“I think art is more powerful as a poisoned Kool-Aid”: an interview with Bradford Kessler
We first came across the art of Bradford Kessler with a video he made in 2011 of a “Beetlejuiced” Charles Darwin, reciting one of the stand-ups George Carlin did about the theme of climate change. As strange as it might sound, this video is not the most bizzarre piece in the kaleidoscopic practice of the young Brooklyn-based artist. His artworks often combine politically charged topics with surreal sense of humour.
Kessler has just opened a solo show at ASHES/ASHES in Los Angeles called Anxiety Social Club and is part of Land Lords, a group show at Mon Cherì Gallery in Brussels, comprising works by Michael Assiff and Alessandro Agudio and curated by Domenico De Chirico.
Let’s begin with a general question about the exhibition in Brussels. Reading the press release, the broad topic of Land Lords seems to be this question of power structures, the contemporary version of elite controllers whom get to decide for the mass of “dumbed” users/customers/exploited workers/unrepresented people/etc. Even though this topic comes across a bit generic, the interesting thing in the show is how ironic and funky the response of the artists is, and yours in particular addresses the theme in very different ways. How many of your pieces are specifically made for this exhibition and its topic and how many just come from earlier stages of your production and find themselves to fit in?
I agree Land Lords is a very loaded and generic title and we wanted to play with that. We hired a comic book artist to create the graphic for the show. It depicted three villainous characters in suits. The press release was written as a surreal vignette. Neither the comic graphic or story were meant to exactly mirror the forthcoming works in the show but I was confident that whatever the three of us came up with, it would be suitable for a show called Land Lords. Allessandro, Michael and I had just come off of a group show this past summer at American Medium titled Finally Every Dimension of the Soil so it very much feels as though Land Lords is a sequel with us three as returning characters. Although the press release for FEDS was pretty abstract, it had much more literal information for guidance. Because of this previous dialogue, there wasn’t much discussion about content for Land Lords, I think we all were all on a little bit of materialist esp by then, Allessandro of course lives in Milan but Michael and I frequent each others studios in New York anyway so we usually know what each other are up to. Most of the works were made specifically for this show and we only loosely discussed them with the curator Domenico so I didn’t really know what the show would be until the customs forms had to be done.
In regard to your sculpture “Omen Rental Boy (Ever Reminded and Reminding)” that depicts the iconic Brussels symbol Manneken–Pis covered in cockroaches, is there a specificity that connects it to the city or country hosting the exhibition. Can you tell us a little bit about how it originated? Is there a particular story with local Belgian “landlords”?
I don’t know any specific Belgian landlords but I’m now aware of the Belgian palm oil tycoon Vincent Bolloré who is directly named in Michael Assiff’s grill sculpture “Oreo Roast (Burnt Orangutans for Vincent Ballore”). I can’t say for sure but I think Land Lords was inspired by creating an exhibition in proximity to NATO headquarters. There was something very science fictive in the organization’s enlargement during the breakup of Yugoslavia. I have TV memories of a powerful world police but those memories are mostly covered up by images of the U.S. President’s sperm on a dress.
Prior to the Land Lords show I had read about the legend of the peeing boy who saved Brussels from burning by urinating on the fuse of the enemy’s explosives. On my version, some tourist shop Twin Towers emerge from the back of the boy kind of like little wings and there are plastic casts of NYC cockroaches placed evenly on his body like energy strips. Little boys and peeing are both motifs that have appeared in my work for a long time so this fountain was kind of destined I guess. I had nearly purchased Manneken Pis replica fountains many times before I knew I would do this show in Brussels.
Let’s talks about “Omen Crisis Blattodea”, an interpretation of the so called Charging Bull or Wall Street Bull. In the words of its creator Arturo Di Modica, the original sculpture was supposed to work as this motivational gift to America and its dream in a moment – the financial crisis of 1989 – when the stock market wasn’t doing well. To what extent your disfigured and rescaled version of the bull mocks that kind of optimism? Would you position yourself and your practice as politically engaged artwork, “directly aiming your guns at finance” as Seth Price writes in his last book?
Seth Price has good aim. I’m not sure if art is the right weapon to kill finance though. I have really shaky hands so I just close my eyes and spray paintballs everywhere without looking at the target. I suffer from eternal teen angst so I’m comfortable positioning myself within what Zizek calls ‘abstract discontent’. I think art is more powerful as a poisoned Kool-Aid. In reality though I think it’s not your opponents that drink it but your supporters.
I have to admit that Wall Street Bull sculpture happened really fast and last minute. I was walking in Chinatown the night before my flight to Brussels shopping for a hat and I saw the sculpture of the bull in a tourist gift shop, I immediately knew I had to have it for Land Lords so I bargained to a good price, took the sculpture to Ivana Basic’s studio in Greenpoint and together we molded and cast the legs then used epoxy resin to fuse the extra set of legs into the body so that it would read like a scorpion or cockroach or some kind of insect. We had four hands so it went really smooth and we finished by 3am. I brought it to Brussels in my suitcase. Sorry I’m not really answering your question directly, I’d rather talk about it formally but have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They’re very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect.
