A few years ago, Australian video artist Heath Franco made a work designed to be displayed in the toilet. The video, installed on the back of the cubicle door, starred Franco himself, naked from the waist down, applauding and congratulating the water-closeted viewer. Intra-toilet art is just one example of Franco’s creative sensibility, which one Sydney curator has described, not without enthusiasm, as “invasively shocking”.
One evening in August, Franco, who doesn’t normally perform in public, put on a pop-up show, of a sort, in the middle of Times Square in New York City. The area was teeming with its usual array of dodgy denizens: Marvel superheroes, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, several topless body-painted women, a man holding a “Free Hugs” sign and a few aspiring hip-hop artists from the Bronx.
“This is a fantasy land,” Franco said, breathing it all in.
Franco donned a disguise of his own: a confectionary-coloured jacket, a beanie with an actual candy design on it, and a cheerfully creepy vintage mask he’d acquired in Seattle. He looked, as was the intention, hideous. With his wife and fellow artist, Jodie Whalen, wielding the camera, Franco began singing and dancing on the spot while brandishing a box of glazed doughnuts.
Even by Times Square standards, it was weird. Tourists and locals alike stopped in their tracks. Some pointed phone cameras. One of the rappers silently mouthed, “What the fuck?” It’s a typical response.
Last year, the 32-year-old, based in Parramatta, was awarded the $30,000 NSW Visual Arts Fellowship (Emerging). In recent weeks, Franco has been travelling around the United States, developing content for a major new project: next year, he will feature in The National: New Australian Art, an exhibition presented jointly by Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Carriageworks.
At the latter institution Franco’s work will be, as usual, hard to miss. He’ll appear on screen, as he does in all his videos, gruesomely slathered in make-up, and wearing outlandish costume-shop accessories and thrift-store oddities. (Past outfits have included a ringmaster’s jacket, a leopard-skin unitard and a woman’s blouse.) In front of rainbow-coloured backdrops and amid a riot of crude computer effects, Franco’s grotesque, barely human pantomime creations will leer at and taunt the viewer, repeating sinisterly banal phrases or noises over and over again.
In one video, for example, Franco sports black feathers and Halloween decorations, and growls, “What are you doin’ here? What are you doin’ here? What are you doin’ here?”
It’s a one-man freak-show phantasmagoria that can make you want to take a shower afterwards. There are traces of the Cremaster Cycle by epic video art provocateur Matthew Barney, of Cindy Sherman’s serial-killer clowns, and of the hallucinogenic hijinks of television’s Tim & Eric, together with the feeling of watching a disturbed child raid his mother’s wardrobe.
It’s certainly never ponderous. In fact, Franco tends to provoke strong feelings one way or another. As Ron Adams, fellow artist and co-founder of Sydney’s Galerie pompom, said of the work’s appeal, “It’s irritating but also mesmerising.” Earlier this year, one gallery visitor boasted in the comments book, “I lasted 20 minutes in the video installation!”
When Franco’s videos were shown at the University of Southern Queensland’s art gallery in 2011, there were complaints from staff and students. Similar reactions came in 2013 when Franco featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual Primavera exhibition of Australian artists aged under 35. Writing in response to that show, Katherine Guinness, a lecturer at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, wondered, “Is my anger at Franco because I stepped in a pile of shit? Or is that anger, that feeling, actually a rare ﬂowering of emotion from a ‘truly outstanding work’?”
Franco is only too pleased to freak out gallery-goers. “I like that tension. The characters are ugly and grotesque. But most of the time you still want to watch.”
Wearing a black T-shirt, and in a more sedate mode after the Times Square performance, Franco says that he loved playing dress-ups as a child. But, as a boy, “that gets beaten out of you”.
Off camera and out of character, Franco has a gentle disposition with no suggestion of his hellacious personae. He explains that the characters and creatures that emerge from his unconscious, in a frenzy of improvisation, provide a psychological outlet. It’s an exorcism.
“I let things get to me a lot,” he says. “Things bring me down. But you can kinda lose it for a few seconds, or a few minutes. When there’s no fear that there’s anyone judging you, or worried about you, you can really push it. And that’s where the best stuff comes from.”
He’s self-effacing about the work too. Describing the narrative thrust of a recent piece – in which he plays a rabbit, a murderer and a small child – Franco ultimately trails off with mock shame. “It’s ludicrous,” he says. “Sometimes I’m surprised that people actually give a shit. Honestly.”
For years, Franco floundered as an artist, making half-hearted attempts at painting and sculpture. The idea that the goofy videos he sometimes created for his own amusement might qualify as art came as a revelation.
These days, Franco is making art that – so rare for the art world – thrives in the buzzy setting of an exhibition opening night. His beastly performances are the life of the party. “If you see a guy acting like an animal, people feel less inhibited after that,” Franco says.
Perhaps for similar reasons, Franco’s antics are a hit with kids. Curator Carrie Kibbler recalls Franco’s contribution to a group exhibition at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre south of Sydney in January: “There was a CCTV camera in the space. We could look up at the security screens in the office and see children dancing and performing along with the videos.”
“I’ve witnessed lots of ‘family viewing’,” says Samantha Ferris, co-director of Galerie pompom. Yes, toddlers have cried, she admits. “But I’ve also seen kids transfixed. I’ve seen a mother have to drag her kid away from watching a work, and I’ve seen kids spar with one of Heath’s boxing characters.”
Ferris also confesses that, at home, she trades some of Franco’s one-liners with her son.
For Franco, used to working himself into a frenzy alone in his studio, the Times Square show was his first attempt at creating art in front of a live and interactive audience. By the end of it, he had posed for photos, let an enthusiastic spectator join in, and handed out several doughnuts. He even won over the rappers.
“You don’t have to worry about tips for me,” Franco reassured everyone. “It’s free.”
One of the youngest captivated spectators asked, “How do I get a costume like that?”
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