“It Requires a Certain Sense of Humor”: John Ahearn on Live-Casting Collectors at Frieze New York

“It Requires a Certain Sense of Humor”: John Ahearn on Live-Casting Collectors at Frieze New York
John Ahearn
(Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin and the Artist)

When legendary sculptor John Ahearn called himself and partner in crime Rigoberto Torres “virgins” during a recent visit to their plaster-dusted South Bronx studio, he was referring to the fact that never before have they done their iconic body castings by commission. That will change at this week’s Frieze New York fair, when Ahearn will restage his 1970 Fashion Moda “South Bronx Hall of Fame” exhibition in a fair booth and perform castings of willing collectors, for the bargain price of $3,000. Three appointments will be available each day of the fair (some, including a joint casting session for curator couple Cecilia Alemani and Massimiliano Gioni, are already booked), but Ahearn also hints that there just might be room for walk-ins.

ARTINFO spoke to Ahearn and Torres about the casting process, their decision to start doing commissions, and whether they’ll use KY Jelly or a shower cap to protect their subjects’ hair.

Will anything else be in the Frieze tent show besides the “South Bronx Hall of Fame” sculptures?

We’re going to be live casting, so those pieces will be part of the installations, and they’ll be in the same room. It’s going to get very crowded. We have Natalie Bell up for Wednesday, Thursday we have Darnell Brown. That’s the extent of our relationships. There are other appointments, but it’s very hush-hush. Three others have been booked, but I don’t know if I’m at liberty to reveal their names. We have six people involved so far.

Will collectors be able to stop by the Frieze tent and book appointments for castings?

You should be asking me “could someone come in and just lay down and get cast?” and I would say, maybe. But it’s recommended that you book it in advance. The reason is that we don’t know what our schedule is. You could just wing it, like standby. You show up for standby in case there’s an opening. Someone could do that, but otherwise there may be someone already scheduled.

How long does it usually take to do one casting?

It varies. There’s how long the material is literally on the person’s face and also there’s your working time with the person, whether you want to ask the person any questions or if they want to ask you any questions. I usually say to them, I don’t want to answer any questions, I just put the straws in your nose, you sit down, you shut up. I have Robert (Rigoberto Torres) get on top of you and hold you down with his knees. The main thing is don’t let them get up. They’ll just have to deal with it. If they’ve signed up they’ve already signed off.

I would give it at least two hours. And that’s the quick haircut, in and out. And the work is not done; all you’re doing is getting the first casting part of the statue. And then it gets worked later.

Do you just put the straws in the subject’s nose and then pour the casting material right on top of them?

In your case, what we do is, we’d say “Do you like swimming?” Great! Well it’s just like swimming in that you have to breathe in a certain manner that works with your stroke, you don’t just breathe constantly while you’re swimming, you can’t. It takes a certain measure of confidence in yourself and how you’re doing. Once the breathing is good and we set you up, there’s nothing for you to do after that other than just let us have our way with you and work our hands all over you.

We will consider your hair. Your hair could go two ways. Either we have a shower cap we put on your head or we’re going to have this KY Jelly that we’ll squeeze into your hair and what that’ll do is permit the hair to release, so it doesn’t stick to your hair. I’m guessing that we’ll be doing a lot of shower caps at Frieze.

What’s the actual process like?

The main thing behind it is actually how you want to look. What are you interested in? And what are we interested in doing with you? In terms of an idea about sculpture or art. What do we want to convey about you, or about ourselves, using your portrait to stand in for something. That’s part of it. We’re not machines, it’s not a job like someone getting a gallbladder operation. Our job is not to perfectly do your cast. There’s no such thing. Of course we don’t want you to suffer or freak out, but other than that, what we really want to do is have an exciting experience that is going to lend itself to something special. Something we’ve never thought of before. Something that is a whole new experience, that would be the ideal.

How will it be different casting collectors for money versus casting locals in the Bronx as public art?

Stress. I’ve never done it. Robert [Rigoberto Torres] and I are both virgins at this time in our lives. We’ve never in our lives ever done a casting for pay. This is the first time, but it’s about time.

How did you decide that this was going to be your first time doing commissions?

[Frieze curator] Cecilia Alemani brought up this idea that we would do an homage to Fashion Moda [gallery] focusing on the “South Bronx Hall of Fame” show. She said, along with this, we would like very much if you would do a live activity there, and I thought that given that it’s an art fair, I thought it was.. I didn’t want to replicate any human interactions with people. Not bus in a bunch of people from the Bronx or something. Especially, I didn’t want to do it officially as part of the program. I thought let’s work with the people who go to the art fairs, the collectors. 

You could say, “John, why are you asking them to give you money for it, why don’t you treat them like all the other people in your life and just do it for free?” And you could do two casts, and you could give one to them and have one to keep for yourself. The problem I have is if I did that, then I’d be responsible for every damn cast we made. I give them one, then I have to worry about what to do with the other one. So what I thought was, we make a very minimal, nice kind of price for everybody, one that’s comfortable for them, and they commit to the idea that they want to get involved for nothing, or relatively nothing, then it’s their cast. After I’m done with it, then it’s theirs. It’s not mine any more. I thought, maybe this is a better way to deal with the work.

Did Cecilia Alemani suggest that you do the commercial commissions at the fair as well?

I demanded it softly to her. I said this is what I would like to do. Everyone was really skeptical, but whatever happens, it’s only going to take four days. It’s a ride we’re going on, priced to keep a smile on everybody’s face. 

Rigoberto Torres: The way I see it is that the collector would want to go through this process themselves. They’ll appreciate the pieces that they collect more.

John Ahearn: It is possible to please a collector. It requires a certain sense of humor on their part, a sense of adventure.

At the price you’ve set and the visibility the project will have at the fair, it seems like you’ll get booked solid pretty quick. 

I have a feeling there will be some last minute bookings. We’re going to treat the collectors like they’re good friends, and they’re welcome to be there, but they’re not ready to be cast yet. First they have to come and see if the temperature is right, see what it looks like. They can come and watch us, and then if they’re ready they can come back the next day and try it. I think there will be people that definitely do not want to make an appointment three weeks in advance. But there may be someone that watches it and says, “Wait a second, I think I get this now. Hey, honey, are we going to come back here tomorrow? Of course we’re coming back here, we have tickets for the whole week! Okay, you got any time tomorrow?” And we’ll go, “Let’s see. Maybe we can squeeze you in. We’ll have to talk to our secretary.”