By Max Olijnyk
On the eve of travelling from his home in Germany to Australia for the opening of his show Restless at Sydney’s Pass~Port Gallery, I spoke to artist and skateboarder Richard ‘French’ Sayer about the tumultuous past six months that informed the exhibition.
MAX: SO WHERE ARE YOU IN GERMANY, EXACTLY? BERLIN? FRENCH: No. That’s what all Australians and Americans say. It’s like if you live in Australia you must live in Sydney. I’m in Nuremberg, which is three hours by fast train south of Berlin, or six hours’ drive. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Munich and an hour and a half from the Czech border in the other direction; it’s deep Germany.
WHAT’S IT LIKE THERE? It’s a weird place. Nuremberg’s famous for Nazi war trials, and the Nazis are from here; this was their stronghold. So it’s very very rightwing and conservative. The only reason Nuremberg probably still exists is because of Siemens (the electrical company), adidas and Puma. …HENCE WHY YOU ARE THERE. Yeah, because Chrissie (Abbot , French’s wife) works for adidas.
WOW, THAT SOUNDS QUITE INTERESTING-KIND OF THE PERFECT PLACE FOR YOU TO WALK AROUND BEING AMUSED/ANNOYED AT EVERYTHING. I tell you what: I find everything really amusing. Adidas is like a weird cult. So if you don’t work at adidas but your wife does, and you go to a place where all the adidas people hang out, the first thing they do is look at your feet, and of course I always wear Vans. It’s fucking weird. People can’t work it out if you’re not forthcoming, like: “Do you work at adidas?” “No.” “Do you work at Siemens?” “No.” “Oh, so you’re… visiting?” “No.” And then they’re just like, “What?” The other thing is I don’t really have any English friends here because I kind of decided that I wasn’t doing that. It can be difficult because my German’s still not good enough that I can survive on a conversation level, but I’ve been in and out of hospital for the past six months, so my hospital level German has improved massively
RIGHT, SO YOU CAN SAY, “MY ARM IS FUCKED,” OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
Yeah, mein hangerling ist kaput! Yeah, that works. So it gets to the point where I can go to the shop or the post office and ask questions, but if someone asks you something that isn’t on the script, you’re fucked. I’m going for full-time German lessons at the start of next year. I wasn’t bothered about it before, but after the hospital and as I think we’re staying here for a while, I need to learn. I need to sort my fucking life out. I’ve been saying that for 20 years!
CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED WITH YOUR ARM? IT’S QUITE A PROFOUND THING YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH.
These guys I skate with wanted to skate this huge bowl in Munich, which is pretty gnarly, then on the way home we stopped at this little kind of DIY park by the airport and I went to ollie down the Euro gap. I don’t know what happened, if I landed in the crack or I just got wheelbite, but I was going really fast and hung up. I fell from the top of the bank to the bottom. I didn’t realise I’d broken my arm. I rolled over and sat up, and I remember my friend Harry was like, “it’s okay, it’s okay.” I looked down and my hand was bent round so my palm was against the inside of my arm and the radius bone had come out through the top of the skin.
It had scraped off against the concrete. It didn’t actually hurt, but it was bleeding like fuck and that’s what scared me; but luckily, Harry was pretty quick thinking. He took his shirt off and wrapped it round the inside of my elbow and tied it really tight to stop the blood from going from my hand. He sat behind me like a chair and put my arm over his knee, and put his other hand against my face and wouldn’t let me look at my arm. He just kept telling me, “You’re alright, you’re alright,” and I could hear my other friend Shannon calling the ambulance. The fire brigade from the airport showed up first and they were like, “Yeah, we don’t really deal with injuries that bad.” So the ambulance showed up and I got really lucky because the hospital is close to the Alps so they’re used to dealing with breaks from people skiing and snowboarding. So the woman who attended the scene was actually the anesthesiologist for the hospital, her name was Connie and she said, “Look, I’m going to give you something and you’re not going to remember anything.” They just put me to sleep in the skatepark. I woke up while they were operating on me. I could feel the grinding of the bone as they were screwing the cage into my arm. I freaked out and tried to move, then they gassed me and put me back to sleep. Then I woke up thinking I was either going to throw up or piss myself. And that’s when this problem with not being able to speak German started, because I rang for the nurse and he didn’t speak any English.
