Matthias Herrmann

Interview by
Jop van Bennekom
Photography by
Matthias Herrmann


Matthias Herrmann is an artist who photographs himself naked. His pictures appear in self-published pamphlets and books like Hotel2001 and his little magazine Sluts. The star in his pictures, apart from Matthias himself, is his cock, which pops up in all different roles, shapes and sizes. Besides being an artist, Matthias is the president of Secession, a prestigious institution for contemporary art in Vienna. We meet in Amsterdam, where he’s setting up his solo exhibition at Gallery Serieuze Zaken. Hanging on the walls of his hotel room are those reproductions of paintings that always have exactly the same colour scheme as the light-grey-and-pink blended wallpaper and curtains. And like in almost every other hotel room, the space around the queen-size bed is crammed with all sorts of furniture and semi-furniture, which makes it almost impossible to move around. We end up sitting on the floor.

Matthias: I thought it would be a nice idea to welcome you in the bathroom and do the interview with me lying in the tub and you asking questions next to me on a chair.
Jop: So why didn’t you?
Well, I would have had to open the door naked and everything would be completely wet.
How do you like Amsterdam so far?
Well, for this show here in Amsterdam I’m giving up a dinner with Yoko Ono! She’s in Vienna right now. I got a call from a gallery inviting me over for dinner with her, along with a lot of other people from art institutes of course. But anyway, here I am, missing out on a celebrity moment. My closest moment to fame was this dinner with Bianca Jagger. I was trying to make some small talk, but she was just not interested, ha ha ha!
What about your show here?
It’s only my fourth show this year. Four shows a year isn’t very much for a career of eight years as an artist. I mean, I’m such a good artist, I should be a star!
You’re not a star?
I’m not a star. Maybe the star of my own work. Sometimes I think if I would pursue it more, things might go better. But then again as an artist I’m not that ambitious. I’m happy the way things are, I shouldn’t complain.
But you do.
Do I? Well, I just don’t like exhibiting. I would like to do more publications of my work, to have more money to do them. I think publications are the right medium for my work, more so than exhibits. You don’t have all the hassle of storing and shipping the work. Books travel by themselves. But then again, in order to be perceived as a serious artist, you need to exhibit and be part of the art world. Sometimes the resumé and the biography of an artist — where, when and how many times you have exhibited — are more important than his or her work.
Do you say that from the perspective of a director of an art institute or as an artist?
Both, I have experienced both sides of the spectrum. I know how careers are made within the art world. In the art world, there is the factor of luck, which nobody talks about. You have to know the right people; have the right gallery. In a certain time frame there are a lot of artists making the same kind of work. But it’s just how one manoeuvres within the art world that defines whether or not one is able to claim a certain style or point of view. There are so many good artists, but the art world is only capable of dealing with a few stars.
How does it work for you to be director or president of this prestigious art institute, being networked with curators, other art institutes and artists, and at the same time having to represent yourself as an artist?
In the beginning when I got this job as president, it was extremely difficult. I didn’t make any new work for at least a year. I have this image of myself as being really unselfish. I hesitated to take the job at first because it would be so easy to take advantage of it, being an artist myself. A lot of people don’t know that I’m an artist or what I’m doing, I mean the type of work I’m doing. Sometimes it’s difficult. I negotiate a lot with, let’s say, ‘five-star galleries’, but I never show my own work, so they don’t know what I’m doing.
The first time I saw your work I was provoked by its…what was it again? Well, not its sexual content but rather its shamelessness. It’s almost irresponsible work, while your daily job must be totally responsible.
Well, it’s a nice combination. More people should try to combine contradictions. Long before I had this job as president, I always tried to feel at home in or to move into multiple systems. I always wanted to stand on more than one foot.
Your pictures are very ambiguous as well. For instance, they can be pretty hot, but if you take a closer look, they’re not.
