[September 1 2014]
My first introduction to Nick Sethi was a copy of HCO, a zine of full color portraits of Sethi, mugging for the camera in front of Hollister ads, in a Hollister store. The owner of this zine, not an artist or a collector or even an art enthusiast, confided in me that he usually doesn’t ‘get’ or even really care about art, but that the zine was amongst his prized possessions, because it looked great and was fucking hilarious.
A few months later I had the pleasure of actually meeting Nick, looking utterly in his element somewhere neon lit and oversaturated in Miami, wearing a shirt with his own face on it. Since then I have been sort of obsessed with him. He is genuinely the most photogenic person I have ever had the pleasure to creepily take non-consensual photos of. He is also completely fucking brilliant.
To me the brilliance of Nick’s work is that it does not function in spheres. His frequently nude, often musical and always hilarious Instagram account is not another, ‘funner’ side of his photography, it is not an antidote to his more serious portraiture third world poverty, for example, but rather a companion. It is all one thought, different threads of the same completely honest cultural observation that make up the fabric Sethi’s work. It is uncompromising, uncensored and unashamed, and it happens to look great.
Here is a conversation I had with nick about his most recent photography show, Olympia, which is on view July 30th – September 3rd, 2014 at MAGIC 175 Canal Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10013
KAY GOLDBERG – So tell me about Olympia, I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it…
NICK SETHI – It’s all found Selfies that I’ve collected over the past 6 months. I’ve found over 10,000 and started categorizing them by trends or similarities. The work for this show is based on the presence of anonymity in the very attention-driven Selfie-culture of today. It deals a lot with the eyes and looking back at ones self and being the model, photographer, and audience of a photo
KAY GOLDBERG – 10,000 is a lot, where do you find the photos?
NICK SETHI – Deeeeeeeeeeep online. They’re mostly pulled from tumblr though. I’ll find one girl, and she will lead me to another one. I search a hashtag, find a place it’s re-blogged, find more there, etc. It’s a crazy system I got worked out, and most of it’s done between midnight and 6am.
KAY GOLDBERG- That’s kind of incredible, you have really found a way of completely immersing yourself in this new sort of raw material, and pulling a massive amount of content from it, I love the obsessive nature of just how much content you have collected, Its kind of a fractal praxis moment, in that the work is the material which is an extension of the process which is work, but in this case its something so many of us can relate to. I have something like 300 pictures of girl’s butts that I like in a file on my computer. This isn’t your first show of ‘found Selfies’ is it?
NICK SETHI – Hahaha sick!! So you understand the madness. No it all started because I was going tanning at my gym, since it was free, and taking naked Selfies in the tanning booth because the colors were so sick. I thought ‘if I’m doing this, I’m sure girls who tan all the time are heavy in the Selfie game’, so I set out to find them. The original series was all on tanning Selfies. But in the process of searching for them, I started finding all these other crazy trends, and it started turning into a much bigger, more psychological project.
KAY GOLDBERG – That ties into title of the show, and the image on the poster, which is Manet’s Olympia. A painting that immediately brings up questions of subject, audience, and the male gaze. There is a lot of seismic activity going on in the art world right now about female artists and the male gaze, how do you fit into that?
NICK SETHI – I hope that I have my own place in that conversation. Although I’m a male and all of the photos were all selected by me (since I couldn’t show 10,000+ photos), I tried to keep the “male gaze” as far from the work as possible. In dealing with so many photos of naked girls, I hope I was able to separate myself from the content and focus on the details and process of the project.
I was very careful to only use self-portraits in which the girls seemed to be alone, and experimenting with the camera, and with themselves. Although the ultimate consumer of the photos is usually a male, it seems like at the time the photos were taken, they were taken both by and for the female model. I used photos where the faces or eyes were intentionally cropped out, so that the gaze of the girls was felt, not seen. They were carefully posed, cropped and processed by the model to project what she thinks is sexy about herself. Anything too forced, porn-y, or apparent of any outside motivation didn’t make the cut.
