Grilling the gallerist: Johann König interviewed by Jordan Wolfson

April Lamm

July 27, 2010

When Johann König opened his first gallery space, not only was he the youngest kid on the block, but he also faced another challenge: he was nearly blind. “How much I see is a myth!” he told me recently. How much can he see now in the year 2010? Suffice to say, it’s enough so that he always makes a cheeky comment about what I’m wearing (“Can I try on your Porsche glasses?”) or what we’re looking at (“I’ve seen these before in a sex shop!”). It seemed that having not “seen” for a good portion of his life only sharpened other senses, like his tongue and his seventh sense for dematerialized art. Jordan Wolfson interviewed him back in 2007 to find out just how much is in a name like ” König”: was he a coddled child helped along by his überpowerful father or was he a self-made man?

—April Lamm

Jordan Wolfson: So, Johann. Tell me about your current situation.

Johann König: My current situation? Very difficult. I’m currently kind of changing or restructuring my life.


It’s…expanded. I’m working at a professional company, being a boss or CEO of a small or middle-size company, which I never expected. And it’s very hard to make others like you understand.

How old were you when you started the gallery?

Twenty, twenty-one. I came from Marburg, which is a city close to Frankfurt. And I started the gallery in a big rush, so I wasn’t even finished with school and I didn’t know Berlin…

You just moved to Berlin and began immediately.

Yeah, I just came here.

Did you go to university?

No, I focused on economics in high school. I was born in Cologne and then my father became director of the Städel School in Frankfurt so we left when I was seven or eight. I grew up in Frankfurt, and when I was eleven I had an accident. And then from twelve on I was in boarding school in Marburg.

Do you remember the day of the accident?

I don’t know if I can remember the whole day—actually, it’s interesting because I think the memory has faded, like several specific memories have faded, but in my mind it seems to have all happened on the same day. In the morning I had a serious talk with my teacher because I was a problematic pupil. It was really emotionally intense and she was like, “You have to change this and that,” but I was not like, “Oh yeah, I give a shit.” I was really impressed by it somehow. And then, I think during break that day I had my first serious physical contact with my girlfriend. I had a girlfriend who was much older. I was eleven or twelve and she was like sixteen. Sandra. And we were all smoking menthol cigarettes and stealing in the supermarket.

Was she the first girl you had kissed?

I think I had kissed another girl before, but maybe this kiss only became relevant later because I always saw this accident and this experimenting with explosives as a step before the sexual awakeness of a teenager, you know? The accident actually happened because we were all playing with gunpowder. I tried to store these small dynamite balls in a plastic box. I didn’t really have anything in mind of what to do with them; I was just putting them away. Because looking back, I was ending this phase in my life. I knew I shouldn’t do this, but it was at the end of this time, when boys do stuff they shouldn’t do. At that time, I was losing interest…

So you were growing up, moving into new experiences socially and emotionally?

Yes. I was eleven and my nickname was St. Pauli.

St. Pauli? [laughs.]

Yeah, because I had this pullover with a skull on it, which is like the logo of this Hamburg soccer team, St Pauli. Andreas Slominski gave it to me.

A five-year difference is huge when you’re that age…

Yeah, she enjoyed the power, I think.

Can you tell me specifically how the accident happened?

I had this plastic box for metal weights to use when you go fishing. I bought this gunpowder that is used for a starting gun for racing—”One, two, three, POW!”—at a toy store around the block. I bought it through a friend because they didn’t want to sell it to me. Then we used it in our guns.

Is it just the gunpowder, or is there a bullet?

It’s a white styrofoam bullet and in the center is a small core of dirty gunpowder, leftover from the military production of grenades during the war. This is what the police told us later. And because my gun had broke, I still had two packages of this stuff. I opened these boxes and there were small peppercorn-sized balls. One night I was sitting in front of the television and I opened them all and put them in a wooden box. Then I wanted to have this wooden box to put the football cards into. So I had to take the small balls out of the wooden box and put them into a smaller box. I was always putting one thing into the other. When I put them into this plastic box, suddenly it exploded… I don’t know why. Maybe because it became too warm in my hands. We don’t know. The police didn’t know; I don’t know.

Doesn’t it need to be ignited somehow?

No, you just have to hit it hard. Maybe I squeezed it with my fingers. And then I saw a flash and it was really serious and I couldn’t see anything and I was extremely hurt.

Where were you in your house?

In the playroom. I had a huge hole in my hand, and the whole room was full of blood. I hit the door and ran out and my parents were at home and then I said to my father, which was kind of strange, “If I am blind, I will commit suicide.” And then he said, “Yeah, relax. They’ll wash it out and you can go to school tomorrow.” And I think it was really obvious that I couldn’t. Then they put me on our sofa and I was waiting and then the ambulance came and the only thing I can also still remember was waiting for the possibility to get operated on, because I had just eaten before the accident – just one hour before – and at the time they were still afraid about the anesthesia, too. I can’t really remember anymore, because it was like a six-hour operation and then another eight-hour operation. Two days later, I was transferred to the eye hospital in Marburg, and the chairman did another twelve-hour thing, and they were kind of surprised that they worked something out at all, I think.

You came out better than expected?

I’m not so sure, because they never really talk openly and they don’t really give serious explanations, but I think they’re pretty surprised sometimes. But at the time, it was really good—it was much better than it is now.

Now I am waiting for this cornea transplant and after this I think it will be —at least in my circumstances—much better.

How much vision do you have currently?

Now, I think it is like 2%.

So, when we’re talking about 2%, what you mean is you’re almost 98% blind.

Officially I am. They measure it in a weird way, but from the medical perspective, I’m blind.

What can you see out of this 2%?

It always depends on how much time I spend looking at something. The interesting thing with seeing is that looking at something with the background information makes you see it much more than looking at it like it is. I see this glass [touches glass] pretty clearly, because I see the ring and I see the reflection of the light down here and I see a shadow in the middle, which indicates how full it is. But when you are seeing the image I see now in my eye, like the shadow and the light and the reflection of the light—it’s just a combination of shadows. If I were to look at this without knowing that this is a table and this is a glass, I would not recognize it either.

So there is a connection between your visual memory from before the accident and the way you see things now?

The visual interpretation of something is always connected to the visual history you combine it with. And my remaining vision is very low, but it’s built up or stabilized by combinations. I have an extremely good memory: you connect one thing with the other and it’s like a mosaic.

How do you look at art?

It’s like I zoom in, where I am normally zoomed out. But there are things you have to experience—visually experience—that I can’t approach. With so many artists we work with, to fully understand their work, you have to be present and you have to experience it in total, you have to experience it. For example, with painting, it’s often more about visual impact. And I do like painting, of course, and I think I also have a sense for painting, but more from a conceptual approach than an emotional one. This is also due to my bad vision—I’m not so emotional. But I like emotional conceptualism or something like that.

For the most part, the painters you have at the gallery are actually text-based painters, wouldn’t you say?

Yeah. Kirsa [König’s girlfriend and partner at the gallery] sometimes makes jokes about this—I’ll see this Christopher Wool painting and it has these big letters and I really like it and then she says, “You only like it because you can read it.”

You represent a particular milieu of emerging artists, and it seems that they are all, myself included, using a variety of materials and not settling on a specific medium.

Yeah, but I think it works. I think people understand what we represent. But of course, I didn’t open the gallery with a plan—I just opened it because I was afraid about becoming… about just hanging out at parties. I knew I wanted to work with art and I had a lot of artist friends and I spent all my weekends in the art scene somehow in Frankfurt. In the end I have this super-visual problem and didn’t know what to do—I noticed that if I finished school and I didn’t find something immediately that I could put my energy into, I would fall short and find nothing serious to do.

Did you consider anything else?

I understood that I wanted to work with art, and I thought, “Should I become an artist?”

Did you make any work?

No, I never did any work. I understood too quickly that it’s too complicated, but I considered it. I also thought about what kind of work I would do.

