Wednesday 16 October 2019

your soul has nowhere to hide

As artist Guggi opens his first exhibition in Ireland in four years, he talks to Emily Hourican about the self-relevatory aspects of his work, his strict religious upbringing, his friendship with Bono and Gavin Friday, and how he believes that he has finally found the 'truth'

WATCHING Guggi in action with the photographer is an opportunity to study the guy without being seen to do so. Between them, they spend nearly an hour in the Kerlin Gallery, in different poses, trying to get it right. Throughout, Guggi is thoughtful, engaged, keen and unfailingly courteous.

His voice is pleasant, with a kind of rolling gruffness and nice open vowel sounds. The accent of his upbringing – "old Ballymun" as he calls it – is discernible but gently eroded. Once we start talking, I find him to be candid and thoughtful, with a heartening habit of weighing in with a resounding "absolutely!" "Exactly!' "That is absolutely right," where he is in agreement. Where he disagrees, he does so almost with deference, although it's perfectly obvious that his views are strong and bow to no one.

Behind all that Renaissance recklessness – the long hair, grey now mixed in with the blond (he is, after all, 53); the sparse, elegant frame and long black coat – he is rather austere. There is so much to the Guggi myth – the years as co-frontman with avant-gardists the Virgin Prunes; the childhood growing up in Ballymun, one of a family of 10, with an unpredictable, sometimes harsh father; the great friendship, even bromance, with Bono and Gavin Friday; the five sons with their magnificent Old Testament names and beautiful German wife – but today he is keeping it simple, as an artist.

This is his first Irish show in four years, although there have been exhibitions in New York, Monaco, Berlin and Buenos Aires in between.

"Some of the big painters in Ireland have crawled under rocks to wait until times are better. They don't want to be seen not to sell," he tells me, with a laugh. "But I'm from here, and I want my work seen."

The work is precise with clear, delicate lines and plenty of light and space. The preoccupations are distinctively Guggi's – "the same common objects, the text, various numbers that I use. All these things that I have built up over the years have become my vocabulary. They are to me what language is to a poet. I never stray far from them, but I do vary."

In the visual language that Guggi has created, I think I can see the influence of his upbringing with the Brethren, a fundamentalist Protestant sect which rejects all creative interpretations of the word of Christ – no fancy stained glass windows, no embroidered altar cloths, no stations of the cross, not even a crucifix. Instead, they worship in plain, unadorned rooms, with nothing to distract from The Message. The result is a visual austerity and a linguistic purity that I can discern in Guggi's work, and in the way he speaks. Jugs, bowls, ladles, some- times a knife – mundane objects lent a sacred presence by his use of light and dark.

Does he get nervous before a show? "Of course, you're going to be a little bit nervous, but I have to say, I used to be terrified when I first started showing, back in the Eighties. That kind of eases with time." So, more or less terrifying than going on stage with the Virgin Prunes? "I don't know if anything was more nerve-wracking than going on stage with the Virgin Prunes," he says with a laugh.

"I'll tell you one thing, going on stage with the Virgin Prunes prepares you for a lot of things in life. But when you're a member of a band, and there's five or six people in that band, you're not standing alone. But when you're having an opening of something that, I guess, you've poured your heart and soul into, you're very much by yourself. There's nowhere to hide."

Having heard him talk about how he would obsess, as a child, over the patterns made by the duster on the blackboard in school, by the faint outlines of not-quite-rubbed-out numbers and letters, rather than the actual work the teacher was putting up, I'm wondering if these days, were Guggi going through the educational system, would he pick up a label; dyslexia perhaps, even dyspraxia.

I suggest it, but he's not letting himself – or the system – off the hook that easily. "A child's attention has got to be won. My surroundings in primary school didn't do that very well. There was always this threat of violence. My pride, and in a weird way, my sense of self-respect, my mind didn't want to go there."

