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“I don’t think we need any introductions,” said Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan. “Since Kanye has sold about 32 million albums, and Steve won the Academy Award recently.”
He was, of course, referring to Kanye West and Steve McQueen, who were at LACMA on Friday night to preview “All Day / I Feel Like That,” a nine-minute video that will be on view at the museum for just four days (July 25 – 28). After a screening of the video, Govan led an uninhibited discussion between West and McQueen that sometimes descended into madness, but always transcended a normal art talk.
The gathering was almost completely unannounced, and Govan told me that the exhibition itself was hastily organized, having been brought to him by UTA art division’s Josh Roth a few weeks before. An art institution the size of LACMA normally requires many months of advance notice in order to put together an exhibition.
The preview was only cryptically announced this week to a select few (about 130 people were in the audience). Draconian security measures were put in place to combat any recording of the event. Cell phones were confiscated and attendees were banned from social media — god forbid the geotagging reveal West’s location, sure paparazzi bait.
The crowd sat, buzzing, until West’s wife Kim Kardashian sashayed in, wearing a sleek black dress. Silence. West — dressed in an all-white outfit of his own clothes and Bottega Veneta boots— and McQueen trailed her, and the talk began.
Govan started by touching on the fact that McQueen’s career began as a fine artist, even winning the Turner Prize, a prestigious annual prize given to an English artist by the Tate Gallery, before going on to direct the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave. LACMA owns a McQueen work called Static (2009), in which McQueen circles the State of Liberty in a helicopter. “And Kanye’s no stranger,” said Govan. “Walking around the galleries together [with Kardashian].”
Govan then opened the questioning by asking how West and McQueen came to work together.
“I got this call at home a few years ago, and it was Kanye West on the phone,” said McQueen of their initial contact. “He had visited a show of mine at the Schaulager Museum in Basel [Switzerland], and he wanted to talk to me about the show. The first conversation was about an hour and a half. The second conversation was two hours and 15 minutes.”
The conversations continued until a bit of serendipity found the both of them shopping at Rei Kawakubo’s London concept store Dover Street Market. West asked McQueen to start filming in five days.
“He’s one of my favorite artists — he came to our wedding also,” said West. “Some people have told me, ‘He’s the first African-American [director] to win an Oscar.’ I said, ‘He’s not African-American actually. He’s British.’ He is able to bend genres. That’s a challenge now. There were times in human civilization when people were allowed to do more than one profession. It was amazing that we met at an apparel place, because that’s one of the biggest genres that I’m trying to bend and get accepted in. I originally started as a visual artist. I went to art school, and I use my position in music as a long training ground to be able to collaborate. I think we’re in place with social media, the amount of posts on Hypebeast — we’re under high scrutiny. It’s a new ‘art world.’ The combination of what Steve did with all of his films — there were multiple films that I connected with on a high level. I feel like I’ve been abducted by aliens to even be able to sit next to Steve in an art context, because so many times we’re put in a pop context. I would trade two of the Grammys to be able to be in an art context with him.”
The meandering answer was a sign of things to come for the West’s off-the-cuff rants. When asked by Govan how he keeps the experimental spirit alive in his multifarious activities, West responded:
“You have to bring your dreams into reality. You have to use everything that you physically have in this real world to bring that dream world into a reality. I went to the Venice Biennale with [artist] Vanessa Beecroft, and I went to an exhibition at Palazzo Fortuny [the former home of early 20th century Italian artist Mariano Fortuny]. I didn’t even know about Fortuny. Floor after floor, [the guide] talked about all the things he was interested in — he was a painter, and he was an opera designer, he was a clothing designer, and he was a merchant. I was like, ‘I feel like Fortuny.’ Twenty years from now, people will be so open-minded, like, ‘Oh, yeah, you do five things. It’s cool.’ But right now, it’s super easy just to f— with people, because people are so closed-minded: ‘You’re a rapper, so you can’t possibly fathom the size of a dress.’”
The talk turned to the collaboration itself. Filmed in one continuous take, the video features West, dressed head to toe in black clothes, alone in a distressed wood room on a dockyard outside of London. The first half features an animated West rapping the boastful “All Day,” challenging and chasing the camera. The second half sees West changing gears for the slow-burning “I Feel Like That,” slumped on the ground, singing mournfully. “I wanted to put the camera on him, and goad him, and exhaust him,” said McQueen of the shooting process. “Before we’d film, he’d beat himself up and run around and do exercises. And then we’d turn the camera on, and then by that time, he’s exhausted anyway. It’s about the gaze. It’s about wanting to be in the gaze, and then the gaze following you with a twist and turn. And then there’s this vulnerable introspective quality to ‘I Feel Like That.’ There’s this wonderful intimacy at the end of the song.”
Govan then wondered aloud where the lyrics to “I Feel Like That,” came from. “It comes from anger management,” said West. “When you go to anger management, they give you this list, and they ask you a series of questions to see if you’re truly angry. And I am.”
After the audience’s laughter died down, McQueen then praised West’s songwriting on the slower, more introspective second song: “When I first heard it in the studio, I was touched. I got goosepimples. Whenever are you put in a situation of vulnerability and put that out there for everyone to see. And also, [West being] a Black man, it’s beautiful.”
