Purple Magazine
— S/S 2012 issue 17

Aaron Young

rebel without nostalgia

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM


The artist Aaron Young was born in California in 1972. He studied film and Hollywood beckoned, but when he realized he would have more freedom as a visual artist, he retrained himself as a sculptor, painter, and video-maker. One of Young’s first works was a performance of a motorcyclist doing burnouts on a painted floor, which he videotaped. Noisy, and dangerously provocative, the video caught the eye of curators, from the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts to MoMA in New York. Since then, Young has refined this work and made many others, creating a highly controlled burnout/art hybrid using man and machine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were born in San Francisco, right?
AARON YOUNG — Yes, in ’72 — and I’m still wearing plaid pants.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you remember the hippies?
AARON YOUNG — The hippie vibe is perpetual on Haight Street in San Francisco. All of those families that followed the Grateful Dead around — like the Rainbow Family from the time of Woodstock — always show up for Halloween. I moved back to San Francisco the year Jerry Garcia died, when the touring stopped, and everyone who had been traveling with the Dead came back to San Francisco. Kids from 16 years and older had grown up on tour with Dead Heads. That was my introduction to San Francisco — that, and going to art school there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were born in San Francisco, but you lived somewhere else for a time, didn’t you?
AARON YOUNG — Yes. My mother’s family is from San Francisco. We moved to Monterey-Carmel, which was a great place to grow up. It’s the gem of the California coast. It’s not Los Angeles, not San Diego. It’s very secluded, it has Big Sur next to it, it doesn’t have a big-city vibe, and it’s on the water. Carmel has always been a jewel for food, and for celebrity — the Beach Boys and many others made albums there. Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel when I was in high school. When I was child, we would visit my grandmother who lived in the Castro district of San Francisco, the gay district. She lived on Diamond Street, which is parallel to Castro Street, and the steepest street in San Francisco. I’d skateboard down it, dodging the traffic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Sounds dangerous.
AARON YOUNG — It’s dangerous to even walk down it because it’s so steep. Skateboarding on it shouldn’t even be legal. But that was my mission every time we went to visit. I’d be out there skateboarding, dodging cars, perfecting my skills.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you a serious skateboarder?
AARON YOUNG — As serious as any kid who skateboards as a means of transportation can be. You wanted to be good. You wanted to be a badass.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What are your best memories of San Francisco?
AARON YOUNG — Skateboarding, undergrad art school, the parties I threw. For three-and-a-half years, my friends and I threw techno and house music raves all around San Francisco. Our job was to find empty spaces and talk the person into letting us use the space for a night. We’d give them a couple thousand bucks.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t techno raves go against the whole hippie vibe?
AARON YOUNG — That’s what we tied into. When the Dead stopped touring, all of those kids needed something to do. That’s why the rave movement was so huge in San Francisco — those kids really knew how to throw a party. San Francisco was already known for parties, but it really blew up after that. You’d get 10,000 people at a rave. The clubs were finished, so at that point it was all about the underground spaces. So finding spaces was a big part of my life.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How old were you at the time?
AARON YOUNG — I started doing that when I was 22, and I was finished by the time I was 25 or 26. Then I went back to school.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you organize raves to make money?
AARON YOUNG — Yes. I saved close to $100,000. That’s how I paid my way through my second Bachelor of Fine Arts, in film. For about three years afterward, I worked on films and independent music videos. I was throwing parties at the same time. Then I went back and got my master’s. Too much school, right?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why art school?
AARON YOUNG — Well, I’d wanted to make movies since I was 12, when I saw E.T. — I know it sounds silly, but E.T. is one of those films that invoke a full spectrum of emotions in a 12-year-old. It was funny, it was sad — my grandmother cried — so I wanted to do something like that. I went to film school right out of high school. I got my degree in directing and producing. But, you know, you have to start at the very bottom, being a page, and doing all of the dirty work. So I worked my way up. I was assistant director on music videos, independent films, and a lot of commercials. What turned me off about filmmaking was that the entire world of it is a compromise, every single day: we’re losing the light, we don’t have enough money for this shot, my uncle’s nephew has somebody that he wants in the movie, can you give him a part? It was just ridiculous. I was young, and I was impatient. I wanted everything — now! I wanted to do my thing. I also had a painting studio at the time, and I saw the freedom I had there. I didn’t depend on anyone. I didn’t have to ask permission. I didn’t need that much money to do it. That opened everything up for me. Plus, I was more interested in more experimental filmmaking, and this was right when video was starting to be made available to consumers. Apple introduced what would be­come Final Cut Pro. So I started editing videos I made myself. I didn’t have to rely on actors, or a script. Everything was organic. I could do it by myself.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you had the Hollywood dream: LA, Tarantino…
AARON YOUNG — I went to LA for a short time — hated it, and moved back to San Francisco. During this entire time, my mother was very sick. She became sick with leukemia when I was 15, and she died when I was 28 — in and out of remission. I also moved back to San Francisco to be closer to her.

OLIVIER ZAHM — People who come from San Francisco say it’s a very independent city. Is that true?
AARON YOUNG — Someone said that ideas happen in San Francisco, get packaged in Los Angeles, and are sold in New York.

Feel The Power, 2008, enamel on linen, 72 x 48 inches, ALWAYS & FOREVER LTD, all rights reserved

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you started working in your studio. What kind of painting did you do?
AARON YOUNG — When I started my studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, I was doing silk screen, but I was more interested in video and photography. But my mother didn’t want me to go to film school. She wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer — have something to fall back on. Film school isn’t like that. But I won that battle. Then I told her that I didn’t really like film, and that I was going to art school. She started wondering what I would actually study. My major was New Genres, which basically meant: Do whatever you want, just be able to defend it. I did experimental videos and performances.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was this in the mid-’90s?
AARON YOUNG — Yes, ’98. There was a great professor there, a Cuban exile, Tony Labat, who took me under his wing. He’s an amazing artist. For the first class of New Genres, everyone had to do one piece. We met once a week. You could book the classroom to present your work to everyone. Then they’d critique it like a pack of wolves. The very first piece I ever made at art school was a motorcycle piece. The night before, I brought a motorcycle rider into the classroom, which had white walls and a painted floor. I told him to do burnouts until he couldn’t see anything — because of all the smoke — or until his tires gave out, and I videotaped it all. Two minutes and 45 seconds later, he couldn’t see anything, and he had to stop. I worked all night editing it into a loop. The next day the class saw the video. It had nothing to do with painting. But the smoke went into the vents and flooded all of the editing rooms.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you get in trouble?
AARON YOUNG — The next day, when I showed up to class, I was called into the dean’s office. They wanted to kick me out of school. I was freaking out, so I went over to the New Genres office and asked Tony Labat to please look at my piece. He did, and he said it was probably the best piece he’d seen in 10 years. He told me that if they kicked me out, he would quit. He was pretty much my mentor after that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How long were you at that school?
AARON YOUNG — Two-and-a-half years. I had already taken liberal arts courses in film school, so I didn’t need to do the whole four years.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you move to New York?
AARON YOUNG — Well, I got into the Havana Biennale when I was still an undergrad student because of Tony. This was in 2000. I showed the motorcycle video. It took place in the old prison in Havana. I did a performance there. Tony managed to get visas for me and a few other people in the class. We flew from Los Angeles to Havana on a specially chartered plane. After that, I got into a show in Spain. Then I graduated, but I wanted to get a master’s degree. I was accepted into two schools in Germany and one in Switzerland. I won the New Genres prize at graduation, a $3,000 award, which I used to go to the 2001 Venice Biennale, where Bob Gober was representing the US. I also wanted to check out the schools for my master’s. They said I could study in English the first year, but then I’d have to learn German. That’s when I decided to move to New York and apply to schools there. I was accepted into every one and ended up going to Yale, which I hated with a passion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why? Yale is one of the most prestigious schools. Whom did you study with?
AARON YOUNG — It’s very good for art. I didn’t study with anyone to speak of. The great things were the associate professors that came in and the lectures. It was also a great introduction to New York because everybody from there visits Yale — galleries, museum people, collectors, etc. My first class at Yale — I’m always good in the first class — was with Barbara London. She created the film and video department at MoMA. She looked at my work and told me to give her a call when I graduated. Because of her, MoMA bought two pieces from the first show I did after Yale. They bought that motorcycle piece, the one I made as an undergrad in San Francisco. It’s in the per­manent collection. The second piece they bought, called Good Boy, has a dog swinging from a rope clamped in its mouth, and it spins in the air for about two minutes, growling. The owner of the dog is off to one side, out of view. You can hear him saying, “Good boy, good boy, good boy.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you started with video?
AARON YOUNG — Yes, but I studied sculpture at Yale, so I got more into that. The motorcycle paintings came out of that one video. Almost everything I’ve ever done has come out of that video. It was a springboard for me — translating video ideas into objects.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you get the idea of doing the motorcycle video?
AARON YOUNG — Well, the first video was done in a space used as a studio by Diego Rivera when he was painting a mural in San Francisco in 1931. The floor had been painted over many times with a standard industrial gray paint, so when the guy did his motorcycle burnouts he wore through years and years of paint. We noticed burnt umbers and greens from the time when it was Rivera’s studio. I held onto that image and decided to make paintings with it in mind. That’s when I was offered to do the performance at the Armory in 2007, through the Art Production Fund.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What serves as support for the paintings?
AARON YOUNG — They’re done on aluminum, onto which different layers and combinations of paint are applied. The first performance was in a gigantic place. It had bleachers way up to the ceiling. I didn’t want to use subtle colors for that performance because they have to be revealed before your eyes. The last color I put down was black.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What other colors did you use?
AARON YOUNG — I started with a neon yellow, then neon pink, orange, red, and then two layers of black. I did a performance in Moscow, and it all came out red. I didn’t want to do that, but it’s hard to get paint in Moscow. I had 200 panels, so we needed many shades of color. I wanted four shades of gold, with black for the top layer — have it shine like the new capitalism, right? But they didn’t have enough gold paint, so I did four or five shades of red. The third performance — the last one — was on an active volcano in Naples, Italy, called Solfatara. I went a month before and photographed the sunset — exactly where people would be looking at the sunset — and where the stage was going to be. I used colors from the sunset, and I made the surface of the panels look like a reflecting pond with different shades. Then I put the black on top of that. We did the performance at sunset, with four guys from Ducati and my main rider, Wink 1100. They did burnouts, revealing the reflection.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it a public performance?
AARON YOUNG — An audience was invited. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I didn’t want to do a private performance. I once got asked to do a gala in Saint Petersburg for rich people in tuxedos and ball gowns. I’m not interested in that. I mean, you don’t have to be an art critic or a scholar to understand those paintings. So why would I want to do one for a bunch of rich people standing around waiting for me to dance like a monkey? [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Does each panel become a separate painting?
AARON YOUNG — Well, I’ll photo­graph the whole thing and choose maybe three panels for one painting, six for another, and maybe a single panel for another. But I don’t want to break them all up. I examine them all to see what’s best. After I do the performances, I sort the panels in the studio, using different combinations — this combination of two panels, this one of four panels… Then I work on them one at a time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you tell the rider exactly what to do?
AARON YOUNG — We realign the bike after every mark. Wink is really good, really strong, and he can hold it. In most of the paintings, every etching made by the burnouts is a perfect curve.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In the video, I saw that you used something special on the motorcycle.
AARON YOUNG — We call it a “spinner.” We replaced the kick­stand with a little metal pipe because Wink can make perfect circles using it — he can turn on it like a compass or a protractor. We welded a frame around the bike and welded the metal pipe onto it so that he could lean all of the weight of the bike onto the little pipe. He can do perfect circles.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you developed motorbike painting.

