You’ve always mentioned rage as something that fuels creation. Is it present in the show?
The sculptural element that I placed in the middle of the space is, to me, a kind of primal hollow, an energy of drive, ambition, rage, almost like ectoplasmic vomit. It also felt like an earthwork, creating a mountain of rage, of drive. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the place of evil. How everything is in balance, how the world has always had an element of evil, and always will. It’s an essential part of life. I haven’t figured out how I feel about it, but if you’re just logical, it’s a part of living that never disappears. So you have to learn how to do positive things that balance it out. There have been moments in recent years when the negative force has become very prevalent, politically, ecologically. It’s not like I have a solution, I don’t know anything about it. The question is how do you deal with these ominous forces that threaten us. One of the things that makes me feel good is that we’re going through discomfort, but we’re also going through incredible luxury. The luxury of knowledge. The world has never seen such luxury before. And knowledge is power. So having this incredible level of luxury, and at the same time threats, such as nuclear war... There have been terrific moments in history, but people have also gone through very difficult times before. And it’s true we might be running out of resources, and species have gone extinct before, so maybe we will too. It’s silly to believe that we should be exempt from extinction. Anyway, we were talking about rage. [Laughs.] So yes, there is rage, but there is also deep peace, serenity. I recognize serenity and I aim for it. But I must recognize that rage has been a great motivating factor – it’s done me good. So reac- tion to conflict or pressure can be a very positive thing.
“If somebody really wanted to, they could look precisely at everything I do and break down the references.”
In your aesthetic you mix the 19th century, punk, grunge...
And I’m also looking at kid’s drawings, and African sculptures, anything that’s just an accumulation of history. If somebody really wanted to, they could look precisely at everything I do and break down the references. That’s what creators do: we all work from history, nobody invents anything new, we just invent new compositions. For the show, for example, I made a catalogue that’s very elaborate and which I based on Marcel Duchamp’s “valises.” It’s my own version of that, a box that has things in it, like a music album used to be. You would open the album cover on the inside and everything was very significant, very iconic, and you ended up remembering that art for the rest of your life. It’s what I tried to do with this box.
But when you work with someone like the performer Christeene, whose oeuvre might be seen as really primal and offensive to lots of people, what is your aim? To push boundaries? To offer an alternative vision of beauty?
Christeene to me represents joy. The joy of abandon – abandoning hypocrisy and indulging your id and your primal instincts that are very innocent and very charming. There is a childlike innocence in her provocation, something very cheerful and happy to what she does. The world can become very conservative. After everything we’ve been through, being shocked by what Christeene does is fake, it’s disingenuous. Christeene is theatre, a composition of commedia dell’arte, kabuki, Busby Berkeley Hollywood musicals, grand guignol... So we’ve seen all of it before. It’s just a wonderful release to allow yourself to project yourself onto Christeene. That’s the kind of thing that I endorse because I feel it creates a balance in the world. It counters false prudishness, false rules. And that’s the role I want to play: I want to be someone who’s a positive force, in my own tiny little way. I get to promote the values that I believe in, and people associate me with those values. And I feel there are enough people who can identify with those values, so I’m not alone.
“I use mess, I use chaos, but I suppose I use it in a very controlled way.”
Do you feel that today we’re going through more conservative times? With social media censoring nudity in an arbitrary manner, for example?
I feel that we have opened ourselves to a mock mentality... and that’s where evil comes in, where evil is essential. I’m not talking about incredible evil. I’m talking about an instinct among most people to at- tack. It can be mere sarcasm, like online comments on articles in The New York Times. It’s shocking how quickly those threads can degenerate into conflict. This has been one of the most shocking things in my life, seeing how easy it is for people to attack and start throwing stones. What does it say in the Bible? “May he who has never sinned throw the first stone.” Everybody in their life has done something wrong. There seems to be this mentality to attack on the internet that is very discouraging. So I think that’s what has created a lot of today’s conservatism. People are just afraid of being attacked. For being anything other than very normal.
What else will visitors see in your Triennale exhibition?
There are excerpts from some of my runway shows, but I blew them up on a big wall. They’re close ups, black and white and slowed down. It feels completely different to see them like that – it’s a nice way of looking at it from another perspective. There are videos of the shows, and then videos of preparations for the shows and for the collections. There’s actually a video of me that I took with my iPhone at the factory one day when nobody was there. I was draping something that was important to me – it was a new shape, a change for me. You drape things thousands of times and you get a great one only once in a while, so I was really lucky to catch that moment. Then there are a lot of things on display like show invitations which are part of the whole process. All of this creates a narrative. Of course there are mannequins dressed in my clothes, there are a few total looks, but we also mixed the collections. I’m not saying it’s messy, it’s very calculated. Some people would think it’s very stiff. But I like a little formality. Formality means that you’ve thought things through and made a decision based on rational thinking rather than instinct. A lot of it is instinct, but it’s a calculated formal composition. I use mess, I use chaos, but I suppose I use it in a very controlled way.
Rick Owens’s retrospective Inhuman Subhuman Superhuman is on show at the Triennale in Milan until 25 March.