The Kingpins: A different kind of design performance

Published:  August 19, 2014
Bonnie Abbott

Yesterday, we reported Australian creative mavericks The Kingpins had designed the front cover of the 2014 D&AD Annual — an unusual move, given that the group is not strictly graphic design, instead producing performances, videos, installations, clothing and paintings. The D&AD interviewed the group, and has given us an extract.

Tell us about your practice.

Our practice is situated predominately in contemporary art via live performance and gallery-based exhibitions. Our work has performance strategies at its heart, and experimentations with the body using drag, costume, dance, and character constructions. These ideas are returned to the gallery via video and sculpture installation.

We attempt to create our own mythologies using our physicality as a starting point we can extend upon. We construct characters using found costumes, found audio, found imagery, and reconfiguring these into our language. We take inspiration from vaudeville traditions and cheap show tricks that collage and puppet the body to magical and humorous effect. We source elements from art history and contemporary visual culture and combine them with our own local context and landscape.

We met in high school and started collaborating more seriously at art school in Sydney in the early naughties. The Kingpins was the name given to a club we formed with two other artists – Angelica Mesiti and Emma’s sister, drag act Katie Price. Our artmaking then returned to the gallery via video and sculpture installation.

We have exhibited widely both within Australia and internationally. Highlights include the Gwangju Biennale 2004, Taipei Biennale 2004, Liverpool Biennale 2006, 2007 Playback exhibition at Musée D’Art Moderne in Paris, Nuit Blanche performance commission in Paris in 2006, and Art Basel Live Miami with Deitch Projects in collaboration with The Gossip in 2008.

Unstill Life, by The Kingpins

Do you think there’s a distinctive identity in Australian design today, and a role that design plays?

Horror and high camp! These may appear to be opposite notions, but they find a happy home within Australian aesthetic. It’s a distinctive design influence from Australia that resonates with us. The Mad Max trilogy, for example, encapsulates this duality in its art direction and costume creations. This can be seen in the raw, bloodthirsty brutality combined with leather clad bikers in post apocalyptic fetish wear and pink mohawks. This collision of styles is unique to Oz and one we grew up with.

This tradition with Australian cinema of the late 20th century combines the decorative with the gruesome or psychological, and often has the natural landscape as a backdrop. In our research, we look at how these films reflect the anxiety or even trauma felt by European subjects in the Aussie outback. A kind of gothic horror narrative that can only be the result of a lack of understanding of the Australian bush by its colonial invaders.

Biker, The Kingpins

In films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Razorback, Wolf Creek and Wake in Fright, nature is depicted as malevolent or latent with supernatural evil that might possess its inhabitants, house serial killers or just plainly kill you. These stories have a slippery relationship with some real life events like the story of Azaria Chamberlain, which was made internationally famous in the film Evil Angels. Reality and mythology start to become conflated in our cultural psyche.

Post colonial European subjects that inhabit Australia lack a social, cultural and spiritual connection to the place due to a short and violent history, so there’s a demand in the arts to forge new meaningful relationships. Perhaps this also allows for a free play of aesthetics in the creation of new identities, through a variety of influences and multicultural intersections. A freedom to perform cultural positions or identities that are collaged, sampled, appropriated. Influences from Europe, Asia and America are often filtered through parody, mimicry and drag. You need only to look at Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Dame Edna Everage and Leigh Bowery to make a connection between drag and some of our most successful cultural exports.

The Kingpins’ cover for the 2014 D&AD Annual

This collage methodology might be a lens to view the work of Baz Luhrmann and his collaborator Catherine Martin. Art direction, production and costume design were crucial to the success of their films. Something of Luhrmann’s brilliance in fusing classic works with popular cultural music and settings (think Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Gatsby) could be linked to this sense of freedom we have in Australia.

Culturally, this ‘campery’ and horror is of interest to us because there’s a certain honesty about it. It doesn’t seek approval from the centralised aesthetic production of Europe and America, it finds its own voice in the back lots of Oz. Collage as a method – whether with costume, persona, sound, or narrative – reveals the mechanisms of its construction as does camp.

This is an extract from an interview with The Kingpins. The full version is to be printed in the 2014 D&AD Annual, which you can pre-order here.

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