Joe Coleman at the Chamber of Pop Culture
An audience with the artist.
To coincide with the launch of his new book, Original Sin, The Visionary Art of Joe Coleman, the Exploding Cinema collective organised a month long exhibition of Colemans's work at the Horse Hospital, London. On May 18th to accompany the debut UK screening of Robert Pejo's documentary on the artist, R.I.P.:Rest In Pieces, Joe Coleman was in attendance. After the initial discussion provided by art critic Martin Thorne, Joe Coleman took to the stage to be quizzed by the audience.
What follows is an edited version of the questions posed to Coleman that night.
Are you going to explode?
Have you got a light? I know that you guys out there must have some sort of questions? Do you want another sermon then?
You look like a king in a beggars court.
What's your views on racism?
Uh, next question?
So when you went to the Black Museum what was the worst crime that had been done, then?
The worst crime? Well then, when I was in the Black Museum I didn't really consider any of it the worst but there was a lot of interesting things that they had in the Black Museum. The guy who runs the museum kinda looks like Bob Hoskins and he talks like him too and he says I'm Irish by descent and he showed me his collection of retrieved home-made weapons and weapons from famous crimes. He pulls out this blowgun, like I'm the only non-cop there, everyone else is (obviously) a cop and he goes this was made in Ireland. The way we know that it was made in Ireland is not because it is green but because of the writing at the tip right here. The writing says "When shooting this dart do not breathe in." Then he goes are there any Irish people here? I didn't mean to offend anyone. Then he takes one of the darts, a big old metal stick with a red tip at the end inside the blowgun and puts it in his mouth and he goes around. There's ten of us there - all of them cops except me - and he goes round everyone with the blowgun and he gets to this one female cop and he goes "Just move to the side, Mam" So she moves slightly to the side and he Whooh and the fuckin' dart goes right into the museum wall. Then he goes "I'm gettin' to be an old man. Ten years ago I would have asked you to put an apple on your head. My aims a little off these days." That was one of the more entertaining exhibits there. But for actual incredible artifacts I would say looking at the Denis Nielsen collection was the main thing. I'm sure most of you know who Denis Nielsen is. Okay, he's probably your most famous serial killer and certainly one with the biggest body count.
No? Fred West.
Yeah, that could be true but Denis Nielsen is certainly up there. Everybody knows he cooked those bodies on a stove. Not only do they have the stove but they also have the pot he cooked those bodies in. When you look around a little more you see that he's also got in his Black Museum little pieces of human flesh that they retrieved from the sewers. If you remember the case the way Nielsen was caught was that he was cookin' up these bodies and with the few remains that he had left after cookin' them up and shovin' them down the toilet. Now this guy then complained to his landlord that his fuckin' toilet was overflowin' and then he asked his landlord to get him a plumber to fix his toilet. That's how they found the body parts. What that was really fascinating to me about these body parts was that they had been retrieved from the sewer. Like when this plumber first found them he knew something was wrong and called in the cops. The cop gets there and goes through these things and he knew exactly what they were and not only did he identify them as human remains but he also said that the guy whose body this was was killed by strangulation - just from what he had retrieved from the sewer. How he found this out, which was interesting, and I saw it on one of the pieces, is that there are ligature marks, little tiny pieces. I was impressed.
Have you ever been in a shit kickin' hillbilly band? Do you use moustache wax? If so what kind?
Yes, yes, and Dixie Peach.
Have you ever combined your paintings with your performances?
Not really. I see them as two separate parts of my personality. They are very different. The way that I see them is different is that: one is implosion and the other is explosion. Obviously explosion is my performance stuff and implosion is the paintings. What I mean by that is explosion deals with shooting out in to what may be life out there - which is what you people are. I mean, I think I don't even know if I'm talking to anything - you're all like one person to me. So explosion is an attempt to communicate with this big organic body that I see right here, right now, and its got a hundred heads, like in the Book of Revelations but it's all one body. While implosion is when Im all alone dealing with stuff in here. Implosion goes this way and explosion goes that way and never the twain shall meet. It's the same way that my paintings have two sides. Even though they're both almost together, they're not together; one's on each side.
