The Location of the Self
A conversation between novelist Ottessa Moshfegh and painter Avery Singer about the puzzle of consciousness, the limits of form, the clarity of sobriety and the joys of solitude.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s bestselling 2018 novel ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’, the unnamed narrator—a woman who has undertaken an outlandish, prescription-fueled mission to sleep her way through an entire year—performs her deepest dive into unconsciousness with the help of aptly named super-sedative, Infermiterol. Her tumble into oblivion is so precipitous she becomes terrified and grows uncharacteristically nostalgic for the world she’s trying to escape:
‘I tried to scream but I couldn’t. I was afraid. The fear felt like desire: suddenly I wanted to go back and be in all the places I’d ever been, every street I’d walked down, every room I’d sat down in. I wanted to see it all again. I tried to remember my life, flipping through Polaroids in my mind. ‘It was so pretty there. It was interesting!’
Such a sudden longing for the quotidian has become familiar to people around the world over the last six months, as the global pandemic has cut us off from so much of the world outside our homes, severing our routines and turning even the most basic passage through streets and cities into an anxious germ-avoidance gauntlet.
In early June, as the virus began to seep more deeply into many parts of the country, Moshfegh and the painter Avery Singer met for the first time via Zoom for a discussion about their respective experiences of isolation and creativity during the COVID-19 crisis. Singer, a native New Yorker who lives and works in the city, has long been a fan of Moshfegh’s darkly comic, deeply personal fiction, which Jia Tolentino once described in The New Yorker as ‘freaky and pure,’ as if Moshfegh’s mind ‘were tapped directly into the sap of some gnarled, secret tree.’ Moshfegh, who lives and works in Pasadena, has followed the contemporary art world for years (her heroine in ‘Rest and Relaxation’ is a failed Chelsea gallery worker) and has been interested in how Singer’s many-layered pieces bring the history of painting to bear on the sometimes dystopian digital landscape that now constitutes much of our visual experience.
The following are condensed and edited portions of their conversation.
Avery Singer: Really nice to meet you, Ottessa. So, you live in Pasadena?
Ottessa Moshfegh: Yeah. Where do you live?
AS: I live in the Lower East Side.
OM: Have you stayed there for the last several months?
AS: Yeah, I’ve been here because my whole family lives here, and I have my studio. We quarantined for a while, and now I’ve reopened my studio. My parents are doing okay; they’re super quarantined. Have you stayed in Pasadena?
OM: I took a trip up to the mountains above Palm Springs to visit my family and a trip to the desert. Before I met my husband, he lived in the desert near Palm Springs, and he’s kept his house. Because we’re both writers, we spend a lot of time apart from each other. He has been working part time in the desert, so I took a trip out there.
‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ (2018). Courtesy Penguin Books
Detail of Singer’s ‘Expressionism (study)’ (2020) © Avery Singer. Photo: Lance Brewer
Randy Kennedy: This is the longest period in my adult life that I haven’t been on the subway. And it’s also the longest that my hair has been in my adult life. It’s a strange, strange time.
OM: I cut my hair, like, once a year. I hate going to the hair salon. I just hate that self-confrontation in that environment.
AS: It’s just such a waste of money and time.
RK: And then you have to make small talk for an hour, which is always oppressive to me. Even if I like the person, you feel like, ‘Okay, now this person is going to be touching my head for an hour and I have to be polite and be a human being.’
AS: I like having my head touched! It’s really relaxing.
OM: Me too. Actually, when I lived in China for a couple of years in my twenties, people would go to a salon just to get their hair washed. And you didn’t have to talk to them. They weren’t expecting the American custom of like, ‘Now we’re good friends because I’m cutting your hair.’ They would just massage your head for an hour, and your hair would be so soft and clean. I did that every week.
AS: That sounds amazing.
OM: They also seem to understand that there’s a lot of tension in the scalp. I went to see a chiropractor last summer, this woman up on this mountain where my sister lives. The woman has been living there since the ‘70s. She adjusted the plates in my skull. I did not know that the bones in your skull could move, but now it makes total sense. When she felt my head, she was like, ‘Oh my God, you need to come back.’
