interview by BOB NICKAS
portrait by TERRY RICHARDSON
A norwegian artist, now living in New York, GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON’s work incorporates a veritable rogues gallery of assassins and mad bombers—from Lincoln’s murderer, John Wilkes Booth, to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to Al Pacino as Scarface—into artistic representions of a “tragic ideal of individualism,” which he identifies as being particularly American. Einarsson is clearly drawn to the darker side of life, but always at a remove and often with a wry sense of humor, shifting away from the overtly political art of the 80s and 90s. Who but an artist and outsider could have staged a play written by the Unabomber?
BOB NICKAS — There are three small paintings here, and each one says: “I Am The Master of My Fate, I Am The Captain Of My Soul.”
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — That’s Timothy McVeigh. He gave a note to a priest before his execution. He gave this as his final statement. It’s from the poem, “Invictus,” by Thomas Moore.
BOB NICKAS — Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building, and killed how many people?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Around 460. A lot of them were kids, because there was a kindergarten. One of the reasons he used to justify bombing the building was that the people in it were like the storm troopers in Star Wars. Individually—to him—they weren’t so bad, but they represented the Evil Empire.
BOB NICKAS — He also said that the bombing was revenge for Waco.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — He was actually there. He sold bumper stickers outside at the siege of Waco. There is an image of him sitting on the hood of his car with bumper stickers laid out, of all these anti-government slogans.
BOB NICKAS — I’m curious about how you’re drawn to certain figures. There have been references in your work to John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, and to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber—that is, to both historical and contemporary assassins. What roles do they play?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — They represent this tragic ideal of individualism. They have a problem with community. They want to belong very strongly to a community, but they also want to distance themselves from being influenced by its decision-making. They always come to a really tragic and semi-pathetic conclusion. Timothy McVeigh is about to die, and says: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” There is a pathetic quality to it that I find attractive. I’ve also made work about related examples of this individualism, like Ol’ Dirty Bastard—someone who keeps bumping into society’s constraints.
BOB NICKAS — There are American artists who look to the past and to outlaw figures. Cady Noland is the first who comes to mind; she also referred to Lincoln’s assassination, and to Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of Kennedy. When you examine these figures, as she did, you realize that America was born in violence, and that the outlaw can be seen as heroic/romantic. We mythologize outlaws. Jesse James is a good example. He wasn’t a Robin Hood. He stole from rich and poor alike. It didn’t matter to him.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — He just wanted the money.
BOB NICKAS — McVeigh, Booth, Kaczynski, Oswald—these are all American figures, and although assassination happens all over the world, it seems like we do it the best.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Ha-ha, exactly. At the core idea of America is freewheeling individualism, which to a certain extent is pretty likeable. Coming from Norway, in terms of the relation to community, Norway is pretty much the polar opposite of America. Some of my work comes out of the shock of getting to know American culture intimately, and finding the cowboy individualism—which is still there—quite appealing. Of course, a lot of the time in my work it ends up being unappealing. It’s taken to an extreme where it no longer functions. That’s one of the things I’m interested in—this desire for opposition, for complete individual freedom that is bound to fail. I’m drawn to that.
BOB NICKAS — You had a piece in your first New York show that was untitled, but had a very loaded subtitle: “Your wages, your blankets, and your right to suck cocks won’t do any good, because we’ll all drown.” It was a floor piece, a pile of nondescript blankets. Your work, for all of its being really direct and blunt, and often spoken as a direct voice, is visually hermetic. You still need to read the object by way of the text, or know the references. I later found out that the subtitle was taken from a play written by Ted Kaczynski. How did you come across that?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Matias Faldbakken and I had a publishing project in Norway. We published Kaczynski’s manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Discontents.” I was doing research about how he spent his time in prison, and I came across his play on the Internet, which he’d written in 1999. He’d already been in prison for a while, and knew he was going to be there for the rest of his life.
BOB NICKAS — I can’t imagine the prison authorities letting him stage it.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — He never did. But I like that idea. It’s similar to the end of the Marquis de Sade’s life when he was in a low-security insane asylum outside of Paris. He would write plays in the asylum and stage them with the inmates for the local nobility.
BOB NICKAS — Well, I don’t think Ted Kaczynski is going to be invited to stage his play at the Kennedy Center in Washington!
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — [laughs] I really like that his ideas basically took two forms: a letter-bombing spree and theater—two unlikely and equally pathetic ways of getting a message across.
