Rodney Graham

Interview by Jules Moore / Photography by Shawn Dogimont

Hobo #15 – Vancouver, February 2013. Since the 1970s, artist Rodney Graham has led an elastic life, leaving behind a trail of seminal works in music, photography, film, and installation. He is a chameleon as much as a re-inventor, lobbing potatoes in a London gallery one night, playing the blues for a smoke-filled bar in New York City the next. John Baldessari called him the most influential artist of our time. Graham’s work examines the relationship between nature and culture, and man’s connection to each of these abstractions, often through a Freudian lens. This spring, I sat down with Rodney at his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, the city he has remained faithful to from the start. Our night began with Santo & Johnny on vinyl and ended with Steel Panther on YouTube. A great conversation in between.


Jules Moore. — I was reading an interview between you and Kim Gordon recently. How did you two meet?

Rodney Graham. — I’ve known Kim since the mid ‘80s through Dan Graham, our mutual artist friend. I knew Thurston not so well, but I’d see them occasionally when I came through New York. Kim was very involved in the arts scene. Still is, you know, but kind of started out more as a visual artist.

— Have you ever played music together?
— No. I mean, I was always a fan, but no.

— I was surprised to discover that her heart lies more with visual art, with Sonic Youth as an extension of that, as a kind of an art project. Is your approach similar?
— Well, for me, I’m an artist. I did music on an amateur level when I was younger, and then I kind of dropped it when I started getting serious about my work. ‘Cause there was really no context for the music within my art practice. And then I got back into the music, I guess in the late ‘90s when I could actually afford to have guitars again and could afford to spend the time putting a band together and recording things. I love recording. I’m primarily a visual artist, but I’ve always had an interest in music, like a quite intense hobby. But it’s still a hobby, insofar as I don’t really make any money out of it.

— Your photographic work is very intense, while your songs have this remarkable happy-go-lucky lightness to them. Like skipping stones. How do you exist in both these spaces?
— Well, I haven’t been very successful in combining the two. On several occasions, I’ve managed to use music in my work. The first time was a piece called “How I Became a Rambling Man,” which is sort of like a music video. Or more like those musical interludes in Western films in the ‘30s, Gene Autry or Roy Rogers films where they would sing a song in the middle of this otherwise action picture. So I made a piece where I’m this cowboy, singing this cowboy song that I wrote. And then I guess the second time I was able to use my music in the context of my art work was in a piece called “The Phonokinetoscope,” where I take LSD in a park in Berlin. And the soundtrack is a psych-rock song that I wrote. In both cases the music fit, but normally it’s something that’s a little bit suffered, not really integrated. Other artists use their music more in the context of their work. Martin Creed is a good example. He manages to integrate his music in his practice. For me it’s a problematic area. I also don’t like playing music in the context of art galleries and museums so much because the acoustics aren’t good. I’d rather play in a nightclub, where people are drinking and it’s a more relaxed environment. My music is somewhat lighthearted it’s true, and I guess it’s a side of myself I get to explore with the music.

— Speaking of dichotomy, I wanted to talk about one of your images that really got to me when I first encountered it at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I actually wept while looking at it. There is so much sadness there, but it’s also quite funny. I mean, this guy, your chef, it’s clear that he will probably never become executive chef. Sous chef forever. Is that the funniest thing or the saddest thing in the whole world? I don’t know.
— Yeah. Well, I got the idea partly from just not having a studio. While it was under renovation, [my assistant] Josh and I would go driving around and start really noticing people, like, on Main Street. It seems like the only break that people in the hospitality industry really get is a smoke break. You go out and have a cigarette, you know, and if you’re working in a kitchen it seems like the main break. I need a smoke. And we’d see this one guy out on Main Street, leaning against a hedge. I was struck by the juxtaposition of this guy with the natural context of this greenery, this hedge. And got the idea to make a piece about a smoke break, A, and B, about the idea of smoking and nature. So I sort of transposed it to an arboretum in Queen Elizabeth Park, just up the road from where we are now. There’s a restaurant there called Seasons in the Park. So I had this idea that maybe it would be a guy who’s a sous chef working in this kind of touristy restaurant, where they have busloads of retirees show up at twelve o’clock. And when he’s on his break, it’s all very beautiful. I imagined him sitting under this black birch tree. I’d done a lot of photographs of trees in the past, so I decided to contextualize it as a tree photograph. But since I’m sitting under it, it’s a portrait. And I liked the idea that the relationship of the sous chef to a chef is the same as to the tree. And he was subordinate to the tree in this case, ‘cause the tree is the dominant image in the picture. Also I like this kind of dreamy, Proustian moment when you’re just drifting off thinking about something. It could be even about a recipe or something. But yeah, why is it a sous chef and not a chef? I just thought sous chef partly because it’s under a tree, subordinate to a tree, secondary to a tree and also because there was a slight sad aspect to an old sous chef.

— So as you were sitting there in that moment embodying the sous chef, did you feel defeated and disgruntled for him?
— Quite content, actually. Just enjoying a break. In fact I’m making a series of smoke breaks. That’s the first one, and there are four seasons. It’s interesting you should pick up on that because it’s become kind of a major series of works.

— Right now are there any professions or character types that you’re attracted to or wanting to explore?
— Well, I’m doing one now, though it’s not so much a profession. Actually it’s the third sort of smoke break for one that’s non-smoking. It’s like I’m taking an oxygen break. It’s called “Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour River”. And it’s based on that Thomas Eakins painting called, “Max Schmitt in a Single Skull,” from the 1870s. Anyway, I’ve reconstructed it with myself playing a kayaker on the Seymour River with this industrial bridge behind me. This guy who’s gotten into healthy pursuits or whatever. I can show you an image of that, too. That’s the most recent one, I guess.

— Bringing it back to music, the materials that accompany your works, the album sleeves and covers and the foldouts, are really like extensions of the music in a pretty major way.
— Yeah. I like doing vinyl records. Making CD’s is depressing. I’m a total vinyl fan. I like the format, the feeling of it, the historical context of it. Part of my interest in doing music is doing the stuff you’re talking about, working with designers, making the packages. I’ve had a bit of writer’s block in terms of lyrics lately, but I’ve been quite productive doing my visual work. I find the more productive I am with my visual work, the harder I find it to do the music. I find it quite demanding to write because my lyrics are somewhat ironic, but they’re not utterly jokey. There has to be a certain feeling of authenticity. I have to be able to sing it with some conviction. And I’m having a little bit of a hard time with that right now.

— Do you think that has anything to do with where you’re at geographically? Would you even make that association?
— I think it’s because there’s no pressure for me to do music. Like, I get lots of pressure to do artwork, you know. I have galleries that are lucky enough to have a certain demand for my work whereas there’s not much demand for my music. I kind of do it for myself and hope people like it. But I don’t have a label. I don’t have anybody pressuring me saying, “Come on, we need to get this done.” I find I thrive under pressure in terms of my art practice. And if I had any pressure whatsoever, I probably would do something, but I don’t have it.

— Can you recall the last time you had a flood of lyrics and a sense of must-do with music?
— Well, I wasn’t producing quite so much visual art, that’s for sure. I do know that. It was about five years ago, a point when I had just come out of being a little bit depressed and the music made me feel a lot better. And so I spent a lot of time and effort on it. Now I guess it’s also about not having the band around as much, because they’re doing their thing too. In a way, I’m relating to Neil Young and his… have you read his autobiography?

— I have not.
— It’s really funny. The reason he started writing the book is that he stopped smoking dope and drinking. And he was having a bit of a dry period in terms of song writing. So he thought, well, I’ll just start writing a book instead. His father was a famous Canadian writer, Scott Young. So Neil is just killing time writing this book, like, “Yeah, this is pretty good. Actually I like this writing thing. I could get into it.” And he’s actually quite good at it! It’s very entertaining. But it says a lot about waiting for the muse to come. And then of course he did Psychedelic Pill, which is a really cool album.

— What kind of music are you into these days?
— You know what I’ve been listening a lot to? I mean, it’s really inspiring me, is Kurt Vile. A Smoke Ring for my Halo album is so beautiful.

— Yeah, it is. He toured with Thurston for a little while.
— Yeah, I missed that one and I don’t have a good excuse. I like how introverted his music is. The same with Thurston. I loved that most recent album of Thurston’s, Demolished Thoughts. I was recently in Miami and a highlight of the trip was going record shopping with Thurston. I mean, he’s one of the ultimate guys to go record shopping with, you know? It was pretty fun.

— Did you buy anything?
— Yeah. Actually he made me buy this record called Soul Flutes, which is pretty terrible, just as a joke. ‘Cause I told him about my flute piece.

— Do you collect anything?
— Just guitars. I have a lot of guitars. I don’t really consider myself a collector because I’ve usually had cash flow problems and ended up selling whatever I had. So I never developed much of a collection. Now I’m a little bit okay, so I guess I’m accumulating, but I’m not a collector. I don’t really relate to collecting. I like the idea of divesting myself of stuff rather than collecting. But I do have a lot of guitars ‘cause I haven’t found the exact one. So, you know, when I find the perfect one, then I’ll get rid of the other ones.

— I guess with less you can move more. But you haven’t moved have you? You’ve stayed pretty true to Vancouver.
— I used to move more, but I don’t now. I’ve been here for a while.

— The standard transition for artists is to go somewhere like New York, but you stay in Vancouver, which isn’t the most liveable city for creative folk.
— Well, I’ve always been here. That’s the trouble. And at a certain point, I was just too old to move. I mean, the first time I went to New York was in ‘86. I was already almost forty, whatever. And thought, well, I could live here. But I never did. I never really lived anywhere else, other than Vancouver. I lived in Ghent in Belgium for four or five months. But yeah, it’s just inertia I guess in a sense. I mean, I’ve always moved within the city, but not much farther. Seems to me all the young artists are going to Berlin now because Vancouver is so expensive. To have a studio, and I’m lucky enough now to have my studio taken care of, is nice. Renovating it, whatever. But I can afford it. If I was starting out now, I think I would leave.

