50 Questions With John Waters

  • TextMiss Rosen

Ahead of his first art retrospective in Baltimore, opening this weekend, Another Man directs 50 questions to the Pope of Trash and the Baron of Bad Taste

John Waters is a master of paradox, bridging the divide between seeming opposition with love, wit, and nerve. At 72, the Pope of Trash continues to storm the world with Indecent Exposure, his first art retrospective opening October 7 at the Baltimore Museum of Art in America and, on this side of the pond, with This Filthy World, his one-man show headlining Homotopia at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on November 10.

Indecent Exposure features more than 160 photographs, sculptures, soundworks, and video made since the 1990s around themes including pop culture, the movie business, childhood and identity, self-portraits, sex and transgression, and contemporary art. Here, sacred cows are led to the slaughter, tenderised, and barbecued by a loving heart that embraces the absurd in every element of the work.

With 16 films and eight books under his belt, Waters brings his love for writing and editing to the visual realm and discovered that the “perfect moments” are often accidental and failed. “What works best in the art world is sometimes what works the opposite of perfect in the movie world,” Waters reveals. “In the movie world it has to be in focus, you have to hit your mark, it has to be lit well, which is what I want. In the art world, I make mistakes as I learn. The low tech, catch-as-you-can photography that I do is failed photographing in the beginning of fine art photography.”

Waters brings this same spirit to the spoken word, a practice that he began in the late 1960s when he and Divine first began showing films at colleges. Over the years, Waters has transformed what began as a vaudeville skit into a perfectly honed monologue, tailored to the time and place of his performance – while maintaining his fascination with true crime, fashion gone wild, art world extremism, and exploitation films in a joyous celebration of trashy goodness. Here, Another Man directs 50 questions to this countercultural icon; the Pope of Trash and the Baron of Bad Taste

1. What is the first piece of art you ever created?

When I was 12 and 13, I wanted to be a beatnik artist so I made sculptures that ripped off Edward Kienholz assemblages and Marisol.

2. How would you introduce this exhibition?

I would begin by asking the question, ‘Can art be good and funny?’ It can always be witty, but can it be funny?

3. Where do you go to get inspired?

I am inspired every time I walk out of the house. I am inspired by human beings. I could sit in an airport and make up biographies of every person as they walk off a plane. In the art world, I keep up. I go to galleries and read magazines. I like to participate.

4. Where do you go to create?

I have separate places where I pick up different things. If I am writing, I have a writing room in my house. If I am creating art, I have a studio outside my house.

5. When did you feel like you made it?

The first time Pink Flamingos played in New York after it had played other places in the world. I went the second weekend, and there was a line around the block from word of mouth.

6. What is the happiest accident you ever had making art?

I have a piece in the show called Wicked Glinda. It’s the middle of the fade between the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch, when they become one, and that was an accident.

7. What makes a self-portrait work?

Humour about one’s self and their image.

8. Are you a tidy person or a messy person?

Closer to tidy but my cleaning lady might not agree.

9. What do you collect?

Books and art: I have an amazing library of 9,000 books in my three different homes and I have art all over my whole house, everywhere.

10. What’s your favourite thing about the tabloids?

The headlines and the writing them. No tabloid headline could ever beat the one in the New York Post when Ike Turner died, it said, ‘Ike Beats Tina to Death’.

11. How would you define ‘bad taste’?

Real bad taste is people with no irony trying to advertise their wealth.

12. How would you define ‘glamour’?

Glamour is self-confidence with an extreme style that others do not agree with.

13. What’s your favourite thing about the contemporary art world?

The elitism and the impenetrable language.

14. What’s your least favourite thing about the contemporary art world?

The elitism and the impenetrable language [laughs].

15. What art jargon do you find most offensive?

The most overused word is ‘rigorous’.

“What is your favourite moment in art history? When Yves Klein had that art opening when he introduced the colour Yves Klein Blue. He gave everyone blue drinks and the next morning they all peed that colour”

16. Which artists have had the biggest impact on you?

Duchamp, Warhol, and Mike Kelley.

