John Waters: The joy of sex

John Waters is the director of such trash classics as 'Pink Flamingos' and 'Hairspray'. But now, as David Usborne discovers, he's taking his art upmarket. Well, sort of
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Normally, we would rather not ask what turns John Waters on. Once dubbed the 'Prince of Puke', he is a strictly oddball artist and film director who charmingly gave us Divine, the late and fabulously corpulent transvestite, eating dog excrement in the final moments of his 1972 feature Pink Flamingos and put a near-naked Alicia Witt in the company of a burrowing gerbil in his more recent satire Cecil B DeMented.

Waters, 57, is better known for his accomplishments in celluloid than for his forays into the art world. While he has always had a devoted following of movie fans equally drawn to the comically bizarre, especially in his native Baltimore where all of his films are set, he attained international fame and even respectability with Hairspray in 1988, about the racial integration of a teen television-dance programme.

Yet, here we are in the ivy-infested back garden of his Baltimore home - three stories of fading yellow stucco with numerous surprises inside to attest to the owner's eccentricity - discussing not only art but the art book that he has just completed. Art, he insists, actually takes up roughly half of his waking hours. The other half consists of "thinking of fucked-up things" for his films. And then making them.

You will get the gist of the book, published by the normally sober Thames & Hudson, by glancing at the cover. It features the Empire State Building with saucy embellishments - a pair of testicles at its base and something emanating from its point that is not rain. And believe us, it gets naughtier inside. To be published at the end of the month it may or may not be embraced by the critics. But your aunt won't like it.

It is, in other words, a collection of contemporary works that Waters and his co-author, a Los Angeles art journalist and curator named Bruce Hainley, think are inherently sexy. It was clearly a fun challenge for the pair, both openly homosexual. They had never met before. They agreed to bring a collection of 50 works to the table that each found provocative and then agree on which ones to use.

"We wanted to call this book Arty Sex because it's so artistically incorrect to say that," Waters explains, tucking up his feet, in bright red canvas shoes, beneath his haunches on a garden chair. "The publishers didn't like it but we wanted an artistically incorrect title." In the end they settled for Art - A Sex Book, which must pretty much convey what they wanted. Waters notes that the collaboration with Hainley started swimmingly when about a third of their original choices of 50 for the book overlapped.

Both men agree that shocking the public is important. "We both like to piss people off," says Waters, adding that in his case it is the works that irritate him the most that he often ends up buying. His house is a mini-gallery of contemporary art, with pieces on every f available wall; when he is in his Greenwich Village pied-à-terre in New York, his favourite thing is to spend three days on the trot wandering the galleries looking to see what is new, wonderful and dreadful. "If you come on my tour, you have to keep up."

Waters' need to startle may also account not just for the electric chair that sits in the hall of his home here, but also for the stuffed white dog he has reclining on the floor of his sitting room and the even-more-convincing cat on the couch of his bedroom upstairs. Any guest will swear they see either of the animals opening one eye or at least breathing. "I am also looking for a dead baby. I mean, not a dead baby, but, like, a fake baby that looks as real as the cat," Waters wants us to know. "I would put it in a drawer, like they did in the Depression, so you can take a tiny little peek and you would go 'woooo'."

If he wants some "wooos" from the book, Waters, whose attire today is almost as natty as the pencil moustache that he has sported for years, will surely get a few. Not always for the reasons you might imagine. True, there are some pieces that are undeniably graphic and gross, like the one with Keith Boadwee shooting purple ink out of his rear end, or shots of a Michelle Hines installation piece in which she allegedly deposits a 26ft poo in a school gymnasium. And there are some that seem simply pornographic. There are, in other words, some erect and not-so-erect male members in this book.

Inevitably, however, he and Hainley offer plenty of examples of art that seems sexy to them but which may leave the average browser nonplussed. Appreciation of art is a subjective affair and fathoming the thinking of these two men in the choices they have made is not always easy. And, more pertinently here, what excites one person may leave another quite cold. "Surprise and shock is something we both look for," Hainley concurs. "Not only shock but a new way to look at things. I hope there are images that will make people ask, 'Why is this in here?'"

Which is what you might very well ask about the Tom Friedman all-blank painting called 1,000 Hours of Staring. Allegedly, that is how long the artist spent, in one stretch, gazing at this work. "It's sexy because you can imagine anything. You can wonder what was he wearing," Waters argues. "You have to believe in him first. What was he thinking about, fantasising about? Was he naked some of the time?" f

This leads us off on a brief tangent about the naked people Waters encountered on the beach during his annual pilgrimage this summer to Provincetown, a resort on the tip of Cape Cod popular with gays. Naked people, on the whole, are not sexy, he insists. "Why is everyone ugly? Cute people are never there, or they are wearing something. A sock or something. I feel like calling the police sometimes."

