WHEN he was a kid, Jason Rhoades found gold in his property while digging around with a shovel. This episode, that he describes as a ‘discovery glitch myth’, undoubtedly left a deep mark on his life, and is probably the key to read most of his work from. Just think of what a primal experience finding a little glimpse of gold in nature is and you realise why Rhoades is an artist that hunts 500 euphemisms for the word ‘pussy’, brings a live tuna to Mecca, and buys and displays a catalogue of 27 eight-count Ivory Snow PeaRoeFoam boxes all at once. The inflammatory combination of sex, religion, food and fetishism behind Rhoades’ gigantic installations can be summarised with the struggle of researching and the pleasure of discovery – two acts of faith that he considers mandatory, not only in his work but in his ideal audience too. In Rhoades’ view, visiting an exhibition should be a bit like taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rome or Mecca, and the latter option – obviously less familiar to a Western audience – was the perfect subject for a trilogy that started in New York at David Zwirner in 2003, continued in St. Gallen at the Sammlung Hauser & Wirth (2004) and that finally landed in London last year on the occasion of the ‘Black Pussy’ exhibition at the London Hauser & Wirth gallery.
MICHELE ROBECCHI: What’s the connection between the three pieces?
JASON RHOADES: The Meccatuna (2003) piece in New York started out as a very simple idea to take a live tuna on a pilgrimage to Mecca. I tried to figure out how to do it, if it was possible or not, and it turned out it was hard. To keep the tuna alive, you have to keep it swimming. But I thought it would have been very beautiful to take a tuna to Mecca. And then it went to Sushi Tuna, and that was also hard. Then it turned into Canned Tuna. That’s the one I achieved for the show in New York. Meccatuna was a really simple thing – I thought it was a word that meant ‘everything’, like the whole shebang, the whole kit n’ kaboodle, the whole Meccatuna. It turned out that it wasn’t really a word yet. But then I still tried to push through and have it achieve its wordliness. It comes from this idea of a pilgrimage of going to see something, like in Egypt and Morocco where they paint your trip to the Kaaba on the side of your house or something. There’s that folk art image of that thing. Then I figured out I couldn’t go there because I’m not Muslim. So that pushed me even more – I was even more interested. My Medina was this pussy mosque that we built in St. Gallen. It’s beautiful. And that was just a very simple idea to build the pussy mosque, something I thought should be done. You know I collect these pussy words from all parts of the world in English and whatever, Spanish, and we have over 3,500 now that we will work from – linguistically harvesting these things. They have to be proven somehow. That’s just a very simple relationship between – it’s a strange thing, what euphemism, analogies, second word for something. Like in this cockney rhyming one – Sigourney Weaver = beaver. I like the way it interacts with us socially and sexually and intimately and yet kind of worldly. It places us in the world and it places us with language where we’re situated. Anyway, I just found it amazingly interesting as something to collect. Do you collect them?
MR: Um, no.
JR: Not yet. Maybe you will.
MR: Maybe. I’ve only collected empty cans so far.
JR: Really? I’d been interested in that. Do you want to sell your collection of empty cans? How many cans have you got?
MR: Thousands, I think.
JR: Like stacked, or wrapped in boxes? Where are they now?
MR: They’re in boxes at my mother’s house now. It was a very Warholian thing – collecting things, put them in a box and move on. Did you collect something when you were a child?
JR: Yes, various things, but I’m not a big pack rat. I don’t like to keep them. I like stuff that I can have for a while.
MR: You clearly enjoy the search though.
JR: Yes, it’s all about searching.
MR: Your interest in Islamic culture nowadays must bring a lot of attention, given the current political situation.
JR: Yes, it’s good advertising. I started off fascinated with it because we don’t know about it. It’s not really taught and it’s not really clear. So I think my job as an artist is just to pull back the skin of something and expose parts of it. Not in a weird, aggressive way. Trying to be sensitive, but having no morals or no fundamentalism about it. I was fascinated by this Kaaba forever as a piece of art – I thought it was a sculpture. It’s a great sculpture from Abraham and the Pagan idolatry. Even in Islam, this big black cube, you go around it.
MR: It’s a challenging combination of different religious items.
