The Wylde Interview: Paul Kindersley
ARTIST AND PERFORMER PAUL KINDERSLEY PLAYS WITH NOTIONS OF GENDER, CAMP AND SELF-EXPRESSION WITH A VERVE THAT POKES FUN AT THE WORLDS OF FASHION AND ART. HE TELLS PIPPA BROOKS ABOUT BASSEY, BLOOMSBURY AND GOING #GLUTENFREE
Portraits by Etienne Gilfillan
When Paul Kindersley welcomes me into his flat, there is an enormous pile of rainbow-coloured clothing in the middle of the front room, interspersed with fun-fur, platforms and rejected wigs.
These have been sorted for recycling – back to the boot fair whence they came. The performance artist is an avid car-booter, using the debris of others to create the characters who populate his art. They perform, make-up-smeared and leotard-clad, teetering in high heels (which may or may not fit) in front of his Cocteau-esque backdrops, or on location in his ensemble pieces of filmed performance. The voiceovers might quote Joan Collins or Aubrey Beardsley, or posture in a way that seems to parody the notion of artist as celebrity. Today, Kindersley is bare-faced, with his head freshly shaved, his unplucked, bright peroxide blonde eyebrows accentuating the intensity of his huge, expressive eyes.
Collecting is compulsive for Kindersley, and little assemblages of found treasure, from his mudlarking expeditions, and found objects are carefully arranged on all available surfaces. A compelling, friendly persona means that he collects strangers on his travels too, and they often approach the artist with requests for his address to send him stuff, but ever since he received a painting covered in spiderwebs, with what looked like a spell written on the back of it, he’s a little more secretive about his contact details!
Last year, Kindersley was included in the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition Drag: Self-portraits and Body Politics, which included a younger generation exploring drag performance alongside the likes of Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe. He was also commissioned to submit his response to Virginia Woolf’s novelOrlando in an exhibition at Charleston House in East Sussex, Orlando at the Present Time, which explored the relevance of the book, using archival evidence and new works. His film The Image was all shot on an iPhone, and starred actress Jenny Runacre alongside his regular repertory of performers, as well as others he met through Instagram.
Kindersley is perhaps best known for utilising the accessible media of YouTube and Instagram, and for staging week-long immersive happenings once a year at Belmacz, the Mayfair gallery which represents him. The new interest from prestigious art institutions, especially in Kindersley’s earlier work, perhaps marks a crossing-over from cult status to something bigger, and the artist seems rightly fired-up and excited about it.
Wylde: Have you always loved to dress up and experiment by playing different characters?
Paul Kindersley: When I was younger we lived in an old school between two churches. So no one from school wanted to come round, because of the graveyards on both sides. I used to go to all the tabletop sales in the churches and buy lots of dresses and high heels. I would pretend that I was doing productions at school of Agatha Christie and needed the high heels for the play. I used to sing Shirley Bassey songs to my mum’s friends, wearing a dress, when they came round. Big Spender sung by a nine-year-old boy in a pleated blue dress is quite weird…[singing] “I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see!” I was getting a lot of stick at school for wearing dresses and stuff, and my mum’s Japanese friend told me that all men in Japan wear dresses, or kimonos, and that the most powerful men like emperors, or the samurai, all wear them. So after that, if I was wearing long nightshirts, which I used to belt, and people shouted out: “Why are you wearing a dress?”, I’d say: “Actually, it’s a kimono, like all the powerful Japanese warriors would wear, actually!”
Excellent! You’re quite young to have been into Shirley Bassey, but great choice!
I didn’t have a TV when I was growing up. Then my brother had an operation that meant he had to be still in bed for a month. So my mum bought a TV that only played videos. She thought it was a good idea, since a video has an end – also we had a Blockbuster next door. We got that when I was 14 or so, and I got really obsessed with TV. So all the pop cultural things I should know about from growing up I don’t really know. I don’t know how I got hold of Shirley Bassey. My dad was really into Sufi mysticism and whirling dervishes, so I think that might also be where I got it from…
Your parents were, and your mother still is, one of the most famous stonecutters in the UK: The Cardozo Kindersley Workshop. Did their work influence your art?
