God Machines, why?


Robert Longo


Mart Engelen: God machines, why?

Robert Longo: Since 9/11 our lives have changed, particularly for Americans. The whole issue of religion becomes a daily pressure. The thing that struck me the most of this horrible attack was the sophistication of it. It was incredible. I mean, to use something of yourself to destroy yourself! But it brought the issue of Islam to the West. And I realized I was in denial about Islam. So 9/11 was like a crash course in education. I know about Mecca, the Kabbah, about the 5 pillars of Islam. It was like 9/11 made the West all of a sudden go like: “Pay attention to us, this is a big religion that you should know and it is growing”. Every day in America you can find in the media a topic about religion. It is a constant pressure. I am an egomaniac but of course I do believe in God. I think you have to believe in something that is bigger than your ego. But I am very aware of the daily pressure. I grew up as a roman catholic and I dislike organized religion immensely. Everyone is so freaked out about what the Muslims are doing: Chopping people’s heads off, making women wear a burka… What do you think the Christians did a couple of hundred years ago? It’s not so different. But at the same time, during this period it is Islam that poses a kind of sanctuary in relation to contemporary life. That, by the way, has gotten out of hand because of internet and different moral values. A lot of people find religion really comforting. They like to be told what to do because there’s so much shit out there to deal with. About a year ago my wife and I went to see an exhibition at the Louvre. Suddenly we see these three incredibly dressed women coming in. I noticed they were wearing big high Chanel heels and, as you got to their faces, all of them were wearing a burka. Their eyes were beautifully made up and my wife said to me: “I would really like to wear a burka as well sometime”. And I said: “What do you mean?” She says: “Well, you know all I have to do is put a little eye make up on and I don’t have to worry about my hair or to worry about my lipstick. I wouldn’t even mind to wear the whole thing. I wouldn’t have to worry about the clothes I have to wear! Then I thought it is not a bad idea if it is a choice of the woman.

Even if you are a jealous husband it is not such a bad choice either, you know. If it was a choice that you have, it seems more interesting to me. And the churches happened because…before I did the churches I have done a series of works over a period of about 7 or 8 years of very specific different categories. I did Freud, waves, bombs, roses, plants, stars, sleeping children and sharks and then I stopped. Things kind of stopped and I got a little lost. I realized I didn’t want to do a single category anymore or matter. I wanted to do the universe, the whole complex. I wanted to do whatever I liked. I wanted to create a world. A crazy religious cousin of mine said to me: “You know your work up to the sharks, it’s a lot like Genesis”. Before I actually did the series I was reading a lot of Jung, especially about the idea of the collective unconscious….and I kept on thinking: What are the images of the collective unconscious? Could I actually make them as an artist? Did Picasso make them or Jackson Pollock? I said: “F…. it! I can’t do that”. And then I bought a Bible, I studied it and realized that although it is not in the exact order, my work is similar to Genesis. He made water, he made planets, he made stars, plants, he made sea creatures and then he made people. I kind of made the universe. But I thought of them as essentials or intimate immensities because the scales changed…children heads become really big, planets become small, waves become small. The scale of objects changed. I cannot remember exactly how it happened but I thought about the idea of transport. I was watching a little kid playing on a floor that just has been polished and he was sliding across the floor. And I started to think about that idea of movement, especially about moving without doing anything. I started to realize that this is exactly what religion is about. It is moving without doing anything. That’s also what music and sex are about. It is like going to some place without the actual physical…. I kind of use that as a little bit of a guide. I decided whenever I was moved, metaphorically speaking, I would investigate. The churches were one of the categories I investigated. But each category gets more complicated so The God Machines were a sub category of mysteries. The other day Norman Rosenblum was here. He arrived in the gallery, looked around and did not seem so interested. Someone said: “Sir, do you like the drawings?” He answered: “Drawings?” Then he realized it.

People are so trained by
photography that they don’t get it. A while ago, I asked myself why I keep on working in black and white. There was a period of time in my career I worked with color. But why do I continue in black and white? I was working on the waves when 9/11 happened. I started actually taking smoke from the images of 9/11 and I put them into the drawings. At that time a friend was sending me pictures of the WTC buildings falling down, with the smoke down at the bottom of the picture, but when it came out of the printer, it was upside down and it looked like an atomic bomb. So I went home, got all these Life magazines that I kept since I was a kid. The interesting thing about looking at these old Life magazines; one of them had Marilyn Monroe on the cover in color, there was a color series of the Queen of England and then there were photographs of Vietnam in black and white. I started to realize that maybe black and white is the truth and color is not. But black and white is also incredibly abstract.

ME: What is art?

RL: I think making art is about reporting what it is like to be alive. You can look at the work and whether it is self indulgent or decorative, it speaks. If it’s good it’s good. Art usually reflects life, the time that we live in. Art is like a commercial that has no sponsor except believing in something.

ME: Nowadays I think the whole world has become color because of the digital revolution. Everybody has a camera or telephone and they shoot in color. So, like you said, you reflect also what is happening in your life but you show it mostly in black and white?

RL: All the black and white series come from footage, pictures that I have found… that I have stolen. I’m an image thief… I may have stolen some of your pictures. The thing is, I found them on the internet. What I do, if I want for instance churches, I tell my assistant to find me all the images of Mecca and then we piece together all the images. So the difference between my work and a photograph is that my work is the composite of photographic imagery. You could never make a photograph of what I do. Because for instance Mecca, the Kabbah is bigger than it really is, bigger proportionally. It is all put together. Like the Rock band that you can see over here is from three different people from three different rock
bands. The Forest is a picture of the forest that I stretched and I added trees. In this digital age I still use a very old Xerox machine. I usually Xerox everything, cut it in pieces and then we try to do it on the computer.

