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A CONVERSATION WITH CONTEMPORARY PENIS ART’S DEBI OULU

THE FINE PRINT: Erect, flaccid, infected or decorated, your collection of penis art has reached almost 300 different pieces that include original and curated photographs, sculptures, paintings, drawings, sketches and more. What can you tell us about your Contemporary Penis Art site? How did you get started with this and where did the idea come from?

DEBI OULU: I found whenever I was sculpting and making work in the beginning of my career, the penis kept coming in. Somehow I was sculpting shoes with a penis as a heel, and I made a brain with a penis attached. It kept coming into my artwork and I said stop and concentrate on this. Why is this coming back? So I had a whole year where I made a series of pieces called My Penis and I. They were all different material, all different types and genres. It was all dealing with the penis and my relationship to it as an object. It was at this time that I was looking at what other artists were doing and I got a lot of reactions from people like: you’re the penis artist. And then I thought, I’m going to be now coined as the penis artist for the rest of my life. And yes, there are still people that to them, that’s what I do, penis art. But then I was thinking, people react so strongly to this object. It’s not just for any reason that I chose it, it’s really an extremely universal object that means something to everybody in one way or another, in a strong way. No one is going to be ambivalent towards a penis. You can love it, you can hate it, you can have different philosophies or metaphors about it. But it’s sort of one of those common objects that I’m surprised more people don’t actually use [in their work].

THE FINE PRINT: After putting together the site, you later started to feature hundreds of submitted photographs as part of your Penis Portrait Project. How did that come about?

DEBI OULU: What happened was, I opened up the website and I was looking for other artists and I built up the whole gallery and everything and as usual, once you have a site about penises, there are all these guys that start sending you dick pics. It’s a universal thing that guys love to do. Even back then, I was really into interactive art and you could say this is one of the first interactive art projects that I did. And I said, let’s make it a page: The Penis Portrait Project. Let’s legitimize it. I try to encourage people who send in just plain dick pics to try to be a little bit more creative, think what you can do. This is an art site, it’s not a porn site. Some people I put up just because their penis is really unusual and weird the way it is. I’m not really screening too much but once in awhile people just keep sending and sending me pictures. I’m like okay, choose one or two, I’m not going to be posting up all your dick pics. But for the most part, I was surprised. A lot of people got into it. Dressing up their penis and decorating it in different ways and I thought wow, this is kind of interesting because it really forces you to look at an object, that for me, was never an attractive object in my mind. I always thought if it as God’s afterthought.

THE FINE PRINT: You started this project in 2011, there are almost 180 photos posted, do you still get submissions today? Is this is still ongoing?

DEBI OULU: Oh yeah, every week I get submissions and the website gets anywhere from 300 to 500 hits a day. I don’t actively market it. It’s sort of just out there. When artists contact me, I’ll update it with their work. If I come across other art that uses the penis as an object, I’ll include it. It’s always growing. It’s just a little side thing.

THE FINE PRINT: As a multidisciplinary artist, what can you tell me about the other works that you do? What mediums do you work with and what projects are you working on right now?

DEBI OULU: My background is in sculpture, [in the past] I worked at a bronze casting factory and learned all about casting and other materials and stuff so I pretty much feel like any material is at my fingertips, I can use anything in my sculptures or in my instillation pieces. Everything is material and I’m not afraid of anything. If I need glass, I’ll go to a glass blower, if I need painting, because that’s what the piece needs, I’ll collaborate with one of my friends that are artists because I like the way they paint and that’s what the piece needs. I don’t feel like I’m limited in any material. I really just start with an idea and I’ve noticed more and more that my pieces are going towards interactive installations. I find myself being really drawn to the whole conversation about art. You know, what happens when people connect with art in a different way. That fascinates me. When you use art as a conversation piece, as a way of getting to people, communicating with people. So that’s like a lot of my pieces. But I also try to do works that are provocative, that move people to some sort of reaction. I have this one piece where I have these chicken legs and their toenails are painted bright red and I place them, I’ve done this twice, in the bathroom of nightclubs when we’ve had an art party. People go into the bathroom and they need to wash their hands, they need to urinate and everywhere there are these hands sticking out, these chicken fingers with their fingernails painted bright red.

THE FINE PRINT: What kind of a reaction do you get?

DEBI OULU: First of all, people are coming because they know it’s an art party, so they kind of expect [something], they’re not completely surprised. It’s not like they went to a regular club and found this in the bathroom. Interestingly enough, I’ve gotten really good reactions from people, like wow, that’s strong, that’s great, you can’t ignore it, you have to wash your hands over it, you have to pee on it, you have to interact if you want to pee, if you’re not going to hold it in the whole night. I love that place where people have to interact. A few people, afterwards when they saw the pictures, the people that were total extreme vegans were offended that I used real chicken legs. I thought it was interesting that the most dramatic and strong reaction came from them because you realize that these are animal that we’re eating, they look like humans, they do have emotions and it’s actually a pro-vegan piece and the biggest comments I had against it were from vegans. I delt with it, I explained to them that these are things that they throw out anyway. I would never ever kill a chicken to do an art piece.

