Exclusive: Clifford Owens Is Tired of Shitty Performance Art
Between open air markets filled with fish and knockoff goods, Clifford Owens leans against a wall dressed head to toe in black. He takes one last drag from his cigarette as his eyes scan the chaotic crowds typical to a midday workweek in Chinatown. It’s within this labyrinth of people that Owens will stage his first solo exhibition in seven years at the Invisible Exports gallery.
Since leaving art school, Owens has earned a reputation for breaking the rules and causing controversy through his work. His most infamous work, 2011’s Anthology at MOMA PS1, had Owens getting up close and personal with his audience, french kissing individual attendees and even stripping nude by performance’s end. He is poised to return to the forefront of groundbreaking artistry on September 11th when his new show opens to the public. Owens flicks his cigarette butt into the gutter as Milk‘s Chris Thomas crosses the busy street to meet the elusive artist for a frank discussion about the cowardice of black American artists, cum, problematic aspects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and fucking like a twenty-four year old.
This is your first solo gallery show in seven years. What can people expect to see when it opens in September?
There will be performance art, photography, and video. I’ve also been thinking about some installation pieces and there will be a few coffee and Vaseline drawings. I refer to myself as a transdisciplinary artist so there are multiple means and modes of production for the show.
How will the performance aspect work within the show?
The performances will be before the show opens. Right now I’m thinking about a series of performances for very intimate handpicked groups or individuals. I think we’ll start that quite soon and that will be really exciting and perhaps for the audience and me, it may be a bit terrifying.
A lot of your art deals with nudity and sexuality, which may terrify people. Do you use these themes to connect more directly with the audience?
I’ve actually chosen not to be nude in my performances or photography anymore. I’ve moved away from nudity in part because of vanity—I am forty-four now. Though, I have the spirit of a twenty-four year old. I like to fuck like a twenty-four year old. Sex absolutely matters. It’s a function of the human condition so it’s a social act. Again, I’m interested in social dynamics but I think when we talk about sex, we’re not just talking about sexual pleasure. I think sex is about that… it’s about fucking and cumming. There are other dimensions to the sex act, though.
You said that you fuck like a twenty-four year old. What is the wildest sexual experience you’ve had?
I don’t think it’s happened yet. I’m still waiting. There are things I would like to be done to me but they haven’t happened yet.
One day soon perhaps. You did a piece where you kissed every attendee entering the space at a past show. Should we bring chapstick to the upcoming performances?
That piece was score written by Kara Walker. I got into a lot of trouble for that. I hope that this series of performances will also unhouse the public and be provocative. It will certainly meet and perhaps exceed expectations people have of me.
I think if it’s not provocative, it’s not doing its job. Performance art is supposed to elicit audience emotions.
Ideally, but there is a lot of bad performance art—around New York especially. There are a lot of people who think they are performance artists or can make performance art and really, they can’t. I don’t like all this cute fucking performance art. It drives me crazy. Like, costumes and really bad humor. I just think it’s not serious. I don’t give a fuck about it and it’s just bad. I’ve been making performance art since 1991. The thing I love about it is that I fail publicly. I’m not afraid to fail because if you fail, you just do it again and then you do it again. Keep doing it until you get it right.
That attitude has translated into a lot of visibility for yourself as a black American artist. Is there a contrasting visibility and invisibility with American black people—men particularly?
I’m very interested in our imagined invisibility. The country’s issues with American black men are broad, complex, and difficult. However, I think that the country fears black American men for our strength and genius. For our ability to invent, reinvent, and reshape. American black men are dangerous to the white imagination. I truly believe this. Every fucking major cultural movement in this country was invented by black people.
Why do you think people fail to recognize and embrace the fact that black creativity started so many movements?
Because the love isn’t there. In some of my performances, I’ll ask the audience this very simple question: Have you ever loved a black man? So few people respond in the affirmative. It’s fascinating. It’s a really simple question and I’m so tired of hearing people talk about how black lives matter but they don’t love any black people. I’m not talking amorous love. Platonic love, you know? It trips people up.
Speaking of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as a Baltimore native have you considered any artistic projects that incorporate the movement or its message?
I wouldn’t say I’m a political artist. I’m not really sure how I feel about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I know that it is important but my concern is that the movement is an image. It’s about a representation of blackness and I don’t know if that’s enough. I don’t know if black American artists are doing enough because what I see some black American artists do is use the image of #BlackLivesMatter to promote their own interests. Some have even made commodity out of the movement.
What do you think is the root of the problem with the artists representing the movement?
I think for some black American artists to posit a position in terms of the movement presumes they are highly politicized and highly engaged with black communities in general. They are not. They are ensconced in the art gallery/museum system, which if we think critically about that system and how it functions… It’s not really vested in black lives in any way. I question the sincerity of American black artists who have exploited the #BlackLivesMatter movement. There is in fact no political art movement in this country and, in my opinion, there is no significant black artist making political art except for Dredd Scott. He’s the most important American black political artist. Period.
Do you think there will be a shift in the art world toward legitimate political art and an emerging focus on black artistry?
I don’t think black American artists will go in too deep and too far into the #BlackLivesMatter movement because it will isolate and alienate them from the market. I think there is a great deal of cowardice with a lot of American black artists in terms of their real lived political lives. Does that sound harsh?
I think that’s spot on. A recent study found that 84% of art museum staff members are white. How can black artistry even begin to break through that?
Why would you want to break into a system that doesn’t really give a fuck about you? I think that it often comes down to economics. There isn’t a significant black art collector base in this country. There are black people with incredible wealth but they don’t buy art. They buy cars and mansions instead of supporting black artists. I think until affluent black Americans begin to support black artists, we’ll never really make any significant impact in the museum and gallery system. Artists shouldn’t be so concerned with the market. They should be concerned with making art.
Is it hard to do performances in this era of technology—especially now that we’ve collectively shifted over to screens?
Absolutely. For me the kind of performance artists I’m interested in are the ones who make me aware of my own body in their presence. These phones and media mediate the experience of being there because it’s difficult for some people to make themselves present. It’s ridiculous because it’s not about the art but rather proving that one was there.
Before we go, what do you have to say to the Milk fans?
People should come to more performance art events because it is experiential. You come into the space and feel the heat. You smell the body odors, cum, and beer. You can feel people breathing on you. It places oneself in one’s own body.
Photos by Paolo Testa
Visit the Invisible Exports Gallery’s website here