iain mckell explores the tired dreamers of american idealism at salon evening - tonight!
Famed for distilling decades of British subculture into series’ of images, photographer Iain McKell is now taking us on a tumultuous journey across America…
Catching the last tube on a Thursday, when everyone was a little drunk and a little loose, Roisin McQueirns got chatting to McKell and ended up promising to curate a show of his work. The result is tonight's SALON01, which will be held at the Wanstead Tap in Forest Gate; an out of the way spot which McKell describes as "a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow." The show will centre around a slideshow projection of 200 of McKells photographs, taken during a three week trip to America and focused around a 72 hour Greyhound bus journey from New York to Los Angeles.
In an era of commercial art, located in white boxes with clean walls and straight lines, the screening will be pointedly antibureaucratic. SALON01 is the first in a series and will follow in the footsteps of years of Salon's held at McKell's place in Notting Hill. These events were essentially an excuse to get together and party, whilst being surrounded by art. But don't let the party vibes undercut the sentiment behind the work, because, in McQueirns words, it "holds an emotional weight which cuts to the core." This series of images explores An American Prayer; the tired, downtrodden dreamers of American idealism, who continue to travel millions of miles in search of something which probably never existed. We chat to McKell about tribes, Gods and gypsies.
Grayson Perry once said that our class system is basically a series of tribes. Which tribe do you belong to, if any?
Everyone belongs to one, I think I belong to the tribe of artists and thinkers who question and push the envelope; a tribe of photographers who witness and draw inspiration from other tribes. From the underground in NY, to the desperate traveller "riding the hog" (the greyhound bus), to Lay glamour and so on, I'm always on the edge or outside trying to connect with people from all walks of life.
Do you think we have/can/will ever move beyond a tribal system?
In a thousand years, when we are Gods.
If you had to work with one particular group who would it be?
The Gypsies project is particularly close to my heart. Actually I should have been on my way to Stonehenge on Tuesday as a friend of mine, the New Gypsy traveller Dave Sanger, was getting married at 6am the next day. I couldn't go as I had too much work to do for my Salon evening on Thursday. But the point of this recent project American Prayer, was actually to move away from focusing on one group of people and explore more of my inner self instead. I wanted to take a road trip myself, rather than hitching a ride with travellers and going on their journey.
What does the phrase "American Dream" mean to you?
It's this idea that anything is possible and can come from your own efforts. A bit like Margaret Thatcher thinking ultimate capitalism... but the reality is a bit broken, as my story tells. There is an underbelly of poor people, with sadness in their eyes, hanging on to the idea that the American dream includes them. Of course it does in a way, but people fall between the cracks and the dream holds promises which often become a nightmare of violence, obesity and so on.
What does "American Prayer" mean to you?
The title for this collection, An American Prayer, came to me when I was on the Greyhound bus journey round America. It is the title of The Doors' last album which was made after Jim Morrison's death. They based the music on his poems and his take on America. This idea, teamed with the underground scene in NY and this journey where I found Jesus everywhere in people's souls and in the signs in the landscape, contributed to the idea of An American Prayer.
How does America compare to England?
I think New York is very similar to London, like a parallel universe. The underground scene is so iconic in the tradition of New York and there is a texture to the character of it that is familiar but slightly different to London's. It fascinates me that most of these people, either in NY or London, have never been to their other universe, and yet, both groups share this similar vibration- how does that work?
Are there any stories that really stand out in your mind from travelling America?
I think the bus journeys were the best. It was like I found Jesus on the bus. There were so many interesting people, like the retired professor from Brooklyn who was visiting his parents. We stayed up all night on the bus talking about stuff, like his memories of being on the road in the 60s. Then there was the blind lady called Shelly; she was blinded at 19 by a surgeon who botched an operation on her eyes. She was so cool and loved me paying her attention and taking her portrait. Then there was the white jailbird. He was tattooed from head to tail, with a Swastika tattoo on his back over-inked with the name "Jesus". He had done 15 years for armed robbery but had now found God. At one point he had a standoff at the back of the bus with these nasty LA gangsters and the next minute he was owning up to me and started to cry when he told me about his life story and the moment God spoke to him. Seeing the "hard man" cry was very moving, I had a lump in my throat and felt very close to him.
What's the wildest thing that's happened to you during your adventures?
There's lots and lots of crazy stuff that's too shocking for print but I guess the time I picked up a 30-something woman in the suburbs of Southampton, is up there. I was 18 and we fucked in a leafy lane next to her house, while her husband was inside. I was fucking her half in the car, half out, with the door open, her hands clasping leaves on the ground and her knees on the seat. Then she left, I didn't even know her name and I don't think she knew mine either; it was just this crazy, wild moment in my youth, where I was exploring my sexuality… I LOVE WOMEN and this has lead to many a story, too many to go into really, but thank God for women.
Text Lily Bonesso
Photography Iain McKell