BY Jan Kedves in Interviews | 23 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 25

Group Therapy

The Berlin artists' group Honey-Suckle Company is a fashion house, band and style icon. A new book outlines the group's activities

BY Jan Kedves in Interviews | 23 AUG 16

Jan Kedves Some people might think that the Honey-Suckle Company no longer exists. 

Peter Kisur In reality we never officially disbanded; we simply did less together. In 2014, for instance, we took part in the Klöntal Trienniale in Switzerland. We performed work together in a windowless cellar space with Lina Launhardt, who used spiritual rituals to create an invisible installation. People were really enthu­siastic about our ‘energy work’ and told us, ‘it was like a rainbow down there!’ We just looked at each other and said, ‘Honey-Suckle is just beginning!’ 

Honey-Suckle Company, Frida Korn, 1995. All images courtesy: Honey-Suckle Company

Kedves Spirituality seems to be very important to Honey-Suckle Company. How would you describe this interest? 

Simone Gilges From the shadow into the light – this was important to us from the very beginning. We found each other because we all had similar ideas about spirituality, life and the way people should treat one another. It had nothing to do with religion. 

Nina Rhode Sometimes I say that Honey-Suckle is a sect. Above all this describes the way we’ve stuck together. When Klaus Biesenbach invited us to MoMA PS1 in New York in 1999 we asked all of the Honey-Suckles and our friends to come along. We didn’t say, ‘We need money and have this big chance, so we’re going to drop excess baggage and send only two or three of us.’ We thought everyone should share everything. And hold hands. Preferably 24 hours a day.

Gilges We didn’t want to allow ourselves to be pried apart as we’ve seen happen to other artists’ groups. We saw this with Akademie Isotrop from Hamburg – at some point, some of the people in the group, like Jonathan Meese and André Butzer, got major gallery representation and others didn’t. Then the group split apart. This was a warning and we vowed that it would never happen to us. We didn’t want one of us to make it then leave the rest behind. 

Kisur That’s why we decided to relinquish authorship upon joining Honey-Suckle Company. We deli­berately covered our tracks in terms of who was responsible for what in addition to constantly switching roles within the group. Each one of us has danced, even if he or she isn’t a dancer, or worked with fashion, although we might not have had any previous fashion experience. 

Kedves Honey-Suckle Company was never really properly understood or taken seriously by the art establishment. Did this relate to the fact that you made music, designed clothing and were interested in starting a youth movement?

Kisur Sure, we were in this in-between state from the very beginning and we all failed accordingly. The thing with the youth movement was the fact that techno people and punks in Berlin were enemies at the time and we wanted to bring them together. At the Love Parade of 1996, with our band Batterie ON/OFF and Captain Space Sex on the outs, we brought a guitar on stage. The performance was called There is No Love in Techno – this was a riot, this was action. But not in a gallery. We worked exclusively underground for years. 

Kedves ... and so hardly anything was written about you. 

Gilges We got a lot of press for the 1998 Berlin Biennale. We were supposed to perform there as a freaky young art group for magazines like Focus and Vogue, and then an article appeared in the Berliner Zeitung with the headline, ‘Andy Warhol is dead – long live the Honey-Suckle Company’. A lot of serious art magazines found this pretty awful and from that point on they wrote us off, even though our work later changed considerably.

Kisur After that, there wasn’t a single serious art magazine that paid attention to us, or at least they didn’t write about us. Six years ago, however, there was an article in Artforum about a branch of Contemporary Fine Arts opening in Charlotten­burg. In it, the author compared another artist’s performance with the ‘trashy installations of the (now forgotten) Honey-Suckle Company’. This is the only sentence that was ever written about us in a smart-aleck art magazine, and we realized – aha! So they knew about us after all. 

Honey-Suckle Company, Die Treppe, from the artist book Odessau, 2001

Rhode The art scene at the time couldn’t grasp what we were doing and we didn’t want it to, anyway. We were a wild and chaotic bunch without a spokesperson … 

Kisur ... and often enough too worn out. For the first important exhibitions – Berlin Biennale, MoMA PS1 – we worked late every night leading up to the show, which left us completely exhausted at the opening, sitting in the corner unable to talk to anyone. We didn’t understand that this was the opportunity to make small talk with curators, gallery dealers and journalists. On the one hand, this was a huge failure. In the end, though, I think it did us good. 

