pirate copying and the Pirate Bay and that’s also an interesting political theme right now because that would lead us to the idea of the public sphere of the internet and the accessibility we have for files and file sharing and downloads and again we have tension between public and private.
Now it makes sense. I always thought he was a cowboy.
Ah no. That is a pirate hat.
To find out more about Theis, visit his website at www.theiswendt.com
Cutting of the article from Bitchslap Magazine.