One of the images made out of crystal meth and Zefrey Throwell's father's ashes. All images courtesy of the artist.
Knowing how to deal with the loss of a loved one is tricky. And while having your deceased relative turned into a diamond to forever adorn your mantelpiece might seem like the pinnacle of remembrance, I think we can all agree that you're more likely to recall someone fondly if you have them cremated, smash the remaining bits of their skull into a powder, mix that with crystal meth and turn the concoction into a piece of art that both honours their memory and makes a thought-provoking statement on drug addiction.
That entire process is just what American artist Zefrey Throwell did with his latest project, "Panic in the Chalk Cave", a kind of flowery epitaph for his father who died from a drug overdose seven years ago. Zefrey's back catalogue of work also includes having a number of people play strip poker in New York's financial district to highlight the injustices of big money banker culture (weirdly, a week or so before Occupy sprung up just round the corner) and pissing a load of people off in New York's Whitney art museum. He seemed like a fun guy, so I thought I'd call him up to talk about his work.
Zefrey having fun behind the wheel.
VICE: Hey Zefrey. So how do you go about turning human ashes and crystal meth into a piece of art?
Zefrey Throwell: It’s very similar to the silkscreen process. First, I took my father’s ashes. But ash comes in big chunks – there was a femur and a jaw and all these things that didn’t break down real small when they burnt him, so I had to take a mortar and pestle to mash them up. I mixed that with meth and then I silk-screened white paint on the white canvas, so when I sieved that mixture onto the canvas it stuck to where the paint was wet.
Why did you pick the specific portraits you used?
I wanted to show him through the whole spectrum of his life. My father lived a crazy, crazy life, but I really wanted to show every side of him. The portraits span from him as a seven-year-old until he died from an overdose at 59. He dropped out of school at 15 and was a drug addict by 20, living young and free in San Francisco, so there's some of that. Then there's one of him when he first met my mother and one of him holding me in one of the rare times he was actually there. And the rest are of him as a biker in the 70s and 80s, some from when he started going downhill health-wise and one an hour before he died.
I'm guessing you had had a pretty strained relationship with him – was the project a cathartic way to work through that?
Yeah, he was a tough man to get along with – he was very violent and wild. I didn't see him much when I was younger, but I started visiting him as a teenager. I remember liking him then because he was crazy; he used to take me to whorehouses and bought me a switchblade when I was, like, 12. So I remember thinking, 'Jeez, this guy is way more fun than Mum!' But then he started fucking up more when I was in my late teens and early twenties, like not showing up to birthdays and stuff.
Yeah, I can see the pros and cons in that.
Yeah. I thought I was OK with it for years after he died, but then about five years in some weird emotional shit started to happen. I'd be at a party and start randomly crying, so I had to do a lot of work around that to figure out what the fuck was happening in my life and why I was having these breakdowns. But it was definitely very therapeutic.
How much meth did you use in the work?
There are two questions I won’t answer. The first is, "Where did you get the meth?" Everyone asks that, which is weird because it's not that hard to get meth. The second is the one you just asked. I put some in, but it's mostly ash.
Could you get high off one of your paintings?
Well, that depends on your tolerance. You’d have to smoke a lot of my dad first.
Could you get done for possession for carrying one of your pieces around?
That’s a good question. One of my favourite elements of this show was that, shipping the paintings into Germany, the drugs weren't a problem but the ashes were. There are really specific laws about how you handle human remains after World War II. They were like, "Ah, drugs – whatever," but the ash was a problem. However, the entire focus in the States has been the fact that there's meth in them. That cultural difference is interesting.
How long did your dad battle with meth addiction?
He was a heroin addict when he was younger, then a methadone addict for years and years. He'd been a drug addict since he was 15, but he got into meth in the last ten to 15 years of his life. You have to consider when meth spread through the US – it was mainly through the mid-to-late 90s.
So is this body of work more of a eulogy for your dad or a commentary on drug addiction?
