Interview: Todd Pavlisko
What would it take to get you to hammer a nail through your own foot? A million dollars? International fame? A date with Kiera Knightley? Todd Pavlisko did it solely for the sake of art, for his exhibit at NYC’s Art Volta last year. (The strong-stomached can watch the impaling go down at toddpavlisko.com.)
A disciple of shock body artists like Chris Burden (who in the early 70’s crucified himself on the hood of a Volkswagen), Pavlisko doesn’t regret performing the podiatrist’s nightmare he refers to as “the piece”—even though it took him six months to recover from it. Now he’s unveiling a new exhibit at Samsøn Projects, “All of Nothing,” that reportedly does not involve blood or broken bones. However it does feature, among other things, melted bongs in a shrine to Carl Sagan. TOB recently spoke with Pavlisko about his unusual choices of artistic expression.
TOB: The video of you hammering the nail into your foot is really hard to watch.
Todd Pavlisko: That’s a tough piece. When I made the piece it took years of working with a plastic surgeon to even get to the point of penetrating myself.
It must have hurt like all hell.
The initial penetration was easy. As soon as I broke through I thought, “This is OK,” but then there was the pounding of the nail, and the vibrations. I broke a bone—that was the worst part. At 13 minutes the spike started to bend; I think I was hitting something in the floor that wasn’t allowing it to go down any further.
What were you trying to say with it?
The other things in the show were along the same theme, things being pinned down, locked into place. When you look at it you have to look at the dedication—crossing the threshold of committing to something. The selfishness of it.
Do you consider this performance art or visual art?
I hate performance art. It’s specifically meant to be a video piece. I edited the piece to be slowly zooming in. It’s hard to get through, and I’m trying to make it even harder. I’m trying to draw you closer as the piece goes on.
Did your insurance cover this?
No, I worked with a doctor outside that. If I cut a vein, which I certainly did, he was there to cauterize the wound. The doctor, a plastic surgeon, was interested in contemporary art. When I spoke to him about this it was not strange by any stretch of the imagination. He was totally committed from the get go.
What did you get out of it?
Good question. The people who did appreciate it right out of the gate understood. I’m in fact standing on huge, giant shoulders. It’s a continuum of this art history dialog with people like Chris Burden and Bob Flanagan. I like to speak with those guys, and to be able to stand conceptually on my own two feet and have some history that I can kind of ride on. So those conversations are what I got in the end—killer conversations with these really smart people.
You’ve got a new show at Samsøn Projects, “All of Nothing.” How do you top something like that? Is there another body part you can nail down?
I don’t look at it that way, like I’ve got to do something more epic; I just try to make smart decisions and make the best show I can. This retail tag fastener piece I’m doing [a mural of Richard Pryor], it’s as painful as the fucking foot piece in the end. Man, it’s like 15-hour painful days. But it’s just part of my working process.
What else will be in the show?
It’s mostly an installation that will be built on site for the week before it’s unveiled. The central sculpture in the space is a carved marble piece of Carl Sagan, with nebulous sort of celestial colors flying around. He’s surrounded by five-foot-high bongs that have been melted down.
I heard you’ve also got Andy Warhol’s weight benches in there somewhere.
I’ve had them for 11 years. I taught at the Andy Warhol Museum when it opened, and there was a pile of shit left over from the Factory: paintbrushes, his mopeds, etc. I’ve been lugging them around ever since, trying to find a way of using them conceptually in an installation that wouldn’t rest entirely on the fact that they were Andy’s. I’m going to put an image of Bobby Fischer on it.
What’s your next art project after this one?
I’m working with a military sniper. We’re doing some risky things and playing with video, so who knows how that will turn out.
I hope you aren’t going to have a sniper firing bullets at you, Todd. Because I’m a little worried about you…
Absolutely not. Well, it would be foolish to try to emulate a gesture that was done so perfectly in the ‘70s by Chris Burden [“Shoot,” in which someone shot him in the arm].
Damn. Guess all the good ideas are already taken.
“All of Nothing” runs from May 20–Jul. 9 at .