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John Waters
Sprüth Magers Berlin
Oranienburger Straße 18 , D-10178 Berlin, Germany
February 7, 2014 - April 12, 2014

Candid Camera: John Waters and Bad Director’s Chair
by Guy Parker

The man who heroicized contenders for the title “Filthiest Person Alive” in his 1972 underground classic Pink Flamingos might have smirked a knowing smirk had he watched the line of punters push, shove, queue jump, and bicker as they endured the bottlenecked Schlange that led into his current Berlin exhibition, Bad Director’s Chair, at Sprüth Magers. For John Waters, the push and shove of narcissistic, jealous rivalry was far filthier than any of The Filthiest People Alive’s deeds, even when they included self flagellation with live chickens or, notoriously, eating dog shit straight off the sidewalk.

Having finally gained entrance to the installation, the first thing I noticed was Waters himself, looking pretty suave for someone once dubbed “The Pope of Trash.” He seemed to float six inches from the ground as he moved about the room answering questions in what felt like an especially interactive show. "Hey John, who’s this girl in the picture?" asked a large man scrutinizing a print. He looked like Divine's brother and probably was. The host obliged and with self-effacing irreverence added that he couldn't quite remember which movie the image was gleaned from; "L'Avventura...? Ah, I forget."

John Waters, The Rope Collection, 2009,
 5 C-Prints
, 17.8 x 25.4 cm,
7 x 10 inches each;
 © John Waters / Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin|London / Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.


The exhibition consists predominantly of prints created over the last twenty years. The subjects and themes, like usual suspects up against a wall, are the dirty secrets and embarrassing truths that might have any respectable Baltimorean quickly change subject and blush, right on cue. Neuroses, shoplifting, drunk driving, closet fetishism, dysfunctional families, to name but a few.

The work often takes the form of images lifted from movies both popular and obscure; these are lo-fi screengrabs, moments rephotographed directly from the screen and laid out sequentially in what feels like an invitation to decode and/or project narrative. A Cold Wind (1996), for example, breaks down the major beats of a 1961 melodrama into a title and three images that appear to represent longing, fulfilment, and destruction. Like a hyper-reductive Syd Field paradigm, the narrative arc is condensed into component parts, leaving little more than a vague memory of an old movie. This oversimplification of a movie’s structure exposes its crude and emotional dramatic devices, the resulting images broken open to ambiguity and re-reading. It's a process similar to the one used by Fiona Banner and Douglas Gordon where feature film is dissected, resized, and reiterated as artwork, yet here it feels more playful and interactive.

John Waters, Installation view, 'Bad Director's Chair', Sprüth Magers Berlin, Feb 7 - March 5, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers Berlin.


The use of appropriated popular material and repetitive imagery—Bad Trip (2006) and Swedish Film (2000)—have led to inevitable comparisons with Warhol and Richard Prince, but there is also a pre-cinema quality to them. Here is the film director not only without his shotlist or script but a man without a movie camera. The results are reminiscent of Muybridge's photographic motion studies or the jerky frame rate of a flipbook. They are movies reverse-engineered into image.

In room center stands a sculpture of a diminutive but domineering Ike Turner playing puppet master to a Lilliputian Tina. Nearby, wearing a onesie, a baby Michael Jackson crawls towards a baby Charles Manson. Jackson declared a stake in everlasting youth and innocence (and was still alive when the piece was created); Manson declared a stake in everlasting incarceration and lives in jail to date. The crowd delighted in the tense, frozen moment preceding the titular Playdate, looking onto the pried and primed jaws of a trap just about to snap closed around catastrophe. The tables turned momentarily when somebody pointed out it was Jackson who infamously dangled an infant child out of a third floor window. Celebrities behaving badly may fail to shock as in the past, but they rarely fail to amuse.

A hand scrawled sign leads to a backroom “peepshow” where a selection of Waters' earliest film work is looped in three booths. Here we can see Hag in a Black Leather Jacket—his very first. In a late ‘80s interview for British television Waters said he had the only copy—somewhere—but claimed it was terrible, only screened once, and he no longer had the right type of projector. It had been edited in-camera because, in 1964, he had no idea about what editing was.

The dusty roll of 8mm film, the only documented evidence of Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, that might have languished in a box somewhere in '88 has been scanned and archived not by cultural custodians from the Underground film scene, the Midnight Movie crowd or industrial Hollywood, but from within the Art World. Its fragile flickering black and white image lives again. It feels saved, preserved, inaugurated; after almost twenty years of making art, Waters' work is being registered in the museum.

Indeed, archiving is now critical to Waters’ practice. The director, who has a home library of eight thousand books and has apparently chosen his own burial plot—it's adjacent to Divine's, a place they named “Disgraceland”—clearly understands the importance of the archive. Much of his work involves collecting and collating, and his original stable of players and performers, his Dreamlanders, remain a cherished part of his entourage and practice. (Their individual fame and iconic presence might even have eclipsed that of any Warhol Superstar. Won't Divine prove a more enduring icon than Edie Sedgwick?)

John Waters, Installation view, 'Bad Director's Chair', Sprüth Magers Berlin, Feb 7 - March 5, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers Berlin.


Is it possible Waters' move into art was built on a realization that the volume of work he was producing was unsustainable under Hollywood’s budgetary constraints or that the art world might offer a more engaged and responsible archive for it? Who knows? There isn’t even the slightest hint of an end game here. Waters’ approach feels as keen and diligent as ever. He’s still in pursuit of taboo, and the humor at work here reaches farther heights than most droll gestures or propositions venture in contemporary art.

Is this Waters’ new frontier of “good taste,” ripe for shock treatment and subversion? His old gang of shocks and sleaze are present as ever but it’s the free hand of the irreverence and wit that suggests he's found a new rock face to pound away at, within the white walls of the gallery space. Is its insistence on gravity art's final taboo? Is this work more subversive than first meets the eye? Take note: though the filth and depravity that shook censors forty years ago now wipes off like spilt ketchup from a countertop, Waters' humor and ingenuity may rub off on you wholesale.


Guy Parker 



(Image on top: John Waters, Installation view, 'Bad Director's Chair', Sprüth Magers Berlin, Feb 7 - March 5, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers Berlin.)

Posted by Guy Parker on 2/27/14 | tags: film Movies humor John Waters installation C-prints sculpture

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