Call Me Ishmael

“Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.”1

In May of 1961 the artist Piero Manzoni meticulously prepared ninety tins of Merda d’artista or “Artist’s Shit”. He weighed each tin to match precisely 30 grams, labeled and signed each one. In August of that year the tins were exhibited at the Galleria Peseta and priced according to the current equivalent price per weight of gold at that time. These pieces were a follow up to work where Manzoni thumb-printed hard boiled eggs and handed them out to the audience so they could “devour the artist”. Manzoni’s scatological artwork nearly 50 years later is a fitting commentary on western culture’s materialistic and disposable attitudes. The irony that anything ‘produced’ by an artist was worthy of purchase was a blatant reference to societies attitudes not only toward art, but consumption. In the 21st century consumption has reached a level well beyond Manzoni’s imaginings. Instead of bodily excretions and expelled breath, today’s empty consumption takes the form of entertainment; movies, TV and video games. With film the nourishment of the carefully packaged and contrived stars (actors) is what fuels the consumption. It is a mimicry of the time when kings and queens ruled Europe and the populace dulled the pain of their oppression by living vicariously through the overindulgent, flamboyant behavior of the very people’s lives their suffering supports. If you are a true artist-actor swimming in this pool of glazed-eyed, ignorant, petulant expression today, it must be maddening. Many a celebrity has found solace in drugs or suicide to escape the pressures of mass expectation in the past.

It is the isolation and pressure of a celebrity life that is the focus of I’m Still Here, the masterful performance piece by Joaquin Phoenix. In this faux documentary Phoenix bravely navigates the landscape of public expectations of celebrity and its human toll. His nearly 15 month long performance required the isolation and obsession of Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick. Like Ishmael’s turn to the sea in self exile, Phoenix leverages his formidable acting ability to expose a publics false ideas on celebrity. The brilliance of I’m Still Here is in its duality. Phoenix knows that to unmask the veil of tatemae in Hollywood he must pretend to be its victim, it’s sacrificial lamb. Revealing truth always comes with a price and I’m Still Here has exacted a toll on Phoenix and Affleck both in terms of the commitment required and the fact the film has not done well at the box office. To give up one’s life to pretending for such an extended time which required lying to nearly everyone close to you must have been an incredibly painful experience. It is one thing to play a character who satirizes for 20 minutes a day on screen as Stephen Colbert does and another to live in satire every day for over a year. Unquestionably Phoenix took a financial hit as well by walking away from film projects during his own performance and in turn potentially alienating people who controlled his future destiny in film making. That isn’t a trivial matter of money but of the ability of an artist to work as an artist.

I’m Still Here is one of the finest performance art pieces ever created. Combining the potency and mass appeal of films with the dialogue of celebrity worship, Phoenix was able to reach a much broader audience than even Marina Abramović’s, The Artist is Present. Phoenix demonstrates a very particular aspect of our culture that is the longing for a larger life. Entertainment and the celebrity around it have formed such a perfect foil for our own reality, we have lost ourselves in it, blinding us from participation in our own lives. We crave the superficiality and shininess of Hollywood because it provides a reality where anyone can attain greatness and success without credentials, education, social status or family lineage. Blame Shakespeare. The man who unintentionally molded great drama’s from the myths of history for crowds of common, working-class folk, he elevated acting to a metaphysical state that so enticed in its language and presence that it created a culture of wanton aspirations. That idea has grown into an enormous industry where actor’s are paid tens of millions of dollars per film and live like 17th century royalty.

Phoenix’s performance about a constructed reality feeds aspirants all the cliché and pap expected and then turns its back in laughter. By forcing the viewer to indulge in the faux drama of an actor’s decline, Phoenix and Affleck are asking us to look more closely at our own realities. I’m Still Here aims to shake loose our daily dream state where actors lives are more important than our own. It is as much a scolding film as an entertaining one. If forces us to realize, that in this Facebook world we really never know anyone, perhaps not even ourselves and we should be cautious to form judgement on those things we know little of. It asks us to be wary of the illusions created by those with the means to create whole worlds out of computer generated visuals. We laugh at Phoenix’s attempts in the film to break free of his own image and venture down another career path, that of a rapper called JP, but there is bitterness under the clownish behavior. Once you’re committed to hunting the great white whale, the obsession owns you and escaping from it is very difficult. Phoenix’s performance piece, hoaxumentary is both an artistic expression of the complexities and pratfalls of celebrity and celebrity worship, but a cathartic act where an actor brilliantly finds a way out of his own image and hopes to escape the weight of his brother’s death from the same.

