Ever since her teens, Lydia Lunch has been an artist who has celebrated fierce ugliness, excess and confrontation. Intensely charismatic, she has worked with some of the most celebrated musicians, filmmakers and poets of a generation: Vivienne Dick, Nick Cave, Vincent Gallo, Carla Bozulich. A self-proclaimed ‘cattle prodder’ intent on espousing militantly anarchist ideals to inspire those ‘without the time or inclination to read a fucking book,’ we spoke to her about what beauty means to her in her life, performance and music.
You’ve said before that what you believe in comes down to truth, beauty, love and filth…
The basics! As someone who focuses artistically on the negative, the pummeling and brutality that we, as individuals, as women, as human beings, are forced into as this planet becomes more brutarian and arrogant and patriarchal, the only real rebellion is to really embrace beauty and pleasure. To reclaim it with as much vigor as possible. I’m a complete hedonist. I think that hedonism is getting back to the garden, and that’s what women are meant to be: we are physically meant to espouse an essence that is beautiful. I said to the audience at a show a few months ago, ‘you’ll never be as ugly as I am’ and I said it with great glee because extreme ugliness of that sort is also quite beautiful. Beauty is not a shallow thing, it’s all in what you see, how you accept. I always felt like my physicality was a grand cosmic ruse and if you really knew what I looked like it’d be Biggie Smalls or Medusa – a black, 300lb Medusa.
A lot of your work is almost overwhelming, speaks to something instinctual. Your stuff with Teenage Jesus is so full-on and there’s something beautiful in that primality.
Yeah, it speaks to the primal being. I think that beauty is a tricky thing, especially for women, because there’s such an emphasis on an impossible physical perfection that no one can ever reach – and, if you do, you just look like an empty Real Doll. Beauty comes from different things; from confidence in yourself, meaning that you are not setting yourself up to an impossible standard that someone else has contrived. It is embracing your individuality and your direct power source. That’s what I hope I represent to people who come to my show: a stubborn insistence on fierce independence. What could be more fucking ragingly beautiful than that?
You’ve been working in a way that’s hard and tough since you were so young. As young women, we’re often taught to be palatable and submissive, to engage with a culture that oppresses us. When was it growing up that you realized you didn’t want to be a part of that?
Aged 11, I guess. It came from reading Hubert Selby and Henry Miller and Sade and Jung and Freud and Genet… there must have been a great used bookstore in my neighborhood. Reading that literature showed me that you could deal with the trauma of birth artistically and that it was a universal disease. I took my power by realizing that my situation, whatever it was, was not unique. And that’s why one of the first spoken word performances I did was called Daddy Dearest, going right to the source of the problem. I went out from my father to the father of our country, to God the father and the patriarchy in general. I think what turns people into addicts and self-abusers is feeling isolated – things become their special pain. Pain is not special: it is universal and art can and should be the salve to that wound.
Daddy Dearest is one of my favourite pieces of all time – it is so painful and beautiful, hearing those brutal experiences that happen to so many women by means of physical and sexual abuse but so many other ways, too…
Many worse. It goes on, it’s a global violence against anyone who is not the upstanding dominant male: other men too, more sensitive men, young boys, women from all walks of life, children… anyone other than the dominant albino gorilla.
It feels like beauty is often used a way of disempowering women when it can be that filth, that extreme, aggressive power.
That’s why I’ve been doing these workshops [Post Catastrophe Collaborative Workshops]. I encourage women to write or read any text they want, just to find their voice, to get something to the stage. I consider myself a cattle prodder and I’m good at helping people to overcome their inhibitions. I’ve always loved to read other people’s works, I’m going to eventually do a show called Dirty Old Men: me just reading Selby, Burroughs, Genet, Miller, for people that haven’t had the time or inclination to read a fucking book, just to remember the beauty of that language, the brutality of that period. And now the names in power are basically the same as they were then, the crimes remain the same – only the arrogance is different, at an all-time high. America is still what I have always said it was: the bully of the fucking planet. I feel like a fly with a thousand eyes and two thousand ears because I need to know everything and then I have to filter it into soundbytes to put out to other people who aren’t as interested as I am in the trip straight into the mouth of the apocalypse that we have been on probably ever since time began.
There’s a seeming disparity between the intense vulnerability of your work and your strong, hard visual aesthetic…
I am strong. I am physically strong. I punched two men in the face at my last show in Orlando. But we don’t need to dwell on that: I’ve only got two fists and there are too many faces to fucking punch. It’s difficult, because I’m a contrarian; I’m so dualistic, a kaleidoscopic schizophrenic, I embrace both the feminine and masculine nature that I embody. I was born with a dead male twin, I really think that I consumed him and it’s part of the reason I have the power that I have, the stamina that I have and the ability to soldier on. I will never stop resisting the encroachment of the enemy on our individual fucking freedoms and it’s getting fucking worse.
But how do you keep yourself sane? I mean, it’s a pretty thankless, endless task and, like you said, it’s getting worse, getting harder.
The mindfulness movement, I think is really good, just to be conscious and not be a robatron doing automatic shit. But that’s why being hedonistic after all of this hard labor of navigating the sleaze and arrows of everyday life is so fucking important. I think because we’ve been so fucking spoiled, that’s when you have to really start reducing and look for beauty in the smallest fucking things – you have to look at the clouds, the moon, stars, the flowers, the shadows. We have to reduce and remember what real pleasure, satisfaction and beauty is about. Although we should satisfy every urge we have, you can consume until you make yourself sick of all sex, drugs, men, energy but, if you are not ultimately satisfying yourself, then you are just becoming a human landfill. Learn who and what you are and become what you wanna be; that doesn’t cost anything. A tube of lipstick, maybe. Hairdye, maybe. Nice dress, pair of shoes, not much. Be what you want to be, you can constantly reinvent everything: your voice, your hair, your looks, don’t be stuck in a model that somebody else invented for you. You really have to shut down everything and go deep inside – my favourite place, deep inside Lydia Lunch. Be your own lover. That’s what’s important.