I didn’t want to do a craft art that needs to be perfect. I think that’s why I like to do things that show up all the mistakes. If you carve stone, it will last for thousands of years, potentially. The oldest things that we have from humans are marks in stone. I like that my videos for YouTube don’t exist anywhere; there’s some weird pressure to make objects in a world that is already too full.
Did you enjoy school?
My education was quite good, but school is bad in many ways; I have so many hang-ups from school. And books weren’t read for pleasure, but were set. I tried to write an essay about how great Lady Macbeth was, but they said I wouldn’t pass if I wrote that. I was told it was wrong, and so I had to go back and write about how evil she was. Everything is so standardised with education. The best way forward, really, is to treat everyone as an individual.
I can imagine you as being very mischievous…
I got into loads of trouble at school, when we used to do Show and Tell. There was a lot of stuff in my parents’ house, accumulating. I would just grab something as I ran out of the door and make up mad stories about it! One time I got a piece of wood that I think was part of a toy, and I was going on and on about how it was a Native American artefact, really special. The teacher rang my mum… I’d always get found out for making things up!
Who were your favourite YouTube bloggers when you started?
I used to watch GiGi Gorgeous, she started them when she was living as a boy, and then she transitioned. The thing I like about the make-up tutorials most, though, is that they’re not about make-up at all, really. They’re about storytelling.
The most successful ones are very confessional, aren’t they?
Also I like that absolutely everyone uses YouTube, it’s really open. I like doing the make-up tutorials. I don’t know anything about make-up and the first ones were just done with things around the house, like paint. I love YouTube because it’s the only platform I can think of where the person making the art, or whatever they’re doing, is in exactly the same position as the person watching it. Alone, in front of the laptop. It’s like a secret diary.
And it’s self-published, you can reach your audience without the permission or approval of a third party…
Although at the same time, I’ve noticed that old films of mine have been removed; they’re really clamping down on things they see as sexual or violent. They took down a film where I was playing with a plastic gun. I like playing within the terrible rules of Instagram and the internet, what’s allowed. I mean, if you look at someone like Kim Kardashian’s Instagram, she can get away with incredible amounts of nudity, but anyone else… I drew big fake boobs on my hairy chest in paint and they removed it! I can’t grasp concepts of censorship. I can see why you need to ban, but then I also feel like you shouldn’t ban anything.
You construct your stories and characters and do posts on Instagram almost in character, as if they’re “true”.
I don’t mind about things being truthful or not. Donald Trump ruined the word “fake” for everyone. I would much rather someone told me a fantasy story because, also, I think you learn way more about someone from a story they would tell, than if they were listing off facts about something.
I think you have made the hashtag into an art form! Your Instagram posts are hashtag-heavy, with “inspirational” bullshit ones, like #dontdreamitbeit mixed up with inanity and transgression, so your work infiltrates the feeds of those who follow #livingmybestlife, for instance, or, indeed, followers of #piss, which I love!
#glutenfree always gets a few extra likes! People like to make art now that is about one specific thing and they want the viewer to get that message. I think art should be the opposite of that. It’s lifelike to have contradictions.
I find the explanations on the walls of galleries irksome, at times…
I hate the explanations! But you don’t have to read them. Galleries close off a lot of dialogue. You feel that everything has been chosen by an “expert”, so it must be good. But you’re allowed to not like it, you’re not missing out if you don’t understand it.
Do you feel an affinity with the lineage of the English Eccentric? I see numerous references in your work to the Sitwells, Diana Cooper…
There’s something about living your own way. All the ones you’re mentioning were really privileged, and I am privileged in that I am able to live a life as I want. I do admire artists who “do their own thing” and it comes in and out of fashion and they don’t care about that. I love people like Niki de Saint Phalle. She was the height of fashion; in Japan she was a superstar, she was also a top model and then people in the Nineties thought it was the height of kitsch and hated her fat women. But she always did things that she wanted to do. She wrote an incredible children’s book about Aids.
Your YouTube channel (The British Are Cumming), is an archive of all your short films. Why did you choose for your more recent movies to be feature-length?