A lot of people get this hyper-masculinity and vanity out of my work, more than I do. I’d like people to see that it’s not about me as some kind of porn stud. It’s vulnerability. It’s not about gaining power, but more about displaying masculine power in order to take it away. It’s not only a collection of gay clichés like the obsession with bodies, sex and dicks… I hope that there is more within the work. I mean it shows it so clearly! I don’t want to advocate fixed ideas about identity but to have them discussed: talk about them, make them visible. Obviously there are two opposite ways of approaching my work, but my intention is always to put things into question, by displaying them.
Maybe we should have a fight about this, but I think that, in the end, your work is very much about masculinity and omnipotence. Although you play around with the clichés, what sticks with me in the end is always that body and that dick.
I don’t know about that. I hope by focusing on one body that the more you see it and the better you get to know it, the more it becomes a tool, a model. The question within the work, which is never solved, is if it’s motivated by vanity or not. I don’t have a clear perspective on that because, yes, I am a very vain person. Still I hope the work transcends more than vanity. I mean, all good art transcends something, for Christ‘s sake.
Your work would be pretty different if you were fat and had a tiny penis.
Oh but I couldn’t do that! If I looked fat, my pictures wouldn’t do their work. They would be about the fact that I have the courage to show my fat body and my tiny penis. Also, if I had a 25cm dick all the pictures would be just about that thing. I’m not necessarily beautiful. I have a completely normal body and I don’t have a huge dick…
Sorry, but that’s not true. First you’re pretty muscular…
I’m not, you know, I’m skinny, I just photograph well.
Secondly you do have a big dick.
No, it’s — I’ve measured it — 17.8cm. Which is a perfectly normal Middle-European average.
Come on, it’s bigger. Explain please.
As I said, I photograph well. It looks much bigger in the pictures. I never use PhotoShop or anything like that to correct nature.
How do you make your dick look bigger and your body more muscular in a picture? Which special techniques are involved?
Light, light, light! And it’s not only that, sometimes I want to make this very specific image where my body looks a certain way. Like more muscular or sometimes even more skinny. I can do that with my body. I used to be a dancer, so my body can act. It always looks different.
What is this solitary world you are presenting? Is it your sexual world?
I can’t really tell. I’ve been doing this already for so long. What started what? I am a very shy person, I don’t fuck around and I’m not a sexual omnivore. So sometimes for me it’s also hard to understand why I make these explicit images. Mapplethorpe once said ‘I would rather be part of the party than to photograph it.’ For me, I am the party myself and the one who photographs it. So I can’t say if I stage the party for work or for my own pleasure. Getting a hard-on is work too! Of course, photographing myself fulfils some sexual desires. I’m my own model, I’m my object and with that my object of desire. It’s autoerotic. Maybe if I had an extravagant sexual life my work would be quite different.
You don’t have a wild sexual life?
So tonight you won’t go out exploring the raunchiest places here in Amsterdam?
No, I never do that. I don’t drink and I never go out. There is a lot of sexual energy in my work but not very much outside of it. As I said before, I’m just not a very sexual person. I’m also pretty prudish in daily life. I always wear a towel when I take a shower at the gym.
Do you have an issue?
What are issues?
I mean, sexual issues. Something between you, your sexuality and actually having sex.
No, when I have sex I have sex, what else? Having a problem? I’m also not in an open relationship where everybody can just jump on or in. Sometimes I envy people who have a very wild and active sexual life but that’s just not me. But when I do have sex, it’s always good. I really want it, it’s charged. I find it more difficult to have sex now that I’ve been HIV positive for like three years. I’m a very cautious and responsible person.
Do you perceive yourself differently now?
Yes of course. Like I have an endangered body. My T-cells are pretty low. I’m what they call a fast progressor: the HIV progresses faster into AIDS than usually. So yes, I think of my body as being in decay. If you look at the classifieds in porn mags I have to move now to the daddy and bear section, so to speak.
There are lots of guys out there who like their men mature.
I like older men as well, but I don’t like body fat. Bears and bellies are not my thing. What are you into?
Well, I like men, not boys. When I was 21 I was into guys of let’s say 28. Now I’m 32 and into guys in their mid or late thirties.
That’s good; it means you’re always ahead.
I think that around 40 it will stop.
