Kayode Ojo's Embarrassment of Riches
Simon Wu considers how the artist’s shiny sculptural configurations reflect the art world’s taste back at itself
Simon Wu considers how the artist’s shiny sculptural configurations reflect the art world’s taste back at itself
‘No, this isn’t where Anna Delvey stayed!’ the artist Kayode Ojo retorts, as he greets me in the garden of New York’s Public Hotel. We are meeting here because it is close to his studio and because he finds the building’s architecture interesting – a project of hotelier Ian Schrager, who designed the famous nightclub Studio 54. Ojo’s rolodex of references is indiscriminate – from the paeans of Taylor Swift to the novels of Bret Easton Ellis – but he has a particular fascination with modernist architecture, especially the brutalist architect Paul Rudolph. ‘Brutalism fell out of fashion because it failed to deliver on its promises of transparency,’ he says. We look up at the hotel’s glazed windows. ‘You think you can see through the building, and have this sense of access, but the people with power are private, hidden.’
At the time of our meeting, Ojo is working on a show set to open this spring, concurrent with the Venice Biennale, at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia. For reasons partly logistical, partly artistic, he is planning the largest-scale installation he’s ever made: a huge ‘body chain’ of handcuffs, rings and earrings of the kind featured in his sculpture You need to prove to me that I can count on you to be loyal (2021). Such recurring sculptural configurations have come to define Ojo’s oeuvre: an unsettling mirage of high taste (Marcel Breuer-style chairs, designer clothes, vintage finds) conjured through humble means (eBay, IKEA and Zara). The work comprises two IKEA chairs, made of Lucite and chrome, queued one in front of the other to resemble a narrow chariot. Each chair balances on four plastic boxes set along a mirror on the floor. A powder-blue suit jacket and pants are draped over the chairs, connected by a glittery rein of cufflinks and keyrings. The pastel colour of the vestments placates; the chrome sheen provokes. Looking down into the mirror, you feel on edge as you notice the precariousness of the arrangement – like entering a glassware store as a child.
Ojo lays bare the economic operation of art made possible by the readymade: take inexpensive things, put them in a gallery and they will become expensive. ‘The art world is part of my medium,’ he says confidently. In Undressed (The Four Seasons, Seagram) (2018), for instance, an H&M fringe dress and a long wig are draped over a Hamilton KB400 music stand, like a diva in repose. The media inventory includes the hairpiece’s full Amazon listing: ‘K’ryssma Long Natural Straight Brown Lace Front Wig Half Hand Tied Realistic Looking Glueless Synthetic Wigs for Women 24 inches’. This commitment to an artwork’s material origins aligns with the practice of Cameron Rowland, who also seeks to make visible the routes by which objects arrive at an art space, or the unnerving material lineages of Danh Vo, whose installation 08:43, 26.05 (2009), for instance, displayed a chandelier that had hung in the ballroom of the Hotel Majestic where the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973. Ojo’s objects may be more common – fast fashion, furniture, interior decor – but their material histories are no less disturbing.
‘It’s mostly intuitive,’ Ojo responds when I ask him what kind of objects or garments he’s attracted to. The things that stand out to him aspire towards greater glamour and achieve it, despite their modest means. When there is clothing involved, as there often is, he wears the garments to get a sense for their physical qualities, where they might drape or bulge. He also puts his materials through what he calls a ‘closed audition’ to see how they will look in a photograph – a process documented in Closed Audition: Balenciaga Bootleg (2018), which shows Ojo wearing the garment and sitting on an IKEA Lucite chair. Rather than take a picture of his meticulously arranged mises-en-scène, Ojo understands that his sculptural installations will inevitably exist as photographs; digital images to be circulated online.
Ojo grew up in Cookeville, Tennessee, and was raised an Evangelical Christian by his academic parents, who were discreetly but devoutly religious. ‘We worshipped at home because the local churches weren’t good enough, even though there were plenty. We read the bible every day, twice a day.’ Ironically, Ojo is often approached on the street by religious converts, even though he still carries a bible around with him. ‘Maybe no one can tell if I’m a devil or an angel,’ he snickers. ‘My dad says an angel is just a messenger. And what is a contemporary artist if not a messenger?’
As a teenager, Ojo had a subscription to Details, the now-folded men’s lifestyle magazine, and regularly read GQ, W with the work of Mert Alaş and Marcus Piggott, and the blog diary of Hedi Slimane. He still remembers when a branch of Books-A-Million opened in his town, and he was finally able to read French Vogue. In 2008, Ojo moved to New York with a dream of becoming a fashion photographer, enrolling at the School of Visual Arts. For an exhibition in his senior year, frustrated by ‘the more expensive the better’ attitudes around framing, Ojo made a ‘photograph’ comprising all the component parts of a frame. The piece, titled Structural Integrity (2010), consists of mirrors, imitation gems and gold frames, arranged to resemble something like a modernist building held together only by gravity. ‘Any framed photograph is a sculpture,’ Ojo says, with a hint of a smile.
