Lust never sleeps
Larry Clark has spent the past 50 years exploring the themes of teenage rebellion and promiscuity. Maybe it's time he grew up, he tells Fionnuala McHugh
PART OF LARRY CLARK'S EXHIBITION AT THE SIMON LEE GALLERY.
LARRY CLARK, the American photographer and director - most notoriously of Kids, the 1995 film that depicts young people having drugs and casual sex - is trudging through the PR motions expected of any artist when his work goes out into the world.
He looks and sounds weary when we meet for the interview in the TriBeCa cafe in New York. He's wearing a T-shirt that features a skeletal hand, as if the Grim Reaper's tapping him on the chest. He turned 70 in January and is about to go to Paris to shoot a new film entitled The Smell of Us and, as with any artistic person, the creative problems of today are more painfully relevant than the successes of 30 years ago.
"Can you sleep?" he asks, suddenly. "I can't. The main reason I didn't go to Hong Kong for the show is I didn't think I could handle the jet lag and the shoot in France."
The Simon Lee Gallery opened an exhibition of Clark's photography recently, the first time it's been shown in Asia. The show's images are taken from his books Tulsa (1971), which also depicts young people taking drugs and having casual sex, and Teenage Lust (1983), ditto.
Perhaps the hoo-ha that surrounded his 2010 retrospective in Paris - the mayor banned under-18s from attending - is on his mind. Clark quickly glances up from the bottle cap he's been morosely fiddling with, and his face brightens with unholy glee. It's as if a delighted juvenile has taken possession of his body. "It was incredible," he says. "I went to have a nice, quiet retrospective, and that happened. I thought: My God, it's insane! The work's still dangerous."
Clark, who once spent 19 months in prison for shooting a man during a card game and who broke the nose of a film distributor during an argument about 9/11, is faultlessly polite.
The tormented, tormenting adolescent is so hot-wired into Clark's public vision and psyche that you can only wonder what happened during his own teens. The answer would seem to be, initially, not a lot. He once told an interviewer that he was "the last guy in Oklahoma to go through puberty". His mother was a photographer of babies, and he assisted her from the age of 12. "She was talented with kids," her son remembers. "She could get them to do what she wanted; she had all these tricks and she taught them to me."
Like what? Clark demonstrates, with gusto, how to prop up a baby for a few seconds before it topples over. Did some of them go splat on the floor? "Yeah, I'm sure. Not many, though." He was required to be the face-pulling idiot in the background who elicited baby gurgles. He hated the role and it's not too much of a stretch to see how a hyperactive youth on amphetamines ("Self-medicating - they helped level me out") might subsequently employ such professional tricks to catalogue an older, less cuddly age-group. Tulsa - all teens, torsos and trauma - was his personal riposte to the twee, infantile wholesomeness of middle America.
At the time, the book was considered sensational, but Clarke says: "Photographers pulled their punches then. Still do. You didn't see those images, and that's why I did it, to show what couldn't be shown. I guess people are still taken aback by the explicitness and the realness of it."
Teenage Lust (subtitled An Autobiography of Larry Clark, although it was more a wishful revisiting of what he'd like his youthful sexual biography to have been) was similarly raw. Both books were acclaimed by photographers for their stark beauty, and filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Gus Van Sant have all cited his influence in their own work.
This prompted Clark to move into film himself. Kids, which introduced Chloe Sevigny to the world, made a mainstream splash, but later work has tended to eddy about in the shallows, although there's been no shortage of notoriety. Ken Park (2002), which begins with a suicide and briskly moves on to auto-erotic asphyxiation, troilism and the murder of a grandfather for cheating at Scrabble, was banned in Australia and unwelcome in other countries. It was the British distributor of this film whose nose he broke, which makes the incident all the more bizarre. Is he sorry about it? "No. Yeah," Clark says. "I am. It was inappropriate; it was stupid. My first thought is always to hit. That's what happens when you're raised with John Wayne." His Marfa Girl last year won best film at the Rome Film Festival.
Asked if there's anything he'd self-censor, Clark has a little mental rummage but confesses he doesn't know. Would he put his own children, now in their 20s, on screen?
"No. They have enough to put up with, with me being a well-known guy." His daughter's a good photographer, "but she's a little late". At 26? "I don't mean her age," Clark says patiently. "I mean photography is dead; it's long gone. With these little phones, people can photograph anything. No, I don't have one, I'm not technically digital."
Even film is starting to lose its charm. "I'm in a funny place now," he volunteers, after a discussion about the British director Alan Clarke whose BBC film, Elephant, about killings in Northern Ireland, he describes - and he's surely one who knows the standard - as "the most disturbing film you could ever see".
"I'm doing this film in France but I feel I should do something different. Maybe I should grow up. I just thought of that, just now, talking here ... " And Clark looks briefly astounded at his own utterance. Someone, surely, has made this wise suggestion before?
"Yeah, I'm sure people have been saying it for a long time."
Larry Clark selected works, Simon Lee Gallery, 3/F Pedder Building, Central. Until May 16. Inquiries: 2801 6858