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Photo: Evija Gruzna

A Pathological Tendency to Object 0

by Viestarts Gailītis, exclusively for

It was my intention to interview the South African photographer Jodi Bieber, whose picture of a young Afghan woman – with her ears and nose cut off by her “loving husband” – made the cover of Time Magazine in 2011. Instead, I had a conversation with the British-American artist, Phillip Toledano, who, like Bieber, was an instructor at this year's International Summer School of Photography. One of Toledano's latest projects to garner international attention is his hypnotically frightening series of photographs titled A New Kind of Beauty – darkly framed portraits of plastic surgery patients who look more like avatars than human beings. One could say that Toledano's and Bieber's photographs can be viewed together in a unified, even symbolically coordinated, system – if the poor and beautiful Afghan girl is missing a few essentials, then the Western mutants in Toledano's images have too much of something – namely, silicon...

What are you, really – a conceptualist, a documentarian... or something else?

It would seem that I consider myself a conceptual artist. I work with ideas. These are simple portraits of people, but I photographed these individuals from the perspective of how we understand evolution and beauty. 

All of these people who have had plastic surgery look very similar to one another, especially the ones in your photographs.

I take it that this could be partly attributed to the rather primitive technology that allows us to physically change our appearance. I think that in 30-40 years, there will be new techniques with which to change ourselves, and that these will give opportunity for much more variety in appearance. This project isn't about plastic surgery, as such. It's about the fact that we can finally change our appearance. People, especially women, have tried to change themselves physically for thousands of years. And now we can do that, albeit quite primitively.

A New Kind of Beauty (Yvette). 2008 – 2010

And plastic surgery has a certain American flavor.

And where is this American flavor, then? (Laughs)

Victims of plastic surgery are usually found in the USA.

Of course, there are more of them in the US, but in my opinion, the wish to change oneself is wholly human and universal. If 30 yeas ago, somebody would have told me that he's going to cover his arm in tattoos and pierce his tongue and nose, I would've thought he's crazy. But nowadays, that's just an average “thing”.

It's possible that my hypothesis is wrong, but my view is that we have always had the urge to change our physical bodies. And the technologies of today give us the opportunity to realize these dreams. The people you see in my works may not be interested in traditional beauty, but they have their own idea of beauty. For instance, one of the young men wants to look like an anime character. The wish to change one's appearance according to his or her notions can also arise in children. For instance, having entered the teen years, a young person may want blue skin and a tail because that will make him popular among his peers. Who knows what it's going to be like? I'm interested in where we are going. But if the technologies that change appearance become very cheap and available, then beauty will have lost its meaning, because everyone will be able to be beautiful.

A New Kind of Beauty (Steve). 2008 – 2010

Nevertheless, there's only a small number of people who have piercings and tattoos – because the leading standards of beauty are still conservative.

In the US, a huge percentage of kids under the age of 25 – I'd say roughly 50 percent – have tattoos. When I was a teenager 30 years ago, only the craziest of us, and sailors, had tattoos. In any case, it is art's task to look forward. I can't promise that it [the transformation of appearance] will happen. But I have a feeling that it could happen, and it would be very interesting to experience it.

In starting the A New Kind of Beauty project, was it your objective to figure out evolution, or rather, were you intrigued by the strange appearance of these possible subjects?

I always work on several projects at once. At the time, I was taking care of my father and photographing him. He was 95 years old, and I was basically waiting for him to die – it's a very strange position to be in. I was constantly thinking about mortality and death. The magazine with which I was working sent me to take pictures of this unbelievable guy who had completely transformed himself with plastic surgery. I was physically fascinated by him, and in looking at him, I understood that I was actually looking at the denial of death – because what else is plastic surgery? It was something completely different than what I was going through with my father. I began to think about all this, and I came upon the ideas of beauty and evolution. But principally, I came to it through the taking care of my father. 

A New Kind of Beauty (Justin). 2008 – 2010

When I look at your work, I don't understand what's going on behind it – because the figures don't resonate emotionally; they are like a wall – impenetrable. That's probably because the people don't look natural.

Most people do, however, react to these photographs – either like this, or in some other way. I hope that, in some way, I'm pushing the boundaries. If  you don't encourage others to think about their surroundings through your art, then what's the point? Beauty is simple, but I hope that by taking in my artistic message – which is not very long and, hopefully, isn't incomprehensible – people may look at things differently. I understand that these images frighten many people – that's a reflex, an instinctive reaction. Nevertheless, I think that they will know how to look beyond the reflex – that is, they'll try to find out what it is that I'm trying to say. Am I being unrealistic? Probably, but it's really satisfying if a person's vision reaches beyond reflexes. It can be compared with going to the doctor to check your nerves. There's a tap on the knee with a rubber hammer – and your leg rises. But hopefully, you'll become interested in why your leg reacts like this.

But then are you creating art for others? That can't be the case.

I do it only for myself!  I don't think you can make art if you're thinking about others; it's a very narcissistic and illusion-filled job. You create art while thinking about what it is that you want to say about the world and yourself, and you just hope that it will be interesting to others, as well.

We live in an era in which an infatuation with technology prevails, similar to how a non-critical belief in progress prevailed during the Enlightenment. All visions of the future are linked to technologies that are, in turn, part of every possible world scenario.

Most people think the world is heading straight to the rubbish bin (laughs).

I wanted to add that futuristic thinking is often far removed from that which is happening on Earth. History shows that society forges onward without radical thrusts.

Yes, that's the way we've been living for the last couple of thousand years – dazedly going on in the hope that we won't finish each other off (laughs). Several of my works are about illusions, including Kim Jong Phil, which is about my illusions. I'm fascinated by self-delusion. There is no limit to how stubbornly we'll believe our own lies about morals, ethics, politics, sex – anything. The ability to tell ourselves drivel is a wonderful human characteristic.

You have the privilege of being an artist who can play around with all of this.

It's not a privilege, it's more of a curse (laughs).

But art is one of the few ways that we can fight back in our daily lives.

Fight back against illusion? 

At the same time, being conscious of this self-delusion will never bring an end to it.

Because lies are the lubricant of society. We couldn't function without lies. Hey, I just had an unbelievable revelation. I had never thought about it before. My sister died when I was quite young – she was nine years old, I was six. And we created an illusion. It was never discussed in the family. We deceived ourselves by acting as if it would be better to not talk about it – push it somewhere where it wouldn't be noticed. Obviously, that's where my interest in illusions comes from. I had never realized that before. Thank you, for that. If I hadn't come to Latvia, I never would have thought of it.

You've probably had time to reflect here.

Yes, I'm always very content to find myself away from America – I find it rather loud. In America, and especially in New York, the noise of all of the cars prohibits a person from thinking.

There's continuous noise from cars here, too.

There's less fear here.

For you, maybe – you're not connected to this place.

True, but that's relative – I watch a lot of British news programs, and there's less fear there, whereas the American media is full of fear. Everything is about crisis, or the potential for crisis, or a future crisis... It's simply unbelievable, it's amazing how they instigate fear... and about the smallest of things. I don't know how things work here in Latvia, but the American media is always finding some stupid (in their opinion – attention-worthy) news about, for example, that there are these certain germs that you can get from holding on to subway handles. Every day, they have to frighten us with something.

But this world really is frightening.

You know what calms me? If you look back in history, this is definitely not one of the most frightening of ages. For instance, the end of the 19th century – with its anarchist movement – was a much more chaotic time, which then led to the First World War. Relatively speaking, and taking into account such “trifles” (chuckles) as the collapse of the euro and the economy, then at least there isn't any blood being spilled in the Western hemisphere. Sometimes, when it gets too depressing, I look back in history and decide that it really isn't all that bad. It could be worse – I could have been deported to the Gulag or something like that (laughs)! But you're a skeptical person.

I'm not skeptical, just tired.

Tired – from speaking with me (laughs)?!

No; I'm tired from the fact that it is impossible to go against the current.

You're tired because a part of you is struggling against the order of things. If you give yourself over to it, you won't be tired anymore, but rather quite satisfied.

This sort of psychological coaching is unconvincing.

No, it's not coaching! I'm just saying – don't bother, just give in! (Laughs)

You yourself couldn't give in.

Yes, when I worked at a business, my boss told me that I have a pathological tendency to object. I always have to do the opposite.

Is that why you work in art?

Truthfully, it's a reflex. The reflex of a belligerent teenager.

So you're not primarily obsessed with photography, but rather with ideas?

Yes. They are like live beings. Of course, giving birth to ideas isn't as painful as giving birth to a child is for a woman – although sometimes it seems almost just as painful.

Do you work with other forms of art besides photography?

Yes – with installations, sculptures, oil painting. I feel more free when I'm not tied down to just photographs. The ideas are what determines whether it will be a photograph, or something else.

You spoke about ideas at the ISSP summer school, right?

Yes. Actually, at the summer school we didn't just take photographs. There were also videos and installations; in any case, it was very interesting.

What did you study at university?

English literature – very useful... (laughs)

What is useful?

All right, I admit it is useful – at least for the mind and the soul.

Do you believe in a soul?

A soul? I'm not religious, and I really can't say if I believe in a soul, but maybe I believe in something.

You'd probably never have plastic surgery yourself, would you?

I spent a lot time photographing them, and afterward, when I'd look in the mirror, I'd think – well, why not? I think that many people, if they had the chance, would be pretty interested in trying something that would make them look and feel ten years younger, that is, if it didn't look fake. Wouldn't it be nice to wake up without a backache, with clear vision, etc.?

Wouldn't you be afraid of side-effects?

And what could those be? You're too gloomy; you should spend some time in America – the land of infinite optimism! 

But you said that Americans are riddled with fear.

But that's what is so wonderful about America – it's a land characterized by paradoxes like no other. Most countries are rather uniform – they have something like only one state of mind that leaves a certain aftertaste. Whereas America is a place with very many different and strange states of mind, but optimism is one of its best aspects. The lack of optimism in Europe bothers me. As soon as you want to start something in Europe, and you say that you have an idea, people's reaction is – “well, it's not as easy as that”. It really seems as if your attempt to do something new is a painful reminder to them that they themselves haven't done anything like that for a long time.

Recently, The Economist had an article on a study that revealed that since the end of WWII, only five large international companies have been founded in Europe. It was surmised that this is linked to skepticism and wariness, which is a result of the tragic experiences of Europeans in WWII.

That's a really interesting observation. And that's what I like about America – if you want to do something, just do it. If it turns out to be brilliant, you'll be acknowledged; if it doesn't turn out well, you won't be noticed, but at least no one will doubt your initiative.

Brilliancy will be recognized? You couldn't say that the brilliant in art is always valued.

I'm not talking about art, I'm talking about ideas in general. But in terms of art... (a noticeably good-looking woman walks by us at this point). I must say, you have very nice looking women – it's quite bothersome during an interview, regarding reflexes (laughs). In addition, I really don't see overweight people in Latvia and Europe as a whole. America is full of overweight people. Even in New York, which is a “skinny” city. I'm obsessed with overweight people, they fascinate me. My father was also obsessed with overweight people – when I'd take him to the park in his wheelchair, he'd giggle every time he saw overweight people. He was born in New York, in 1910, and when he was growing up, there weren't any overweight people in America. When sitting in American furniture from the 1950's and 60's, you can feel that it's narrower. Even plates and portion sizes have changed – they're huge now. 

I remember the last time I arrived in New York's Penn Station from the airport, and I went in to a shop to buy a soda, because it was really hot outside...

And the soda was gigantic, right?

Yes, pretty big, and in front of me there was a very overweight young woman who had bought a hot dog. But after a second, she was back – because she had forgotten to ask for extra sauerkraut. And it was at least 30° C outside.

Yes, that's fascinating. While here, I keep catching myself in thinking that the portions are relatively small, but if you look at them objectively, they are big enough. In America, a person gets a whole continent of food on their plate.

Kim Young Phil (I love the smell of adulation in the morning). 2011

Where does this gluttony come from?

There wasn't a lack of food in America during the war; food wasn't rationed like in England, where one could understand that people would want to eat more, in compensation. I don't know where this comes from in America...

