May 26, 2008
Alix & FUEL: A Conversation about Crime
Ever since she married and divorced four times within six months and entered into a state-sanctioned civil union with a woman in Hungary – all of it for art’s sake, but all of it legal and binding – Alix Lambert has had my attention. In the photo below by Dan Monick, we see her in finest film noir fettle -- as she should be, apropos her newest book, Crime (FUEL Publishing, 2008) -- but in her weddings photos, she can look awfully sweet and unsuspecting. And, recently on David Milch's Deadwood, for which she also wrote a filmed script, she appeared as a prostitute both imperious and wistful.
While Alix Lambert may not be the most often-married artist one can name, she is the one who got me thinking what a work of art a marriage was anyway, and what kind of marriage might best be understood as a work of art. That was back in the early 90's -- her ex-wife has had two babies meanwhile -- and a number of artists have since staged weddings as culturally freighted yet instant artifacts. When they do this it does tend to make a point -- but it's not the same, is it? Susan Sontag remarked that, of the things wrong with marriage, only one was that, without necessarily knowing or questioning it, we tended to think of a marriage as existing quite apart from ourselves, the people who were in it. Alix may have entered her marriages knowing that very well, and not questioning the idea as much as sounding it. When I learned that Crime had just been published by FUEL -- the London-based design group that last year brought out the BibliOdyssey book, whose author I interviewed in this space -- I thought it was time for a look at both the genre-crossing artist and her publishers, themselves no strangers to managing parallel careers that, convention suggests, do not particularly reconcile.
If you don't already know all about Alix Lambert, then you might know her best from her 73-minute Russian language, English-subtitled film of 2000, The Mark of Cain, about prisoners in Russia, prisoners whose elaborate, full body tattoos tell of their rank and history in the prison system in a pictorial code not understood by their guards. Research for Eastern Promises, his 2007 film, brought Viggo Mortensen to The Mark of Cain, and showed him how he should look in the scene where he strips to reveal tattoos just about everywhere. (Stars tattooed on the knee-caps mean, incidentally, that you will never kneel down before authority.)
It was Russia -- Russian prison tattoos in particular, about which Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, the principals of FUEL, have published two acclaimed books -- that brought Alix Lambert and FUEL together for Crime. "Russia is the new Wild West," Damon Murray told me. Even so, Crime brings something new to exploring that Wild West within -- the criminal imagination, and how it is accessed by writers, actors, directors, the police, private investigators, victims of crime and criminals. There's crime, there's representation of crime, and then there's Crime -- the book that sets up a conversation about it all, amply illustrated by Alix's own photos ranging from luscious to perfectly horrifying. In preparing for the book, Alix was cautioned by David Mamet, "You won't get answers." And that was okay -- she wasn't looking for them. What she got was questions -- many questions -- and a sense of possibilities. The cumulative effect of Crime is best experienced by reading it through. But only if you want to think thoughts you shall not have had before.
For Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell, to the left as painted by Gordon Murray, the route to Crime and to Russian tattoos may have started with a four-letter word: USSR. In 1992, they were design students at the Royal College of Art in London, and already partners in publishing. FUEL magazine was then themed around four-letter words, and they thought in light of recent events that "USSR" would do nicely. And, that a trip was in order. "Boris Yeltsin had just declared, 'Everything, everywhere is for sale,' " Damon told me, "and it was fascinating to experience at first hand Russia's initial interpretation of capitalism. There was an aesthetic of deep melancholy and integrity that we sensed then, and found an affinity for. It's resonated with us ever since."
In focusing on prison tattoos -- far afield from the avant-garde graphics influencing designers since the Russian Revolution -- was FUEL doing a form of visual anthropology? Damon said there was indeed urgency to document social traditions that were rapidly falling by the wayside, post-Soviet tendencies throughout the 90's having been to forget the past and mimic Western culture. "The tattoo has been devalued to mere fashion in the West, and our aim with the tattoo books was to show that this wasn't always so, that they once had so much value that they were a matter of life or death."
Is there a type of book that can be called a FUEL book? Damon almost hopes not, but supposes there is. He and Stephen Sorrell are not only the publishers but also the designers of every book. Six FUEL covers are below, and a full list of titles at the end of this post. "The interesting thing for us," Damon says, "is applying our aesthetic to subjects that people might not consider 'right' – such as Crime. It’s actually difficult to say what would make us reject an idea."
