Readymades are nothing new in contemporary art, but the artist Puppies Puppies is nevertheless striving to redefine the genre for a new era of art making in his own, deeply strange fashion. He makes almost nothing himself, preferring to source materials like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fan art or hand-painted crab carapaces from e-commerce sites like eBay and Etsy. Mass produced items ranging from Swiffers to Minions paraphernalia become part of what he calls "open editions," and perishables and live animals are all fair game.
Puppies’s readymade remixes are often as personal as they are bizarre—he’s incorporated a marriage proposal into an installation/performance at What Pipeline, and objects from his own family history have found their way into his work. Stranger still, Puppies seems to relish rather than abhor the art fair context (generally regarded among artists as a necessary evil at best). It helps that he’s a consummate scene-stealer—it was hard to ignore his life-size orc replica at NADA New York 2015, or his Spongebob protesting during last year’s Material Art Fair. (He’s said he’ll be bringing a certain animated ogre to this year’s edition of Material, in Mexico City—stay tuned.)
Throughout it all, Puppies has maintained a mystique around his persona that’s almost unrivaled in our age of oversharing. If readymades help to transform the stuff of life into art, Puppies seems to be moving in the opposite direction with his moniker, which has become so much a part of his identity that he prefers to speak of himself in both the first- and third-person. The result is a shifting sense of self that is sure to delight Internet-culture enthusiasts and postmodern media theorists alike.
In this rare long-form interview with Artspace’s Dylan Kerr (conducted, appropriately enough, via GChat) Puppies opened up about the origins of his approach in mall kiosk kitsch, his novel concept of actions as readymades, and why he just can’t get enough automatic antibacterial soap dispensers.
First question, because I have to ask—what's behind the name Puppies Puppies?
This story has been passed down and may very well have become distorted over the years. I was living with one of my best friends in grad school. One night, she told me about a person we both knew that had disappeared. Their parents were posting things on Facebook, asking if anyone knew where they were, but the Facebook page of the person only revealed photos of kittens.
A while later, there was a blurb in the news about this person being found wandering the side of the highway— my understanding was that they were wearing a bathrobe. They told the police that they were on a spiritual journey. Regardless of whether or not all the details that made it to me were true, I thought the story was actually quite beautiful—disappearing and leaving only photos of kittens—and so the Puppies Puppies Facebook began. I tend to like dogs more, it has a first and last name, and it’s ephemeral, a fleeting early stage within the life cycle of a dog.
Are you Puppies Puppies, or is Puppies Puppies a character that you're playing?
It’s all the same at this point. Close friends call me Puppies IRL all the time—Puppies doesn’t even try to distinguish the two anymore.
What are you working on now?
A professor who kind of taught me everything I know is visiting me and my partner tonight, so I’ve been getting the place ready as I order art. Not a bad day at all!
Who’s the professor?
His name is Gaylen Gerber. I would say he’s a conceptual painter, but it’s probably more accurate to say he's a conceptual artist at this point in his career. He was in the last Whitney Biennial, actually—his work was a big gray backdrop painting with works by Trevor Shimizu, David Hammons, and Sherrie Levine hung on it periodically throughout the duration of the biennale.
What was it that he taught you?
Basically, all the work I’ve made can be traced back to my psychology in some way—it’s as simple as that. I think many times artists try to pretend there’s no maker of the work, regardless of whether it’s handmade or readymade. They act like there’s no one the work actually leads back to. But all art comes from a person’s brain, the collection of all their previous experiences, traumas, et cetera. I think many artists try to distance themselves from this identity narrative.
Is that how you think about your own use of readymades, as tools for expressing your own identity narrative?
Good question. The objects I use do end up expressing my experiences. For example, I spent an endless amount of time in hospitals when I was younger, both because my mother worked in one but also because I had a brain tumor early on in college. The things I remember being the most visually ubiquitous in a hospital were those anti-bacterial gel dispensers, although I don’t think this memory actually fully informs how the dispensers function within Puppies’s practice. I think we all see them everywhere, especially in publicly used places.
It sounds like they have a deeply personal meaning or reference point for you, but they're also something a wider audience can connect with on some level. Is this where the use of pop culture characters and cartoons—Voldemort, Gollum, Spongebob, Shrek—comes into play? Do you think about those characters as readymades themselves?
Yes, totally. Usually they’re also doing a simple gesture over and over that relates to something one already sees out in the world. Examples include Spongebob protesting at last year’s Material or Voldemort sleeping during my residency at Caribic/Lifesport in Athens.
Actually, that’s Voldemort as an insomniac, so he takes a high-grade sleeping pill—I take sleeping pills because I’m an insomniac, but so is Voldemort in this narrative. Anyway, the simple act of sleeping—ingesting the pill and feeling its effects—is also readymade.
