The work of James Ostrer tests the limits of the body politics in the ever evolving analysis of the western body, sexuality, and society. In 2016 curator Azu Nwagbogu invited James to show his 2014 ‘Wotsit All About’ series in Lagos, Nigeria. This resulted in the inspired exhibition now on show at Gazelli Art House until 16 July.
How would you describe your practice? (include your use of Mediums, Media and Material)
Art making has always been a record, response or interrogation of something for me. My art practice is like a continually evolving self-help course where I am as much the client as I am the therapist. I started as an artist initially as a way to try and rebalance what troubled my mind. This in many ways continues to be the same motivation but has moved from a more micro level of my own dysfunction to a broader context of global politics and social observation. I use most varieties of medium and am generally known for my sculptures made out of junk food and animal parts from the human food chain.
Who do you list as your main influences and reference points?
I am influenced by everything. Whether that is cute dog accounts on Instagram or vintage crime scene photographs of the brutalities of war and murder. Along with having an art book purchasing addiction, in all honesty, over the years I have most consistently bought women’s gossip magazines out of everything I visually consume. I can’t help but be fascinated in watching the repeated cycle of celebrities ballooning in size then reducing then ballooning again. I find the commodification of this process addictive to watch. Travel is also my most significant influence on the expanse of my creativity and thinking. This can be seen greater than ever in this show through my trips to Lagos Nigeria.
How do you choose your subject matter? or does it choose you?
This is changing as my career grows. When you start, you work hard to find all your own opportunities and then with luck they start to come to you.
Azu Nwagbogu, the curator of my new show “Johnny Just Came,” found my series “Wotsit All About” in London at ART15. He came up to me at the stand, (wearing sunglasses indoors which not everyone pulls off as well as he does), with this incredibly captivating smile and presence. He said straight away that he really wanted to show my work in Lagos and I was blown away with excitement for achieving an ambition I never knew I had.
Azu then asked if I would come with my work as well to Nigeria and my feelings instantly turned to fear and suspicion. It was in that moment that I started to feel, with the realness that only individual experience can deliver, just how pervasive the impact of our racial, cultural conditioning really is. In my head, I was like why have I always been so scared of Sub Saharan Africa? Why is the dominant branding of this area of the world a combination of danger, poverty, warmongering and videos of small children with either flies around their heads or holding Ak47s. It was with this juxtaposition of emotions that the foundation of this show grew.
Do your subjects govern the finished product of your work?
The people that sit for me are generally always friends or relatives that ultimately trust me and my process. They know that sitting for me is about letting go of control and gifting me their physical being as a temporary sculptural material. There isn’t any negotiation in terms of the underlying aesthetic between me and them.
However, there is a strong aspect of physical endurance within my art making process and this is often reflected in the individual work. For example, not everyone can wear 12 cow tongues stitched around their head (I promise you can’t imagine how heavy that is) so in that sense, my subjects do influence how far the works can be taken.
Your new show at Gazelli Art House is groundbreaking, the show is an immersive group of installations. Could you describe your latest work in your own words?
The backbone of this show is many thousands of flip flops that I found washed up on the beaches of Lagos. I started the collection process of these not long after I first arrived in Lagos three years ago. On the first day, I collected with two guys that I paid 10 dollars an hour. It was kind of fair trade style as we all worked really hard together, but within 24 hours I had a number of people working for me in an entirely different context. By this point I was using bribes where money didn’t get to those that deserved it, let people work for me in conditions that previously wouldn’t be acceptable to me. I basically became the very thing I have made art about and challenged within my activism. I epitomised unfettered privilege and greed.
This show is everything to me. On a personal level, it is my ultimate self-portrait of positive change. From someone that was scared to go to Nigeria to someone that became something they didn’t recognise and then back to a person that is growing from it. The show at large is about fear of other. It is about the character traits of domination, greed, control and the addiction to these. I also present my short film “Snuffling for Love Truffles” that is a portrait of abject self-loathing and emotional detachment, key symptoms of the technological endemic of isolation and its overall effect on human disconnection.
As a white male artist, do you think you are the right person to critique the white male culture of corruption and greed? What makes your critique valid in this sense?
I wouldn’t describe myself as the right person, but I do consider myself a valid person especially from the perspective of self-reflection. The reason I considered this show an interesting concept was that ultimately people don’t react well to shame. If you abjectly shame someone or a type of person, they will respond in defence and they won’t be able or want to hear you. This was seen better than ever in the lead up to the election of Donald Trump and how vilification and shaming were used to conquer and divide. I even include myself in this where I created one of the first Artworks/memes that went viral around the world. This artwork didn’t bring people together concerning opening a dialogue, all it ultimately did was add to the cycle of news that created conflict and distance between people. What I learnt in my own art practice from this was that I wanted to try and find new ways to create positive change. I hope to help towards this with my new show and working with Azu. Just on a micro and personal level to learn from someone directly who comes from somewhere so different to me and to enhance my worldview and experience. And regarding the resultant show, it is already doing what I wanted it to do by opening up dialogue even around being asked questions like the one you just have. The small fact is you have asked me if I think I am the right person to question this rather than telling me I am not….. which removes the shame and therefore allows the mind to be open to me challenging my own position. You move this from a micro to a macro level, and you could arrive at positive change for a more united and caring human species.
Where do you see your work evolving from here?
My next solo show is set to be opening in Frankfurt Germany on 14th February 2019 at FELD + HAUS Gallery. It will be about the experience of love and what guides us both good and bad. I am so excited about it and have never looked forward to Valentine’s day so much.
James Ostrer’s work test the limits of body politics in the ever-evolving analysis of the western body, sexuality, and society at large. Much like Paul McCarthy’s or George Condo’s seminal works, Ostrer creates a bizarre pattern of absurdity with his own twist of post-capitalist tribalism.
His works are often a catalogue of self-destructive behaviours and are also managed in such a way that while transgressing themselves as odes to great works of historical art practice, they become re-packaged eye candy for uncomfortable consumption.
Ostrer’s alter ego, Guru Jimmy, has often played a large part in his creative process. James describes him as, “a life-saving friend who is a spiritually connected amplifier of positive thinking and happiness that pushes me on a continuous journey of self-discovery and learning”.
The artist lives and works between London, New York and LA and has exhibited throughout the world.
Interview/Photo with James Ostrer by Paul Carter Robinson © Artlyst June 2018
James Ostrer Johnny Just Came Curated by Azu Nwagbogu Gazelli Art House 39 Dover Street London 7th June – 16th July