JR: Yes. Mohammed adapted a lot of early elements, took it to serve the purpose of his trip.
MR: The Santa Sophia mosque in Istanbul presents a similar mix of Christian iconography and Muslim elements.
JR: Yes. My Medina was kind of based on that a bit. I’d been to several mosques in Egypt and of course in Turkey. I didn’t like this feeling that you get when you go into it, this holy place with no central element like Christianity. I think it’s bad if you have to look in one direction. They do look in the direction of Mecca but it’s not centrally around one cross thing. It’s just a room. The place where I did the pussy mosque in St. Gallen is big, there are no squares. It’s a continuous room. We’re trying to build that now in the desert. That’s My Medina in pursuit of my hermitage. That was all about trying to build this private museum for myself.
MR: So, you’ve been approaching these religious/laic issues as a man of faith?
JR: No, I’m a man of no faith.
MR: Well, you have faith in art otherwise you wouldn’t be an artist.
JR: Yes, but art is slippery, that’s why I like it. It’s a weird one that can constantly change, disappear. Art to me is just a pursuit of something. That’s all. I don’t like moral fundamentalism. In this idea of the art world there’s always this morality – and of course in the religious world – but in the art world too we have it.
MR: But if you keep aside the practical application of religion and just focus on the pure concept, religion too is the pursuit of something.
JR: But art is a fucked-up job. In a way you have to succeed, and to do that you have to be mediocre. You can’t be extreme.
MR: Really? That’s interesting because a piece of criticism you often hear about contemporary art is that it’s all about being extreme.
JR: No. You have to be able to. I can’t piss on the floor here. I have to have some kind of control to weave my way through it. With my work it needs to be bigger than me to control me. ‘It just needs to be more fucked up than me’. It’s a strange thing. When I tell someone how to do something, I often say ‘just make it a little more fucked up’. Then I say they’re thinking too much. Just do it like if you need to get it done. That’s how some weird spiritual thing happens – it’s like a fate or a faith. Within this piece here, it’s a strange way of working. That’s what the piece is about. Grabbing something, dragging it across, dragging it somewhere else. This mobility of things. This weird story of Jean-Michel Basquiat dragging the paintbrush across paint as he’s going to do some drugs or to the bathroom or whatever. This activity is totally natural to his environment. What’s interesting about Basquiat too is that the microscope was so incredibly focused on it and I really liked the way people look at it and think of him as charismatic and they rethink his history. They encapsulate these stories, that’s all part of what it is that art is, to me. I don’t necessarily like Basquiat’s paintings but I do like some part of it very much.
MR: When I saw your work at the Friedrich C. Flick Collection in Berlin, the first thing that came to my mind was how it worked technically. When you sell a work like that is there a specific map of how to remake it?
JR: That one was the haemorrhoidal installation. That was meant to be like a haemorrhoid on your asshole, it’s like round and there’s a blood clot thing and it makes a little fatty thing on the sphincter part. It was designed to be an asshole with little bumps on it. It was made up of five very distinct pieces that Flick had acquired over the period of a relationship we had, which was quite a long time.
MR: Where did you originally show that piece?
JR: It was shown at different points. It’s been the creation myth, which was one piece and various versions of the piece. It was five pieces. I talked with Flick about every piece he had got and decided to put them together to make one big work out of that. We have maps for individual pieces and we have maps for the entire thing – these big manuals. They will probably be the only thing that is actually left of my work, details of this and that.
MR: So it’s not about doing it the same way twice?
JR: No, it’s not about that. If you look at somebody who taught us how to see then you can interpret that, you can do that. Somebody can almost do the Flick installation without me now. I mean, not that they are these skilled people, but if you know the ways that I work then you can do it. It’s not about me anymore. It’s this thing that we put together and it’s not so much about preserving it in its original intention either. It’s like you don’t know what the fuck we are making or how it will be interpreted, you don’t know that over time. It should be preserved somehow in its intention, but not in its physical form? Maybe, maybe not – I don’t know. I think at the levels we have now, at least there is a little bit of infrastructure around it because there’s so much money involved. The minute money slips away it becomes your cans collection. What do you do with it? It’s at your mother’s house, when that situation changes, do you go and get it?