Maybe it was competition that forced producers to offer more food at a lower price?

I really don't know; it probably is linked to the way that capitalism works. In any case, it's astounding.

Will your next project be about overweight people?

(Laughs) We're getting a bit off the track, aren't we? I'm not near as well-known as many famous photographers, but I've had my share of interviews, and I must admit that I like this one. I'm happy that I don't have to explain from where it is that I get my inspiration – because I don't know. To me, work means articulating what it is that I'm thinking, because frequently, I actually don't know what I think myself. Only by working on a project do I understand that I had been thinking about something for quite a while already. That's the way the process of discovering yourself is.

At this point in the interview, a dreadful looking beggar-woman comes up and asks for money, in addition to the 50 centime that I had already given her a moment ago.

What is she saying?

Kim Young Phil (I insist, ladies first). 2011

She says it wasn't enough.

It wasn't enough; really? That was more than nothing. 

Are there many panhandlers in America, too?

Yes, but American panhandlers are thankful for what they get, they don't ask for a “raise” (laughs).

Not really; I once gave ten cents to a panhandler in a New York subway – I wasn't aware of how much I was giving him, because I wasn't all that familiar with American coins yet – and the panhandler was offended.

That's interesting – showing pride. If you're going to beg, you have to let go of any pride. If that's the profession that you've chosen for yourself, accept everything that people give you, and don't complain that it's not enough. That makes me angry. Either look for a job, or be a full-time panhandler! Or do something so that people want to give you money; get them to laugh. New York is full of panhandlers and homeless people who have a good sense of humor, and that is definitely worth my money. But to ask for a “raise”? Maybe you could raise her job-level, but not her wages (chuckles). 

Kim Young Phil (It’s true. I’m utterly fascinating). 2011

Is social-economic thinking similar in the USA and the UK? Europe, however, is much more leftist than America.

You're asking about welfare in America? That's interesting. American culture and society are based on the idea of individualism – go West, establish roots, test yourself, stand up for yourself – all that nonsense about individualism. In other words, it means that this culture is not used to cooperative aid. And it's interesting that the people who have the most to gain from social welfare – for example, from a nationalized health plan [as advocated by Obama] – are the people who protest the most against it. They've been taught to think that that is socialism, and therefore – bad. Medicare [state-funded health care for seniors and handicapped individuals] is socialism, socialized insurance is socialism – it makes me crazy! Why are people so stupid that they wouldn't want to be insured in case of an illness? The way it is now, if people who live from paycheck to paycheck (and without any real savings) get seriously ill, they simply go bankrupt, because a visit to the doctor costs thousands of dollars. And that's a very common occurrence. If you don't have health insurance, you go broke. If you break your leg – that's 5 to 10 thousand dollars (I'm not sure of the exact amount). I hear that this a pretty much constant thing now – people who can barely make ends meet with their low-wage jobs get struck with medical problems, and wham – they're broke. They loose everything, just because they can't afford to pay 10, 20, 50 thousand dollars in medical bills. And these are the same people who are against the idea of nationalized healthcare! It's amazing. In America, people are terrified of getting injured because if you don't have insurance, you're in big trouble.

Is that why in America bicycle frames have written warnings that you can get injured by using bicycles, and why paper coffee cups are labeled that coffee is hot?

No, that's another kind of fear. The fear of being sued. For instance, there was a piece missing from the staircase in the place where the ISSP summer school was held. If, in America, someone sprained their leg on a staircase like that, there would immediately be a legal situation. In accordance, nothing would ever be held in a place like that, or, people would first fix the stairs, out of fear of being sued. They say that baseball is America's favorite pastime; I'd say that suing each other is America's favorite pastime.

Returning to health insurance – what are the cons against it, if health insurance costs much less than an uninsured visit to the doctor?

Not only the individual, but the nation as well is suffering in the current situation, because it already has to deal with the national debt, and the financial burden of the existing healthcare system is extremely great. Not only because it's expensive, but also because in America, there are a lot of people that are overweight and have illnesses that are associated with their being overweight, and that costs a lot. If fifty percent of the population is overweight, then you can image the amounts of money being spent on taking caring of them.

After hearing all of this, one has to wonder how the US manages to hold on.

(Laughs) But in America, people are industrious, they have ideas, they establish interesting businesses and do interesting things, they have enthusiasm and optimism – and I like that. A minus that can be mentioned is that America is a pretty crazy place. But every place has its faults. For example, England is a police state.

Are you referring to the surveillance cameras that have been set up in public places?

Yes, and also the powers of the police.

But aren't civilian rights highly valued in the Western world?

I guess they are. But it's a slippery slope. For instance, in America it is supposedly legal to film the police on the streets, but every week you can read about a photographer who was arrested by the police, and his/her equipment having been taken away. They interpret the situation the way they want to, and the law is not the deciding factor. By hiding behind the dark shadow of terrorism, the government and the police are taking liberty to do what is best for them. They're doing it in the name of your safety, and you can do whatever you want to in the name of that. In wanting to control the country, you come up with an enemy. To take the low road is to be human.

Knowing what people are like, what is it that you, as an artist, can still admire in them?

Well, first of all, not everyone chooses the low road, and there are people who do useful, noble and honorable things. In turn, we, the majority, choose the low road in little things – daily lies, not paying for public transport, etc. These are not low roads in the style of Bernie Madoff [a billion-dollar pyramid-scheme swindler].

Does what you do have any connection to beauty?

I'm not able to create markedly commercial pieces – art that, when you look at it, you can just tell that you'll be able to sell it. There are photographers like Hellen van Meene and Jill Greenberg who make the right mix – beautiful enough, challenging enough, a bit strange, but not too strange and also, not too beautiful. And everybody buys art like that. I think it's quite simple to portray beauty. It's not as if I don't appreciate beauty, but I like it when, for instance, art is created from something found in daily life. Do you know the photographer Sophie Calle? I was recently in France, and she was working on a project about blindness. Every time I think about it, I get goosebumps. It's such a powerful idea. She asked people who had become blind to describe the last thing that they remembered seeing. Beautiful! In my opinion, that's a very powerful idea. It's art because it makes you think. In my opinion, art should stimulate a person to veer off of the traveled path.

That's why I said that it is a privilege to be an artist – you can observe from a distance, without being in the current. What is beauty?

There are many different kinds of beauty; there's not just one beauty. For example, in Riga I experienced a great phenomenon of beauty – from five to seven PM, when the light takes on a certain softness. In the same way, I feel a special beauty by the sea – when the waves hit the shore and in retreat, they empty me – in a good sense of the word. Certain works of art are beautiful; that woman that passed by us was beautiful (laughs). There are so many versions of beauty! My understanding of beauty is, most likely, exactly the same as that of everyone else – there are beautiful words, beautiful things... But personally, I'm not geared towards marveling over beautiful things. The A New Kind of Beauty project is beautiful because it's interesting to me. Looking at photographs of simply beautiful people isn't interesting to me; photographs of unusual-looking people are beautiful.

Is your interest in illusions partly rooted in your study of literature? Because as we know, a large part of the newest classics, at least, are about illusions, and about the collapse of those illusions.

I don't know; I read a lot of early 20th century American literature – Scott Fitzgerald, Salinger – and their characters were always discontented. Nevertheless, American literature could maybe also be characterized by a certain hope. And my father was an optimist.

Is he an American of Italian descent?

No, we come from Spain. When we were thrown out of Spain in the 14th century, the family moved to Morocco.

Are you Jewish?

Yes, the family comes from Toledo, that's where our last name comes from. My father's outlook on life could be summed up with the question – “Why not?” And I think in the exact same way. If instead of asking – “Why?”, you ask – “Why not?”, then the door opens!

Why did you go to the US?

Already when I was a boy in England, I always knew that I'd go to America. It could be because my father was an American; in addition, England seemed slow and unwilling to me, and I wanted to do things. I did my studies in America, then moved to Paris, and later – to New York. But now I feel that I've lived in New York for a long enough time, and I'd like to go somewhere else. But I don't know where. Of course, in New York I know some galleries and journalists, and if I went somewhere else, I'd have to start from the beginning.

I know a lot of experimental musicians in New York, and I know how difficult their lives can be – the clubs in which they play are small, there's no cover charge, or, if there is, it's small or even just a request for a donation... consequently, it's impossible to live off of that.

I've been lucky, because I've done a lot of work as a photographic editor for magazines. All of the money I make is invested into art. And I also teach in a college, and I sell my photographs. 

What do you teach?

Practical things – how to work with ideas, etc.

Was your father also an artist?

Yes, he was a painter and sculptor.

The piece Kim Jong Phil, in which you liken yourself to the North Korean dictator, is a contemplation on yourself, right?

Yes, absolutely. 

That's a person about whom we know almost nothing. Are you, in this way, playing with the idea that a person also knows very little about himself?

The fact that I don't know him personally doesn't mean anything; this piece is a rather direct and cheap joke. Sometimes art can be a stupid joke – if you look at Maurizio Cattelan or Jeff Koons, then their works are dumb jokes, but it's fantastic art. And art can be like that. Sometimes it seems as if there is too little humor in art. Why must art be serious? That piece is about my need to be able to work as an artist. The piece is about illusion, self-delusion. Namely, an artist must have the same characteristics as a dictator, because both an artist and a dictator are extreme examples of human existence.

To be an artist means not taking others into consideration?

Yes and no. As an artist, I need several things. I must have the illusion that I am doing creative work that no one has done before. And not only that. I must be narcissistic enough to believe that not only am I doing something completely new, but that the world is impatiently waiting to see what Toledano's next message will be. As a dictator, you build a world that is based on absolute illusion, and you must fill this world with believers that believe in your words and ideas. The only thing that divides me from a dictator is the fact that I don't have a need to exterminate a large number of people. But on the level of metaphor, this comparison works very well.

Was it easy for the Beauty models to disrobe?

Yes, because I was very open about my objectives. I'm usually quite decent. I gave them to read my artistic mission, which explains that the work is about a new kind of beauty, about people's choices, evolution, etc. I sent them examples of the work that I had done so far, as well as reproductions of paintings that inspired me. You see, I wanted the models to be completely clear about what they were getting into.

Whereas your “father project” (Days With My Father) didn't have any humor?

Of course it has humor! You have to see

Days With My Father. 2006 – 2009

Was your father in agreement with you about the piece being made publicly available?

I told him, but it turned out to be a complicated conversation. I told him that I would be putting some pictures up on the internet, and the conversation turned towards the question of “what is the internet?” And how do you explain that to a 96-year-old man? For example, there arose the question of where is the internet, and is it in color. How do you say where it is? Everywhere, just like trees. It was pretty funny.

What were you thinking when you created this piece? Of course, it's understandable that you needed a way to deal with the impending death of your father, but what was the deeper meaning behind this work?

Most of the art works that I create are a way for me to speak to myself about important things. And that's what I did during Days With My Father. I talked to myself and tried to observe what was happening to me.

Days With My Father. 2006 – 2009

Didn't you have the feeling that this work was revealing too much of your private life?

People always ask me this. No, I don't have any problem with it. I'm pretty open about virtually all things. Why don't people talk about some things? They're afraid that they might reveal something about themselves, and that it will make them weak, so that somebody can use that information against them – show them in a bad light.

Sometimes people don't talk about private things simply because they don't want to bother other people with things that are interesting only to themselves.

When I made Days With My Father, I wasn't thinking about a potential audience. Of course, why should there even be one? But, as it turned out, a huge number of people were interested in this piece. I received about twenty, thirty thousand e-mails; more than two million people from around the world visited the internet site. 

Days With My Father. 2006 – 2009

Perhaps because they themselves couldn't freely speak about a similar experience.

Yes, perhaps.

Wasn't it a bit confusing to receive so much attention?

Of course! Frequently, people would come up to me and say that they checked out the site, or that they read the book, and that it changed something in them. Or it allowed them to feel something. I'd be delighted to discuss it online, but at that moment – when you're eye to eye, I get embarrassed. I simply become English, get embarrassed, and I tell some stupid joke! (Laughs)