The bibliography on Alix Lambert is already extensive. Like Damon and Stephen, she first went to Russia in the early 90's -- to exhibit her photography. "I was hooked," she told me. To film The Mark of Cain some years later, she reports starting off for Russia a bit underfunded -- with $1.67 -- an instance of the "do it anyway" spirit that she has long relied on to get her where she needs to go. She and I have been in recent contact mainly about Crime, but there was time also to revisit the marriages. I've obtained permission to use four photos from Crime, throughout the interview below. I thought, however that I'd start with the marriages. Mastering the Melon, a book about her various art projects, shows one of the weddings photos.
Elatia Harris: You're the only one I know who has gone through with multiple, legally real marriages as art. I'd love to hear how you framed the project -- and how you survived it.
Alix Lambert: I felt like it was important to actually legally get married. In part because I was interested in showing the paper work. These pieces of paper mark places in our lives and shape how we think of ourselves and how others relate to us. Also I feel that the process I chose shows in the photographs -- there are inevitably details that you might not think of when staging something. The drive-thru wedding chapel in Vegas -- especially Charlotte the Wedding Queen of The West -- is something that I might not have made up, like the same guy at City Hall who married me twice in the span of a couple of months and of course didn’t recognize me…
EH: Did you -- kind of -- know what would happen?
AL: I don’t think I have ever done a project that was particularly mapped out from the start. With the wedding project I was in Vegas and I noticed that the place to start divorce proceedings was right next to a wedding chapel. I wondered how many times you could run back and forth in one day getting married and divorced. As I learned more, I wanted to address the historical, social, political, and formal aspects of the institution of marriage. As far as surviving it – my work is very much intertwined with my life. Eventually I will not survive it.
EH: What was the most surprising thing about working with FUEL?
AL: That they care so much about the book as visual artifact was why I was interested in working with them -- that, and that their interests were so aligned with mine. The process of making this book was extremely collaborative. Damon and Stephen were involved from the very beginning. They are incredible talents.
Undercover Police Detective, and Family, below. Photo by Alix Lambert
EH: If one of the jobs of the artist is to transgress, then art can't be just
lovely, can it? It must take the viewer aback a bit -- do you agree? There are artists who are not shy about entering the dark, not knowing what will happen. Who's one who has come back with
something we need to see?
AL: I think art can just be lovely – but not all art, all the time. I do try to “enter the dark” as you put it and tend to be attracted to the work of people who do as well. I was introduced to the work of Chris Burden when I was 14 and it opened up my entire understanding of what art could be.
EH: To a conservative reading, Crime might seem to posit a two-way street between crimes that are performed by criminals and how criminals are portrayed in art, especially film. Is this portrayal merely commentary, or do you think that, in a society where everything is mediated, portrayal ever feeds into crime? As it may into vigilantism, for instance -- assuming that's not also crime.
AL: I definitely think that portrayal feeds into real life crime, and many of the real life criminals I talked with supported that. Bank robbers acknowledged posturing coming from films. I think the “overlap” that we refer to in the press for the book was of more interest to me than the “gap.”
EH: As well as criminals and survivors of crime, to prepare for
writing, you talked with writers and filmmakers – David Mamet, Samantha Morton, Mark
Salzman, Nick Flynn, David Cronenberg, to cite a few. Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, told you of
contemplating crime as a very young child. “I knew I shouldn’t do it
until I was ready,” he said to you. Well, that’s forthcoming. Lots of
people really spoke from the heart for Crime, didn’t they?
AL: I think they did. I am pleased if they did. Many of these people are people I had some sort of connection to, so perhaps they felt more open.
EH: But it was almost as if they couldn't wait to talk about it. Even with some of the people you didn't know, it was as if you'd found them in a confiding mood and asked them to talk to you about high school...
Samantha Morton, below. Photo by Alix Lambert
AL: I think the people I didn’t know did open up just as much – sometimes more. For the most part people want to be heard and listened to. I only wanted to include in the book, and in my documentary -- and in any subsequent projects -- people who truly wanted to talk with me. Some were extremely enthusiastic and said it was something they thought about all the time in their life or in their work. Others were less so, but still interested enough to engage in a conversation. I like what you say about high school – with some of the interviews it was quite like that.
EH: Your own childhood brought you very close to victims of crime. Maybe everyone’s did. In the late 1950’s, my mother’s oldest friend hired the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald to look after his children for about a year -- who knew? But your experiences came closer than that. How did this help to make it your material?
AL: As I talked to people I found that everyone has a tangential relationship to crime. If not a direct one. And that was part of my interest in making the book. Those experiences shape us and how we think and who we become, and I was interested in exploring that. Of course, many non-crime related things in our lives shape us as well – but you start with one thread that you notice and keep going.
EH: You open Crime with an interview with Joe Loya, a man who writes in a very undefended, regular guy tone who’s done time for bank robbery and is now an author and playwright. You close with a letter from Jimmy Wu, who will in a few years be released from lock-up after doing 15 years for home invasion. He was in Mark Salzman’s workshop for juvenile criminals, and one has to hope he keeps writing.
