Finding Romance in the Grotesque: JON RAFMAN
If we exist without reference to others, we dwell in a deserted world. A Grand Theft Auto world which appears in dreams, where you can move only in abstracts. It would also not be "we" but "you," as there cannot not be any relation to anything other than yourself. Perhaps merely being alive presupposes existence as reference, making us a reference of a reference of a reference.
JON RAFMAN creates conglomerate worlds where fiction and reality coalesce in marginal, fetishistic, and occult forms. His characters are references of references of ambiguous extremes. Warped faces, melting bodies, and imageries that seem like they were taken from the deep trenches of the internet. On the occasion of his two solo exhibitions in Berlin, Counterfeit Poast at Sprüth Magers and Egregores and Grimoires at Schinkel Pavillon, I spoke with the artist about grotesque beauty, Nintendo’s Wario and Waluigi, performative avatars, plastic surgery, and the heart of darkness.
CLAIRE KORON ELAT: Looking at your work, many of the characters appear like horrid yet dreamy video game characters. Or the work is some form of a video game itself.
JON RAFMAN: Video games play a vital role in my practice, as they are one of the most relevant media forms today – if not the most.
There was a report published recently on what kids want to be when they grow up. It used to be astronauts or famous actors. Now the number one aspiration is to become a famous YouTube or Twitch video game streamer. Streamers and video game culture have usurped most other subcultures. People used to define themselves by the music they listened to. These days, kids shape their identity based on whether they play Nintendo vs. Xbox. Growing up, I played a lot of video games, although, that said, I wouldn't consider myself a 'diehard' gamer. Video games certainly had an impact on the development of my visual vocabulary. Yet, at the same time, the world is so fragmented right now that it is tough to make any generalizations. It's hard for me even to perceive the broad view of anything because it's as if we are trapped in various echo chambers. I think this fragmentation of culture has given way to the existence of niche communities that in themselves can contain fandoms. I find the content the fandoms produce more relevant than mainstream media.
I have a superfan who has a practice based on her fandom movement –
CKE: You have a super fan?
JR: I have a superfan. Shoutout to Twee Whistler. Like me, her work is inspired by fanart, fan fiction, as well stalker culture.
CKE: What do you think about a fandom that's dedicated to your persona and artistic practice? Is it a way of iconizing and fetishizing you?
JR: 100 percent. But her seeming performance is self-conscious and mixes obsessive fetishization of me with baiting, which is partly what makes it so engaging. She has been married to me in The Sims for over half a decade. My mother also plays a massive role in the narrative she has created. There is a combination of genuine love as well as playful trolling. Because I'm objectified, like you said, to the point where she wholly owns me in this virtual world of Sims; she can make me do things I don't necessarily feel comfortable with.
CKE: Have you ever met her?
JR: Yeah, she's an Italian nerd living in the suburbs of Turin.
CKE: Returning to your video game characters, although in this case you've become a video game character yourself, I saw that you made an Instagram post on your account @ronjafman about Wario and Waluigi – a very distorted, ghastly version of Wario of the pair. In the caption, it says that Waluigi is a character who can only exist in reference to others. Can your characters only exist in reference to others, too?
JR: I just read this fantastic quote from Walter Benjamin, "Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being. He disrupts the entire hierarchy of creatures that are supposed to culminate in mankind. These films disavow experience more radically than ever before. In such a world, it is not worthwhile to have experiences."
We live in a world of pure Baudrillardian hyperreality, and we cannot distinguish reality from a simulation of reality. The Internet and virtual worlds are entirely divorced from any sense of historical context. Wario and Waluigi, as characters, are the epitome of that. Maybe Wario and Waluigi are the heroes of our times, the true representatives of the modern individual.
It goes back to what I was saying earlier about fragmentation. How do we construct the self in a world where we're losing any sense of a universal discourse? Some people have algorithmically-tailored realities that are completely separate from others. We used to have the Bible or Greek myths, which we shared and communicated. We've lost this shared language to a large extent. Now the symbolic language of video games allows you to reach many people, and that's what artists always search for: universal symbolic languages.