But back to the book and the other equally puzzling entries. Take the image by Larry Clark called Photo Receipt. It is an unframed snap of an envelope that a developer has put a customer's pictures into. The developer was apparently in Manhattan's Chinatown, hence the Chinese script written on it. "It's the envelope of a one-hour photo place. It's sexy because you can imagine the pictures inside. It's a very simple thing everyone can get but because it's by Larry Clark, your imagination can go wild, and because of his other work, it's sexy. What people have in their own photo albums could probably be art too."

Savvy investor that Waters surely is, he has included a couple of pictures from his Baltimore collection. This includes a photograph of Johnnie Ray by the photographer Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee. What is sexy about this, he says, is Ray's old-fashioned hearing aid in his left ear. But Waters admits that in fact he would love to own all of the pieces that he and Hainley have selected. "Basically, if Bruce and I would go out shopping for art, these are what we would like to buy. No question. It's a wish list."

Did it matter that they are two gay men determining what should represent sexy contemporary art? "We tried to make this book equal opportunity. We tried to put a little bit for everyone whether you are straight, gay or lesbian," says Waters. "We tipped a little towards the gay, maybe, because it's a gay art world out there."

Thames & Hudson would probably like us to know that this book is a serious endeavour as well as a bit of cheeky. And so would its authors. Hainley arranged the images into different rooms, in the way of a gallery exhibit. "There is a kind of pulse that goes through the book. At times it is pretty obvious, a formal content juxtaposition. At other times it is oblique, and I wanted it to be oblique. People will find their own connections."

The numerous pages of text, meanwhile, include conversations between the two men about what they have included as well as with some of the artists themselves. Waters and Hainley have each also treated us to a top-ten of sex reads. Hainley's includes a male-escort website. Waters' even has something by Freud as well as Peyton Place. While Waters gleefully states that there are only really 50 important people in the art world anywhere, he and Hainley both express the hope that newcomers to contemporary art will also be drawn in by the book.

"We wanted the book to be appreciated by people within the circle and also a book that was for everyone," Hainley explains. "I hope this book would be in every book store. If they get turned on by this art, that's great. There are images in this book that wouldn't appear in most books."

That is for sure. Inevitably, there was much back-and-forth with the lawyers representing the publishers. Two pieces they wanted had to be withdrawn, because they at least suggested the notion of child pornography. They had wanted one of them, by a Japanese artist, for the cover. The fact that this book is coming out at all is considered by both men to be an achievement.

"This book 10 years ago would have been impossible to be distributed by a company like Thames & Hudson," interjects Waters "Thirty years ago you couldn't even say, 'fuck'. So a lot has changed."

This is hardly the first time that sex and art have been explicitly linked in a book or elsewhere. As Hainley points out, it goes back as far as the Greeks. Waters goes as far to contend that everything about the art world is sexy, up to and including the men who uncrate paintings in the galleries. "Some people could jerk off to a Sotheby's catalogue," he notes with the same devilish grin that erupts with almost every sentence he utters. "Although I haven't."

While Hainley jokes that the release of the book may mean that he "won't be allowed around small children any more", Waters hardly needs to worry about his reputation. This stuff is tame compared to what he has tried in some of his films.

On the other hand, a bit of controversy might be a fillip to Waters right now, because, heaven forbid, things have happened recently that have made him not just mainstream but even something approaching an American institution. This, of course, has to do with the reincarnation of Hairspray as a Broadway musical.

The show recently cleaned up at the annual Tony awards and is clogging Times Square with coaches packed with excited Midwesterners. Waters, who consulted on the production of the musical, is suddenly not so subversive. "It's very funny to me because now families come to me to say, 'We love you'. And I am like, 'you do?'" (He says this with the expression of a man who has just smelled, if not eaten, dog excrement.) Earlier this year, Baltimore's main newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, even went so far as to honour him with the title of "Marylander of the Year". Divine would hardly approve.

So pray for Waters that the art world does not turn around and hail this book as important and worthy. How disappointing would that be? But it may well happen. At least, he has another film in the works, and it is unlikely to get him any new civic tributes. It is to be called A Dirty Shame and features people with serious head injuries losing control over their sexual desires. Vintage Waters, in other words.

'Art - A Sex Book' is published on 30 Sept by Thames & Hudson (RRP £18.95) and is available at the special price of £16.00 (including p&p in the UK only). Please telephone 01252 541602, quoting 'Independent offer' with credit card details