Seductive Darkness: An Interview with Dean Sameshima
California born, Berlin based artist Dean Sameshima makes work that is simultaneously ghostly and living. Drawing on moments that he fears may be lost if not captured and thereby instilling them with new breath and a critical re-appropriation that is sharp and yet loving. I was surprised when he said that he doesn’t consider himself to be an optimistic person, because I find a raw hopefulness in his work, which on reflection may be due to his perceived lack of optimism. Either way, his work is beautiful, it draws in moments from queer history, punk aesthetics, an investigation of space (cruising areas, empty beds), and a seductive darkness that’s hypnotic and intoxicating.
FZ: When I look at your work there are certain words and themes that begin to feel apparent. There’s something happening to do with the past, about understanding things, trying to make sense of things that are gone; in a way maybe you’re trying to make sure that certain things aren’t lost. When I was making notes, I wrote down the word nostalgia. To me, that word these days has a very loaded feel to it, and I don’t think it would do your work justice … However there is a strong trace of the past in your work and I wondered if you could discuss that a little bit? It feels like some of it is celebratory of forgotten or perhaps overlooked aspects of queer history, but then there’s always something else going on, a really interesting re-appropriation or something. I guess I’m asking about the role of specific references to the past in your work.
Yes I have always had an interest in parts of gay history that seem overlooked, as well as on the verge of forgotten and especially that which was ignored. One of my first bodies of work, Wonderland series, was such an important body of work for me. It was a breakthrough series for me as an artist. I was putting something deemed shameful out there and giving it some dignity. Bringing something from the darkness to light. Bath houses, public cruising and sex clubs aren’t as popular today as they were pre-internet and especially pre-AIDS. I felt the need/urge to document this stuff, and this was before I knew what kind of impact computers would have, before it all started to disappear. I don’t mind the word nostalgia and I am not sure why people think it is such a bad think in art work. I no longer care much what others think. My work is very steeped in nostalgia. To me, the past was just so much more interesting.
Appropriation is something I started to do in undergraduate school as well and it worked well for me because I was (and still am) a super shy person and I wanted to start to bring actual people into my work, actual bodies. Because in the beginning, my work was empty of people. I never wanted to put a demographic stamp on the sites I was photographing. The only real traces were from the tea-room drawings and texts I rephotographed from the walls of public toilets. I thought maybe it was time I start showing people what I was expecting to find in these spaces. Also, at the time I was really into fashion magazines and models, so I guess I was trying to combine these two areas of interest for me and trying to make them fit, trying to make sense of the two and how they shaped my desires.
FZ: I like what you say about looking back on things and wanting to give them dignity – that celebration is really prevalent in your work. It’s like shining sunlight on something that some people had previously forced into the darkness. Things can be forgotten easily, and it feels like your work fights against that. But of course part of that looking back is unavoidably sad, because things are gone, things become lost. Often one of the most haunting things in your work are the things that aren’t there – photographs of places that may have been used as cruising but that now seem deserted, photographs of empty beds (like in your In Between Days (Without You) series), closed down sex places in daylight – the people and events that are evoked from these images are conspicuous by their absence. It feels like some of your work attempts to use sadness and turn it inside out – mine difficult times and experiences and force some kind of beauty our of them. I might not be making sense, but it feels like an overriding sensibility of your work is hopefulness. Can you talk a little about that? Are you naturally optimistic? What things make you feel happy?
I don’t think I ever thought much about sadness as a theme or something that propelled me… maybe more fear than sadness. Maybe they are linked? Like the sex clubs. I photographed them while they were still opened for business, they just happened to close down few years after my series was complete. but I feared this might happen and what would happen once they closed? What safe place would we have then? Back to the streets? The parks? Tea rooms? All these uncontrolled and potentially violent spaces. So the fear of losing something (I found lots of value in), was perhaps a strong emotion for me. i am not a naturally optimistic person at all.
FZ: I’m interested to hear about your teenage years. Your work is sympathetic and loyal to several different subcultures – punks, queers, goths. What pieces of art (in whatever medium, music, sculpture, books, anything) were formative for you as a teenager? What else shaped you around that time?
