At any rate, the long and the short of it is that the planned cut-up interview between us kept not happening, as either one of us was abroad at any given time. And when we did finally get together we simply couldn’t get our shit together, because as ever, we were both running away from something, possibly adulthood.
Finally, the deadline looming large, I flung some questions across the Atlantic from a hotel room in New York, which were duly picked up on a cellular in a cab from Italy, just hours before my friend received a call from his mother informing him that his father was not much longer for this mortal coil.
Given this bombshell, what follows is a searingly personal interview from an artist emotionally exhausted but with a heart big enough to share feelings openly. An artist whose recent show in New York attracted the great and the good, with the likes of Michael Stipe turning up early to secure a purchase. An artist whose words have hijacked advertising space in streets all over the world with statements such as “CIVILIZATIONS COME AND GO LIKE AUTUMN RAIN” and “WHENEVER YOU SEE THE SUN REFELECTED IN THE WINDOW OF A BUILDING IT IS AN ANGEL,” awakening global passersby to the phenomenology of existence and the fleeting beauty found in moments of silent reflection beyond the incessant noise of the modern world.
I don’t really want answers, just responses. We’ve known each other a long time; we’re the kind of friends who have woken each other up after one of us has flung ourselves in front of a moving car (you did this) and sent each other suicide texts (I have done this). Considering our shared penchant for destruction, I’m guessing you’re glad you pulled through the dark times and are around to enjoy your burgeoning art career? Shit. Are we really going to talk about that shit in Flaunt? Okay, I guess we are. Yeah, I did that right after Sean died, didn’t I? [Sean Flynn was Robert’s best friend from his years at Art College] I was a bit of a mess. It wasn’t a suicide attempt; it was just a malfunctioned part of the grieving process, and I was very drunk and it was all mixed up in my head with ‘That’s how Sean died, getting hit by a car on the street.’ Also, I kind of knew the taxi wasn’t moving fast enough to kill me, so it was more gestural, really. But I was really, really sad when Sean died, wasn’t I? And I didn’t know how to use the energy of grief at that point. Eventually I used it to make “THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE BECOME GHOSTS INSIDE OF YOU” and that was a much more positive outcome than the outcome there could have been.
See the dwarves and see the giants, which one would you choose to be? Okay, I know we’re trying to do this peppy; like we’re sitting together or at least on the phone, so that [Flaunt Editor-in-Chief] Luis and [Editorial Director] Matthew don’t know we can’t get our shit together for a whole month in London enough to be sober in the same room—but this is just about to fall off a coastal shelf and become the most depressing and truthful interview ever, I think. Let’s just run it like this and not cut it up. I answered the first question, I don’t know how many days ago—three or five—when I was in a taxi to the airport. I had to stop because I was so freaked out you’d asked me about that shit in a magazine, I couldn’t even answer the second question.
I thought I’d answer the rest tonight when I got to Italy. Then when I landed at Malpensa, my mum called me while I was waiting for my suitcase at the baggage carousel and told me that my dad has liver cancer, and that it’s advanced and not fixable, just a question of how long. And I love my dad so much. So now I’m sitting in my room at the Principe di Savoia crying. It’s been a big crying night. My mum called me and we cried on the phone. Then she put my dad on, and we said hi, and then me and my dad cried on the phone. Then I called my little sister and we cried on the phone and I cheered her up, and she said ‘You better call Grace Anne.’ Then I called my baby sister and we cried on the phone, and then I tried to cheer her up too. And that was it. It wasn’t any better, but we all knew we cared. And I thought that was good at least—at least we’re that kind of family that can cry on the phone together, all of us.
So, see the dwarves or see the giants? Giants every time. My dad is a giant, totally, and from tonight I am fucking partisan to giants. I’m a vain person and my dad’s a good person; he’s a much better person than me. He’s the kindest possible dad you could imagine. He was kinder than all my friend’s dads by far—when I was a kid, and for my whole life. It’s hard to explain, but all the shit in my work people think is profound, such as “THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE BECOME GHOSTS INSIDE OF YOU AND LIKE THIS YOU KEEP THEM ALIVE,” that’s really from my dad. “WHENEVER YOU SEE THE SUN REFLECTED IN THE WINDOW OF THE BUILDING IT IS AN ANGEL”—that’s actually from my dad more than it’s from me as well…all the profound stuff comes from him.
It’s funny because I talked about this last week; somebody asked me “What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” and I think they thought I’d say a James Turrell piece, and I do love Turrell and all that but I said, “The way my dad took care of my maternal grandmother when I was a kid even though she wasn’t his mum.”
I was seven, maybe, and my grandmother was sick and he took a mortgage on a bigger house than we could really afford so she could have her own living room downstairs and her own bedroom upstairs. She couldn’t even get downstairs but he wanted her to have a room where she could keep all her old stuff. And if he was in the house after he came home from his job, he did as much a share of the work of looking after her—taking up her meals and carrying her to the bathroom—as much as my mum would. And I was only eight that next summer, and I was nine when she died, but I remember being blown away. I remember being nine and thinking, “Fuck. That’s off the hook; that’s not even his real mum. That guy must love my mum so much to do that.” And it was amazing for me, personally, because my Nana Lizzy—that was my grandmother who was my mum’s mum—was kind of full of mystical visions as it turned out, and sitting on her bed every night after school I felt I was tapping into an older wisdom that my friends didn’t have. It was so nice to be given that friendship with her.