I’m Still Here is on its surface a great joke, a prank played out on film, just like Manzoni’s cans of artist’s shit (which reportedly contain no such substance). It owes its greatest debt to Duchamp who found no separation between art and life as he pretended to abandon art-making for chess, all the while toiling away on Etant Donne. Duchamp understood fully the power of comedy in unmasking the falsehoods of dramatic constructs. As Duchamp spent years living modestly, and playing chess he toiled away at a masterful artwork which directly confronted the horrors of realism. Phoenix see’s our society for what it is — plastic, false and desperately grasping for substance. He wants to unravel reality TV and the psychodrama of Hollywood fantasies to force our confrontation of personal realities with greater vigor. The lives of performers like Britney Spears, however artificial on the surface are played out in the reality of their own daily lives. Her alcoholism and lack of substantive education, not to mention a historic lack of parental guidance is thrust against an even larger canvas of public spectacle and expectation. There are those with the constitution and intellect to survive this (Robert Downey Jr.) but many succumb, as did Joaquin’s brother River. The persistent airplay of Joaquin’s desperate 911 call attempting to save his brother’s life remain a persistent horror in Phoenix’s memory. He knows first hand the dangers of taking oneself too seriously and falling prey to the constructs of an industry built on professional lying. The pernicious and fickle expectations of an audience are built on fear and the public’s inability to realize the surreal portent of the actors they observe. It is Shakespeare’s most cynical of phrases “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.”2 that provides the arena for the oppressive irony of today’s so-called entertainment. It was intended as sophistry from the character Jacques in his heavy-handed and pretentious lecture on the Seven Ages of Man, but it has become the banner advertisement for a shallow, woeful culture that has no center, no soul. Phoenix and Affleck hope to use cinema as foil against itself, an irony against irony as the mundane, profane, ideological and spiritual have been used by Duchamp, Manzoni and Cattelan in their art. It is Francis Bacon’s statement “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” that rings true for Phoenix, for within mystery we find ourselves, threadbare and naked against the cosmos. In art irony comes with a predisposition to question its authority and give the viewer an almost preternatural disposition for introspection or dismissal with little in between. This disposition comes from our limited understanding of art as a vehicle for the delivery of creative expression and singular visions. It has a deep history that is sunken in our unconscious with roots going back tens of thousands of years. Film and photography hold no such sway as they’re historically infants. The nature of their medium is one that appears to mimic our own reality, at least in terms of its visual representations masking its true artistic underpinnings. Screenplays for the most part, are carefully constructed devices which build upon centuries of play acting. It is a collaborative effort built with collectives of people most of whom are intent on feeding a beast that will in turn provide profit to its backers. Artists like Cattelan and Phoenix/Affleck are interested in deconstructing our myths and fantasies in order to undermine the dream state that these models construct. They see the corruption at the heart of these devices and want to dismantle it to liberate us from its imprisonment. In a recent interview in Interview Magazine, Cattelan talks about the trap of money for the artist;

Part of the blame can be put at the artists’ door, too—no question. But I see our involvement more as a consequence. When there is too much money at stake, the whole system gets corrupted. Artists can be very vulnerable to these mechanisms...It’s in our nature. If you are a plumber, there is an objective way to establish whether you put together a great piping system or not. Art is a bit more slippery than that. So, when you fill a gallery with dirt and someone comes along waving wads of bills, it’s difficult not to take them because they become a tangible acknowledgement that what you’ve been doing actually makes sense. 3

The true irony of I’m Still Here is its honesty. The film is an incredible demonstration of what is expected of an artist in order to create something viable, that shakes loose the dominant paradigm. Phoenix gave up more than a year of his life to live a rouse. He lied to everyone outside his inner circle, including David Letterman, and put is actual career at risk. He sacrificed his own well-being both physically and psychologically in his tragicomic portrayal of himself. Where Cattelan can replace himself with actors and avoid the glaring eye of the masses (lets face it, fine art has a tiny audience in comparison to film) Phoenix, nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of another tragicomic figure, Johnny Cash had to endure the persistent ridicule and media blitz that came with his performance piece. Affleck has commented that the most challenging aspect of creating the performance was convincing Phoenix’s agent, Patrick Whitesell to green light the project. Casey Affleck told Whitesell, Phoenix (his prized client)planned to convince everyone he; “has lost his mind and make him as unattractive as possible, you would think he would have me killed immediately.” 4  It is precisely the honesty of the film that makes it difficult to watch and undoubtedly resulted in its poor box office numbers. The only true irony is that Phoenix will now have to spend a great deal of energy repairing an image he damaged in the name of his own art. The terror of I’m Still Here is the reality that Phoenix and Afflect choose to remain locked within the devices of the industry they have openly, brutally dismantled.

“Getting lost like that is my drive.”

—Joaquin Phoenix

1 Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851. Chapter 7, The Chapel, p. 36; Harper & Brothers publishers, NY, NY.
2 As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII [All the world's a stage] by William Shakespeare
4 The New York Times, September 16, 2010 by Michael Cieply, “Documentary? Better Call It Performance Art.