The things we collect become props of our identity, a kind of extension of our bodies”, explains artist duo Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl, Austria’s hottest art export since the 2022 Venice Biennale. The collaborators create a world of transformation in an artistic space that blurs the lines between personal identity and creativity. A conversation about the art of seduction, the grotesque and humorous, Alfred Kubin and Joe Colombo.

A stage for colorful 70s references “ because its
utopias and concerns continue to influence
and shape our society today “: Austria pavillon by
Knebl & Scheirl at the Venice Biennale 2022
photo: Georg Petermichl

Dorotheum myART MAGAZINE: Could you tell us a bit about the process of working on this issue’s cover and the idea behind it?

Jakob Lena Knebl & Ashley Hans Scheirl: It shows us in the “bathroom”, an installation in our exhibition at Palais de Tokyo. The bath is by Luigi Colani, a pioneer of biomorphic design starting in the 1970s. He was interested in the energy efficiency of his car and lorry designs.

Your general love of the 1970s is obvious. Would you say there’s something to be gained from the Old Masters as well?

Lena: The Seventies took centre stage in our contribution to the 2022 Venice Biennale because its utopias and concerns continue to influence and shape our society today. Our Palais de Tokyo exhibition is more about Dark Romanticism, the grotesque, and cyborg aesthetics. We’re always on the move.

Ashley: I consciously engage with the history of painting by taking up various genres and imitating them: Romanaticist, Impressionist, Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist paintings are given a kind of dynamism with pictogram-like elements.

Your work combines different artistic approaches. Ashley tends to emphasise painting in space. Lena focuses more on the body (as sculpture) and its staging. The sometimes strangely comical figures have something of a set-like quality. Will there ever be a theatre piece?

Ashley: The theatre piece begins when viewers enter the installation.

Lena: Given our openness to non-artistic contexts, it would also be interesting to design a stage set for a theatre play. Last year, for example, we worked with Markus Pires Mata to design the shop window for the opening of the Hermès shop in Vienna. Now I’m working with the Kohlmaier company to develop a piece of furniture.

Lena Jakob Knebl (left) and Ashley Hans Scheirl’s self-staging as Gesamtkunstwerk

As an artist duo, you both integrate yourselves into your work, but you have also created a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, that is deeply intertwined with your individual identities. When do your artistic personas coincide with the private Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl? In other words, when are they identical?

Lena: Someone who consciously rehearses or studies a particular role might say that it’s separate from their personal identity. But we don’t do that. The boundaries are fluid in that respect.

Ashley: For me, part of the Gesamtkunstwerk is a performative aspect into which the personal can be incorporated, but it never coincides completely. They’re                                                                                             never one and the same.

What would you say your work can affect in terms of change or what can it do – on an individual level, but also for society as a whole?

Lena: Connecting with as diverse an audience as possible is important to us. Our aim is basically to touch people’s emotions with the sensuousness of colour, surfaces, lighting and references to the body in day-to-day life. This trick allows us to convey potentially challenging content and alternative ways of seeing things.

Ashley: Our work expands the question of identity – which is usually posed in an abbreviated, essentialist or even biologistic way – into a complex of relations.

Die Groteske als Leitmotiv: Einblick in die Ausstellung "Doppelgänger!", Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2023/24

Your work is very diverse and draws on a range of different themes and points of focus. “Trans” is, in a way, the guiding principle of your practice, encompassing a whole range of aspects including medium, identity, context and aesthetics. There’s also the (de)construction of genre, materiality and contexts, and the quasi-education of people through seduction and humour. Has the time come for good comedy?

Lena and Ashley: Education is a strong word. It’s more about an opening-up of aesthetic or sensual frameworks and scopes of thought. Piquing curiosity perhaps, causing astonishment, a smile, maybe a sceptical shake of the head … The more difficult the times, the more humour is needed. We took the grotesque as a leitmotif for our exhibition in Paris, a biting kind of humour, excesses that push the limits.

Einblick in die Ausstellung "Doppelgänger!": Metaphorisch aufgeladenes Setting im Pariser Palais de Tokyo, 2023/24

What motivates you in art and how do you keep coming up with new topics or subject areas to focus on?