CKE: So, do you think that video games have replaced the Bible?
JR: Depending on what community you are a part of, maybe. I would love to make a video game based on the Bible at some point. But at the same time, I'm witnessing a return to religion, specifically Catholicism. There's a profound desire for meaning.
CKE: So, you're constructing your work out of different references and in this case, video games.
JR: I'm interested in both the classics of the Western canon as well as obscure Japanese video games from the 90s, Greek Myths, and Biblical narrative influence as much as fringe furry subcultures found on Second Life or DeviantArt. I believe in the collapse of the high and the low.
CKE: Does that mean your work could not exist without these references?
JR: As it manifests itself right now. If I had grown up in a different era, I'd draw from different references. Walter Benjamin is a significant influence on me. And I'm also obsessed with late 19th century poets because, like me, they were inspired by the detritus of modern life. I think there's a long tradition of it. More than just video games or online virtual worlds, I'm interested in the ephemeral nature of modern life.
CKE: Your Instagram account also seems to be a part of your practice, or at least, the @ronjafman Instagram account. I was thinking about the word itself, Ron Jafman, and if it has a deeper meaning, because it's a linguistic inversion – a way of twisting and distorting reality through language.
JR: Ron Jafman is one of my many avatars. We all have various avatars that we project into both the real and virtual worlds. In the early days, I was most excited about the Internet because you had the freedom to construct different unique identities and put those forth online. There was a newfound malleability to identity. You could have fun playing different roles and trying on different hats. Then Facebook took over, and you had to be stamped to your real identity.
Even when you're presenting your 'real life' on social media, it's always a construction. People who seem like they're having these incredible jet-set lives could be profoundly miserable inside, but you can't tell.
CKE: It's a lot easier to construct a different identity on Instagram or Facebook. Do you not always embody and represent a different identity though? Are you always presenting yourself as an avatar?
JR: Perhaps to a certain extent. "All the world's a stage," right? We are all constantly playing roles. There is difficulty in constructing a coherent self-narrative these days, which is in part what Punctured Sky, my film at Schinkel Pavillon, is about.
The idea of the fully fleshed-out self is an important subject to me, as well as the fragmentation of the self. The question I've been interested in forever is: to what degree do we transform the world around us and construct it and ourselves? Or, to what extent does the world determine who we are and form us as individuals?
CKE: Are there specific circumstances under which you can experience your fully fleshed-out self?
JR: I believe intuition is essential to creating a good work of art. I don't know if that's your true self though, because maybe your intuition is determined by your upbringing and the world around you. But there is vitality to an artwork that you can tell is coming from an artist's deep intuition.
CKE: Is there a specific or even theoretical situation you can think of, where your true self does come out, for example, being in a meditative space?
JR: I think the self and the universal unconscious are tied together. The deeper you tap into your intuition, the more you can communicate on a universal level.
CKE: There's a work at Schinkel showing faces that are laid out flat, like melting silicone masks. They reminded me of plastic surgery, in a very extreme way, and Instagram filters.
JR: Again, it goes back to the self and the avatar and how the avatar now is malleable – even to a point in the physical world, with plastic surgery. I've seen many before and after pictures of people who have transformed into real-life avatars, completely divorced from their original appearance. These technologies have allowed for the complete malleability of identity, the malleability of the self, and the malleability of appearance.
CKE: Physical cosmetic surgery isn't just able to transform your face but your entire corporeality. I'm thinking specifically about BBLs. In a way, you start to resemble an inflated person, almost like a video game character. Targeted body parts appear uncannily unreal as if you picked them from the shelves of a warehouse to customize yourself. To get these surgeries is to become an avatar. It malleableizes your reality, not just for yourself but also for other people perceiving you. Does that gradually make reality less real?
JR: That's the thing. What is real? What is natural? The son of my former gallerist went to New York for the first time and was like, "Oh, wow, this is like GTA." When I used to spend eight hours a day in Second Life, and then saw a beautiful sunset IRL, it would remind me of a sunset in Second Life. We live in an era where we spend so much time in front of the screen that our virtual lives online often have more significance on our psyche than our physical lives outside the screen.
CKE: There is also big print at the entrance of Schinkel, depicting a desk with miscellaneous items, including a book about Beuys's "Multiplizierte Kunst," the Xbox game "Dark Angel," and Johnson's bedtime lotion. How do you decide on the single items themselves?
JR: It's a still from Punctured Sky. I also have a series about workstations and computer desks. They almost function as both portraits and still lifes, because a lot of who a person is can be understood by what they consume and buy. It's a representation of a particular identity. The notion of “We are what we eat“ is interesting to me.
CKE: Do you have a special diet?
JR: I would love to invent something. Certainly, in past interviews, I've made up funny stuff.
CKE: Think about your diet.
JR: Uh, about my diet. It adds to the mystique and –
CKE: What is a diet you would like to make up, and what is your real diet?
JR: I don't think my food choices are that interesting. I like good food. When I said, "You are what you eat," I meant what you ingest on social media, TV, and the video games you play defines your identity.
Imagine that you were a member of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century: what you consumed culturally was a 1,000-page novel. Today, when you scroll through a feed, every little thing you're consuming is not necessarily tied to the next post on the feed; instead, it's like thousands of instant, disconnected short-lived dopamine rushes. We've been moving more and more towards completely fragmented consumption.
CKE: Is TikTok more interesting for you than Instagram in terms of world-building?
JR: Over the course of COVID, I did create a TikTok account. On one level, Instagram and TikTok are both impoverished forms of media. But at the same time, TikTok is an incredible window into Zoomer culture, whereas Instagram reflects more upon millennial culture.
The algorithm works very differently on TikTok. They are algorithmically very different.
CKE: What kind of TikTok videos do you get suggested?
JR: I don't know – the app is not installed on my phone right now. My guide to zoomer culture is Honour Levy, a writer from LA who has one of the best TikTok accounts. She gave me a list of people to follow. There is a lot of cringe content on my feed.
CKE: Cringe in what way?
JR: First of all, I'd like to say that I'm post-Cringe, post-Based. Often when I see something that is 'cringe,' it hits on some deep guttural level and triggers complex feelings that can't be reduced to one thing. It's the opposite of 'Based,' which usually signifies something edgy, but it, again, 'Based' can't be reduced so simply. Am I laughing at this, or am I laughing with this? Or is this whole dichotomy collapsing?
CKE: Do you think other people find you cringe?
JR: I think some people think I'm a poser. Maybe some people think I'm 'cringe,' and I imagine it's from the perspective that I'm a poser and not a real nerd.
CKE: I talked to a befriended artist who described your practice as "the horrors of the Internet. What is horror for you? Do you think there is something romantic within horror or the grotesque?
JR: Yes, I'm interested in the marriage of extremes, the co-existence of opposites in the same thing. Throughout history, the erotic has gone hand and hand with death and horror. Just as the grotesque exists alongside beauty, attraction, and repulsion. A lot of my work deals with the abject. There is a sensual, physical quality to it. It is essential to investigate these dichotomies and examine the point at which opposites either collapse or unite. That's the marriage of contradictions. I think the Internet is basically just a carnival house: a warped mirror of the physical world and, in a way, even more of a primary reality than the physical world. You fall in love on the Internet.
One last note: I think that people might accuse me of nihilism, which is not valid. If you don't confront the depths and horror of reality, then you're not honest. Throughout one's life, one has to face horror after horror. Through reflection, critique, and creating work that feels like it's honestly reflecting reality, you can feel less alone and alienated from the world around you.
CKE: Feeling less alone through horror?
JR: It's only by exploring the heart of darkness that you can reach the light.