Photography by Joe Kramm. Nikolai (resting on Hairy J. Blige) and Simon Haas at their “Cool World” exhibition in New York City, surrounded by several mini beasts.
It’s a Friday morning in February, and Nikolai and Simon Haas are heading to the desert. Scheduled to fly to Portugal the following day, the fraternal twins, 30, are eager to locate a piece of land near California’s Joshua Tree National Park, known for its otherworldly rock formations and the freakish flora that grow in this region of the Mojave Desert. Commissioned by the Coachella music festival to create a massive sculpture, which they’ll keep afterward, the brothers want to find the perfect home for it rather than schlep it back to their Los Angeles studio.
“We can’t talk about the sculpture,” says Nikolai (Niki to friends). “But it’s gonna be huge and it’s awesome, and it’s gonna live in the desert, and we’ll build bungalows around it and live out there, too.”
It seems like the ideal landscape for the artistic duo, who have risen to art-star heights while pouring out biomorphic ceramics with gaping orifices, furry bestial benches with horns and reptilian bronze legs, and Day-Glo drawings of big-bottomed giraffes and hippopotami. After being “discovered” by actor Tobey Maguire, who commissioned their first furniture pieces, they’ve collaborated with Versace on a line that included embellished T-shirts and pillows; furnished Peter Marino’s Louis Vuitton Maison in Shanghai; created props and masks for a Lady Gaga video; and drawn pop culture “hieroglyphs” for the lobby of the new Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to enhance the excavated look of the design.
Last year, during the annual artistic ego-stroke-fest known as Design Miami/Basel, the brothers launched an installation, Advocates for the Sexual Outsider, that included a “sex room” in which visitors were urged to grope various sculpted genitalia and finger a leather vagina while looking down a long, reflective tube. It’s all part of their anti-shame approach to life and art: Reach out and grab it.
“If you’re not allowed to touch something, then it’s automatically assumed it’s more important than you, that it’s too important,” Simon explains. “I think that idea is gross — that a person or an object or an idea is untouchable. That’s how damaging social patterns stay in place, how art market patterns stay in place.”
The Haas brothers want you to grapple with the stuff that is glossed over out of politeness. In that way, they are surreal provocateurs in the vein of Salvador Dalí or Matthew Barney, unlocking the impish obsessions of the id. Both brothers are thrilled when their creations are compared to those of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, another L.A. institution, and Niki confesses to loving old Disney cartoons — “The Jungle Book as an art piece, top to bottom, is genius” — and the power such childlike media have to influence morals. A sense of play “kind of works on adults, too,” he says. It’s a reason they created an installation of glory holes with phalluses hanging out of them at the Tom of Finland Foundation. “It’s fun and shameless,” Simon explains. “Tom showed fantasies in a positive light, celebrated happiness. That’s definitely what we’re doing: using humor to talk about sex in a positive way.”
One of their first sexual pieces — a furry bench with brass “balls and a cock hanging out the back of it” — prompted a bet between the brothers to see who could get some stuffy San Francisco collector to fondle the scrotum first. Simon, who is gay, asked the men, and Niki, who is straight, asked the women.
“The guys, especially the gay guys, were less willing to do it,” Simon says. “It points out why male sexuality is underrepresented in art, because penises are assumed to be vulgar. Leaving any of this out of our work would be like if we were saying they are vulgar. So that’s what we focus on. But I don’t like how an artist will focus only on vaginas because that’s what they’re into. It’s why I pulled away from doing too many penises, although it’s in my head. And Niki sculpts tons of penises.”
Niki emphatically agrees. “Those body parts are the most beautiful parts of humans. They are fun and forbidden and taboo, so of course you’d want to engage with them. I don’t get to suck cock, but I sculpt dicks all day.” Although they spend countless hours crafting their art pieces — they estimate that a one-of-a-kind “testicular hammock” took 6,000 hours of hand sewing — the duo try not to treat any of them as overly precious, since to fetishize the objects would be dangerous. “We want everyone to touch our shit, or to laugh at it, or to hate it,” Niki says. “We don’t care.”