Did you put much thought into exploding at that High school reunion?
That was one of the things that I regret was not in the film (R.I.P.:Rest In Pieces). That was one of my personal favourites. I don't know how many people of you know about that but the film doesn't have the high school reunion. Even though we filmed this whole talk about it and there was an attempt to interview the cop about it and some of the class members. In the end it was cut from the film and I regret that. But for those who don't know, there was two friends of mine that were actual members of this class in Oceanside, Long Island, who had got notice of this high school reunion and it was a ten year high school reunion and there was this one guy in the class, Doug Sprag, and he looked a little like me but the thing about Doug Sprag is that he died five years earlier in a car accident. The guy was a real introvert so no-one knew him that well and with my friends we were going through the high school yearbook, showed me his picture and finally decided I wanted to go to his high school reuinon as Doug Sprag. Impersonate him and they would go along with their camera as they were actual members of the high school. They would be there to record the entire thing. This was 1980 and when I got there people were wearing a xerox copy of what they looked like in their high school yearbook pinned to their leisure suits. Of course, I went there with Doug Sprag pinned to my lapel and I put these scars on my face to simulate the car accident he was in. This Hollywood make-up called non-flexible colodium that you paint onto your face, retracts and looks like scars. Anyway, I got to the high school reunion and started to make friends with all my old classmates. Y'know catch up on old times and since Doug Sprag was this introvert no-one knew well I was able to infiltrate this crowd quite easily. There was this one guy and he must have read about the car accident in which Doug had died and he was kinda unsure of bringing it up, figuring he must have read the newspaper wrong and he goes, "Doug, it seems I was reading about a car accident you were in". He was being real sincere and as soon as he said that I went "Aaaahh". He immediately touched my shoulder saying "Doug, I didn't mean to upset you. Can I get you a drink. Calm down. Everything is fine."
The night kinda progressed like that until at one point the band they hired started playing the high school almanac so I dragged the high school president up on stage and started doing these Egyptian dances with him. He's like standing there trying to figure out what's going on. Meanwhile, the rest of the high school were thinking poor Doug. He's drunk. He's good for a laugh. We're going to enjoy this and they surrounded the stage. The song ended and the band stopped playing and I started unbuttoning my shirt and they figured it must be a striptease and "Yeah, take it off" But I wasn't doing a striptease; I was exposing the fuse to my explosives. Then I took a big puff of my cigar and lit the fuse. At that point it was like Carrie's high school reunion. I'm exploding. There was cacophony. Smoke billowing out of me. People diving under tables. Running. Screaming. Total panic. I've got a big hole in my chest and I walk out going "It was a great high school reunion. Let's do it again next year. Bye." I walk out and my two friends who were recording the whole thing were still there. Of course, the cops were called and they get there and the cops are asking, "What happened?" Doug came here. Doug did this. Doug blew up. The thing is: Doug's dead. He's been dead five years.
I noticed you have a John Wayne Gacy clown painting. Did he do that expecially for you?
Yes, the painting he did is actually a portrait he did of me and on the back it says "Me and Joe". It's a painting of Gacy as an exploding clown. It's face is exploding and it's got me biting the heads off rats and I've got this box that says explosives. I think it is one of his best painting as most of his are stereotypical compositions. There is something interesting about his paintings that I'm not even sure he was aware of. They're not really great art but they have a quality where they reveal things that he's not even aware of. I have this one painting he did of the Seven Dwarfs that are marching down this trail in the woods. The painting is kinda cheesily painted and looks like the type you might find in a craft fair or something. But there's something weird about it, you can't put your finger on. But if you think about it like there are dwarfs who are like little boys. John Wayne Gacy killed little boys. The dwarves work in a tunnel. John Wayne Gacy buried boys in his basement. He had all these phallic trees all around, some of which are chopped down. It's all there if you look for it.
Who is your favourite artist?
This is a hard one to call but if you really want to pin me down I'd have to say Grünewald.
I don't know. There's something that moves me. Y'know there's nobody who can do a crucifiction like Grünewald.
