He’s definitely a warrior. Fighting for art, in the way which most of us forgot existed. Still, the so-called bad boy of the contemporary Austrian scene, TOMAK is hardly a frightening person. He’s rather a jester, an unstoppable tour de force, the one who reminds a blasé art lover of all the things he tends to forget. He mirrors reality, while turning any human to ridicule, laughing [out loud, often] to our constant hunger for money and power. As a guardian of the unvarnished truth, TOMAK serves his art as he does his opinions – directly and without apology.
Attracted to his mastery in drawing and composition, I jumped at the opportunity to have a conversation with the celebrated Austrian rebel, which happened just as his latest exhibition at Lisabird gallery in Vienna started. And although I tend to never meet my idols out of sheer fright of disappointment, I was beyond glad when I received that phone call.
TOMAK was interesting, just as dynamic as his art, funny and restless, making me yearning to see and enjoy his art even more. He revealed the secret behind his recurring portraits, behind the symbols which occupy his works in hordes, behind the vision he has and the world of art he lives in. Reading into his profoundly symbolic works, it’s possible to catch a glance of TOMAK the person, peeling layer after layer of messages, all created in the name of honest art.
Widewalls: You are announced as a sort of a "warrior of the Austrian scene" and an antithesis of the desirable citizen. How do you comment on this?
TOMAK: I’m not a warrior… Or I am a warrior for art and I fight for art. I work a lot and that's my way to do it. I'm not satisfied when it's not the way I want it to look.
Widewalls: So you would say you're a perfectionist.
TOMAK: I'm a perfectionist, yes.
Widewalls: But you're definitely TOMAK. I was doing a little bit of reading and for example, Elsy Lahner was mentioning that you have many different names: you're TOMAK, PHANTOMAK, AUTOMAK, Poster-boy of anti-art...
TOMAK: No, TOMAK is always TOMAK, but the different projects made me play with the name. TOMAK is an artificial name. When I did the sculptures, I called myself PHANTOMAK, based on the French movies Fantomas, so it's a game for me - how to put TOMAK in different ways for the audience and different scenes. But it's always TOMAK, I'm always TOMAK, but I play with the name, with the headline, if you want.
Widewalls: So I am talking to TOMAK right now.
TOMAK: Yes! [laughs]
Widewalls: Because I was just understanding if it's a fictional character...
TOMAK: No, TOMAK is always TOMAK, it's not fiction. It's very interesting that women always ask about TOMAK, the name, and men always ask questions about the art. That's very interesting. I don't know why. Elsy Lahner was fascinated by the name, and I don't know why. Baselitz's name isn't really Baselitz, Madonna's real name is also not Madonna. It's not so difficult to understand. Da Vinci was "from Vinci", his name was Leonardo blahblahblah, I don't know his real name. It's not a new concept - the game I play here - Andy Warhol's real name was Andrej Warhola. My real name is Thomas, and TOMAK is very near that.
Widewalls: Let's go on to the art. You rebel against the fake reality. I was wondering, what was anti-art for you, personally?
TOMAK: If you look at the art now, and art market, business, collectors and fairs, in my opinion, the whole art went design. So I want to make art - art again. The whole thing is so designed, it's not art anymore, it's like a fashion store, you know what I mean? It's not risky, scary maybe, frightening, fucked up that I thought art is. It's so clean, it's so nice and lovely and beautiful... I do art to do things against these pretty things.
Widewalls: But do you mock reality? You deconstruct it in a way, but do you mock it?
TOMAK: Not really. Yes, fun is in everything I do, but I play with reality, I take reality and put other things in reality, maybe surreal things or writings. I love to give reality a new sense or non-sense.
Widewalls: Is there humor in your work? How important is it?
TOMAK: For me, it's humor, for others it looks like... they often take these things too seriously. For me it's not serious, it's a game, a play, with names, with everything. I put everything in my art and play with it like a child.
Widewalls: But do you think people would understand it better if they could laugh about it with you together, play about it?
TOMAK: When they stand by me and I talk about it, then they understand it much better, and the way they see it is different when I'm not there. When I'm not there, they understand the humor, they laugh. When I talk about the art, when I stand in front of the picture, I'm only joking. The whole way.
Widewalls: I can imagine that for some reason. Let's go on to the self-portraits image. Popular culture, personal imagery, there's a lot of text and a lot of self-portraits in your work. I read somewhere that you said that ego is important. How do you see the self-portraits? Are you delivering your message through the self-portraits?
TOMAK: I was asked long time ago to do about five drawings [of self-portraits] and the gallerist said "oh that's so great" - she sold it and then came along ten more people who wanted these self-portraits. It was drawing and writing. Then I did ten more, and then again five, and then again ten more and then I said "stop". It was a market thing and it was a money thing. For me, self-portrait is – I don’t like it- but people do like to it and I don't know why. Yes, it's possible to make new techniques and try something with your own hands - that's the advantage of self-portraits, but for me it's not really. For me, it's so perverse for all the people to come to me and say "could you draw a self-portrait for me?"