Which artists were you interested in when you were a teenager? I mean, growing up in this art family…

I was mainly interested in the artists my father worked with, artists like Dan Graham, On Kawara, M.C. Escher, Richard Artschwager, but I also had this personal relation to them, later especially to Kawara. I also really liked Jörg Immendorff’s city paintings, which I have a very strong relation to because we had them at our apartment and they’re very well painted because one depicts activism in late 60s Frankfurt, with Ho Chi Minh posters on it and students around the Eschersheimer Turm, and the energy in this riot group was really visible.

So even when you were eleven, before the accident, you were having this experience with this work.

On Kawara’s work was a really key experience for me, and also that of Joseph Beuys, and this was not due to my father or due to my family house. I know of all this but it was like… sleeping.

Sleeping inside of you?

Yes, in the boarding school for the blind, we looked at On Kawara’s work.

Which you don’t even have to look at, in a way.

And this was switching me on somehow. From then on I started thinking about and doubting what I looked at.

What was it in On Kawara’s work? In a way, his work, even though it is a formal formless construction, is like a symbol of time? And is this what gave you this possibility beyond this illustration of Immendorff to the conceptual essence of On Kawara?

But for me it was a much more personal thing with On Kawara: it was very emotional. This “Today” series, where he paints one painting a day—I always understood it as dealing with one’s own existence. Somehow on every level it is describing your current situation, in a very positive but also very depressing way. I always saw his work as essential to life—with his postcard series, and then also looking at his Hiroshima drawings. I got emotional kicks out of it, you know?

Do you feel that conceptual art gives you a link back to what you may be missing from your experience visually?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s an ideal situation somehow, but it’s also not so easy to just separate image from concept. It’s difficult to talk about this, because in fact I can and I can’t see—I just have my own perception.

So you can see the painting, essentially? From a distance you can’t see it, but up close you can see it? And then you can put it together, like you say, like a mosaic.

For example, I see a JPEG on the Internet. Then I see a piece in real life, I see the surface. And then I see another image of the work from a professional photographer, and it puts together an image.

Is there a possibility, scientifically, that you could get your vision back someday?

Fully, no, I don’t think so. But maybe I could get at most 50 percent of my vision back.

Could you have 50% of your vision? That’s huge: 50%. If I shut one eye, then that’s 50% of my vision.

A lot of painters have one blind eye…

If it means anything, I am a candidate for glaucoma.

Oh yeah, really?

Well my mom has it and I have super high-pressure in my eyes. I have to get it checked all the time.

Oh, well then you have to be careful with drugs.

Are drugs bad for glaucoma?

Well, not drugs, but the stuff they process them with…

Anyhow, can you imagine a life with your vision back?

I think it’s not much different than from now, just a lot easier maybe.

Do you think your relationship with art would open up or change? Or, paradoxically, close-up because of all the new visual stimulation you would have… a more limited experience with art because of an overwhelming re-entry into the world?

Yeah maybe. At least it would be not so focused any more. Because my situation keeps me also away from a lot of pure visual stuff… But Marcel Duchamp did say, “It is no longer retinal,” so… [laughs]

What about dreams? Do you dream of the accident ever, of that day? That when your father said, “We can wash it out,” you actually wash it out of your eyes and get your vision back? Do you ever have dreams where things turned out differently?

I don’t think my dreams have changed… Of course it was an accident that changed my life so intensely, but it’s also become a part of it, you know? It’s not something I deal with so much. You become used to it. I mean, I was very worried when I opened the gallery, because I thought maybe people would doubt my integrity or seriousness. I was doubting like this again when my partner Kirsa was pregnant and I thought, I going to have a kid and I don’t know if I am able to take responsibility like I want to, and so on. But then one barrier after the other falls…

It’s nice to hear that you had self-conscious fears like that.

But they didn’t doubt me at all. I mean, I’m sure that people talked so… much shit. And they still do.

And they still do, of course. But I’m not weak and I can move a lot of things and people know that. But it’s not just because of my family that I can control things. I convinced a lot of people with what I was doing – what we were doing—and I gave others the possibility to do something. No one was ever disrespectful.

People talk about you as this mythological blind gallerist in Berlin – this amazing dealer who has no eyesight. This psychic phenomenon. I remember one of the first times we met, before I was working with the gallery, I had come to the Armory Fair to go to your booth so I could try and meet you, of course.

