Saturday, March 13, 2010

Homeless Art: Can You Spare Some Change?

by Drew Martin

I was recently contacted by Rebecca Kevill, a 23 year old student in the UK, studying for her degree in Visual Art at Salford University in Manchester. Her practice is print based but she has expanded into some interesting site specific works to challenge the public’s perception of homelessness. Rebecca recently did an intervention in Manchester city centre, where she created a dummy of a homeless person and left him begging to see how the public reacted. She also made a sculpture of a sleeping man out of cardboard that is currently homeless and returns to him every day to see how the weather and the outdoors has affected him. Rebecca is now creating prints and casts of coins with resin and in place of the Queen's head she inserts a homeless person's face: playing off the phrase "loose change" and all the social meanings of the word "change" which empowers her work.

In this posting the table has been turned. Rebecca asked me ten questions about my own homeless man project, which I have written about before. I like her questions and the responses they created:

Is the sculpture a personal reflection of your own experience from riches to rags?

In a way yes. I grew up in a very comfortable, safe and educated household in suburbia New Jersey. There aren't homeless people in suburbia. There is no place for them. Of course we saw plenty of them in New York City but in my youth I could not recognize those as individual tragedies. They were more like performers in a city with so many prostitutes, drag queens, thugs, etc. Even upon closer inspection, the homeless in New York seemed to be the result of some vice so that the moral barrier between us made us seem immune to such an existence.

Homelessness was not a state I pitied but something I detested because I had a lot of rough encounters with guys on the street in New York, when it was a tougher place. Once I had a knife held to my stomach by a homeless junkie. Another time I was chased a few blocks down the street by a homeless man with an aluminum baseball bat. I shocked most by the homeless men having sex with each other in the Port Authority Bus Terminal men's restrooms, out in the open. I was a young teenager and it was not something I should have seen at that time. So all of my experiences until I was 18 with the homeless were quite negative.

When I went to college in California I met a whole different class of homeless men that I really connected with. They were either leftover free-spirited hippies or absent minded physicists who never married. They were more like prophets or scholars from ancient Greece. They lived a lifestyle I could imagine, especially in California, where you have beautiful weather, beaches and mountains. I remember telling myself that if I ever became homeless in New York, that I would make my way out West.

In college, I started squatting the art studio my school gave me as an honors student. I was caught and kicked out of the space for living. I spent a night on a flat roof at school and then started couch surfing. I moved into a trailer and eventually went to Prague where I lived in a squat for eight months. We burned coal in rooms, gathered water from a leaking pipe in the basement and used hallway toilets in other buildings. It was Bohemian but was really on that edge of not being romantic had we been a little older or less artsy. I had a personal problem with rats. One big one, the size of a cat, jumped on me two nights in a row. That really freaked me out and I quickly moved out, cut my natural dreadlocks and cleaned up my act. Ever since then (that was 1992, when I was still 22) I feared anything close to that lack of civility.

What inspired you to make the sculpture and how has your use of materials impacted the development of the piece?

(Fast forward 17 years later)...I am married with three young children, a lovely wife and a professional job in New York. I am the breadwinner. Our house, car, health insurance and education for our kids are all dependent on the fact that I have a job in a teetering economy. The fall from grace in America is a pretty hard one. The European social net does not apply here so you always have the fear of losing it all, very quickly and not necessarily because you did anything wrong: with gambling, drug addictions or other vices.

I have always made art but in school we were discouraged from the representational and the human form. About two years ago I wanted to make a life-sized sculpture but I am back in suburbia New Jersey and the classic materials of marble and bronze are neither economically or logistically possible and I did not want to get into toxic materials. So I decided to make something with materials I was comfortable with and was easy and inexpensive: chicken wire and fabrics. Using my own clothes moved the project towards a self portrait by default.

Why is the sculpture only a self portrait by default?

I made the general form of the homeless man and dressed it with my simply became a self-portrait because of the personal affects, especially the shoes, which I had walked hundreds of miles in over the years. The suit on him was an old suit I wore every week for a couple years. Another thing about it being a self portrait is that one's most natural sense of proportion and scale is based on your own body. You are the measure. Anyone smaller than you is short, anyone heavier is overweight, etc. You are the norm and your own Vitruvian Man. And so, when I made this homeless man he was simply based on me. I used myself as the model for how he should be on the ground. When you paint or sculpt or make music, you reach a certain point in a project where you say "That's it!". Everything seems right. With a self portrait you get to that point and you are simultaneously feeling like you are having an out of body experience because you recognize yourself, in front of you.

Why do you want the sculpture to “strike a chord” with the viewer?

Making a homeless self portrait was like meeting my greatest fear as a husband and father, head on...but it was also endearing, because I looked after him. If I were an African American making the sculpture, it would have a very different meaning, but I am a 40 year old white male and I am tall, have all my teeth and hair and I am educated. I am in the most advantageous demographic possible and so the work is not a social commentary as much as it as a projection of fear.

Originally I had the homeless man my house; at first in a little front room gallery and then in the hallway so my family had to walk around him. They were the first viewers and found him a bit alarming. I would be at work while my homeless self portrait was on the floor in the house. It was kind of a statement about my needing to go to work, which is often unappreciated by spouses and children.

Then I put him outside, right in front of my house. I live in a fancy town, but on the least attractive street; a busy street heading into the center, where if there were a homeless person, it would be his turf. I had him outside for a couple hours and then I needed to go to the dentist. My wife asked me to take it inside. Just as I did the police arrived and were met by an old lady in a car who had called it in. She pointed at the empty spot, a bit confused, the police looked at her like she was crazy. It was an interesting moment. Did she call the police to help the man or simply get him out of her view? I think the latter. If I were a minute later, I would of had to explain it to the police and I probably would have gotten a ticket for something but I am not sure what: vagrancy? littering?

What are your intentions with this piece?

My intention was to make a sculpture of a homeless version of me, with all of those implications, but also to treat it as a homeless piece of art to comment on art without gallery representation or a permanent place in a museum. That was just as an important discussion for me. I liked how the first impression, that it was a homeless man, brought people up close to it with a series of questions, which lingered even after discovering he might not be real, that he might just be a sculpture. This kind of flips the normal comment from artist, that through art the questions of life are raised or answered. Francis Bacon said the purpose of art was to return one to life more violently. I wanted to make something that made life a bit rawer before it was revealed as art.

Why make the sculpture homeless instead of displaying it in a gallery or museum? What does the act of making this piece homeless add to your work?

I work as a marketing manager right on Houston Street in Manhattan, which means I saddle SoHo and the West Village. There are more galleries than food stores and they all have that ART barrier, which means you should act a certain way and dress a certain way. They are not friendly places or places I feel relaxed in to appreciate art...and so they breed a certain kind of flippant art. I like the pedestrian. I like to appeal to passersby because there is no pretense. Galleries in NY are more concerned about paying rent than connecting with people. Museums are not interested in art unless there is a big name around it, which they can market to draw crowds. Making the homeless man, knowing he would be homeless as art kept me honest, instead of thinking I should have to play a certain game.

How long do you plan on keeping the sculpture homeless for?

That being said...a long-time friend was curating a small group show in a Czech village last summer. The show was called Freak Show and my friend asked me to be in it and bring the homeless man over. I liked the show idea and the small gallery was so off the beaten path that it seemed like a good place for him. I had already thrown out the first homeless man outfit so I boxed up wire frame and another outfit of mine and put him together last August and showed him for a couple months. In the gallery he was originally in the courtyard but was eventually brought into the hallway. This curator suggested the homeless man be dismantled at the end of the show and that he would give the clothing, shoes, blankets etc. to homeless people in Prague. I thought this was a great idea, a nice cycle but he was never shipped up to Prague. I requested he been used locally but to be honest with you I am not sure of what happened to him.

Is the weathering of the piece something you took into account to change the work over a period of time? How has the weather altered the piece already?

The way I made my homeless self portrait was pretty temporary. I think it would disintegrate fairly quickly outside and it would lose its convincing realness. It is an idea/project I would like to explore...making the weathering a key element. Maybe its is about documenting how it just falls apart or maybe the piece is about preserving it. One of the things that got me thinking about homeless sculpture was a trip I took to Japan six or seven years ago. I spent a week in Tokyo, walking around the city about fourteen hours a day and spending only a dollar or two on food. I was amazed by their homeless culture. Most homeless men built little box huts out of pallets, cardboard. They were raised up on milk crates and covered in blue tarps and they built them under elevated highways. Some of them had clothes lines and bicycles parked outside. They had ingenious rolling screen doors and kept their shoes outside.

They really blew me away because in homelessness there is an expression of the society in which they are raised. In Key West, Florida, for example, the homeless, named Conchs, are like a band of shipwrecked sailors. In New York you really feel a sense of neglect and despair in the homeless, like they just could not "make it" in the Big Apple. In Japan they were so self-engineered and so polite that they the general feeling was that they could take care of themselves.

I think I want to explore that side of homeless: the Robinson Crusoe type. I had actually put together a project proposal after I came back from Japan to return to Tokyo with nothing and live off the streets for month and document how the homeless lived and make my own shelter and find my own food. But I cannot do such a project while raising my family. We talk a lot about sustainable buildings now, I wanted to explore sustainable people.

Did you gain different reactions from the different cities you visited with the sculpture?

My homeless man has only been in two places now. In America, I think the old lady calling the police was pretty typical. The Czechs saw it around an art show, but when I was setting him up outside the gallery in a square the people seemed a bit suspicious. I would expect the reations to widely vary and be in line with how each particular culture treats its homeless populations and how its citizens view art. I used to busk around Europe and the reactions were very different depending on the city. I had a fake-snake charming act, which I started after I was mugged in Spain and needed to make money.

In Figueras, the boys were taunting and the girls supportive. In Amsterdam, people saw the act as woven into the fabric of the city, the same way the prostitutes are integrated into their "shop" windows. I had a copy of Homer's The Odyssey on the original homeless man to comment on that cultural difference: the way a poor man may really be a disguised god in Greek thinking. I think one's religion/beliefs would weigh in on this depending if the reaction would be of charity or reform or simply relegating him to a lower caste.

What prompted the initial idea?

In addition, to what I have already discussed as influences for the homeless man sculpture, another thing that prompted this project is something even deeper in American culture. It is a history in which man emerged from the woods and this myth was perpetuated in popular shows such as Little House on the Prairie. I was a boy scout and we were taught real survival skills and spent a lot of time in the woods. There is that survival thinking of many Americans, which is combined with a general suspicion of cities. There is no going back to isolated nature...the survival skills should be geared more towards urban existence. The old clothes on my homeless man were basically trash. The homeless in New York are treated like trash. The homeless sculpture was about personifying trash and making it personal to me.