in Interviews | 06 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Tom Burr

The artist will be exhibiting new work at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, in the spring of 2009

in Interviews | 06 JUN 08

Claes Oldenburg standing next to Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969)

If you could live with only one piece of art, what would it be?
If I’m choosing, then the most expensive and compact piece we can find.

What images keep you company in the space where you work?
I try to keep a relatively good self-image nearby. I also like pictures of people I know or people I wish I knew.

What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?
The first piece of art that captivated me was Claes Oldenburg’s Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969/1974), which was built and installed in a corner of the Yale University campus when I was young. I think the original version was sort of an ad hoc structure, painted plywood, and was assembled by Oldenburg and students as a form of protest against the Vietnam War and as a platform for public speakers. It was a large red cosmetic phallus mounted on top of the bulky base of an army tank. I think later it was redone in Cor-Ten steel and placed somewhere else on the campus as a more permanent monument. I think I saw both versions, but I may be making that up. I liked what it looked like, then and now, and I liked the idea of the two versions: the original bound up in theatrical action and the later one built to withstand the elements and time, becoming sedate and settled like the buildings around it. I always thought the second should have ivy growing over it.

What film has most influenced you?
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982).

What is your favourite title of an art work?
I like my own titles. I just did a piece called Bent, Bandaged, Beat up, Beat up again, and Bewildered (2008), which I find myself repeating in my head. Or two other recent pieces I did: Pants and Black Pants (both 2008). Yesterday I went to see Isa Genzken’s show at Hauser & Wirth in London, ‘Ground Zero’, and I liked all her titles. White Horses (2008), for instance, I think is good. Hotel Tools (2008) is wonderful. I did a large group of collages last summer to mark the passing of August, or to slow it down, and I just had two of them framed for the White Columns benefit in May. I call them Horse Shit, Diptych.

What do you wish you knew?
Like many people, I wish I knew how to play the piano.

What should change?
Certain government policies, the rising cost of living, the omnipresence of religion, bad fashion, back pain. Things like that.

What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?
I can imagine doing lots of things. I’m drawn to people who seem to have a more fractured and fragmented professional life than I do, who wear many hats. This is some sort of ideal for me, but it’s elusive at the same time. There is a singularity of purpose that is required of artists these days in order to get things done. Maybe it was always the case.

What music are you listening to?
I’m not listening to any music right now. Just an abnormally loud hum coming from my laptop, which worries me, and some traffic in the distance. I’m in a hotel at the moment, so I am also listening for the sound of my room service breakfast coming down the hall.

What are you reading?
The books on the floor of my hotel room include Conspicuous Consumption (1899) by Thorstein Veblen – I haven’t read it yet, just thumbed through it. The back covers declares: ‘With its wry portrayal of a shallow, materialistic “leisure class” obsessed by clothes, cars, consumer goods and climbing the social ladder, this withering satire on modern capitalism is as pertinent today as when it was written over a century ago.’ There is also a copy of Walter Benjamin’s Archive (2007), the catalogue from the ‘Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia’ exhibition at Tate Modern and a copy of New York magazine.

What do you like the look of?
I like the look of my breakfast, which finally just arrived.

What is art for? 
I think there might be some clues in the Oldenburg experience I mentioned, and the schizophrenic logic of that Lipstick… piece, if you consider it a two-step process or two parts of the same thing. The first Lipstick … embodied a social energy born of necessity, like a politically charged barn-raising. The second version became an enduring but complacent, solid and mute monument. This reminds me again of Genzken’s exhibition, particularly the upstairs space of the gallery called the American Room. Her ‘Ground Zero’ proposal suggested spaces or buildings that had a social purpose (a sexy disco and a hospital, among several others), places that had public access and functions other than office towers and different from monuments.