In my teen years I didn’t know anything about art. As a teenager all I cared about was hanging out with the cool kids and dressing cool and listening to cool music. My “cool” wasn’t a popular cool. I tried very hard to stand out and away from the norm… and I did. I was very concerned about image as a teenager and didn’t care at all for art. But what did make some sort of impression on me were punk magazines like Flipside and Maximum Rock n Roll and the fanzines I would collect from that time period as well. The rawness and DIY aesthetic of these publications made an impression on me for sure. And as a teenager I was always collecting things, I was a huge collector of stuff. Japanese robot toys, punk flyers, stamps, clothes, records, fanzines, vintage gay publications…. I always wanted to amass a cool archive of stuff. These days not so much, other than images from my decades of shooting/photographing. And a small archive, a sort of “best of“ from my past interests into one big mixed collection.
FZ: Moving on from looking at what movements and cultures you feel a direct lineage too from the past, I ended up wondering about what art or artists you feel a kinship with in the present?
Today I feel a bit lost as far as feeling a part of anything. The last thing I got really excited about was reading the books: The Secret Historian, Just Kids, and Dirty Poole. See again, these are books about the past. I don’t really feel such a strong kinship with any one movement or artist in the present.
FZ: I’m not sure how to ask this question really… Just thinking about queer art, and loss, and sex, I dunno, my relationship to the subject of AIDS is probably quite different to yours because I think there’s twelve years between us. I was wondering how AIDS influenced your work?
12 years between us? I am going to be 43 at the end of May and right when I was about to start my sexual exploration AIDS hit. Every single day the first thing on the television news was the topic of AIDS. It was super scary and confusing and depressing. Can’t say that AIDS has influenced my work directly BUT the art that came out of the 80’s and 90’s, the political art, “body art”, “identity art”, gay art all inspired me greatly. Most of it was criticized but it totally worked for me and got me excited. When AIDS came about, I believe there was an urgency for people to make work…. sometimes angry and aggressive work. And a lot of it came from gay men obviously. There seemed to be a larger presence of gay male artists back then and as the decades go by, that sense of urgency fades.
FZ: One of the artists who you’ve paid tribute to in your series of unique T-Shirts that you’ve created is Felix Gonzales-Torres. I can definitely feel a kinship between some of his work and some of yours. What is it that made you create the tribute to him?
Good question. I absolutely love and despise his work at the same time… or more so, I despise that he became THE chosen gay artist. His work is super seductive and safe and at times I am super jealous and other times just think about how good he was at figuring out a niche in the market. And despite all of this I still admire his work. I made work in response to his bed billboards because I thought what he was representing, was a conservative view of homosexual life, or an idea of homosexual life, one that mimicked a heterosexual ideal. I also worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles when he had his retrospective back in 1994, which was such a privilege to be able to see and “experience” his work throughout the duration of the exhibition…namely the candy spills and poster works and their depletion over time.
The edition and shirt I made was simply two things I have been wanting to make for a while. I have had that press release since 1995 and it has even traveled the world with me. I only make things that I want to live with and I make shirts that I want to wear, so I thought it was time to make a piece using this deteriorating Felix Gonzalez-Torres press release I have had for almost 2 decades.
FZ: You have some work in the Tony Greene exhibition at Iceberg in Chicago. It’s a show that features his work and also the work of artists who he has influenced or has a bond with. How did you become involved in that and what is your relationship to his work?
I think Elijah Berger recommended me for that exhibition. I got an email from the curator, John Neff and he suggested two things of mine to be included in the exhibition. First time I saw Tony Greene’s work in person was at the home of Richard Hawkins back in 1994. One of the main links between his and my work is the use of found vintage imagery, especially the use of physique imagery.
FZ: Carrying on that theme of artists who may or may not have had an influence on your work: I was looking at a photograph of your Master Rich # 3 (Crucifixion) piece on your website, and it brought to mind the work of Gengoroh Tagame – almost like an attempt to bring to life some of the fantasies in his work. Whether he’s an influence or not could you tell me a bit more about that piece?
