Artists have time for themselves

Concept art: "People buy art - and I buy BP"

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Climate change and oil disasters have discredited the oil companies. Exactly ten years ago, on April 20, 2010, the "Deepwater Horizon" oil platform burned in the Gulf of Mexico - the beginning of one of the worst oil disasters in history. The concept artist Ruppe Koselleck found another reason to paralyze the operator BP. He heads the Kunstverein Ahlen, his works are based on Dadaism and the Fluxus movement. He controls the purchase of BP shares from his studio, which he calls the "takeover office".

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Koselleck, you are trying to take over one of the largest oil companies in the world. How did you come up with this idea?

Ruppe Koselleck: In 2001 we went swimming in the Dutch North Sea. My daughter came back to the bath towel and had oil stuck under her feet. I scraped off the tar dirt with a blunt penknife. I stole her yellow plastic bucket and collected a whole bucket of oil from the beach in less than a quarter of an hour. It was immediately clear to me that the garbage could be directed against the person who caused it.

On the way back we refueled at BP. At that time they had launched an advertising program that was supposed to give their oil image a fig leaf with solar energy and wind power. The brochures showed moors, marshland, sunsets over the sea - the purest eco-kitsch. This moment fascinated me: attacking a company that is extremely good at greenwashing. BP has the greenest and most artistic fig leaf of any oil company, and was a sponsor of the Tate Gallery in London until four years ago. From this I developed the project of the hostile takeover of BP.

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ZEIT ONLINE: How do you get the money you need?

Koselleck: At first I sold the collected crude oil in 15 gram portions in small transparent boxes, so-called "tar arias". Later I began to frottage, collage and paint with the raw oil. The crude oil painting was born. I then split the income from the sale of the pictures: Half of it is used to maintain the studio and my family. With the other half, I buy up the oil company BP, share by share. So I can rightly say: I swallow a corporation over the garbage it has caused. People buy art - and I buy BP.

ZEIT ONLINE: Then what does such crude oil art look like?

Koselleck: First I look for oil on the beach. These are roughly hand-sized bits of bitumen. Sometimes softer, sometimes harder, when the disaster was a long time ago, like on Norderney. I use it to work on the beach or later in the studio: Sometimes you have to warm up the lumps of oil a bit and use them to make black lines, for example. But it's not just black: almost all colors are in oil. At least if it is used thinner and glazed. Most of the time, however, I use it for frottage. That means I'm looking for beautiful surfaces. That could be stones by the sea, the pavement on the way to the beach or a beach chair on Norderney. I put the paper on top and rub the structure through.

ZEIT ONLINE: Like in kindergarten with crayons?

Koselleck: Technically, that's basically frottage - a printing process. These rubbed-through images then document the place where the oil was found.

ZEIT ONLINE: Others prefer to relax on the beach. Do you work instead?

Koselleck: Yes, and that is also a performance. There is basically no separation at all between my art, the hostile takeover of BP and my life. There are encounters with holidaymakers that would otherwise never have happened because they are just lying in a beach chair on Norderney. If I walk between them in my green BP jacket, collect oil and suddenly do things that they don't understand, then you start a conversation. Then I'll tell everyone that the proceeds from the pictures will soon make me CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world. This is my absolute favorite performance.

ZEIT ONLINE: How do the vacationers react to this?

Koselleck: Some people buy a work of art for the first time in their life. Because I bring art directly to the beach, so to speak. The assessment of my hostile takeover of BP, however, varies. Some are happy about the one who collects and cleans up oil and decries an oil company. Some, and there will be more, find it very strange that I am a shareholder and want to become CEO of BP. That is the Generation Divest, the system dropouts. However, very few believe that what I find there is oil. We are all oil. We wear it as the soles of our shoes, as clothing, it warms our apartment in winter, we eat pills made of oil, we smear it on our skin - and we fly around the world with it and drive a car. Only the test with the gas burner and the rising smell somewhere between bitumen and poison makes it clear to the holidaymakers what it is.

ZEIT ONLINE: Do you actually have a gas burner with you on the beach?

Koselleck: Yes, such a little thing, a pocket hot burner.