As someone who takes Selfies on a daily basis for fun, humor, or art (and whose naked body can be found on the internet a thousand times over), I would hope to be able empathize with the models and show beautiful work that directly deals with the artistic and psychological ideas at hand, rather than just ‘pix of naked girls’
KAY GOLDBERG – I wont lie to you, that is probably one of the most concise explanations of Selfie-as-sex-positive-feminism I have ever heard, and I have heard a lot of them.
I really like the idea that you have a sort of personal connection with the anonymous subjects of your pictures, because of the shared experience of public internet nudity, it’s funny but it’s true, and really important. It’s not so much a spectacle thing with you as it is an exploration of something you yourself take part in. what do you think compels that? Is it an exhibitionism type thing? What is it for you personally.
NICK SETHI – I think in the case of all my work, it’s very much about how I relate to the world. I try to explore the world through exploring myself, and that’s what I see in these girls’ Selfies as well. It feels so pure… They are some of the most artistic and expressive work I’ve ever seen, because they are made from a common desire in us all to display on the outside what and how we feel on the inside. They weren’t made to be ‘art.’ They weren’t made to make a statement, and to me, that speaks louder than almost any other art form. Sexual desire, self-respect, projection of an ideal self, male gaze, female gaze, all that stuff comes into play, but they were just made because they needed to be made.
I also love that they are created by normal people, for normal people. Of course there are levels of artistic and psychological meaning behind them, but when displayed properly, most people can relate to, and understand 90% of the concept.
It’s purposely stripping everything down so that we have nothing but our bodies and the few possessions around us to create with and show how we internalize and react to the world. It’s beautiful to me. It’s like interpretive dance.
KAY GOLDBERG – I could not agree more. I like how this idea that you are documenting something as an observer and a participant. That to you there is this deeply intellectual aspect of it, but your presentation of it is very basic and open. I feel like that kind of over laps with some of the more photojournalistic stuff you’ve done, like the stuff in India. It’s something you relate to on a personal level but you are still repressing it sort of objectively, I think that’s why your stuff comes across as so honest
NICK SETHI – Thanks! Yeah like I said, I can only see the world through my own eyes, so why try to be objective about it?
KAY GOLDBERG – It’s photojournalistic stuff of third world poverty that a majority of your audience can’t relate to but through a sort of accessible lens. Like the Yellow zine you did in 2012 (http://nicksethi.com/yellow), it’s light but not in a degrading way or anything just in an honest way
NICK SETHI – In the case of the yellow zine, it’s all just about observations. It’s just 4 pictures of Indian dudes pissing against walls with a yellow cover. People piss everywhere in NYC, same as in New Delhi. It’s something I saw that I could immediately relate to and thought was funny. That stance is recognizable worldwide! Same with the Hollister zine… Just a way to interact with the world and have fun and hopefully make people laugh and realize how absurd shit is.
KAY GOLDBERG – I really like how humor works itself into your work I think it’s really important and is one of the things that makes it so successful in my opinion
NICK SETHI -To me, an ideal personality trait would be to be able to have fun anywhere… So that’s what I’m working towards. There’s fun and humor in pretty much EVERYTHING, weather it’s exploring your body in your home, hanging out in Abercrombie waiting for your girl to try on clothes, being at the DMV, or sitting on the street with poor kids in India. I realize I’m saying this as a ‘privileged’ person, born in the US, being an ‘artist’ for my job, not having to live on the street in India… And I’m the most thankful for that. But again, that’s the world I know, and it would be fake to do display it otherwise. So that’s it for me; try to have fun and make stuff that looks like the way I feel. I would be happy if I can do that!
KAY GOLDBERG – So what’s next for nick Sethi
NICK SETHI – I have two major trips to India coming up soon. Trying to lose my mind. Forget everything I’ve ever learned in my whole life and just make crazy shit and have a good time
KAY GOLDBERG – Sounds perfect, I can’t wait to see it.