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Tom Burr, Exhibition view , 2007
Secession, Wien

Francesco Vezzoli Interviews Tom Burr

by Francecso Vezzoli

English artist born in 1967, winner of the 2005 Turner Prize, after spending the most part of his career divided between Berlin and Glasgow, Simon Starling currently lives in Copenhagen. His practice reveals a deep interest in design, that the artists uses to analyze the histories and consequences of globalized systems of production, consumption and transport of objects. At the moment, he has a solo show at The Power Plant in Toronto (“Cuttings, ” through May 11) and several group exhibitions throughout Europe. But what we especially care about is his solo show now on display at the Franco Noero gallery in Turin (“Three Birds, Seven Stories, Interpolations and Bifurcations”, until June 28), which inaugurates the new gallery space located in the legendary building called Fetta di Polenta, designed in 1840 by the Italian architect Alessandro Antonelli, the same as the Mole Antonelliana.

I just want to start with a quote from you I read in a text you wrote for Artforum (I think it’s ok to mention other magazines: it’s product placement!): «My work indicates the way in which it is possible to inhabit one’s own history, through the vicarious inhabitations of others’ languages, styles, and identities».
Yes … That sounds like me.

Yes … And I really like what this sentence means. In the past I read a lot about your work, and looked a lot at it, and somehow I was so struck by the choice of people you referenced. Of course, I’m a big fan of Truman Capote, Frank O’Hara, and Chick Austin, and so on. I wanted to start from Chick Austin, who for the most readers is maybe an almost unknown figure. I wanted to ask you why you have chosen him. If I’m not wrong he is one of the references of your last exhibition, am I right?
That’s correct, Francesco, yeah. You know, I did this exhibition at the Sculpture Center right after I had done an exhibition in Wien, at the Secession. When I was there in Wien, I thought a lot about some European figures, from Kurt Weill to Helmut Lang, and so when I came down to the Sculpture Center a few months ago I became very interested in how European Modernism had been filtered and received at the beginning of the twentieth century. And Chick Austin was a charismatic figure, he was the director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut from 1928 or something to the early 40s. He was very pivotal in bringing many Modern figures to America, and it was sort of experimental in Hartford, Connecticut, which was and is a conservative town. It was radical to bring these people and these ideas there, creating a link with New York and what was happening there. But beyond that, he was an incredibly stylish and charismatic figure: he was a museum director, he was an actor, and that kind of multiple or schizophrenic personality that interested me.

Herbert Muschamp wrote a fantastic review about the biography book on Chick Austin, Chick Austin And The Transformation Of The Arts In America—do you know this book?
I must confess I never read the full book, but since I was close to Herbert I remember this review he wrote for ArtForum, and a certain stage of this review in particular, when Herbert is valuing the aspects that you just described, the fact that Austin was acting as a sort of cultural bridge basically. He says that Austin had it too easy: «All he had to do was take a few nice trips to Paris, look around the galleries, and put together a show or two together over a delicious dinner. (How simple it was then to astonish American with the new). Then it occurred to me that in this regard he was pioneering the use of contemporary art, for better or worse, as a medium of international exchange. » I was very fascinated by this aspect because, as you said, there are these two different aspects of him: on the one side I’m fascinated by Chick Austin’s personality … How to define him … He was very social, very gregarious.

Yes, very social, very gregarious. At the same time, his social qualities seem to obscure the fact that he was acting properly as a bridge, he was acting culturally. Do you agree with that?
I certainly agree with you, and I think that the cocktail parties or dinner parties and contemporary music concerts that he put together, were just as important as the exhibitions, in galvanizing a crowd and creating a social scene. He built an extraordinary house in 1929 that Philip Johnson called «the first Post-Modern house in America». The house was made of wood, it was modeled after an Italian Paladian villa and the first floor was decorated entirely in Baroque furnishings. The upstairs however was completely Bauhaus, with Marcel Breuer furniture and white rubber floors. The connection between the Modern and the Baroque was very much his sensibility.

In a way you can say: Baroque plus Modern means Surrealism.
Yes, I think so.

I think that if I look at the art world today, I see that maybe he anticipated in his social attitude the degree of social relations that now surround the fields of our practice.
I think you are probably right. He was out of place and out of time.

