13 December 2012


For his ambitious project ‘Artists in the World. The Never Ending Art Trip’ the kind and open Dutch artist André Smits has addressed himself to a giant task: taking pictures of all the artists that he can get a hold of - with the crucial difference, that he only photographs from the rear view. Possessing a collection of over 1500 back-portraits, which are publicly archived on his project’s website artistsintheworld.com, André always follows contact recommendations of artists, curators or gallerists  from only one person per trip - his so called ‘guide’. Consequently, his network gets larger and larger each day, everyone is somehow connected with each other and André documents this process with doodles that he paints on the walls of his country house. When André visited me here in Berlin, I wanted to know what drives him to do such a crazy and similarly brilliant mission. Find the interview below.

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from the top: Andre Smits taking a picture of me; Back-portraits of Santiago Ydanez, Raoul de Keyser, Ralf Dereich, Phil Bloom, Miek van Dongen, Lars Bjerre, Jurgen Klauke, Franz Ackermann, Anna Virnich, Andre's Summer House in Houk, Portrait of Andre Smits by artfridge

Anna: André, for your project “Artists in the world. The never ending Art Trip” you travel around the globe, taking photos of artists’ backsides. When did you start this project and how many back-portraits have you done so far?
André: I started about five years ago. It is more than 1500 photos now.

Anna: You designed your website like a matrix or even an html code. Why did you decide to do it this way?
André: I don’t guide the visitor, the page is even confusing. But I like that fact, because then the visitors discover portraits by coincidence.

Anna: How did you come up with the project’s idea?
Andre: When I developed the website for my art work, I was looking for a way to create something faster than I could do my paintings. So I started a photo dairy. The very first picture showed someone’s back on a dance parade in Rotterdam. I generally like to work in concepts, so after a couple of months I decided that I would take pictures of people from the back every day. I saw a show by Markus Lüpertz in Bonn and there were only paintings from peoples’ backsides. It was there where I thought about the art historical concept of the ‘Rückenfigur’, like in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. This man, standing in front of a landscape or the ocean, which symbolize future and expectations. This romantic side of it is really nice, I think. Showing artists in their studios from the back is the best ‘Rückenfigur’ you can get, because it’s about the strangeness of people spending their life doing art. On the other hand, I also enjoy having the possibility of entering all those studios. Therefore, it’s also related to the ‘Wanderer’ - always going on and on, leaving everything behind. In the end, thats what I am doing. 

Anna: Are you particularly curios or might there even be a little voyeurism involved?
André: Yes, of course - the idea of crossing someone’s life. I like art more than I did before the project started. For me, art exists mainly in the artists’ studios - where it is produced and not in a gallery. 

Anna: You are the David Attenborough of the art world...
André: ...It is a discovery! Lots of the artists that I photograph hardly ever go out of their studio. They don’t have galleries, they don’t try to be famous, they just create work. 

Anna: Is it the balance of famous and unknown artists that interests you? 
André: The fact that the unknown artists let me in is even more interesting and unique than photographing famous ones, like Gerhard Richter. He has already been photographed a 1000 times from the back. Thats nice to have, but it’s not that interesting to me.

Anna: Have you never felt the regret for not taking a portrait from the front, too?
André: No, never.

Anna: Do most people agree to let you in?
André: Yes, most do.

Anna: Do you think thats because they don’t have to show their face and therefore their intimacy?
André: Yes. But in the end they show more - thats a nice thing to think about. They realize it, too. Viewers are looking way more at the pictures, because there are no eyes to focus on.

Anna: You allow the artists to decide how they want their picture taken. What was the craziest experience you had?
André: Well, there are three naked people in the series. That was a little crazy. But that might also be the easiest. Only with the last one I actually suggested it, because I knew the subject of her drawings. I just gave it a try and after a few beers she said yes. (laughs)

Anna: Has there been a visit where you were shocked?
André: No, I have never really been shocked. Rather estranged. Once, for instance, I visited Franz Ackermann. I came to his studio without having an appointment, but everything was open. I walked around for 15 minutes, and nobody else was there. When he finally came in, he just said “hey”, as if he would have expected me to be there. I could have taken a Franz Ackermann with me and no one would have noticed. (laughs)

Anna: How do you get all the contact information to the artists, gallerists and curators?
André: I ask one person for one trip to be my guide. I think thats important - that everything is connected. Otherwise I wouldn’t know how to do it.

Anna: You are Dutch, living in Rotterdam. The places that you travel to are mostly located in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, New York. Is there a limit?
André: No. Well, my only limit is that I am going home in-between, because I am also working as a web designer and currently working on my country-house in Holland. I am drawing on all the walls in the ground floor - in the same style as I am doing my mapping sketches and doodles. So actually I am turning the house into an artistsintheworld art piece. 

Anna: What are the most crucial culture differences that you can observe, let’s say between New York and Berlin.
André: People in Berlin can spend more time with their art. They don’t need to pay 2000 Dollars rent for their studios. But there are no major differences apart from that. Thats why I would like to see artists’ studios in Asia and Africa, otherwise the pictures will be too similar.

Anna: You have been really successful with your project, exhibiting the portraits in Düsseldorf, Belgium, New York and currently in Vlissingen in Holland... 
André: ...Yes, it’s going quite well.

Anna: Does “The never ending Art Trip” literally have no end?
André: No. My daughter is very artistic and she likes the project. It would be nice if she could take it over at one point. I think it’s important that only one person takes the pictures, someone who is crazy enough to do this.

See and browse André Smits' project website: artistintheworld.com
Interview by artfridge
Images by André Smits and artfridge