When someone admires your pictures you say it doesn't matter a lot to you that praise soon wears off. Could you tell me what gives you the ultimate satisfaction?
I don't see how that's hard to understand. Y'know if somebody gives you a compliment - you're pretty - it doesn't really stay. It's nice for a while but it leaves. The only place you'll find real satisfaction is within yourself. I found something that I haven't found before. It's personal joy. No one can tell you things like that as it doesn't have the same lasting effect. It's disconnected with a nice quality. It's like the beer I'm drinking right now. It gives me a little high, right now, but later on I'm gonna piss it out.
Do you identify with Salvador Dali? Particularly his religious paintings?
Yes, some of his paintings I really like. He's one of the few, can we call, comtemporary artists I like. Some of his religious work I really like. I'm a Catholic even though I don't fundamentally believe in God. I'm a Catholic so there's no real choice. It was hammered into me from early childhood. There's something about the ritual, the drama, the devotion, that has so much meaning to me even though I don't buy the rhetoric. I did buy at one point - when I was a kid. I can never been non-Catholic. The Catholic's fuckin' hate me but I'm still a Catholic.
Is there a difference between a cult and a religion?
I refuse to answer that question on the grounds of the fourth, fifth and sixteenth amendment. (laughs - this question is in direct reference to a running joke through-out the R.I.P.: Rest In Pieces documentary)
There then followed some unitelligible question about Freud and psychoanalysis...
Freud has value to me. So does Jung. But anyone who becomes just a Freudian or a Jungian. Like I said in the movie, R.I.P.: Rest in Pieces, I respect Freud and I said he's like a modern Jesus and he was able to reinterpret religion for the sophisticates and still have that comfort of having someone try to explain what truly can never be explained. There are certain mysteries in life, religion deals with that, philosophy deals with that, psychology deals with that and I have an interest. I see them all as equal and I don't put myself on one side of the fence or another. To do that is to become stagnant. I'm always ready to hear an idea I haven't heard before. If it has any personal meaning to me then I'll devour it, digest it and I'll reject the parts of the theory that don't work for me. There are parts of Freud that work for me and I'll incorporate that.
Are you worried by your own death or do you view it as a welcome release?
There are people, Freudians for one, who say my work is about a fear of death but I don't think so. I think the opposite, my work is about the fear of life. I think death is something we can't really comprehend and we shouldn't - we're all going to find out. It is tough enough trying to get through life. As far as death goes, you don't have to worry about it. You can find out the answers when you get to that point. When they talk about heaven, hell and all that other shit that's not when you die. That's all right here in the flesh because only the flesh can feel pleasure; feels the garden of earthly delights and only flesh will feel the torments of hell.
You've driven a cab. What's your favourite mode of transport?
No-one's ever asked me that before! I think probably with my two feet on the ground then I have more control and connection. Cars and planes become farther removed. I like my feet on the ground best.
Have you bought any good toys lately?
Well there's a Peruvian mummy that I'm looking to buy right now. This stuff is so hard to find that the price is secondary. There was a time when I thought I was acquiring things for my home odditorium - that it was all me. Searching out and finding all these great objects to come to the museum. But I realised it is not me; it's them. These objects want to come to me. They make themselves available to me as they have lives of their own. If they want to be in this collection where they are with their brethren and be enshrined. They have a lifeforce. I'm being flippant but sometimes I don't have to pay money for it; people want me to have it and I believe the object wants to be in the collection.
What's the story about the mermaids?
Well Gretta and Eddna once belonged to Jack Lambert who was an advance ticket agent for P.T. Barnum. Maybe, you folks don't know that much about P.T. Barnum but one of his most famous hoaxes was that he said he had actual mermaids in his museum. He put up posters all over town of beautiful women with fishtails. Luscious neo-classical women with a carp's tail on big banners and when you got into the actual museum what you would actually see was Gretta and Eddna. I think they're very beautiful. Gorgeous. They're made from monkey's head, glass eyes, human hair, lizards' hands and the tail of a fish. The strangest part, though, is the rib cage. Most people can't figure out how they made the rib cage. It's really interesting and I discovered that it's actually made from a horn. I think they're beautiful. All my children are beautiful.
