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The Roof Is On Fire

Close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and lets go on a guided journey. Presently, youre walking up a disused stairwell in a ramshackle industrial building, and youve stepped onto the rooftop. Pause for a moment to take in the Manhattan skyline. A suspicious-looking security guard -- is he cruising you? -- escorts you into a small storage space hidden off to the side. He leads you into the room, and abruptly closes the door. As your vision adjusts to the darkness, you notice balled-up 2(x)ist briefs at your feet, smeared with crusty yellow splotches, teeming with what appear to be gold-tinted turds. American Spirit cigarettes are squashed dismissively into sooty black sand. In the center of the room, a sourly glowing tanning booth rattles unappetizingly at you. You begin to open it, but the security guard suddenly throws open the door and gives you a wary look. Is he cruising you? Meanwhile, a haunting chorus is blasting from nowhere to the ears, a witchy hymn repeating over and over again: Musicians play songs and the writers must write / The lover must practice his art in the night / Some paint and some garden, but whatever you do / Youll do it much better by mornings dew. Is it a rare Britney B-side? Pondering this, you come to realize that the strange apparatus youve been staring at, the one with brown-flecked industrial hoses slithering down into the soiled 2(x)ist briefs, is an old-fashioned colonic irrigation machine. No, you havent stumbled into the subconscious mind of a strung-out leather queen recovering from a weekend at the Pines. Youre on the rooftop of X, a non-profit art organization in Chelsea, checking out Light Chamber (Part 2), the latest installation by Christian Holstad, whose work involves taking cultural detritus from outmoded gay subcultures and placing them in more mainstream, commercialized contexts. (One of his recent exhibits, Leather Beach, transformed a shuttered midtown bodega into a decrepit S&M dungeon). Although he doesnt like to meet up for interviews or talk via telephone (Print is permanent and grows like a plague, he explains), he let us throw him a few questions by email. Below, we ask him about his working process, his taste for 2(x)ist briefs, and, chiefly, What The Hell? Out: Your last installation was inspired by dank leather dungeons; this one feels more like the apocalyptic remains of a high-end spa. What gives? Christian Holstad: This latest installment of Light Chamber has abandoned the leather clubs. I want this space to become a fictitious place where outcasts of all sorts can converge, fester, mutate and gain strength. Would you really like to see people gathering here, hanging out, planning some sort of cultural revolution and warming their hands on the tanning bed? Yes, and I think they do. At least their emails and letters tell me as much. But because of the volume of the music in here, I would imagine its a rather non-verbal meeting. Are you willing to speak about your own intentions with the piece? Ill speak a bit, but I love what the viewer brings to it. I would like for my work to be a fantasy breeding ground. I was really spooked -- in a good way -- during the whole installation process. The last time I spent any real time on a roof, I was watching the planes colliding with the World Trade Center. Can you tell me about your artistic process? Do you have an overall idea of what youre going for before you set to work, or are you constantly surprising yourself as you go? I like to make pies. The trick of the crust is to not let the fat melt at all. To do this, you have to use your hands as little as possible. I made chicken pot-pie yesterday. I thought about how making art is similar. If your ego gets too involved, the piece becomes overworked. I try to convince certain voices in my head to do something else while I work. Exactly what kind of feelings are you trying to evoke in your viewers? I really try to put the viewer in the mind frame that they have entered a space where something has, or is, happening. I love the look of a parade or a party when everyones gone. I like to sift through the evidence of what took place there. Its dirty and shiny and honest. Why are there American Spirit cigarettes smashed out all over the floor? Is this a nod to our Native American brothers? I love voodoo. In that religion, everything is adopted and transformed. I used the American Spirit cigarettes for the name, and also because theyre allegedly natural. The tanning bed? The tanning bed is being used to practice an odd form of sun worship. I bought it online. It was originally meant for weight-lifters: its a lot wider than the average booth. Its been through a great deal, and while remaking it, I cracked the plexi-glass. I used duct tape to fix it. I decided to do this for two reasons. One: In Japan, they fill cracked ceramics with gold the results are quite beautiful. And two: it reminds me of friends who fix fancy cell phones. The tanning bed is now a huge version of this. Youve used 2(x)ist briefs in several different pieces. Whats with this particular personal fetish? The 2(x)ist underwear is a constant for me now. First of all, I like the name. It makes me think of people who go to survival camps. Also, this brand was originally targeted to gay men and was soon co-opted by straight buyers. I heard that the cut of the design was to make your package seem bigger. 2(x)ist I think about what we actually need in order to exist. I am certain this brand of underwear isnt featured on the survivalist guide website. The materials youve put on the wall make the room feel like a fall-out bunker. There are sandbags from an Army Surplus store -- some sandbags are made to look like monstrous chamomile tea bags. Is this a comment on the commercialization of what organic means? A satire of the New Age? I was thinking about how militaristic the healthy-minded can be. I have learned to laugh at the commercial aspects of our culture as a defense mechanism. Otherwise, I would be angry all the time. The New Age movement has great beauty. The New Wage movement will rationalize our unnecessary demise. Tell me about creating the handmade colonic machine. How did that come about? I dreamt that I made a colonic irrigation system as an art work. When I woke up, I thought about it, and it seemed to make a lot of sense. At one point in time, we would have all worshiped the sun, land, water. I believe the longing for this never goes away, no matter how disconnected we become from those instincts. In psychology, Ive been told that if an emotion doesnt come out in its original form, it mutates until it finds a way out. As I said before, Im interested in the mutations. I see my colonic system as a place where people can reconnect with the foods they eat. I thought of the tubes as a filmstrip of your insides. In alchemy, feces and gold are often seen as one. In Jungian terms, you have to dig through a lot of your own shit to find the gold. How did you create the piss and feces, if youd be willing to say? Depends on which piece. Why did you choose the Alicia Bay Laurel Song? It definitely adds a haunting, vampiric vibe to the proceedings. I really like that song, actually; I think its sincere and sweet. Once in a while, youll hear one of the singers laugh. Its very subtle but it speaks volumes to me. They didnt take life too seriously. I think its possible to create something with all your heart, and still make fun of yourself. Light Chamber (Part 2) runs through the end of May at X Initiative, 548 West 22nd Street, 917-697-4886, www.x-initiative.orgSend a letter to the editor about this article.
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