AL: I wanted to open with Joe because aside from being a good friend of mine he is also someone who is able to speak to many points of view of this subject – as a criminal, as an artist. He has an amazing story to tell and is articulate in telling it. I closed the book with Jimmy -- and I want to credit Damon and Stephen for being very involved in the order we ended up placing the interviews in -- because Jimmy’s story has hope in it. For me, this book is very emotional if read straight through, and I wanted to end on a story that one felt empathy toward.
EH: Joe and Jimmy both recall scenes of brutal humiliation as a child, and, actually, so do many artists and writers. Throughout reading Crime, I kept thinking of Graham Greene’s famous remark that you needed a sliver of ice in your heart to be a writer. I always thought that meant, among other things, that a writer was by nature someone who stood a little apart. Can that same sliver of ice get you -- first -- to crime?
Tom Kalin, screenwriter, director, producer and gay rights activist. Photo by Alix Lambert
AL:I don’t know about that sliver of ice – but I do
think that artists in general are in the curious position of being set
apart from society and also being able to communicate universal ideas
EH: The actor Matthew Maher, who has often been cast as a criminal, told you a woman he was seeing had been looking at an old passport photo, and said to him, “You look like someone who does bad things to children.” He all but likened acting and crime as resulting from a need to be someone you can’t be and do things that aren’t done. Is he onto something?
AL: I talked to a number of people who felt acting allowed them to be someone they otherwise weren’t or to act in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t. Role playing is at the root of much of my work, too – and I have always been fascinated by the experiments where they make one group of people “prisoners” and the others “guards” and within days the guards are committing horrible abuses and the prisoners are having nervous breakdowns. Joe Loya and other prisoners I have talked to who have spent extended periods of time in solitary talk about hallucinating. In Joe's case a boy would come and talk to him.
EH: Apropos Do With Me What You Will, her sixth fiction that was part legal novel, part romantic triangle, Joyce Carol Oates said she’d like to write about love and the Law as it affected every single citizen. Could she take a look at your weddings, coming more than twenty years later, and find in you a kindred spirit -- of fascination with the Law? Maybe there was a spirit of nolo contendere in the marriage project... Or were you more in control than that?
AL: Oh dear, I am never in control. I certainly would be happy to believe that I was a kindred spirit with Joyce Carol Oates – I think she is wonderful and am looking at a copy of On Boxing, another shared interest between us, that I have been reading for a completely separate project.
EH: What’s next for you, Alix? Can you talk about it?
Steve Hodel, below, author of The Black Dahlia Avenger (2003). Photo by Alix Lambert
AL: I always have about 18 balls in the air with the hope that I might catch just one of them. Yesterday I spent the day talking with a wonderful artist named Harrison Haynes about a project we want to collaborate on that deals with surveillance. And tomorrow I will work on details for a round-table in Moscow around my book, The Silencing, that will be held in September. There is always something going on, but I never know what will rise to the surface.
EH: An artist! Do you have a strong favorite from the film noir era?
AL: No. I have lots of favorites – I was thinking about Scarlet Street the other day, with Edward G. Robinson, that’s a great one. I LOVE depictions of artists in films.
EH: I'll be trite now and ask you about the crow tattoo...
AL: That I have on my back? As far as what it means to me – I have to keep some things private, no?
On the 13th of June, Alix Lambert will sign 25 copies of Crime at The Mysterious Bookshop. 58 Warren Street, New York, NY 10007
SELECTED LINKS for ALIX LAMBERT
Her film, The Mark of Cain: http//www.markofcainfilm.com/
Her site: http://www.pinkghettoproductions.com/
The site of Perceval Press, owned by Viggo Mortensen: http://www.percevalpress.com/
SELECTED LINKS for FUEL DESIGN
BOOKS published by FUEL PUBLISHING include:
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia, Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev (London: Steidl/FUEL, 2004)
Fleur. Plant Portraits by Fleur Olby (London: FUEL, 2005)
The Music Library, Jonny Trunk (London: FUEL, 2005)
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volume II, Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev (London: FUEL, 2006)
Home-Made. Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts, Vladimir Arkhipov (London: FUEL, 2006)
Ideas Have Legs, Ian McMillan and Andy Martin (London: FUEL, 2006)
Match Day, Bob Stanley and Paul Kelly (London: FUEL, 2006)
BibliOdyssey, P.K. (London: FUEL, 2007)
Notes from Russia, Alexei Plutser-Sarno (London: FUEL, 2007)
Crime, Alix Lambert (London: FUEL, 2008)
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