Money for Sale, Heroin-Injected Lasagna: How One Artist Is Defining Our Era
As playful as he is provocative, Darren Bader interrogates the meaning of art itself. Plus, four works he created exclusively for T.
By: Nikil Saval
The artist Darren Bader had been in Rome for a spell, and was passing through Palermo on his way to several weeks at the beach on the Tyrrhenian coast. We agreed to meet in Palermo, where we could visit the city’s sunstruck churches, with their grandiose, almost careless accretion of centuries of styles, and converse along the way. This turned out to be appropriate by happenstance, since both Sicily and Bader are renowned for their arresting juxtapositions — Sicily of epochs and cultures, and Bader for his elevation of the profane and ridiculous into the realm of high art. For a piece in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, for example, Bader displayed two donation boxes: One said, “All donations will go to something,” and the other said, “All donations will go to nothing.” People filled them with discarded Biennial programs and cash; someone wrote in marker on their dollar bill an obscene message directed to Bader, with his name misspelled.
On the surface, Bader’s art may appear to be a kind of elaborate prank. He injected a piece of lasagna with heroin for a 2012 work titled “lasagna on heroin,” and he drove his aunt’s car from her house outside Miami and parked it in front of the Bass Museum of Art for a 2011 piece called “my aunt’s car.” There is a bit of “Well, what happens if … ?” to Bader’s work, which is as much about what strange combinations the artist concocts as it is about their result. In a 2011 show at the Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York, he released a pair of live goats into the gallery; for Bader, the goats were “found objects,” a kind of art world cliché on many artists’ materials lists. He had initially considered adding cats to the mix, but decided against it for fear of ancient feline instincts for preying on goats; instead, he encouraged viewers to adopt cats from a store in the East Village — and thereby become owners of a Bader sculpture. A 2010 show at the Alex Zachary gallery in New York featured a photograph of another bizarre sculpture, “kangaroo and/with lobster,” which amounted to a slightly perplexed-looking kangaroo with a lobster on the ground near its legs. How he came up with it, and more important, why, are common questions about Bader’s work.
These kinds of works don’t obviously place Bader in the realm of the European artistic tradition that was all around us in Palermo, but I was surprised by his concerns with the disappearance of the religious context that once gave artists meaning. “Contemporary art is by its very nature kind of a tenuous proposition and category,” he told me, as we Google-mapped ourselves from the Chiesa di San Cataldo, a clean, cool, symmetrical Arab-Norman domed construction, to the Gothic mess of the main cathedral. “I always sense these fault lines, and perhaps I’m overly sensitive to it — perhaps paranoid, I don’t know.” He said he is always looking for where meaning can be found and how to define it, but he often comes to the realization that this attempt is “kind of a fool’s errand.”
Bader, who is curly-haired, slight-framed and inclined to slouch, has edged into his early 40s with some reluctance, and he speaks with the vagueness, the slack elaborateness, of someone committed to a serious discourse about art: “ ‘What is art?’ both as some sort of spiritual entity, or quantity, and what is this world we live in, this highly commercialized society, a consumer society, and what does it mean to find meaning within it?” At the same time, he recognizes that we live in a moment when such seriousness is constantly being questioned. A number of Bader works explore the often ridiculous nature of money in the art world, where impractical, valueless objects can command hundreds of millions of dollars. Bader provides a kind of running commentary on this culture. In 2015, he raised nearly $16,000 on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo in order to sell the money itself as a lot at a Christie’s auction in London (the final price realized, about $19,000, was donated to charity). Bader turns capital from a symbolic thing, a means for transaction, to, in his words, “an object in the world as anything else might be.” His work is playful and logical — he has said that his art is about what he thinks art is about — and it often results from deducing what the contemporary art world can and will value.
Bader’s work, in other words, challenges and provokes the viewer (and the artist and his gallerist and his collector) to ask what precisely art is. For many, especially rich collectors, there seems to be no crisis in artistic meaning: According to a report published in March by Art Basel and UBS, in 2017 the world art market totaled $63.7 billion in sales, up 12 percent from the previous year. The insane valuations given certain artists and their works, especially in a time of global political crisis, has heightened the feeling among the rest of us — the 99 percent, let’s say — that contemporary art is, to use Bader’s phrase, a “tenuous proposition.”
Bader is not necessarily a political artist, but his conceptual pieces do provide a sustained critique — however farcical — of the commercialism and didactic elitism of the realm in which his work is made. He is a weird formalist, a somewhat unmoored logician, whose pieces seem to be the result of long, elaborate trains of thought, picking up steam as they pull into stations of absurdity. And yet Bader is always throwing us back on the absurdity of our own reality as well: the odd pairings of objects and ideas that fill our lives (and screens). By front-loading this ridiculousness through simple, random connections — a screenshot of Google search results for himself blown up on a wall, or his father’s piano for sale in a gallery — he is investigating the very nature of meaning and pushing the limits of what we will understand and accept.