I pointed at my mouth and said to him, “I’m going to throw up; I’m going to chuck,” so he gave me this pot and I puked up loads. Then immediately I was like, I gotta piss. So I said, “Ich has to piss,” and the guy’s like, “what?” and I’m like, “Ich muss piss!”
So he gives me this fucking bottle thing and I’ve got a cage on my arm which I can’t really deal with, there’s blood coming out of my elbow still, I’ve got a drip coming out of my arm I guess for the morphine and another one out of the other arm, and I’m lying down.
So I tried to piss lying down and I can’t do it. I ring the bell again and I’m like “Ich muss piss,” and the guy’s like, “Yeah yeah, just piss.” So I’m like right, fuck it, and start to stand up. The nurse started to freak out. As I stood up, I didn’t realise that they’d cut all my clothes off and the shirt thing they’d put on me was only laid across me. So I stand up, right, and I’m in a room with five other people, and the shirt drops down and I’m completely naked. And then I just start involuntarily pissing. So the nurse sticks my cock in the end of the bottle and I started laughing, like really laughing. He doesn’t think it’s funny at all, at which point I realise I’m still wearing my hat. They must have left my cap on me throughout the whole ordeal.
THAT’S A GOOD DETAIL.
I’m looking at the bottle then the nurse, and the bottle’s filling up. He’s like, “oh shit,” and he gets me to hold it and he runs off to get another bottle. And you know that thing they do in pubs where they switch the pint glass under the tap? He does that with my dick! I’m just laughing and he’s still not finding it funny at all. Eventually I filled up one and a half of those bottles, which I think is like three and a half litres or something ridiculous. As I handed him the second bottle, I was like, “Ahh, vielen dank,” and he replied, “ah, kein problem.” Then he helped me back into bed.
Well, I can understand why you’d want to take intensive German lessons after that experience. So you had the one major operation straight away, and what did they do exactly?
They put my arm back together and they put a metal plate with screws in the ulnar that held my hand together. Then they put a wire through the inside of my radius up through to my hand, so ideally it was meant to grow back together.
AND THIS IS YOUR DRAWING ARM.
Yeah. So I went to a trauma surgeon every week afterwards, a specialist doctor. They’d give me an x-ray and tell me what was going on, and I had physio. The radius wasn’t healing that well, but they thought it would be fine as long as I didn’t put any pressure on it. Then I got this big lump on the inside of my arm, and it felt like it moved. It had all these dimples in it.
HOW BIG DID IT GET?
About the size of a golf ball. I googled it and there are all types of cysts you can get after an operation, so I wasn’t that worried. But when I went back to the doctor he was like, “This isn’t right,” so he x-rayed it and told me my arm was broken again and the screws had snapped.
He was telling me I had to find a surgeon to fix it, but he couldn’t tell me where because of the way the private insurance system is there, and I was like, “Listen mate, I’ve got a broken arm here. Tell me where to go to get it fixed.” What I ended up doing was talking to my friend Chris Pfanner, who rides for Anti Hero. He also lives in Nuremberg, and he told me to go to this doctor who fixed his broken leg. I took all my x-rays down there and they literally got me in for an operation two days later.
AMAZING. SO WHAT HAD HAPPENED?
When they took it apart they realised the radius had been growing faster than the ulnar, so it had pushed my hand up and out. So it was actually my body that had broken the screws. They decided to bolt the radius back together with plates on either side, and six screws through so it looks like a crocodile. They pushed the ulnar back together, then took a piece of prosthetic bone and put it in between the other two and bolted it so it will grow together. I’ve had physio to make sure that the scar doesn’t attach itself to the bone, which is literally like a very nice young lady who gives me a Chinese burn on my scar for half an hour. The last one I had, which was my last one ever so she made it worthwhile, actually made my eyes water. It feels like when you pull a scab off, but they’re doing it over a scar.
FOR HALF AN HOUR.
