Since 1993 Frankfurt am Main-based filmmaker Helke Bayrle has documented the installing and setting up of exhibitions at Portikus with a video camera. The result is an unparalleled collection of artist portraits. It covers behind-the-scenes footage, situations and settings the viewer isn’t normally exposed to once the exhibition is set up. The films transcend straightforward documentation. They are subjective and intimate observations of artist personalities and the process behind creating the individual exhibitions. Helke Bayrle’s films are notable for her open-ended approach and their consistency in vision.

Daniel Birnbaum: How did you come to make these films?

Helke Bayrle: Thomas and I have long known many artists. So I thought filming them as they were installing their work would be a good idea. The films can help to show pupils and art students in how different ways each artist develops his own installation. And then they were also interesting to me as people.I didn’t like the long-winded films you would see on television. That’s why we tried to edit mine down to the shortest possible form. The viewer should still understand the essential aspects. I produced the films in teamwork with Kobe Matthys since 1993, and then with Sunah Choi since 2001.

DB: A selection of extracts was recently published. How much material do you in fact have?

HB: To date, I have made 123 edited films. The material surrounding them is a great deal more extensive.

DB: You always shot the artists as they were installing their work. What is so special about that?

HB: You see and feel and understand the art they make better when you also get to meet them as people. They all have so very different personalities. It allows you to ask them questions directly, and the good thing about it is that you are well informed and you can learn a lot from them.

DB: There are some moments in your films I remember especially well, such as the arrival of Gilbert & George. Do you have a similar experience?

HB: Oh, yes, it was winter, and George was wearing a funny fur hat. One of his two pairs of glasses sat on his nose, the other hung from his ear. I had already experienced the two in Düsseldorf in 1970, during the exhibition “Prospekt,” where they were bronze-covered living sculptures. I was also impressed by Raymond Hains, Tony Oursler, Sarah Lucas. Mark Wallinger was one artist who sang. Michael Beutler was bopping around on his papers, and there was good cooking while his work was being installed. In fact, I was deeply impressed by all of them.

DB: Your films present us a portrait of the Portikus. What would you say is typical about this place?

HB: You can experience extremely different, even contrary exhibitions in this space. The installation team always consists of young artists. That makes the collaboration with the exhibiting artists very lively. Whether it is marble slabs, a farm with straw, or a room filled with 63,000 liters of water—anything is possible. From its very beginning, the Portikus has been more versatile than any other exhibition space. Gregor Schneider had transplanted his entire Totes Haus ur into the old Portikus. In Jimmie Durham’s show, the visitors saw petrified tree trunks that were two hundred million years old. Quite simply anything is possible.

DB: Were there also artists who did not want to be filmed at all?

HB: Yes, there were three women: Sherrie Levine, Rachel Harrison, and Trisha Donnelly. Sherrie Levine’s image was reflected in one of the Yamaha grand pianos in her exhibition. I was able to film Rachel Harrison, but only during the press conference. When an artist does not want to be filmed, I accept that.

DB: Do you have a role model in how to make artists’ portraits?

HB: No, I only know what I don’t want. I make very emotional films and never know what is going to happen. That’s what makes it exciting, that’s what’s fun.

Exhibition architecture: Anton Savov

Helke Bayrle was born in 1941 in Thorn. She lives and works in Frankfurt am Main. Since 1969 she has worked together with Thomas Bayrle. In 1964 she took part in the Bloomsday Happening at Galerie Loehr in Frankfurt an Main. She has shown her videos “Portikus Under Construction” at the MMK (Museum for Moderne Kunst) in Frankfurt am Main, at the National Gallery in Toronto, the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt am Main, the CCA (Center for Contemporary Art) in Kitakyushu, at Massey University in Wallington, at the OCA (Office for Contemporary Art) in Oslo, and the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna.

Photos: Katrin Schilling