After, I did the sculptures, which were every time my head, eleven times my head, and I destroyed it. It was very expensive and very, very high class production at the technical university in Vienna, and the sculptures were very big. I destroyed each in a different way and I thought it was over with the self-portrait. And then came the chief curator of Joanneum from Graz and she did an exhibition this year, The Marked Self and I had to do five MORE self-portraits. It never really ends... For me, it's not important, but maybe for art and for the people it is.
Widewalls: What about symbolism? Is this more important? There's a lot of different symbols in your work.
TOMAK: Symbols are made out of reality. If it fits in the painting or the drawing, I take them. The symbols are signs which people know, maybe, and I do something with these signs that we see every day on the streets and I turn them into another context. That's the way I use symbols.
Widewalls: So these symbols are more connected to you personally than just to the general perception of reality? For example, the monkey...
TOMAK: Yes, the monkey is the symbol of evolution, the evolution matter. The brain is a thinking matter, and the eye is God, and the heart is maybe Jesus, or the soul, and so it works. These are not my symbols exist for a long time, and the Christians used the burning heart for Jesus, and the soul, and they used eye for God, and the brain for thinking, and I use these symbols and put them into other contexts, together.
Widewalls: Altogether, does your work aim to reveal the unpleasant truth, about our world and reality, so to say? And if so, what is the unpleasant truth for you?
TOMAK: It's all about the power, maybe, all about money. It's not such a religious thing everybody thinks, it's not a cultural thing. It's about power, money and that's it. That's the truth. The humans are very, very bad [laughs] bad inhabitants of this planet. That's why they are so successful.
Widewalls: In a conversation with Daniel Lippitsch you mentioned that people are idiots…
TOMAK: Yes, that's true. [laughs]
Widewalls: But who is the idiot here? Are we all idiots?
TOMAK: Maybe all, me too, yeah. We are all idiots, why are we doing all of this nonsense? Nobody says that we have to do this. I think it would be possible to live in another way. Man wants to create, man wants to be better that the other men, and that's how all the stupid and idiotic things come. Better car, better house, better-looking wives, I don't know why. That's the way of the human being and that's the moving force of the whole thing.
Widewalls: Let's go back to the exhibition at LisaBird that you're having right now. Tell us about the concept you created for the exhibition.
TOMAK: The concept is: I wanted to show painting, that was the main reason, because they all know me as drawer - TOMAK is the drawer from Austria. I had a great exhibition at Albertina and the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, and in Graz now, the drawing exhibition. The painting is not so well-known in Austria, and so I wanted to do this great, big painting exhibition, to show the people what my paintings could look like and do look like, and I showed different cycles.
One cycle is about the Rudolf Steiner school, where children grow up and are taught in a very free sense, they can come when they want, go when that want, do what they want. It is a 150-year-old way to teach children in different, free manner. This was the theme of a cycle which I called TOMAK & die Waldorf Astorias. These paintings are about how we are able to put children in different roles, when they grow up and depending on what you tell them, they will become. This is the main theme of this cycle.
Widewalls: Would you to comment on the current situation in the Austrian art scene? What is your stance on the commercialization of art that you were also mentioning before, and also if you have noticed some new trends?
TOMAK: Maybe the new trend is abstraction. It's a new trend - it's old trend, but it came now, again and again, it's been twenty years that it's been coming back, it's the way it is maybe. The art scene in Vienna... it doesn't really exist. Because everyone is working for their own thing. We know each other, we drink with each other, but it's not what it was thirty years ago, when we were doing concepts, "where is art going? etc.. No, everyone does their own thing.
Widewalls: So there aren't any art groups? Everybody is for themselves?
TOMAK: No, there are no groups. We know and meet each other, but we are not a group. Everyone is nice to each other [laughs].
Widewalls: That's also very interesting - nobody is arguing, are they?
TOMAK: Nobody is arguing. If you say "oh boy, this work is really shit", you won't ever see [that artist] again. It's not a discussion about art, it's only "hello, how are you?" "fine, thank you, goodbye". But when you say something negative, it will come back in Vienna, because it's so small. Everyone knows everyone. It's too small for a big movement and too small for fighting.
Widewalls: Finally, what are you planning for 2016? Are you going to exhibit somewhere outside of Austria maybe?
TOMAK: I have to do an exhibition in Istanbul, at Artforum, then in Hong Kong, then we'll do the fair in Dallas, and then in New York, so it's a lot of work for me.
Featured images in sliders: TOMAK at Lisabird Contemporary Vienna; Left: Sprache ist Gift, 2015. Mixed Media on Paper, 128 x 93 cm / Right: Posterboy of Antikunst, 2015. Mixed Media on paper 128 x 93 cm; Left: Schulmeista, 2015. Siebdruck, Öl, Acryl, Kreide, Schultafellack auf Holz, 207 x 123 cm / Right: Warpaint, 2015. Siebdruck, Öl, Acryl, Kreide, Schultafellack auf Leinwand, 200 x 150 cm; Left: Was sollen wir spielen?, 2015. Mixed Media, 100 x 140 / Right: Gala Tropicana, 2015. Mixed media, 100 x 140; Werktafel 3-4, 2001. Oil on wood, 130 x 202; Left: Malpractice, 2015 / Right: Malpractice, 2015. Bleistift auf Papier, 80 x 60 cm. All images courtesy of Lisabird Contemporary.
This interview has been shortened and edited.