L.A. based Ry Rocklen makes sculptures using aqua-resin, deconstructed chairs, futons, bird cages, and other unexpected objects. It’s not an art practice that readily lends itself to corporate mass-production, but Rocklen has recently been recasting himself as a fledgling designer and businessman of sorts, launching Trophy Modern–a “company” that fabricates furniture composed entirely of cheap, faux-gold-and-marble trophy pieces. For this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, Absolut tapped Rocklen to design an “art bar” just off Collins Avenue. (The brand has previously worked on similar commissions with Los Carpinteros and Mickalene Thomas, among others.) Entitled Night Court, the immersive piece is a refreshingly bizarre setting for a week’s worth of live music, cocktail-sipping, and ping-pong playing. I met with the artist in South Beach to talk about basketball and the wild functionality of his latest medium.
How did the commission for Absolut come about?
I did my first set of Trophy Modern furniture at the Art Contemporary Los Angeles fair back in January. Absolut was working with the Parisian curator Marc-Olivier Wahler–he used to be the director of the Palais de Tokyo–and he saw the furniture. They came to meet with me in the studio and gave me the general outline of what this could be. With Trophy Modern, the idea is that you can build anything out of trophy parts. It’s almost a game. You could build a life guard stand! For the art bar in Miami I thought we could do recreational-type games, with a ping-pong table. And I thought it’d be nice to have a court painted onto the floor, so it’s almost set within the architecture of a stadium, indicated by lines on the floor. It came about pretty quickly even in that first meeting.
When you showed Trophy Modern at the fair in L.A., were you billing it as furniture, or sculpture?
I’ve been fleshing it out in my head, but Trophy Modern is a furniture company. The company is an artwork. The fulfillment of the artwork would be opening up a Trophy Modern furniture store. I like to bill Night Court as a corporate partnership between Trophy Modern and Absolut, adopting the language and air of a corporation. And it is truly furniture–people are going to be sitting all over it, putting their drinks on it. It’s formica-laminated plywood. It’s made to be used and wiped down. At Art Contemporary LA the booth ended up becoming a total hangout, people with their feet over everything. Trophy Modern is made to be as comfortable as possible. I really want it to be incredible to look at, but once you sit, it just feels normal, and you can forget what it is.
Why trophies? Were you attracted to the idea of what they mean, or to the artificial materials, the fake gold and fake marble?
All those things are attractive. I often work with found objects. The way it started was that I was in this junk shop I frequent, and I found 150 trophies for sale. All different people and sports, a crazy cornucopia of abandoned trophies. I thought there was something visually stunning, with all this shit-gold and holographic shine, and simultaneously quite haunting and sad. Why are these here? What happens to them now that they’ve been abandoned? There was something quite nice in that duality. I thought it’d be great to do a sculpture, combine them to make one super trophy that celebrates both the uniqueness of each trophy and its former owner and the architecture and aesthetics of that world. I made the sculpture, Second To None–LACMA bought the piece, and it’s on display there now, which is a real highlight of my career. I became very familiar with the trophy suppliers. There’s two major ones in the US, they both have telephone-book sized supply catalogues. I set up an account with them and realized you can make anything out of trophy parts; they’re raw materials. I thought, if you can make anything out of trophy parts, it’d be an easy and wonderful thing to make furniture. In some ways, your body would become the figurine atop the trophy.
I also thought that there’s something so uniquely American about this particular style of trophy. In Europe, there are a lot more big engraved plates going on, or big cups. But not the plastic columns with the marble base, what Trophy Modern is all about. There’s a classic low to high material issue. Trophies are supposed to be made of all the most valuable things, because you’re so powerful, you strove so hard, and you were able to obtain that wealth. But now they’re so synonymous with cheapness. You know immediately that it’s bullshit plastic gold, garbage: “My kid got a trophy for taking his first dump.”
It makes me think of the Pinewood Derby. When you’re a kid, everyone gets some sort of trophy–best car design, fastest car–no one leaves without one.
The other tagline of Trophy Modern I’m trying to work out is “On Trophy Modern, Everyone’s A Winner.” In the world of Trophy Modern everyone gets a trophy, a constant barrage of winning thats becoming abstracted; in its multiplicity it starts to lose its value.
How does the general idea of sport come into play within Night Court?
Basketball is my favorite sport. I thought it would be nice to have a cohesive theme, so a lot of the furnishings have basketball adornments. Basketball court lines to me are the most beautiful–there’s all these arcs and keys. A tennis court could’ve worked, but that’s a bit boring. I’m taking liberties conceptually–there’s chess and ping-pong–but the chess set is basketball-themed. The king is a jump shooter, the queen is a woman doing a hook shot. And I like how the court’s lines necessitates the placement of the furniture, it dictates where things are placed. There’s a symmetry to Night Court: everything is occurring the same on either side.
