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We Talked to John Waters About Facelifts, 'Kiddie Flamingos,' and His New Art Show

The legendary director opens up about 'Beverly Hills John,' his new art show in NYC.
January 8, 2015, 6:30pm
John Waters, Beverly Hills John, 2012. C-print. Image 30 x 20 inches. Framed: 36 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches 92.7 x 67.3 cm. Edition of 5. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York © John Waters

Does a body or body of work need a little sprucing up every once in awhile to remain appealing and ready-to-consume? Is constant reinvention necessary to maintain notoriety? Artist and film director John Waters, who is known for such diverse cult classics as Pink Flamingos (1972), Hairspray (1988), and Cry-Baby (1990), and who has put on more than 50 solo art shows around the world, now wonders what he has to do to keep his art fresh. With his latest project, Waters asks, “Since I haven’t made a film in ten years, must I give my entire life’s work a facelift? Now that celebrity is the only obscenity left in the art world, where do I fit in?”

For Beverly Hills John, opening Friday January 9th at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, Waters reimagines himself as a Beverly Hills specimen, replete with buxom, botoxed lips and cheeks, tight-stretched and wrinkle-free skin, and an expression only a surgeon could love. His mustache remains. This disturbing, wax-like photo rendering serves as host to a series of photographs and sculptures with which Waters pokes fun at his own vulnerability, provokes debate about the definition of a classic, and encourages upheaval in the wreckage of the past.

John Waters, Mom and Dad, 2014. 3 C-prints. Image size 6 3/8 x 10 in. Framed size 13 1/8 x 16 1/2 inches. Edition of 5. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York © John Waters

Waters’ work has often explored the idiosyncrasies of stardom, highlighting the lunacy existing in that business and beyond. Nothing is sacred. Waters’ own battles with growing older are fodder for art and humor, as he postpones his participation in what he views as the possibly inevitable looming threat of a Beverly Hills planet, where everyone is filler and nobody grows old.

In the main gallery, Waters will premiere a 74-minute filmed table reading of Kiddie Flamingos, a new, baby-proofed edit of his filthy cult classic, reimagined for and read by an all-child cast. He hopes that this further perversion of the film—“defanged and desexualized,” as he calls it—will stand as a new art piece, “even more perverse than the original, transferring innocence into a new, joyous, G-rated obscenity.”

We called John Waters to talk about facelifts, the fake child he keeps in his bedroom, and what we can expect from Beverly Hills John.

Library Science #8, 2014. 2 C-prints. Image Size: 6 x 7 1/2 inches. Framed size 12 1/2 x 14 inches. Edition of 5. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York © John Waters

The Creators Project: What sparked the concept behind this new show?

John Waters: I’m jokingly calling it Beverly Hills John. I don’t live in Beverly Hills, and I hope I don’t end up looking like that, but you never know. You have to be extreme. But also in the show, there’s Lassie with a facelift and Justin Bieber with a facelift, and I’m just thinking that maybe everyone will get one and maybe everyone in the whole country will look exactly the same, like they do in Beverly Hills where it doesn’t look weird anymore because everyone looks like that. It must be the same doctors because everyone looks the same. And they succeed. They don’t look old.

No, they don’t look old, but they don’t look exactly human either…

No that’s what I’m saying; it’s a science fiction race, but still I guess they’re happy with that. Anything but old.

So your version of a facelift is an art show?

Yes, I think so. I have a tabloid that’s designed for intellectuals, which is a facelift of something. I have many, many pieces that deal with body issues, like slang that’s no longer alive, like “chicken”; or the fact that men, and all young people, shave everywhere now. So, I’m dealing with that. I even have one picture that’s a diagram of what a crab looks like, because I feel sorry for them. They’re an endangered species, and nobody ever holds a charity event for the crabs. And where can they go anymore? Really there’s nowhere left. So maybe there should be new ribbons this year at the Oscars that are about crabs becoming extinct. I’m paying tribute to all the traditions of show business and the art world, but hopefully mocking things I love.

Would you say Beverly Hills John showcases you more personally than your previous shows?

I’ve done other self portraits. In this show I’m a dog catcher because he’s the most hated person in Provincetown, where I live in the summer, and I was always trying to kind of nostalgically yearn for when everybody hated all my films and everything. One year I was the town crier, which is another extreme personality in Provincetown that I have cross-dressed as. I would never think of going in drag but I would get dressed as the town crier, which seems more radical to me than that. The most radical event was going over to his little apartment and borrowing his outfit. I really felt perverse getting dressed as the town crier that morning.

Speaking of perverse… Friday’s show will feature a kiddie remake of Pink Flamingos?

