For the retrospective of a man whose body of work can most definitely be described as provocative, the C/O Museum in Berlin chose an equally provocative banner for the façade of its former post office building. Hanging above the entrance, situated on one of the biggest tourist streets in Berlin, is a colossal image of a woman’s pubic region with the word “Larry” inscribed in green ink, poking out from behind a tuft of hair. The museum’s patrons don’t emerge from Clark’s girlfriend’s nether regions looking so much reborn but rather slightly taken aback. Since the opening, the banner has been splattered with red paint, but it’s unclear whether the vandals acted in protest, or whether it was some sort of crude joke.
Larry Clark’s “Kiss The Past Hello” retrospective caused a storm of controversy when it opened in Paris, the authorities issuing a ban preventing under-18s from attending, alleging that it contained pornographic material. No stranger to controversy – hell he’s made a career out of it – Clark stirred up the media, declaring it an “attack on youth”. In addition to this, Libération printed some teenagers from the exhibition on its front page getting involved in some very heavy petting, and announcing “No one disputes the fact that the public presentation of pornography should be regulated or that images whose content is obviously paedophilic should be banned. The problem is that the photos of Larry Clark … in no way belong to this category.” Following this of course, the exhibition had record attendances with people queuing down the street. In fact, it seems like the director has been riding this wave of publicity ever since, announcing recently two new film projects: Marfa Girl and The Smell of Us, the former of which has begun shooting with Clark acting as auteur.
Clark’s work has often been accused of being pornographic or paedophilic and whilst it certainly is true that the director has always clung to the theme of adolescence (a theme which has dominated his oeuvre), his subjects are most definitely not treated as sexual objects or in a pornographic way. Instead, Clark is conducting a study of youth in all its violent, sexual and destructive glory. In the latter section of his work – which consists primarily of scrapbook style collages – many of the pieces seem to be direct responses to these allegations – one particular piece containing pictures from “Teen Dream” of a scantily-clad, pubescent Corey Haim, and another video collage of excerpts from talk-show’s who seem feed off and profit from young victims of sexual abuse. Clark seems here to be exposing the hypocrisy of a society that has the nerve to call him a child pornographer.
The collection itself is extremely personal. A series of works being shown in Berlin for the first time are dedicated to Brad Renfro, the star of Clark’s film Bully who died of an overdose in 2008. There are three collages comprising of 119 images taken on the late actor’s 18th birthday. Some show the actor shooting heroin, some drinking by the train tracks and others showing off his own train tracks on his pock-marked arms. One piece is arranged in the shape of the USA, the others smeared with Clark’s blood and bloody handprints – suggesting that he perhaps feels in some way responsible for the actor’s death. Images and newspaper clippings about Renfro also have a prominent place in some of the artist’s newest works. The 2010 work “I want a baby before u die” is a collage various objects which seem to reflect on Clark’s recent life, including some of Clark’s girlfriend Tiffany Limos’ pubic hairs on a napkin, clippings of Serrano’s Piss Christ, and pictures of the stars of his recent films Wassup Rockers and Ken Park. But Renfro is at the center of the piece – it seems that of the many friends of Clark’s that have passed away, it is Renfro’s death that seems to have had the biggest effect on him.
The retrospective turns out to be not just an interesting study of Larry Clark, but in a wider sense of adolescence in general. The early photograph collections celebrate youthful experimentation even in its most violent and destructive forms, whereas his later collage based work shows the increasing fragility of youth as a result of the media and the cult of celebrity. Much of the spirit of his work seems however to be motivated by a desire to hold on to his own wasted youth, which we see a great deal of in Tulsa and Teenage Lust . Scrawled on one of the pages from the latter written in 1974 Clark confesses, “Since I became a photographer, I’ve always wanted to turn back the years.” Well, some things never change.
Larry Clark – A Retrospective is running until the 12th August at the C/O Berlin