The absurd images of Nazis and other fascist leaders that you are about to see are products of the artist Jim Riswold. Jim Riswold is one of Wieden + Kennedy’s most celebrated creative directors, a two-time cancer survivor, a thinker, a humorist, a David Bowie fan, and perhaps most important of all, someone with a great deal of enthusiasm and talent for whatever he is doing. Through the lens of pop art, Riswold’s work takes history’s most vile leaders and reduces their facades to childish musings by depicting them in undeniably comical situations. He calls the work “absurd realism.”
By showing dictators in a juvenile light, absurd realism instantly disintegrates the reverence that these mass murderers have constructed for themselves and allows any viewer the chance to better understand the dangerously mundane capacity of all people to desire a world in which they are at the center. This characteristic that all humans share is something that takes real insight to even notice, let alone visually demonstrate. Upstream had the privilege to hear from Riswold about his own personal relationship with art, and the fascinating fascists who inspire him.
1. When did you first begin making art? Was it something important to you as a child?
I am unaware that I am making art.
2. When did you first become enthralled with pop art? What effect did it have on your decision to make your own pieces?
I had four heroes growing up: Bugs Bunny, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol. In other words, outcasts attracted this outcast.
Warhol exploited a weakness I had for art, especially his art. In 1976, while poor and in college, I started irrationally buying Warhol prints, much to the chagrin of my rationally minded college roommates, Pat McGough and Scott Smolinsky, and at the expense of such college staples as beer, food and girls.
I always wanted to be Warhol. Warhol was rich, but more important, Warhol was a rich and important artist and, to bastardize a phrase from a commercial, when Warhol painted, filmed, photographed, spoke or burped, people listened.
So, after my leukemia diagnosis, I decided to jump into the art world. I figured I had nothing to lose; after all, I did have both leukemia and pneumonia and, consequently, had a pretty good chance of being dead before any critic’s nasty words could hurt my feelings. Well, I didn’t die and, subsequently, a lot of art critics have hurt my feelings.
3. By meshing the imagery of candy, children’s toys, and Koonsian porcelain sculptures with megalomaniac leaders such as Napoleon, is there a deliberate goal to rip away such a person’s infamy by making them appear absurd?
I like to call my work “absurd realism”. Others call it “perverse whimsy”. And still others call it “a black hole sucking the life out of everything.” I’ll let you in on a little secret: bad guys don’t like to be laughed at; that’s part of what makes them bad guys. Bad guys take themselves very seriously.
However, we are told not to laugh at these people. Mocking them, laughing at them, satirizing them, we are told, trivializes their crimes. Obviously, I disagree. I would argue that only speaking about the Hitlers of the world in deadly serious tones actually pays these fools the reverence they so crave. They don’t mind being called monsters, but they sure don’t like being called fools.
Voltaire said, “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.”
Now, I’m not saying all we have to do to deal effectively with the lunatic evil that is, say, Kim Jong Un, is sneak Lewis Black into North Korea with a Kim Jong Un bit and a megaphone, but it wouldn’t hurt; unless, of course you are Lewis Black and you get captured and thrown into a dark prison and tortured.
4. Is there ever a social pressure to put some constraint on your ideas when a project involves even slightly raising the profile of mass-murders such as Hitler or Mao?
Yes, I know, for instance, my so-called Hitler art begs the question, “What’s so funny about Hitler?”
Look, it’s no secret Hitler was a bad guy, except to lunatics and certain right-wing talk show hosts. I’m going to repeat myself here, but it bears repeating: Bad guys don’t mind being called bad guys. But bad guys don’t like to be laughed at. Thanks to people like Ionesco, Swift, Voltaire and Monty Python, I’ve always thought humor could diffuse fears and deflate even the most evil of egos. Never forget the Voltaire quote I always dredge up: “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” I made Hitler look ridiculous. Hitler is ridiculous. But please don’t tell him I said so. I’ve heard you don’t want to get on his bad side.
5. When you work on a series like “Mao Home and Garden,” is there a lot of planning involved, or do the nuances of the pieces come together intuitively?
I dive head first into the subject. I do my homework, read a lot of books and see a lot of documentaries and films about the subject. Most often, this leaves me with way too many ideas sketched out. I always leave room during for production for absurd spontaneity. Therefore, I always end up with way too many images and way over budget. I need an editor and an auditor.
6. Do any of your experiences in the advertising industry inform the approach that you take to creating fine art?
It’s all about the idea.
7. You said, “Adolph Hitler saved my life,” when describing your triumphs over cancer during your TED talk. Do you see someone like Hitler or Nazism in general as a personification of cancer, perhaps both entities being destructive in a similar way?
A philosophy professor said my work teaches us how to deal with monsters, be it a Hitler or a deadly disease. I’m not going to argue with a philosophy professor because they are usually extremely smart.