In this environment of suppressed threat, art was how Guggi, then still Derek Rowan (Bono of course gave him his name, just as he gave Bono his), stood out and got some positive attention. However, he does concede that, "if the way I conducted myself in primary school was assessed in modern times, in layman's language, I think the story would have been very simple – 'this geezer is not right'. But then, I wouldn't claim that I am right."

He cites an American writer – he can't remember who – he saw interviewed recently, who said, 'all artists are broken people in some way,' then adds, "I didn't become a painter as a whole person to begin with." This notion of himself as broken is something he returns to during the interview – "Maybe in some ways I'm a broken machine"; "what confidence I have was very hard-earned". He offers these insights without either bravado or pathos just, maybe, a quiet pride that he has managed to transcend the early boundaries that were set in place for him.

"I never expected anything from life," he insists. "In school, I was told, 'you should take maths more seriously, that way you can be a petrol pump attendant.' I was told, 'you will never be a painter', because I came from old Ballymun.

"After a long time of listening to this, I believed it. But I never quite believed it... because I knew I was crap at most things; the one area I had huge confidence in from a tiny child is that, potentially, I was a great painter. I could never have got there without that belief."

Belief is a big part of Guggi's life. As a child, he was sent to church "four, maybe five times" on a Sunday, by a father with whom he had a distinctly complicated relationship. Far from rebelling outright though, these days, he takes his own boys to church most Sundays. They go to a Baptist church – "we tried a lot of different churches. I'm not into brands, I like the preacher there. That worked for us" – and Guggi likens the process to arming one's children with any other of the self-evident truths necessary for survival; "I agree with the version of the truth I was exposed to as a child. I want to expose my children to what I believe is the truth. The same way you would tell them, if you run across the street when there's a bus, you're probably going to get hit.

"We've got to search for the truth, before we die," he says. I agree, adding, 'who would be arrogant enough to believe that they have found it', with which Guggi politely takes issue: "I believe I have found it. Maybe that's arrogance, but I don't believe it is." Then he throws in "I'm not very good at it by the way. I need to be saved because I am a sinner and I'm not a good example of a Christian. I'm a good example of a bad Christian, actually." I think he is being truthful, rather than just charmingly deprecating (although it wouldn't do to underestimate Guggi's charm; he has buckets of it). So does that bother him, not being a good Christian in his own eyes?

"Sometimes it bothers me I guess. But it's the way I am. We all blow it from time to time, and I'm very good at blowing it, me and my mates!"

Ah yes, his mates. Impossible not to know that one of Guggi's best friends is a global superstar, the other a charismatic, gifted composer. Together, he, Bono and Gavin Friday have long been a tripartite force, with a honed creativity that hums between all three.

Given that most childhood friendships don't last through adulthood, let alone survive the break-up of a band and nearly 30 years of global success, what does he think makes them different?

"When I met Bono as a little boy, he was the guy I liked most because he didn't play football, and because we could have wonderful conversations. There was something that both of us had that was extremely important to us, and that I didn't spot in all of my brothers – friendship was hugely important to me and I guess it was to him as well. And a few years later we met Gav, who was a massive inspiration to us. My dad would not have been good on confidence. What I have of it, and I do have that now, came very hard and very slow. I was just so grateful, I guess, that such fascinating people would want to hang around with me. So I really, really valued friendship in an enormous way." This extends to the physical expression of friendship; "I love, when I'm hooking up with my mates, nothing more than to go over and hug them. Because that is my little rebellion, still, to the way I was brought up. I love that physical affection between men. It's important to me."

So where do women fit into all of this? The friendship thing seems very male-oriented, and of course the church that Guggi grew up in doesn't have much of a role for women – they often aren't allowed speak or preach Christ's message. Has this coloured his view?

"Completely and utterly," he agrees, "but I think even more than that, the relationship that I saw first hand when I was growing up. I left our family home at the age of 17, and I had no idea how to treat a woman. I would have been quite dysfunctional when it came to all of that. I learned over a long period of time, what I have learned, and I'm not saying I have all the answers – far from it – but I think I treat my wife well, I hope I do, but I kind of learned that from her. And I learned it from watching my friends with their wives. I did not learn that at home. To achieve that, I had got to change. I think I'm a better husband than the asshole that my wife married. I hope I am."

