It’s surprising to find that Richard Kern is a self-proclaimed shy person, seeing as his repertoire is the complete antithesis. Having first entered the underground art scene of New York City in the 1980s, Kern became a pioneer of the Cinema of Transgression – a movement that blended low-budget productions with humor and provocative themes, including sex and violence. Throughout the years, the artist became widely known for his work, including music videos for the likes of Marilyn Manson and Sonic Youth, and photographs of mostly nude girls. In lieu of the re-publication of one of his best known – and most notorious – books, New York Girls (TASCHEN), Kern sat down with NeueJournal to give us insight into the man behind the camera.
NeueJournal: When you first published New York Girls some of the material was too explicit for publication. Why do you think the perception of this has changed? Do you think the concept of “too explicit” still exists in this day and age?
Richard Kern: I don’t think the perception has changed. I think the rules are more relaxed; I’m sure it has a lot to do with the Internet and things not being so shocking. The original book came out in the U.K. and was going to get seized for obscenity, so they shipped it to Amsterdam. It was sitting in this warehouse until Benedikt Taschen stepped in and bought it because he didn’t care about the rules. There’s a lot of stuff in the new book that isn’t in the old book – mainly vaginas. At the time when it came out there had been a long period with no nude books for sale.
Linda Wet on Floor, 1992, photo by Richard Kern (Courtesy of the Artist)
NJ: When you first started creating work it was underground and incredibly provocative. Do you think the initial intention or reaction with which you made those oeuvres has changed because the audience that responds to your work has changed?
RK: I think the people that respond to it now have no idea what I’ve done in the past. I think there is a certain group of people that know, but most people have no idea. The original work I did back then was mostly film and video, which were definitely made just to be provocative. I still do it on Instagram. I try to hold myself back, but it’s still provocative. I get a lot of weird followers.
NJ: You’ve collaborated with some incredible artists – some of which are infamous for their wild reputations. Who was the wildest one and what’s the craziest thing they did?
RK: The first one that comes to mind is Lydia Lunch. When I think about it now everyone I work with is pretty tame, although it didn’t seem like it at the time. Back then, though, Lydia was pretty hard to take – she would get right in your face. Lucy McKenzie, who used to be a model and is a pretty well-known artist now, would do pretty much anything I asked. There is a shot of her with her head in the toilet – basically doing a handstand. We were trying to do these things of people flushing themselves down the toilet and it all seemed so corny, but then she did it and was like an athlete. She said, “sure,” and just did it. Those kind of people are pretty great.
NJ: What is the first film you remember having an impact on you?
RK: One was Barbarella because of the sexual awakenings I had when I was watching her on screen. I remembered her being naked all through the movie, but I watched it again recently and she’s never naked. You don’t actually see anything – you only kind of do. Another one was this art film by a Polish director, Ashes and Diamonds. The hero died at the end and I was like, “What!?”.
NJ: What is your go-to karaoke song?
RK: I don’t like karaoke, I’m too shy. That’s why I hide behind the camera.
NJ: If you could work with any other provocateur – dead or alive – who would it be and what would the dream collaboration look like?
RK: There are a lot of people that I would like to meet and do music videos for. It’s hard to say though. I’ve met my heroes a couple of times and it’s not as fantastic as you think. I want to say David Bowie. I watched his new video for “Lazarus” and I wished I could have done something like it. I would also love to work with people nobody knows.
NJ: What makes you irrationally angry?
RK: Jealousy of other people’s work. That’s the big thing. I’m jealous of anyone who is making a good living, because if you’re not doing something super commercial it’s a struggle.
NJ: What is usually the first thought you have in the mornings and the last thought you have at night?
RK: I wake up thinking about some girl I know. It’s always somebody different. When I look at my phone I feel lucky and I think, “Wow they texted me.” It sounds corny but it’s true. The last thought is usually, “oh I must have fallen asleep while I was reading.” I read spy books all the time.
NJ: What is the sexiest photo prop that people wouldn’t normally associate with being erotic?
RK: A toothbrush or a hairbrush – something like that. The most erotic thing is when girls are brushing their teeth and brushing their hair.
Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal