Robert Longo: The Dynamics of Power

Maurice Berger

When the 25-year-old Robert Longo burst upon the New York scene, we were captivated by his first performance piece, Sound Distance of a Good Man, presented at The Kitchen in 1978. This interview reveals Longo as a performance artist and locates him within a Postmodernist rhetoric. According to Berger, "The impulse toward temporality and theatricality in the work of Longo was an impulse that resulted in an aggressive challenge to the relative stasis of the modernist art object. In this interview, Longo deals with the aggressive attitude of his work, his obsession with the power of the modern media to manipulate its public, and ultimately, the pervasive presence of violence and death in his work. The conflation of these attitudes, Longo believes, results in an elaborate pattern of visual 'warning signs for modern culture'."

Maurice BERGER In your performance piece Empire, Eric Bogosian summons the audience below him in the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., "Meine Damen und Herren, seien Sie glucklich. Das ende ist nahe. Kommen sie, bitte" (Ladies and Gentlemen, be happy. The end is near. Come please). He goes on to say, "Culture is not a burden. It is an opportunity. It begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies in chaos." Is Empire about the chaos in which culture dies?

This interview, recorded in the artist's New York studio on March 10, 1984, was conducted in preparation for the exhibition "Endgame: Strategies of Postmodernist Performance" (New York: Hunter College Art Gallery), and was originally published in Arts Magazine (January 1985) and later in Italian in the Milan edition of On Stage New York (October 1985).

 

 

 

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ROBERT LONGO Yes, and since the piece took place across the street from the White House, it was even more significant. I wanted to give the feeling of crossing Dawn of the Dead with a waltz. I've always fucked around with history in the most bizarre way possible.

MB One section of Empire is called "Surrender." Surrender to what?

RL It's the word surrender in image without details. It's about surrendering to a new sensibility in art. Things have changed. When I did the piece, I had to decide whether to become an artist or an entertainer. I became an artist while someone like David Byrne became a musician. I mean, it all of a sudden required you to go back to those traditions, but all of this new knowledge required a total crossover. Like all of a sudden I watch movies, I watch TV, I know about Michelangelo, I'm into dance. All of a sudden I go back to a tradition, which is like making art objects or like making record albums. Surrender is about the pressure of being an artist. It is as if the artist really becomes essentially the worm in the bottom of the bottle of culture. You absorb all of the poisons.

MB And you feel there are a lot of poisons to be absorbed?

RL You must face those poisons. It's like I want to learn the future and learn how bad it is. I believe the people who look at my art are willing to face it rather than to avoid it.

MB In other words, it is toxic, but you are not going to go backwards like Julian Schnabel did.

RL I agree completely. The only way to deal with the situation is to say, "Yeah, go ahead, drop the bomb on me. See. Big deal. You think it's going to change the way I see injustice in the world or the rest of the bullshit. You think I'm going to really be worried about the bomb." Instead, the bomb just becomes a mannerist ploy to make you forget about all the other things. I'm going to be the person who blows the whistle. It's a kind of guardian quality that comes to me. I watch the visual mechanisms of culture, which are so sophisticated-the way the Nazis turned Germany into a Nazi state, for example. That is like Child's play compared to the mechanisms that exist now to turn this country into something quite horrific. So one of the things about the artist, what the artist has to do, is that he has to be like a policeman. A great deal of my art, particularly the relief The Sleep, is about blowing the whistle on society. I made the piece right after Jonestown and right before the Phalangist murders. [The image is actually taken from a family leisure wear ad.] Here they are selling the image of genocide in family sportswear. The Sleep is the perfect example of the artist serving as guardian of culture.

 

 

 

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MB What is death about in your work? What is it about politically and what is it about vis-a-vis art?

RL I think death in relationship to the political has to do with the fact that I am quite appalled by the lack of value of human life in the world. And the fact that most people are numb to death.

MB What about death in relationship to art? Do you think that something has died?

RL They always give you tombstones. You're remembered in this world by sculpture. There's some kind of equation that when someone dies, instead of the body being eliminated in the air space, you have to create some kind of object that will replace it.

MB That is a good way of putting it. What are your works tombstones for?

RL They are more like warning signs. But I really dig tombs. I like battlefields because of Vito [Acconcil in particular. Vito really exploited place as a veh,icle for his art. He made this installation which I ran for three weeks at Hallwalls in Buffalo, which was like ghosts-it was so beautiful. He was a major point of influence. I wanted to objectify these transient feelings. So for a long time, a lot of my exhibitions were about understanding that when you hang your art in the world, in the gallery, it is the last time you really have control over the way it is going to look. Therefore, I tried to make installations that were places. With my first show at Metro and my show at Castelli, I wanted to take on a much bigger battle, to avoid the place and go to a complete, autonomous unit which is going back to very strong, traditional elements of art.

MB But also a unit that can be disseminated, like a movie.

RL But now the new pieces are autonomous. They are not like "Men in the Cities." Because of economic reasons and misunderstandings, the piece had to be broken up. My show in Akron now is something like the army of terracotta sculptures in China. It's one piece. It's an army like the terracotta sculptures underground. it's an army, and they're all meant in a specific order.

MB That's interesting.

RL Beyond theater, I want to be the instigator. I'm always the person who is trying to start a fight. There's been so many things; all the pieces now start to dictate their order. They have painting, drawing, sculpture in their own way, almost a sentence structure.

