“The origin of the book was more of a necessity after being thrown out of the United States – I needed to finish those eleven years somehow.” — Gerald Hartwig on his recent book, Chamäleon.
Chameleons change their color to assimilate and camouflage with their surroundings, right? Wrong. Their change in appearance actually operates as a visual signal, one that expresses mood, aggression, territorial claims and mating behavior. And that’s exactly what you’ll find within the pages of Chamäleon, Gerald Hartwig’s most recent work of art. It’s a graphic novel that expresses his colorful moods as a nineteen-year-old Austrian film-student in Los Angeles, the aggression felt as his former self confronts a new reality, the disputed territorial claims plaguing the mind of this young foreigner, and, boy oh boy, do we also get a scoop into his mating behavior. No really, the images are quite graphic.
Hartwig is a protean character – a fully-fledged artist that has allowed himself the possibility to shed skins and re-invent himself throughout his career: performance, video, 2D and 3D work, he’s been there and done that. In the past few years, however, he has engaged himself with the art of storytelling via Chamäleon: eleven years of his life as a pseudo-Angelino compacted into 263 pages of graphic content (literally and figuratively), ending with his untimely deportation from the United States.
No Spoiler Alert!
Why did Uncle Sam kick him out? I don’t know (yet) – he refused to tell me when I sat down to chat with him. It must have been a clever attempt to entice me to read the book. And it worked. Though I’m only half way through – it’s one of those stories that are best digested slowly – I can tell you it’s an unexpected treat for a graphic novel. “The book is like a business card in a sense,” he tells me, “A long, in the process, and expensive business card. And although the objective is not to make money, it is nice to have a voice out there, you know? And I do really want people to… even hate it. I think that’s kind of nice.”
Hartwig doesn’t say it with sarcasm: love it or hate it, he simply wants the reader to feel. And he's successful at it. Each page reads as a painting: it’s like having a museum in your hands – without getting kicked out at 6pm when its doors close prematurely before you get to savor all the goodies (I’m looking at you Gemäldegalerie). Here, take a sneak peak of what I’m talking about:
When I asked him about the genre of the novel, he simply replied, “I couldn’t say that. Somebody else should say that. It’s a story that is very much a microscope on my own life and therefore could be universal; many people have the same thoughts and feelings. When you break down stuff in your life, it’s all the same: it’s interactions between humans and what happens.”
And that’s exactly where the story finds its core: it’s a tale of what happened, no fiction. He was only nineteen when he left Austria to study film in L.A., the belly of the Hollywood beast. Now almost at the ripe age of forty, a seasoned Hartwig felt compelled to encapsulate the experience on paper (Chamäleon just came out in March). In purpose, he was no different than the countless go-big-or-go-homers that still travel to L.A. every year in pursuit of their dreams. Yet Hollywood has often proved to be an imagined landscape for many dreamers, receiving its appeal, ironically, from the same movies it produces. Chamäleon is birthed from the result of such illusions: the encounter of beautiful dreams with a less than pretty reality (the countless broken dreams that litter the streets of L.A.).
The End Is Never The End…
BAPs: One of the most fun things about storylines is the characterization of its protagonists. Yet, in this case, it’s more of a challenge for you because there is no complete freedom to create a character with its own personality – you always have that limit of reality that you have to stick to.
Gerald Hartwig: Yes, but that leads to a question that every artist has: what is freedom and how much freedom do you have? Now I start to think about that differently: it used to be that freedom to me meant I can do whatever the hell I want and nobody can tell me otherwise; there’s no framework. But now I find freedom in finding a structure and pushing myself against its limits and, within that structure, say it’s gotta work! That’s freedom because it makes your mind focused. It’s a different kind of freedom – I can appreciate that now.”
He’s referring to the humanity found in the characters of his book. They are real people and his encounters, as such, are felt more human. Freedom for Hartwig comes with the ability to forge magic out of the everyday (eleven years, in this case). And isn’t this what creativity really is: creating something out of nothing. Or rather, putting the ‘extra’ in the ordinary. Turning the pages of Chamäleon—with its attention to detail, rhythm, plot, and moving along an inevitable plot line as the author visually traces that which has passed—one certainly feels something extraordinary unfolding before our eyes.
“I’m not saying you accept the inevitable, but you accept a certain situation that is unchangeable,” Hartwig says at the end of our encounter, “…but it does change because you accept it.” If a chameleon could speak, I’m sure he’d say the same thing: that whenever we change our colors, it has little to do with camouflage and more to do with universal communication. And that's a feeling we can all camouflage into.
- "Chämaleon" by Gerald Hartwig. Price: €25.20
Article by Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra