My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Bhanu Kapil interviews Luke Butler, with ancillary notes on vertigo, citizenship, and Gerald Ford’s penis, in the fifth installment of BOMBlog’s reprints of [ 2nd Floor Projects ]’s editions.
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Since 1974, when I first saw one, I’ve seen approximately eight. Well, somewhere between eight and twenty-four, including my stint as a volunteer in the geriatric ward of Mount Vernon Hospital in Northwood, Middlesex, when I was seventeen. My father wanted me to be a doctor and so, in an effort to bulk up my pre-med C.V., I spent most of late March 1985 swabbing the blackened remnants of diverse genitalia. It was the worst job in the place, but the nurses would share their chocolate digestive biscuits with me on tea break, which came at 10:30 sharp, and during which they told me stories I became addicted to, stories about anatomy, about an old person’s clothes being removed for the first time in years and what was underneath. It was horrible—though I could not, for the life of me, not listen. My heart would nearly burst and when I went back onto the ward, the two genders separated by a massive grey curtain, I felt relieved that it was me doing this work and not the nurses, who would tell a person to their face, glancing down between their legs: “Look at this. Disgusting.”
No, I think it’s best to begin with Gerald Ford’s penis, with the proviso that I was born in England to Indian parents and thus stared for a long time at Luke Butler’s Leader of Men 37: Self Portrait, a collage of President Nixon shaving without his underpants on, and thought that he, Nixon, was Ford, until I realized my terrible mistake. Gerald Ford is the one in the redwoods, toweling pine tar off his left foot as he stares at something on the forest floor. The trees above him accelerate into the sky. Here, in Leader of Men 38: Wolverine Towel, the casual public nudity of a figure no longer in existence combines with the convulsive effect of a speeding, vertical landscape to make you, automatically, cock your head.
Though I became accustomed to Gerald Ford’s dizzying genital prospect, I cannot say the same for President Nixon’s, with its side-view presentation, dark red hue, and its position in the image next to that iconic 1970s bathroom fixture, the bulky chrome tap. In considering the community of penises in Luke Butler’s archive of public servants, a sequence that includes a naked, coastal Vice President Agnew, whom I had never heard of in my life despite recently becoming a US citizen, I thought of them (the penises) as replicant, as somehow in alliance. It was at this point that I recognized the need for outside help and dialed the Immigrant Assimilation hotline. It was disconnected, and so I called Luke Butler’s cell instead.
Luke Butler Hi … Can you hear me? I’m in some kind of wind-tunnel. I’m trying to find a little shelter. Okay. That’s better. Hi!
Bhanu Kapil Er … Is this the Gerald Ford Library?
LBYes, it certainly is. Can I help you?
BK I hope so. Okay, I can talk in a normal voice. Luke. Luke Butler, I’ve been trying to write about the kind of figures you’re making in your art, the way so many of them are captured mid-grimace, or in a moment of imbalance or crisis, like Chekov pricking his fingers on the yellow flowers, or Captain Kirk collapsed and insentient on a pile of grey rocks. Or Gerald Ford wiping himself off with a towel while standing on one foot, and then the one where he’s slathered in shaving cream.
LBThe shaving cream one? That’s President Nixon.
BK [Trying to sound as if had made casual mistake]. Right, right. Nixon. All this surplus energy, excessive nudity, men in power … . as if their bodies form the repository of a powerful, latent force that doesn’t go anywhere, it just loops back into the domain of the images, to make another one. Another President, or Vice President. Like these dead but living creatures that just keep coming. Like zombies.
BK Do you think of your work as monstrous?
LB Well, I think of a true monster as an unleashed natural force. Like a tsunami, which is an inextricable event. Did you get the image I sent you of the ocean, “The End”? I look at that and see a wave that lurches out of its natural firmament. I look at Nixon and Ford and I think what fascinated me about them is that they’ve got this tremendous ancestral power, but they’re somehow buried in our collective memory. We don’t think about them anymore. Especially Ford, who was actually, apparently, this modest, decent person. And then there’s Agnew. Agnew is Nixon’s first Vice President, who resigned over bribery/tax evasion. Nixon appoints Ford to replace him, and when Nixon steps down a year later over Watergate, Ford becomes the first and only man to hold both offices while being elected to neither. They were these average people who became emperors, these indelible figures, but at the same time are completely obscure. Like these ghosts, ghosts more than zombies I think, who have sort of collapsed inside our shared memory, and when you look at that it’s very strange. They’re so isolated … . like valueless, lonely, forlorn abandoned houses. And then the naked pictures … emphasize that loneliness. They’re like a toy that no one wants to play with anymore, and at the same time they’re this common American property. Their bodies don’t belong to them anymore.
BK And then there’s your work with outer space … . Captain Kirk splayed on an alien outcrop, surrounded by all that wet grey paint, which I love. I saw the photos from Jessica Silverman’s studio visit, for Whitehotmagazine … and how your “characteristic grey background,” as she described it, drips and smears onto the wall, extending the abstract, unpopulated matter Kirk and his crew are wandering in. Define: grey paint.
LB Built-in obscurity.
BK I used to work in the KFC on Birmingham New Street. That’s separate. Back to you. Star Trek. Did I hear you say when you were a kid, you liked action figures?
LB Yes! Toys, action figures, all the tiny heroes … . My work really is about the people on the other side of monsters, the heroes—I both venerate them and see through their imperviousness, trying to make them at least partly small, like me!
BK Okay, then I’m still thinking again about the way you collate these contracted, yet explicit male bodies. The way you put the penis that is not their penis but is nevertheless a penis on the body. Luke Butler, what is the definition of a penis?
LB [Laughing in wind tunnel, but because of the wind it’s a completely supernatural sound, all crackled and echoey]. A penis has a blunt, natural, reproductive presence in our lives. And at the same time it’s a monster, it’s incredibly unwelcome. There is no more common or ordinary yet despised figure than the penis. As a male in this world, you’re surrounded by men and so, there are all these penises but you never see them. You don’t see them anywhere … and there’s so much loneliness connected to that. I’m fascinated by the illogical convention of the penis—this symbol of American sexuality—and yet, it’s such an unwanted thing. There’s no room for the image of the penis in our world. It’s like, as a male, “What am I supposed to be doing with this?” You can’t really put it on display. The only way your sexuality is safe is if it’s never touched. So, because, as an artist, I want divergence, it’s really funny and interesting to me, to see these rigid, masculine, static figures—these heroes—completely, naturally naked. It’s a way, also, of claiming and manipulating this history, which high school students don’t even know about, they can’t even recognize Nixon’s face …
BK That’s terrible—
LB And at the same time, there’s this unpredictable erection.
BK All this intensity. But for what? I’m looking at “Leaders of Men 37: Batman and Robin” and, specifically, I’m curious about Spiro Agnew’s erection. It’s more dominant than Nixon’s. There’s something about it that implies pleasure, coupling, though, like all the other leaders, Agnew’s face is totally blank. Why is his face blank?
LB Because he’s a ghost. In a way, these men really are like giants, or monsters, these ultra-masculine figures who were once so powerful and are now all but forgotten. It’s amazing to me how little anyone talks or thinks about them (in the Bush era it may be very comforting to imagine a day when he is no longer thought of). But they are like monsters to me in that they sit in our collective histories doing nothing, and to look back and find them and their stories can be very, very surprising. Ford especially, he has a very low profile, nobody but me ever talks about him. And they are naked—male nudity is still rather shocking in this culture, monstrous even—the penis is a terrible dragon! So why not have the old presidents lead us to it?
At this point in our conversation, the wind picked up and we said goodbye. If you are reading this, perhaps you are looking at Luke Butler’s collages, or did, earlier in the evening, or yesterday. Perhaps you, too, have become obsessed with Gerald Ford and notice that people mention him in conversation more frequently and randomly than before you encountered Luke Butler’s art. For example, I was recently sorting muddy scallions into cardboard boxes at Cresset Community Farm, a biodynamic farming cooperative on the high plains of Colorado. There could not be a simpler place, more gelled with brownish-silver clods of dirt. There, as I was passing the bundles of onions to a woman who had come up from Denver to barter physical labor for vegetables, I said, being a polite person originally from the United Kingdom: “So, that’s a long drive. Do you listen to books on tape in your car?” She said, “How did you guess?” And proceeded to narrate the contents of a book she was currently listening to, about the history of the CIA. She said, “But Gerald Ford … he wasn’t too bad, actually. He wasn’t too involved in all that stuff. He wasn’t like those other nasty men.” Me: “Do you think Gerald Ford was sexy?” Woman from Denver: “Oh my word. I turned nineteen the first year he was President. I thought he was so handsome.”
In 1985, I met Arthur Scargill in a café in Euston. It was a working man’s café, totally rough, and me and Ann John, en route to our interviews at The Royal London Hospital, had ducked in for a runny egg breakfast with its accompaniment of chips and beans, which you do not get in the more vendor-based establishments north of the river. “Was that who I think it was?” “Yeah.” “Oh my god….” “I’m going back in.” “No!” “Yes.” What must Mr. Scargill, miner, activist, political leader, have thought of the Indian kid in a green blazer and knee-high grey socks telling him she “really, really” admired his work? On a napkin, he scrawled: “Working together towards a better future! Yours, Arthur. January 6th, 1985.” A napkin I still possess.
A ghost mutates through intensity, gathering enough energy to touch you through your thin blouse, or your leggings, or your scarf. A ghost damages the triptych of ancestors composed of descending, passive, and synthetic scraps. But what if the ghost is empty because it’s making a space for you? Vertigo is a symptom of profound attraction. An excess of desire. Once, after a long shift at KFC, during which we ran out of baked beans and the manager sent me across the Birmingham New Street plaza with a twenty pound note, to Marks and Spencer, for a family-size tin, I didn’t go back to the flat in Selby where my boyfriend lived. I went to the cinema in my red and white striped shirt and watched Au Revoir Les Enfants. A Londoner, I blinked in the rainy quiet darkness that had fallen by the time I left. I ducked into a bright room. There, I was picked up by a Muslim man with a thick Yorkshire accent, who bought me a Malibu and orange. I was conscious of having wasted my entire summer on a boyfriend. My parents thought I was interning as a trainee journalist on a regional broadsheet. I’d told the KFC manager my mother was dying, and that I had to take every weekend off to be with her in the hospital. On Saturday mornings, my boyfriend would drive us to the sea in his refurbished Nash Metropolitan. Once, he drove us to France. I drank coffee on the ferry, staring into the blazing pink sun while he slept, his head on my lap. But that night, a Thursday night, I ended up in a graveyard with the man from the bar, and his friend, who had arrived as we were leaving. A ghost is a duplicate, a tall and handsome man who contracts then dilates so swiftly, you can’t refuse. In fact, you don’t say a word when a ghost, when two ghosts, lead you by your upper arm into an empty place, verdant with cypress and elm.
I want the grey paint extending to the wall in writing. Why? I can’t say why. It filled me with such desire to see the photograph of the studio in the Whitehot article. A wet wall incarnates an image. The matter a figure is made of is scraped from an undocumented environment. That wet page is a silver page, and perhaps this is why I am always elated when I visit San Francisco. It is dark too, but with red and yellow flowers in the writer’s garden. Chrome yellow, a merged color, and I want that too. Inflorescence. I write because I cannot paint. I write with the painter in the pink afternoon, the red day, and sometimes at night, true night, evacuating future books and writing new ones, in which countries and bodies are visible.
Since establishing [ 2nd floor projects ] in San Francisco in 2007, I have featured twenty writers in the exhibitions, with six writers forthcoming in 2011. My programming includes commissions to writers throughout the country to produce an edition: essays, personal narratives, interviews, poetry, or mixed-genre pieces in the form of handcrafted broadsheets or chapbooks. From early on in my art practice, I have been interested in trespassing disciplines. These visual, theoretical, and narrative crossings perhaps address an interstitial space of engagement with the artists’ works from the writer’s point of departure. A distal approach rather than the traditional essay model, such as an exhibition catalogue. For each exhibition, I design and print in-house a limited run of 100 on archival papers. The writers are also invited to give a reading during the run of the exhibition, or to send a recording if they are not in the area. [ 2nd floor projects ] participated in the NY Art Book Fair in 2009 and 2010. BOMBlog will be re-publishing these pieces regularly over the next several months.
—Margaret Tedesco, Director
Bhanu Kapil is a British-Indian writer who lives in Colorado, where she teaches at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, as well as Goddard College. Her full-length collections are: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works, 2006), and humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press, 2009). A new prose work, Schizophrene, is coming out this Spring from Nightboat Books.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.