INTERVIEW WITH A DAYDREAMER
He draws always and everything, parallel universes and attention. From a living bicycle that millions of Chinese loved to Red Bull racing cars, on beer coasters and the wings of an aircraft. Sitting on the balcony in his mountain home, Robert Rottensteiner likes to talk about gods and worlds.
AW: By taking a look at your sketchbook which is your daily companion: a lot of the drawings in it are not job-related. Is it safe to assume that you’re purely driven by the urge to draw?
ROBERT: I guess so. Since I was I child, I always had the desire to create parallel universes. On the other hand, which child doesn’t? Imaginative activity starts in childhood, as does the desire to escape the so-called reality. When you get older you learn other escape routes, I tried a lot of them. But in comparison to – let’s say – drugs, drawing gives you the opportunity to document and share your daydreams with others. Since I was able to make a living from it, I stuck to it. Drawing still helps me – like enjoying the little things – to escape from the so-called reality to the reality which only happens in the now. Everything is always now.
AW: Through your drawings, several extraordinary people were drawn to you throughout your life. Klaus Kinski wanted you to design a penis for him?
ROBERT: It was a combination of a penis, a vagina and a violine to be exact. A design for the flacon for his perfume that he created alongside his magnum opus »Paganini«. I met Klaus Kinski twice, once in his appartement in Paris, where I presented him the prototype of the flacon. He held it in both hands, pressed it against his cheek and started to hum and dance with a big smile on his face. You might say, I saw the inner child of Klaus Kinski and through my interactions with him it was always the behaved one, but I also had a glimpse of his megalomaniac behavior. At the end he wanted the thing bigger. To my objection that a perfume flacon shouldn’t be larger than the one presented, he replied: »Then let’s make a shower gel«.
AW: So, you awoke the little Klaus by presenting the old Kinski a sexually overloaded flacon?
ROBERT: That’s what I’m trying to do. I mean, reaching out to the inner children through my own inner child, though usually, it doesn’t take sexual symbols to do so.
AW: I see that with your characters, e.g., Fanti & Frogy, who definitely communicate with the inner child while simultaneously confronting adult problems …
ROBERT: … which can seem ridiculous through the eyes of a child. Humanity has some huge problems to tackle, so it would help to overcome our little problems with a laugh towards working together on the big ones. Take a look at the pandemic. What are the key elements to overcoming this crisis? Science and solidarity. I am not a scientist, so I try to work on the solidarity part.
AW: The reputation of a man, who doesn’t talk bad about anyone precedes you. How do you manage to uphold this rare quality?
ROBERT: I’m sure that in some encounters I have been perceived as an asshole by others and honestly, I do think sometimes, he or she is an asshole. But then I say to myself: he or she wasn’t born this way. In a world like ours it’s pretty easy to get so tangled up in your own skin that one eventually forgets that the spirit is always free. Knowing that makes it easier to accept certain limitations. Don’t be disappointed with the quail for not having the desire to fly and never talk bad about the size of its eggs.
AW: Some say you are one of the youngest old-hippies hanging in there.
ROBERT: I was child when this movement started, but I definitely don’t take offense if someone calls me a Hippie. Make love, not war works for me. Always did. As a Teenager in the late 70s I had long hair (annotation: as he does today) and listened to Neil Young (annotation: as he does today). Then I was dragged into the army. In Austria you’re obligated to serve and back then it wasn’t easy to choose civilian community service as an alternative. I put the pot on my head and started to act as dumb as possible to get kicked out of the army. I succeeded. Unfortunately, they kicked me right into a mental hospital. There I met some very interesting people who inspired me. After three weeks they let me go, I sold the stamp collection of my grandfather and hitch-hiked to Greece.
AW: Robert Rottensteiner, the escape artist?
