New Yorker Jennifer Rubell has recently gained a lot of well-deserved recognition for her food-related art installations exhibited at various renowned art institutions in the United States. The culmination of this was the smashing of a huge piñata in the shape of Andy Warhol’s head at the Brooklyn Museum’s gala.
Her ‘Engagement’ installation at London’s Steven Friedman Gallery in 2011 featured a life-sized figure of Prince William on a pedestal, allowing visitors to pose with him while slipping a finger into a replica of Kate Middleton’s engagement ring. This not only fulfilled every woman’s fantasy of marrying the Prince, but was another stepping stone in Rubell’s career, dramatically increasing awareness of her work in the European media and art world.
The artwork Rubell creates could be labelled participatory. It is a kind of hybrid of different art forms linked to the movement of relational aesthetics. Jennifer Rubell is the daughter of famous collectors Mera and Don Rubell and the niece of Steve Rubell, a coowner of Studio 54. Prior to her upcoming project at the Fondation Beyeler near Basel in Switzerland, I sat down with Jennifer to talk art.
Andreas Kuefer: Jennifer, your next project will take you to the Fondation Beyeler. How excited are you?
Jennifer Rubell: The Fondation Beyeler is one of the most extraordinary places in the world to view art, and it’s a tremendous honour to do a project there. When I was asked to do the show, the first thing I wanted to do was to learn more about the foundation and Mr. Beyeler. I read the wonderful book of interviews with him by Christophe Mory, and I spent a lot of time in the foundation and its surrounding landscape. It is one of the most unique qualities of this museum – its deliberate engagement with its natural surroundings – and that quality became my focus as I began to put together preliminary ideas for the show.
You have a Harvard degree in art history and your previous work frequently made references to art history. At the Fondation Beyeler your show will run parallel to the Louise Bourgeois retrospective, one of the most influential artists of our time. Has Louise Bourgeois been an inspiration to you and can we expect to see a Bourgeois reference in your project at the foundation?
Louise Bourgeois forged a path for the female artist, so every female artist follows her to a certain extent and is inspired by her achievements. There is no specific
reference to Bourgeois in my Beyeler project or, as a matter of fact, to any other artist. It is mainly the museum itself that inspired me.
But art history has obviously been an influence in your work overall?
The influence is tremendous. Art history is a huge inspiration. Not only in the form of specific works or artists, but as a whole. It is my motivation to leave my mark on the timeline of art history. I’m interested in the past and at the same time in the future. On the other hand, art history is very intimidating to me. I met and worked for various artists and I experienced their legacy as a burden. Their greatness was a nearly insurmountable obstacle to me. I found my way around it (or more precisely through it) by systematically using my work to destroy theirs. The destruction of the chocolate Jeff Koons rabbits, for instance, is a prime example of me clearing the path for what lies ahead.
With very few exceptions, any exhibition you visit at the Fondation Beyeler or most other museums is all about not physically engaging with the work. We know that your work aims to achieve the complete opposite. Would it be correct to say that interaction is at the core of your work?
Yes. Interaction is the frame around my work. It is essential to everything I do. If I have an idea for a piece that lacks the interactive aspect, I won’t do it. I have no studio background. I come from a different angle. I don’t feel it’s legitimate for me to produce something, an object, that exists only to be looked at. It doesn’t fit with my background. Interactive art does.
In a recent article, Vanity Fair promoted you from ‘caterer’ to ‘food artist’. I agree that food is a large part of your artistic ‘voice’ but as we saw with the ‘Engagement’ work
you’re not limited to that genre. Are you happy with your title?
There’s not really much of a choice is there? I’m aware of that title and for a while I wanted to evade it. I even refused to do anything that involved food. But I got over it. It probably helps people to understand what I do and as long as I have the freedom to do what I want in the context of art institutions, I’m perfectly happy.
But food is and will always remain a very important part of your work?
