In Conversation: Jonathan Horowitz
Steven Cairns talks to the artist about why he is drawn to reckless personalities, vegetarianism, the Holocaust and how art writes history
Steven Cairns: Where did the idea for ‘Go Vegan!’ start?
Jonathan Horowitz: Vegetarianism interested me as a subject to make art about because a lot of people think of vegetarianism as a light political issue, and political art is supposed to be about issues that are perceived to be heavy—like something has to be really important to divert an artist away from all those really important art issues.
Cairns: Why did you decide to show it again at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York, in May this year after showing it first at the Kunstverein, Hamburg in 2002? What contexts have changed?
Horowitz: Gavin Brown’s gallery was expanding into a space that was formerly a meat processing plant, so it was about the site. Actually, at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, it was also in part about the site. There are oblique references to the Holocaust in the work.
Cairns: Are all those celebrities really still vegan or vegetarian, or even alive?
Horowitz: Well I found out that Brooke Shields isn’t vegetarian anymore, because she came to the opening and told me so. Most of them are though, or at least were at one time. Every time I make an edition of the work, I fact-check and update. But it’s OK if I’m a little off. The work is rooted in the internet—the level of scholarship doesn’t go beyond that.
Cairns: What ideologies are you tapping into with the work?
Horowitz: I think eating meat can be seen as a broad metaphor for cruelty and senseless violence. But the work’s about the literal subject too. Few people would dispute the horrors of factory farming.
Cairns: You’re not vegan are you?
Horowitz: I’ve been vegetarianish for most of my adult/teen life. I actually am vegan now.
Cairns: Are you trying to persuade or ridicule, or a bit of both?
Horowitz: I’m really just trying to make art. But I’m not ridiculing anyone or anything —except maybe art, a little.
Cairns: And the Holocaust, how does that come into the equation?
Horowitz: The Holocaust demonstrated that human beings are capable of the most horrific, violent behavior imaginable. Animals are different from people, but they’re intelligent, sentient creatures, and I think their industrial slaughter is in some ways analogous. I’m of the view that it’s OK to make those sorts of analogies, and the Kunstverein Hamburg show was the first time I exhibited work in Germany, so it was just on my mind. It took me a few trips to get over.
Cairns: Are you over it now?
Horowitz: I didn’t mean that I’m over the Holocaust—but that’s funny. No, I meant getting over the idea that the Holocaust is inextricably linked to all things German.
Cairns: I remember you talking about an idea for a new work that looked at minimalist artists and holocaust memorials.
Horowitz: I went to the Holocaust Museum in DC for the first time a couple of years ago, and some of the artworks that were commissioned for the museum made me kind of angry.
Cairns: You’re talking about the Sol LeWitt and Joel Shapiro works?
Horowitz: I like Sol LeWitt and Joel Shapiro—it was more about the context.
Cairns: What made you angry?
Horowitz: That in the face of one of the worst things that’s ever happened, art is represented as having nothing to say. Part of the Ellsworth Kelly piece is three blank white panels. It’s kind of beyond belief. I think the museum might have been better off getting three rubber tree plants for the lobby.
Cairns: They are kind of bizarre. The language the museum uses to explain minimalism’s significance to the Holocaust is bizarre too.
Horowitz: The explanation they give for Sol LeWitt’s piece is particularly strange. Something about squares being implacable and inviting introspection. Who knew?
Cairns: I might be off on this one, but there is a side to your work that exposes a sort of hopelessness, nihilism even. Is nihilism something you subscribe to personally? I’m thinking about early works like ‘mon.–sun.’, or more recently, ‘Apocalypto Now’.
Horowitz: I try hard to be hopeful, but maybe I don’t always succeed. ‘mon.–sun.’ always seemed to me to be positive and negative at the same time—I could never quite tell. And when I was working on ‘Apocalypto Now’, I tried to channel and identify with Mel Gibson. I had to give up in the end, though; he’s really pretty nuts.
Cairns: Why Mel Gibson? Does that tie in with the Holocaust interest —I’m thinking about The Passion of the Christ, his DUI arrest and the anti-semitic outburst?
Horowitz: I just find him to be a compelling character, the way he struggles to rein himself in with religion and rehab and the way he fails so miserably.
Cairns: So if you were trying the identify with Mel Gibson in ‘Apocalypto Now’, but changed tack, what did you end up with?
Horowitz: I guess it just became less personal.
Cairns: When I watched the video I really tuned into the disaster-movie theme—the projector and the DVD player were solar powered. Is that Al Gore’s influence creeping in?