ROBERT: So far, I managed at least to escape every depression. As long as we’re not talking about a mental illness it’s easy to do. You’re sad, you’re down? Try the Blues! Depression is stillstand, the Blues are productive. Think about Bob Dylan and all the wonderful songs he wrote. Although there were some situations in my life, where I plainly ran away. I wouldn’t consider that an artform of escaping. I have four kids from three different mothers and additionally two kids that my wife brought into the marriage. I can say that my children had many adventures with me, yet I wasn’t the most responsible father. At the end of the day, they taught me more than I taught them.
AW: Through all your success you’ve also had your share of bitter defeats. Personal matters aside, your first advertising agency went bankrupt. How did that rock?
ROBERT: Bring it on! That was back in the days when the advertising bubble was as big as hell. I lived – as we say in Austria – on a big foot, meaning I had high expenses. As did anyone involved in the agency, the clients included. After everything collapsed, I had to withdraw to the Carinthian mountains and reduce myself to a minimum. Soon I saw it as a blessing. I met all these wonderful people and finally myself again. And here I am …
AW: … not so much reducing yourself anymore though.
ROBERT: There is a hedonist in me and I really enjoy qualitative pleasures, especially when I can share them with others.
AW: And I would like to add that you are a very generous person. A few years ago, you made an extra profit. After one short thought on a new car, you instead decided to spend the money on a fantastic open-air-party for your co-workers, clients, friends and family. There you were seen constantly running around from one guest to the next, giving everyone the feeling that they were equally welcome. Wasn’t that exhausting?
ROBERT: Hospitality runs in my blood and my Croatian roots definitely add to it. Yes, at the end of the party I was exhausted. But it’s this kind of good exhaustion that I’m craving for. You can have sex and after that feel relieved and exhausted. Or you can make love and afterwards feel satisfied and surf on this soft wave of good exhaustion. Sex you can have alone, even with someone else, making love needs more. This party was also meant to be a thank you to all the people I worked with.
AW: Alongside the dedicated crew on your flagship Team Rottensteiner (under the banner of Red Bull) there is a vast number of privateers who are always eager to set sail with you to the shores of various projects. The economic advantages of a fleet of privateers over a standing navy are evident. What else speaks for working with free lancers?
ROBERT: I would say that the creative advantages over a standing fleet are as evident as the economic ones. Certain tasks need certain talents. If you already have a small number of great co-workers – as I do – you simply add the free lancers who are best suited for the specific project and off you go. I really enjoy building teams, so I like all the bigger projects where I can do so over and over again.
AW: You’re sailing the seven seas of the world of Red Bull and often working on dozens of projects at the same time. From beautiful hotels in the Austrian Alps to a Fiji island, from football to Formula One, from organic drinks to functional clothing. Is there any time left for your own projects?
ROBERT: There is enough time to keep my own projects alive but too little to fully realize them. But let’s sing it with the »Byrds«: To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time to every purpose, under heaven. That time will come again when I can travel deeper into my parallel universes.
AW: One of which is the parallel universe you created for »Y.M.I.«
ROBERT: Yes. It’s probably the most complex one I ever created, and there is so much more to explore, tell and draw.
AW: You illustrated several books for Thomas Brezina. With over 40 million sold copies, he is one of the most successful German-language children’s and youth book authors. The first book of »Y.M.I.« called »Yssilo« was illustrated and also written by you. Although it had great reviews it was far from being a commercial success. How come?
ROBERT: Wrong time, wrong season. And in every success, there is always a portion of luck involved. Maybe I did too little to promote the book, but I am aware of luck when I fail and I am aware of it when I succeed. I try to be humble and I’m grateful that I can make a good living from my talents. There are many great artists out there – especially these days – who are standing in the breadline. Not because of a lack of talent, not because they are not hard working, but just because they’re missing this portion of luck.
AW: Could it also have something to do with our system?
ROBERT: Probably it does. Free competition produces winners and losers. When playing by given rules, a striker will never be awarded with a goal just because he hit the post six times in one game. That doesn’t mean that I know much about the rules of football. Although I find the artificial world of professional football rather fascinating, I don’t really like this sport that much. Never played it.
