Merkx & Gwynne bring King Arthur's Court to NADA
By Maria Chavez
New York City is known for presenting so many arts events every season that it’s tough to keep up. The month of May was no different when the Frieze Art fair, Pulse Art fair, Ideas City festival and the NADA Art fair opened during the same time periods.
The New Art Dealers Alliance - NADA has always served as a refreshing platform to the typical art fair structure, providing space to create a dialogue between various organizations in the arts; from large galleries to small spaces, non-profit and commercial alike.
This year, NADA partnered up with the artist duo, Merkx & Gwynne, inviting the pair to create a large- scale installation as a way to include the voice of the working artist in the contemporary art world dialogue. The artist duo decided to utilize this opportunity to present “King Arthur Green Room”, the latest installment of King Arthur Rock Opera or KARO, an ongoing film series based on the many stories of King Arthur and his court.
Originally staged in a solo show at Bureau, an art gallery in the LES, the duo built a film set/ art installation at NADA, complete with a life sized horse figure and a scissor lift- decorated in medieval flags which rose high above the whole fair. Andrea Merkx - a.k.a. Sir Merx-A-Lot, dressed in chivalrous attire of knee high equestrian boots and spurs, told me that there would be no performances during the weekend. Instead, they would be using the weekend to film the famous scene between Guinevere and Lancelot during a tournament at Monsalvat. Known as the Fisher King's castle, Monsalvat was also the film- setting used in their Bureau solo exhibition.
During the weekend of shooting the artists delved deeply into their roles. Nathan Gwynne - a.k.a. Gwynnevere had his chest waxed in an attempt to become more like his “Gwynnevere” character. Art fair guests surrounded the scene watching in shock, delight and confusion. In a way, this large-scale installation was holding a mirror to the NADA art fair, providing a festive atmosphere as friends and artist collaborators, so far they have over 30 artists participating in KARO filmed scenes featuring elaborate costumes, using film and lighting equipment along with displaying props/artworks.
After wrapping up the action packed weekend I had a chance to talk with them about the project:
Maria Chavez: I noticed how daunting the scale your installation was for the NADA Art Fair. It seemed like the art fair gave you the gift of space, which is SO valuable in this city. How did this all happen and do you feel that you took advantage of this opportunity fully?
Merkx.: For many years NADA director Heather Hubbs and I have talked about how to work on something together. Heather approached us and asked what we'd like to do, carte blanche. Our response was "how much can we get away with?!"
Gwynne: I'd say we took pretty full advantage of the opportunity. My only regret is not getting better documentation of the chest waxing, although I did save all the strips. We didn't have a skilled photographer around during the weekend and are thus trying to retroactively crowd-source documentation of the installation and film shoot, collecting iphone pictures from our friends and pulling photos off facebook and instagram. These ephemeral, virtual leaks are as important as anything else to the life of the project. I mean if people didn't want to post photos of us, then we failed. It actually doesn't bother me that much, these loose ends are inevitable given all that we're trying to manage.
M.C.: Part of the KARO project seems to be this interest in collaborating with a community of artists. Who are these artists?
G.: Everyone on board deserves huge shout outs. The artist roster includes close friends, especially our inner circle of film and music professionals, artists we've known for years from school, social, and professional capacities, artists whose craft and skills we deeply respect and admire, yet it's fluid, extending to include parents and children of our collaborators. We're always looking to meet new people.
M.: Our friends f—ing rock. We keep asking new people to come play, and every time it feels like a crazy long shot...We're always terrified everyone will say no.
M.C.: What are your favorite works within this large- scale installation?
M.: My favorite object is definitely Gwynnevere's princess wig.
G.: My favorite object is Sir Merkx-A-Lot's shiny silver ceramic breastplate by Kristen Jensen. Or maybe the horse, courtesy of Zerek Kempf's grandpa.
M.: No way, the wig is a victory! I called MK Guth, an artist who has worked with tons of braided hair and references awesome mythic fairy tale stuff. She covered the Silver Room at the Park Avenue Armory in hundreds of yards of braided hair for the 2008 Whitney Biennial. She was the first person I thought of for a giant blonde braid, but then we also called up Tania Cross she made us two beehive wigs for "Can't Stop Rock Lobster" and both of them were down with basically collaborating. To be fair, MK was like a producer, and Tania was like a fabricator. The wig made Nathan terrifically uncomfortable and weighed like 35 pounds.
M.C.: I was going to say that your costumes were really elaborate! The ceramic breastplate that Andrea wore looked so heavy!
G.: We're not sure who suffered more. Me in the wig, tied on tight with ribbon under my chin, shoulders, and behind my head, ducking in and out of the viewing tower trying to maintain queenly poise and balance while yo-yoing. Or Andrea in the restrictive ceramic armor, lashed on with leather strips, sitting for hours in a jumping saddle on a fiberglass horse, wearing two-sizes-too-small riding boots. We definitely had fun though, shooting till 2am on Saturday, take after take of courtly waves to an empty art fair.
M.C.: Not only was the installation of your project extensive but you also had a full team of people assisting you all weekend long. Can you tell us little more about your costume designer, Tonya Huskey and other people that played key roles in making this weekend happen?
M.: In every exhibition or project we submit a super-sized artist list, and it is important that we list our crew along with the artists involved. There's a democracy of participation that is just as important to us as who's on the list. Not only is Tonya Huskey a costume designer, she was also our inspiration for the whole red-white-and-black color scheme and design of our installation. We based the entire installation around the way the walls of her apartment are painted. She also designed of the viewing tower. She's absolutely a top notch pro and has worked on films like "Be Kind Rewind" and shows like "The Carrie Diaries" and "Gossip Girl". We are just so chuffed to have her on our team.
G.: Tonya's the best. Some of my favorite KARO times so far are trying on clothes in her apartment. It was great to recreate that experience as a public event. We couldn't be doing what we're doing without working with other people, but Tonya, along with the rest of our crew, really are more of what Merkx & Gwynne is than...well, we'd be nothing without them.
M.C.: I was speaking with the director of the Homeless Museum of Art , Filip Noterdaeme, who said he is your muse. What kind of inspiration do you take from him and what is the Homeless Museum of Art?
G.: I met Filip Noterdaeme through Andrea, several times in passing, at openings and things, then finally in his role as Director of the Homeless Museum of Art on March 23, 2012. I still carry in my wallet the dated admission ticket as a good luck token. Notably we all went to Hunter, but only Filip was smart enough to get kicked out. That inspiring encounter was just before we began our first formal project, "The Horror of Can't Stop Rock Lobster." Filip and his partner Daniel Isengart make a brilliant cameo in the video, dressed to kill and dancing on the dock.
M.: We have consistently reached out to other artist collaborator teams, like Gina Beavers and Denise Kupferschmidt of Price Good Market, Inc. Filip and Daniel are special for us because their interests so closely mirror our own, so it is truly an honor to have the director of HOMU admit that we are his muse.
G.: Wait. That he is our muse?
M.: Well, one of our muses.
Thanks so much and congrats again on an awesome installation!