Who: John Baldessari in conversation with Caroline Baum
What: Artist talk
Where: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
When: 9 January 2011, 3pm

John Baldessari was in Australia earlier this month for the launch of his project Your Name in Lights thanks to Kaldor Public Art Projects and the Sydney Festival. As a jealous Melbournite, I flew over to Sydney to catch the launch and attend his talk at the Sydney Opera House. As promised, here is my write up!

Much to my disappointment, and I am sure yours too, I ended up missing the launch of Your Name In Lights on the Saturday night at Hyde Park because I was too busy stuffing my face with an 8-course degustation dinner at Rockpool. The launch was at 9pm and we booked dinner at 6pm, I had no idea it would go for 4 hours! By the time I got to Hyde Park the party was over but the lights were shining brightly and it looked amazing. Apparently Barry Humphries made a speech and his name was one of the first names to be lit up. There were also fireworks.

From that moment onwards I made a point that I will never ever miss an art event for the sake of my stomach, and so the next day I left my friends at Cafe Sydney early just to get to Baldessari’s talk at the Sydney Opera House 40 minutes ahead of schedule. I found a seat on the 3rd row in the Drama Theatre, situating myself right in front of two empty chairs and a small coffee table that occupied the stage. As I scanned the theatre I noticed a tall dark figure sitting in the wings in the shadows. All I could make out was a tuft of white hair, beard and a slight hint of a nose. It was John Baldessari himself, one of the greatest artists of our time, faceless but a nose, just like his paintings on photographs, sitting quietly only several meters away from me. I was in absolute awe.

At 3pm, the theatre dimmed and both Caroline and John took their seats on the stage. John Kaldor made a short introductory speech and the talk was underway with Caroline Baum informing us of The New York Times’ description of Baldessari as “the most relevant artist of our time”. Known for his irreverence for the art world and disregard for labels, John remarked “Well, as an artist you have to always be a bit pissed off with the current art scene. I wouldn’t be creating art if I liked what was out there.”

From left to right, Caroline Baum, John Baldessari and John Kaldor

In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, John revealed that he does not know how Sydney would receive Your Name in Lights. “I’ve done things that I’ve thought were masterpieces and were just a big thud and I’ve done things kind of last minute and somehow hit a nerve.” Asked whether art comes out of failure, he gave us the story of the creation of WD-40 and how the creator had failed 39 times before arriving to the successful formula. But with art the success of a work is highly dependent on people’s tastes (if not solely), “Artists are human, after all. Most of the time they don’t know if something will be successful.”

Discussing the change in the art market since the 70s, Caroline took the pleasure of telling the audience that back in 1972, when John first went to the Venice Biennale, he had slept on top of a VW. Worlds apart from from the buzzing and glitzy contemporary art scene today of which John describes as ridiculous. “During that time, art was not about money. If you sold any of your work then there must be something wrong with what you were doing.”

This prompted Caroline to ask about his piece from the late 60s, Tips for artists who want to sell, a text based work that frankly states that a painting’s subject matter is important in increasing its chances of selling, and that paintings with bulls sell better than the same paintings with cows. She asked, “Cows worked for Damien Hirst. What do you think about that?” John paused for a moment, and then quipped “Well, he had to cut them up first!”, sparking a wave of nerdy giggles throughout the theatre.

Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell

Shortly after, John’s phone goes off. He rummaged for it in his pocket and grumbled that he thought he had it off. He punches a few buttons and puts it back in his pocket.

The topic moved on to focus on his humble beginnings in National City in California and how he decided to become an artist. John explained that he originally wanted to be a social worker. However, after finding out that he had to go back to school in order to do so he decided to stay an artist and taught art to young delinquents at a community centre college. After setting up an arts and craft centre there, John realised that these kids needed art more than he did as it served as a great form of therapy for them. He added, “To be an artist you can’t really be normal. But normal enough to be functional. Most of the artists I know are a bunch of functional crazies”.

His phone goes off again. The crowd laughs. Again, he rummaged for it in his pocket, grumbled and punched some buttons and puts it back.

Unfazed, John continued to talk about National City, describing it as a poor ghetto area that served as a service community for San Diego. He said that there isn’t much culture there but then interrupted himself and exclaimed that Tom Waits was also from National City and, as a kid, Tom worked at a local pizza parlour that was in the building that John’s dad had owned. He said life was tough back when he was kid having been born during the Great Depression. With the sense of humour that we have come to expect from him he added, “I was a depression baby, not a depressed baby.”

In describing his fondness for using found objects in his artwork, John proclaimed that he used them to escape his own aesthetic. “An artist’s own aesthetic is just boring. It gets conventional too quickly because people’s tastes evolve.” At this point he gave the analogy of eating blue cheese, and how you can start off with something a little pungent and your taste will evolve to take on much stronger cheeses and whatever came before just became boring. He had always been interested in found imagery and liked the challenge of convincing people of the things he thought were visually interesting. He loved bad photos that people threw out, often rummaging through bins outside photo processing stores for discarded 8 x 10 glossies.

John’s phone goes off for the third time and the crowd laughs louder than before. Routinely, he rummaged for it, grumbled, punched some buttons and puts it back. That’s right, he is only human!

