I’m elbows-deep in a pile of rotting fish on a corner in Chinatown. There are about seven of us here, clad in latex gloves and rooting around in garbage on a chilly March Saturday night. A tall skinny dude in a khaki jumpsuit and hood is schooling us on the finer points of curbside taxidermy. “Just find things you think are nice, that you want to use,” says Nate Hill. We’re laying out eyeballs and heads and powerfully smelly bits of gristle into an aesthetically pleasing arrangement. “This doesn’t make any fucking sense!” he says. His glee is infectious. When we’ve laid out all the entrails we like best on a table, Hill nods his head. “We did it.” Another Chinatown Garbage Taxidermy Tour is complete. A ponytailed blond guy in loud printed pants snaps a photo of our creation with his phone and says, “Art is dead.”
If you haven’t heard of Nate Hill by now, you must be an art dealer. The 33-year-old performance artist is a darling of New York’s media world, getting coverage everywhere from The New York Times to Gawker to the Daily News. Nate’s characters include a giant stuffed dolphin who will bounce you on his knee free of charge; a huge panda who invites you to punch him as you see fit for the low price of one cent; and most famously, Death Bear, a disconcerting, taciturn bear who will come to your house and take away things that give you pain.
He’s coming off a month-long retrospective of his work, the “Best Art Show of 2011,” in which he performed one of the four previous shows every night during the month of March. None of Hill’s performances take place in galleries, and rarely in performance spaces of any kind. “He’s not an artist in the traditional sense. He’s by nature outside the system,” said Hrag Vartanian, of art website Hyperallergic. Hill is on a subway platform bench bouncing you on his knee, he’s getting into Twitter fights with critics, and he’s making art blog interns cry. He’s not making a dime off of any of it, yet he’s one of the most famous artists in the city.
Nate Hill is to art what blogs are to newspapers: a new way to make work and get noticed outside traditional channels. In Nate Hill’s world, lashing out at critics, never showing in galleries, and promoting your work by yourself and almost solely online are all strategies for success.
Hill hails from Sarasota, Florida, and has a degree in biology — helpful for his day job as a caretaker of fruit flies in a research lab. His first adventures in “rogue taxidermy” took place in 1999. He moved to New York permanently in 2005, and his first few pieces followed soon after. Chinatown Garbage Taxidermy Tour was his first piece, followed by Candy Crack Delivery Service, Free Bouncy Rides, Death Bear, and Punch Me Panda.
Local blogs like ANIMAL New York started taking notice. Editor Bucky Turco was an early supporter. “I first came across Nate Hill via his rogue taxidermy website around 2005, and that’s what sparked my initial interest in his ‘art,’” Turco told me via email. “But it wasn’t until I physically held a glass jar packed with an armadillo-fish-mouse (or was it a smooshed squirrel?) that I truly began to appreciate the mental perversion that is Nate Hill.”
His capacity for self-promotion on the Internet was a boon from the start. The taxidermy got picked up by Gawker (a “hipster Silence of the Lambs”!) and other blogs, and eventually the whole Internet seemed to be on board. “Everyone had their own story” about Hill’s stuff, Vartanian told me. “Is he a performance artist? What’s he doing? Then around some of his performances, there were always these media blips that would appear,” like when the New York Daily News totally missed the point of the Candy Crack Delivery Service. Andrew Krucoff, who runs the group blog Young Manhattanite, began letting Hill contribute in 2006. “He never crossed any line in my book, so he just kept on contributing, promoting project after project,” Krucoff told me. “Happy to give him a platform, though I doubt he needed YM for any of it.”
Now each time Hill has a new project scheduled, like the “Best Art Show of 2011,” it gets relentlessly promoted online. “He engages with all the social media heavily,” says friend and performance artist Peter Dobill. “It’s adding something to the performance that’s beyond what’s there in front of you.” Hill will tweet about his performances before, after, and even during the event. He’ll publish lengthy explanations of his works, like “5 Basic Free Bouncy Rides Dance Moves” or “How Punch Me Panda Changed.” He’ll update every blogger he knows on his new shows.
Which isn’t necessarily unusual. What’s strange is the extent to which he’s still being ignored by the mainstream art world. I asked Kathy Grayson, Jeffrey Deitch protegée and the director of The Hole gallery, what she thought of Hill’s work, to which she replied, “I’m not familiar with that artist. Maybe you could email me something about him?” (When I showed her some of his pieces, she said “Yay! This is actually kind of cool!”) Hill has taken part in one or two gallery shows in not-for-profit spaces, but “I don’t talk about them because I don’t want it to be about that,” he told me.
