“It all started in the backseat of my sister’s truck.” That’s
the hair-trigger response anytime anyone asks Bill Hayward to talk about
Well, really it started with snapshots. There was the truck, but
there was also Wyoming. In Wyoming, a young Hayward watched red ants bring
beads up from deep within the earth—from old burial sites. It was how the earth
fused past and present, he noted. Then there was fourth grade art class.
Hayward smushed a paintbrush onto paper, watched the bristles splay out, rapt
at the potential that lay before him. A humorless art teacher snapped him back
to reality— “You’re going to ruin that brush!”
Hayward doesn’t operate in a world where the tools of art—pieces
of art themselves—are subject to ruin. After all “to ruin” suggests someone is
there to impose on these instruments, to do the alleged ruining. When Hayward
creates, he steps aside. Hayward sets the world in motion like the deist god
who winds the clock, but where it will go from there is anyone’s guess.
Stepping out of the way, however, may be the most challenging artistic task of
* * *
Last week Hayward appeared at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
in Soho with Laura Isaacman, editor of The
Coffin Factory magazine, to discuss his full-length film Asphalt, Muscle and Bone. Isaacman’s
interest in Hayward’s work was sparked by a collaboration she witnessed between
Hayward and the writer
Taylor. Isaacman then began “stalking” the eccentric Hayward—who humored her
inquiries—hanging around his studio and digging through old suitcases, looking
for anything that might lend some insight into the enigmatic artist and that
nagging question of inspiration.
Isaacman, perhaps naively, wanted a linear tale of inspiration,
a trajectory from “then” to “now,” but from there things only got less
After living in 17 states with his older, snake-wrangling
sister, who instilled in him a sense of adventure and a hunger for possibility,
Hayward got his start in photographic portraiture. As Hayward took the
conventional, staid position of photographer behind the lens, enacting his
vision on the subject, he felt something was incredibly wrong; he couldn’t get
something Kierkegaard once said out of his head.
“He said the advent of photography would make everyone look the
same,” explains Hayward. “I decided it was time to mess around, to disrupt.” He
began slicing up and rearranging faces—the effect was a cubistic uncanny
valley, equal parts creepy and beautiful (the resulting images managed a
certain uneasy symmetry, which we are unconsciously conditioned as viewers to
believe denotes the utmost beauty).
It also occurred to Hayward that around this time there had been
a “gross imbalance of testosterone” in the world for the past three- to
four-thousand years. He became fixated on dance, believing dance emphasized the
female figure in a position of power, one contrary to the traditional view of
“Nobody here didn’t come out of a vagina,” announces Hayward to
the crowd, “but everybody’s running from it. We won’t talk about it. We have to
talk about vaginas in a positive way. We have to talk about death and vaginas
in a positive way.“
“Throw out everything you’re comfortable with,” he adds. “Give
Hayward made it his mission to reinvent portraiture, to
transform it from something unfulfilling and subjugating to a process of the
“collaborative self.” (At least this is his explanation for those who demand a
narrative, who cannot wrap their minds around the disjointedness of inspiration
and creation as they infiltrate our lives, only to abandon us just as quickly
as the canvas has been primed.)
Hayward would bring in his “subjects“ for a conversation and
together they’d wait for something, anything. That “something” was removed from
judgment and from planning. It was full of risk. It usually took about 15
minutes to get the ball rolling, to strip away the inhibitions of daily life
and proper conduct.
People tore off their clothing, dipped their hands in paint and
stood there, exposed, dripping onto canvases. If it sounds less than
earth-shattering to you, wait until you see Hayward’s shots. The man behind the
camera disappears, the image yanks you in—it demands your unwavering
complicity. You feel as though you’ve just witnessed a crime of passion you
yourself perhaps committed. I feel like a traitor calling them “Hayward’s
shots” at all, as though I’ve gravely missed the point.
When it was Willem Dafoe’s turn, he created a series of large,
oversized, crudely-drawn mother figures. In Hayward’s photos, Dafoe cowers
below them, as though being birthed from the pages. “Oedipal” springs to mind.
Don’t ask Hayward what he’s trying to accomplish. He quotes
Francis Bacon: “If I knew what I was doing, why would I do it?” He says Asphalt, Muscle and Bone encapsulates
“risk-taking and how women have been written off” as well as the “impossibility
of love” as he flips through projected film stills, he knows he only wants to
see things he’s never seen, but that’s about all he knows.
Members of the audience shift in their seats, they seem uneasy
about this “impossibility of love” notion. Hayward feels under no pressure to
address the crowd for long, quiet stretches. A man breaks the silence: “Can you
expand on the impossibility of love?”
The way we’re introduced to love is completely erroneous, offers
Hayward. We have to break it down before we can build it up.
