Last week, to instant viral buzz, New York-based artist Phillip Toledano launched Kim Jong Phil, a website showing his latest body of work that explores the psychological similarities between artists and dictators. Toledano’s previous works include America The Gift Shop, an installation attacking the Bush/Cheney administration, and more personal projects such as Days With My Father, an intimate photographic portrait of the last years Toledano spent with his father before his death. By taking dictatorial paintings and propaganda art and having them copied in China with his image infiltrating the scenarios, Toledano satirises dictatorial propaganda and undermines their perceived power while drawing humorous and at times uncomfortable parallels between the mind-set of a dictator and an artist seeking success.
Dazed Digital: How did dictators become the focus of this project?
Phillip Toledano: Well, I didn’t start with dictators, I ended with dictators. I guess I spent a lot of time agonising over what it means to be an artist and how you equip yourself mentally to be an artist, to live that kind of life – how to reconcile with yourself the idea that you might not ever be successful. So I was thinking about that a lot and I guess Kim Jong-Il was in the news a lot and I started thinking about the idea of dictators in a way that highlights similar parallels, psychologically, in a way, to being an artist, in that you have to create your own world and then populate that world with believers – people who believe in your creed your ethos.
DD: Maybe the difference would be an artist might have that doubt about making it but it seems that a dictator has an absolute belief in themselves and their cause…
Phillip Toledano:: Well that’s the thing, you don’t know that that’s what being a dictator is like but that’s the assumption, but I’m sure that dictators must wake up every now and then and worry people might stop believing in him and his ideas. I’m sure there is dictator’s neurosis as there is artist’s neurosis. The sad thing is that I don’t have an enormous armed force at my disposal.
DD: You got the paintings copied in China, there is an ironic symbolism with getting it done in a part of the world known for its dictatorships, wouldn’t you agree?
Phillip Toledano: I had it done in China for two reasons; one is that it’s really cheap and there are all sorts of factories in China that will make anything for you – if you look at America The Gift Shop, I got a lot of that made in China for me as well; but two is I quite like the subtext of dictatorial art being made in a country which is essentially run by a dictatorship. I find that strangely amusing.
DD: The images, and especially their titles, have a real humour to them…
Phillip Toledano: I don’t by any means endorse dictatorships, but in this instance when I’m talking about Kim Jong Phil, the whole point is about artistic narcissism and self-delusion so it’s only fitting that I embrace that in every aspect of that project, including the captions. If the whole idea is that I have to persuade myself that I am great in order to function as an artist then those captions will work very well. I’ve been reading some of the comments since the website went live and it’s interesting to watch and follow it on Twitter what people are saying about it. For the most part people seem to get it but there are some people who have said that it’s so narcissistic - but that’s the whole bloody point. Of course it’s narcissistic, that’s the idea of it.