ME: The three big works – Mecca, St Peter’s and the wall in Jerusalem – downstairs to me feels like entering a temple. Why did you make them so big?

RL: {Laughing} Well, they’re not as big as the real places are. Do you know the book by Wittgenstein called Zettel? I am dyslectic. I never was a big reader until I became sober and then I needed something to help me fall asleep. I started to read books about philosophy, psychology, things that would help me with my art. But I could never read this really heavy duty stuff. Zettel is a book (it means strips of paper in German) that has one line sentences like: “Do pict ures make worse, or worse pictures”. Things like that. A friend of mine was joking and gave me this book, he said this is a lot like Zettel, and it contains one liners by Napoleon, and a one liner of Napoleon was: I don’t care about art as long as it is big. So I thought that Napoleon must be an American because in America if it’s big it is good, if it’s big, shiny and new it is even better. Big is very much an American thing.Once my uncle took me to this fancy restaurant, the waiter came with these really tiny clams and my uncle said: “What is this?” {Laughs} He was such a peasant! He didn’t know that the little ones were more expensive than the big ones. But I also think that making something this big has a lot to do with a commitment to an image, fidelity to that image. If I would have made eight separate drawings I could have made a lot more money. {Laughs} But I wanted to make a thing that expresses how I feel about the situation. It is really weird because it is not the people who believe that is causing the problem but it is the people who like to dictate it. Like drawing a picture of St Peter’s you realize this is not really a church about God. This is a church for the Popes and about the Popes. The irony is that Mecca is the only drawing that has people on it. Because Islam for me is the religion that seems to be alive right now. And it is the fastest growing religion in the world, almost as big as Christianity. Judaism is obviously a smaller religion, scale wise, but still has a huge presence.

ME: You just mentioned you are making American art?

RL: Well, I think I make American art, like Kiefer makes German art. It’s like a curse. I can’t avoid being an American. I grew up after the Second World War when we thought we were all good guys and then we found out we were not. When 9/11 happened it felt like some little kid came up to the biggest, “baddest” boy in the neighborhood and knocked his two front teeth out. The boy acts really stupid and does not try to understand why the little kid did such a thing. So he is going to kill this kid and all the little kids in the neighborhood. There was no attempt to understand why the terrorists did this. And why do people hate Americans? This is because America is the only country in the world that is not based on religion, race or ethnics. It is based on the idea of team sports. Americans are very competitive so when 9/11 happened everything turned into a game. We had to win this game. When we talk about Irak they talk about winning… you don’t win in Irak. You get rid of that crazy guy and get out of there. Instead we have to win. What are we winning?

ME: A whole generation of students and people who love art are influenced by your series “Men in the Cities”. Isn’t that irritating?

RL: You bet!

ME: I can imagine. They keep on talking about “Men in the Cities”.

RL: In the last 10 years a number of younger artist have worked for me. And a lot of these artists who came to see me did not actually know I have made those works. They only knew the work of the last 10 years. My first instinct was like: “You don’t know who I am?” But then I realized this is great. They are paying attention to what I just did. When you get older as an artist the most difficult thing to do is to stay relevant. I mean, how do you stay relevant? Repeat your stuff? “Men in the Cities” has been something that I have been running away from since 1982. I mean I stopped it.

ME: Suddenly a fashion brand comes along and asks you to do the campaign?

RL: This is unusual. There was this exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the main hall they had three big Men in the Cities drawings hanging; they were like 9 by 5 ft. One of them was of Cindy Sherman, the second was of Frank Schroder and the third was Jack Goldstein,
I think. One of my son’s friends said to me: “This is over 2 years ago, did you get the idea of these drawings from the iPod ads?” Those drawings are 30 years old, the series ”Men in the Cities” has got to a point where it entered the culture so completely that authorship of the work did not exist
anymore. Nobody knows who made them. Which is an incredible compliment but also a little bit sad. If you are really lucky in your life as an artist you can create an archetype or a style but after that you have to make a decision. Do you keep doing it for the rest of your life or do you try to get away from it? I deliberately try to get away from what I have been doing and also from style and brand. For many artists the goal was to establish an archetypal image and to a point where it was a brand. After that it did not really matter what you did within that brand. It became unquestionable and people just said: “I have to have one of those blablabla…” because it is a brand. In the culture that we are living in right now branding is like a science. I mean, they teach you this it at the Universities What is branding? What is the content? For these people it does not really matter what it is you are selling or making. But if you establish a brand, people will buy it.

ME: Are you already inspired for the future by other things?

RL: Oh yeah. I look at my work and I only see the mistakes. Maybe I should make one more and try to make it perfect. I don’t think it’s completely finished yet. Every couple of months a new subject or character pops up.

ME: Is it still possible for a novice collector to acquire a Robert Longo for a reasonable price?

RL: I have no idea. But I found a technique which is wonderful: inkjet printing. There is a man in Washington who has these really old machines and he makes prints for me. He prints them 3 or 4 times with the ink. They get really black. I actually like the prints sometimes better than the drawings. We print them big and make small editions for very reasonable prices. Making art and selling is a complicated issue for me. You eventually hope that what you do ends up in a place where a lot of people get to see it. It’s kind of hard to hang these drawings downstairs above
your couch

—Copyright 2011 Mart Engelen


Robert Longo and friends. Paris 2011 20th anniversary of the Ropac Gallery Paris at Maxim’s



Privat concert Barbara Sukowa and the X- Patsys, Theatre Pierre Cardin, Paris 2011