Fashion designer Yi Zhou and artist Christian Jankowski at Papillon Bistro & Bar
Berlin-based, German artist Christian Jankowski was recently in New York for a celebration, hosted by the Public Art Fund and LA’s Regen Projects, in honor of his Living Sculptures, which are on exhibit at Doris Freedman Plaza. Primarily known for his satirical films and installations that comment on popular culture, Jankowski cast his three living sculptures — Caesar, Dali Woman, and El Che — from Barcelona street performers and originally exhibited them in front of a museum on La Rambla, the street where they perform. Since then, the Living Sculptures have been on public display in London and Berlin.
A small group of friends and art professionals gathered in the bitter cold last Thursday night to view the works in situ, but more people later joined us to celebrate the exhibition with food and drink at the nearby Papillon Bistro & Bar. The next day we met up with Jankowski in Chelsea, where we discussed the Living Sculptures — in a roundabout way — while sitting on a radiator in a hallway outside of Josée Bienvenu Gallery, which was having an opening.
Flavorwire: How did you first discover the Barcelona street performers?
Christian Jankowski: I was invited to Barcelona to create a solo show for the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, which took place in 2007. The museum is on La Rambla, a main promenade filled with tourists and street performers. Immediately after seeing the street performers, I considered collaborating with them for my project. The initial plan was to interview them and develop a film, where they would be interacting on the street and possibly in the museum. I really didn’t have a clue to what I was doing when I began interviewing them, but over the course of the conversations I asked some of them if they would like to be real sculptures. They responded positively, so I thought why should I always follow the same process of collecting quotes and making a film — why not do something different? The living sculptures try so hard to look like statues that I decided to turn them into bronze. I photographed all of them and then selected three to be cast.
FW: Did you design the costumes or were they their own?
CJ: They decided the character that they wanted to represent and brought their own costumes. I was attracted to their individual style of patchwork. If you look closely at the details of the legionnaire (Caesar), you’ll discover a lot of odd elements. The sword looks like something out of Lord of the Rings and the sandals are just beach sandals; and he’s sitting on a Greek column that looks more like a planter. It’s a reproduction of a reproduction — translated too many times. The only thing that made his costume meld was the gold paint that he put over every inch of the assembled metal and plastic. I envisioned it all in one material — bronze.
FW: How difficult were the characters to cast?
CJ: Extremely difficult. Everyone had to be cast in plaster in parts and I had never worked with those materials or the process. On top of that, when I returned to Barcelona, the legionnaire said that he had lent his uniform to a friend in Lisbon who was performing in the costume at a gay club. I told him he needed to get it back right away because I was only going to be in Barcelona for a few days. I had heard stories about the mafia’s involvement with the street performers and wondered if he was telling me the truth. The mafia controls parts of the street and provide costumes to illegal aliens, who do all the work and only get part of the money.
FW: They’re pimping them.
CJ: Yes, they’re pimping them. I never found if the legionnaire’s costume had really been lent out, but suddenly it was back from Lisbon. I suspect that he might have been having problems with the costume Mafia.
FW: What was your first impression of the performers when you saw them?
CJ: They’re impersonators, but I’m intrigued by people and things that push you away — things that are tacky or overly commercial. However, I was touched by the conversations I had with the characters I chose. The Che player was so obsessed with his character that he said he would stop performing him when he turned 32, the age of Che Guevara’s death. He also thought that he was representing Che in an undercover way when he was not in costume. For him, Che was a phantom. I was further moved by the intensity of the performers; they would stand in character everyday for years.
FW: What does Che represent to you?
CJ: It’s a mixture of meeting this guy and learning about his passion for the character and my thought of what it would be like to represent such a revolutionary figure in Barcelona. I was later surprised the see the cultural minister of Barcelona pulling off the fabric to reveal the sculptures at the opening ceremony. The Che performer had worked on the streets for ten years in his costume, but the moment he became a bronze, he got a different response. He was transformed into a permanent work of art.
FW: Are you a fan of Salvador Dali’s work?
CJ: Absolutely, a huge fan. Even as a teenager I was crazy about Dali. I had just visited his house Cadaques, which is a short distance from Barcelona, before seeing the street performer who interpreted Dali’s “Burning Giraffe” painting. There’s a big difference between her free form interpretation and the actual painting, but she captured the components, with the drawers coming out of her body and the crutch.
FW: What kind of world would we have today if the Roman Empire had never been defeated? If the legionnaires were still here…
CJ: What a question! Germany would probably not exist and we would all be speaking a Latin language. The Roman legionnaire intrigued me. He brought out the child in me. He may be completely kitsch, but I’m crazy about his costume. If I were a boy at a costume party, that’s how I would dress.
FW: If you were a street performer now, who would you be?
CJ: An American Indian. I would say Lawrence Wiener, with his long beard, but I don’t think I’d make any money in that costume. Of course, it might depend on where I stood — in front of the National Gallery in Berlin, maybe Lawrence Weiner, but an American Indian would work better on La Rambla.