What do you think of the world today?
I like it the way it is. I don't want any changes. If I was to be born in the past I would want it to be during the Fall of the Roman Empire. I think it is a great honour to be there at the end.
Are you less anxious?
There are certain times in my life when I'm less anxious I probably am less anxious at the moment because there is someone in my life I really love. That takes some of the anxiety out. But there's a constant anxiety that's in me all the time. Earlier today I got the London flu. But the anxiety fuels something in me. The one time when I gave up the anxiety with heroin I regret. Not in the sense that it was a great experience.
Has Professor Momboozoo (an allusion to his parents "mom" and "booze-o") been laid to rest?
Well I can't continue with that. It has meaning. The word Momboozoo cut in half is: mom which is my mother and booze-o is my father on the other side. My father died before my mother and when my mother died I did that final Momboozoo performance which was a funeral ritual. At that point there's no reason to continue with it. That character is dead. It doesn't mean I won't perform; just not as Momboozoo. I have an interest in acting which I'm following at the moment. That would be the next direction. I don't have a feeling for performance art. What I was doing wasn't really performance art. It didn't have a term; back then I was called pathological.
With regards to painting is there anything you wouldn't censor?
It's a tightrope; a balancing act. I have this moral structure so it's difficult. It probably does keep me from going to a certain part. There probably is some form of internal censorship going on. I respect that there's a fundamental moral order. When I do things that are transgressive I would never do anything that I would consider against my morals. Even though they're personal and they may not be society's morals. I've did things that have got me arrested but I have an internal sense of what's right and what's wrong and I'm only going to do what I think is right - even if it's not the same as you think is right.
What about blowing yourself up?
That's a way of harnessing and transforming those emotions that might destroy someone else. My first performance was when I was fifteen years old and I had some emotional problems - fight breaks out in the crowd - honest! - .....When I was about fifteen years old I got my mum's cookie sheet and I'd been collecting fireworks that I taped on and took out the backyard and lit the fuses. The whole thing blew up. I'm all smoking and I noticed nothing had perforated the tin. It was bent but nothing had went through it. So I went back to the house and got a towel from the bathroom and put it on my chest. I then got the cookie sheet and taped the rest of the fireworks onto the cookie sheet. I go into my father's bedroom and get one of his shirts that's too big for me. I take the cookie sheet and I tie it on with the towel all across my chest. Then I take the shirt and put it on, buttoned up and tucked in so it covers all the explosives. I then go out wandering where I live. I saw a lot of cars parked outside a house and I knew there was a party going on. So I took my Jack knife out and cut my wrist. With the blood I put symbols on my face and walked into the party. The party it turned out was a Republican cocktail party. They were quite nice figuring this poor teenager was having a bad acid trip. Eventually, I said "You bunch of sad motherfuckers". I stood back and lit my shirt. The shirt lit the explosives. They were in total panic and that was the first time I experienced that. I escaped in the smoke but I found I had articulated something; certain emotions that there were no words for. It seemed like real concrete symbols. So it's survival. It's not suicidal. It is a release valve.
You must have got a kick out of distorting everyone's expectations each time you exploded?
Like I often say, I got a bang out of it!
What would you have your body made into?
That I already know. I want to be stuffed with the same vest and shoes that I wear, placed into my odditorium as the last exhibit. And have the odditorium turned into a shrine like visiting Edgar Allan Poe's home or Roosevelt's home with the red ropes around it.
Original Sin, The Visionary Art of Joe Coleman is edited by Jim Jarmusch, John Yau and Harold Schechter. It is priced at $29.95 and is published by HECK editions/Gates of Heck, Gates of Heck, P.O. Box 1381, New York, NY 10013, USA.
Cosmic Retribution, The Infernal Art of Joe Coleman is edited by Adam Parfrey and Pat Moriarity. It is priced at $22.95 and is published by Feral House, 2532 Lincoln Boulevard Suite 359, Venice, CA 90291, USA.
Visit the Joe Coleman site: www.joecoleman.com