“All of these may or may not be in the film,” Hayward explains
cryptically as he shows us film stills of mythical places like the Fat River
Hotel and the conceptual Museum of Emotions. You cannot physically enter into
Hayward’s museum or his hotel, all the rooms are made up, but you can purchase
postcards, postcards which look as though they were pulled from the very
ancient burial grounds themselves. And in order to reach these places, you must
first yourself get lost.
In his presentation, as in his work, Hayward appears to withdraw
into a strange, removed place within himself only to reemerge and confront us
with the unseen, the whimsically gritty and eerie. Is this work erotic? Nudes
reappear in the stills on several occasions, in hotel rooms, often in
compromising poses, seemingly torturing each other or wrapping their teeth
around strings of pearls. We almost feel guilty asking ourselves. What is
eroticism anymore? Would it offend Hayward if we were to ask? No one does;
they’re hung up on the love question. They’re still obsessed by the idea of
Hayward says it took a long process of elimination to get to
where he is now, artistically-speaking—a lifetime of risk-taking. His life
parallels the canvas he describes—a “blank” canvas is not truly a blank canvas,
it’s a series of cliches which must be painstakingly scraped away.
Throughout the process, Hayward always felt that push of
something being wrong though. It was the impetus to move forward, the force
that kept him going. “I feel at ease now,” he says.
In the art of the world around him, Hayward will settle for no
less than the standards to which he holds himself. “You can’t short-circuit
experience,” he says. Art cannot and should not be commodified. “You won’t find
yourself online, on Instagram.” The crowd titters, guiltily. “You won’t find
Paris in Disneyland.”
Alissa Fleck is a
freelance writer whose work has been featured in the Huffington Post, the San
Francisco Chronicle, Our Town Downtown, on Narrative.ly and more. She cares
deeply about LGBT issues and has a piece on the subject forthcoming on
This Thursday, Housing Works bookstore brings you Bill Hayward and scenes from his film asphalt, muscle and bone. Laura Isaacman, editor of The Coffin Factory, discusses art, literature, and film with Bill, whose photographs are the main art feature in issue four of The Coffin Factory.
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe 126 Crosby Street New York, NY 10012
Two links landed in our inbox last week and I haven't been able to keep myself from returning to their landing pages. Both links lead to work by Bill Hayward, the brilliant photographer, filmaker, and chronicler of the body whom we've been following since we started this blog. I love the way Bill captures the raw emotion of his subjects and when I watch his film and dance productions and look at his portraits, I'm aware of tension building in my own body. It's the kind of tension you feel when a jazz singer sings behind the beat; by holding back the performer creates suspense that doesn't resolve until the singer "catches up" with the music. It's uncomfortable . . . and thrilling. The best classical dancers can do this even though they're working within the constraints of precise choreography.
Forgive my meandering way of saying you must check out these recent publications of Bill's work. The first appears in the current issue of The Coffin Factory alongside work by Lydia Davis, T.C. Boyle, and Charles Simic, among others.
“Postcards” is from “The Museum of Emotions” from Bill's film Asphalt, Muscle & Bone, which we've written about elsewhere on this blog.
The second link leads to Psychology Tomorrow magazine and Wilhelmina Frankfurt's memoir of George Balanchine. Bill's photos of Frankfurt illustrate the piece and they're stunning. In her piece, Frankfurt describes her final encounter with Mr. B. Shocking but not surprising.
Click over to find three pieces on or by Bill: you'll find stunning photos and video from his the human bible project, a profile of Bill, and a short film by Bill on the painter Jim Peters.
Bill's work is at once intimate and daring. He doesn't just film or photograph his subjects, he engages them in an ongoing collaboration that yields stunning, revealing results. We have more of Bill's work here, but for the latest, be sure to take a look at Psychology Tomorrow Magazine.
Bill Hayward brings to our attention a compelling sequence of blog posts about Genesis from the redoubtable Walter Kirn. Here's a link to the first in the series, which argues that "the Eden story in Genesis is about a drug bust and its aftermath. It begins by discussing the prohibition of a potent psychedelic substance: a plant or a fruit that grants those who ingest it personal access to divine capacities." Eden allegorized as a drug bust is an awesome idea that Kirn handles like a parable in the Kafka manner.
To Kirn's account I (who often think of Genesis in relation to The Odyssey as allegories of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures) would add the reminder that Odysseus's men are tempted by drugs in the Lotos Eaters episode and, one could argue, in that of the Sirens, though Circe, to whom many succumb, represents the sin of sex not of dope. Hard to improve on Joyce's vision of Circe as a brothel madame. But speaking of sex, what do you -- if you are Walter -- make of the fact that fucking is the first thing Adam and Eve do after enjoying the fruit? How are knowledge and carnal knowledge related?
If you're wondering why there's a picture of Soren Kierkegaard in this blog post, it's just to add his name to Kafka's as among the most imaginative of bible interpreters -- a wonderful tradition worth keeping alive. A toast to you, Walter Kirn. -- DL