In this comment on powers, we could say that none is greater than death, which is a somewhat worn out and overly represented subject in art history. Though your “Scythes” – broken Grim Reaper’s scythes turned into gymnastics tools with inoffensive rubber spikes and studs – propose a very original twist. What is the position of death in today’s conflicted society? Has it been capitalised and transformed in consumer product like your artworks suggest? Or is it still out of control and intimidating us regardless of where we stand in this societal struggle?
Is death worn out? I like the idea of death being worn out so it can’t catch us. I sometimes believe if you can laugh at death then you’ve won at life but then I come across people who are in the middle of dealing with death and the laughing is no longer funny. It’s just extremely insensitive and you realize that you are just some arrogant jerk who calls himself an artist and has no grasp of reality. I wish everyone to live as long and healthy as possible but thank god for death. Look how terrible we are to each other as a whole even with this imminent doom creeping up on us. Maybe these works are anti-after life and maybe that’s the root of many world conflicts?
Whose are those female names on the scythes handles?
The names on the scythes are both of my late grandmothers Thelma and Ruth. There is a special relationship that you share with your grandmother that is not experienced with anybody else in this world. At least from my POV, it’s like mother plus friend plus stranger because they experienced so much life without you in their reality. They look at you with this amazement because you were created by this creature that they created. The gene is out of their hands now; the prototype has prototyped. The scythes are of course an iconic symbol of forthcoming death but I was also interested in this farm tool that doubled as a medieval weapon. Since death is over represented as you say, I wonder if even the experience of real death feels passe’. Like you see the light at the end of the tunnel inviting you in and your last conscious thought is “oh please this is so kitsch”. Fade to black.
Some of the characters of your engraved drawings (IE “New Icon (Ms. Anti-Pro II)”) appear as irreverent and exotic gods, desacralised not only because of their behaviour (they pee and laugh at us) but through the fact that they survive in cut-out and quirkily shaped panels. What’s your interpretation of those characters?
Those characters haunt me. Ms. Anti-Pro I’ve seen around lingering around the bushes outside my parent’s house always grinning and pissing on everything. I’m still not sure how I feel about her, a lot of mixed emotions. There’s a family, not just her. They really just don’t give a shit about anything especially human social norms. I think they are the spirits of a known ancient bacteria that’s planning an uprising.
Looking at your past artwork, the variety of styles, techniques, topics, imageries, inspirations is so broad that trying to inscribe all of them in a short summary or with a series of fixed sentences seems a little irrelevant. We’d rather ask you about your creation process, if it’s driven by specific questions that find an answer in the artworks and therefore conclude a chapter, or if it’s rather a sort of shifting personal identity and authorship that leads to different productions?
I think it could all be wrapped up in a short summary but I wouldn’t particularly care to see that happen. I did it in about 30 pages once. It’s always shifting but I’ve found that the questions are nearly the same after over a decade of making art that even had questions in them. I don’t really care about questions and answers, I look for stuff that moves me, I care about fantasy. I read a lot of stuff that influences me but there is so much it becomes something else.
What about the spectators response to the pieces? Can it decide what follows in your studio?
The spectators response is always correct just like the customers always right, but they definitely don’t decide what comes next for me, unless we talk at length about something interesting then it probably does.
You lived long periods of your life in Asia, especially China. What does it mean to work in a context where art has to respond to different political challenges? Do you think there is some sort of obligation for the Western artist to adapt for the expectation of a very different audience?
There are involuntary reflexes to all my life experiences in the work but mainly from my upbringing in small town Bible belt America. My next show Anxiety Social Club in Los Angeles is kind of a remake of Lord of the Flies in the form of an exhibition. This show has more influences from my years in Asia. While in China, I worked for a politically charged artist during the country’s hyper-Olympic speed transform to modernity so the conversations were there but I never thought it was a good idea or felt any obligation to directly address politics as I’ve vaguely done in some of my recent work. I think I was making work about the old worn out subject of death back then too just in a different place. Walking around Beijing at night and climbing around half destroyed buildings during the period of 24 hour construction was a very memorable experience. Cranes would suddenly rise out of dark pits of rubble and there was this urgent feeling you had to hide from their lights. It was a very apocalyptic setting which allowed for a smooth suspension of disbelief. One could easily imagine themselves in the world of Terminator.
Do you ever think about moving back there?
I did go back to Beijing one summer and I would definitely consider moving to Japan or China again if the timing was right. Those are two of the best cuisines in the world.
October 5, 2015