The reason I did feature-length films was that I liked the constraints, that it’s a standard thing. In the same way that if you make a pop record it has to be three minutes. I always thought that film was something separate or special, or almost holy, and then I thought: “I can make an hour-and-a-half film on my own, on my phone.”
They must be more of a production to organise, rather than the make-up tutorials, which is just you and a webcam and some acrylic paints…
Because I had more of a crew – cameraman and sound guy – I had less control, which I found difficult. I like to just start filming, and then everyone can be really spontaneous. But they had to set up shots. Because of them, though, the shots in the film look really incredible, so I was really pleased. I roped in my cousin, who’s studying film, and she had to do everything. She told me she had a great time but then I heard from her mum that she went to bed for two weeks afterwards; she hadn’t realised how hard it would be! But she was brilliant.
Do you enjoy the process? Directing the actors, performing in a group?
I love doing things to escape, where you just go somewhere with the people who are going to be in it, and see what happens. You eat and sleep together. There were 20 of us all eating together. I always get so ill afterwards as it’s so intense and then I have to edit it all. Everyone brings their own thing, from professional actors, to children, to people I’ve only met once before. I don’t have a script but I have all the scenes
Do you have a day job?
I work as a life model at Saint Martins.
That’s right, I love how you pepper your Instagram selfies with other artist’s versions of you, almost like the #fanart that famous people post.
And I worked for 10 years as a performer for Monster Chetwynd. I get so much free fabric from the Saint Martins bins, it’s great!
Would you say humour is a big part of your work? Should art be serious?
I like to think that if you are doing a still life of a flower, everything should be brought into that moment. I think some of the best art is when they make you feel wonderful and uncomfortable and all the things in between. Laughing at yourself is a good thing.
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE: PAUL KINDERSLEY
Have you ever won anything?
At the local dog show I won Dog Who Looks Most Like His Owner!
You’ve used quotes from Joan Collins’ beauty books in your work. What is your favourite Joan Collins quote?
“Every woman needs five gypsy skirts”!
What film/s would you recommend?
One of my favourites of all time is the book of the film Psycho, frame by frame. They used to release books of every frame of films, before we could rent videos. Oh, and The Lickerish Quartet by Radley Metzger is another favourite film. It was made in the golden age of Seventies porn. It’s a really good story; they’re all trapped in a castle together… there’s naked people and implied sex, but no actual sex in that one.
That has to be Edith Sitwell. Rolling with her look, her big nose and long hands. You’ve got to go with all the weird things that you’ve got.
Do you have a hero?
My absolute art hero is Jack Smith. He was a contemporary of Warhol, he was a filmmaker who said that he invented the word Superstar. There’s a Warhol quote that says something like: “Jack Smith is the only person I’d ever copy.” But Smith was anti-money, anti-commerciality; he would make his films in a way that they couldn’t be shown without him doing live elements, like editing live, live music, puppets. He died of Aids. He’s most famous for making a film called Flaming Creatures; the FBI seized it.
Your looks are always incredible, whether daywear or art-happening drag.Do you follow fashion?
I love watching the old Mugler fashion shows, where they properly walked!
Cocktail or beer?
Beer makes me sick… so cocktail. I love a gin martini that’s basically just gin! A dirty one with olive brine in.
First thing you do in the morning?
I like to have a little pot of tea in the bath. If I want to be really affected it has to be Rose Pouchong!
An experience that was life-changing?
Derek Jarman’s Jubilee was definitely a film that changed my life. It changed what I thought art could be and what I thought film could be.
Anything old lady… lavender, rose.
I really love food, it’s the only thing I spend money on, really.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
To say thank you for things, rather than being sorry. Obviously, I’m sorry for doing some things but also, just don’t do it if you know you’re going to be sorry. I can’t understand why people apologise for burping, for instance.
What book are you reading?
I’ve just finished Gore Vidal’s Messiah and Jerzy Andrzejewski’s The Gates of Paradise, although the latter really stressed me out to read and I realised it’s because there are no full stops. I saw Gore Vidal just before he died, at a talk by him with a dinner, and he was really living his best life, wheeled in in his wheelchair by a beautiful Italian stud companion.