17. In your opinion, what is the greatest artwork ever made?

The greatest artwork that I want to steal is by Mike Kelley, some old empty boxes with some cat toys and a sympathy card from a veterinarian that your cat died.

18. What is your favourite moment in art history?

When Yves Klein had that art opening when he introduced the colour Yves Klein Blue. He gave everyone blue drinks and the next morning they all peed that colour.

19. What was the best part of working with Colin de Land?

His incredible knowledge and confidence about the art world, and his effortless coolness.

20. What’s the last exhibition you went to?

It was a show that Jack Pierson curated at the Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown.

21. What’s the last thing you took a photo of?

I take a picture of everyone that comes into my home. It used to be a Polaroid and now it’s a Fuji camera. So it was yesterday.

22. What makes a great photograph?

A memory that can never be duplicated.

23. What’s your most treasured possession?

My health, and my friends and family. Such a square answer, but it’s true.

24. What’s your favourite thing about Baltimore?

The sense of humour – and it’s near to an airport and train station.

25. If we came to Baltimore, where should we go?

The Club Charles, which has always been the hipster bar here for 30 to 40 years.

“What’s the greatest compliment you have ever received? I always say read the good reviews once, the bad reviews twice, put them all away and never look at them again”

26. Who is your ultimate muse?

The Infant Jesus of Prague, the Catholic Saint who told his followers, ‘The more you honour me, the more I will bless you.’

27. What was your favourite thing about Divine?

His kindness and his generosity.

28. What’s your fondest memory of him?

He really loved Christmas, so seeing him really happy in one of his great homes with all of the great food that he loved to make that eventually killed him.

29. What are you most proud of?

Friends I have kept for 50 years. I think that’s a sign of success in anyone’s life.

30. What’s the greatest compliment you have ever received?

I always say read the good reviews once, the bad reviews twice, put them all away and never look at them again.

31. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

That a ‘no’ is free, don’t fear for asking.

32. If you could go back in time and say one thing to your 13-year-old self, what would you say?

You’ll have more hair than you do next year.

33. If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?

Jean Genet. He’d probably steal something so I’d have to watch him.

34. Which criminal fascinates you most?

My days of being fascinated by criminals is over, and it’s moved into trying to help the ones that are truly sorry and want a second chance.

35. Who is the most rebellious person alive?

I’m afraid to name them because they are probably people that I hate politically.

“If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose? Jean Genet. He’d probably steal something so I’d have to watch him”

36. Who is your favourite poet?

John Ashbery.

37. What is your favorite part of doing spoken word?

Meeting the audience, and the paycheck.

38. How would you describe Homotopia?

I’ve been once and it was a great festival of very hip gay people who don’t rest on their gayness. They know gay is not enough so they try to go to the next level of confrontation and humour.

39. What is your favourite thing about being on stage?

I get to tour the world and meet my audience, and I have the coolest audience in the world – and they dress great.

40. If you were president for a day, what would you do?

That’s in my show so you are going to have to come and hear that.

41. If you could do anything else with your life, what would you do?

I would have been a criminal defense lawyer.

42. What book can you read again and again and again?

A Confederacy of Dunces always makes you laugh?

43. What song would you lip-sync for your life to?

That’s in my new book. I can’t tell you that one.

44. What’s the scariest film you’ve ever watched?

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre certainly holds its place.

45. What’s your greatest fear?

I wouldn’t tell you because someone could use it against me.

“What are you thankful for? My health and my family. And Lana Del Rey”

46. Do you believe in ghosts?

No. Wasn’t it Joy Williams who said, ‘The dead soon forget you?’

47. Do you believe in aliens?

I wish I did. Maybe. There could be, definitely.

48. Do you believe in God?

I believe in the goodness of people. That’s about as spiritual as I get.

49. What are you thankful for?

My health and my family. And Lana Del Rey.

50. What makes a legend most?

Someone that doesn’t believe in their own publicity and thinks in a new way that startles people.

Indecent Exposure is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through January 6, 2019.