Charlemagne Palestine isn’t interested in your tasteful arrangements or minimal décor. He’s much too busy stuffing entire galleries with hundreds of teddy bears that are painstakingly assembled into something that resembles a walk-in collage made of plush and velveteen.
“All I wanted was a total,” he tells Creators from a hotel room in Venice. “That’s what I’ve always wanted—that it’s not partial. That it’s not minimal. I mean, we live in a maximal world!” He speaks with a Brooklyn accent mixed with an elegant Transatlantic cadence that speaks to his New York upbringing followed by years of living abroad. He’s currently based in Belgium, and was visiting Venice for the Biennale.
“I’m in a hotel room,” he says. “We had a vast storm, but now it’s sunny. There’s sun coming into the room and I have a whiskey next to me, and I’m ready for your questions.”
His art is undoubtedly an extension of his personality—earthy, playful, and eccentric as hell. The artist is known for his avant-garde and experimental music compositions that started in the 1960s, but it’s the large scale installation Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland, on display through Aug. 6 at The Jewish Museum in New York, that will become the artist’s calling card.
The Bear Mitzvah is a rainbow-colored wonderland of textiles, mirrors and bears in every corner—bears descending from the ceiling in parachutes, lining up across the fireplace mantle, strung up in nets like a booby-trapped Toys “R” Us.
Palestine has been making work out of teddy bears for years. His stairway installations were one of the highlights of the last Whitney Biennial in the Breuer building, and he always brings a few bears on stage with him during musical performances. But unlike Mike Kelley and Jeff Koons, Palestine doesn’t use stuffed animals as a metaphor for childhood or naïveté: he’s genuinely attached to them as objects.
“Normally, you only see these objects in a toy store, or with a baby in their crib,” he says. “I want to give these objects a new aura, a new placement in our psyche.” He was inspired by societies that appreciate the spiritual power of toys as objects worthy of devotion. In fact, he doesn’t even call them toys—he calls them divinities.
“Every international child all over the world still has and keeps these sacred beings, and then when they’re 10 or 11 they all get thrown away or sent to Salvation Army or Goodwill. I’m taking them back!”
That delight in his subject matter is what makes his installations so fascinating: they’re almost anthropological examinations of the artist himself.
“My mother forced me to give up all my bears. It was the typical, ‘Oh you’re too old for that now!’ And then I got to know people who were Polynesian, African, Filipino—people who were my lovers or my friends from all different cultures. And they don’t give up their divinities, they keep them all their lives and they inherit them from one generation to another. So I said, ‘Well, why can’t I do that too?’ “
Charlemagne Palestine’s Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland is on view through Aug. 6 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street.