Written by Erlend Hammer
Alex Israel’s body of work operates entirely within the theatre of American consumer and celebrity culture of the post 1980s. As such, one of its main themes is the relationship between authenticity and artifice in human emotions and behavior. In 2012, Israel’s series of celebrity interviews As It Lays appeared online and felt completely of its time, both formally and conceptually. The format of online interviews has exploded in the years since, and the genre-bending style of celebrity self-presentation that followed has been among the decade’s most fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, phenomena to behold. Fundamentally As It LAys is a play on the traditionally all-American talk show, the form of television that first gave mass audiences access to famous people, thereby contributing to the nature of what ‘being famous’ has meant over the last fifty years.
Whereas the talk-show genre was certainly invented to entertain audiences, its backbone has always been promotional. The scheduling of a particular guest is usually timed to advertise new movies, books or records. As such, the type of interview typically follows a formula with some small talk, a few personal anecdotes, and finally information about whatever the celebrity is there to sell. Some talk-show hosts occasionally try to subvert these conventions, perhaps most notably David Letterman, who would regularly display an acute disinterest in whatever topic he was discussing with his guests. This was not only part of the tone of Letterman’s comedy, but also contributed to the appearance that the connection between the host and his guest was more real. It gave the impression that they were caught up in the absurdity of the situation together. At its best, this included the audience as well. Rarely if ever did Letterman take it to the extreme that he appeared not to connect with his guests at all.
This, however, is Israel’s primary modus operandi. As It LAys consistently presents a kind of old school Brechtian verfremdung that leads to moments of deep discomfort, of the kind that’s become a staple of the ‘cringe comedy’ in shows like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Girls. Ironically, this seems to draw out a more three-dimensional version of the people who appear on the show. By coming across as the nearly complete opposite of a normal (interested, enthusiastic) talk-show host, Israel’s two-dimensional cardboard character pushes the boundaries of what can reasonably be understood as acceptable talk-show host behavior. From how the interview is set up, completely lacking banter – ‘Let’s just get started with the questions’ – to the questions themselves, Israel doesn’t make it easy for his guests. On one level the interview format is clearly indebted to the questionnaire that was originally developed by French talk-show host Bernard Pivot, and which is more widely known from Inside the Actor's Studio, hosted by the notoriously fawning James Lipton. These interviews always end with the same ten questions, examples of which are ‘What sound or noise do you hate?’ and ‘What is your least favourite word?’ Lipton presents these questions as if they have near metaphysical importance – as if the answers will give us direct access to the soul of his guest. The questions that guests are asked throughout As It LAys hold no such pretension.
"Do you get excited about the Olympics?"
"What foreign language would you most like to speak fluently?"
"What do you like to do to pass time on a long flight?"
"Have you ever had a near-death experience?"
"Do you enjoy listening to the radio?"
"What would you say is the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon?"
"What are your thoughts on graffiti?"
Israel’s guests regularly face questions about the most trivial facts imaginable, which means that the interviews are stripped of the kind of psychological presence we’re used to projecting onto the situation we’re watching. As It LAys interviews never go into anything conventionally ‘emotional’, so the guests, who are used to ‘performing’ a certain version of their personality for this type of television, are denied the opportunity to tap into their previous experience of being ‘sincere’ talk-show guests. In spite of Israel’s apparent attempts to achieve the opposite, something about this feels ‘real’.
It’s just that this reality is made up of highly unusual information: Oliver Stone going through his many allergies, Ian Ziering attempting to show Israel the photos in his wallet, Rachel Zoe listing the key elements of a perfect salad, and Darren Star taking an absurdly long time to think about what he would do differently if he could go back to high school. Above all, these moments are profoundly strange. Throughout As It LAys the main story being told is a kind of alternative to the sentimentality of celebrity culture as a whole, a kind of narrative hyperrealism of the perfectly everyday. As It LAys ends up feeling more genuinely human than other talk shows and this is really where its true appeal lies. We come for the ironically subversive art and stay for the authenticity of emotion.
As such, it’s truer to the ideals behind the style typical of American TV acting than most conventional television, both scripted drama and so-called ‘reality television’. In an 1881 essay titled ‘Naturalism on the Stage’, the French author and playwright Émile Zola described his desire for theatre ‘to have the unimpeachable morality of truth and to teach us the frightening lesson of sincere investigation’.(1) The style of acting that had been developed in response to the demands of playwrights like Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, on the other hand, continued to be refined in cinema. With the invention of the film camera came an increased awareness of the minutiae of human facial expressions.
Audiences became used to seeing actors up close; the tiniest movement of an eye, or curl of a lip, became the most important tools of emotional communication. Previously in history one’s experience of these expressions would be limited to immediate friends and family. Now we’re used to seeing a great number of people up close, close enough that we feel we know them. We know their faces, not simply in the sense that we recognise them, but because we know their mannerisms. We know what a sad Tom Cruise looks like, how Ellen Degeneres reacts when she’s excited, and the facial expressions of Glenn Close when she’s angry.
The level of familiarity we’ve developed with professional acting techniques has even influenced how we behave in everyday life. Most visible in the behavior of teenagers, everyone is a Hollywood actor now. Everyone is searching for the ‘unimpeachable morality of truth’ and the most important truth is to know, express and be true to one’s ‘self’. The line most spoken by reality show contestants across the globe is that they’re just trying to be themselves.
We’re constantly striving to be perfectly sincere. People who aren’t in touch with their genuine selves cannot be sincere. We want people to be honest and forthcoming in their approach to others, both professionally and personally, and we expect them to give a truthful representation of who they are. With social media, the question of how an outward representation relates to an inwards reality, itself the central concern of much, perhaps most, of post-war philosophy, has taken on a stronger sense of urgency than ever before.
The ideology of sincerity is at the centre of the alliance between social media and consumer culture, and it has contributed to creating a public of what the American professor of drama Maurya Wickstrom has called ‘performing consumers’. The changeability of fashion has given way to a similar fluidity of performed identity where experimenting with different styles and staying ‘true to oneself’ are of equal importance. The choices we make with the wide variety of cultural markers we use to present who we are do not simply come from our own specifically individual taste, but also represent what Wickstrom calls the consumer’s desire to ‘try on otherness’.(2)
While this is certainly an important element in the continuous loop of consumerism, a lot of American art is about people who are genuinely ‘other’, trying on whatever is dominantly normal. The work of artists like author Brett Easton Ellis and fashion designer Thom Browne, who are both openly gay, consistently plays with ‘trying on’ heteronormative markers. Thom Browne’s suits and a character like Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Ellis’ novel American Psycho, are exaggerated versions of the ‘normal’ WASP male, in recent years most clearly portrayed in the character of TV show Mad Men’s Don Draper. Inherent in the ideology of people being and expressing themselves, is the mythology of the deceiving individual, the con man who isn’t really who he says he is.
As seen in this quote from Christopher Bagley’s interview with Alex Israel for W Magazine, there is occasional speculation that Israel is such a con-man:
When I remark that even Israel’s chief admirers sometimes suspect that they’re being toyed with yet keep coming back for more, the artist laughs. ‘Really?’ he says. ‘It’s funny that you say that. Yeah, I don’t know how to respond to that. But I really want to get some frozen yogurt.’
By answering this question in such a playfully coy way, Israel embodies the way in which modern art is perceived by large parts of the general public. During the last 100 years or so, a common reaction to avant-garde art has been for audiences to believe they’re being set up to look like fools. Duchamp? It’s just a urinal! Picasso? My five-year old could have painted that! Warhol? Soup!?!
In Israel’s work, from As It LAys to the artworks that are produced by Hollywood prop studios, we’re constantly reminded of these questions about authenticity and artifice. In fact, it’s become somewhat of a cliché that one of the things ‘art does’ is to help us question the idea of what art can do. This, however, is not at all what Israel’s art is about. It’s part of the background against which his art should be seen, but to question whether celebrity interviews can be art would be a missed opportunity to understand what’s actually important about his work.
Israel himself, hiding behind his sunglasses, represents a character uneasily situated in the middle of the archetypes of the comedic ‘straight man’ and the mysterious villain whose true intentions are unclear. Similarly, the different artworks in his exhibitions play with the relationship between two and three dimensionality, surface and depth. Even if Israel’s projection of himself as a talk-show host is unusual, the way in which he reaches that difference is through a kind of exaggerated attempt at being as unremarkable as possible, by removing all the mannerisms that could be understood as personality. As such, Israel’s persona as host, a man truly like an onion, with no core, seems incapable of sincerity. This creates a tension between the host and the goal of giving an honest portrait of the guests.
Nevertheless, Israel calls the interviews modern portraits, with the sort of understatement that’s sure to annoy those who feel the entire project is too easily understood for comfort. Not least within contemporary art, there is often scepticism towards anything that’s too straightforward. This, of course, was also a key element of Pop art – from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons – with artists making the claim that art is actually pretty simple stuff. This is true of much other American art as well. Both Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism were dominated by a similar claim that ‘what you see is what you see’. With Pop art, this was simply taken far enough to make the irony protection shields of many critics and art lovers kick in. Surely it wasn’t really that simple? In works like the sunset paintings, the films and the large-scale installations like the Paradise Cove Pier at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Israel’s contribution to this history has been the marriage of Pop art to some of the most iconic imagery of pop culture: Hollywood and California.
The image of the Pacific Ocean, flaringly lit by the setting sun, flanked by palm trees, is perfectly sublime. To millions of people all over the world it’s an icon of contemporary romanticism, as rich in history, mythology and meaning as the Byzantine mosaics were to the churchgoers that made up their audience. In fact, maybe the essence of California as a whole is the idea of an almost heavenly perfection. It was the promised land of American settlers going west, travelling through the increasingly inhospitable landscape of southwestern America, creating the United States, and most of our twenty-first-century culture along the way. It’s no coincidence that travel, preferably westwards, is the continuous leitmotiv of American art, exemplified in novels, movies, television shows and even musical works. It’s also undeniably the final, and one true goal of every single actor across the globe.
Meeting people from California can give a similar feeling that things are too easy, too friendly, too healthy and too perfect. To cynical New Yorkers or Europeans, nothing screams insincerity like overt sincerity. Perhaps to be expected, then, the image of Californian perfection has been one of the most eagerly deconstructed myths of the last fifty years. In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Los Angeles is portrayed as a sunnily futuristic sci-fi alternative universe to the filmmaker’s gritty and cranky New York City. Another variety is the much darker version of Hollywood presented in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, where identity and sense of self are broken down by the anxiety, paranoia and madness generated, both psychologically and culturally, by the film industry’s competitive and ruthless desire. Then, of course, there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which that quintessential 1980s image, a Southern California high school, is literally located in the mouth of hell.
Perhaps, however, the most important proponent of this analysis of California was the author Joan Didion, whose novel Play It As It Lays lends its title to Israel’s most famous work. In the novel, California is contrasted with neighbouring desert state Nevada, California’s dark mirror image in a sense. Didion once wrote that the image of fire is the key element in how Angelinos think about their city, that in fact ‘the city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself’.(3) The history of Los Angeles is a history of fires threatening the peaceful everyday life of even privileged areas like Malibu and Bel Air. If California were Dorian Grey, its closet would contain a painting showing earthquakes, race riots and wildfires, actress suicides and the murder of Sharon Tate.
And while this all functions as a psychological and emotional backdrop to Israel’s vision of Los Angeles, its culture and history, and the many portraits of its people and iconography, most of all his body of work reads like a love letter to the city. It’s not a blindly positive account; of course there’s awareness of the ‘dark underbelly’, but nevertheless there’s a willingness to be positive in spite of everything that’s difficult. Even more, I think, there’s a sense of urgency that art should be allowed to provide more than critical analysis. Art doesn’t always have to be a wheatgrass-shot – it can also be frozen yoghurt. In Israel’s Los Angeles, the sun shines because it really wants to, on everything that is brand new.
1. Zola, Émile ‘Naturalism on the Stage´ (1881), Toby Cole (ed.) Playwrights on Playwriting: from Ibsen to Ionesco, New York: Cooper Square Press, (2001).
2. Wickstrom, Maurya, Performing Consumers: Global Capital and Its Theatrical Seductions, New York: Routledge, (2006).
3. Didion, Joan ’Los Angeles Notebook, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (2008).