WERE YOU REALLY KEEN ON THE REHAB, BEING THAT IT WAS TO HELP YOU GET BACK DRAWING AND SKATING?
The worst thing was I couldn’t go running because it would jar it. And I couldn’t ride a bike, and I couldn’t go swimming because it would push against the screws. So until literally yesterday when I got the all clear, I haven’t been able to do anything.
THAT’S THE WORST,ESPECIALLY FOR YOUR MENTAL STATE.
I broke it on the seventh of July, and then on the twelfth of November they told me I can go skateboarding and ride a bike. It started snowing when I walked outside the doctors yesterday. It’s raining today. That’s another great thing about going to Australia for two months.
SO IS THAT WHY YOU’RE DOING A SHOW IN SYDNEY?
Nah, that’s just ’cos Trent (Evans, Pass~Port) offered me one and I was stoked. (Laughter) No, Trent always said if he ever opened a gallery he’d love me to have a show, and I really like doing shows in Australia. With this show, the thing that made it happen was that after my show in New Image in LA, Vans USA said if I ever wanted to do stuff I just needed to write a proposal and ask them. If I had to pay for the flights and the framing myself, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Then Shawn at Flipside was like Carhartt can help out too. So if I sell something, I might make some money out of it. I guess it’s why so many bands can’t come to Australia; once I pay for my flight, you’re already a thousand Euros down before you’ve even started.
YEAH, EVEN THOUGH THERE’S A REALLY COOL ART SCENE IN AUSTRALIA, IT CAN BE QUITE ALIENATING TO PEOPLE FROM OTHER COUNTRIES. IT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE ECONOMICALLY UNLESS YOU HAVE SUPPORT.
Yeah and I’m still at a weird stage, which I don’t know if I’ll ever leave. My work isn’t comic book work, it’s not gallery work, it’s not museum work; it’s this weird in-between thing. The way I have to do it is I make a zine, I make some prints and other products, and then people who come to the show and like my work but don’t have a thousand dollars to spend, they can still buy something. That’s another thing that works well with doing it with Trent and those guys at Pass~Port – they’re going to make some shirts and patches, and I’ve made a zine printed by Dion (Waterman, Shout Out Loud)in Melbourne, which is great.
OH, BLESS HIM.
In terms of carbon footprint, everything I’m doing for the show in terms of products is made in Australia, which is pretty cool. I don’t know if I could do that in Germany; I’d have to get stuff made in China to make it worthwhile.
HOW’S YOU’RE INJURY AFFECTED THE WORK YOU MAKE?
It’s really weird how things happen. Before all this, I felt a bit stuck – a bit pigeonholed. People just wanted to see the black and white ink drawings, the skulls. So when I couldn’t do it like that, because of the pressure it put on my arm, I tried painting with a brush, or used this weird airbrush I’ve had sitting around for five years. It’s been really nice to do things like that. When I messaged Trent and said I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do the Pass~Port show because I’d broken my arm. His answer was: “Do it all with your fucking left hand”.
So everything that’s in the show has either been drawn with my left hand or with my broken arm. It’s meant that I’ve had to loosen up quite a lot with the way I draw. I think it’s been really good for me because it’s put me out of my comfort zone and at the same time it’s made me work out what I was going to do if I lost that skill. And not being able to skate has been really weird, considering I skate every day.
SO PERHAPS THE SHOW IS NOT DIRECTLY ABOUT YOUR ARM, BUT IT ALSO KIND OF IS?
Yeah, I think it’s become about it. The zine has all the x-rays in it, with a picture of the Terminator’s arm.
YOU ARE TERMINATOR.
Did you ever get a thing to take with you in case the metal inside you sets off the scanner at airports?
NO, BUT I ALWAYS WORRY ABOUT IT.
Well, apparently mine is going to set it off. They’ve given me this passport thing, it’s all in German but it has a stamp from the hospital with instructions to call them with any questions. I’m just hoping it doesn’t go off, because I really don’t need that shit.
RESTLESS opens Friday 29th November at PASS-PORT STORE & GALLERY 16 Oxford Sq, Darlinghurst, Sydney Australia