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Kaari Upson, Twin Polorode, 2009
Courtesy: the artist and Maccarone Inc., New York.

Kaari Upson / Larry’s House

by Sonia Campagnola

In the real Inland Empire, who is the real next-door neighbour? Larry was the quintessential LA man of the Seventies and Eighties, searching for happiness, haunted by loneliness, slick sexuality and dissatisfaction with everything around him. Kaari Upson wanted to figure him out, understand his tastes, interact with him. Kaari has never met him. And Hugh Hefner’s grotto is the setting for shared readings, for Larry’s fantasies, for Kaari’s – or shall we say Crissy’s – performances...

Sonia Campagnola: Kaari, since graduating from CalArts in 2007, you have been working on only one, but very large project. The Larry Project. Although the work has spread out in many directions, touching diverse issues ranging from psychological self-investigation to the American cultural legacy, there is a stable starting point to it, which is Larry. So let’s start from there: who is Larry? Kaari Upson: Larry is the fake name of a man whose house was just across my parent’s place in San Bernardino. This was the scene of many crimes, with driveby shootings and parties with hundreds of people. One day it burned down, and that’s when I decided to get in. Inside, I found room after room of huge amounts of personal items stacked in boxes and mixed with junk.

You picked up all this stuff, put it in a box and put the box away for two years... Yeah. I reopened it in 2007, and the first thing I was drawn to were the two journals, which were handwritten, between 1970 and 1987. I was carrying around one of these journals. And I lost it. And that is what started the project: I realized that I had loose memories of his dreams, a very loose idea of who he was, and that what was interesting was not him but my fantasies of him. So then I started drawing, trying to figure out who he was. To me, drawing is like writing pieces of information. I wondered what form of investigation could be used and I researched how the FBI collects data. When I realized I had his handwriting, handwriting must get analyzed.

This is when you started intertwining your life with his own. You started creating a narrative and growing a fictional character out of him… The graphologist was the trigger to the merge. But the merge would have happened anyhow. I called a graphologist and asked for a compatibility report based on Larry and me as a couple. I hung up the phone thinking, why am I doing so? And I realized I was using him as a mirroring back on myself. At the time, I almost didn’t exist without that mirroring back. sc You had his journals and his handwriting, but you also had lots of pictures … ku Yeah, the photographs that I found in his house. Random, out-of-focus shots of landscapes, sunsets, playmates, hundreds of women in bathing suits or on the beach in California, his girls inside the Playboy Mansion’s Grotto, his pictures of Hefner…

Larry seems to embody clichés of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, when car culture, selfimprovement movements, career ambitions, etc. wereso meaningful, especially if read as Los Angeles traits. Can you describe this figure? Reading his journals, you see this man struggling to be loved for who he is, and going on this very serious journey to find himself. This turning inward passed through every single type of investigation, from yoga, to retreats, to gestalt, to EST, which is this very popular ‘70s and ‘80s finding-oneself movement that started here in California. But then, when you look at his photos, you can’t find anything but a projected self. He complained that women loved only his house and car, but then you see him standing in front of his Rolls-Royce in this very fancy house he had professional photographers taking pictures of. He was even documenting this invented self. He is one of the saddest, loneliest people whose inner mind I have ever had access to.

Kaari Upson, Untitled drawing installation, Hammer Project, Los Angeles, 2007
courtesy: Hammer Project, Los Angeles, 2007. Courtesy: the artist and Maccarone Inc., New York. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Larry was also obsessed with Hugh Hefner and Playboy, which are largely investigated in your work as well. He was so obsessed with him. Many people attribute their own kind of sexual desires to Playboy magazine. Same for me too, cause I grew up with Playboy in my dad’s bathroom. Playboy moved our idea of sexy, and this blond, very largebreasted, now hairless, baby-doll woman comes from Playboy. It moved slowly to the history of like, where Pamela Anderson was the icon of it in the ‘80s.

You interpreted and reconstructed the Grotto of the Playboy Mansion, then used it as a setting for your performances. What does the Grotto mean to you? Well, the Grotto is the most mythical space of the Playboy Mansion, where people would go to engage and have sex. The thing is a giant monster. An odd artificial space to emulate the natural environment that Hefner created to play out his fantasies. So if I was going to enter a world that’s sacred and profane, that was the one that made sense… I was trying to understand, is the Grotto a brain? Is the Grotto the unconscious? It made sense that it was an enclosed space.

The whole Larry Project is about entering hidden, private spaces. In his house you found his diaries, and in his diaries his dreams… In his journal, he analyzed his dreams through the Jungian method. He learned enough from his therapist to identify archetypes like the feminine spirit, the masculine spirit or the shadow self, which is the darkest, guilty, shameful part of yourself. I’ve started going into that in the last year and a half myself, based on reading his journal. I’m having therapy emulating his therapy, a therapy based on core selfbelief. You shake off all the multiple selves and you go towards the identification of one being. Through my therapist, I found that I have a double self; she said, “That’s your shadow self, she is you”…

Who? This girl. Crissy!

