Joe Coleman and The Divine David in conversation with Ian White
Joe Coleman began his career as an artist with controversial performance pieces involving strapping explosives to his body and igniting them, and biting the heads of off live mice. He is now painting extraordinary portraits of historical figures that reference pre-Renaissance traditions with their complex organic narratives and densely ornate surfaces - from Ed Gein to Edgar Allen Poe and the all-American goddess of sleaze Jayne Mansfield. Coleman lives in Brooklyn, New York.
The Divine David is a renowned, subversive performance artiste whose most recent nightclub, 'Sectioned' at The Royal Vauxhall Tavern explored mental illness. His work twists the contemporary psyche to new and shocking levels through spoken word, live painting, song and contemporary dance. The Divine David lives in Brixton, England.
"Did I fuck Leonardo DiCaprio? Is that possible?...Normally I wouldn't care...he's a movie star. He's fodder for dreams, period. ...It was two years ago, when DiCaprio would've been nineteen. That seems right. The boy was kind of affected. That fits. He wouldn't tell me his name. Check... Point is, if that was Leonardo DiCaprio, I've blown, rimmed, fucked, and shot my come on the face of one of the world's most desirable creatures...Okay, it was Leonardo DiCaprio. I think."
'Guide', Dennis Cooper
JC: Yeah, they don't have them in New York either. Early New York really fascinates me. There's a film called Regeneration [Raoul Walsh, 1910] - it used actual gang members as the cast, actual prostitutes, great beggars...
DD: I'm very suspicious of actors and actresses... anything that I do as Divine David is not acting, it's being. When I say something like 'I'd like to stab you in the neck', I really mean it. I said I wanted to rip people's spines out so they could make attractive pendants and earrings...
IW: David has done a performance where he tried to rip his own spine out on stage...
DD: I just decided 'I'm gonna do it', I had Siouxsie and The Banshees singing Through the Looking Glass: "even the greatest stars dislike themselves in the looking glass". I was laughing my head off. I broke a glass and thought "I'll shove in it my back and try to rip my spine out", so I just got it and shoved it in... there were people being sick... it challenged their ideas of themselves to such an extent. But I think that, ultimately, can be quite liberating
JC: But in the end you're really doing it for yourself. That's what I care about.
DD: What about the explosions? How did you cope with that?
JC: I got a bang out of it! The things I like doing best are the ones where it's not this idea that theatre has to be...
DD: ...on a stage, yeah I hate that too - where people are pretending to be other human beings...
JC: Everybody's doing some kind of act anyway.
DD: It's very old-fashioned, the idea of the performer on stage and the audience...
JC: I don't worry about them - I'm only concerned with what I'm feeling, what I feel like doing. Can you imagine the catharsis of being so frustrated and full of all these inarticulate emotions, to finally think that physically... if you actually, physically explode, but you're still there afterwards...
IW: You both share a large degree of disrespect for the audience...
DD: I think that within every individual there is an opportunity for expression...
JC: Well, probably, but so many people only care about putting in their hours at some job, supporting a family - if someone's telling the truth they hate your fuckin' guts.
IW: Is that what happens with your work, David, with the anti-gay stuff..
DD: ...absolutely. The whole gay thing is just a niche market - just a commercial thing really, now.
JC: Do you have any scars?
DD: [displaying forearm] I asked somebody else to do that one - it's faded but I still like it. Occasionally I might ask somebody who I'm close to if they'd like to do a design and treat my body as a canvas - preferably with blades, because it's better than sending a card.
JC: You see where my brow is split? It's from a bottle that I hit myself with.
JC: At The Kitchen, 1980.
DD: It makes you look like a boxer, [like] your grandfather... He was fascinating- outside of the law and conventional society... That must add to your sense of freedom, when your heritage itself is like "Rules and regulations - no thanks". Some people do believe destruction and creativity are equal...
JC: I'm partial to the big bang theory of creation!
DD: I used to stick pins in my face when I worked in Manchester and I didn't feel a thing. There was no pain because I was making what I thought of as inevitable happen anyway. We're always being told the body is a temple aren't we - the body could also be an abattoir - it could be whatever you want.
JC: It seems like you look down on pain - but I think pain is valuable. Not just physical - emotional and psychic pain can be harnessed and transformed. For me it's been a source, a fuel. I view my work like an alchemist's. I'm trying to transform base emotions into a kind of gold - not the gold because somebody's bought the painting, the gold of the painting itself, what it's been transformed into.
DD: There's so much truth in your work...how "ordinary people" can follow personal instinct and reveal themselves in terms of serial murder or mutilation. They're going for a communion with the victim that has more than a religious feel to it...
JC: Religion, if you talk to the average person on the street has to do with their local church, structures that are part of this thing we're calling 'civilisation'. To me, it's trying to understand the mystery of life. It's not 'Christianity' or 'Judaism' or 'Buddhism', because that's just words.
DD: They're presenting you with a conclusion and they're saying that humanity should adopt this stagnating definition. You [Joe] have idiosyncracies that you follow through - you depict them and there is the evidence of a person that is open to sensation. We're under a lot of pressure at the moment to be so bland. People seem to have problems accepting that we're complex - to achieve a state of "I am totally sorted out, everything's wonderful" you might as well be dead.
JC: That is death.
DD: - that is death, yeah.
JC: People talk about what's right and wrong but nature doesn't look at it that way. DD: I'm fascinated by killing somebody. I think it might be the ultimate act. People should be able to choose if they wish to be killed by somebody.
JC: Sometimes people do, subconsciously. Victims are somehow connected to their killer and there's an incredible intimacy... and from the other end too - the possession of the life.
DD: I'd like to think it would empower the person - I believe that there can be a transference of energy from one person to the other. To say to somebody "I acknowledge our love and I think it's you that I want to take my life" would be a significant act.
IW: Would the act of killing somebody perform the same sort of things for you Joe?
JC: ...I think that if I did think that then I would've already done that. When I bit the heads off of live animals - rats, mice, chickens, there's a real connection to that living thing. You rip the head off, you feel the bones crushing, tendons ripping, the blood in the back of your throat, and you're part of that animal. At that same point you've cut yourself off from 'civilisation' and you feel a kind of primal existence...
DD: I'd like to think that we inherit a memory of when we were writhing in the primordial slime. We can imagine when creatures started to crawl out of this sort of primordial soup and we crawled onto land and carried on developing - went up trees and that sort of thing. To what - to end up looking at cobbled streets or live in a situation where millions of people are exploited - we've come so far from the primordial slime, but have we?
JC: There's a certain amount of great technological changes in the world that try to put curtains around your savage side. There's this pretext, this mask - the happy face in front of the savage machine.
DD: Hanging that woman at the show I did on Saturday - she volunteered and my assistant Nurse Cloth put the noose round her neck, yanked, and that was it - she was dead.
JC: Wait a minute - she was dead dead?
IW: she was performed dead
DD: She totally went along with it and nobody made an attempt to stop it happening. JC: That's going on all the time - people being killed for no reason with whole audiences watching it on TV.
DD: That live suicide on American TV recently - when the chap set his jeep on fire with a dog inside then got out and turned the rifle on himself and blew his head off... Maybe television became relevant for a few moments. Nobody came to help him, just to watch. When he blew his brains out they couldn't believe how lucky they were.
DD: It's a protest and a very efficient public protest. I've thought about killing myself on stage - I think it would be the ultimate show.
JC: This whole idea has an interesting parallel to the history of murder and the history of civilisation. The modern killer, the one that's a part of our culture, kills for self-esteem...
DD: And it's a realised potential. It ties in with what you were saying in the documentary [Rest In Pieces - A Portrait of Joe Coleman, Robert Pejo 1997]... We're culling each other because there's too many of us... the planet has become a petri dish and we as bacteria are crawling all over it with our trails of slime and toxic chemicals...
JC: It's a structure within nature, the same way that nature provides this thing that when water gets to a certain temperature it boils.
DD: ...it's got a conscious... I mean, I've enjoyed the "perversity" of ejaculating up somebody's arse, knowing that it's not going to result in procreation.
IW: In both your works you use a very specific kind of irony - a double-irony - irony at its extreme. Everything that's said is absolutely meant...
DD: You're giving them the reason and also explaining why it should be. With Joe's paintings the artist is recording an on-going psychic moment within humanity. These paintings will always exist to tell us what happened, how, who did it, ask us our responses to it - it says that we're culpable, responsible, it's what we want really but we haven't got the balls to admit it.
IW: You also both perform a complete self-excavation in your work - a self-exegesis beyond performance - you've turned yourselves inside-out...
DD: Mentally I've completely fucked myself up with 'Sectioned'. I didn't think I'd do it to such an extent where I totally... there was nothing...
JC: Flesh is the one truth that I have. There's no real knowledge that exists beyond what's inside here [places hand on skull], and there is no truth except this [holds out hand]. If I put this cigarette out [on my hand] I can feel it and that's concrete.
JC: Exactly. Once you understand the basics, it frees you.
DD: I like the parallel you've made, Joe, between the holy trinity and what Freud was saying about the id, the super-id and the ego...
JC: And also the fact that he's made these new priests for sophisticates that are called 'psychiatrists', that comfort what used to be called 'the soul', that's now called 'the psyche'. I see Freud as the modern Jesus because of what he embodies and was able to do - he's been devoured and become this symbol in the same way that Jesus did. It has no meaning whether he existed or not.
DD: The show I did at the ICA was about religion. It ended up [that] even if Jesus was a myth there was more of a concrete reality to him than in assuming a gay identity in the latter part of the twentieth century. I think this painting [Portrait of Professor Mombooze-o, 1986] is wonderful. It memorialises the performance pieces - the explosions, the fish...
JC: ...and the mice... the bread is the mice. Jesus said "he that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me and I in him" and passed out loaves of bread.
DD: I was looking at one painting [Portrait of Charles Manson, 1988] - the swastika on Charles Manson the wrong way round. Obviously anything that looks like a swastika, even if it is the other way round, you do respond to it. I don't think that we should forget about what we're capable of doing collectively.
JC: Whenever you want to show evil you pull out the Nazi. The only reason why the Nazi is the God of Evil is not because of Auschwitz and Belsen - those atrocities have existed throughout history - it's only because they lost the war. The United States were much more successful at wiping out a race of people than the Nazis - we did it to the American Indians, but we won. So we're the good guys.
DD: I think that [for] people who attempt an understanding of the world as a whole it can end up feeling that your psyche has been nailed to a cross, that that is the current state of mentality...
JC: The rules of 'society' or 'government' really have no meaning to me. I have an idea of what's right and wrong that's in here [points to chest]. In the States the judicial system is the most absurd idea. Everyone sits in this theatre and everyone knows who committed the crime, but no-one cares - all they care about is semantics... It has nothing to do with morality. If you want to decide what's right and wrong you have to find that out for yourself.
IW: Those semantics of the judicial system are like the missives of theoretical art - laying down structures and paradigms within which art is allowed to function. To be able to say that Freud is the modern Jesus is an act of transcendence. It's incredibly camp, strictly speaking - and beyond all of the structures that we have in place.
DD: [looking at Portrait of Carl Panzram, 1993] Rape, arson, sodomy, exterminate - words that we all have a relationship to and it's beautiful that it's being acknowledged, and the face as a canvas - you can't do better than that.
Leonardo DiCaprio has recently commissioned a painting by Joe Coleman. 'Original Sin' the exhibition was at The Chamber of Pop Culture, May 1st-30th 1998. The Divine David can be seen in performance at venues around London. Check press for details. Thanks also to Dave at the Colony Rooms for his help.