 

THE FINE PRINT: Do you find that because you’re doing interactive pieces that are so provocative, you often have to justify your what you’re doing?

DEBI OULU: Sometimes. I also think that there’s a time and a place. When people see a photo of the piece, they react a lot differently than when they see the piece in real life, when it’s taken out of context. Like, ohhh, what did they do? I’ve done some pieces that I never even publicize because taken out of context they would just be taken the wrong way. You really have to know who your audience is. I’m deeply involved in Burning Man here in Israel. It’s a big part of me and it’s like, finally a place where I can make my crazy art and people accept it. I won’t be banned from the place or anything. One year I made a drinking dispenser for a bar. They were serving Bloody Maries and they asked me to make a dispenser so I made a bloody Mary. A picture of Mother Mary with the Bloody Mary drink coming out of her vagina. It’s the place. If you imagine what Burning Man is like, here it’s a much smaller version. We have like 7,000 people compared to 70,000 but in the context of the place, people loved it. But I made sure that no pictures of it were posted with my name on it because anybody who is religious would see that picture and get seriously offended and I can understand that and that wasn’t my point.

THE FINE PRINT: How do you find Burning Man in Israel as opposed to the U.S., is it as accepting?

DEBI OULU: It’s funny because I was born and raised in Arizona but I moved here in 1988-1989. I moved to Israel so I never even knew about Burning Man until I got into doing instillation and interactive art pieces and of course that’s sort of how I heard about it. So I haven’t been there although I look at the art that they do there. I think they’re just as open. They’re open to discussion. I’ve never had any organizing people ever give any critique. Last year, I did this climbing wall where all the hand holes and foot holes were all human orifices. It was really cool because it was built as a pyramid and for me the concept was climbing the pyramid of success and what are you willing to do, kind of thing. That was my motivation behind it. On the pyramid, to get up to the top, there’s one really big, long penis at the top of each wall that you have to pull in order to get up. You can pick and choose whether you want penises or vaginas or mouths or asses or tits or whatever to climb up but to get to get to the top, you have to grab on to the big dick. It was funny because some guys had told me that they were very hetero and this was the first time they had held another penis in their hand and the conversations that were going around were like, ‘just pull hard on the penis and push yourself up.’ All the different conversations surrounding it was just really funny.

THE FINE PRINT: So you were born in the U.S., you travelled the far East and then moved to Israel. How have your travels influenced your works?

DEBI OULU: Let’s put it this way, I went on a big trip this past year, like a month and a half  to Peru and Ecuador and just at the end I was in Ecuador on a Sunday at one of these amazing churches that they have, looking at all the stained glass windows with these horrific patriarchal guys looking down on you with a stern face and everything and that was when I got the idea for what I’m doing this year at Burning Man in Israel.

THE FINE PRINT: What are you currently working on?

DEBI OULU: I’m making an interactive, open-source graveyard. We have plots of land where people can design and build their own plots with their own headstones, however they want. They can put in anything, they can make their own headstone of their own epitat or they can bury hate or anger, whatever they want. I’m trying to get as many people involved in this as possible. On all levels, from making the graves beforehand, to different people doing parties at the graveyard to whoever wants can do a burial ceremony at the graveyard during the burn. Even somebody came to me and said I want to do one of those signs out of chalkboard that says if this was the last day of my life, I would do… and everyone has to fill it in. So she came to me with that idea and I said okay, you’re doing it. I’ll help you. I’ll get you the materials, you come to the building workshop and build it. My concept on this is really open source. Let’s think of death and using the graveyard as a platform in a different way. Let’s face it, or at least let’s deal with it. Let’s deal with our fears.

THE FINE PRINT: Do you find that you can’t show all of your works across social media because it is so easy to take things out of context?

DEBI OULU: Yeah, definitely. I have a series of photographs where I use highly sexualized religious symbolism. Like taking symbols of Judaism, in this case, and sexualizing them. Which, in the mind of a lot of people is very offensive. So that for example, I haven’t even shown in Israel yet. I have a place in New York where I’ve shown some of these pieces but I haven’t shown them in Israel because I’m scared to death that the religious people will freak out.

THE FINE PRINT: Is there a real danger associated with that?
DEBI OULU: It’s not, but this is the other side of my life. I’m married and I have three kids, teenagers and I don’t care about myself but I really don’t want to put them through it unless it’s important enough. That series is waiting for the right time and the right place. I definitely think context is very important in art.

Text by NATASHA FONSEKA