AS: That’s like your character in ‘McGlue’ (Moshfegh’s first book, a 2014 novella about a drunken sailor being held for a possible murder)—he’s trying to open his head again. That was a really powerful scene. You must have wanted to do that to yourself. I read a little bit about you: Were you in a punk band when you were in China?
OM: No, my boyfriend eventually was. I moved there with him in 2003. At the time, it was easy to get a work visa in China as an American, because there was such a high demand for native English speakers to teach English, specifically conversational English. We got jobs over the internet and were living in China two weeks later. We knew nothing about it the city we moved to, which so happens—unbelievably now—was Wuhan, where the pandemic began! Neither of us knew any Chinese. The university where I worked put up the foreign teachers in this brand-new hotel, which was completely incongruous with the environment. It was on the outskirts of this enormous metropolis. You could ride a bike for two minutes and be surrounded by farms. Wuhan had this incredibly vibrant underground music scene that we knew nothing about for, like, the first six months because we were so isolated on the outskirts of town. But little by little, we got familiar with it. It’s weird how you go to a city of many millions of people and you attract the ones who are interesting to you.
RK: What was your motivation to want to live in China in the first place?
OM: It was a time in my life where I had no sense of my future or any responsibility to myself. It was a careless decision, actually. I was very alcoholic, living in the East Village, making $24,000 a year as a math teacher at a Ukrainian Catholic high school. It was the beginning of the Iraq war, like a year after 9/11. My boyfriend had just graduated from college, and we wanted to get the fuck out. I’m really glad that we did. I feel like I would have rotted in those years in New York. My life was not going in a good direction, so that’s why we moved. When we met these people who were punks and musicians, it became obvious that there was a need for, like, a safe space for them. Bars were nonexistent at that time in Wuhan. There was one bar the American teachers went to, but all the other places to go to just drink and hang out at night were karaoke bars. The punk bands were playing in empty lots, abandoned factories, stuff like that, so we decided to start a nightclub. I had very little to do with any of the actual establishment of it. My boyfriend and I had a Chinese partner, who was also the drummer in the band with my boyfriend. Originally, the club was on the second floor of a commercial building in a nondescript part of town, but word spread quickly. Some expats came because it was cool to come and hang out, and some Chinese people came because they were curious and wanted to meet people from other places. Some people came for the concerts. The club changed location after I left, but it still exists. I just saw an article about it online.
Otessa Moshfegh. Photo: Krystal Griffiths
RK: Avery, you grew up here in New York City. Have you ever lived anywhere else?
AS: I don’t know if it’s called living somewhere, if it’s for, like, two and a half months. I studied abroad in the middle of college, but that ended up with me dropping out and moving to Berlin on my own to see if it was an interesting city for me as a young artist and to see if I could meet people there. And that ended with me being super isolated and broke. My life became working at this bar, working at a gallery, and then bicycling over to this restaurant that was a pay-what-you-wish, drink-all-the-wine-you-want restaurant. I would get hammered, and then I’d bike home and pick up my favorite wine from this cheap deli and drink that. I became like very alcoholic there. I drank before, but it got bad there. And then I had a little bit of money left, so I went on this long trip by myself from Poland to Macedonia. That took, like, a month and a half. Then I lost my wallet, so I came back to New York and decided to finish college. Other than that, I have traveled a lot. I’ve seen a lot and I’ve done a lot, which is really important to me.
‘I like that being an artist gives you that freedom to be alone. It’s a beautiful gift …’—Avery Singer
RK: Ottessa, you once said in an interview something about how being a writer in New York City felt intensely claustrophobic because of the expectations and the pressure here. Avery, as a native New Yorker, does it ever feel claustrophobic to you, working here, in terms of what’s expected of you? How does it feel to be a painter in particular in New York, where there’s all that history sitting on your head?
AS: I think being a writer or an artist is a great antidote to a feeling of claustrophobia in what you do, because you can always retreat into your own mind and into your own practice and produce from that kind of isolation or that solitude. I could feel provincial here pretty easily if that’s something I wanted to do, but New York is just so vast and you have so many pockets within the creative fields. I’m sure you’ve got pockets of different types of young writers just as you do of young artists and young painters. But I guess I never had a desire to work within the framework of a group. I like that being an artist gives you that freedom to be alone. It’s a beautiful gift that I can do it all on my own. You really don’t need anyone to have ideas and to give them shape. Ottessa, how did you feel in that regard?