BOB NICKAS — How did you decide to realize the piece in that form? It looked like a pile of Army surplus blankets.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — I like my work to have levels of meaning that aren’t apparently readable, that don’t open up on the first take. I was looking for a way to reference the play without being too literal, to use just the prop and to make the viewer read—or even be unable to read—the prop. Some people said, “Oh, it looks like a work by Joseph Beuys,” and I like that it was peripherally similar.
BOB NICKAS — I didn’t see it that way. It was so pathetic, and Beuys is so theatrical.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — My piece is the opposite of a Beuys [who sought psychological healing in performances and iconic objects like felt, fat, and electricity]. Mine is the opposite of healing. It’s like a failure to heal. It could also be seen in relation to the play, as this cultural medium that didn’t open up, that was in some way castrated.
BOB NICKAS — By choosing those particular lines from the play, you totally overload an object that appears mute.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — It was very much textual without having any text in the actual piece. I quite like that.
BOB NICKAS — How did you decide to stage the play?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — I had wanted to do it for a while. I initially wanted to use school kids.
BOB NICKAS — That would have been fantastic.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — The play is written like a kids’ theater play. The lines are very simple. There’s a lot of repetition.
BOB NICKAS — There’s a history of the child society, one without parental order, unbound by society’s rules: “We’re taking over!“
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Everyone in the play, except for the cabin boy, has a simplistic relationship to authority. Although they are continuously repressed, they have an incompetent way of rejecting the people in charge.
BOB NICKAS — Was the play videotaped?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Yes.
BOB NICKAS — Well, if you want to have your phone bugged for the rest of your life, you should send a copy of the tape to Ted Kaczynski. Although you might not get into the country the next time you come back.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Oh yeah, that’s a good idea.
BOB NICKAS — The play was very compact, and parts were very funny, but at the same time I had the feeling that this is the “lite” entertainment version of the manifesto.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — In a way it’s a children’s book version of a real book. It’s intentionally and unintentionally funny, and then it rings sort of true. The play is set on a boat, and the captain and officers have fallen in love with their own seamanship. They set sail to the North Pole to challenge themselves. It’s clear to everyone, once they get there, that they will be crushed by the ice, but they keep sailing north. The crew and the passengers stage protests against the captain and officers. They know they’re sailing to their eventual death, but they keep bickering about these small issues—equal rights for women, equal pay, animal rights …
BOB NICKAS — And they want more blankets because it’s getting colder.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Each of the crew-members and passengers is a stereotype from the Left. The Left is really the Unabomber’s nemesis. So there is a Mexican, a Native American, an animal rights activist. But the worst is a character the Unabomber would have the most distaste for, a college professor who doesn’t really have any gripes of his own. Apart from the Captain, the College Professor is the real bad guy.
BOB NICKAS — You’ve just done a painting of Mickey Mouse, who says, “In order to unmask him, all I have to do is follow in his footsteps.” Who originally said that? And how does he fit into your rogue’s gallery?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Mickey … [laughs] … when he’s being a sort of clever detective. He’s the problem-solver in Disney cartoons. That image is taken from a book called How To Read Donald Duck, by Armand Mattelart and Ariel Dorfman. It’s the first thing Seth Siegelaub published after he quit running a gallery. Mickey looks sort of angry and his thought bubble reads, “In order to unmask him, all I have to do is follow in his footsteps.”
BOB NICKAS — It doesn’t seem like something he’d say—more like something you would have inserted.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — But it’s totally appropriated. I haven’t changed it at all. The work that I’ve been doing around the Unabomber, and all the work in the show at Team Gallery [NYC], on a certain level, is about all this outlaw stuff, the role you have as an artist, how it’s possible to express ideas through art, but also the quasi-impotency of contemporary art as a vehicle for expressing ideas. In a way, this painting was supposed to be about that. As a painting, it looks very clearly like Pop …
BOB NICKAS — You’re not really a painter. You’re more like a sign painter. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — I also call my paintings “prop paintings.” They function more like a prop than a painting.
BOB NICKAS — You don’t even hang them. They’re always on blocks, leaning against the wall, as if somebody was walking around with them in the street and left them behind in the gallery. You had a wall painting in that show, on the very back wall, in big black letters: SST, which refers to sic semper tyrannis—thus always to tyrants—what John Wilkes Booth shouted when he shot Lincoln. He was an actor and jumped from the balcony to the stage after he shot him. I made a connection in your show to how you stage things in a particular way—the object, its presentation, how the space of the gallery is blocked out. There’s not a performance, but the object has to perform.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — That’s right. I want there to be some kind of contingency to the objects. They’re not beautiful, self-enclosed objects. They’re simply made, maybe half-finished, and there’s always something beyond them. The paintings are unfinished because I want them to be about this person making them. Part of the point of the painting is that it talks about what it means to make a painting.
