Joe Deutch, Artist Who Presented Russian Roulette at UCLA, Hits Marlborough Chelsea

“I’m not really like a gun person,” artist Joe Deutch told Gallerist at Marlborough Chelsea last night. He was standing

Joe Deutch, still from ‘Gun Piece,’ 2005. (Photo: Rozalia Jovanovic)

“I’m not really like a gun person,” artist Joe Deutch told Gallerist at Marlborough Chelsea last night. He was standing in front of an open metal briefcase that displayed a gun. “But there was no way for us to legally get it here and show it.”

The gun in the briefcase was fake, part of Mr. Deutch’s new exhibition, which opened last night. (He pronounces his name “deech.”) It presents video documentation, photographs, sculpture and ephemera from the performance work that Mr. Deutch has engaged in over the last eight years, the lynchpin of which was a notorious performance that he did in 2004 while a graduate student at UCLA. For that work he went before his classmates dressed in a suit and tie, removed a gun from a paper bag and held it in one hand, while with the other he held up a bullet and showed it to the class (and the camera: he was recording it). Then he loaded the bullet into the chamber with the flick of his hand and placed the gun up to his head. Then he pulled the trigger, which clicked, and lowered the gun, unhurt. He then walked into an adjacent hall, out of sight and set off a fire-cracker, which made the sound of a shot.

The performance left the students confused and angered. Though Ron Athey was the instructor of that class, it was professor Chris Burden who resigned, along with Nancy Rubins, to protest the school’s decision not  to suspend Mr. Deutch. He and Ms. Rubins called Mr. Deutch’s performance an act of “domestic terrorism.”

“John Baldessari once said to me, ‘You hate the art world, don’t you?’” said Mr. Deutch, looking at a large poster affixed to the wall advertising the upcoming opening of the Broad Art Museum in Los Angeles. Mr. Deutch, who in his black T-shirt and black jacket looked like Vincent Gallo, had stolen the poster. “I didn’t think that was true. And I still don’t. But there’s definitely something, I’m definitely not being nice to it a lot of times. I’m being sort of reactionary.”

The school investigated whether or not Mr. Deutch had violated school rules prohibiting firearms on campus and posed a threat to students. Mr. Deutch made the fake gun in an attempt to defend himself. He claimed that he had used this fake gun in the performance, which he told Gallerist was not true: the gun had been real.

“I wanted to ask the question, ‘Does our ability to make a statement exist anymore?’” he said.

What if he had died? Would that have been the statement he wanted? “No,” he said. “That would have been a weird, icky, awful tragedy. I never wanted that to happen, and I didn’t believe that that actually would happen.”

While it’s been eight years since that performance, and Mr. Deutch has since exhibited work, the show at Marlborough Chelsea is the first time that he has presented documentation from that incident in a gallery setting. And for Mr. Deutch, the debate about what the piece is, whether or not it is art, is still very much alive. He views his current exhibition as an opportunity to place it back within the context of art, even though whether or not he saw it there in the first place is unclear (“I don’t think I really make art about art. It’s more like art about my brain or something”).

“What I learned after the fact is that not everything is or can be art,” said Mr. Deutch. “Regardless of the context you put it in. Which doesn’t really bother me now, because I don’t care. If someone were to say, ‘You’re not an artist,’ that’s fine. Just tell me what we should call it. Is it theater? Is it real theater?”

We walked into the next room, which had a black couch in the middle and in which three of Mr. Deutch’s videos played on a loop. One of the videos was a one-and-a-half minute excerpt of the original Russian roulette performance at UCLA. A man in a red jacket was seated on the one black leather couch at the center of the room watching intently. Around him there was a crowd of about 30 people. Behind us, a woman was holding the arm of a man.

“I was a little worried,” she said when the video ended. She considered it art, because it was Mr. Deutch’s “expression” and it made her think. Her friend felt differently.

“Not really,’ he said and shrugged. “It should cause a reaction.”

Another video showed Mr. Deutch taunting a rattlesnake and getting bitten.

“Have you seen this?” one young man nearby said to his friend about the video. They were both in shorts, baseball hats and wearing gold chains. “It’s terrible.”

“Dude,” the other said. “It’s the scariest shit.”

Asked if it was art, one of them said, “Yes—more or less. I think it’s like Jackass.” Joe Deutch, Artist Who Presented Russian Roulette at UCLA, Hits Marlborough Chelsea