Who is Crissy? Well, it’s just a very strange layer of events. So, I had a dream that I had killed somebody from my past. I told my therapist this dream and she said, “This girl, Crissy, is your projected self.” Simultaneously, I was sewing a doll that was supposed to look like me. But it was driving me crazy because instead she was looking like Crissy R., a girl I went to high school with, twenty years ago. So my unconscious mind was even placed back in this time. That’s how I decided my twin’s name was Crissy. And now that I’m also having phone sex therapy, I ask the phone operator to impersonate Crissy.

Kaari Upson, Untitled drawing installation, Hammer Project, Los Angeles, 2007
courtesy: Courtesy of the artist

Identical twin sisters engaged in sexual acts together are a trope of porn fantasies. Oh yeah… Hugh Hefner said, “It is every man’s fantasy to have sex with identical twin sisters.” And he recently said that his dream is to get – oddly enough, because they are not big-breasted – Mary K. & Ashley Olsen as a centerfold.

Crissy, your fictive self with whom you played in the Grotto, is embedded in a doll that you initially created to look like Larry. The doll became a fetish, a constant in every phase of the project… I’ve been trying to analyze the doll lately. What does it mean? I knew when it was a substitute of Larry, because I was trying to emulate him. But I don’t know anymore. It transfigured into Crissy, although Larry is underneath it: I didn’t take anything of him off the doll, I just glued a vagina prosthetic onto the doll’s penis…
And then, when I was impersonating Crissy in the Grotto, I turned the doll into me, or Kerry in certain cases… so now the doll is Kerry, Crissy and me, and Larry.

Wait, who is Kerry now? Kerry just came about from every time I had a phone conversation with one of these sex operators. They never called me Kaari, they’d always call me Kerry. Everybody misspells my name. It was just like a natural new persona. She is not me. She’s a slight separation from myself.

Inside the Grotto, you played with the doll and your two personas, Crissy and Kerry. What are the performances about? These performances [videotaped and then screened inside the Grotto] are about repressions and sexual fantasies. There’s a lot of Lacan and Freud in them. It seemed as if I was avoiding the core of the project by not going out and activating a sexual event. So I found a phone sex therapist that does any role-play for three hours. “No fantasy is taboo”: right when I saw that in the ad, I thought, let’s just go towards this woman.

And what happened during the sex phone calls? In all the performances I wear prosthetics: a vagina, full breasts, and a wig. I started as a woman who wanted to role-play. Roleplay is so fucked up. All fetish, infantilism, S&M, reparenting, etc. I was thinking about reparenting, which is sexual role-play with parents. I played with that with a woman on the phone who was playing Crissy and who unexpectedly loosened into my father. We created a mental setting and while we – the twins – were having sex, all of the sudden guess who’s at the door? It’s daddy. She/he is now my dad, fucking me and quote/unquote: “Up the ass with his huge cock”… this is all from her! The dad was a free-floating agent in our fantasy. It was very strange.

Kaari Upson, Untitled drawing installation, Hammer Project, Los Angeles, 2007
courtesy: Courtesy: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo: Joshua White

Your characters, settings, topics, and even the narrative structure evoke the models of cinema. In David Lynch’s Inland Empire, for instance, the camera enters and exits different layers of reality. Funny enough, Inland Empire is where I grew up and where the project is based. Anyhow, that’s why Charlie Kaufman is very important to me: he speaks about layers, erasure, slippage, interloping, turning in and out. I certainly think of The Larry Project as a story that develops like a film.

That’s why you said this whole project is about “re-entering”? Yes. Everything in this project seems to be a “re”: remembering, revisiting, replacement, reimagining… I was born in 1972 in Southern California, and I am visiting a time where I had no awareness of all this. It’s like going through a mental time travel.

Right now you are reentering Larry’s pictures through some pastels and revisiting the doll through a charcoal cast for your first solo show at the Maccarone gallery in New York. Can you tell me something about the pastels? They are photographs mutated into drawings. When I started The Larry Project, I noticed that the areas mostly surveyed in his photos were women and landscapes, the properties that he wanted to own. Now I want to merge the “surveying the women” and “surveying the land.”
So I am drawing images of women with pastels onto the blown-up and bleached landscape pictures. I capture stills from porns with identical twin sisters on the Internet just the second before they get hit with cum, that’s what I’m drawing. They have a weird religious quality. They look receptive and angelic, like in Renaissance paintings.

What about the cast of the doll? I’m doing a charcoal cast of the doll that includes all the different impersonations, with the female and the male parts. After the cast is finished, the main thing I’m gonna focus on is rubbing it out.

This is the performance that you are preparing. A sort of expiatory rite, where the Larry doll concludes its journey from a physical substitute to a space of memory and representation.The performance is the physical destruction of the charcoal doll. No tools, just me and the doll and the wall. I’ll rub it out on the wall until I make holes in it. The chapter after that will be about the absence and the loss, with some smoke-paintings like ghosts.

In the past two years, you have found yourself diving into someone else’s unconscious and splitting yourself into multiple personas. Do you ever wish to reunite these drifts by meeting Larry in real life? No, absolutely not! The only time... I would love to go to his funeral. I would like to be in the space of everybody’s memories of him. That would be really wild to me.

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