BOB NICKAS — If you think about the politically based, text-based work of the 90s, what was often appropriated was an official voice, a mimicking of the voice of authority. With your work the unfinished and hand-painted quality of the lettering, and how it’s presented, is not a voice of authority. You say it’s a prop, and of course the prop stands in for the person who would be speaking directly to the viewer.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — I want it to be clear that the object is my attempt at conveying the meaning. The object points to my having made it, to my attempt at making something visible. That’s what I really want to keep, and that’s why they’re so unfinished and sort of poorly made.
BOB NICKAS — With post-80s/90s art it’s clear that artists aren’t revisiting the political art of that time, or appropriation as it was practiced then. There is a more subtly political, appropriative work being made now. Some of the artists from that time, Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger, for example, might mimic the look and voice of advertising. That was good work, and still is good work, but what’s being produced today feels more layered, more complex in its references, drawing attention to its own vulnerability. Someone like Kelley Walker is the perfect example of a post-80s/90s approach.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Work today sort of problematizes its own context, maybe a little more than some late 90s political work, which was self-righteously political, and very much wholly identifying itself with a political cause—unmasking a great injustice. People now work around their own position within those issues, questioning their own stands, being present in the work as a sort of interpreter, or a failed interpreter.
BOB NICKAS — That makes me think about the piece you did for the Istanbul Biennial. The big billboard with light bulbs that spelled out: “The World Is Yours.”
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — They wanted people to spend time there and for the work to be specifically related to the city. I went twice and stayed a few weeks. I walked around a lot. I didn’t know Istanbul at all. It’s enormous. Around 13 million people, and by far the biggest city in Europe. It’s a mix of the most expensive real estate and sort of shanty-town architecture. It has a William Gibson feel: medieval life up against high-tech luxury. I’m interested in such a model of cities of the future, a city that’s not wholly new and gentrified, but where things coexist in this unfound way. The piece I made comes from the film Scarface. Tony Montana sees a sign, and it says, “The World Is Yours.” But he understands it as the American Dream as: “You have a right to take.” It’s what sets him on his total downward spiral.
BOB NICKAS — I blame the drugs, as always.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — [laughs] “The World Is Yours” is both a hopeful and a tragic statement. In Istanbul, I put the sign on top of an apartment building that faces a valley. Traditionally it’s a place where you find petty criminals and thieves. I wanted it to be a statement, maybe like the world or the future belongs more to this type of city, and I also wanted it to establish a relationship with criminal characters similar to Al Pacino in Scarface. The statement is both an empty promise and a realizable dream.
BOB NICKAS — I would have climbed up with a hammer and knocked out the bulbs in the Y. When they turned it on that night, it would say: “The World Is Ours.”
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — That’s good. It’s a more likeable, less the headed-for-disaster version.
BOB NICKAS — Who is your art for?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — I see my art as having different levels of entry, as being for different groups of people. There’s a small core group who will get all the references, and will relate to it on every level. But I also want my work to be for anyone who comes into the gallery—not only for the people who read the same books as me. It’s for them, too, but I also want it to be for people who may only get a tenth of what the work is about. I like it when people who don’t have a shared cultural interest come up and say that they have some kind of relation to my work.
BOB NICKAS — Who buys your art?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Not very many people! [laughs] It’s rare actually that people who buy my art aren’t serious collectors. It’s not the kind of work that you go in and say: “Oh, let’s get that as our first art piece.” That doesn’t really happen.
BOB NICKAS — You’ve done a lot of wall paintings, for which you’re pretty well known. Those aren’t seen as easily collectible.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Yeah. I hear that a lot—although they do sell from time to time.
BOB NICKAS — I was surprised that people were upset with the wall painting that said: “Total Revolution.” Unbelievable.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — That’s one of the things I like—when a viewer totally misunderstands. But I think it’s so obvious, in that work that it’s not supposed to be taken at face value. When you see it up close, it’s clear that it took a long time to paint; it’s not just scrawled on the wall. I am problematizing that statement, and the possibility to make such a statement in such a context—a museum—and from a privileged point of view. But because the clues are there, those people might get that the misunderstanding is a total misunderstanding. That creates an interesting starting point for thinking about the work, and to actually engage with it.