30 Days and 30 Nights, 2011, enamel on linen, 72 x 36 inches, ALWAYS & FOREVER LTD, all rights reserved

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s backtrack a bit. When did you arrive in New York?
AARON YOUNG — In 2004. When I got there, the art world was a windfall for everyone. It was a great time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When did you meet Dash Snow?
AARON YOUNG — In 2005. I met Dan Colen around the same time, maybe late 2005. I knew Nate Lowman because he and I worked at the Dia Foundation on 22nd Street in 2001. So I met him before I went to Yale.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The Dia Foun­dation’s not there anymore, is it?
AARON YOUNG — They sold the building. I was on the painting crew. I lasted only two months, but I met Nate. He was one of those guys who reads his book and says, “Please don’t touch the artworks.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — That New York seems so long ago now.
AARON YOUNG — There was so much energy compressed into one scene — well, at least for us, there was. We were in a lot of the same shows, so we were traveling together, meeting the same people…

OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems like a new scene evolves in New York every five years or so. What was it like for you?
AARON YOUNG — It was all pretty open because in New York so many different things are happening all the time. It was a rush of new experiences, new people, nights that turned into mornings — and so much traveling that you’re in a kind of hurricane.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you achieved instant success?
AARON YOUNG — Yes. The opportunities seemed endless at that point. I was in the Whitney Biennial two years after I finished graduate school. Dash and Dan were in that one, too. It was exciting. The thing is, that kind of opportunity still exists. It’s happening every day. I just think it was all kind of nth-degree in 2006, 2007, and 2008. And you can only burn the candle at both ends for so long.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you can’t keep the energy up?
AARON YOUNG — You get bored with it, with trying to keep things fresh, hoping to get inspired.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this still the case?
AARON YOUNG — It’s the case for your lifetime.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s it like to be an American artist, today? America and New York are still the center of the art world, in a way.
AARON YOUNG — So they say. But I think that’s changing. Places like Berlin are becoming centers. Berlin seems to be a melting pot of artists these days, ones from all over Europe. Friends of mine from New York are moving there. Los Angeles is blowing up, too. I have friends who moved their gallery from Miami to LA, and they’re doing well. Los Angeles is starting to be a good place for artists. I think it’s one of the reasons Jeffrey Deitch was pushing Hollywood people to get involved with art, with the museums and galleries. Once Hollywood gets behind you, good things can happen.

OLIVIER ZAHM — For you, too, maybe?
AARON YOUNG — I’ll start making movies again.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have one in mind?
AARON YOUNG — Yes, but I’m not sure I want to go through the torture of it again. Everyone dreams of making a movie. The real goal of it is to translate your vision. But most films aren’t conceived that way. They go through a process of financial and intellectual compromise, especially the big movies. They have to get over the hurdle of the studios that don’t give a shit about ideas, only about the box office.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Not many artists can deal with that. Julian Schnabel is an exception.
AARON YOUNG — Yes, he is, and he makes good films. The thing is, my videos are short: one take. I let everything happen within the frame. I try to make it as honest as I possibly can, and not use any smoke and mirrors or editing to bring you from one place to another. Everything happens right there. That’s what I like about commercials: the time frame is really a kind of experimental space. I would love to do commercials because it’s interesting to work in a format of 15 or 30 seconds, or a minute. You can put a lot of ideas into that much time. Music videos are just the length of a song, and you can put a lot of ideas into a song. A film has a climax after an hour or so of developing the characters and the story. But in a commercial, you can say it all with just one line. By the way people are presented, you know exactly what’s going on with them. If they’re presented correctly, you don’t have to deal with a story and a climax. We live in such an instant world, one that’s more conducive to the commercial format.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like commercials because you like creating strong effects with powerful images?
AARON YOUNG — Yes. That’s one of the reasons that when I’m in a group show I always try to make the piece people see when they first walk in — “the hammer,” I call it. I make works that are site-specific for the space because I want the people off the street to get hit with that hammer when they walk in.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s always a kind of violence in your videos. Where does it come from?
AARON YOUNG — If I’m going to show something aggressive, it has to also be poetic, for lack of a better term. I need that juxtaposition, the two sides of the same coin.

Untitled (Barricade), 2008, steel and 24 kt gold, 48 x 48 x 42 inches, ALWAYS & FOREVER LTD, all rights reserved

