PRESS / rbb

Artist Scott Holmquist Plans Public Monument to Drug Dealers
27.12.17 | 08:28

It was the hot issue of November in arts & culture: Scott Holmquist’s exhibit on drug dealers in Kreuzberg. Now, Holmquist is planning his next cultural takeover: He will soon reveal a nearly four-meter-tall public monument to drug dealers.

“Other Homelands: Origins and Migration Routes of Berlin Park Drug Sellers” – the forceful title of an exhibition at the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum that triggered debate before even opening. It glorified the work of drug dealers, claimed some of its critics. The exhibit was conceived and designed by French-American conceptual artist Scott Holmquist, who has lived in Berlin since 2011.

Rbb|24: Mr. Holmquist, your exhibit has now been open to the public for more than half of the time it will be shown. How has it been received so far?

Scott Holmquist: It‘s going well. The exhibit receives around 200 visitors daily over the weekends, on average. That’s four times as many for what’s typical for this kind of temporary exhibit. Most of those who come to see it like it. Sometimes, but very rarely, someone will get upset, a little angry. One man said that the exhibit wasn’t interesting because the reason these people bacame drug dealers is never explained. Others claim no one should make an exhibit about drug dealers because they’re criminals. They insist that if art is made about drug dealers, such art must denounce the drug dealers. But that, of course, makes no sense. In any case, the attitude and approach of this work to the subject, drug dealers, is a neutral one.

Nevertheless, there has been some open hostility. You received threats, and security personnel had to be placed at the entrances to your exhibit...

Because some people threatened us over the phone. Inside I encountered a pretty big man among the exhibit’s first visitors who when I greeted him with a polite “good evening,” and he just glowered, seemingly full of hate, and made a hissing sound, like a snake. So, it was probably good that we had security personnel standing by. Was I afraid? No, but I had never experienced anything like this in an exhibition before.

Did the threats catch you off guard?

There are two very critical issues, or subjects: one is the drug dealer, the other is racism. They reinforce one another because racism can hide itself behind hatred directed toward drug dealers. This racism is then free to explode under the protective cloak of this other permissible hatred of drug dealers. That things really heated up did not surprise me, in this sense, but that it all got started with the mere announcement of the exhibit did. Because our announcement was entirely neutral.

You’ve described drug dealers as “brave” and “unshaken,” which has spurred controversy. Why did you use precisely these words?

With “brave” and “unshaken” I speaking specifically about the physical challenges and discomfort faced by drug dealers working in public spaces, exposed to the elements – for instance the wind, rain, and cold. But also the threats posed by police or of being attacked by theives, rivals or angry citizens. Of course I was not claiming all dealers are saints. Some drug dealers are indeed bad, but there are bad people in every arena of life.
Was it clear to you from the start of your research that you didn’t want to divulge personal details about the drug dealers involved or did you just realize during your research that it’s difficult to gain access to this kind of information?

I’ve been working on related subjects for twenty years and knew at the outset that for this work I would promise those I interviewed that I would not ask for personal stories, nor use them. For one thing, I didn’t want to add to their hassles. And for me, it was also a matter of respectful for their privacy that I promised not to pry into their private lives.

Has the debate surrounding your exhibit deterred you at all?

No, this exhibit is just one part of a larger art project. Its next intervention is planned for the end of February, beginning of March when I will unveil a nearly four-meter-tall bronze-like statue as a public monument to the drug dealers.

A monument to drug dealers? What will it look like?

The statue is a collage: it’s partly made from a replica of the “Rote Matrose” (Red Sailor) monument to the November 1918 revolution in Volkspark Friedrichshain. A digital print of his body was made from a 3-D scan. The head was copied from someone else, I won’t say from whom just yet. On the body I removed the sailor's rifle, and a mobile phone in the hand that held its barrel. The statue is itself classic in style, heroic. It’s meant to be outdoors.

Why did you choose the body of the Rote Matrose (Red Sailor), a revolutionary, as your model?

The Revolution of 1918/18 established the German Republic, and so I find the Red Sailor quite fitting, because it was revolutionary. Also because it wasn’t so successful in the end…

The Sailors’ Uprising brought about an end to the First World War, but the ideas of socialism subsequently failed because of the suppression of the Spartacus Uprising…

… one part succeeded, another didn’t. It’s a complicated piece of German history and that’s why I find it perfectly suited! Because the discussion around drugs is also complicated. At the same time, in my opinion, it’s also an analogy that’s easy to understand.

The drug dealer as a revolutionary? What kind of revolutionary are you thinking of?

Over the years, I’ve watched average, everyday people buy their cannabis in the park. And I don’t mean only tourists: I mean moms, old ladies, students, couples, anyone you could think of.

So, this monument is about the legalization of drugs?

Let’s take the example of LSD: it’s an important tool, in my view, and not only because I’ve taken it but because many others have who have also acknowledged its importance, for instance Apple's co-founder Steve Jobs. It is and has been one of the most important controlled substances – "illegal drugs" – over the last century. It has brought about change in art, science, particularly computer science. And here, today, we are still not allowed to use it legally. But I hope and believe that this will someday change. So, yes, this is a matter of social and legal “revolution.”

Given the intensity of public and media reactions to this exhibit, how do you think this new work will resonate now that you've brought in German history?

The statue is not meant to be a permanent installation but will stand and for only a short time. Maybe it will anger some. Maybe it will be vandalized. Actually, the statue was meant to be a part of this exhibition, but I decided against it in the end, because there was already enough going on in the show as it is.

Do you expect there to be a controversy as big as what occurred at the beginning of your current exhibit?

No, not so much, it will be over much more quickly. I think those who hate the idea of this work have, for the moment, used up their anger over the matter.

Interview conducted by Tom Garus