Bader and I walked through the Albergheria neighborhood, where the cramped streets were shaded with carapaces of laundry, and where some buildings had not been reconstructed since they were bombed in World War II. On the exposed side of one building, a graffiti artist had reproduced a giant version of the logo for the condom brand Durex. It was a work — ridiculous and profound, close to but not quite a punch line or a philosophical lament — that was worthy of the artist himself. Bader, impressed, snapped a photo with his phone.
Bader’s seismographic feeling for, as he says, “the fault lines” of the contemporary art world may come from his having arrived at it from a different tradition. He grew up in Fairfield County, Conn., and attended New York University, where he studied film and art history. (He retains a knowledge of and affection for old master paintings, as I discovered when he thumbed through a monograph on the otherwise obscure Lombard Renaissance painter Vincenzo Foppa at a used bookstore.) Bader says it was the experimental film tradition as made by people like Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage, whose work he would watch at Anthology Film Archives, that brought him into the contemporary art world, where experimental film still thrived. In 2001, he moved to Los Angeles, where, among other jobs, he worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art bookstore, helping complete his education. (He is now based mostly in New York City.) He learned about movements like Arte Povera, the 1960s stylistic school whose intensely temporal, decaying sculptures, often made from banal materials like rocks and soil, are clear antecedents for Bader’s investigations of found objects. In the 1990s, installation art, the intricate, three-dimensional works designed for the transformation of a specific place, rose in popularity. This appealed to him — the art had a “cinematic element.” “I didn’t like being on set — I couldn’t stand it,” he said, explaining one reason he stopped making films; the other was that he didn’t have any money. “I didn’t want to wait around for years,” he said, “to make something I wanted to make.”
The way Bader described his inclusion in his first shows is essentially how his artwork still functions: as an attempt to fill a void. “When you’re dealing with an exhibition,” he said, “you have to figure out what to put in it. That’s been my job.” As recently as the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Bader has made a sort of drama out of being asked to contribute something to a show and not knowing quite what to do. One of his contributions to the Biennial was a video, “Things I’m (Probably) Not Going to Get Done for the Biennial,” in which he stood and named ideas, among which were “using a car key to start a puddle,” and “patent an invisible mirror.” A minor, casual work in the Bader canon, it’s nonetheless a revealing glimpse of how thoroughly (and self-parodically) conceptual his artistic universe is, consisting almost entirely of tossed-off ideas — some of which occasionally make it into a gallery space.
His work can be serenely perverse, but there is nonetheless a vertigo to the logical extremes that Bader will pursue in his ideas. It occasionally seemed to seize him, sometimes intensely. Pointing to a street sign, he described how it could be included in an exhibition as a sculpture: “If someone purchases the work, then I issue a certificate either explaining, ‘This is how you use a street sign,’ or the certificate simply defines the work as three spatial dimensions and says you can do whatever you want with this thing. And in that sense,” he went on, “I could consider my work sculpture. In the past I have more deliberately considered it sculpture, but the world gets more and more confusing. I don’t know — three dimensions, two dimensions — who knows what’s sculpture and what’s image-making, I don’t know.” In recent years, he has pursued these questions on Instagram, where he creates rhyming riddles on one of his feeds, @rt_rhyme, photographing artists’ works alongside a rhyming object in front of them. One person stands with a bouquet of spoons in front of a swollen sculpture by Jeff Koons. In another, a pair of spats are held up in front of a painting by Alex Katz. Finally — inevitably? — in April of this year, Bader put another of his Instagram accounts, @mined_oud, up for sale. He did so via a post on the account, with the contact information for his dealers included, and offered a certificate of authenticity to the buyer. (The work sold in June, though he won’t say for how much.)
THOUGH THE VISUAL history of Surrealism is an obvious precedent for Bader’s practice — “the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table,” to quote the 19th-century French poet Isidore Ducasse, sounds like a description of a Bader sculpture — there is also an intensely written aspect to Bader’s work. The concepts often require, or benefit from, instructions. For example, his directions for 2012’s “motorcycle on birth control” (dimensions variable) include the following: “Pills should be placed in the motorcycle’s fuel tank following prescribed usage.”
Much of conceptual art has been built around text-based, vaguely philosophical ruminations. Lawrence Weiner, an artist known for writing aphoristic concepts directly onto the walls of galleries and museums using paint or vinyl letters (“Dust + water put somewhere/between the sky & the earth”), famously created his own guidelines that spoke to his work’s value: “1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built.” Weiner once said, “Once you know about a work of mine, you own it.” The question of “what’s the point?” is implicit in conceptual art, whose very job is to interrogate the nature of art: What is it? What can it be? Why does it need to exist? It’s no coincidence that these searching questions, to which there is often no answer, arise in moments of tumult. Marcel Duchamp created the most famous ready-made in 1917, in the middle of World War I, by trying to place a urinal in a New York exhibition (the pitch was rejected). Conceptual art in the United States, as practiced by the likes of, say, Sol LeWitt and Adrian Piper, emerged from the ferment of the 1960s. As the late ’70s gave way to the aggressively neoliberal ’80s, and the art world became increasingly asphyxiated by commerce, artists reacted to the turning of their creation into capital. From that shift came a new kind of art that was impossible to buy, sell or own in any conventional sense.
