Art

Who Is Alex Israel, and Why Should I Care?

The artist as talk-show host; with a debt to Warhol

Three of Mr. Israel’s guests managed to turn the tables on their host—no mean feat. Producer Rick Rubin answers every questions with a single word: “Yes … sometimes … somewhat … no …” Even when asked the final “What do you want the world to know about you?” he refuses to humor Mr. Israel. “I can’t think of anything,” he deadpans. Novelist Bret Easton Ellis takes Mr. Israel to task. When asked, “What do you want the world to know about Bret Easton Ellis?” he replies, “Nothing. I don’t want them to know anything.” Androgynous rock star Marilyn Manson steals the show with a performance. The question ”Have you ever considered going vegan?” is answered, “I considered having sex with a vegan but then I wondered if she would say, ‘Oooh, what’s in your semen?’” When asked, “If you could change one thing about your physical appearance what would it be?” he answers, “Not having such a big dick … it’s troublesome sometimes.” Yes, Mr. Manson, this must be a serious problem for you indeed!

I interviewed Mr. Israel in L.A. last week and tested my theories on him. Weren’t the questions written to make a mockery of the interviewees? He denied that, claiming that he hadn’t even written them. “My intern wrote mild-mannered questions,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be a talk show with hot-button questions.” Hadn’t he deliberately selected individuals whose moment of relevance had passed, whose stars had faded? He took offense at that interpretation. “That’s such a cynical view,” he said. ”I selected people who made a major contribution to the L.A. landscape at a point in time … that’s our city’s cultural history and I chose to celebrate it.”

As part of the Facebook generation, Mr. Israel is perfectly comfortable giving a campy and nostalgic embrace to L.A.’s history, while feigning ignorance of the tragic implications of living in the past. Perhaps he is earnest; his project, complete with his intern’s “mild-mannered” questions, really isn’t, after all, a cynical satire of the talk-show format. Still, am I a throwback to another era because I was looking for deeper meaning, even where there is none?

Perhaps I’m equally unrealistic because in growing older I still hope to grow better, or wiser, or at least more comfortable with what, where and who I am. In As It LAys, success, fame and cultural relevance are not the recipe for happiness or even personal satisfaction. The project reveals several variations on the theme of self-deception; perhaps with age this is something we all fall prey to. In the words of the great 17th-century French thinker François de la Rochefoucauld, “One is never so easily fooled as when one thinks one is fooling others.”

editorial@observer.com