The Archives: Roberto Longo
Steve Miller: What’s it like to draw the Cosmos? Not many people have the balls to draw the cosmos.
Robert Longo: I realize I am interested in an ability to see these inaccessible objects. It goes back to death. I have this fantasy that when I die, and my soul is floating out there, I’ll get to see the Earth. I’ll get to see the Moon, the stars. Then, I said why the fuck wait? I’ll do it myself. I want to make the stuff I can’t see.
For the past several years, I have been thinking about how, as artists, we are blind. We can’t see how other people see our work. It's the same thing that drives us: to make things that we can’t see. The only real way we can see them is by making them. It’s really very hard to explain to someone the compulsion, and the desire, and the obsession to make work that is driven by this desire to make things that we can’t see.
I remember the experience of producing the first Earth that I made. It felt as if I was out in space looking at this glass ball. It made me go back to Hieronymus Bosch’s doors of The Garden of Earthly Delights. When you close the doors of The Garden of Earthly Delights there is, painted on the back of the doors, an image of a glass ball that has a flat Earth in it, which I think is amazing.
For one of the big star fields that I created, I first projected a Jackson Pollock painting over the paper’s surface. I then sketched the basic structure of the Pollock painting, and then projected a nebula on top of that. I basically made Jackson’s nebula. I kept thinking of this idea of intelligent design: trying to play God in a way.
SM: Pollock said, ‘I am nature.’
RL: I know. I thought about that so much. His paintings are really quite profound in that way.
These are images that we want to see because the only way that we’re going to see them is when we’re dead – or at least that’s when we think we’re going to see them. We grew up during the first time there were images of the Earth from the Moon. That was incredible to me, the idea that these guys could see the shape of the Earth, and see how round it was. As a kid, I remember once at the beach, I swear I could see the curve of the Earth. I swear I could see the horizon. It’s not there but I still pretend I can see the curve of the Earth.
SM: This issue is about science, and I think that the reason that I really got into thinking about you for this was because of the bomb series from 2003 that you titled The Sickness Of Reason.
RL: Science is interesting because we want to believe in it. We used to believe that science and technology would save us. Now we’re starting to think it’s going to kill us. The difference between our generation and the generation of my kids is that we dealt with nuclear or atomic threats, while they are dealing with bio-genetic fear. It’s really radically different, the idea of redesigning us, where the interface between man and machine collides.
My bomb series, Sickness of Reason is inspired by Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Actually, one of the bombs that I made looks a lot like Goya’s painting The Colossus. I always thought that looked like an atomic bomb. I find I try to make art as if I am tuning an old radio: if I turn the knob too much one way or another, I lose it — it’s really important that I find this balance between something that’s highly personal, and at the same time socially relevant. And if I can find that balance, it makes sense for me to investigate it.
Each series leads me to the next. Before the drawings of bombs, I was making wave drawings. Then 9/11 happened, and I started incorporating the smoke from 9/11 into the drawings. Someone sent me an image of the towers falling down, and when I printed the image, it came out of the printer upside-down. I thought, “The image of the buildings beneath the cloud of smoke looks like a bomb! Holy shit!”
I remember showing the atomic bomb test images to my kids. I asked my son who was 8 years old at the time, “So, what do you think this is?” And he answered, “I think it’s a hurricane.” He thought they were nature.
All of a sudden, I had this idea of man trying to be nature; an arrow pointed to go in that direction. I dropped my work on the waves, and the bombs happened. The Russian test bomb was a really great image. It was such a dirty, nasty-looking bomb. It looked like they blew it up in a fucking coffee can. With my work, I ended up beautifying certain images. The bombs led me to roses. Waves, bombs, and roses have a similarity in those early series because they all exist at a moment of being. It’s almost like they’re orgasmic. I mean, they’re all at the moments of becoming.
I started to understand that with the waves, the shape of a wave is not necessarily dictated by how strong the wind is. It’s dictated by what’s deep underneath it. It’s like psychoanalysis. Ironically, before the wave drawings, I was working on the Freud Cycle drawings.
Julian Barnes who wrote an essay about the idea of the artist turning catastrophe into art in Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, which is really interesting.
In the summer of 2004, I was invited to the Aspen Institute for Physics for the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. They wanted to show a group of seven bombs with the drawing I did of Einstein’s desk. The institute showed these drawings in an octagonal room, a room in which they then hosted a conference about nuclear proliferation, with military people, scientists, and politicians. I thought that was very ironic.
To read the full interview with Robert Longo, click here