Bader came of age as the art world was reaching its commercial peak, and his contribution to this history is to commodify conceptual art itself — some of his work is only complete once it is bought. (In these instances, what collectors are buying is the idea itself, in the form of a certificate.) How to buy a work and live with it is often part of the work’s narrative. His other, perhaps more important contribution to conceptualism is his sense of humor. In his most recent show this past April at Andrew Kreps, for a piece titled “Lawrence Weiner study/encomium,” Bader referenced Weiner’s lexicon, writing in vinyl letters on the walls in his style, but reduced Weiner’s aphorisms to morbid jokes like “Get young or try dying,” or the Ace of Base lyric “Life is demanding without understanding.” There is a stone-faced drollness to so much of conceptual art, yet Bader’s instructions call attention to the genre’s futility with impressive deadpan. Here is the text for 2012’s “cow and/with bed,” in its entirety:
The work consists of two elements: a cow, a bed. The cow* can be any free-roaming member of the species Bos primigenius. The bed can be any type of bed. Cow and bed should be placed in relative proximity to one another, roughly conforming to a person’s ability to see both elements without having to move her/his head. The work has no recommended duration. The cow in the work may likely be in the presence of other cows. Thus, if cow = cows, that is entirely ok.
*Humane treatment of the cow(s) is of the essence.
“I’m a writer, first and foremost,” Bader said. “I can’t tell a story at all, so I never went into fiction writing. But I love images of all sorts, however you want to define an image. My work’s really about how word and image can interact and compromise one another.”
Bader in fact considered studying experimental writing — he was rejected from Brown University’s M.F.A. program — but his output also consists of a number of very weird books, often filled with images that reflect the detritus of contemporary life. His first, “James Earl Scones” (2005), largely consists of a series of letters that detail outlandish projects. “Dear Tom Cruise and NASA,” the first begins. “I am an artist. Never mind which kind of artist, for it is such an onerous thing to have to deem oneself this or that.” The address is vintage Bader — pairing the nation’s space program and one of its highest-paid film stars — and the style deliberately archaizing. The pitch Bader offers “verges on the simple. I would like to shoot Mr. Cruise and a (sexless) 5-year-old into outer space.” While in space, he goes on, “the ‘space capsule’ will contain enough egg salad to feed any hungers and maintain a sense of there being more egg salad than might be thought of as ‘decent.’ ” The rest of the book consists of a diary and more letters, several to museum directors at the Musée d’Orsay, the Prado, the Capitoline Museums, and their responses to his proposals, such as one to defecate in front of Giotto frescoes. “Dear Mr. Bader,” the response went, from the director of museums and libraries in Padua, “with regard to your request that reached us on 10th June ’03, dealing with your project in Scrovegni Chapel, we are sorry to inform you that the present visiting conditions do not allow the accomplishment of your project.”
If Bader's work often appears irreverent, a knowing mockery of the art world’s shallowness, its tendency to elevate the preposterous and ridiculous into something sacrosanct, he has also become a creature of the gallery and the exhibition space. At the end of our day together, as we were chased by scooters down a cramped street that led to the Palazzo dei Normanni, a giant medieval fortress, I asked him about the politics of his work in the contemporary moment. It was a question he struggled with, jockeying between saying art had nothing to do with “daily, quotidian or local political concerns” and pointing to Gustave Courbet and Eugène Delacroix, 19th-century French artists who made social statements with their work. “Art is a privileged place. What is art, if it’s not this remove from immediate concerns, pressing exigencies?” he asked finally. “It’s somewhat of an elitist notion, or construction.” He talked about it being dependent on a scarcity of resources, but now “there seems to be sub-infinite resources. A lot of what I do is discuss the qualities of these — this great reservoir of resources.” It made me think of a post-postscript to his 2012 book, “Life as a Readymade,” a statement that might stand for the whole of his work: “Do I care? Probably.”
The pitches in “James Earl Scones,” scabrous in an occasionally juvenile way, eventually gave way to more serious attempts to realize his projects: “how to make this abstraction concrete?” as Bader put it to me, by way of describing his method. The artist is occasionally compared to Duchamp, in the way that he also seems to exploit ready-mades, but it is a comparison he largely rejects. One reason, he pointed out to me earlier in the day, as we clambered over the roots of an enormous, ancient ficus tree in a garden in the Piazza Marina, was that Duchamp seemed disinterested in beauty. It was the sort of strangely earnest statement that the otherwise relentlessly common-sense skewering Bader was more likely to make. The guy who parked his aunt’s SUV in front of a museum cares about beauty? And yet that was his line of inquiry: as he put it, the question of “how to make religious work in a post-religious society — however ridiculous and grandiose that sounds.”