 

 

 

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MB What do you think is the viewer's responsibility? Let us take one piece, for example, like Sleep. What is the viewer's responsibility? And what are you doing to the viewer?

RL There is a degree of education. I enjoy it when I meet somebody who can teach me something. The interesting thing is to develop the exchange. For instance, in Sleep, I wanted to create something that, in relationship to the climate of art, would present the same kind of irony that exists in mass media or in history. You can look at this thing and pay attention because it is a bronze relief-made with hands and all that crap from history. On the other hand, you're going to see this other thing, which is the commercial image taken from a magazine. The basic conflict has to be corrected'. So all of a sudden, I'm presenting something that we've all participated in creating. it's like putting a bad mark on your report card, or something like thatsomething we have to be accountable for. And it's not a moralist point of view at all.

MB How much of your work is about making the viewer uncomfortable? The painfully high volume and menacing sentinels in Iron Voices, or Empire with its blinding lights and air-raid sirens, seem brutal to me.

RL A great deal of that has to do with the fact that I have a lot of hostility I toward the viewer. I always imagine I make art that's going to kill you either way, mentally or physically.

MB But you force the spectator into a threatening situation. The viewer has no choice.

RL One of the most interesting things about art is that it objectifies something that is so basic in life: the art of choice. The fact is that choice fundamentally shapes you as a human being and as a spirit in the world. I choose to smoke cigarettes and endanger myself-and so I choose to look at these pictures.

MB That's not entirely true. I may walk into metro Pictures and you may confront me with something that I didn't expect to see. And then, consequently, you've disoriented me. I may choose to go to one of your performance pieces at The Kitchen, but I may not choose to have my eardrums blown out. There seems to be an edge in your work which is about removal of yourself from the immediate situation, but what is left is an extremely aggressive presence.

RL Aggression aside, there is also the issue of heroicism. The whole idea of heroicism in art is ridiculous, unless it is completed by the fact that the

 

 

 

 

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viewer who looks at the art is as much a hero as the person who is making the art.

MB It has been said that one of the innovations of Richard Serra and his peers is that they removed the reverence from the art object and granted a certain prestige to the spectator.

RL To the point of killing him.

MB To the point of "killing" him in your case.

RL I always imagine that I want to make art that is going to kill you. Whether it's going to do it visually or physically, I'll take either way. If it doesn't kill you visually, it's going to fall off the wall and kill you physically. A great deal of my work is a meditation on power. But the thing about power is that you can't play with it without understanding. its consequences. Ultimately, it's about not closing your eyes to power but actually being able to enjoy it. The perfect example of this is a piece called The Sword of the Pig which involves a church, a body-builder, and an anti-ballistic missile site. It was all about masculinity, all about being able to basically jerk off in public, but on the other hand ... understand its own demise built into it. I want to feel free to use certain power systems. There's nothing wrong with the macho mentality, per se. It's entertaining, it's interesting, but once you start fucking around with it without the consequences, it's dangerous.

MB Does all this power scare you?

RL No, because I know who I am.

MB You are planning to make a film entitled EmpirelSteel Angel, but entirely apart from the earlier performance piece. Could you give me a synopsis of it?

RL It's about a nightclub comedian [played by Eric Bogosian] who is more like a town crier. He's sort of the last bastion of truth. His comedy is not like "did you ever notice" or telling you how fat his mother is. It's much more like "did you see what's happening in the world."

MB Like Lenny Bruce.

RL Right, one step past Lenny Bruce. It's his attempt to maintain his integrity when the system wants to absorb it. He flirts with it and basically gets kicked in the face and freaks out. He then tries to go a very practical route by running a nightclub. He acquires all the regular things in life and then gets mugged. But the way he gets out of being mugged is by turning back into the old comedian. The movie ends with his going back and putting on all his old clothes and getting all his old equipment out. it's like the gun-

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slinger trying to go right, hanging up his guns, and then getting kicked in the faceforced to put his guns back on.

- that's hat's basically what it's about. But it's also about a guy who has no sense of who he is. The most intimate moments he has are with magazines rather than with people. Yet, as a comic, he deals with the consequences of hit, humor. He's very much like me as an artist; the film is somewhat autobiographical 1. 1 want to be able to tell the world what it's like being an artist. it's not like cutting off your ear or hanging out in bars and drawing pictures of barmaids. It's a very sophisticated thing, very much like being a layer or a doctor. The most important thing about it is that the artists I've known, or that I can appreciate, all want to be the best. So you also have this ,jondard level to a situation which is a highly independent, free kind of invention, but one in which I'm inventing the systems that I become the authority OY of. It's bizarre in a way. I've always been so antiauthority, and to wake tip and suddenly realize that I am the authority.... Then what I do, almost daily, is to try to create some kind of subversive thing.

MB Is subversion a strategy of yours?

RL It',, always been very much a part of it, from the moment I brought in a professional illustrator to make the drawings. If you were going to appreciate drawings because they are drawings, there is going to be a surprise

MB A professional illustrator would circumvent that appreciation.

RL -11 the amount of time that the illustrator had involved in it is not important. I the fact is, I put in more. But it's like always wanting to slide something underneath, so you can turn it over and sort of see the worms under the rock.