It’s such a cliché that if you want to have a fulfilling urban gay life, you have to sleep with at least five different men a week. I’venever understood that. I’ve never felt that desire.
Well, in reality only one out of the five tricks is really good, three are okay and one is simply bad. But nobody ever talks about that, everybody always had ‘great sex.’ Do you know what I mean?
No not really, I mean there are a lot of undemanding people around. I’ve always had good sex. I haven’t had very much sex, but all my experiences were pretty intense. I’m very picky.
Did you start out photographing yourself naked as a form of self-correction?
No, it wasn’t about correction, more about… more about perception. About how I look at myself. That was something I was never busy with before I started to photograph myself. In the beginning my work was much more a coming-out ritual. I often think about my work as being very Austrian, although I’m not Austrian myself but German. Austria has such an oppressed society. It kind of seduces you to be upfront. I am, or I think I am, the only openly gay artist in Vienna. There’s not anyone I can think of right now. There must be one but… oh please don’t print this… I’m probably friends with billions of gay artists in Austria!
Where exactly in Germany do you come from?
From a very bourgeois part of southern Germany near Munich. I come from an artsy background. My mother’s family had a publishing company, my grandfather published telephone books, and with the money he made on that he financed art books. My parents, grandparents, uncles and the publishing company were all on the same piece of land.
Like Dynasty?
Something like that. My mother, father, grandmother and other parts of the family were all alcoholics. There were some drug problems, suicides, sexual deviances, lots of fights concerning family money… My mother didn’t like me. I always knew that and other people told me as well. When I was about ten years old, I found a letter of hers to my father where she explained that she didn’t like me being male. It was quite harsh reading that at the age of ten but it also came as sort of a relief. It explained why she was always so mean to me. Somehow it became easier to deal with it.
Do you still have contact with your mother? I mean, don’t you hate her for disliking you?
No, we get along well now. But it was a long way for both of us to think kindly of each other. She always told me I was ugly. ‘Don’t think you are good looking, don’t think you’re nice.’ And I was always trying to please her, to earn her love, which of course wasn’t possible. I got beaten a lot — the worst part of that being that I even had to get the ‘tools’ she used from the closet myself. I reckon that’s what you call child abuse.
How does your homosexuality go along with these stories?
I don’t know. It’s this cliché of a very, strong dominant mother and a weak absent father; he was simply never there. He died when I was 19 and I sometimes wish that he was still around to clear up some things. I left home around the time of his death. My mom sold the house and our family life was over. That was around the time I met my boyfriend.
Where did you meet?
When I was in ballet school in Munich, trying to become a ballet dancer, I was hired for this TV production. There was this costume ball, a kind of dance event in which I had to perform together with four other students. He was doing the costumes. We went home together, to my place. And from that point on we stayed together. I was a very bad dancer though. I only started dancing when I was 18 or so. I had no idea what ballet was but I got into this very respected ballet academy because I was so cute looking at that time and they didn’t have enough boys. That was basically the reason. They already told me from the beginning: Matthias, you will never become a solo dancer. Basically you will never become a star. When I finally had a job in Vienna at the State Opera as a dancer, I broke my foot and it never really healed well. That’s when I quit and went to art college.
Are you and your boyfriend still together?
Yes, we‘ve been in a stable relationship for 19 years already. Today, to be precise, is our 19th anniversary.
And you are in Amsterdam and he’s not. Or is he hiding under the bed?
No, he has work to do back in Vienna. But yes it’s been 19 years, which is exactly half of my life, I’m 38. We met when I was 19 and we never separated. His name is Bernhard; ‘the coolest guy in the universe.’ Madonna once wrote that on a CD. ‘This is dedicated to the coolest guy in the universe’ I really liked that phrase.
Why did Madonna write that about your boyfriend?
No, no, no, she didn’t write that dedication to Bernhard! It was for her boyfriend Guy Ritchie. I’m sorry, Madonna has no idea who Bernhard is, I’m sure.
I already saw the headline for this article popping up, ‘Madonna writes special dedication to boyfriend of unknown Austrian artist.‘
No, I’m really really sorry!

Originally published in BUTT 6