BOB NICKAS — Reading has always informed your ideas. What are you reading now?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — A really good book that I want to curate a show around, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology. It’s a collection of essays by Eric Santner, who I really like, on the idea of Christian dogma of loving thy neighbor as thyself. He wrote a book called My Own Private Germany about Judge Schreber, the guy who writes about being impregnated by God with sunlight up his asshole. It’s a classic case of schizophrenia, from Germany in the 1890s.
BOB NICKAS — They don’t have sodomy laws in Germany? Or don’t they apply to the Creator?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Yeah, not to the Creator. He can do what he wants. Schreber was Freud’s case study of schizophrenia. He ended up being appointed head district judge in Saxony, a position he’d been jockeying for his whole life. Then he has a crisis of authority, suddenly doubting that he can be the one to judge. He starts to unravel and has a mental breakdown. It’s a really good book.
BOB NICKAS — Given the range of your interests you might have ended up somewhere else, besides a gallery.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — [laughs] The thing is, I like the ability that you can have in art to be sort of wide-ranging. In spite of the whole institutional dialogue, the possibilities are wider than they are in most other areas. I like that relative lack of institutional structure. At least with the type of work that I do, I don’t really have to go through a lot of people to make it.
BOB NICKAS — Do you even have a studio?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — No. But I wish I did. In my case, when I decide what I need to do, the doing of it is just a sort of semi-mechanical process, and it happens fast. Studio work for me is sitting on the Internet, reading, all this stuff I do here in my apartment.
BOB NICKAS — What work interests you today?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Since we just ran into Dan Graham at the coffee shop, I must say—and this is a bit unoriginal—I like his work a lot. I even like the pavilions. And I like Vito Acconci a lot.
BOB NICKAS — You used to work for Vito.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — For two years. I wasn’t involved in the creative process, just filing things about his earlier work—the art, not the architecture.
BOB NICKAS — These are characters from the 60s/70s who dealt with social space, and also with an idea of staging and theatricality, certainly going on into architecture. Vito goes from performance to…
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — He goes from poetry to art to architecture.
BOB NICKAS — In the end, it’s all about language.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — He wrote himself off the page and out of the poetry books. He broke out of the constraints of art space, and then he wanted to build in real space. For both Dan and Vito their work concerns the individual versus the community. In Vito’s architecture, he talks about wanting to build something that includes public space, but that also makes room for the psycho-killer.
BOB NICKAS — A lot of the work he submits for public projects doesn’t get produced. One of my favorites was a bus shelter for a high school. What he designed looked like there had been a bus shelter that the kids blew up. I think he even referenced the Alice Cooper song “School’s out … forever!” So of course he lost that competition.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — I was recently commissioned to make a public art piece in Norway for a high school. I’m using a quote from Philip K. Dick’s second-to-last book, Valis. At that point in his life Dick was super-paranoid, and had totally lost his mind. The quote will be in metal letters, a kind of motto for the school: “1. Those who agree with you are insane. 2. Those who don’t agree with you are in power. 1. Some of those in power are insane. 2. And they are right.”
BOB NICKAS — This was accepted?
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Yes. It will be over the main entrance of the high school. The kids will see it as they enter the school every day. It’s a good introduction to authority—on how to relate to authority.
BOB NICKAS — That would have never been accepted in America. I guess Norway is a fairly open-minded place.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — Yeah, we like to put our repression under cover.
BOB NICKAS — That’s why it’s called repression.
GARDAR EIDE EINARSSON — We like to repress our repression.
[Table of contents]
Report from the ShowsRead the article
by Pierre Even
Fall Winter 2006/2007: Vincent Gallo
by Terry Richardson
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
Gardar Eide Einarsson
by Bob Nickas
by Gary Indiana
by Olivier Zahm
by Yan Céh
by Glenn O'Brien
by Carlo Antonelli
by Olivier Zahm
by Olivier Zahm
Camille Bidault Waddington
by Horst Diekgerdes
by Alexei Hay
by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin
by Matthias Vriens
by Katja Rahlwes
The Genealogy of Morals
by Serge Leblon
by Liz Collins
by Jork Weismann
by Vava Ribeiro
Dick & James, A True Story
by Juergen Teller
Pete Doherty, Latest News
by Hedi Slimane
Yves Saint Laurent Cruise Winter 2007
by Nathaniel Goldberg
by Heinz Peter Knes
New York Dolls
by Terry Richardson
by Katsuya Kamo
A View On The French Art Scene
by Pierre Even
She Smiles For The Camera
by Christopher Wool