Horowitz: Yeah—my fantasy was that the Ludwig Museum would go solar. I was thinking about how when Jimmy Carter was president he installed solar panels on the roof of the White House, and one of the first things that Ronald Reagan did when he moved in was he took the panels down. Both gestures were just symbolic, but symbolism matters.
Cairns: It’s curious that he is now embedded in the 21st century psyche, a bit like Michael Jackson, or Britney Spears.
Horowitz: I’m interested in people who are vilified. Some people are of course truly vile, but it is a convenient and false way to exorcise evil, to imagine that it’s embodied in a celebrity. And the venom that’s spewed back at these figures is so extreme.
Cairns: You look at celebrity culture a lot in your work. Is it a personal interest or a cultural one?
Horowitz: Both. Isn’t everyone interested in celebrity culture, to a degree?
Cairns: I think everyone is interested in celebrity culture, or maybe a better way of thinking about it is that it influences most aspects of everyone’s lives—what we buy, what we watch, what music we listen to, who’s hip and who isn’t. I think you identify that pretty well in your work, and you make the viewer aware of their participation in it. In works like ‘Two-sided Monument’ and ‘Lindsay’ what are you saying? They attach themselves to this type of celebrity culture quite directly in different ways, but they both remain quite ambiguous.
Horowitz: ‘Two-sided Monument’ is about whatever whoever is dedicating it wants it to be about. It’s humanist. ‘Lindsay’ is a little more detached. It documents a cultural obsession with plastic surgery. I thought of it as like a classical sculpture, and an update of Warhol’s nose-job painting, too.
Cairns: Funny you mention Warhol—do you think the artist as celebrity fits in anywhere?
Horowitz: Yeah, but more like anyone as celebrity. It’s the era of reality TV. Snooki from Jersey Shore is a bigger star than Tom Cruise.
Cairns: How many of your own works have you referenced yourself in?
Horowitz: A handful. I don’t really like to do that though—it’s against my nature—but sometimes I’ll just use myself if I think I’m needed.
Cairns: You dedicated a ‘Two-Sided Monument’ to atheism, right?
Horowitz: Uh-huh. I’m not big on religion.
Cairns: You focus on specific aspects of pop culture, it’s not a general interest in that sense. Do you think you’re reflecting your own values?
Horowitz: Maybe interests is a more accurate word than values.
Cairns: It’s not pop art in the truest sense; choosing volatile personalities gives the work a reckless sensibility—there is an ongoing narrative that you have no control over. Is that outcome an intentional choice? Do you think there is an element of risk in doing that?
Horowitz: I’m drawn to reckless personalities. Lindsay Lohan might not become a cultural icon, like Liz Taylor, and I might not become a canonised artist like Andy Warhol. But Warhol did paint Troy Donahue, too. My favorite Warhol paintings are the commissioned portraits, which are quite reckless in the sense that I think your talking about.
Cairns: Yeah, what I mean is that you relinquish a lot of control over your subject, not that you can really have that much control anyway, but their successes and failures ultimately impact on the success of the work.
Horowitz: Whenever Mel Gibson does something really crazy, I joke with my boyfriend, ‘Do you think this will be good for my career?’
Cairns: What started your idea for ‘Obama ‘08’? This is a work that plays on the risk I’m talking about.
Horowitz: In 2008, the presidential election was way more interesting and compelling to me than anything else, and it was really important too. Sometimes the moment just takes precedence.
Cairns: The show had two possible outcomes, right?
Horowitz: Yeah—if Obama had lost, his portrait would have stayed on the floor and the balloons would have stayed on the ceiling. I can’t even imagine. After eight years of Bush, it really would have seemed like the end.
Cairns: Politics are a concern in a lot of your work. Do you think art has a use as a political tool?
Horowitz: I don’t know—maybe not in a direct, immediate sense. But art documents culture—it writes history.
Cairns: In works like ‘Obama ‘08’ you make some pretty clear political statements. If Obama’s portrait had remained on the floor—instead of a celebration you would have put parenthesis around a sense of hopelessness. In that way, in these political works, you make a quite specific point, whereas other works are more open to interpretation.
Horowitz: There’s a definite range. Some of my work is more direct, but it’s all open to interpretation, too. Direct communication is never really possible, least of all in art. But art that tries to be unclear annoys me. I don’t see art as a game.
Cairns: What about religion then? It has a lot more heritage in influencing people with art.
Horowitz: Fear and hate seem to work better these days. Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie sure was popular, though.
Steven Cairns was co-editor of MAP until summer 2011