OM: I think my experience is different because I moved to New York at 17 and left when I was 27, 28. The entire time I was there, I was either in school or working, and all the jobs that I had except for that year teaching math were in or related to the publishing world. And I hated the proximity. It also felt degrading. I remember my first job.…This is one example of my arrogance. My first publishing-industry job was this temp job at a small independent publishing company in SoHo. I had to buzz people into the building and sit at a desk and be like, ‘Can I get you a glass of water?’ One night there was a book party at the publisher’s apartment for this writer from the U.K. who wrote basically chick lit. The publicist asked me to answer the door and take people’s coats. So I was taking people’s coats and telling them to be careful on the stairs, and I just had this feeling like, ‘I’m going to kill all of you. You are all idiots.’ But I was so desperate because I was so broke. I had no safety net. I had to go through it, and it built up this fuck-youness that I always needed. I was young then, and by the time I was really ready to commit to my work as an artist, I didn’t want to have to contend with that part of me. I just wanted to have privacy and not have to deal with my judgments of others. I think that is part of why I’m a skillful observer, but it’s also why I have a difficult time as a member of a society. I respond to my sensitivity, one layer of it. The harsh layer of my sensitivity was an incredibly cruel amount of judgment and condemnation—as a barrier, because I don’t want to have to feel things all the time. New York is a place where I think it’s hard not to feel things all the time, because there’s so much life there. There’s so much to see and experience. So, for me, it was too overwhelming. I had to get out in order to even start to process what life had been for me there. Actually, living in California has been really healthy. I grew up in New England, outside of Boston. Ingrained in me is this sarcasm and intellectual realism. California is very different. I can be softer here, and I think that makes my work better.
RK: Avery, do you feel as a young artist that you’ve needed a sense of ‘fuck-youness’ to protect yourself? I think a lot of writers and artists that I’ve known have needed a reserve of resentment and outright anger to protect themselves, to tell themselves that what they’re doing is actually worthy.
AS: I’m trying to remember a time when I can say that I really identified with that. I’ve definitely felt resentful or angry or self-righteous, or I felt maybe I had a superiority complex. I probably still struggle with having a superiority complex. But I think that since I’m able to retreat into my own inner life, I’ve stopped seeing it. I’m also so used to living here in New York. This is my home. I’m used to it being a really brutal place to live. But I have had a lot of sadness, too. I was living in a really difficult situation in the beginning, with details that I don’t think I want people to know about. For me, making art was not just doing what I love to do. It was a way to escape from reality in my studio, which was a gift because reality was awful. I was like, ‘If life is going to be trying and New York city is brutal and blows up in your face, at least my studio can be the sanctuary for the things that really matter to me.’ That was my thing. I’ve been through a lot here. I think that’s why I gravitated towards ‘Rest and Relaxation’ so much, and it ending with 9/11. I grew up two blocks north of the Twin Towers, and I was home alone on 9/11. It was the day after I turned 14 years old. I remember thinking to myself on that day, ‘I cannot cry. I have to make rational decisions today.’ I have to be mentally prepared. I haven’t seen many people really touch on that day as an artistic topic in any meaningful way, and then I read your book and was like, ‘Oh my God.’
RK: Does being isolated now feel any different?
AS: Well, this is my first time doing isolation without alcohol, which was really crazy. I stopped drinking last year. I didn’t know if I could do it. I was like, ‘This is really hard.’ But I didn’t drink, and I feel a lot better now. It’s been manageable because of it, which is incredible to discover. The shutdown and the economic collapse was scary in the beginning. I was like, ‘If people can’t make money because there’s an economic depression, and then we have civil unrest and riots’—which is actually what’s happening now—‘what is that going to look like? Do I have to get my family out of here? Where do we go?’ Those scenarios were going through my mind. I wasn’t even afraid of the virus. I’m still not for some reason. I think it’s actually been strengthening for me on a personal level.
RK: Ottessa, what have the last three months been like for you because of the virus?
