Berlin, Nov. 2011- Joseph Akel’s collages are visually streamlined but psychologically dense blends of vintage visuals. In his XXX series, the Auckland-born artist dynamically juxtaposed architectural lines with classic beefcake images. The sharp lines and sparse draftsmanship cool the works’ erotic frisson and alert attention to the models’ graceful bodies. This composite of erotic and intellectually stimulating iconography mirrors Akel’s diverse engagement with art, as a critic and practitioner.
Akel’s art has appeared in Butt magazine and Spank. He is a recent graduate of Oxford University’s History of Art Masters of Studies department and the Emeritus Contributor of Idiom Magazine, the self-professed "biggest underground literary magazine in the state of New Jersey." In 2012, Akel will be an LMCC Swing Space artist in residence on New York’s Governors Island. His artists’ books are available at: Self Publish, Be Happy and Dynasty Zine. Here, we discuss the manifold pleasures and potential of art, criticism, academia, publishing and porn.
Ana Finel Honigman: Do you primarily include images in your XXX collages that you find arousing?
Joseph Akel: I generally select images for what I consider to be their strong aesthetic and symbolic content. That is to say, I’m drawn to images of bikers, beefcake models, etc., because to me, they are clearly identifiable as archetypes that have become commonplace in queer conceptions of masculinity, sexuality and eroticism. But, personally, I am often very conflicted with the erotic content of the images I select. On the one hand, I do find many of the men depicted attractive – I mean, who does not harbor some rather sordid fantasy about big strapping men. And yet, at the same time, I am uneasy about my own attraction to such images, how they feed into these structures of sexuality and perfomativity that, in many ways, I want to see undone.
AFH: How does your choice in the shows to review or artists to critically evaluate in your academic writing relate to your own art?
JA: Quite often there is no relation at all. Indeed, in my practice as an art critic, I often accept assignments where I know relatively little about the artist. I find this often to be the best, in terms of criticality, as I come to a show with little in terms of expectation or personal investment. Criticism has always been, to me, about moving beyond what you are comfortable with. Indeed, I am far more intrigued by shows that evoke negative responses in me as they force me to really examine what issues, preconditions I bring towards a work of art in the capacity of beholder. That all being said, I also believe we instinctively look for recurring themes, interests in our apprehension of art and our ongoing investigations of it that color perception of any given work.
AFH: Do you consider yourself primarily an artist or an art writer?
JA: You know, this question is one that I get asked repeatedly. Initially, my response was often a sort of indignant frustration – frustration that somehow one had to choose between one or the other. But, over time, I came to understand that the frustration was rooted in my own limited conception of the two, in my own choice to participate in the binary distinction between them. Once I came to see the two as integral aspects of my creative practice, I no longer felt the necessity to differentiate myself as one or the other.
AFH: Are there contemporary or historic examples of people combining both art-making and art-writing who you find particularly inspiring for your own work?
JA: That’s a long list for me. Lately, I am drawn to the practices of Mel Bochner, Seth Price, Martha Rosler – notably, because I feel the rigor of these artists’ critical investigations fluidly travels between the medium of writing and visual art. But, there are those artists who have turned to writing in a less public fashion that I find just a profound. Indeed, as in the case of Van Gogh’s journals, writing becomes an extension of the artist’s perceptual state – just as telling as any realization on canvas. I mean really, his journals are these precious little jewels that allow you to get right inside this sublimely conflicted artist's mind.
AFH: Why do you appropriate vintage instead of contemporary beefcake imagery?
JA: Largely because I view vintage imagery as the origin of contemporary archetypes of queer eroticism. For me, it’s like going back to the source and disrupting it up. Much of our Western notions of masculinity extends back to the association of Grecian ideals and there has been so much written about the topic. But, it’s the beefcake, biker images, especially those produced at the inception of the development of the erotic/porn industry that I believe truly solidified these now entrenched notions of masculinity and its attendant embodiments. So for me, utilizing these images is a way of intervening, of altering such imagery in hopes of calling it into question, of laying bare the assumptions that underlie them.
