Books & Manuscripts

Director Johan Renck Talks Music Videos, Dark Humour and Counterculture

By Alexandra Owens

NEW YORK – Between directing award-winning music videos, episodes for cult-favourite television shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, commercials for tops brands such as Chanel and his new series The Last Panthers, Johan Renck has a resume as diverse as it is impressive. His collecting interests – ranging from oil paintings by obscure English artist Austin Osman Spare to works by author William Gibson – also speak to his eclectic, carefully curated and entirely personal taste. Ahead of the online auction Boo-Hooray Presents: Post-War, Counterculture, & Pop (1–16 December) we spoke with Renck about the future of pop, his appreciation of marginalized figures and the best definition of art he's ever heard.


How would you describe your style as a director?
I am in no way in pursuit of a style. I can tell you one thing though – a lot of people around me tend to say everything I do has an undercurrent of weird darkness. So I guess, without being able to help myself, I am drawn to darker stuff in general, both in my visual and my psychological language.

Looking at your work, for example your Breaking Bad episodes and music videos for Madonna and David Bowie, darkness definitely comes to mind. But I also think there are moments of humour.
They go hand in hand in some strange way. I don’t think you can do darkness without a sense of humour, otherwise it just becomes pretentious, too heavy, you know? I’m European – and speaking of David, as you mentioned, he and I talked a lot about that. I always find that as Europeans, even when darkness is prevalent, there’s a certain wit present. So I agree that it’s a part of the package – darkness and humour need to be affiliated in some sense.

As a director you’ve had a lot of success with music videos in particular, like the ones we’ve mentioned you did for Bowie, “Lazarus” and “Blackstar.”
When I did the Bowie videos I hadn’t done a music video in seven or eight years. So it’s very much in the past, I think. The Bowie project was something else, because that was a collaboration between a man who, as part of the process, told me he was dying. There was a realization that these videos would probably be – if not the last – some of the last visual stuff he would do.


Generally speaking, what was your process of bringing an artist’s song to life on film, and how did you integrate their vision with your own?
I was never very good at doing the commercial pop videos that were intended for a broader MTV audience, because I don’t even know how that works. I’m very bad at coming up with fun, cool ideas that the kids are going to like. For me, it was always about listening to the music, being very inspired by the music, and trying to fit images to it that made sense to me. One of my favourite videos that I have ever done is for the Swedish band the Knife, “Pass This On.” It’s a very simple, small video and I did everything, because there was no budget. On the stage there is a transvestite singing to a random group with all sorts of people in it. I never knew what the video meant when I was doing it – it was just something that interested me. But years later, I realized that that video is about me. That I always feel that I am in some way or another performing my heart out in front of the wrong audience.

So it’s easier making a video for a band when you relate to their music?
I did a couple videos for New Order, which is interesting because they’re featured in the exhibition. That was never really problematic for me, because I’m a New Order fan and I felt like I knew to some extent that I have to make a video for somebody like myself. It’s very difficult to make a video for a band whose music you don’t like. I’ve done that very few times. You need to have a certain respect or interest in the artist. That’s necessary I think. But it’s been so long. Now I have zero interest in doing music videos, because I feel like pop music is not a carrier of culture anymore. It’s just about pleasure now. Music is bigger than ever commercially, but music videos as any kind of art form or expression? Not at all, I think.


What first drew you to collecting counterculture and Post-War materials like the ones featured in the Boo-Hooray auction?
I think one of the things that makes this exhibition so interesting is it features a lot of slightly marginalized people or figures in the world of arts and politics – for instance, Austin Osman Spare. I have two oil paintings by him and he is probably one of my favourite artists, not only because he was a brilliant painter, but because of the fact that he was an interesting counterculture figure. He kind of reminds me of Lucian Freud, but he didn’t get the recognition he should have because he hung out with some unsavoury characters and was an occultist. I’m also a big fan of Guy Debord from a political point of view. Situationism was one of the most important movements in the last century, and it has never been more relevant to reclaim the founding purpose of art and to take it away from the commercialism. Debord might as well have been a big, prominent philosopher, but he fell off the map.


Have any of the artists or musicians in the sale inspired your aesthetic?
New Order has always been very important for me because of Factory Records. They did great work conceptually on the record sleeves. Then you have someone like Gee Voucher – I think there’s a rebellious expression in her work. But my biggest inspiration will always be books – I’m more interested in psychology and emotions. Most of my images come from my own head based on what I read. William Gibson is someone I’m a huge fan of. Inspiration is a tricky thing in general, because to me, you will always be in awe of what other people do, but at the same time you should consciously try to avoid being too referential. And I think the key thing is to be as fresh as you can be and as fresh as you dare to be. One of the most on the money definitions of art I’ve heard is something that takes your experiences into a place they’ve never been before. So every time you see something great you react with a sort of astonishment, because this is something that is so unique and different that your whole system is sort of nervously giggling like, “I don’t even understand this. I’ve never been close to this.” That’s when art is at its best.

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.