And in what form do you pull out the four cans that you like? Now, you’re just selling it on eBay, it’s simple.
MR: How about The Snowball (1999), the work you did with Peter Bonde at the Danish Pavilion during the 48th Venice Biennale?
JR: Through it I was able to experiment in certain things. It started as a bar conversation, ‘Oh Jason, let’s do something with race cars and burning rubber and stuff’ and I’m like ‘Yeah yeah, whatever. If you find a way to do it then maybe I’ll do it’ and in a way he called my bluff and came up with the thing. Then we had to do it and there were some amazing things that went along with it but I don’t collaborate well.
MR: Well, with Paul [McCarthy] you do.
JR: Well, with Paul of course, because it’s a totally different level of relationship. With Peter Bonde there wasn’t any basis to be connected to one another. Our interests were so far apart and so different in what we wanted from the thing. Eventually it worked out pretty well though. I like parts of it, but for me when I walk away from an exhibition, when I’m on the plane or in the cab leaving the town, that’s what makes a work of art for me. Whether it was perfect, whether it was this life changing thing that had happened. The problem with Venice is that I don’t remember anything from about a week before the opening. I remember the event in LA, that was pure for me but this video installation of the stuff was so much not it.
MR: Yes, when I saw the show I thought ‘I wish I was there instead’, although I think the installation was pretty good.
JR: It was fucked up. It was good there, in the desert. I think for somebody coming in you might get this feeling and this energy or something but compared to what it was, it wasn’t even more pure, it’s just that was something I was interested in. When you do a show or you work with somebody it’s like you are committed to them, you’re married to them. With Peter Bonde it was a one
night stand with somebody that I was really not attracted to, I was just too drunk
to think about it and too embarrassed when I woke up in the morning. Or maybe I didn’t wake up in the morning, maybe I slipped out in the middle of the night. It’s that feeling, you know? And Peter, he’s an interesting artist, he’s good. But culturally I think we just don’t have that much in common.
MR: How did your collaboration with Paul McCarthy start?
JR: I was a student of Paul. I was living in New York and I was thinking about this graduate school idea or going back, because I was moving paintings around New York at the end of the 80s and it was this amazing time when you saw the art world shrinking again. I remember when I was at the Art Institute in San Francisco, I was a security guard and I would go to this library and read these high performance articles. I don’t know how I started to find them but what I really liked was that they pushed the limit; they pushed the audience out in a way. It wasn’t just embracing or glorifying or doing those things and there was a very formal attitude to them, they were very controlled in how they were produced and very emotional, just things that I like to come together. So I knew that Paul was teaching at UCLA so that’s where I wanted to go, then I was a student, then kind of did my own thing. Paul never treated anybody lower than him or higher than him. He had incredible respect and if you did a good work it was a good work and it was the same level as him. Of course we all get jealous but it was not overpowering, he knew where he stood and he respects art and artists. After a while, when I had found my own feet, we started to do some stuff together just because we had an interest. It wasn’t forced, it was just natural.
MR: Yes, I can tell.
JR: It also runs its course too. You have that pure time together and it’s good and it shouldn’t be forced from the outside. I hate when people try to put two people together. But Paul is great.
MR: Your installations sometimes can be very overwhelming.
JR: They’re not for everybody, for sure. I think people should be overwhelmed. I think it should shut you down; it should make you give up something. I think you should come to a work of art and be able to offer it something and be able to stand there with it and just say ‘yeah, I’m prostrating myself, I’m giving in to you.’ Not that it is overpowering, too much stuff or whatever. That is for me, I like to forget, it’s a blur, it’s crazy. But you should be able to simply see it for what it is in your personal idea about it. You should be able to indulge in the camel stool, you had one as a kid? Or looking at a Turner painting at the museum here. For me it’s like I look at these Turner paintings and the most amazing thing is having a beautiful person standing in front of it and you’re looking at them in relation to the painting. That I love, beautiful legs or fashion or whatever, and they are giving themselves up and you’re there too, to witness this thing. That’s a part of it that is beautiful. I think you should only go to see one work of art at a time, like this idea of the pilgrimage, at one point in your life you should just go to see one work of art but don’t try and turn it into a tourism of ancient sites. That is not what it is.