Photo by Evelyn Yard
That action is a readymade?
Yes, exactly—actions can be readymades, in my opinion. I actually think that’s how Puppies tries to differ from Duchamp, however crazy that sounds. In Puppies's work, the objects must function or else they’re props. I guess the toilet won’t function at the upcoming Queer Thoughts booth in Material because it's just not possible in the space, but I did a show at a space in Chicago called Courtney Blades that essentially turned the whole gallery into a bathroom by dispersing all the functional elements of a bathroom. The readymade aspect is apparent, but the fact that everything functions as it normally would is how it differs from the urinal as a sculpture. The fact that the dispensers work and are used for their purpose really matters, and also dips into the performative action.
Why the fascination with the performative actions of the bathroom specifically? They seem to come up in a lot of your work.
Yes, the bathroom has come up an overwhelming amount of times. Puppies isn’t sure, but Puppies thinks Puppies just wants to boil life down to the basics. Life is complicated, but we do sleep a fair amount, eat a fair amount, and shit and piss a fair amount. Boiling things down to these simple gestures make you realize how important something like the bathroom is in the scheme of life.
My partner and I also talk about Freud a fair amount—we even went to his office in Vienna. I tend to laugh about the idea that a kid is so excited when first learning how to use a toilet, that very emotional and exciting moment where a child says to their guardian, “Look, I pooped!” I think there’s the same “Look what I did!” moment with art.
Getting back to the works themselves—what kinds of things are you ordering?
A bunch of stuff. First, I’m putting together a Freddy Krueger costume that requires an insane amount of accessories. It’s for a Freddy Krueger performance for Freddy, a Baltimore art space run by Joshua Abelow, at Paramount Ranch. One of the main things is a “chest of souls” Freddy sweater signed by the actor that played him that I can show in relation to the performance piece at the fair.
I’m also getting everything ready for Material Art Fair. The fair is kindly helping me build a small performance space, which will be a non-functioning bathroom built within the Queer Thoughts booth. It’s a Shrek version of Étant donnés by Duchamp. In Puppies’s version you will go up to a reversed peephole placed within a generic white bathroom door and instead of a nude woman laying on a grassy cliff you’ll see Shrek using the restroom. From what I can tell, Shrek is always associated with all things disgusting. In the movies, there seems to be a strange focus on him going to the bathroom to emphasize how gross he is, so going to the bathroom seemed like the perfect simple action.
The installation also features automatic anti-bacterial foam dispensers made by Purell, which I've shown quite a bit. They’ll be installed within the booth and on the bathroom structure as you would see them out in the world. There are also these amazing clear acrylic toilet seats with barbed wire and razor blades inlaid into them that Puppies will hang on the wall. They’re only sold in the UK as gag gifts, so getting them over to Los Angeles is proving to be a huge pain.
"Sketch" for the upcoming performance for Queer Thoughts at Material Art Fair 2016. Image coutesy of the artist.
Do you source everything for your installations online?
I would say pretty much everything. Puppies gets fan art off Etsy, anti bacterial gel or foam dispensers from restaurant supply companies, et cetera. Almost everything in our actual apartment that we use on a day-to-day basis is an artwork, meaning all of our dishes, our clothes, furniture, plants, sheets, et cetera are “Green Works.” A lot of them were included in this show at What Pipeline in which Puppies proposed to Puppies's partner.
That’s one of my favorite installations of yours.
Thanks so much! It was insane to live without a fair amount of our home for the duration of the show.
What's the function of labeling everyday, still-functional things and actions as artworks? Are they still readymade artworks when they're not in the context of the installation, and if so how does one relate to those items outside of that context?
I won't tell you what to think in this scenario, because that murkiness is very, very, very important to me. It was hard to navigate these feelings when installing the What Pipeline show. It was installed a certain way and stayed that way, but my crucial decision was saying that some things could be touched and used and some things couldn’t, which kind of killed the idea a bit, to be honest.
In reality, the way the dishes and clothes function in my home is how they should function in the gallery—plates should be eaten upon, clothes should be worn—but that didn't happen. It was too complicated to protect these things but also let them act as I think they should.
Installation view of "Green" at What Pipeline. Image courtesy of the artist and What Pipeline.
Are they still precious in the sense of being art objects?
I mean, yes, they're art because I've deemed them so, but some are more precious than others. My grandmother Toyoko's blue sake set from Japan was in the show and is one of the only things left of hers, but the plastic dishes my partner and I eat on are less valuable, in my opinion. This is how we all function in the world, I think. There’s a range of value within the group of objects we use on a day-to-day basis.
How do these concerns change when it comes to collectors?
It can be rough. Many of the pieces are open editions, which is funny because the unlimited quality is never really taken advantage of. It undermines the uniqueness, the scarcity, the preciousness [laughs].
