My mother is very secretive about her age. As her 40th birthday approached, she made me promise to keep it a secret. I was 8 or 9. When the day came I was bursting to tell someone, I remember going to the park but there was no one to tell except the man in the rain mac who used to hang around watching the kids play. I told him. By dinnertime this guy had turned up on our doorstep with a bunch of flowers for my mum. She was furious about it. Kids are always told not to talk to strangers, but I can’t help thinking that if I didn’t talk so much as a child, I’d probably be out of a job. Nowadays, talking to strangers is what I do for a living.
You initially studied architecture, then you went to Frankfurt to attend the Staedelschule and “become” an artist. What do you remember of this passage and of your final investiture as an artist?
At one Rundgang [student open studios, n.d.r.] I overheard some students commenting on my work saying, bizarrely, that it was the work of an architect, not a “real” artist. I was confused, mostly because the piece involved spurting milk and stacks of canned sausages, but it was this incident that made me realize that what we do as artists is almost always read against our biographies, and that the only way I could take control of this would be to use my biography as the material for my work. I thought, “Well, they’ve decided that I’m an architect, I’d better design them a building”, so I began working on The Museum of Incest – a fictional architectural complex, pieced together almost entirely from structures that my father, also an architect, had built in Japan. I presented the work first as a lecture which begins as a Powerpoint “guided tour” through the building and ends up as a wildly personal portrait of a father-son relationship. Many have said it before: “If you don’t write your own history, someone else will – to suit them...” Incidentally, after I made my first performance of The Incest Museum I was finally “accepted” by my peers as an artist.
Architecture remains a crucial element in your works. You developed a very personal idea of it that you talk about as “autobiographical architecture”. How much does the fact that your father was an architect himself, influence your work?
My father lived on the other side of the world. He was terrible on the telephone, and an even worse letter writer. As he was an architect, “seeing Dad” generally involved going to scrap yards to buy door handles or reclaimed tiles when he came to visit us in England. This and similar activities is how we learned to relate to each other, and so architecture became the keystone to my paternal relationship. Accordingly, architecture presents itself as something deeply personal in my work, for example, as a psycho-sexual portrait in The Incest Museum, or in the case of my erotic novel, Welcome to the Hotel Munber, as architectural fetishism, where the protagonist becomes erotically obsessed with a hotel building.
courtesy: Photo: Anders Suneberg.
What is the Hotel Munber? Why did you start writing erotic stories set in that place?
The Hotel Munber was a touristy hotel in Catalunya that my parents owned and ran in the 70’s during the last years of the Franco dictatorship. My parents told endless tales of violence and oppression, set against a backdrop of sangria and flamenco. I always imagined it like a novel, the characters, the setting – it was exotic and vibrant to me. When I started to seriously think about what kind of book I could write, I placed myself in that time, I tried to imagine how a gay, mixed-race young man would feel about life in a homogenously white dictatorship. I looked for authors who were writing erotica from Franco Catalunya and I found almost nothing for the obvious reason that it was censored to oblivion. It was then I knew that the novel I wanted to write was an explicit erotic story set in the Hotel Munber, a story that could never have been published at that time. Well, then came the hard part – as soon as I started to write I got frustrated and confused because on the one hand I had this unique political story that I felt an urgency and responsibility to tell and on the other hand I would have to use and “abuse” my parents’ personal life story to do so. It’s this conflict that drove the project underground for some years, where I would only print sections of the erotic novel secretly in gay porn magazines, using my father’s name as a pseudonym.
In Welcome to the Hotel Munber, sexuality and desire are set in contrast to the repressive authoritarian system. Conflict and oppression seem to be important themes in your practice...
This is explored in the novel through the main character – my father – who is so oppressed by Franco’s intolerance of gays that he is forced to find other solutions to satisfy himself, sexually. This solution comes in the form of “substitution”, a process where he begins to use objects that more or less represent the men he is lusting after, in erotic rituals. Gradually the architecture of the entire hotel building becomes erotically charged, it becomes clear that he has created his very own mini-dictatorship. This is intended to mirror Franco’s obscene control over the nation, making the victim now the perpetrator, the repressed the oppressor. History repeats itself...
As for sexuality, well, I tend to confront absurdly large themes in my work as a kind of challenge to find a personal voice among the things that are important to most of us, be it family, history, our environment or, of course, sex. I often use sex as a pretext to explore other topics, a way in to less populist fields such as archaeology or architecture, subjects that may not be as instantly juicy for the viewer. Many of my projects are explicitly sexual or homoerotic which is a privilege of living in a relatively liberal social context, more than many other places in the world and times in history. Liberty can be snatched away at any moment – I’ve seen it happen. I was living in California when they retracted gay marriage rights last year.
I think that The Incest Museum presents another kind of suppression, one that comes with our mute acceptance of the imposed theories of our human origins. How did this project come about?
It began with an expedition to the “Cradle of Mankind”, the archaeological site in Africa where “First Man” was supposedly found. This was the “missing link” that sent the church crazy because it was used as proof that first man was not human, but an ape and worse still an African.
The idea that this race-less ape could cause all these political problems three and a half million years later was comical to me – being categorically “race-less" myself – so I decided I wanted to go to the site and see it for myself. When I eventually got there I found dust, rocks, and not much more and it struck me as something incredible that these supposedly scientific origin theories are supported on such little material, such little proof. So I decided to try my hand at constructing my own “authoritative" version of the origins of man, told through incest practices and claiming, absurdly, that without incest there would be no human race. This was the premise of The Incest Museum, and I used historical facts and scientific research to give credence to my proposal. Finally I decided to place the museum right there on the graves of first man.
“Real life begin when we are alone, face to face with our unknown self ”, I’m quoting Henry Miller’s The World of Sex. It makes me think about the writer protagonist of your installation at the Nordic Pavillion at the Venice Biennale. What happens to him, alone in his “exquisitely crafted modernistic house”, struggling to start his erotic novel?
This work was essentially about two things: fiction as a mirror of real life, and the conflict of work and sex – the age-old internal battle of savage man vs. the cultured man. The character in this work is caught in this conflict, slowly growing mad as he tries to write an autobiographical erotic novel. The narrative becomes circular and convoluted when the writer resolves to write the novel about trying to write the erotic novel, describing his descent into madness as life and fiction blur. The writing desk (that the unfinished novel is presented on) is a miniature replica of the Nordic Pavilion building. I wanted the repetition that occurs within the text to have a visible, sculptural presence in the work.
The Incest Museum is performed as an academic lecture, Welcome to the Hotel Munber is close to a reading. The educational or academic formats you chose for your performances and publications present an individual’s ability to manipulate history, the passage of a personal story into the collective sphere. How does the fact that you are an artist not a writer nor an architect nor a Professor affect the way you negotiate these fields?
Who says I’m not a writer or an architect or anything? Who has the authority to decide these things? Identities are constructed by means of props, apparatuses; the Academic: his journals, libraries, references; the Writer: his manuscripts, his desk, alcoholism; the Architect his drawings, models, heroic portraits... Honesty, I am a fraud, I’m an outsider in all these fields, but this gives me the liberty to work subjectively. Truth and accuracy are not my concerns. If an academic would work with fiction in this way, it would be dishonest, wrong even, whereas you’d be a fool to trust an artist in the first place. In school I wanted to be an actor, but I was too self-conscious, I was totally unconvincing. Nowadays my acting is better but this is because the only role I have to play is myself.