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“Bad Celebrity, But Pretty Good Artist”: Kanye West Plays Himself at the LACMA

“It’s about the gaze. It’s about wanting to be in the gaze, and then gaze following you, with a twist and turn,” is how Steve McQueen introduced his new piece at the LACMA, the Kanye West collaboration/music video for “All Day / I Feel Like That”, two songs off Kanye’s upcoming album, SWISH, (formerly, So Help Me God). 

Approximating the gaze in the video to a proverbial, everyman gaze is complicated though. The video is not “the gaze” so much as it is Kanye West looking at you for nine, uncut minutes. Kanye West is not “the gaze”, he is Kanye West, and to claim the piece stands on it’s own outside of the polarizing force that is the celebrity of Kanye West is to be facetious, delusional, or overly political. But then again, McQueen is a renowned visual artist and an Academy Award winner. He makes fine art, and dense, angry cinema – not pop art, or rap music. By far and large, McQueen is not recognizable. He can walk amongst crowds and go to coffee shops, enjoy moments of solitude in public environments. What can he truly impart to us about Celebrity, with a capital C?

In the nine minute one-take video, Kanye West jumps around and works up a sweat, screams at the camera and questions it, only to answer the questions himself (“How long do you stay at the mall? All Day, ni**a!”). Around the four minute mark, “All Day” fades into the moody, auto-tuned wail of “I Feel Like That” and Kanye stops the screaming. Tired and heaving, he slumps against one of the walls of the London warehouse McQueen and Kanye chose to shoot the video in. We cut to black on that image, and the video loops again, seconds after.

 

The video premiered and had a brief four-day engagement at LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Building. The BMAC building is a friendly one for exhibiting art: spacious, inviting and contemplative. It’s classy – the thing you’d expect to house the permanent collection of a major city’s museum. The video was projected on a suspended screen in the center of a large room; the sound came from four speakers, one in every corner. The sound mix was loud, and abrasive. During the four days of the exhibition, you could hear Kanye echoing through Richard Serra’s steel work and you could hear his distinct “HUH!” as Chris Burden’s Metropolis II whirred and whizzed two rooms over. It was as if the piece was fundamentally disgruntled about not being the center of attention for everyone in the building. Because this is a Kanye West endeavor, this is not surprising. Because the LACMA is one of the county’s most revered institutions for fine art, this is also great, if only because it feels like something new.

The blurb on the wall next to the piece, and accompanying media coverage, describe it in terms of “rawness” and “intimacy” and “vulnerable” and although this is not entirely un-true or fake, to see Kanye West in any of those emotional states (or “performances”, if you will) is not exactly rare or note-worthy.

What is note worthy about All Day / I Feel Like That is seeing Kanye West, for once, comfortable performing for the camera as himself, willfully surrendering control in the lens of a filmmaker he respects and reveres, that will grant him access to the world of fine art. Despite West’s recent representation deal as a fine artist with UTA, it would be very unlikely for West to premier his video at the LACMA were it not for the McQueen cosign.

But thankfully, the cosign occurred. The same way Jay-Z ushered West’s beat-making as a relevant musical force nearly ten years ago, McQueen could potentially be doing the same, positing West’s brand of celebrity-as-art as something worth scrutinizing and feeling within the strange, mythic and reverential head-space that is privy to gallery walls.

It is this creation of a new context that is exciting to see unfold in the piece’s hypnotic, aggressive and demanding loop. Beyond the actual work of art itself, “the gaze” or whatever we have to call it to justify it to the donors, Kanye West playing himself at the LACMA is an ecstatic display of celebrity, ego and pop culture. It is interesting to see this mix existing in some sort of fine art context without the self-effacing irony and humor of pop-art or the hip self-awareness of post-modernism, but rather with unabashed ownership of one’s own public identity and genuine ecstasy of feeling: the particulars of West’s celebrity persona.

All of this, of course, so long as you are willing to embrace Kanye embracing himself. Even when he insincerely introduces his work by saying he is “a great artist, but a bad celebrity”, to which LACMA’s director, Michael Govan, at this point can only obviously reply: “is there even a distinction?”

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Tadeu Bijos is a writer and film-maker currently living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Follow him on twitter @jtbijos.

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