Yes, and I very much consider it a conceptual art piece. It’s a 74-minute table read of children—I rewrote the script of Pink Flamingos to make it G-rated. I took everything out, but really it’s the same script. It’s just a battle of filth, but there’s no sex or violence. So if you know the movie, it’s even more perverse. It’s this dirty little secret that the audience and my fans have, but the innocence of the children is kind of touching because they have no idea what the real movie is really like. I had the little cast screening for it the other night, and they were great watching it. They were laughing and they would put their hands over their ears anytime they had to say anything about “I love you” or something. That was their obscenity.

I’m interested in how you reimagined it for children. There are a few notorious scenes in that film.

Well, tell me one and I’ll tell you how.

What did you replace the castration scene with?

Well, that’s at the end. They don’t kidnap women off the street and get them pregnant; they kidnap talking baby dolls from rich parents of spoiled children’s cars. So, the talking baby dolls do not castrate him, but they attack him at the end. But it’s off-screen, just like it was in the movie.

What about the last shot of the movie?

That you’re gonna have to see. That I won’t tell you. But I think we handled it very well. I got the idea because I always look at children’s best seller lists, and so many of them are about gross things. So, I thought, well, children always liked Divine, they just thought he was a clown. So if you take out the sex and you take out the violence, Pink Flamingos is a children’s film, almost. It’s the battle of grossness.

You’re taking your contribution to subversive culture and repackaging it for kids. It must have been fun to try to sneak these veiled obscenities into a script for children.

But I became my own worst enemy. I became my strictest censor. It’s more fun knowing when a scene is coming up, and what that scene is and you can go oh God, these poor children… And they don’t know, of course, but they say things that no child would ever say, like “Come receive what you were promised in the holy gift of matrimony.” What child would ever say that?

Do you have any children in your life that you’re close to?

All kids get along with me! When I’m sitting in an airport, children will walk away from their parents and approach me with their arms outstretched. I have to be careful! I’m afraid people will think I’ve lured the child over there or something. I get along fine with kids. They always start laughing when they see me. But I don’t want one. I did have a fake child named Bill that I had made, and he was my Christmas card a few years ago, and it was by these women… You have to pretend you’re adopting it and it takes nine months and I ordered an angry baby with bad hair. And I do have a piece in this show called Bill’s Stroller. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet.

Not yet.

[cackling] Oh you’ll see it.

What is Bill made out of?

Oh, Bill the doll? Bill’s not in the stroller. He’s home. He’s never allowed to leave.

He looks real?

He looks very real. Scarily real.

What kind of use does Bill get now?

None. He just sits in my room, I told you. He knows not to cry because no one will ever come. Once a year he has a little santa outfit we put on him for Christmas, but that’s it. He’s not allowed toys. He just sits there, clutching this book called Children Who Hate that somebody got him for Christmas.

That sounds like a terrifying thing to have in your bedroom.

My mother always hated Bill. “Get that thing out of your room!” she’d say, because it looks like it’s looking at you when you look out of the corner of your eye.

You said that Beverly Hills John is your facelift because you haven’t made a movie in 10 years—

I’ve been doing stuff for 50 years, so basically, you always have to reinvent yourself. It is certainly a joke on that. It’s all based on some kind of insider information, whether it be about the film business or the art business, but I’ve always made fun of things that I love, and I think you can tell that. I’m always in a good mood, even if I’m criticizing something.

So this show is a critique of the business that you love.

No, it’s a celebration of the art business and the film business, of what you have to do to constantly change yourself and celebrate yourself. And what do you have to do to become classic? Are you a classic novel until there is a porn parody? I don’t think so. I’ll take influences from childhood, or anything that made me who I am today; a picture that was once famous, altered and wrecked, because I think that contemporary art’s job is always to wreck things but to wreck them with good spirit.

Do you have a favorite piece, or something you’re most excited to premiere in this show?

Favorite piece? Well, you know the show to me is one whole thing, but I think certainly I’m excited… I have a piece called Stolen Jean Genet. Actually, Jean Genet’s original gravestone was only up for a week and somebody stole part of it, and it’s never been recovered. So I’m saying that we stole it and we have it and you can buy it; which is exactly what Jean Genet would like—the trail. And it does look exactly like the one that’s been missing. No one’s even looking for it anymore, and nobody every found out what happened to it, so I’m excited for that because a real gravemaker made it and everything, and we really tried to make it exactly like the original. I love the idea of stealing John Genet’s grave. I wish somebody would steal his body and bury it next to me once I’m dead. Because I bought a plot next to me that’s empty.

Just for that reason?

Yes!

That’s a morbid joke, but it’s very funny.

Oh no, it’s not a joke. Necrophilia is only the fear of performance.

Beverly Hills John will be on display from January 9 through February 14, 2015 at Marianne Boesky Gallery, 509 W. 24th St. New York, NY.

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