Well I only got to know the work of Tagame in the past few years and though he wasn’t a direct influence, I do admire his work greatly!
The piece was just inspired by hanging out at this leather bar in L.A. called Gauntlet II. I used to go there all the time with friends and alone and I would watch this guy do his leather performances in the middle of the bar. I would just stand there and watch him bind, tie and sometimes hang his subjects. It was all so beautiful and elegant and quite performative. One night I got the courage to approach the guy, Master Rich, and asked him if I could photograph his creations. He is a relative of a famous American photographer and liked the idea, so I photographed a few of his creations, Cocoon being the first.
FZ: It sounds very ritualistic. Which made apparent a certain attraction to a type of ritualism in your work, be it cruising, or immortalizing certain things, the places associated with rituals etc (because I always feel that the spaces connected to where things happen are as important), I was wondering if you have any rituals when it comes to how you create your work. Are you an artist who works in a set way or order or someone to who works different with each piece, depending on how or where an idea arrives. I suppose I’m asking you tell me how you start working on a piece.
I have no rituals for art making, which lately I have realized, is a not such a good thing for me. I have no discipline whatsoever and therefore make very little these days. Sometimes I find something worth expanding upon while digging through old magazines. But these days, something, some idea, really has to stop me in my tracks in order to pay attention to it. Otherwise I just go on about my day doing anything but “art” and lately I have given myself permission to do this and be okay with it. There is nothing that urgent these days about art or artists. We are not curing cancer.
FZ: And also, are you still interested in leather bars and that kind of scene and if so how do you find the scene to be in Berlin? And also while we’re talking about Berlin, how do you find it there in general, do you see yourself staying there for the foreseeable future?
I don’t go out much to bars unless I have visitors. I don’t go out to the gay clubs here in general because they are usually horrendous. The leather scene doesn’t interest me that much. I am interested more in the idea of fetishes in general and I’m curious about the idea of domination and submission but not really the leather scene specifically.
In general I find Berlin fantastic, I am still in love with it! I have been here for 7 years already and see myself here for a while more, for sure.
FZ: I want to ask you to talk about your use of the internet. We follow each other on Instagram, and you’ve got some really cool stuff on your Etsy page, but specifically I was thinking about your Tumblr page. How do you view it? Scrapbook? Some kind of art curatorial thing? Or just online fun? Personally I’ve found tons of inspiration from looking through Tumblrs. Just a ton of interesting and beautiful things posted together, you know? I also find it interesting finding new Tumblrs and working out how someone is trying to represent themselves through the images they choose to post.
I view it a few important ways. It started out as all original posts mainly of my inspirations outside of the “art world” and my inspirations for my own work, but not putting in my own work. Then I started to add more Art specific images and texts and songs etc and seeing myself as more of a curator but also starting to add my own art work here and there to put things into perspective and see how I fit into other works….then I realized it was important to re-blog others as mine was re-blogged, as I felt that was in important part of the Tumblr experience, community and dialog. I have met some really cool people from Tumblr and have actually met a few in person. What I LOVE is the connections I have developed with a few of the people there.
FZ: In my eyes, the T Shirts on your Etsy site are very much pieces of art in their own right. I’ve seen you post various pictures of T Shirts online as well … is there something that draws you specifically to the T Shirt?
Thanks! They are meant to be artworks for sure. I think my love of t-shirts started with concert t-shirts. Concert shirts were a way for me to communicate my tastes during Jr. High and High school. I also did my best to stand out in school, visually, and band shirts helped. Concert shirts or any shirt with a message on it, is a quiet way for us to communicate to others. It’s a way of letting you know a little something I am into. If I see someone wearing a shirt of a band I love, then I feel a sense of identification, which is nice. I also found that the bootlegs sold right outside of the venues where usually better than the official merch being sold inside, and usually much cheaper!
The shirts I make and sell are all shirts I wanted to wear for a long time, but could never find them for sale out there. So I decided to just make them myself and found Etsy to be an amazing platform to sell them to others. It’s as if these are the bootleg tour shirts for some of my favorites in literature, film and contemporary art…as if they were on tour like a band.