That’s the fundamental challenge of readymades to the rest of art, in my opinion. Could someone buy a plate off eBay that looks like one you’ve used in an installation and have a bona-fide Puppies Puppies original?
That’s a very hard question. Many people need some sort of verification with the gallery that’s showing the work that this plate is truly a Puppies Puppies. At first Puppies said Puppies wouldn’t sign any artworks, because it makes them truly different from the other ones out in the world that simply function and aren’t deemed art. I've only signed one physical artwork on a portion that will fall off over time, so I don't think of it as actually being signed. That said, certificates have been requested in the past and I have created them for very particular artworks.
Is that verification a necessary part of the process of labeling these items as artworks? Or is it enough to just see that you used the same one for you to consider it part of your open edition?
I tend to think an object’s history plays into its value. From a collector’s standpoint, I probably want the dishes the artist and his partner ate off of rather than the ones that got ordered for me months after the show. I’m still trying to figure out if this history matters in relation to the actual value of the thing, or if in fact they are all the same and my sensitivity toward the history of an object can eventually be erased over time.
It seems like that history, the record of the touch of the artist’s hand, is still important, as in celebrity memorabilia.
Exactly! And Paramount Ranch is the first time I will be able to sell this memorabilia [the signed Kreuger sweater] and make the connection through artworks.
How did you get into this mode of art making in the first place?
I'm not entirely sure. I think I was just super angry about how unfair the world is, not solely from my perspective but just growing up and seeing how horrible things can be. I'm a lot less angry than I used to be, but maybe it goes into the art a little bit.
I think there is a certain aggression to the readymade as an artistic gesture. How did that anger translate into this kind of work? Were you ever making more traditional art, whatever that means?
No, never. I studied art history, and I couldn’t make a single thing by hand—I still can’t. My partner laughs at me when I try to make things, even if it’s just gluing something together.
That’s really interesting, because it seems to me that readymades are a deeply art-historical objects—they almost don’t make sense outside of that context, in a way that some paintings or sculptures still can.
They do make sense, but in a different way. There are a few objects/things I've used that ended up being confused for trash, such as a can of soda or an old insect laying on the ground that got crumpled up and almost thrown away. They may not make sense as art, but they make perfect sense as trash.
I try to use things that can be understood anywhere. I’m thinking about things like KFC, a lion mascot, all these cartoon characters, even the dispensers. I just edited a ton of footage filmed by COBRA of Puppies wandering around Tokyo in a chicken mascot costume as an advertisement for a show called KFC that I just finished at a space called XYZ Collective. Using a mascot costume in Tokyo was actually a form of camouflage. There are all these articles circulating about the abundance of mascots in Japan, to the point of having to discontinue or get rid of the excess costumes. It's somewhat normal there to be wearing one. Don’t get me wrong, it still gets people’s attention, but maybe not as much as you would imagine.
Anyway, I was passing out cards for the show and trying to hang out near a real KFC. The people who saw me looked happy but confused, but when they got the KFC card it all made sense. It didn't have to be contemplated anymore because the formula was complete—I was just an agent of KFC. All audiences matter to Puppies, so the fact that it clicked was good because the passersby could just accept the experience and not think of it as this bizarre art event.
Puppies advertising for his show "KFC" at XYZ Collective. Image courtesy of the artist and XYZ Collective.
What was your earliest experience with this kind of art?
My first art-making experience was having a rice necklace made that said my screen name on it. Do you remember that thing at the mall where they would draw your name on a single grain of rice? I thought it was genius to use my AOL screen name instead of my real name, which still obviously pertains to Puppies's work.
What was the screen name, just out of curiosity?
Oh God. There were endless screen names for every little mishap, but the one that stuck was burntramen89. I was so nervous on my first day of middle school that I put ramen in the microwave without water and started a small fire. It was a nightmare, but it seemed like the best screen name on the planet. I was probably about 12.
I definitely didn’t think the necklace was art at that time, but I think it’s the same mode of working and the same brain I have today for sure—just slightly more mature [laughs].
When did you start taking these kinds of actions seriously as art?
It started to get serious right before applying for college. I got a whiff of Joseph Kosuth and was like, “What the fuck? How did I not realize there was this conceptual shit going on that doesn’t require making as we know it?” I grew up in Texas, so a lot of things don’t quite make it past certain cultural barriers. It’s not so much the case today, but it definitely was when I was growing up.
Another event that sticks with me was a friend who was going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the time telling me that installation was an art form. I was like, “Okay, so if I make furniture out of tires outside, is this an installation even though the setting is infinite?” He said yes, and it completely blew my mind—all these doors opened.
It seems like you're still in the process of coming to terms with that freedom.
Yeah, it’s sometimes too much to handle. But there’s time!