MR: You often talk about the protection of culture as a value to defend from the claws of mass tourism – can you elaborate?
JR: If you make something and it somehow fits into a context – a museum, a person’s house – as an artist my job is to protect culture and to figure out a way to protect culture.
MR: Well, sometimes there is a fine line between protection and repression. ‘Protection of Culture’ can be a tricky concept.
JR: Well, I think the museums that exist today are totally repressive. The artist is struggling with that. It’s constantly at battle.
MR: You mean because they want the artist to fit into a specific pattern?
JR: It’s become a public tourism thing. Art is not necessarily for the public.
MR: Yet they think they are protecting culture too in their own way – by bringing it to a broader audience.
JR: What they’re trying to do is to get people in the door to pay for a secondary social life for them. A lot of directors and curators just protect themselves, their lives, their families. That’s true of all of us. But it’s not necessarily their job. If their name goes first and everything else goes after, usually you can tell who they’re looking out for.
MR: The ‘Dionysiac’ exhibition at the Centre Pompidou last autumn was an attempt to individuate a common trait between artists whose work has a strong, spectacular impact. Didn’t you have the impression that the power of these individual works was somehow diminished by their being presented altogether?
JR: That’s another problem. When I go to do a group show, which I don’t like to do at all, I don’t usually look at anything else. I try not to see the show – I wander through it a couple of times. Of course it’s diminished. I don’t like walking through these rooms. It’s possible that in Paris the works were all on the same tone, but I think some things were more interesting than other things in part. I don’t know, I actually never really saw it as a show. I saw the Sheep Plug (2004) from Iceland and them doing it there and now what we’re doing is we took half of it to this castle in Stuttgart and the other half is coming to LA. I have a house in a place called Sheep Hole and it has a bomb shelter underneath the house. So we’re going to bring half of the Sheep Plugs there and put them into this weird, fucked-up Vietnam veteran bomb shelter that this guy dug by hand after 9/11.
MR: Speaking of your house, how’s the swimming pool going?
JR: Oh, the penis pool. I always run into problems, it’s still not there. I get involved with these people to try and build it all the time. I say ‘it’s a penis pool’, and they’re like ‘oh, great’ and whatever, but for some reason they’ll think it’s not real or something and they say ‘oh, we can’t do that’.
MR: Why do they say they can’t do it? You think they have a problem with it?
JR: I don’t know. I’m actually a little guilty of it too. To come up with a penis shaped pool with this asshole jacuzzi, the idea keeps evolving too, so I’m also a problem. I would like to have a collaborator that would stop it and deal with it. I can’t find the right shape – should it be the shape of my penis, should it be the shape of your penis. There are so many different things, like pussies, there’s so many different pussies in the world. Norman Rosenthal was here the other day with the director and he said ‘oh, it would be really great if you came in and did a talk with the artists’ and he says ‘we have this beautiful life drawing. It’s perfect, let’s do a pussy drawing class’ and it would be really nice because it’s great to have people draw pussies or penises out of their heads, it’s really crazy. I was interested, with the penis pool, like the one written on the wall of the bathroom, this quick drawing. So with the penis pool it goes back and forth.
MR: It reminds me of art school, when they ask you to draw nude models for the first time. All of a sudden you’re called to react to a naked human body in a completely different way. Did you have to do that?
JR: Yes, that was a big feel. I went to a very classical art school in a way. We had one guy that was really a teacher and we had this belly-dancing model that was very nice too. I was pretty good at it, not in a classical form or whatever, but I had all the right moves and stuff. It was incredible. I was like 18 years old and from a kind of semi-conservative background. I was pretty wild and then you’re supposed to take this thing seriously, the form of the body is this thing, you’re not supposed to react to it in a certain way. It’s a very strange thing. I always considered this point when they would draw not the figures but the plastic models, the plaster models. And then this stage when Abstract Impressionists threw the models out of the art schools. It’s like this expressionistic thing, it’s like there’s no more of this plastic form, we need emotion, throw out the plaster casts, that whole thing.