Guggi's wife, Sibylle Ungers, was already an established painter when they met. Daughter of Oswald Mathias Ungers, "arguably the greatest German architect since the Second World War," she had studied fine art at Cornell University, was the youngest winner of the Schmidt-Rottluff Award, and represented by the prestigious Max Hetzler gallery in Cologne.

First, friendship grew between them, "before we fell for each other, we were like painting partners almost."

So what ignited the relationship?

"At some stage, going to an art fair in Cologne, she said she would love me to see her country house. It was only a few hours' drive, so we get down there, and as night was falling and some funky records start getting played, that's when it dawned on me, 'I'm staying here tonight with her, there's nobody else in the house'." Sibylle showed him to her sister's room, and explained that there were sliding doors between that and her own room.

"So that's when things took a different course," says Guggi now. "I was actually quite nervous. She said, 'I don't want you to kiss me goodnight' – as in, a formal kiss – 'I'd prefer if you just put your arm around me.' I'm saying to myself, 'that's a bit weird ... ' She denies it, but I think she had something very different worked out in advance! I had started entertaining little thoughts too ... It might have been a difficult thing for her to do," he concedes, then adds cheekily "but I made it worth her while."

Then he throws his head back and laughs, "sorry, that sounds terrible. What will that look like in print?" And then Guggi told Sibylle, with all the arrogant intransigence of youth, "I am a painter, and I'm broke, and I'm going to be a painter whether I'm broke or loaded."

What did she say to that? "She accepted it. She wouldn't be as quick to accept it now, but at that time she thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. It didn't last that long ... " he adds, a little wistfully. "When your first son comes along, you realised you've just been replaced. You are absolutely the apple of her eye. Anything you do, anything you say; you are the most amazing human being that has ever graced her presence. And just like that – snap! – you've been replaced. That can be a difficult thing. What helps me to deal with it is, you say, 'well, at least I was truly adored at one point in time. And the one she adores now is my flesh and blood', so I should take that as a compliment, and I do, because they are my boys." But, he makes no secret of the fact that "at the start, it's a bit of a shock, a bit of a blow".

In conversation with Guggi, the shadow of his own father, Robert, is never far away. Robert is still alive, as is Guggi's mother, Winnifred ("an incredible woman who never judged us, she was an incredible inspiration"), and was clearly a near-biblical force in the life of his son.

"Everybody is good and bad, and my dad was also that, just more extreme. The great side of him was much greater than the great side of anyone else's dad. There was a huge amount of generosity there." But, he reflects, "If I had a dad who thought I couldn't do anything wrong and praised me from a height left, right and centre, I would probably have grown up to be an asshole." Pause, then, with comic thoughtfulness, "Actually, some people would say I have grown up to be an asshole."

So blessed as he is among men, did he ever wish for a girl? He laughs. "I only ever wished for a girl. My wife only ever wished for a girl. Perhaps I don't deserve a daughter, and I will take that, but my wife had this wonderful tradition of food and cooking and conversation, fashion, all of these things, from her grandmother to her mother, and her mother to her, and I would have loved her to have a daughter. I would have loved to have a daughter because I see my friends who do, their daughter sits on their knee and hugs them and kisses them and tells them she loves them. I don't get that from my kids. My kids treat me like I'm a wally! But I have five incredible boys, I'm not going to be anything but grateful. They love each other, look out for each other, and that means the world to me." So now, having passed the hump of 50, with international recognition as an artist and a soon-to-be grown up family, would he say that he loves his life? He considers carefully. "I don't think I would word it that my life is something that I love. You're never totally fulfilled. But it's a million times more than anything I could ever have dreamed of, and I'm so grateful."

Guggi at the Kerlin Gallery continues until February 23,

Irish Independent

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