AW: You were more the surfer dude.
ROBERT: Yes, and in some ways I still am. Although it’s more stand-up-paddling than surfing these days. And I have to admit that I am one of these so-called best agers, who treated themselves with a motor-cycle.
AW: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance …
ROBERT: Read it, loved it.
Let’s get back to your illustrations of children and youth books. Ages ago you drew a villain in which certain critics supposedly uncovered an antisemitic origin. The book was banned from the market and you had to apologize deeply. What did this episode teach you?
ROBERT: A lot. A lot. First of all, I want to say that I’ve never had, nor do I have the intention of hurting anyone with any of my works. When I thought of this particular villain I thought of my childhood and of fictional characters that scared me. Growing up in Austria that wasn’t – and isn’t – fully denazified, a character formed itself and appeared in my sketchbook with certain antisemitic features. I wasn’t aware of it back then, but it sharpened my awareness. We have to be aware of the darkest chapter in human history. That is essential for the present and future of our society.
AW: You created the cover of »Zeiten & Zeichen«, the latest album from your friend Hubert von Goisern. Track one »Freunde (das Leben ist lebenswert)« is a song about the Austrian operetta-icon Franz Lehár who abandoned his jewish friend and librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda for the sake of his career. Fritz Löhner-Beda was murdered in Auschwitz. You also worked on the video to that song. Certain Austrians weren’t pleased with the deconstruction of an idol. What is your reply to them?
ROBERT: Well, I usually don’t reply to comments and brawls from the dark side of the moon. Other people are way better in doing so, like Hubert. Franz Lehár wasn’t a criminal, just a scared and opportunistic guy who followed the system. Evil needs the absence of conscience to flourish. But let him or her throw the first stone who is without weaknesses.
AW: Which is one line in the song, based on a bible quote. Now we have already a couple of bible quotes in an interview with a man who is more shamanic than Christian.
ROBERT: The spiritual path in any religion leads to the one source, where we connect with all and everything. The worldly path of any religion leads eventually to authoritarian piles of shit.
AW: How much dark side of the moon is in Red Bull?
ROBERT: I would say not more or less than in society itself. A company is a creation and therefore reflects the time in which it is created. As is the government a reflection of its citizens. Where else if not in a democracy are you able to say that the people have the government they deserve? Speaking for myself, I have seen more of the bright side of the moon in all the areas of Red Bull I was engaged in. You rarely meet a Red Bull employee, who doesn’t like to work for the company. Well, that is an achievement.
AW: Have you ever had to leap over your own shadow to fulfill a assignment?
ROBERT: In this world we have to constantly jump over our own shadow. And most of the time we are not even aware of it. The worlds of Red Bull seldom gave me the impression of doing something I didn’t really want. For example, I do agree with people who are saying, motorsports are no longer in keeping with the times. And still: being in Bristol on a NASCAR race track or on a Formula One circuit and watching a piece of my art speeding around in circles feels good.
What didn’t feel good at all was the yodeling bear which I redesigned for a European toy company. A stuffed animal that likes to yodel if you press – I think it was – his belly button. After my initial work was done, I was also responsible for the design control. To my surprise the company sent me to China and there I saw all these Chinese workers putting together yodeling bears under miserable conditions. It didn’t matter to me that I told myself: had I not designed the yodeling bear, the same poor devils would have produced a singing unicorn under the same poor conditions. It didn’t matter. It just felt bad. I didn’t work for this company ever again.
AW: To cheer you up I pronounce the last question of this interview:
What makes a project special?
ROBERT: If I have to give a general answer it would be: the stories. On one hand there is the story that you want to tell the public and on the other hand there are the stories that are told while you’re working at telling this story. If you know what I mean.
AW: I do. Thank you for the interview. Would you like to greet someone?
ROBERT: Yes, my family, all my friends and plumbarbequers. Thank you.
Annotation: The interview was conducted in German. Translation errors can’t be ruled out.