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Exclusive: Getting Bullish With Meredith Danluck, The Artist Behind Adam Kimmel’s Spring 2010 Video

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From Mickey Mouse to the Marlboro Man, the good old U.S. of A. treasures its icons. Artist and filmmaker Meredith Danluck has built her work around plumbing the depths of these American dreams, though not to puncture and deflate. “I think [my work] is coming to a place that’s in between myth and reality,” says Danluck. “To me, breaking down the entire thing and just showing reality is not as interesting. I think we want to keep some of that magic in our lives.” Her last solo show was a 12-minute short called Michael Jackson, Jesus Christ…Coca-Cola for which she met the King of Pop himself (more on that below). But her most recent subject is the American West, explored in her first full-length film, a documentary called The Ride, and a photo series called “Drinkability,” both the result of spending a year with bona fide, modern cowboys. While Danluck is working on getting The Ride into theaters, you can see “Drinkability” at the Renwick Gallery in Tribeca until July 31. And screening today at Adam Kimmel’s menswear presentation in Paris—and exclusively on Style.com—is a video she created in collaboration with Kimmel and curator Neville Wakefield called The Cowboy in the Continental Suit, featuring champion bull rider Rocky McDonald. It’s the second in a trilogy of videos produced by the duo that shows men donning some very nice threads to engage in risky activities. (The first, by Ari Marcopoulos, follows two skaters in powder blue Kimmel suits going down a hill at about 60 mph). Here, Danluck talks to Style.com about the power of a suit, the beauty of Americana, and the trauma of 30 seconds with Jacko.

A guy riding a bull in a tuxedo isn’t something you see every day. Where did the idea come from?

Neville Wakefield is a good friend and has been involved in this film that I just completed. He’s been seeing pictures from that and listening to me talk about it for years. He talked about the other projects like Ari’s and we talked about contextualizing fear in this way. When a man is in a suit, it’s some form of power. So you’re putting these men in these scary situations, but the suit throws off the element of fear a little bit. It was just the natural choice. If someone’s going to bomb a hill in a suit, then Rocky’s going to get on a bull in a tux.

Your video is so dreamy and serene that I didn’t think of fear at all. It just fit right in with this romantic concept of a strong, silent cowboy. But obviously it’s scary to be riding this bucking bull.

I think that’s the thing about putting on the suit. The whole time, Rocky just seems super-confident because that’s the only way that you can really be in the face of fear. When I’m talking about fear, it’s all these guys in that trilogy of films that Neville and Adam have been working on. It’s about overcoming and negating that fear. That’s my interpretation of this project that they’re doing. It’s about confidence in the face of fear.

Which Rocky definitely has. He comes off as this very perfect solid archetype.

And that’s really how he is. He’s not silent all the time, obviously, but I think with this it really worked. That was definitely a choice. The feature “The Ride,” which we just finished, is totally different. It’s almost like a comedy. All the cowboys have this really witty sense of humor. They talk a lot.

Obviously he was a good sport in making this, but how did he initially react to putting on a tux with his cowboy boots to go ride a bull?

At first he was like, ‘Oh God, Meredith, what the hell have you gotten me into?’ He was definitely like, ‘Oh man, I’m only doing this because I like you guys.’ All of his buddies were taking pictures of him and making fun of him. Then we uploaded all the footage that night and he was like, ‘Oh my God. This looks really cool.’ “

I haven’t seen The Ride. Is it more of a documentary or an art film?

It’s not a straightforward documentary. It’s actually very easy to watch because we took a lot of tropes from narrative filmmaking. We tried to keep as much of a feeling of narrative fiction as we could to really make it feel like storytelling. I think it worked. It feels like that to me. It’s experimental but it’s not experimental in a way that’s unwatchable and abstract. It’s experimenting with the way that you’ve learned to receive things very automatically from Hollywood movies.

From what I’ve read, the conclusion of the film, at least partly, is that the mythology of the American West does exist. True?

Definitely. My first time at a bull riding event, I couldn’t really pinpoint what was so exciting. Obviously these guys getting on the bulls, that’s exciting, but it’s more seeing this mythology come to life. All the Marlboro Man ads and the westerns I had seen were actually real. It was like having a comic book hero come to life.

But it couldn’t fit all of our romantic notions.

It’s complicated as most interesting things are. All the characters that we featured in The Ride are complicated. They have ideas that might be conflicting with more kinds of progressive ideas or…You know, nobody’s perfect and nobody’s going to fit the mold that you want to put them in ever.

Your photo series is called “Drinkability.” What does the name mean?

“Drinkability” is Bud Light’s new ad campaign. I started thinking about this idea of American culture and how intellectuals have rejected all things Americana because they were deemed redneck or lowbrow, and turned to toward a more European thinking. It’s something that I’ve been interested in throughout my work from an early stage. So “Drinkability” was a perfect example of that. European beer is this heavy-bodied drink with more alcohol. You know, you have one or two of these heavy beers, and that’s enough. It’s complex and multilayered, whereas Bud Light, you can drink it all day! It’s just a different ethos all together.

While working on your last film, you flew to Tokyo and paid over $3,000 to meet Michael Jackson as a fan. Was that experience as bizarre as it sounds?

Actually, it was one of the most depressing days of my life. I fled the venue in tears. I think it was a combination of being hungry and jet-lagged and overwhelmed, but it was also just so alienating. You’d think in that situation, he’s the alien, but I wound up being the alien because I wasn’t there to worship Michael Jackson but to document. Everyone was so on the same page and I was the outsider. Then I thought I didn’t get what I needed, which was depressing. In my mind, I paid my $3,000 and I was going to spend my 30 seconds with Michael Jackson as I pleased. I was going to film him for 30 seconds straight like an Andy Warhol screen test. That didn’t happen. They pushed me and took away my camera and all of a sudden I was with Michael Jackson and I was being photographed. I was like, ‘No, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.’ I realized later that it was amazing, but the whole thing was so traumatizing.

Wow. Trying to meet Jesus Christ is probably less of a hassle. Is this your first fashion collaboration?

It’s the first time I’ve done something with a fashion designer but it’s not the first time I’ve thought about fashion in an art context. Some of my really early work was about the semiotics of fashion, the codes of dressing. You know, if you wear black leather and spikes or eyelet lace, this is what you’re saying to the world. I was using that language of fabric in these sort of Sol LeWitt minimalist cubes. I’ve definitely thought a lot about the language of fashion, even just to look at what people in New York wear. You know, what does it mean to wear boots, jeans, and a leather jacket, as opposed to a skirt and heels? You want to toughen up your outfit so people won’t mess with you. It’s a code and everybody understands it.

It seems like art and fashion are closer than ever, but sometimes I think the fashion world uses art as an easy marketing tool. How do you see it?

I think it’s case by case. I think it’s very easy to go to art, but in what Adam and Neville have done, it gives artists an opportunity to do something interesting. I love the film that we made and feel fortunate to have had the opportunity. One thing about the fashion industry is that there’s money there. There’s money in the art world too, but it’s not like fashion. Is everything that’s been made under the auspices of art for fashion all valuable or important? No, but it’s someone’s attempt to do something different. I’d rather see the money going to an artist than an advertising agency.

Is there another slice of Americana that you have in your sights?

Oh yes! The next project I want to do is all about cars. It has the European-versus-American dialectic a little more fleshed out. I’m doing two simultaneous stories, one of street racing with illegal muscle cars and the other of a Formula One racer. So it’s the bottom and the top, the American interpretation of racecar driving versus the exclusive European version. I haven’t even started looking for money for that. Hopefully the success of The Ride will make that process take six months instead of seven.

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Dept. of Culture