Kedves You’ve recently published spiritus, a big fat volume about your work that casts Honey-Suckle Company in a historical light. Why this approach? 

Gilges We had the idea to interpret our history from 1995 onward for some time. At one point, I was looking in my archive for something and saw all of these unbelievable photos again. We took pictures of everything from the very beginning. It was always pretty clear that we had to make a book out of it. And it was very good for us to work through all this material. It was like group therapy. 

Rhode We published spiritus because it was a goal of ours to do so. On the other hand we realized that a lot of what we did at the time is still relevant today, even if many people aren’t familiar with our work. Honey-Suckle doesn’t have an extensive website and isn’t represented by a gallery. That’s why we made a book. 

Kedves Could you give an example of what makes your work so contemporary? 

Gilges One would be the unbelievable collection that Gucci recently presented. The Polaroid campaign accompanying it is nearly identical to our 1996 hat collection, which we also photographed in Polaroid at the time. This might be a product of morphological fields – the theory that ideas float through the air as fields of energy and intersect with many people who then develop similar ideas entirely independently of one another. 

Rhode Although it does look as though the Gucci designer really did see our work. That’s the first thing you do as a fashion designer when preparing a new collection: you re­­search. And you do your best to not research where everyone else is looking. 

Kisur There’s a program on Arte about our 1997 Transformation Station that the Gucci designer could have seen – it’s accessible to the public. Or Lucian Busse’s film Berlinized, which features the mid-‘90s Berlin music scene and came out two years ago. 

Rhode It’s also interesting to see how fabric installations have come into vogue. We started doing that around 15 years ago, and at the time it was rather taboo. In our case it arose out of circumstance: For our 2003 exhibition ‘Eswerde’ at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, we started looking for placeholders. In other words, we gave the clothes off our back to both the room and the sculptures inside. 

Kisur Earlier we conceived of Honey-Suckle Company as a kind of corporate identity for a fictive couture fashion house. But then we moved from the clothes on bodies to the surrounding space. We’ve always worked through shifts like this: in the beginning we made live music, and later we transposed the music onto objects or fabrics that played autonomously. Our 2006 installation Non Est Hic at Kunsthalle Basel hid so-called hypersonic speakers that made the fabrics themselves sing. 

Kedves You dedicated your book to the ‘next generation’. Why? 

Rhode We’d like to have an effect with the book – to pass something down. Honey-Suckle Company proves that we can make art under the premise of commonality without acting elbows-out. 

Kisur Yes, and maybe we want to prod art students to not always do everything so correctly. They’re really good, for instance, at grasping conceptual art and then becoming successful very quickly within this framework. We experimented from the gut and without ego back then. Besides, everything went much too fast for us. ‘What, the biennial is already in three months? Shit, can’t we wait half a year?’

Honey-Suckle Company, first Polaroid, 1995

Kedves What’s next for Honey- Suckle Company ? 

Kisur We’ll wait and see. During the work on spiritus it wasn’t easy to concentrate on the book without constantly getting wrapped up in new utopian ideas and delusions of grandeur. I had a realization and said to Nina, ‘We’ve done so much with architecture. In 2005 we made the Menschenhaus out of people and fabric, and our last major installation, Materia Prima (2007) at the Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof, was a white space without corners – we should build a real house now, don’t you think? The Honey Suckle house – what would that look like?’ But then Simone said straight out, ‘Leave me alone with all of that – I just want this book to be finished!’ 

Translated by Andrea Scrima

Honey-Suckle Company is a Berlin-based artist group founded in 1994. Alongside Peter Kisur, Simone Gilges and Nina Rhode, members have included Nico Ihlein, F M Ploch and Zille Homma Hamid. The book spiritus was published by Bierke in June 2016.

Jan Kedves is a writer, editor and author of Talking Fashion. From Nick Knight to Raf Simons in Their Own Words (Prestel, 2013). He is based in Berlin.