OM: It’s been intensely transformative, partly because of the isolation. And also the confrontation with the unknown has forced me back into a more spiritual relationship with myself and the world. It has lifted a lot of garbage that had filled my brain and my time. I think my priorities have gotten straightened out in a way. I was supposed to go on a book tour beginning in mid-April for two months. So I wasn’t going to get to write during that period. I wasn’t going to get to see my family or my dog or really be home. I was going to have to be on planes, in taxis and in hotels, selling myself in a way that is exhausting and also slightly damaging to the soft, creative self. But instead I’ve gotten to pull up and take care of myself in a way that I haven’t really had time to do, ever. I’ve found that what happens when I take care of myself is that I rediscover who I am as a writer. I rediscovered that I still have so much energy when I give myself time to rest, not just the rest as in sitting around, but rest from having to be around other people. I really thrive by myself. I’m sure if it were three years instead of three months, it would develop into something very different, but this time away has been really good. I have actually deepened a lot of my intimate relationships with people. My relationship with my best friend and my husband has become even closer. I didn’t know that it was possible to love and accept someone so deeply or to be loved and accepted so deeply before. Having a consistent relationship with my sister has been really good. When I’m on planes and trains and automobiles or whatever, I become the public persona. I have to eat shit and be grateful to do it.
‘I am in love with the American English language. I have a crush on it and just want to hang out with it all the time. But there is something that can feel superficial about it because they’re just words; they’re not music.’—Ottessa Moshfegh
Moshfegh’s latest novel, ‘Death in Her Hands’ (2020), ‘Eileen’ (2015), and ‘McGlue’ (2014). Courtesy Penguin Books
RK: Is there any part of that being out there and selling yourself that’s ever enjoyable?
OM: Yeah. I mean, it’s enjoyable in the same way it’s enjoyable to go out on Halloween.
RK: But it lasts a lot longer.
OM: It lasts so much longer. It becomes a different life, and I can enjoy that life, but I’m not a writer when I’m on tour; I’m a speaker. It’s a very different engagement with my own mind. Avery, outside of this conversation, are you ever in a position where you have to explain who you are and what you do?
AS: I feel this critical lens all the time. With art training, you get used to the academic critique format, the crit, so I automatically assume that’s what people do with all art. I engage with the art audience, assuming they’re going to be engaged in critique: What is my art doing? How is it functioning? So I have to accept the audience’s reaction and try to understand it and try to understand where it’s coming from. Is it coming from a position that I find valid and interesting and meaningful? There are, of course, openings and public events, and I used to hide during those. I was terrified. Every time I had a show, I just wanted to hide in the back. I think another reason why I’m an artist is that I get to make something, present it, and physically hide from people. But analysis is not something you can hide from. That’s a part of what makes the art. Actually, I had a question I wanted to ask you that is unrelated to this: I’ve always wished that I had more of a gift as a writer, because I think writing is much better at communicating than painting. I love painting, but I often want to communicate something in a painting, and it’s really weird to think about how I might do that. I don’t know if a writer feels that way, too. What are the things that you feel writing can or cannot communicate?
OM: What pops into my head is that the grass is always greener on the other side. My version of this is that I wish I could be a singer because the written word is so dry and abstract, and it’s so hard to control its vibration. What I actually want to do is create a vibration and a resonance that can move people’s emotions, whereas language is so limited. It requires interpretation. It requires that you look at a word and look at the word next to it. Your brain has to do all this work just to understand what the sentence says. Then, at that point, you’re going to think whatever you want. I feel a tremendous amount of respect for language, and I am in love with the American English language. I have a crush on it and just want to hang out with it all the time. But there is something that can feel superficial about it because they’re just words; they’re not music. At the very beginning of discovering who I was as a writer, I didn’t care about clarity or story. I was more of an impressionistic writer. I think that’s why I fell in love with writing because I could be evocative instead of literal. I thought that I was more of a poet. But then someone gave me the very stupid advice that I should always strive to write clear sentences, and I got addicted to that. I got addicted to storytelling and precision and the exactitude of what I want to realize in a very narrative way, and I became more of a writer. I’m totally okay with that. I actually think that is what my destiny has been from the beginning. I didn’t know I was going to be a novelist. I had no idea really, until after I wrote ‘Eileen’ (2015). I still didn’t really feel like a novelist until ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ (2018). At this point, I think I’ve had to let go of a little bit of that sense of writing as this science, and I’m allowing myself to be a little bit more blurry again.