AFH: Since you just completed the Mst program, is there a particular methodology that guides or inspires your art-work?
JA: You know, not really. I went back to do a masters largely for personal reasons. Really, I was curious to understand, to come to grips with the various institutions and discourses that mold the ways in which we contextualize art making and its interpretation. If anything, I’ve come to appreciate my own approach more and to recognize that there isn’t any one necessarily appropriate response or methodology to a discussion of visual arts.
AFH: Why move from abstract to figurative collage?
JA: Funny, that it appears as such, but actually recently it’s been the reverse. I find myself moving away from figural representations to more abstract investigations. I guess, I feel that the declaration of figural representation, specifically in my case when combined with the nature of sexuality, has become a nominal gesture, and one that actually binds discussions of sexuality very much to the body. I find myself more interested these days in representing the very act, the incidences themselves that animate our perceptual processes.
AFH: How does being from New Zealand, with its intense topography and Auckland's cool but isolated artistic scene, influence your work and combination of art and writing?
JA: That is a hard one for me to answer. I’ve lived in New Zealand on and off my whole life, but never for any real significant period of time. I’m somehow aware of a very “kiwi” aspect of my character and yet unsure how exactly it manifests itself. Most of my life has been spent in America, between New York and California, and it’s the confluence that emerges from the two very distinct cities that has come to define me. Just as I resolve my interests in writing and art, so too have I with my own “geographic” identity, that is to say, never definitely one thing, but rather the indefinite sum of many different parts.
AFH: What compels you to self-publish? What are the practicalities and benefits of doing it yourself?
JA: I self-publish because it’s easy, really. I mean there is a total freedom to produce and distribute whatever and whenever you please. I’ve been involved in at least three publications of my work, in varying degrees of self or independent publishing, and all have been fantastic experiences. Don’t get me wrong, if Steidl came to me and said, "We’d like to publish a monograph,” I’d be shitting myself. Self-publishing does have its drawbacks - it often requires a great deal of time and capital - but the ease and rapidity of its character, especially when making something such as a zine, affords an artist a great deal of creative leeway as well as immediate exposure. Also, a monograph, say in some hard-bound publication, has a certain finality about it - in contrast zines, with their sort of quick fire nature produce a sense more of play, investigation and provocation that I quite enjoy.
AFH: Sorry to ask the obvious, but what do you think is the main division between art and porn?
JA: To be honest, I think it comes down to a conception of gratification. But even then, that becomes a very gray area when one begins to look more closely at what exactly gratification entails. Are we specifically speaking of erotic gratification? And if so, how does that gratification differ from other forms not only in its physical form but also in its cognitive apprehension? From my perspective, historical differentiation between the two seems to have been made along the lines of access – along social and economic strata -- and utility. Again, we come to this notion of binaries – writing/artist -- that I have touched upon earlier. Maybe what’s a more fascinating line of questioning is one that closely examines how the two, in this case porn and art, overlap? Can porn be art?
AFH: Why is this question asked so often?
JA: It has everything to do with people’s need to acknowledge their hang-ups. We need to somehow vocalize that there is a division between the two in order to have one fulfill certain desires that we have. Once porn stops being “dirty” for people, it ceases to fulfill a very specific function for them and this gets back to my point that the distinction between the two rests upon notions of access and use.
AFH: How does academic discourse benefit artists?
JA: I’m still trying to figure this one out. I can say that for myself, it has presented arguments that amplify themes that exist in my own work. Far from being an endless discussion, the discourses I have engaged with have proven to be rich ground for my creative practice. However, I say this with the caveat that academic discourse, like any artistic realization, is merely the manifested work of an individual or a group of individuals. As such, it is just as subjective and open to interpretation as a work of art. I think the trap some artists fall into is that they find a theorist or philosopher and latch on to them, and very quickly adopt a myopic sense of what their work is about. The key is to take such works and understand the value they bring to your process while avoiding the potential for them to overtake it.
ArtSlant would like to thank Joseph Akel for his assistance in making this interview possible.
--Ana Finel Honigman
(All Images: Courtesy Joseph Akel)