This from Guerilla Magazine, #23
Boldly creative and obsessively organized, Adrian Göllner is a man of two minds—and he draws upon both of them to win public art commissions all over the world.
Story by Nigel Beale / Photographs by Rémi Thériault
Several years ago I went through the Ron Mueck exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. The sculptures, so meticulously human and life-like, were either huge or tiny. Despite breathtakingly accurate renderings of human flesh, eyelashes, toenails and hair follicles, if the works had been life-sized, the appeal would have evaporated.
The same somehow holds true of great fiction, where words themselves serve to distort or magnify reality. In so doing they hold us rapt.
Mueck’s sculptures fascinate us because, while we know they aren’t human (as we know, too, that words in a novel don’t produce real people), they so closely resemble the real thing that we puzzle over them, marvel at their verisimilitude, strain at the tension between likeness and difference, real and imagined, familiar and strange.
It is exactly this duality—this blur between the real and the unreal—that most interests Ottawa’s Adrian Göllner. His progressive rise to prominence through the winning of international public art commissions is rooted in a double nature driven by curiosity and artistry.
In the early 1990s, after George Bush Sr.’s invasion of Iraq, CNN started hawking a set of Desert Storm videos highlighting the “very best” of its Gulf War coverage. As Göllner recalls, you couldn’t at first figure out if the videos were for real or just some kind of parody; a joke; war served up in a neat infotainment package for consumption in the comfort of your living room.
The unintentionally farcical nature of the CNN videos inspired Göllner, whose army-base childhood in Germany had left him preoccupied with the Cold War (the artist’s military father was on assignment there “preparing for World War III” for much of Göllner’s early life.)
Riffing off this farce/fact dichotomy, Göllner created a series of Cold War trading cards, complete with bomb-testing stats, warnings about which countries not to piss off, and advice on how to prevent the “Reds” from taking over. The cards were convincing enough to keep people guessing (crass commercial product or parody?) and sold briskly. The Deifenbunker tourist attraction located just outside of Ottawa took 100 sets and invited Göllner to do a similarly themed on-site installation.
Adrian Göllner was photographed in front of Stand, the glass wall installation he created as part of the City of Ottawa’s Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans.
Exposure here, and through a public commission he’d completed in Kitchener, Ontario, got Göllner a shot at another large prize, this one connected with construction of the Canadian embassy in Berlin. Göllner included his faux anti-communist propaganda materials as part of the bid and won the project. Using the propaganda “meant that I knew what Berlin meant,” reasoned Göllner.
In this instance and many others, Göllner’s ability to understand context, to research and grasp the import of architectural design and intent, and to come up with compelling-yet-elemental ideas has helped him win vaunted public art commissions all over the globe.
But there is another, equally important aspect driving Göllner’s success: his meticulous organizational skills.
“Public work is about 20% art and 80% administration,” the artist explains, pointing to the importance of purely rational tasks such as dialoguing with architects and suppliers, acquiring knowledge of materials, estimating, planning and research. And after all that, of course, there’s the required ability to execute. It may be a cliché, but for Göllner, winning a commission really is the place where preparation meets opportunity.
From his father Göllner received a penchant for precision, an eye for detail, a desire for order and promptness (he’s an avid clock collector). So great was this influence that Göllner long expected a life of duty in the military—something that changed only in high school when he discovered that he might actually be able to make a living from doing what he loved: making art—a talent for which he may well have inherited from his Trinidadian mother, herself an artist.
Just as the real and the imagined meet in Göllner’s work, a rational/intuitive duality happily co-inhabits his mind and psyche. It’s a combination ideally suited to the winning of public art commissions, a synthesis where left and right brains connect and team up to produce executable ideas.
The blend is potent. Along with early experience as an art consultant with the City of Ottawa, this dual nature has helped Göllner win and execute commissions in places as as far-flung as Mexico (where he created pixilated images of Pancho Villa made from Canadian Tire money), Dublin (hundreds of separate postcard-sized pieces of the Irish flag), Birmingham, England, (canvases made from locally found fabric, pee-stained mattresses, used clothing, and a Royal Mail bag), New Zealand (specially lit box houses), and Toronto (lighting of sixteen high-rise towers in “warm” colours).
In recent years, computers have played an important part in the fun. In 2007, during a residency in Trinidad, Göllner used computers to plot asymmetric shapes from the country’s weekly winning lottery numbers, giving graphic expression to the concept of luck. The resulting shapes served as a sounding board for people’s beliefs about a nebulous, but important topic.
Why let the seeming randomness of computers have such influence?
“Art based on rhythms from statistics produces work that takes me to much more interesting places,” Göllner explains.
For another commission in Nashville, Tennessee, the artist combined two things he knew about the city—the songs of country music legend Hank Williams and the history of hydrogen bomb testing in post-war times. The result was a stylized computer graph that plotted bomb blast schedules against Williams’ hit songs moving up and down the country charts.
Later, for a piece in Norfolk, Virginia that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Göllner converted the transcripts of communication between Kennedy and Kruschev into Morse code and depicted the results on posters.
“The dialogue dictates composition,” Göllner says of this process. “The code flexes between a language, and, because it’s in a gallery, an abstraction.”
These notions can be hard to get your head around, but Göllner is clearly on to something.
In his recent book Reality Hunger, David Shields writes about the line between the real and the unreal, suggesting that it is at the centre of a new, organic, as yet unnamed artistic movement he defines as “deliberate unartiness: raw material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional … a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction; the lure and blur of the real.”
Thanks to an engaging ability to blend the rational and the artistic, it seems certain that the private mind of Adrian Göllner will make itself felt publically for years to come. Recent projects on home soil include a lighting installation at the Vancouver Olympic Games, work with Ottawa’s Domicile Developments, and in a smaller, more personal project, the release of physical energy from a person who over-wound a clock seventy years ago, rejuvenating it, rendering it unharnessed, un-sprung, in the form of a mechanically generated pencil drawing.
Proof perhaps that even the line between life and death may turn out to be a blur.