‘[I wanted] to make a painting that’s about how the location of my self is behind my own eyes.’ … It’s about making an internal model of reality. It’s asking: What is that reality? What does it look like? How do you translate it into a painting?’—Singer
AS: Once, I was trying to paint a blackout, a chemical- or alcohol-induced blackout, and it was hard for me. How do I express that in a painting? I already have all these things that I do that are part of my identity as a painter. I use computer modeling instead of sketching. I don’t really paint. I use an airbrush and a machine. I’ve never used brushes. So there are already all of these filters that I go through before I arrive at the idea of a painting, in this case an alcoholic blackout. In the end, I don’t know if I’ve communicated it. I communicate, I guess, whatever the audience experiences. There’s that scene in ‘Rest and Relaxation’ where the protagonist goes into her friend Reva’s apartment for the drugs and it communicated so many things to me. I could smell things. I could feel things and see things, and then I could contextualize things from my own framework, my own life experiences. I don’t know if painting does that for a lot of people. Painting does other stuff. Painting feels very lofty in its pursuits, but it’s also a mystery, even to me, what it does or what it’s supposed to do, which is what makes it really exciting.
Avery Singer in her Brooklyn studio, 2020. Photo: Kate Enman
Avery Singer, 2020. Photo: Kate Enman
‘… [I] think about where my self is located. For me, usually it is behind me and to the right. Because of that, I feel that my left side has a very oppressive blind spot to it. And, actually, that blind spot is where my art comes from.’—Moshfegh
OM: The desire to paint an alcoholic blackout is so interesting to me. Why is that something you want to express or archive, to hold on to as an artwork? Do you think about how the viewer is going to translate that experience for themselves?
AS: I think one role that a painting has is that it sort of historicizes the time period when it was made. And so you try to preserve the painting for people to look at in the future, but also hopefully you are able to preserve some of the artist’s original ideas and intentions. And then over time the viewer would be able to assess what was happening in that time and place. What is the poetry of what the artist was trying to express? I ask myself this a lot: If I can make a historical object out of a current feeling, event, or fascination of mine, what would that look in a painting? How would I make that a painting? So I made a painting of a studio visit. [‘The Studio Visit (Version)’, acrylic on canvas, 2012] I was like, ‘I haven’t seen a contemporary studio visit painted. I want to explore that.’ Or, I was like, ‘I want to make a painting that’s about how the location of my self is behind my own eyes.’ [‘Director’, acrylic on canvas, 2014] It’s sensing and perceiving and it’s making an internal model of reality. It’s asking: What is that reality? What does it look like? How do you translate it into a painting? So then I was like, ‘What about an alcoholic blackout?’ That would be hard to translate in the format of a painting. How would you impart that feeling for someone walking into an art gallery or an art museum? [‘Jordan’, acrylic on canvas, 2019]
OM: That’s cool. I’ve thought about how to depict that in writing, too. It’s weird to try. I mean, it’s the ultimate question, in a way, because it’s like, how do you talk about death when you’re not aware of the state of your mind? For me, it seems easier to do that because, in language, you can be objective and subjective at the same time. You can go outside of a character and then go back into it. But if I were going to start imagining how to visually depict an alcoholic blackout, I also might think about where my self is located. For me, usually it is behind me and to the right. Because of that, I feel that my left side has a very oppressive blind spot to it. And, actually, that blind spot is where my art comes from. The only way that I can access it is through a detachment from this self. And that’s what takes courage—to face all of those things that you need to face in order to see what you don’t know. I got sober when I was 26 and spent, oh my god, 10 years in 12-step programs.