Govan asked West if he was trying to capture a range of emotions. “I think it’s just being a Gemini,” West quipped. “Just embrace being a hypocrite. Everyone fights against who they are as a person. You just feel how you f—ing feel. The greatest artists are the people who can do film, clothing, music or architecture to express how they feel, and people connect with that. Everyone’s trying to scream like they’re at a soccer match, and we’re condensed and marginalized for being expressive. The hardest thing for me is every day when I see [my daughter] North learn anything about the world that doesn’t allow her to be as expressive as she’d like. The terrible twos is that idea that there’s so many things she wants to say. She completes sentences with no words. I’m like, ‘I feel you.’”
Govan tried to steer the conversation back to vulnerability. “I think the future is being more beautiful,” said West. “I think in the future people will understand color. Color is such an important signifier. That’s why I embrace racism, because at least you have an opinion, and it shows that color is a very important signifier, more so than a logo. Logos are played out. What would happen 1,000 years ago, or 1,000 years from now? And what is the strongest of now? I want to hit that on the melodies and visuals. Both me and my wife have an extreme form of beauty, whether it’s her visual beauty or my sonic beauty, where we were able to penetrate and gain a lot of listeners, and now we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and change the perception of the idea of what celebrity is.”
He recalled being at the Louvre and realizing that people had a negative preconception of Los Angeles, despite its merciful weather and easy ways. “It might be a better lifestyle,” he said. “You know the star [bus tours]? The other day, I was like, ‘Yo, we have to say what’s up.’ We gave them what they were looking for.”
In the front row, Kardashian turned to her neighbor and whispered, “They were screaming.”
West then praised 12 Years A Slave, which he described as being able to “cut you in half like a magician. Kurt Cobain, Picasso, and so many great artists reach into your soul like in the second Indiana Jones and pull your heart out.”
Then West pulled out his iPhone, and asked Kim, “Hey babe, can I spit a rap?”
She asked, “Which one?”
He replied, “The one I spit for you on my iPhone.”
She said, “Do you.”
But West eventually chickened out, citing the fact that journalists were in the audience—the crowd sighed. Later, West would sing a few bars from his hit song with Paul McCartney and Rihanna, “4,5 Seconds,” before launching into a rant about the obsession with money in the music industry.
“There’s very few artists in music left,” he said. “Motherf—ers are literally concerned with how much of a sponsorship they can get from some Korean company rather than digging out their soul and expressing how the f— they really feel. And they will be forgotten. Artists are artists. I’m a bad celebrity, but a pretty good artist. People in this town only see one color: green. When I saw 12 Years A Slave, I saw a million colors. I was moved, I was touched, I wanted to do better with the art I was doing. I wanted to give more inspiration to the four-year-olds, maybe someone who can cure f—ing cancer because they were concerned about more than just greed.”
West concluded things out by comparing his style to that of Matthew Barney or Alejandro Jodorowsky making Dune—having no conception of where to limit himself, almost to a fault.
“I’m one of the few people that had controversy with two presidents, not just one, and the idea of fighting for the liberation of the definition of art, the definition of expression, and personal power,” he said. “A lot of times, people find power in their car, but the power is inside of you. Nike put a Swoosh on top of the darkest Black man jumping from the free throw line, and created the power of the Swoosh, but it was really inside of Jordan, and transferred that energy to Nike. Because the energy is inside of us as people and the way we treat each other. We’re nothing but a blip in civilization, and we’re too busy worrying about the wrong things, when we have all the means here to create a human utopia. We could f— around and float. We keep on bringing ourselves down every day. Everything that hits the press is about taking some hero that you love and bringing them down, taking some dream that you thought of and bringing it down. One of the misconceptions people have about me is that is a promotion of negativity. No, it’s the promotion of truth as pavement to put the home on, to put the basketball court on, to build the city hall. Let’s start with truth, and let’s build a community upon it.”
Finally, he made what amounts to as much of an explanation for West’s gift for steering conversations down strange paths as we may ever get: “I go onto these rants that don’t make any sense, but I think they’re way more beautiful, so I don’t give a f—,” he said.
After the talk, I approached West, who was happy to chat about his fashion line, and the fact that when he goes down to Art Basel, he considers his interactions with people performance art because he usually just shouts at people.
“To see this and Kahlil Joseph’s piece at MOCA [a video of Los Angeles set to a soundtrack provided by Kendrick Lamar] up at the same time is really cool for L.A. museums,” I told West.
West grabbed Michael Govan, director of LACMA. “You hear that Michael? He said, ‘This piece is cool to see in a museum.’”
Govan, pulled into Kanye’s hip, nodded. “Not just cool, but important,” he said.
Guests included Liz Goldwyn, rapper Theophilus London, Thao Nguyen of CAA (who reps Steve McQueen), and UTA’s Jim Berkus and Josh Roth, as well as art world notables Shaun Regen, Anne Ellgood, Christopher Williams and Cole Sternberg.
The evening was presented by Neuehouse, a stylish shared working space that will expand from New York to Hollywood in October, in association with UTA Fine Arts.
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