Downtown’s Whiz Kid
For the past three years, Ellen Jong, a 25-year-old photographer who lives in Chinatown, has taken pictures of herself urinating in strange locations. Ms. Jong took a photo of herself urinating on the beach during a recent trip to the Philippines; one of herself peeing as the sun set behind a pyramid in Oaxaca, Mexico; a picture of her going in front of the grate of a closed subway entrance in Queens; several shots of her urinating in the streets of the East Village; and one picture of herself standing on a toilet in Joe’s Pub. Most of Ms. Jong’s photos are taken with a point-and-shoot camera that she places under her legs; none of them show her face. Recently, two of her pee pictures were shown in a group show at Entropy, a gallery in Williamsburg.
On a recent afternoon Ms. Jong sat at a table in Coffee Times, a café on 62nd Street off Lexington Avenue. A petite woman, she wore a loose black turtleneck and jeans. Her hair, growing out from a mullet she had gotten over the summer, was in a bun, with a short ponytail in the back.
Ms. Jong said she took her first pee picture on a trip to Coney Island with a fellow photographer. “We were on our way back and we were waiting on the subway platform for a train, and I had to take a piss,” she said. “We were both like snapping pictures of everything, and I was like, ‘I’m going to have to go, and I’m going to have to go on the platform, and you have to take a picture of it.’”
“I just took it right in the middle of the platform,” Ms. Jong said. “I don’t know if anybody was watching, but I wasn’t even hiding behind a pillar or anything. I just pulled down my pants and he took the photo.”
From then on, she said, squatting was easy. “I never waited on line. It was literally just like I knew there was an option to go somewhere else and take a picture of it.”
Though Ms. Jong continued to take pictures of herself unburdening, she didn’t take the pee project seriously until a few months later, when she and her friend took a road trip in Mexico in January 1999. “All throughout the trip we were stopping and taking pit stops and going to interesting, beautiful places where I had never been, and that was the perfect time to take pictures of everything and take photos of me peeing in different beautiful places, in the mountains, in the trees, on the beach. That was when the photos got more interesting.”
Over the past few months, Ms. Jong has been trying to figure out what her photographs mean–what she called her “Pee Theory.” She thought her photographs could be about what it means to be feminine, what it means to be a woman. “I can’t stand being in women’s bathrooms because I’ve never been into makeup, or talking about boys, or going in with a whole group of girlfriends to talk about something,” she said. “I was always like, in and out. I have no patience to wait on lines.”
In May 2000, Ms. Jong had a show called I.C.U.P. It was held in a store on Kenmare Street that used to be a public restroom. Her parents showed up; her father, Sesin, also an artist, brought a reporter from a Chinese-American newspaper.
“That was the only press I got from that show,” she said. Ms. Jong said she doesn’t know what the story about her said because she can’t read Chinese. “I think it was all about my relationship with my father,” she said.
“They did ask me why I take pictures of myself peeing,” she added. She started laughing. “I don’t remember what I said. I was wasted.”
In a career stretching back to the early 1970′s, Louie Austen has appeared in Vienna in a German-language student production of Hello, Dolly! , crooned “That’s Amore” dressed as Dean Martin in a Pittsburgh dinner theater and sung “The Girl From Ipanema” backed by a 20-piece orchestra on Australian television. Last Thursday, the 56-year-old Austrian made his professional New York debut at Joe’s Pub, performing songs from Only Tonight , a new album of electronica and house music, for an audience mostly of people in their 20′s, who view Mr. Austen as a burgeoning camp idol.
Before the show, Mr. Austen–whose appearance suggests a cross between Patrick Stewart and Klaus Maria Brandauer–sat in the lobby of the Public Theater and addressed his career and his late, unlikely rise. He studied the accordion and the guitar as a child in Vienna, he said, and always knew he wanted to be a singer. At 19, he performed Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” for a local nightclub owner (“I was shivering, shaking and howling like a sick dog”), who advised him to get classical training, and helped him enroll in the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied vocal technique and acting for 11 years. It wasn’t a perfect fit. “I wanted always to perform like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como–the Rat Pack,” Mr. Austen said in his toasty, lightly accented voice. “But in those days, nobody was teaching how to sing like Sammy Davis Jr.”
Mr. Austen decided to try his luck abroad, first in South Africa, where he found the political climate untenable, and then in Australia, where an agent landed him a spot on the down-under equivalent of The Ed Sullivan Show . (“Anyone on the street who said, ‘Hey, I can do something with my nose’ could get on.”) In 1978, Mr. Austen moved to New York City, where he lived in a series of fleabag hotels while following the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, whom he’d first seen perform at the Ginger Man on West 64th Street, from club to club. Despite the occasional chance to sing a number with the band, Mr. Austen’s career failed to take off, and he got married for the second time (his first marriage ended in South Africa) and relocated to Pittsburgh. A near miss in Las Vegas–he was hired to play Dean Martin in a Rat Pack show, but then Sammy Davis Jr. got sick and the project was postponed–precipitated a return to Vienna and a second divorce in 1980.
Back home, Mr. Austen grew despondent thinking of his American idols. “They were amazing: no effort, they just come on stage and, ‘O.K.–swing it, pal!’” he said. “They’re in this whole special universe, and I’m in a pothole somewhere.” Then a friend told him about a gig at the Hilton hotel where, after an audition, he was offered a one-year contract to play the bar. Teamed with a Hungarian concert pianist who had been living in Bratislava, Mr. Austen was a hit, and soon had offers to work other hotels, culminating in a job as the entertainment director at the Marriott.
In 1998, after a brief return to Pittsburgh, where he had performed in a show called Jokers Wild with Charlie Chaplin and Jerry Lewis impersonator Buster Maxwell, Mr. Austen was approached by a record producer named Mario Neugebauer who wanted him to record an album of club music. As soon as Mr. Austen heard the jagged rhythms and atonal noodlings that Mr. Neugebauer had created for him, he knew that he had found the perfect vehicle for self-expression, and penned a rueful love song called “Remember” to go over the tracks. In Europe, Mr. Austen has scored with both the critics (“They think it’s avant-garde or something”) and with the kids. In addition, his house anthem “Hoping” was a club hit in Germany, and his X-rated novelty song “Grab My Shaft!” made it onto the English dance charts.
Now Mr. Austen was trying to conquer the States. The young crowd of about 200 arrived with knowing smirks, but by halfway through they were cheering the singer, who wore a gray mock turtleneck under an off-white suit tailored so that the lapels turned up. As his big, silky voice soared over the heavy beats of “Hoping” (“I was hoping you’d ask for dancing”), “Music” (“Music keeps me staying alive”) and “Amore” (“I love you, Amore, my woman, my wife / You are the best thing, the best thing in life”), the place went nuts.
After the show, Mr. Austen unwound with his entourage, which included two young women–a pale Austrian video director named Tina and a Nigerian D.J. named Ihu–and Buster Maxwell, who had traveled up from Pittsburgh to see his former partner. Sipping a beer, he mused on why this new incarnation had brought him success.
“If I sing a sad love song, you expect 20 strings in the background, but we’ve heard that a thousand times before,” Mr. Austen explained. “But with the electronics you feel the friction and the rhythm–it’s not a rhythm, it’s a fight almost. Like love, it’s not smooth. It’s strange, a little bit sick maybe. I don’t know–maybe Quincy Jones has some other ideas.”