Jonathan Meese

Untangling irony from sincerity, and nonsense from meaning, has been notoriously difficult in interpreting Jonathan Meese’s work. The talented young artist fulfills all the conspicuous elements of “Germania-mania”—a Romantic sensibility, a tendency to favor intuition over rationality—as well as a flair for the mythopoeic and spectacular gesture.

His large-scale canvases recall neo-Expressionism but come peppered with personal and lowbrow references that update the style’s preoccupation with history. He calls them pop-historical, and the definition seems pitch-perfect.

Scrawled in the background are words from his private language, the three stripes of the Adidas’s logo (whose tracksuit is his uniform), and hip quotations—such as the mascara-ed eye of Stanley Kubrick’s Alex de Large and the homoerotic pose of Yves Saint Laurent. He has infamously taken as subject a number of despotic figures, grinding the line between parody and homage to an uneasily thin edge.

Most recently, he staged a five-hour interpretation of Wagner’s Parsifal in Berlin, performing a version of the opera and growing increasingly drunk, on a stage set that included a giant head of the composer, skeletons, weaponry and a bronze statue with five penises.

Meese performs for the first time in the U.K. at Tate Modern on Feb. 25: His Noel Coward Is Back: Noel Coward vs. Dr. Humpty Dumpty vs. Fra No-Finger will subject the British playwright and composer to Meese’s brand of chaotic, fictitious storytelling. Running concurrently, the gallery Modern Art in east London has a show on now of new mixed-media installations and paintings relating to the British playwright.

What is your interest in Noel Coward? Did you pick him specifically for the British audience?

Coward is an oracle; he is a God, a Law, a Rule, a hermetic Ghost of his own neutrality. I did not choose him especially for the British audience, but when I think of Great Britain, I think of Noel Coward. I grew up in Japan and Germany with records of Coward whom my father and my mother loved—his plays as well as his songs. I love especially the record Noel Coward Live at Las Vegas. Coward is Wally Whyton, Wally Whyton is Ivanhoe, Ivanhoe is Captain Hornblower, Captain Hornblower is Captain Ahab, Captain Ahab is Humpty Dumpty, Humpty Dumpty is Noel Coward.

How does Coward relate to the other despotic figures (or figures of questionable politics) that you’ve depicted over the years: Hitler, Stalin, Kubrick, Wagner, de Sade, Nietzsche? What fascinates you about these people?

Noel Coward stands only for Noel Coward. He took risks, played with open cards, gave everything. He won and he lost and he won again. His humility was his instinct. He was an adventurer.

I have read that you created your own language as a child and that you use it in your paintings. Does your work have its own mythology and language?

It is true that I created my own language when I was young to defend myself and to survive. I was very shy, anxious and insecure, and I hid behind this language. It consisted of 13 words and two to four grimaces. With these elements I could express everything. Nowadays, I use cryptic words to express my helplessness toward everything. My performances are gestures of embarrassment, helplessness, shyness and ignorance (like in the case of Socrates). Art always exists through its own mythology and language, both of which are unknown to human beings. Art is not interested in my destiny, language and ability. Art it is a total game, we have to lean back and let it happen.

Do you mostly agree with reviews of your work?

The view of the beholder is not my affair. Propaganda is pointless. Misunderstandings are essential.

You often seem more interested in the mythology of a story or a figure, rather than the figure himself. For instance, your performance of Parsifal didn’t follow the narrative of the epic or the opera. What were you aiming for with the piece?

I always follow my instincts, and when I am lucky, the instinct follows itself. In the Parsifal play, Richard Wagner was the master; I was the guardian of the situation by being Hagan of Tronjo, the blood brother of Parsifal. In all my performances I try to lose myself and let instinct take over. These performances have to be threats to yourself and to everything. You have to accept danger. Parsifal is Nature and pure radicalism, and it is absolutely essential to keep this radicalism alive. I tried to behave according to its Rules (like Holden Caulfield), and I want to give my respect and love to these laws.

Could you tell me about what you're showing at Modern Art?

At Modern Art I shall mainly show portraits of Noel Coward, drawings and paintings. There will also be a big sculpture, the Colossus of Rhodes, maybe also some surprises. This show is dedicated to Wally Whyton and his Hundred Children’s Songs. Thank you, Wally Whyton.

"Thanks, Wally Whyton (Revendaddy Phantomilky on Coconut Islanddaddy)" is on view at Modern Art from Feb. 16 until March 26.