To answer the question more clearly, though? Fuck Scott Walker. I hope Scott Walker dies before my dad and my dad hangs in much, much longer than the guy who wrote “see the dwarves and see the giants,” I can’t even remember what that song was—is it ‘30th Century Man’? None of us reading this will live ʼtil the 30th century.
I recently showed a filmed interview I did with you during a seminar at Cornell University. Probably only one of the students had any idea what you were talking about when it came to the situationists...Do you still feel such ideas about society are utterly disenfranchised from the mainstream? I’m emotionally exhausted now, by the way. The readers should know your questions were sent in last week and are not real time counter-responses to my answers; they do [know] right? I’m worried my answers are going to be really short now and the interview is going to crash.
To answer the question, though, no, I don’t worry about that at all.
I think situationist ideas are closer to breakthrough than ever before. I was just in Interview magazine after all, and Russell Brand just guest-edited New Statesman and he was on MSNBC this week. And if the undergraduates of Cornell can’t work out the connection between me and Russell Brand that’s just fine, because that just means we may have you all in the palm of our hand before their parents notice they’re paying $45,130.00 a year for Cornell for each child and stop doing it because they’re only giving their children a weird kind of cultural myopia which won’t be fixed by ‘summering’ in Tuscany when they’re in their mid-40s and vice presidents of Halliburton. Because if their kids come out wanting to be vice-presidents of Halliburton, too, then there will be no summers anymore.
What does fire mean to you? What do you see when you stare into the flames? I don’t think of fire now. I think only of kindness now, and I cry alone while the ice caps melt and no one takes Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Halliburton to The Hague.
What do you think of the following quotes in relation to your work, perhaps the third one with reference to your fire poetry: “Art is not a pasttime; it is priesthood.”—Jean Cocteau I’d like to de-Christianize the metaphor for political reasons and say it’s a sacred calling but that can be analogized to any religion.
“A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.”—Albert Camus I’d say I might have fucked a couple of girls who weren’t necessarily my wives at the time but I never started an illegal war in Iraq, so get the fuck off my back.
“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.”—Anais Nin This is great because it echoes something I read in Edinburgh at 19 [years old] that made me kind of imagine my whole body of work when I was studying with Jason Herzmark, and which I think about everyday still and its by Antonin Artaud and he says, ‘If there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.’
“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy; its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” —Winston Churchill That’s nonsense. That’s Churchill assuming the cadence of Oscar Wilde, which he had the tongue for because he went to Harrow, but Wilde would have hated him because he was militaristic-conservative scum…but a good watercolorist. The only value Churchill and I have in common is our love for watercolor as a medium, which is something, but not much.
“Destruction, hence, like creation, is one of nature’s mandates.”—Marquis de Sade That’s nonsense too. That’s de Sade excerpt-quoted in the service of Reaganomics, just like Adam Smith and Darwin are often misquoted in the service of Reaganomics.
“What else should I say, everyone is gay.”—Kurt Cobain Well no, but yes. I agree with everything Kurt Cobain says. Kurt Cobain is a poet. Also what he says in that song, which is “All Apologies,” right?
I think he is right and he is S.I. and I think he sacrificed himself as a kind of American S.I. Christ and he knew it was for the better to do it because the message has to get through. And, for the record, what I mean by anything I say above is that I don’t actually think the illegal war in Iraq is Cheney’s fault, or Rumsfeld’s fault, or Bush’s fault, or Halliburton’s fault. I think the illegal war is my fault and our fault, because we are more educated and we didn’t stop it. It’s our fault and “MEMORIES OF THE HORRORS WE HAVE GIVEN OUR SILENT CONSENT TO WILL GATHER LIKE CLOUDS AND CONDENSE INTO OUR DREAMS BEFORE MORNING.”
“Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”—Allen Ginsberg Yes.
What is “The Ghosts of the Hollywood Lawn,” which graces this issue’s cover, all about? It’s about how Tom Cruise should get over himself—he’s going to be forgotten in 500 years anyway—and about how we should all get over our inner Tom Cruise.
Write a brief exposition on why The Velvet Underground was far more important than Andy Warhol. I forget. I think I wrote that on Facebook, I just checked back on Facebook. And I’m just going to put it in quotation marks what I wrote the night that Lou Reed died: “AND WITH THE CHILD OF THE HOODLUM WRAPPED UP IN YOUR ARMS. I remember how in first year at university, we all from different small town looked for the Velvet Underground people in the class that year, and we found eight of us. That is how we chose our friends at 18 on the rainy campuses of British Universities in 1990, and that’s a much more profound testimony to someone and their music somehow than chart positions or any number of obituaries. Also, as an art student it was very clear to me that we were only into Warhol, because he was The Velvet Underground’s friend. Does that mean ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ is better than any Warhol silkscreen as ART? That ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ is actually better art than any Warhol, in actual art terms? Well, yes, I think it kind of does.”
How would you describe your spirituality and how would you describe spirituality in the West at this moment in history? I’d describe it as ours. I’d describe my idea of spirituality as Gnostic Christianity, as the kinder Christianity that comes from the wrist-bone of St. Paul. If American readers have any trouble in remembering kind Gnostic Christianity, they should call up one or two Church of Scotland ministers, such as my parents’ friends Georgina Naismith and Ian Curry, who will put them quickly right. I am a Gnostic Christian. If American readers don’t know what that is they should Wikipedia ‘cathars.’
If you were a building, which building would you be and why? I would be a simple wooden house with a corrugated iron roof. Just like my pappa Bobby’s garage, which was my happiest building as a child and the building where I imagined all my sculptures.