Caroline then brought up John’s long standing teaching career, first at CalArts and then later at UCLA. Caroline asked how the system worked at CalArts having had no curriculum, no formal classes and no grades. After a long pause, John said “Well, there were a lot of drugs!”

Moving on to a more serious note, John proudly explained that the students at CalArts were all self-motivated and there wasn’t a need for a formal teaching structure or punishment system. People went to class because they wanted to.

Caroline: Did the students ever surprise you?
John: … at parties?

CalArts has produced many artist heavyweights including David Salle, Barbara Bloom and Eric Fischl, all of whom had been taught by Baldessari. John does not give himself all the credit however, and believes that students are influenced by each and every one of their instructors. At that point he gave an excellent definition for what makes a good teacher. “Young students are very vulnerable. You can’t tell them what they are doing is shit — you need to realise what they are trying to get at and you help them get there.”

In 1970, Baldessari had burnt all the works that he made between 1953 and 1963 and stored them in an urn. Asked what would be an equivalent act today, John responded that he isn’t sure because he thinks that burning his work was the stupidest act in hindsight, but one that he does not regret because at the time it was reasonable. Why? Because he was in National City, and anything goes. He then added, “it might be cool if an artist burnt 50% of the money that they had earned in a year though.” The man never ceases to surprise or amuse me.

The conversation then moved on to why Baldessari was here in Australia in the first place — his grand installation above the Australian Museum, Your Name In Lights. Situated along the William St facade, the installation can be seen from a large distance, with the best views from Hyde Park. “I really enjoy taking my work outside the gallery and museum because the kind of people who go to galleries and museums are already convinced about the art. Art is a ‘believe’ activity. You want to not talk to the convinced, but the general public.”

My name shining brightly above the Australian Museum
on 11 Jan 2011, 2:38:40 pm.
Thanks, John!

Turn by turn, for 15 seconds each, tens of thousands of names will be illuminated on his Vegas-like signboard. For 15 seconds, every one of these people will be famous. The intention of the work is not just a poke at celebrity, however. “I am studying the nature of the disease of celebrity. Ever growing to the point that you’re famous for the sake of being famous.”

He gave an example from the current art scene, “These days, museum openings are much like film premieres. People go there to be seen. It isn’t about the art anymore. Something is wrong!”  Despite not ever watching television, John doesn’t believe it is possible to screen out the culture of celebrity fixation these days. “It permeates your every moment.”

Caroline brought up John’s more left field projects, including the iPhone app that resulted from a LACMA artist commission project. For this project John explained that he had selected a 17th Century still life painting from the LACMA collection and got software programmers to create a program that allowed users to move the still life objects around within the frame of the painting in order to create their own still life composition. The program was loaded on to a computer and displayed next to the actual painting itself for kids (and adults… like me) to play with and this somehow turned into an iPhone app. I have the app on my phone and have made several interesting compositions — you can move almost anything!

One of my compositions using Baldessari’s iPhone app

Other left field projects include a collection of jewellery that Baldessari has designed but has not yet been released. One of the pieces will be a necklace, an elegant gold chain attached to a frame that hangs just in front of a woman’s cleavage (!). Another is a medieval armour inspired piece that you can wear on your elbow that has removable spikes so you can bash your way through a crowd. Another is a lovely jewel that sits on your shoulder. I’m going to be keeping my eye out for these like a hawk. You heard it from here first!

Time was running up. An hour never went so quickly. Caroline slipped in her last question, “So what’s next?”

John revealed his plans to create a fountain out of a sculptural version of his Brain/Cloud to be installed in a building somewhere in Berlin (I missed the name of the place), where blue-dyed water will trickle down through the recesses of the plaster white brain. A tea room will be opened next to the fountain and people will be able to “drink tea and have little brain farts.”

I don’t think anyone in the theatre knew what a brain fart was and a puzzled Caroline asked, “A brain fart?”

“Yes, when you come up with an idea, it’s called a brain fart,” John explained.

Brain/Cloud (with Seascape and Palm Tree), 2009

So the talk ended with all of us learning a new term. Even John Kaldor himself expressed his amusement during his closing speech.

The lights in the theatre came back on and people started making their way out. As I was at the front of the theatre I got to stick around a little longer. I watched Baldessari as he descended from the stage and made his way slowly to the exit. I tagged not too far behind hoping that there may be a chance for me to say a quick hello, but he got caught up with talking to several official-looking people. As I exited the theatre I stood around for a bit. He finally came out, heads taller than everyone else — he is seriously a monolith! A few people rushed towards him but I stayed out of the crowd. Then, as he was being dragged out by a lady who was shouting “John! John! We gotta go!” I quickly ran up to him to say my quick hello and thanked him for coming down to Australia. He thanked me for coming and I went off chuffed as anything, happy as a clam.

As I was walking outside the Opera House towards Mirazozo, I turned around and saw John strolling not too far behind me. It was pretty surreal. Amidst the tourists and Sydneysiders on a typical Australian warm sunny arvo, there was John Baldessari casually walking around, attracting no attention, dressed in long sleeves and pants, black from head to toe, with dark sunglasses and his titanium white hair and beard reflecting the sunlight. It was definitely something you don’t see everyday! Til next time, John!

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