Of course, a very large part of what I do involves food. It is constantly present. It is a very important medium for me to achieve what I set out to do. At times, art can be very exclusive and inaccessible. People tend to be intimidated by art, and they can’t find a way to interact. Often certain knowledge is required of the viewer to know when and how they’re allowed to do so. Food eliminates this intimidation. People feel safe interacting with food, as it’s something they do on a daily basis. It is their way into the art world and my means of creating prompts to interaction. The fact that there’s always a certain humour involved in what I do, helps as well. However, at this point I am doing a very limited number of projects that exist inside a gala context. Unless the perfect opportunity with the perfect partner presents itself, I don’t do it. The Fondation Beyeler is one of those perfect opportunities.
You grew up in a family where art was a dinner table topic and you studied art history. Why did it take you so long to begin your career as an artist? Shall we blame your love for food or did you just enjoy flying under the radar for as long as possible?
I was terrified of becoming an artist. I knew what good art was and I knew that I didn’t have the tools to create myself what I had come to appreciate and admire from others. Eventually I discovered relational aesthetics and that became my passport, my entry ticket to the world of not only viewing but creating art. I had found a theory and reference to which I could relate. Before that, there was nobody really out there I could follow. When you’re young you need this guidance. I get contacted by students all the time, who want to visit me in my studio and talk about what I do, what they do. It’s part of the process of finding your own voice and sometimes, as in my case, when you don’t have someone whose footsteps you are directly following, that process can take a bit longer.
You must have felt some pressure and probably experienced some envy due to the fact that your parents are THE Rubells? After all, there aren’t many children of major collectors being accepted as artists. Purely on this basis, do you view your parents as a blessing or a burden?
Despite the fact that they weren’t really THE Rubells back then, obviously both! Without them, my path to becoming an artist might have been shorter. Much like with art history I was very intimidated by their opinion and by their eventual judgement. To be honest I was terrified of being bad. While there are many children of artists who become artists, it is true that there aren’t many children of collectors that do so. I think this has to do with the way collectors – even the best ones – only ever really experience the finished work, and the artist at his most confident, in the very moment of validation. All that can be very intimidating. Had I seen some of the artists my parents collect sitting in their studios, biting their nails, staring at the walls with not a clue what to do next, totally uncertain about their future, I might have been less intimidated. On the other hand, I got to see behind the walls of art institutions and to experience at first hand how one was built, how the art market worked. I was able to see spaces, encounter people and experience moments that I could otherwise never have even known about. I have no idea what kind of art I would make if I were not the child of collectors – I’d have other psychological issues to work on!
You started out creating events at the Rubell Foundation. Being a host was something that came natural to you, being the niece of Steve Rubell (the co-owner of Studio 54) you were able to learn from the best. How much of what you did and do today can be ascribed to his influence?
Steve was a huge inspiration in my life. We were extremely close. What he achieved with Studio 54 in this short period of time (two and a half years) is something people still speak about in mythological terms. Studio 54 captured a moment perfectly – it was a kind of living performance piece – and even though I was a child at the time it had a lasting impact on me and continues to influence my work.
What do you consider to be your artistic breakthrough? When, from your perspective, did the caterer/event planner turn into an artist?
To make one thing clear, I never saw myself as a caterer or as an event planner. People started talking about me in this way once I had already become an artist.
You recently started creating more durable objects. Artwork that can actually be collected, like the ‘drinking paintings’. Is this something you will focus on increasingly in the future? To make art that is more lasting, more ‘collectible’?
80% of my upcoming projects consist of works that are durable. I enjoyed my ephemeral work and it was a process I had to go through. My first durable pieces, the drinking paintings, were actually never intended to be durable. At that time I still needed the space and the freedom to experiment. I was not ready for durable work and thought that if there is no lasting proof of what you do, people can’t really judge you, or will judge you less harshly because you are not really asking to be part of art history. But in retrospect, it feels depressing that all this work has vanished. I want to create something that lasts, something people can’t just hear about but experience first hand, so the accidental durability of the ‘drinking paintings’ ended up being a blessing. It was a major leap of faith for me to start producing work that would last. I didn’t feel I had any other choice – I couldn’t let fear block the natural evolution of my work.
Read the full Interview in the magazine “Class of its Own”.