Ashley: We have stimulating conversations with each other. It’s how collections of ideas and aesthetics come about. It’s also where connections are made. Our work is always multi-layered. Another key consideration when we develop exhibitions is the venue, with its specific architectural and historical characteristics. The “trans-” (genre, context, materiality, identity, etc.) formulation you mentioned is also central, as it indicates the process side as well.

Lena: I worked for a long time as a carer for the elderly. At the time, there was a study about what people regret at the end of their lives. It’s not so much the things that didn’t work out, that were difficult, but the things they didn’t dare to do. It’s an insight that motivates me, also in terms of my art. I stay curious, allow my excitement and enthusiasm to lead the way, and am interested in a lot of different things – even outside the art context. I also enjoy finding my way through to the forms and subjects that challenge me.

A chair sold at Dorotheum by Lena Jakob Knebl as throne for the golden “Emanuel” exhibited in 2019 at the solo show “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” in the Belmacs Gallery, London

Do you two personally collect art or design, or fabrics and clothes? Are you collectors in general?

Lena: I am indeed, body and soul. And it’s why my desire, my enthusiasm, very much gets channelled into my own work and into the collection exhibitions I curate. It isn’t just that the things I’m drawn to impact my work. I am also very keen on meeting other collectors and swapping ideas. I started collecting as a teenager with vinyl. Later I moved on to lamps, crockery, and, yes, even antique Christmas tree ornaments. The odd piece of art as well. Unfortunately, I am very flexible when it comes to my enthusiasm …

What criteria apply when selecting or buying the artefacts you collect, and how do you preserve or present the works?

Lena: They’re integrated with relish into everyday life. I’ve got Kubin drawings on my wall and Stig Lindberg crockery on my table. I’ll switch on one of my Joe Colombo lamps or a Midgard lamp to put it all in the right light. The things we collect become props of our identity, a kind of extension of our bodies. And sure, it’s nice to have insider knowledge, to feel that you belong. I’m also interested in human-object relations.
When I have visitors and I choose Herend plates for the dinnerware, for example, I’m delighted when my visitor reacts in a knowing way. And that, I guess, is also where Roland Barthes and class come into play, because I’m from a working-class background.

I’d like to talk for a moment about Passage, your upcoming exhibition in Hamburg. The show incorporates parts of the Falckenberg Collection: Did you personally know Harald Falckenberg, whose space you are now exhibiting in?

Lena & Ashley: We met him during the preparations for the exhibition. An incredibly alert mind. Someone who was very closely attuned to art, liked to talk about it a lot, and wrote ground-breaking essays.

Which works speak to you, and why?

Lena: The motivation for choosing them can be thematic or formal. It’s mostly about adding dynamism to the narrative, complementing it, or making new connections. We’re also giving the new generation a platform with a group show of students from Vienna and Hamburg. We’re interested in showing art that has received little or no attention. In the case of established artists, it might well be that a sculpture is covered up, or a Picasso is hung behind a wall so that it can only be seen through a distorted mirror.

Verbindungen von Kulisse, Objekt, Malerei und Skulptur: "Seasonal Greetings" im Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2020/21


Jakob Lena Knebl, born in 1970, studied fashion with Raf Simons at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and textual sculpture with Heimo Zobernig at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She returned to the University of Applied Arts in 2021 as Professor of Transmedia Art. Knebl’s practice combines elements of fashion, design and art history, among other areas.

Ashley Hans Scheirl, born in 1956, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and received a master‘s degree in Fine Art from Central St Martins in London. Scheirl‘s work, which deals with power dynamics in neoliberalism and draws analogies to queer sexuality, encompasses painting, installation and film.

Scheirl and Knebl have been supporting each other in their work since 2005. Their artistic synergy manifests itself in multimedia installations which address contemporary issues in a humorous and innovative way, drawing the viewer into playful socio-political interactions. The duo exhibited at the 15th Biennale de Lyon (2019), at the Kunsthaus Bregenz (2020) and at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2023/24); in 2022 they represented Austria at the 59th Venice Biennale. From 27 April to 15 September 2024, the Deichtorhallen Hamburg will be showing the exhibition Passage in the Falckenberg Collection. Here, Scheirl and Knebl will also work with pieces from the collection and offer students from Vienna and Hamburg a platform.

Jakob Lena Knebl, Ashley Hans Scheirl photo: Christophe Maout, courtesy Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris
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