(Laughs) And you were standing around…

I was standing around, looking around, and you said to me, “These collectors must be shocked that I am so young,” and I was thinking, “No, they’re shocked that you’re fucking blind,” as you sold them this Michaela Meise. I had made the decision that I wanted to work together with you at that moment.

In the end, Johann, how has being basically blind created your position in visual culture, in the art world?

In the end, it’s no different, I think. I built this gallery with a formulated program and… I don’t know, I don’t think there’s so much to say about it, you know?

You mean it’s not a big deal?

I mean, of course I played with it. We did this advertisement with our logo and the advertisement was very blurry, so you couldn’t read what the gallery name was. But in the end I think, after 5 minutes of talking to you about this…

It’s boring.

It comes to another point.

It’s just your story. It’s how you got here.

I would actually be interested in how artists understand or feel understood by my sight. When I do studio visits, they are so nice, you know? Artists will show me a crappy, bad, photocopied image and I honestly see nothing on it and then they explain everything to me and I get it. It’s fine.

And you know if it’s good or not.

I mean, it’s not about knowing whether it’s good or not. I’m able to build up an imagination of the thing also. And this forms a communication with the artist, which is very important. And somehow, I have the feeling it also forms trust—maybe because I have a powerful position through the structure I was from.

When you first came to my studio I wasn’t sure how to go about things so basically I just explained every work as carefully as I could so you could get the idea. Also, I remember you looking extremely closely at my computer screen. Once we began working together I understood that your trying to absorb something that exists on almost multiples planes of experience and when you discuss a work of art there is no question that you have seen it as clearly if not more than anyone I have met.

What’s your family’s response to your success?

I kind of completely ignored them. I didn’t talk with them before I opened the gallery. They were kind of surprised. Like, two weeks before I opened, or three weeks, I think my father heard it from somebody else. I think he called me and I said, “Yes, I’m doing this.” And then he said, “Yeah, but why don’t you do some business that is not so visually dominated?” And I said, “I can’t. I’m sorry, I can’t.” But then he was really sweet because he said, “Why a gallery? I can organize some internship at some museum or something.” I was very surprised, but I was never interested in this, because what I wanted was to work with artists and to realize projects—independent projects—and not work for somebody else, because I knew I was not able to work for somebody else anyway.

Why not?

Because I am not able to make a proper photocopy. (Laughs)

Can you tell the story about how you started the gallery, just financially?

Yeah, I had no money at all and then I went to my uncle [Walther König] and borrowed 15,000 euros, which, today, is currently not enough for paying half a month of the total overhead—not even a week. I went into debt and had tons of invoices I was not able to pay and then I had this huge Jeppe Hein ball produced for which I did not have money. And then slowly, we worked ourselves out of it. I had luck that we opened at a time when the market started to go up, because it was really down at one point, you know?

But now how does your family feel? Now how does your father approach you?

I never cared so much, I must say. I mean, of course it’s important to me, but, it’s like, at the beginning I asked him like two, three times for recommendations and it was as if I was asking him, “A, B, C,” and he was talking about “Z.”

Recommendations of artists?

No, anything. What to do—I was like developing a big public project and I ask him because he’s the public man and then he’s recommending me, like “you should be happy that this is even happening at all.” It was completely nuts. It’s just another generation. It’s another way of working. I’m a businessman also. I like to have good results and have a profitable situation for me and my partners by making a good deal with a collector or museum. And he never cared for financial things. Maybe that’s why I have a very activated sense for this, somehow.

But, I want to just go back to the question… You’re…

Your big question. [Laughs]

You’re twenty-six years old. You’re blind. When you’re forty and blind, you’re no longer a kid anymore; you’re no longer this wunderkind…

Do you consider me a…

I think there’s this perspective of you being so ultra-young… being blind and having all this power. And now I am asking you as a final question: how’s that going to change when you’re forty years old? When you’re thirty-five, thirty-six, forty-five. What are you going to be doing?

I will retire when I am 30.

Interviews & Conversations, Painting
Disability, Childhood & Youth, Memory, Conceptual & Post-Conceptual Art

April Lamm is a writer, curator, and consultant who has been based in Berlin since 1998.

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July 27, 2010

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