tommy cash's new collaboration with rick owens is as horrifying as it is fascinating
In his first foray into the art world, the 'post-Soviet rapper' exhibits, among other things, his own sperm as part of a show created in collaboration with the American designer.
All images courtesy of OWENSCORP
Tommy Cash will not remove his neon-lime mirror sunglasses. When we meet in a coffee shop in the Estonian capital, all I can see is my own reflection staring back at me. It’s disconcerting, but that’s Tommy in a nutshell. Take his new exhibition – The Pure and the Damned, a collaboration with notorious US fashion designer Rick Owens – where he exhibits (among other items) 200,000,000 of his own sperm in a small tank.
The ‘post-Soviet’ rapper (Tommy is of Estonian, Russian, Ukrainian and Kazakh descent) rose to notoriety in 2016 releasing videos alongside his tracks described as “nothing short of a surreal orgy” and “a buffet of anatomy”, in the media and garnering millions of views.
But now, he's making his first forays into the art world. Ultimately, he wants to sell his spunk to stans as part of a conceptual project through the merchandise arm of his “brand”. “It’s actually just around one load,” he says when I ask how long he spent masturbating for the exhibition. “At first I thought I’d like to have it on my merch site to kinda sell sperm to my fans.”
“I’m really interested in how it will go. We’re still finalising the paperwork and everything because the sperm is alive right? It’s a real tank and everything, so they can do whatever. It won’t be like they’re my children, but [fans] can do whatever with it. That’s kind of the art part.”
Having just flown in from Moscow, we meet in the rapidly gentrifying Kalamaja district in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. It turns out that despite a degree of acquired celebrity, securing a spot for the exhibition in a prolific gallery, in whichever country, was still challenging.
“Rick [Owens] was the key for me to get into doing any kind of exhibition,” he says. The pair met in Paris originally, and Tommy ended up modelling for Rick on the runway of his Spring 2019 menswear show. Rick was originally just using Tommy’s music for his catwalks, but they ended up forming a close bond and the designer helped him on a personal level too. “At that point I was getting into this fashion scene, I would say,” Tommy recalls. “It was fashion week at the time and Rick just kind of… he pulled me back into myself.”
Tommy says he wasn’t particularly notable at that point and had just become somewhat overexcited and “lost” in his own state of mind, wanting to meet everyone and go everywhere, like any 20-something would at a fashion week. “[Rick] was like, ‘it’s even better if you don’t go to some places because it’s you’. Rick put me back into the right space.”
The exhibition, The Pure and the Damned, is a collaborative effort, and is divided into two very distinct sections, one for Tommy and one for Rick. “The dark side and the light side,” Tommy jokes. “Although, who’s the pure and who’s the damned, I can’t tell.”
In one section, Rick’s ethereal models stand high in striking cuts like Roman statues, while Tommy’s sperm – along with other conceptual artworks including a group of horses having a threesome, a glitzy wheelchair with its own chandelier hanging at the back, and a painting of him, naked and heavily pregnant – fills the other.
Tommy hails from Kopli, a district of Tallinn further west along the coast, and that too has impacted his work. A formerly run-down district, populated by homeless people and no stranger to arson and murder, it is now being developed just like Kalamaja – perhaps even more so as entirely new developments spring up. “Still, I get an old vibe from there,” he says. “And there’s still [nearby district] Pelgulinn,” which he describes as economically deprived. "There are a lot of Russians there and a beach where they make shashlik kebabs when it’s 10 degrees outside with no shirts on, putting up tents and having parties.”
“I love the old Kopli of course,” he continues. “I still remember the rotting buildings and infinite number of junkies. All the fucking bums and junkies look like they’re wearing the latest Balenciaga.”
Given the scale of the exhibition, Tommy admits that he had people to help him with the paintings. “How does a guy go on tour, does 30 concerts in one month, comes back, has one month, does six paintings, two sculptures”, he asks rhetorically. He also struggled with his lack of hands-on art experience, encountering a strange kind of gatekeeping. “The art world is a separate thing right? It’s not like music and what I do.”
It took a year and a half to organise the exhibition, during which time he was advised by larger galleries to attempt something in a “smaller” space. Fortunately, the curator at KUMU (Estonia's largest art museum), Kati Ilves, had spent some time in Italy and had seen the designer's show Rick Owens: Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman, in Milan. It was her idea for the pair to collaborate. “We didn’t really know each other in person until he approached me,” she says. “He wanted to do something grand at Kumu … my initial response was ‘No, I cannot give you a solo show.’”
“When I saw Rick’s garments displayed at the Milan Triennale last year, it struck me that they would make so much sense exhibited together as representing the opposite poles of the same realm.”
While Tommy made his artworks specifically for the exhibition, Rick's pieces were already prepared. “Rick is like one lifespan older than me,” he says. “I will soon be 30 and he will be 60. So he had his works already made; it’s kind of like a travelling exhibition, although he did make some new works for it, like sculptures of us together. But for me – we totally started from zero so I had to come up with everything.”
Now he takes off his sunglasses briefly, revealing his round blue, and surprisingly serious, eyes. “I feel safe,” he says, before going on to show off the rest of his lime green outfit, which includes a single lime green sock. “Look at my costume! It’s so cute!” he enthuses. Genuinely delighted with his life, his work and his success (he doesn’t buy into the nihilistic artist ideal in the slightest), right now the rapper reminds me of a Winaloto clip, where the orange flash of his sneakers matches his jacket and he makes self-aggrandising proclamations like, “Everything I do is amazing.” I ask what he doesn’t like about his life. There’s a long pause – he’s stumped. “I think I love everything about my life,” he says finally. “For sure I’m tortured in some parts but I don’t think it’s anyone else’s thing.”
“Everyone feels like they need to be someone when they hit like 19, 20. 'Why am I not successful'… [they] should understand that they really just need to work on their craft, be good at it. Not just popular. They shouldn’t strive for popularity, but skill.”
I recall some further Winaloto lyrics: "All I do is success, smooth as butter.” With this exhibition, pragmatic approach to his work and optimistic outlook on life, Tommy Cash is yet to be proven wrong.