The Schmidt & Handrup Berlin gallery is a bare white rectangle illuminated by tall spotless casement windows trimmed in matching chalk white. Thin bald fluorescent tubes cross the ceiling. The wooden floors are painted cement gray. It hardly seems the place for intimate revelations.
Sholem Krishtalka’s ongoing A Berlin Diary project, originally conceived as a kind of graphic-novel-in-mixed-media for Hazlitt, (the online version includes Krishtalka’s diary entries superimposed on the images), is finally available for viewing without the intermediation of the internet – and it is even more revealing “in the flesh,” so to speak.
Comprised of hundreds of small and medium-sized works on paper (some ink and paper, some ink and gouache and watercolor), these tiny peeks into Krishtalka’s first year as a Canadian expatriate living in Berlin reveal a world of debauchery and kindness, breakdowns and lazy afternoons in sun-drenched parks, cute fresh-faced guys and the city’s eternal grime. Part diary, part social history, A Berlin Diary is a loving but realistic look at a city and a protagonist in transition – both coming into new selves, neither sure on their feet.
Much has already been written about Krishtalka’s bluntness in this project, his down and dirty nightclub/sexclub life played out in dainty watercolors, and of course the (now tired) public vs. private, digital post-privacy, urban anonymity vs. self-exposure dialogues it prompts. But neither Krishtalka nor I care about such musings – we both accept the simple fact that everyone now lives multiple versions of their own lives.
Instead, I wanted to talk to Krishtalka about craft, workmanship, and the actual process of putting a life to paper. He was happy to oblige.
RM Vaughan: How does this work fit into the “autofiction” phenomenon, works that present themselves as being more “real” or “true” because they are supposedly nothing more than recordings of previous actions (Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books, or mumblecore cinema, or the performed lecture, for instance)? I recently read a review of a play that praised the production with this line: “Nobody is ‘acting’ here.” I sent the review to [playwright] Sky Gilbert and he wrote back that the whole “acting” versus “being on stage” was a false dichotomy, that the second you step on stage or write the first word or make the first pen mark, you are a performer.
Sholem Krishtalka: It is and it isn’t. For me, making these works is very much an emotional process and a question of reification. But that was the immediate impetus: to make something that was “mine.” What’s interesting is that there are all sorts of falsities built in – as soon as you make any kind of aesthetic decision, there’s an immediate fiction built in. Almost none of the drawings, for instance, are from my point of view. I’m in them! It’s a bird’s eye view. Your memory alters things. So there are voluntary and involuntary fictions built in. I don’t give a shit about authenticity. Authenticity just hamstrings you. And it has uncomfortable associations with “purity,” and we know where that leads. I’m all about the fictions. The aestheticized fiction is always more powerful than some doctrinaire adherence to their idea of facts. Anybody who has an imagination has never had an “authentic” experience, according to the rules of authenticity-chasing.
RMV: Your previous exhibition Lurking (portraits of friends based on their social media self-presentation) was very different – the works were more colorful and the compositions much looser, more accidental looking. How did making a diary, and A Diary, change the way you make marks on paper?
SK: The short answer to that is that I don’t know what I’m doing.
RMV: That is so not the “short answer.”
SK: Ha! OK! Despite the fact that this is a diary, I don’t pay attention to The Diary, if that makes sense. The trip from the social media works to here is really one arc, but the Lurking work was the first inkling that I had that I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do. The making of them made me realize I was not being honest about my processes. I was using filters, mental and visual. I realized that the Lurking series was a first step in mapping my life and my community. I also realized that any document of a relationship of any kind is bound to be a fraud, or fraudulent. I knew when I started the diary I was going to carry on, and from there it was a question of how. The “how” became really important because when you live here you realize that because of Germany’s unique privacy laws, and, of course, terrible history, Berlin is not a city that generates a lot of casual photography – photos of people living their lives. The landmarks are photographed, and the transitions in the city’s urban geography are photographed, but not people’s lives, homes, places they enjoy themselves, etc. And that naturally changed the way my works look. I wanted to create what is not present in photography.
RMV: And yet each work is carefully constructed and composed, but life is not well arranged.
SK: The transformation is another removal. Again, I call it more honest, you could call it more explicit. And because of that I’ve made choices based on my memories – I mean, you can’t take photos in the sex clubs. My brain never stops auto-recording, and my work has only gotten more aestheticized as I’ve gotten older. So, the works have to look denser and more intricate and at the same time be highly artificial – I’m working from memory and then improving the memories. And that creates a different look, more complex markings and layers of materials. And I still call them “drawings,” as I was taught, which is an old art-school snobbery, a very craft-based, very materials-based way of talking about art, and that has a kind of habitual effect on how I work too. All drawing and painting is a form of building, and it’s a time-based act of building and an embodied act of building. One of the reasons you draw anything is to slow down time. What you can see here is a recording of gestures.