Alex da CortePromises To Be Good
Interview by Bill Powers

interview by Bill Powers

2.2

Taut Eye Tau, 2015

 

At an abandoned candy factory in the heart of Philadelphia, Alex da Corte is inventing the future piece by piece. Erector Sets, food fights, Robert Gober, Homer Simpson and Nine Inch Nails: these unlikely bed fellows get intimately acquainted in his new museum show.
BP What are you up to today?
ADC I’ve been trying to make this Christmas tree sculpture, but it’s not going very well.
BP Is it hard to make something related to Christmas, because it automatically becomes seasonal?
ADC No I don’t think so. This work will be shown in the spring at Massachussets Museum of Contemporary Art.
BP Our conversation makes me think of John Armleder’s record label, Villa Magica, which only releases Christmas music. He’s interested in how the holiday and its aesthetic have spread around the world in a secular capacity to people with no regard for the religious implications.
ADC I feel that way about Halloween. I make things that are a little bit spooky all year round. It seems ridiculous to restrict that to the end of October. I’m interested in the Gothic and the Romantic. I’m interested in our fear of the unknown, and how that feeling is transposed onto a plastic object. Something seemingly benign as a plastic black cat can have rich complex history.
BP I think it was Stephen King who said there’s nothing scarier than a locked door. ADC I love that. His work – like Edgar Allen Poe’s – gnaws at the same ideas over and over again.
BP What are some of your cultural touchstones in terms of the Gothic or the Romantic?
ADC I’ve always loved Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is essentially a series of letters he writes to his absent lover, and also Frankenstein. In these books, the characters’ desires and the ways in which they cope with their solitude are made physical in stuff-hand written letters, or reassembled body parts, respectively. These characters are the sculptors or inventors I most admire.
BP The New York Times called one room from your 2015 Luxembourg & Dayan Die Hexe show a morgue that Dali would have loved. Did that resonate with you?
ADC Dali is one of those artists who was quite brilliant but is also taboo because his work is considered sort of common now-found on teeshirts and psychedelic posters in college dorms.
BP So you would never incorporate a Dali original into one of your own environments they way you have with a Robert Gober sculpture?
ADC I don’t know. I like the comparison to Dali, because I like his relationship to dreams. I appreciate his elasticity to meaning, which I see embedded in my own work. Only recently when I was visiting the Boijmans, did I really get to spend time with his works and fall in love with his formal decisions.
BP What is your interest in using other artists in your own exhibitions? Is there a type of voodoo in having a Mike Kelley sculpture co-opted into your environment? ADC There’s something important about physically understanding the artworks we admire. I want to know how they were made before they became these super precious objects locked into art history under glass. How does a Mike Kelley sculpture function in the 21st century, for a young generation of artists that doesn’t have a particular nostalgia for crocheted animals?
BP When you create a room of seven shelf pieces where one of them is an original Haim Steinbach, is it meant to be a type of mental exercise figuring out which shelf is not like the others?

ADC You start to notice more how the work operates. It calls to question what Steinbach is communicating, how the work can be special and undone or copied but never the same. We live in a world of multiplicity and yet there’s a clear line between how our works collide, each has its own  flavor.
BP In another instance, you incorporated a Bjarne Melgaard table which itself was a re-imagining of an Allen Jones table famously featured in the Milk Bar scene from A Clockwork Orange.
ADC The story I’ve heard is that Stanley Kubrick wanted the Allen Jones furniture in his movie, but Allen Jones declined so then Kubrick just copied the Jones sculptures in white. In a similar gesture, any works that were sold from Die Hexe, which incorporated one of the borrowed works, would be replicated in white.
BP You also had wallpaper of a famous Poussin painting in the same room as Bjarne’s table.
ADC That room was specically about touch. And the Poussin painting is of King Midas begging Bacchus to undo the gift of the golden touch.
BP Because anything Midas touched turned to gold – even the food – so he was starving to death.
ADC Yes exactly. That wallpaper is cropped as it was featured in the Fassbinder  film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The  film takes place in one room so it reads almost like a play. The way we know that time has passed in the movie is because the furniture has moved around. It’s been a huge in influence on my work in thinking about the set as a canvas and using everything that’s available to you: the  floor, the ceiling, the walls as a way to tell a story.
BP Your museum show in Rotterdam included a Christopher Wool text painting repositioned sideways on the fl oor. What was the significance of that?

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Alex da Corte, photography by Rory Mulligan

 

“THERE’S SOMETHING IMPORTANT ABOUT PHYSICALLY UNDERSTANDING THE ARTWORKS WE ADMIRE.”

ADC Yes. The Wool piece was freestanding in front of a Francois-Xavier Lalanne ape stove which stood on front of a Dan Flavin. The show The Living Mirror, at the Boijmans museum, was riffng on the Magritte painting, The Living Mirror, using the museum’s permanent collection to stage a show in two acts. The Wool painting plays with the phrase Helter Skelter with words that read Helter Helter. The viewer reads the word Skelter in their mind when reading Wool’s painting. The show, like the Wool painting and Magritte’s painted words, plays with this idea of mirrors and seeing things that are not necessarily there.
BP Tell me about your most recent exhibition in Milan?
ADC I did a re-staging of Waiting for Godot, only set in the suburbs. It was called Devil Town after the Daniel Johnston song of the same name.
BP In your studio now, I saw a giant Looney Tunes painting. Is that meant to be a visual THE END?

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Die Hexe, Act II Scene II, 2015

ADC Or an end. I feel as though the Looney Tunes rings recall the nine circles of Hell in this case. It’s responding to a particular verse from A Season in Hell, which is a Rimbaud poem I’ve worked with now for many years, where I interpret each of the nine parts from it. The section of the poem I am creating for the show is called Lightning, which seemed  fitting given that the MASS MoCA building once housed Sprague Electric Company.
BP And then how does your Simpson couch sculpture  fit into that thematically?ADC A Season in Hell represents an upheaval in Rimbaud’s life. The ways in which the Simpsons family storm their living room and their couch, at the beginning of each episode of The Simpsons, wreaking havoc on their otherwise peaceful home, feels like the same kind of violent upheaval Rimbaud writes about.
BP Do people always ask you, given your recent level of success, why you still live in Philadelphia?
ADC Yes and I think that’s a completely absurd question. I love it here. It’s a great city for artists and there’s a great community here. My family’s near here and I don’t see a reason to go anywhere else.
BP You’ve been using some old CD covers from Nine Inch Nails or Janet Jackson as the basis for new paintings?
ADC The painting is a sort of mask over a thing I grew up with, a familiar icon to me. I still buy CDs all the time and have a physical love for them. When I make the paintings they can almost look like quilts or patchworks where all the writing from the album covers is erased. I don’t think of them so much as paintings but as collages of memory.
BP Your new Mass MoCA show also includes a a massive tissue box which immediately recalled Oldenburg. Is he an influence?
ADC For sure. There’s a bunch of Oldenburg statues in Philly, particularly Clothespin, which I love so much. Some of my  first works were very much indebted to him. The  first sculpture I ever made was a large ketchup bottle and I walked it through the city. I’ve always admired his ability to look closely at small overlooked things and put them through the ringer, to show how something as benign as a clothespin can be as romantic as Brancusi’s (The) Kiss.