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you mean that you need something precious?
AARON YOUNG — Precious, or fragile. I do pieces where I kick a video camera around. I’ve done five now — I started them at Yale. The first one I did was on a frozen lake in Upstate New York. I set up the camera and let it run for 20 to 25 seconds, filming the landscape, and then I came up behind it and kicked it as hard as I could, and it kept running. I continued to kick the camera, again and again, until the image started to disintegrate. Usually this happens after three or four minutes, but they’ve gone on as long as eight minutes before they break. That’s the end of the video. And that’s the only editing I do: I kick the camera. It stops and refocuses, and then I kick it again. It’s like an edit, right there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the camera refocusing automatically all this time?
AARON YOUNG — Yes, it’s set on auto-focus — otherwise when I kick it, it would be a total blur. The next time I did it, I kicked a camera through the garden at Versailles. Then I kicked a camera through Red Square in Moscow — an American kicking his camera past Lenin’s grave and into St. Basil’s Cathedral. All of the videos have their own politics, but it’s the same action. I also did one around the Colosseum in Rome. The latest one was for my show in Paris. I kicked a camera through Arlington Cemetery, where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is, and where JFK and Jackie O are buried.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you always do it in public?
AARON YOUNG — There are always people passing by. Sometimes they pay attention, but most of the time they don’t. I was stopped in Red Square at 11 o’clock at night by three cops. They tried to arrest me. They didn’t know my camera was running. I put my finger over the red dot, and I videoed them trying to arrest me. I had an assistant with me, from the Moscow Biennale. She talked them out of arresting me and I actually got to put the camera back down on the ground and kick it around some more.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you show the videos?
AARON YOUNG — I usually project them, but it depends on which one. I don’t want it to be intrusive, like in a short film. I projected the dog piece larger than life. For the camera-kicking ones, I use a monitor set on the ground, so you get the right perspective.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you come up with your titles — like Never Work or The Right Way To Do Wrong?
AARON YOUNG — The Right Way To Do Wrong is the title of the first magazine Houdini made. I appropriate the titles from different places. Like most artists, I always have a notepad and pen with me, and I’m constantly reading and jotting down notes. Sometimes a show begins with just a title, and I work around it. Some of the flag paintings have titles taken from slogans of the Ford Motor Company — they had different slogans for each year’s new cars. The slogans work well for the flag paintings because they also reference the death of the automobile industry.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain that fact that art is still selling so well, in spite of the recession?
AARON YOUNG — I don’t know. I don’t want to get into what sells and what doesn’t. Actually, Jeffrey Deitch has a lot to do with it. When the stock market is erratic and the housing market is insane, people need something to put their money into, so they buy art. I’m simplifying, but art that you pay a lot of money for usually holds its value. So it’s not as risky as stocks and bonds.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You also like to play with gold, don’t you?
AARON YOUNG — I was doing those crushed fences in 24-karat gold when gold was at its highest price, so the value of the work has actually decreased. I tried to play with that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like the German artist, Hans Haacke.
AARON YOUNG — He did the Venice Biennale in 1993. It was a great installation, called Germania. There were steps leading up to the German Pavilion, and he crushed them all, hammered them to rubble.

OLIVIER ZAHM — He hammered the whole floor.
AARON YOUNG — It had to be redone after his piece was over.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What are you most proud of?
AARON YOUNG — Pulling it off — getting away with making art. It’s a complicated mission — actually succeeding in getting 13 motorcycle riders from the Bronx and Brooklyn to come in and do burnouts for eight minutes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So the process is important for you.
AARON YOUNG — Very. I’m also really proud of The Casa Sanchez Project, a work I made when I was in school in San Francisco. The Mission District is heavily Hispanic, and there are a lot of taquerias where you can tell them how you want your taco made. One taqueria called Casa Sanchez had an advertisement that read “Lunch for Life.” They had a little Mexican guy in a sombrero riding on a rocket of corn-on-the-cob between his legs. I saw it as I was walking down the street, and I went in and asked them what it meant. They told me that if you tattooed their logo on your body, they would give you a taco and a beer or a soft drink every day for the rest of your life.

AARON YOUNG — Yes, and I thought, hey, they have a total system going here: playing off the economy, trying to get advertising, like a brand — a tattoo of their logo! I took their pamphlet, and every time anyone within a block’s radius of the place asked me if I had any spare change, I’d say, “I won’t give you any change, but I will pay for you to get a tattoo,” and I showed the pamphlet to them. I got a black guy, a white guy, and a Mexican guy to do it. They all got the tattoo on their right butt cheek. So they can walk in every day, drop their pants, and get a free taco and a beer — for the rest of their lives. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have pictures of all this?
AARON YOUNG — I do. It goes: ass, taco, ass, taco, ass, taco — like that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What are you working on? Did you finish the video with the car falling into a hole?
AARON YOUNG — We showed that at the Venice Film Festival, with the collaborative works of James Franco, Douglas Gordon, Harmony Korine… Ed Ruscha did a voice-over for one of the films, and also Paul McCarthy. We’re bringing all of our works together again for an opening in May at MoCA in LA.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did all of these people collaborate on the video?
AARON YOUNG — Yes, on the video and other objects, all of which are based on rebel memories. It has a James Dean, Rebel Without A Cause nostalgia.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you invite the other artists?
AARON YOUNG — James Franco put it together. I came up with a few ideas. At first it was supposed to be just one film, but it’s grown into a large-scale installation of different pieces that all fit together. I’m also thinking about what I’m going to make for the Kentucky Derby, which is the biggest horse race in the United States, and also held in May. It’s the first time they’ve ever asked an artist to do a solo show and a large-scale work. It’ll be action-oriented — maybe a performance.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Will you use the horses in it?
AARON YOUNG — Oh, I don’t think they’d want me anywhere near their horses.


[Table of contents]

S/S 2012 issue 17

Table of contents

purple EDITO

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON





purple BEAUTY

purple TRAVEL

purple NAKED

purple NIGHT

purple SUMMER


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