Today, the artist shoots all his photographs on a Yashica T4 – the cult camera made famous by Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson. For years, he has documented his nights out, capturing himself, his lovers and others at parties and openings. ‘I would get bored at a party and, instead of looking at it socially, I would start to look at it formally.’ In his photographs, subjects appear with varying levels of identifiability, as bright flashes capture them mid-sentence or mid-dance move. ‘I really like to shoot people having a good time. I don’t have many pictures of people looking miserable. There’s a certain type of party, at a certain time of night, where people are really celebrating.’ Some perceive Ojo’s practice as an intrusion: ‘At a bar in Germany, I was photographing people’s jewellery – a watch, a necklace – and one man covered his tattoos when I took a picture of him. It made me wonder: what was that tattoo? And what did it mean in Germany? Later, a bartender came around and punched me for taking pictures.’ But Ojo cites this as a rare reaction: most of the time, people are either bemused or flattered. In fact, protecting the privacy of the subjects in his photographs is very important to him: their faces are almost always obscured and their names never revealed in the works’ titles. What kind of access, transparency or opacity we are being granted is unclear. Ojo’s more recent fame, since 2017, has changed the nature of his night-time photography, however, as people now ask him if the pictures he takes will end up at the Museum of Modern Art. To protect them, he has had to make the images more abstract.
These concerns are crystallized in a photograph like Silver (Belgium) (2018), in which a naked young Ojo is embraced by an older, clothed white man whom he met on a dating app. ‘That photo makes people uncomfortable […] because it’s unclear whether I invited him over to make a picture or whether he let me take that picture because he wanted to have sex with me.’ Ojo was interested in the dynamic of bringing a camera into a private space, but those photographs were approached very intentionally. ‘It’s not a hidden camera situation. It’s actually the opposite of that. We decided to make a photograph together.’ Generally, race is both omnipresent and submerged within his work, or sublimated into broader questions around taste and class.
Before dedicating himself to his art full time, the artist was a self-described ‘gallerina’, working as a desk-boy and archivist at Team Gallery, Salon 94 and the now-defunct Zwirner & Wirth. At the latter, he had access to works by photographer Christopher Williams, in particular his images of the Kiev 88 – a Ukrainian copy of a medium-format Hasselblad film SLR camera – such as the triptych Kiev 88, 4.6 lbs. (2.1 Kg) Manufacturer: Zavod Arsenal Factory, Kiev, Ukraine Date of Production: 1983–87 Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles, California (2003). This camera would eventually appear in Ojo’s I put all of my energy into this tower (2021), which features an ascension of square boxes, each bedecked in mirror panels displaying the internal rigging of a Kiev 88 camera. When I ask him about Williams, he replies: ‘There’s something about California minimalists – their play with transparency, dissection and light – that has been continuously intriguing to me.’
It was at Paula Cooper Gallery that Ojo first encountered the work of another key reference: the multi-media artist Paul Pfeiffer. Playroom (2012) – his small, mirrored recreation of a ‘playroom’ from legendary basketball player Wilt Chamberlain’s Los Angeles mansion, where he allegedly slept with more than 10,000 women – echoes some of the themes around transparency, gender and privacy in Ojo’s own practice. ‘That work really shaped my aesthetic sensibility,’ he admits. ‘I am really interested in male sexual psychology and the male sexual response. Why would you want to say that you slept with that many women? What is that coming from? Are you mentally and physically OK? Have you seen a doctor?’ Pfeiffer’s installation is outfitted with a one-way mirror, so it is reflective for its imagined inhabitants but transparent for external viewers – a kind of sculptural manifestation of the bedroom voyeurism explored in Ojo’s Silver (Belgium).
In Venice, Ojo is experimenting with an opening performance, set to take place in the university auditorium. ‘When I say performance, my idea is to have actual students doing their actual work while the opening is happening.’ This is an extension of EHKOOO, a Zoom performance Ojo did in collaboration Ebony L. Haynes and the playwright Olu Obafemi in 2021. Crystallizing some of the themes most present in Ojo’s work, the title of his show in Venice, ‘Would You Bare Your Torso’, draws its name from a scene in a 2021 documentary called The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, which follows Italian director Luchino Visconti as he tries to cast the role of Tadzio, the cherubic young boy in his 1971 film Death in Venice. In the film, the main character, an esteemed male composer, becomes obsessed with the boy, gets sick from a plague and dies. Fascinated and repelled in equal measure by the obsessive nature of Visconti’s project, Ojo took down some choice quotes, including the director’s unnerving declaration that he had ‘every inch’ of the boy photographed.
I tell Ojo that looking at his work opens tiny glass doors inside my chest from which glittery, unsettling things slink out. I think that’s what makes me ask him about Delvey, the Russian-German woman who conned hundreds of thousands of dollars out of her wealthy friends just by pretending to be rich, and who has since, enigmatically, become an icon of capitalist subterfuge. Ojo hasn’t watched the new Netflix series about Delvey (Inventing Anna, 2022), but he asks if I have seen Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), about a group of teenage girls who break into A-listers’ homes, or The Real Story of Paris Hilton (2020) or the best celebrity sex tape ever made: Colin Farrell’s in 2005. Ojo’s practice has the same unnerving, can’t-look-away glamour of a celebrity scandal. More so than desire, his work reflects the art world’s taste back at itself. That’s maybe why there’s something sinister about his works; they offer not a wealth of riches but an embarrassment of them.
Main image: Kayode Ojo, Censuré (Cigar, Private Club, Köln, DE), 2019, C-print in polished aluminum frame, 69 × 103 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sweetwater, Berlin
This article first appeared in frieze issue 227 with the headline ‘Kayode Ojo’.