Tom Burr, exhibition view, Addict-Love, 2008
courtesy: Photo: Jason Mandella - Courtesy: Sculpture Center, New York © 2008 SculptureCenter and the artist

Yes, but luckily there is people like you that bring back his spirit. It is interesting to see somebody, within the debate of contemporary art, who decides to focus on this type of people. I refer equally to Capote, because these two characters share a dynamic of being a singular misfit person somehow, despite all the social connections…
Well certainly it is similar, and I think it is about figures that perhaps pushed too hard sometimes. With Capote … Well, I started to think about him again a few years ago, (but before the film came out!). I thought about my early exposure to him through tv, seeing him on talk shows, drunk and in a downward spiral. He had published excerpts from Answered Prayers, which was based on the secrets of all the people around him in New York society, and everyone had turned their backs on him, and he sort of self-destructed in a certain way. These kinds of figures that are a little tragic become interesting, because yes, it is about biography in my work, but it is also about the time period in which they function. So it is about Chick Austin, for instance, on one level, but it is also a way to get at a time period, which as you said, is similar to where we are now, it mirrors our present situation.

I didn’t prepare this, but what you just said about Capote … I’m working on something on Dalì right now and I was talking to a Spanish museum curator that I really respect, and I said to her how I was fascinated by Dalì. It was such an interesting confrontation because I was, in a naïf way, praising about the media coverage of Dalì, because he went a lot on TV too, and the kind of visual memories that you have on Capote I may have on Dalì. But since she was Spanish, she remembered all that situation in a more complex way, because for her it embodied a certain attachment to the political situation, the regime etc. But what is so interesting is to see people with great sensitivity and creativity getting compromised at the late state of career. This is what I like about what you have just said, that for you is that moment in their history that fascinated you the most, am I correct?
Absolutely. And also, in a different way, it was what I was thinking about with my references to Kurt Weill. You know, all these people had concerns with the stage, and with reception, and with the popular art forms. With Weill, he started off with Brecht in Berlin where this notion of the popular was radical at the time. And then it all shifted with World War ll, and Weill’s move to the United States and the creation of many extremely popular Broadway musicals. His life and work marks a passage of time, a social passage of the twentieth century in terms of a particular direction, a particular trajectory.

So, I started talking about your work with all your references, so would you like to mention the only one we didn’t talk about, that is Frank O’Hara. Can you tell me more about your fascination about him?
Yes, first of all the exhibition is pretty much about the twentieth century, the one we just exited a few years ago. With Chick Austin becoming the 30s, during the 40s, 50s Frank O’Hara was a central figure to the New York School that was equally concerned with poetry and with painting. O’Hara was both a museum director, or curator, and a writer and that kind of fragmented sensibility and the fact that he was always shifting his focus, became very important to me. “Addict-Love”, the title of my exhibition, is the title of a Frank O’Hara poem and three of the other pieces in the exhibition are taken from O’Hara poem titles too. But more than the content of his particular poems, it’s his style and his gestures and his persona that interested me, and that I wanted to invoke, more than the actual work.

I did a little bit of research in magazines and I found this very interesting piece of writing which is the Proust questionnaire done by Vanity Fair with Jasper Johns. So I would like to finish this interview asking you some of these Proust questions, is that fine?
Yes, and Jasper Johns lives near me actually.

Well I didn’t know that, but this should be included in the interview so people could see I have extrasensorial powers. So, let’s start. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect happiness has to do with not being unhappy, but that’s elusive...

What is your greatest extravagance?
I would say laziness, and maybe shoes.

Tom Burr, Bad Brad Board, 2007
courtesy: Galerie Neu, Berlin

What is your current state of mind?

What is your favorite occupation?
Well it would be my own, it would be making art.

That’s what Johns said. When and where were you the happiest?
I have to say right now. And ‘where’ I guess it would say in my house.

Very good. Which living person do you most despise?
Hhmmm... Too many come to mind.

On what occasion do you lie?
When I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

What is your most treasured possession?
I would say my dog, Dali, if it wouldn’t sound too brutal to call her a possession. Yes, I would say my dog.

Well Jasper was more brutal than you and said: «My refrigerator.»
He must have a nice one!

Yes, I think so. Who are your favourite writers?
Frank O’Hara, Ned Rorem, Virginia Wolff.

Who I your favourite hero of fiction?
Winnie the Pooh.

What is your greatest regret?
Just wasting time.

Who are your heroes in real life?
I would imagine people that are closest to me, my closest friends.

So here it comes the last one: what is your motto?
May I pour you a drink?

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