‘My last alcoholic blackout was a really delusional one. I used to think about a blackout as a free period where you don’t judge yourself and where you’re behaving and thinking and acting in a way that is your authentic self … I completely disagree with that now.’—Moshfegh
After I left, I wasn’t sure that I was an alcoholic anymore, so I tried drinking. And I’ll preface this with the fact that not only had I not been drinking, I hadn’t been doing anything. So much of that abstinent period had been spent living so ascetically that I could barely listen to music. All I could do was work on myself as an addict. I became really limited in the way that I could relate to things. Leaving program for me was an essential part of my growth as a human being, but drinking again did not work out. I definitely should not be drinking if I want to live an effective life. But if I want to dive into madness and insanity and dysfunction, I know exactly how to do it. It will always be available to me. And there’s a little bit of comfort in that. My last alcoholic blackout was a really delusional one. I used to think about a blackout as a free period where you don’t judge yourself and where you’re behaving and thinking and acting in a way that is your authentic self. Your consciousness isn’t judging you. I completely disagree with that now. It’s not accounting for all the alcohol. You know what I mean?
AS: And all the endorphins and aggression and whatever else that get triggered.
RK: Cy Twombly, toward the end of his life, would get very, very drunk and paint over two or three days and then collapse and stay in bed for two days. Part of it was a strategy to lose control. He would talk about it as an ecstatic experience.
OM: I don’t know if the culture is interested in that anymore. I don’t think that we value the ecstatic experience. Everything is so much about mediated process and the idea and intentionality behind it.
AS: Interesting. I always felt that our culture has these prevailing romantic ideas about drinking and inspiration, but that could be getting phased out. I think the art world is so conservative in how it’s anti-conservative. You picked up on this in ‘Rest and Relaxation’ very well. You depict how the art world sort of latches on to a radical position and doesn’t evolve. And it’s often contradictory or hypocritical. Like, the dealer in the book who’s capitalizing on the artist Ping Xi’s racial identity, and the critics who rave about his horrific artworks. I wanted to make paintings about the ridiculousness of what’s acceptable or not in the art world, which I see as a very conservative, ideologically conformist environment. So I made this one painting [‘Performance Artists’, 2013, acrylic on canvas] where I was thinking about going to a gallery to experience bad performance art, and looking at people doing stereotypically radical gestures with their bodies. How radical can an art performance be in 2020 if it doesn’t offer a new form or a new idea?
RK: I think performance art is tough to approach in the 21st century, not just because we live such a mediated existence but because there were people early on in the genre who quickly pushed up against the limits of what you could do with your body, what you could do with shock or abject content. And so doing those kinds of things now, attempting something that feels new and radical with the body in real time, is much harder to achieve.
OM: I think that the problem is that we have lost all our sensitivity to sincerity. I think all the of irony of the ‘90s was necessary for our culture, but it’s left us with a complete illiteracy in regard to sincerity. And a complete fear of it, too, because every time you do anything, you’re afraid someone is going to discredit you publicly. That feels like how fascism has trickled into art. Everything has to be in code. And the code is actually protecting the artist from saying what she really wants to say. I actually did some performance art the other day.
AS: What did you do?
OM: It was IRL. I encountered a man on a trail up in the hills who chastised me for not wearing a mask while I was jogging with my dog. We were trying to negotiate how to pass each other safely through a gate. He was talking to me while wearing earphones and couldn’t hear what I was saying back to him. He got frustrated that he couldn’t hear me and angrily walked past me, and then he turned around and started yelling at me, like I was a five-year-old, for not wearing a mask. I apologized, but he wouldn’t give it up. He wouldn’t look me in the eye or lower his finger. So I fell to my knees and prayed for God to forgive me for having offended my neighbor. And he was like, ‘Oh, don’t be pathetic.’ I told him I was a very religious person and crossed myself and prayed for my neighbor’s health and safety. My prayer was suddenly so real to me that I got emotional and started crying.
OM: I just let him yell. I saw how scared he was and that he couldn’t be real with me because he was too afraid. So I just let him walk away.
RK: I don’t think I could ever have the presence of mind to transform my anger into a performance on the spot. I’d love to be able to do that.
OM: In some ways, I had no other option. There was no reasoning with this man, and we were alone on a trail. What was I going to do? Be like, ‘Fuck you’? He could have punched me in the face.
RK: One of my favorite stories about performance art is this performance Paul McCarthy did early on at UCLA, called ‘Class Fool.’ It was the early ‘70s, during the Vietnam War, and it was about provoking disgust. He was naked and was shoving plastic toys up his butt and so on. It happened in a classroom, and in some ways it was about trying to see how many people he could drive out of the room.