“I’ve been impatient with galleries and I’ve been taking their rejection too personally,” Hill told me. “I’ve been over-sensitive. It’s motivated me to do it myself and go to people’s homes, get on the streets. Fuck it, I’m not going to wait. It’s not like I have a vendetta or something. It’s just kind of how it’s worked out.” And it is working out: Hill is one of the most famous performance artists in New York. Well, internet-famous, at least. As for the vendetta thing, that might be more complicated than he makes it out to be. Did the art world reject him, or is he rejecting the art world?
Here’s a recent response to a write-up he didn’t like in the blog Art Fag City, published on Young Manhattanite: “Show me respect. Don’t call it dress up. That is not respectful. It is language of amusement. It is a putdown. That is not what I deserve, and if I find it unacceptable, I will say so.” All this to defend himself against a 200-word blurb by an intern. AFC editor Paddy Johnson sighed when I discussed the incident with her. “He’s upset that he has not been accepted by the art world, in the sense that he’s not been offered shows by the art world proper, and he sees Art Fag City as representative of that in some form,” she said. “I wasn’t happy that my intern was upset and spent the weekend super stressed out, and came into work crying.”
“The thing with the art world is that some people would consider that a form of burning bridges,” Vartanian said. “I think Nate doesn’t care, because he really has something to say through his work.” Maintaining an aggressive online presence includes a tendency to quickly and directly respond to criticism (of which he tends to be suspicious; “You know more about your work than any critic or blogger ever will, or care to know, and always remember that,” he tweeted recently). Sometimes the Nate Hill Internet persona gets haughty, but Internet Nate Hill is kind of a performance, too.
I’m trying not to think about the fact that I smell strongly of fish at Winnie’s, a karaoke bar on Bayard Street. It’s loud and dark in here, and I’m struggling to hear anything over the din of fat white middle-aged men shouting Billy Joel songs. Nate is still dressed in his taxidermy tour outfit, and we’re here with his girlfriend (a social worker) and a girl who introduces herself to me as a monster truck driver. He’s claiming to have seen fish evolve in the four years since he got into the Chinatown taxidermy game.
I’m surprised at how normal he is when he’s not doing a show; he’s just a guy who likes to sing Stevie Wonder songs and hang out with his girlfriend, but is also planning to sell milk gargled by pretty white girls as his next piece. I’m also surprised at how comfortable he is with a reporter around. He seems as interested in my job as I am in his, asking me what I’m writing down as I scribble in my notepad and telling me, “You seem like a go-getter!” I think back to a tweet of his that I favorited a while ago: “Critic & friend @artfagcity said it’s unlikely I’ll be embraced by the art world bc I don’t know the right people (making you the wrong ppl).” The “wrong people” being us, those who follow him online and write about him.
Why is it that for Hill, making it in the art world is a zero sum game when it comes to also winning approval from the media? Why can’t he do both? “Professionally in the art world, there’s a known arc to an artist’s fame,” Paddy Johnson told me. Artists go to art school, make friends with other artists, and eventually with dealers, and then start showing in galleries and getting press. Hill has eschewed this narrative. “When people get suspicious in the art world is when it happens the other way around,” Johnson said. “There really wouldn’t have been any other way for him to enter the art world. I think he’s building connections through the Internet, and his work is about connecting with people outside the gallery system anyway.”
Everything from his prolific use of Twitter to the content of Hill’s pieces is about better connecting with his audience, a goal that the strictures of a gallery might actually impede. Hill described his art to me as a “designated service that people can use” and a form of “social outreach.” How would a gallerist sell that?
I asked Kathy Grayson that same question. She said in an email that “If Tino Seghal can sell his work, if Vanessa Beecroft can sell hers, if Bruce High Quality can sell theirs, then there is strong reason to think that just about anything performative can have a price tag. And I don’t mean that to sound snarky; it’s great to sell art, it’s important to get people to buy what you are doing so you can continue to do it and so people can continue to talk about it, write about it, and see it in the future.” She added that while she wouldn’t necessarily want to show Hill herself, she is “planning a big show called ‘The Art of the Joke’ for this summer, and at least one of these performances makes a pretty good joke…”
Later, when Hill tells me that “magic is a big part of it when creating characters with powers like Death Bear,” I think back to a moment in an apartment on the Upper West Side. A group of young professional types hand over possessions to a man in a bulbous oversized teddy bear mask. One girl rids herself of an ex’s business cards; a serious-looking guy casts off the brochures from an architecture school he didn’t get into. Death Bear takes their things with gravity and tucks them into a big black bag. He’ll bring it back to his cave, he says.
I stay behind when he leaves and talk to the group. They’re relieved, they tell me. “He’s a really objective agent,” one girl says. “He talks to you and listens to you, and it’s ultimately a shared experience.” I’m surprised at how visible the change in their countenance is — whatever it is, this stuff seems to be working.