— Really?
— You know, I think it’s about going someplace where you can think. I find Vancouver is a good place to think, and it’s a good place to work. But it’s becoming… well, look what’s happening to the [recently defunct] Waldorf. That’s frustrating. It’s like the history of the city is being kind of obliterated.

— Where else could you live?
— I don’t know. I like London. I could happily live there. It’s outrageously expensive and it grinds you down, but I really do stay to myself. I’m not that involved in the arts scene, I have to say, in terms of activity. I don’t go to a lot of openings and do a lot of stuff like that. I think the art scene is becoming quite lively here. It’s one thing that always scared me about places like New York. There’d be so much to do all the time. When would you ever get any work done? I mean, the art world has kind of exploded. Opportunities have made it a viable career option for young people to get into art. They see successful artists. Some people actually make money at it. When I got into it, it was just, like, a way of avoiding the straight jobs. It was a way of, like, fleeing the so-called straight world. And it was an easier time, that’s for sure, ‘60s and ‘70s. It was easier to survive in the city with no money. Now people, they’re twenty-five years old and they’re going, “Like, I got to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.” I didn’t think about that until I was, like, forty.

— How do you deal with people’s expectations of you just on a daily basis? I mean, you can’t really be a chameleon or a voyeur for long without being spotted.
— Well, it happened for me in a sense in the ‘80s. Like, I didn’t have much going on here when I was younger. And my career really started in Europe. It was in Belgium and in Germany, really. I established a relationship with a publisher in Germany, Yves Gevaert, who I worked with and did a lot of book projects. So the first commercial gallery shows I ever had were in Germany. They weren’t here. In fact I don’t even have a gallery in Canada, let alone Vancouver. I don’t have one in Canada at all. So although I never really lived there, I traveled there and then things started happening for me. And it empowered me, just the bit of success that I had there, elsewhere. So it didn’t really happen for me here to start, you know, and then now of course I do different things here. So I did have to go somewhere else really in a sense, although I didn’t really move there and live there.

— By keeping a home base here in Vancouver, are there any restrictions you encounter?
— Well, I have to travel quite a bit and I’m absolutely terrified of flying.

— Really?
— Yeah, and I sound like a broken record, but it’s just the turbulence. If it’s smooth, I’m fine. If it gets turbulent, even the slightest bumps, just… yeah, it just has to be completely smooth and flat. I’m not a good flyer. But I have to do it a lot. So sometimes I do it less than I should, actually. And that is a real problem.

— Is that how you are in most things?
— Flying is the only thing I’m just phobic about.

— If we were to separate humans into two categories, would you identify more as a lone wolf or a pack-man?
— A lone wolf, I guess. I get into trouble here because I find it easy to escape from people. I don’t want people to get a hold of me and it kind of enables my irresponsible side, really. But yeah, I mean, I do like it when I get to someplace like New York. I have a great time. I really love it there, but it’s just the transitional part.

— So would you say your life has been more, and is now still, about small transitions? Like, you know, gradual transitions that are trackable, that you can feel? Or are they more just radical shifts from here to here?
— It’s under control. I mean, we’re all in this, the whole crew here, we have Shannon, Scott, Josh, all the people that I work with. We’re all in a little bit of a frustrated state now because we’re waiting for my studio to be finished. So we don’t have a central place to meet. We’ll often meet here or go to a restaurant or I’ll drive around with Josh in the car and we’ll do business stuff. I can do stuff on my phone. But not having a studio has created a bit of a crisis in the last year. It’s being renovated, a long renovation. I never really realized how important it is. Because when I was younger and doing more conceptual work, I was like: This is great, I don’t need a studio. Why do I want to have a studio? I’m not a studio artist. And I wasn’t. I would work at home, priding myself on the fact that I didn’t have this conventional artist studio. But I’ve become much more of a studio artist, and I really do appreciate now what it’s like to have a place to meet, a place to think. Clear your mind. Getting away from your domestic situation into a space of work. And I’m a total studio hound now.

— My brother Noam [Gonick] is an artist and follower of your work and I asked him to provide a question for you—it’s kind of strange, but I think it’s probably a good way to wind down. He said: Rodney, if you and the Vancouver school artists, like Jeff [Wall], Ian [Wallace], Ken [Lum] and Stan [Douglas], were superheroes or action figures, what would each of your magical characteristics be?
— Shit, shit. Can I get back to you on that one?

— You can.
— ‘Cause I have to go through the whole pantheon of superheroes and kind of review their various skill sets.

— I like Batman because he’s the only superhero that doesn’t possess super powers.
— But he kind of does. You see him jump off a three-storey building. Not a twenty-storey building, but three storeys and land on his feet. That’s still kind of super.