Is there also a reference to the old TV show, Night Court?
That is there. I’m not that familiar with the show, but it did have a font that’s totally applicable to the aesthetic of the piece. I think the title works on a bunch of levels, it has a playful resonance. I like the multiple meanings for court: A court of law, the court of a king or queen, and a court for playing ball.
Even if you’re selling pieces of Trophy Modern as furniture, I’m guessing most collectors would treat them as sculptures…
It’s parlor room furniture. I don’t ever want to see it on a pedestal, unless 200 years from now there’s the first Trophy Modern American Diner on display as a relic.
As far as how the work is produced, is it in an unlimited edition, the way other furniture would be?
We wanted it to be unlimited, but we’re not there with our clientele. It’s not an IKEA. It’s still being sold by an artist as an extension of his practice, so it’s being bought by art collectors, who always want a limit on things. We’re editioning it. It’s priced in between furniture and sculpture–a funny territory.
Instead of a plaque on each trophy signifying who the winner is, each of these pieces have a nameplate that identify its title, the year of production, and our name. In a way, you’re sort of the winner.
Every artist is trying to come up with a clever way to inscribe their name on a work. I remember that Sterling Ruby had a license plate as his ‘signature’ for a big piece he had at Pace. I thought that was pretty clever.
Have you ever thought of building a whole house out of trophies?
It would be nice to do a Trophy Modern house, one-room, or two stories. I want to do the furniture store, in the pursuit of fully manifesting Trophy Modern as a corporation and a lifestyle. There are other iterations of Trophy Modern that I want to pursue, different lines. At the sort you’d come in and have the Trophy Modern Standard line, what you see here in Miami–the classic columns and faux-gold with gold adornments. Then you’d have Trophy Modern Wood–real wood with patterns carved in it, also probably made in China. That would be beautifully finished wood, with leather upholstered cushions. And then there’d be our most exclusive line, Trophy Ultra Modern: real marble boards, with all the columns taken away, so you’d see the hardware underneath, all chrome-plated.
I’m assuming you’ve encountered some real characters in the trophy industry.
The two big trophy suppliers are monster behemoth warehouse places. They have a huge staff and a huge network of shippers.
Do they know what you’re doing with the stuff you order?
It’s very impersonal with them. “Can we have four SL4579? Next item, five SL72…next item.” It’s super harsh. They don’t give a fuck. They’re like, let’s process this order, I gotta go home. It’s pretty brutal. It’s such volume. “Oh, you want 1,000 marble bases? We only sell them in cases of 1,000.” That kind of shit. They’re supplying trophy shops. To them, I am a trophy shop.
In addition to the sculptural elements of Night Court, you also designed basketball-style jerseys for the bartenders, and you created special Absolut cocktails for the week. Can you tell me a bit about those, and how it has been working with the company in general?
Absolut knows that they can achieve good results by asking someone with a strong vision to fulfill it to the nth degree, without micro-managing or trying to insert the brand. They’re smart about that.
The cocktails are all inspired by sports terminology. There’s the ‘Winning Spirit’: a shot of Absolut on the rocks. And then there’s ‘And One.’ In basketball, when you score a basket and get fouled, you’re able to shoot a free throw–the ‘and one.’ This drink is a cocktail with blueberry and ginger, and on the side you get a shot of vanilla-infused vodka.
So many people in the art world are interested in sports, but not many artists reflect that in their work.
I like sports, I really do. In some ways there is a kind of comfort that I have with sports which is based on my upbringing. t’s a mutual language people can engage with and understand. I like systems and rules. In a way, Trophy Modern is a sport: there’s a playing field of trophy parts and it’s all problem solving within this strict sense of parameters. In some ways, that’s everybody’s thing, we’re all problem solving within a set of pre-ordained rules.
And there’s something very visually appealing to me about watching sports. I like the spectacle, the stadiums, the symmetries, the great planes of green, the courts, the lines…the manifestation of physics, the cars, the hard hits in football, the tumbling. There’s all sorts of cool stuff going on.
Ry Rocklen’s Night Court art bar for Absolut is open through December 7 from noon until 2AM, with musical performances by Ariel Pink (Dec 4), Night Jewel (Dec 5), Rocklen’s own rap project (Dec 7), and others. The bar is located on the oceanfront in Miami Beach between 21st and 22nd Streets.
Portrait of Ry Rocklen by Rob Chamorro, courtesy of Absolut.