‘Spent’ All images courtesy of Jordan McKenzie
Within the opulent walls of The Courtauld Institute lies a mirage of great artwork; from the classical to contemporary, erectile Da Vinci to, order now, McKenzie. But Jordan McKenzie’s artwork is slightly different.
Spent is a series of works, which are the artist’s semen on litmus paper. Some might call it his ‘semenal’ work. Ha ha. Oh dear. Anyway, aside from Spent, McKenzie is a well established performance artist who has worked nationally and internationally on a variety of performance pieces which have included exploring minimalism in New York, termites in London and coming up late this month, Barbara Cartland. I sit down to chat to Jordan McKenzie about his unorthodox career path in the Arts.
How did you initially get into art? Where did it all begin?
Good Lord that was a long time ago! I had quite a circuitous route into art. My first degree was in literature; I started doing literary theory at Nottingham University. Which got me very involved critical theory, so I got into art through a theoretical basis. But at the same time I was doing street performance. From that point on I realised that was what I wanted to do. I then secured a teaching job after graduation and from there continued making work with the support of the institution I was in. After that I went on to do an MA but throughout a lot of my art career I had no formal training.
For the initial performances, coming from a theoretical background, how did the theory manifest itself within the performance?
Well, although I was looking at theoretical positions, I was also studying the history of performance. Looking at people like Allan Kaprow and ‘Happenings’ which were taking place in the sixties, so a lot of my early work was quite derivative from those, as I didn’t have discourse around it, I was just in the street by myself. So they probably were quite illustrative of that time, of theory, but it seemed like a relevant place to start. I think it’s important that performance practitioners work on the street, as a lot of performers now have no knowledge about audience. I learnt how to structure performances and encounters from working on the street with non-art aware audiences. I think that’s important, that you work in different context from an art institution.
But then when you moved onto a project like ‘Spent’ it’s not so performance based, or is it? Turning a private performance at an earlier date into a static artwork? How did one turn into the other?
Well, what I’d been doing was a series of works with cubes and graphite which were called ‘Interior Die’ which were based on a piece of work called ‘Die’ by Tony Smith, who made a 6ft by 6ft steel cube, and I wanted to make a performative intervention into minimalism. So I started doing performative drawings, and looking at drawings of performative acts. I thought about different ways the body could draw, not just the hand-eye brain co-ordination. So through that, I started investigated sonic drawing as well as the way other parts of my body could draw, so ejaculation seemed a logical progression. It’s performative and in a way, a gentle satire on conceptual art from the late sixties and early seventies.
It’s also a way of exploring the relationship between the artist and his materials, in the theme of using the body as the tool; artists have painted in their own blood before, is it a progression of using the self as a totally independent source of Art?
There’s a sort of implosion of process; the new ‘Spent’ works are on orange litmus paper, so they’ve come out green. I like that it bleeds into the paper, and the artwork continues to develop even once I’ve finished. It’s self-evolving artwork; the paper is very sensitive to moisture so it changes depending on the environment. I love the fact it’s intrinsically unstable.
Do you get a kick out of the fact that people buy you’re artwork, and they’re hanging a £900 wank in their front room? Is it a comment on the art community?
Well, you could say that if you were cynical! There is something very interesting about the kind of work I do being shown in somewhere like the Coutauld; but it’s great that the Coutauld have acknowledged the importance of the work and placed it in a wider art historical trajectory, which I work in that trajectory. I mean, Duchamp have worked with semen, many artists have worked with semen.
There’s almost a Duchamp element to it; he was making a point whilst being tongue in cheek, but still the end result is still authentic art without looking down on the art community, embracing it whilst making a comment on it…
Exactly. I think my work engages with post minimalism and gently pokes fun at that; there is a certain level of critique, but also an acknowledgement of other identities at the same time. Constantly coming from a queer position and being given a place in the academy.
Did you integrate a lot of queer theory into the production of the pieces?
Um, not quite the production of it –
Ha! Well the usual gay porn, perhaps!
Not quite the production of it, but the nature of ‘Spent’ engages with an idea of sexuality and queer theory…
Yes, I do that all the time. I think the ability of queer theory to satirise, disrupt, play and effect are incredible. I’m very interested in the idea of intervention, guerrilla interventions in art. Especially with minimalism, and those accepted art forms. I have a love hate relationship with it. It’s very monumental, it’s very butch, and it could have only really come from NYC. So last year I commented on that. I revisited classic minimalist works in Manhattan; and I think minimalism could have only really come from Manhattan; the use of the grid, glass, steel etc. So I was interested in the way artists commissioned the work, but it would be sent out of the city to be made in steel factories by blue-collar workers. So I was interested in the relationship between that. So what I did was make a cube, and for three hours I pushed it over the Williamsburg Bridge dressed as a blue collar worker, deer hunter meets Bruce Springsteen; pushing it away from Manhattan and into Brooklyn, until it fell apart and became part of the street detritus. The idea of taking something out of a gallery and letting it pick up elements of the street itself.
I know you’re dressing up as Barbara Cartland in a few weeks for scriptuacontinua, so how did you arrive at that? Babs Cartland is the opposite of blue-collar steel workers…
One thing that happened was very important. I think there’s an expectation from academy’s to stay on the same path; I could have carried on in that trajectory with cubes and minimalism but one great thing happened. It was a great thing; I only felt bad about it for a day and then felt really liberated. An arsonist broke into my studio and torched the place to the ground. Obviously not an art lover. Or maybe he was and decided to take action against me!
Same one who got Emin’s tent perhaps. A vigilante art critic.
It was great, because I was a prisoner of my own success with drawing, and once that got torched I realised I could start anywhere and go in a new direction. I also got a yearlong residency at Studio 1.1, where I collaborated with other artists and worked on collaborated pieces, which really took my art into different places. My early art was theoretical, and fun. Somewhere along the way I got lost in it’s austerity and being theoretically rigorous that I forgot that it was also supposed to be fun. It should also be fun; otherwise it becomes a masochistic odd endeavour. For one piece, I worked with Edwina Ashton where we dressed up as termites and systematically destroyed a gallery over four hours, which I loved! From then on, we formed a group, which engage in performance. It’s fun and satirical; using irreverence to question the constructs of art and make guerrilla interventions. I like the idea of artists doing work, and then other artists taking it further. There’s a piece I did called Andredance, where I walked into Tate Britain and disco danced on Carl Andre’s tiles; filming it. I’m calling it minimal interventions, a slacker’s way of making new art.
Would you also say, it’s a way of literally deconstructing art; from termites to disco dancing – taking a pre existing piece of art and recontextualizing the idea of it?
Yes, and while I say satire, it’s not completely true. I do it because I really love those pieces of art. I have a love hate relationship with it; the big butchness of minimalism I really love, but it’s also what I don’t like about it. It’s negotiating this indefinable stance I have on it, which I really enjoy because it stops the work becoming didactic.
So can you tell me about your upcoming performance at KALEID?
It’s based on a quote by Umberto Eco, that you can’t say I love you madly anymore because that’s a cliché within postmodernism, so to get around that you have to acknowledge the irony of it by saying ‘As Barbara Cartland would say, I love you madly’. So I thought about the idea of sincerity within postmodernism. And I thought about all the great love songs, which describe love, either temporarily ‘I love you eternally etc’ or they describe them spatially, ‘Ain’t no river deep enough, high as a mountain etc’, so I’m trying to connect the two ideas between sincerity and temporal or spatial idea of love in popular culture. So I thought about Barbara Cartland, and then the duet between Diana Ross and Lionel Richie ‘Endless Love’. So as you know, Barbara Cartland dictated her novels to a secretary, so in a reversal I’m transcribing the lyrics of the song onto Möbius strip, to create an idea of eternal love. Physics and mathematics, meets Barbara Cartland.
Jordan McKenzie’s Spent series can be viewed at The Courtauld Institute, details of which can be found here
And the upcoming performance at Kaleid is on the 23rd March at 6pm. Details of which can also be found here.
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