8. What do you personally find therapeutic about “dealing with monsters” when you are conceptualizing your ideas?
I think my artist statement from my Art for Oncologists show says it best, so I’m going have it answer this question.
Welcome to Art for Oncologists.
It took 13 years to live through and two years to make. During that time, I have learned my fair share about all things oncology.
Imhotep described what is believed to be the first case of cancer, breast cancer in a man, in 2500 BC. As far as a recommended treatment, he offered only the chilling words, “There is none.”
Atossa, the queen of Persia, had the first radical mastectomy in 440 BC. 2,500 years later, this surgery is still being performed.
I now know why I should know the names Yellapragada Subbarao, Sidney Farber, Mary Lasker and Barnett Rosenberg.
The first patented animal was a mouse bred specifically to be susceptible to cancer. His name is OncoMouse and, yes, he has a ® after his name.
I think I know what the “HER-2/neu oncogene, human epidermal growth factor receptor no. 2” means.
Vinblastine was discovered by drinking tea.
5-FU helped save Shaine’s life, Cytoxan helped save Glenn’s life, Herceptin helped saved Hildur’s life and Gleevec flat out saved Aldo’s life.
MOPP is a chemotherapy regimen consisting of Mechlorethamine, Oncovin, Procarbazine and Prednisone. It is also an acronym used by the military meaning Mission Oriented Protective Posture, which is a type of safety gear used by military personnel during a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.
There was a movie about Herceptin starring Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Dennis Slamon, the father of Herceptin. I learned crooners turned actors don’t make the best oncologists.
I also came to the conclusion that Gemzar sounds like a sibling of the Great Gazoo from the Flintstones.
I haven’t come across or used so many big-assed words since I wrote philosophy papers about Hegel back in the early 80s.
Can you say (SP-4-2)-diamminedichloroplatinum?
Can you use (SP-4-2)- diamminedichloroplatinum in a sentence?
Seriously, as a survivor of two cancers, working on this show was an emotional experience.
Especially when I made stuff about chemotherapies that saved lives of friends of mine.
Call it enlightened self-interest, but I am fond of having my friends around.
I guess you could call this show a celebration.
Long live oncologists!
Longer live their mice!
Longest live their patients!
And, yes, even long live their language filled with senseless and really long words.
Actually, despite all its (SP-4-2)-diamminedichloroplatinums and Bis-chloroethylnitrosoureas and BEACOPPs, ChlVPPs, DICEs, MAIDs, PEP-Cs, POMPs, TIPs, VAMPs and VIPs, the core of this language can be translated into a single word:
Hope you like Art for Oncologists.
Even more, I hope it gives you a big dose of hope if you or someone you love is dealing with the disease that oncologists were put on this planet to deal with.
9. David Bowie, another figure who you are deeply interested in, has also had fascinations with both fascism and pop art. Do you see any overlap in the quirks of creative people and political figures, given that both to some extent want to reshape our world?
Creative people and political figures are quite fond of themselves. Mussolini, a bad guy, said, “This is the epitaph I want on my tomb: ‘Here lies one of the most intelligent animals who ever appeared on the face of the earth.’ Mussolini did not get his wish; his bullet-ridden corpse was hung upside down in a public square and then burned. Napoleon, another bad guy regardless of what the French say, returned to Paris, abandoning his soon-to-be-defeated army in the Middle East on October 16, 1799, and told France, “Follow me, I am the god of the day.” France followed Napoleon and 5,398 days later, it was bankrupt, 1,000,000 Frenchmen were dead and Napoleon lived on a crummy rock in the middle of the Atlantic. On the crummy rock, he spent his days dictating his memoirs noting, “I have worn the imperial crown of France and the iron crown of Italy, and now England has given me one grander and more glorious—that worn by the Savior of the world, a crown of thorns.”
Jeff Koons, not a bad guy, said, “I believe that my art gets across the point that I’m in this morality theater trying to help the underdog, and I’m speaking socially here, showing concern and making psychological and philosophical statements for the underdog.” Yes, there is a huge difference between Mussolini and Napoleon on one hand, and Jeff Koons on the other, but they all three are obviously fond of themselves.
PS: The delightfully acid-tongued art critic Robert Hughes said one of my favorite things about Jeff Koons when he said, “Jeff Koons says his work is about class struggle. If Jeff Koons’ work is about class struggle, I am Maria of Romania.”
10. By depicting history’s most notorious bullies in a humorous light, could these enigmatic figures possibly demonstrate something hopeful, or even fundamentally good about humanity?
Laughter is the best medicine unless, of course, you have Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, then Gleevec is the best medicine. Seriously, humor is a powerful weapon. So, by all means show Hitler with his pants around his ankles; put a clown nose on Mussolini; slap a Kick Moi sign on Napoleon’s back; give Mao some onion gum; put a whoopee cushion under Stalin. Descended pants, clown snouts, kick me signs, joke gums don’t mix well with the overbearing pride that is the hubris shared by all history’s most notorious bullies.