That’s a good question. I think it's a way to show the full arch of drug addiction, instead of, like, a parent or a cop or a teacher telling kids, "Don't do drugs!" Kids don't listen to that. I think it's particularly effective for teenagers who are at that age where they're thinking, 'Should I smoke that meth?' I think seeing the pictures laid out like that, rather than in an authoritative way, is a good way to let people draw their own conclusions.
Yeah. It definitely takes a lot more of a neutral stance than other modern media dealing with meth, like Breaking Bad or most of the Hollywood films that have either glamourised it or gone overboard on its effects.
It's funny – when I made the first series, people were all like, "Oh my god! Have you seen Breaking Bad?" And I hadn't at that point, but then I watched it and, having been a drug addict for years and years – I've been sober for eight years now, my dad died from it and my sister's all spun out in northern California at the moment – it seemed a little too cheeky and jovial to me. Because in reality it gets really fucking twisted. Have you seen Winter's Bone?
No, I haven’t.
It’s a lot more accurate than Breaking Bad. Seeing Winter's Bone, I was like, 'Jesus Christ, this feels like watching a family documentary.'
You made a short film about crystal meth for the exhibition as well, right?
Yeah, the movie is about two kids who fall in love, become addicted to meth and try to time-travel through simultaneous orgasm. The time-travel isn't that Hollywood, Back to the Future kind of thing, it's more time-travel where you black out for three weeks, wake up and have no idea what happened – where all your money went, where you are, etc, etc – the kind of time-travel that's relative to what's happening. So it's a story of two kids trying to control that.
Time Stau by Zefrey Throwell.
Simultaneous orgasm? How did you come up with that?
It just seemed appealing. Simultaneous orgasms are fairly rare – in my case, at least – but when they happen perfectly, it really is an overly different moment. There's that feeling of timelessness for that 30 seconds, or whatever, that it lasts for. I want to take that precious, invaluable moment and extrapolate it to, "What if you could time-travel through doing that?"
Have you tried?
I think time-travel is a relative thing. It’s not like going back in time, it’s mostly experiencing time move forward but at a varied pace – the experiential feeling of time. If you experience two hours in a minute, I consider that time-travel.
For your Ocularpation: Wall Street piece, you had a bunch of people play strip poker near the New York stock exchange. Which piece drew more criticism – that or Chalk Cave?
Probably that one. New York is very conservative – it’s one of the few places in the world that, if somebody gets shot in the street in front of you, it’s just another day, but if someone takes their clothes off in the street, it’s like, “HOLY SHIT! Call the cops!”
The timing of it was pretty amazing – like five or six weeks before Occupy set up in Zuccotti. Do you know if your work inspired them at all?
I was working on that project for years, then when Occupy happened the media drew a lot of attention to it, which was great because nobody was really talking about financial reform at the time. Secretely bankers were back to their massive bonuses and the news weren't speaking about it at all. My main focus was to bring America and the world's attention to what was happening and it worked; about a week after the performance, these guys contacted me and were like, "We're putting together a protest on Wall Street and we'd really like you to help us." So I did.
Do you feel deflated by its relative lack of success at all?
I think Occupy showed people that revolution can happen – that it's possible for something to occur. Before Occupy, people didn't think any of that was possible. I think younger kids are taught that capitalism is the only system possible, that it’s divinely given because it’s the only system that works. But that’s just not true, and I think that Occupy pointed that out in a very concrete way, so I think we’ll see new movements later on.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
I have a project coming up at the Venice Biennale called The Croatian Architectural Reclamation Project. Venice was built using large trees as piles to bolster a town constructed on small islands surrounded by marshes. Many of these trees were taken from forests in Croatia and were used as a means of keeping Venice from sinking. Today, there’s a giant sea wall, MOSE, being built to protect Venice from floods, which is being built out of a mountain taken from Croatia. CARP will be a team of Croatian artists and myself who will visit Venice and reclaim stone and wood that rightfully belongs to Croatia, load these materials upon a boat and bring them back.
Check out more of Zefrey’s work on his website.
Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr
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