One of the people in the classroom was Chris Burden—I don’t know that he and Paul knew each other at that point. There were maybe two people left in the class at the end, and then Paul left to clean himself up and put his clothes back on. Chris then approached him and said, ‘I really loved that, but it was about 10 minutes too long.’ He was looking at it mostly formally and gave it a formal critique!
AS: I love that.
RK: Ottessa, in ‘Rest and Relaxation’ you describe an imaginary artwork that’s a monkey made out of pubic hair. How did you come up with that idea for a sculpture?
OM: I saw the Damien Hirst shark at a Chelsea gallery around 2000. My impression was that there was something going on with ideas about animals and technology. I had a lot of fun coming up with ideas for nonexistent art works.
RK: I’d love to see an artist do a body of work based on a writer’s descriptions of imaginary artworks.
OM: Well, they’re going to have to do it if they make a movie adaptation of my book.
AS: Is that something you’re working on now? A movie adaptation?
OM: Yeah. I’m working on the screenplay.
AS: Wow. That’s exciting. Super exciting. Did you think you would be doing that?
OM: No, not when I wrote the book. But the producers who optioned the book found a director I’m excited to work with, so writing it became something I wanted to do.
AS: Very cool. I haven’t done a lot of unexpected forays into other things. The only thing really was that I was on an art and tech panel discussion Seven on Seven at the New Museum, and we launched a consensus-based religion built on blockchain. Our presentation on the panel was like a religious service. I did it with a blockchain entrepreneur [Matt Liston, founding member of the startup Gnosis.]
RK: Is that religion still around, still evolving?
AS: I don’t know what he’s been doing with it recently. I wanted it to be disruptive and unexpected. This is a pretty serious panel—people get together and produce productive, utopian, forward-thinking things.
I did all the visual content and the styling for the project. I didn’t know that it’s as easy to form a religion as it is to get married here in the U.S. And religious organizations are tax exempt, of course. Taxes are something that crypto people are always grappling with. They’re always being investigated by the IRS for what kind of money they’re making, how they’re making it, how much in taxes they pay, so they’re always like trying to find a way out of these situations. The idea was, ‘Wow, we could just create a religion that’s actually a company. You can vote in it, and it can be whatever you want it to be—it’s consensus-based. I made a chat room for a phone app where you could create and stylize a character and then go into this satanic-temple-looking chat room. You could engage in a religious ritual or something in there, and also chat with us live.
RK: You could be the next L. Ron Hubbard.
AS: Ottessa, I’m curious whether you struggle with the format of your form —language, fiction. I think about that a lot. That’s what I do. Which is the fun in it, and that’s what makes it interesting.
OM: Struggling in what sense?
AS: Like, you have an idea for what you want to do with the form, but you realize it can’t do that. So then how do you work with that? Is it intriguing to you that your framework of approaching something isn’t going to get you what you set out to do?
OM: I don’t struggle like that. Maybe because I’m already thinking in words. I don’t ever feel like I’m translating an idea into writing. It’s like, I already know what I want to do. It’s just writing. What I struggle with is, ‘How do I break through in this so that it’s not just a report?’ There always comes a point in the novel where I’m like, ‘Okay, now what? I’ve set this all up. What’s the big revelation?’ That to me is purely a struggle with myself and accessing the blind spot. It’s waiting there. I know it is. I just have to do all this voodoo to get to it.
Ottessa Moshfegh is an American fiction writer. Her first novel, ‘Eileen’, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Her second novel, ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’, was a New York Times bestseller. Her latest novel, ‘Death in Her Hands’, is now available.
Avery Singer is an American artist whose work blurs the line between digital and analog, abstraction and figuration, historical and contemporary narratives. In Singer’s most recent works she has begun to create a virtual world—including stereotypical hipster bar in New York—in which she is able to reconstruct and redefine the traditional modes of representation and painterly expressionism.
Randy Kennedy is the director of special projects for Hauser & Wirth and editor in chief of Ursula magazine. For 25 years, he was a reporter for The New York Times, more than half of that time writing about the art world. His first novel, ‘Presidio’, was published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster.