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So, Is It Art? Talking to Playboy’s Creative Director of Special Projects, Neville Wakefield

Whose idea was it to install a Playboy sculpture in Marfa?

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On August 29, 2013, we talked to Neville Wakefield, the artist behind the controversial Playboy Marfa installation. Read more about the art-versus-advertising debate here.

FRANCESCA MARI: Have you been to Marfa since Richard Phillips’s Playboy Marfa went up in June?

NEVILLE WAKEFIELD: Not for a little while. I’ve been there quite a few times doing shows and whatever. It’s an experience, a strange kind of microcosm in the middle of the desert.

FM: That leads to my next question: How did you come to choose Marfa for this project?

NW: Actually, I didn’t choose Marfa, funnily enough. Prior to my being involved, I think Playboy had wanted to do something for awhile, some kind of roadside installation, and I guess Marfa seemed the obvious choice. And since I’ve done various things there, it made some sense.

FM: Was Richard Phillips someone you’d worked with before?

NW: Yes, we did a project together three years ago. I did a compilation film project called Commercial Break. It was a response to the fact that there’s this ban on advertising. We curated a series of very short films that addressed that. Richard made the short film on Lindsay Lohan. It was one of his first excursions in film, and it went completely viral.

Lindsay is herself a kind of brand, so when Playboy approached me with this project, it seemed rooted, in a way, with brands and with pop identities. Whether it’s Lindsay Lohan or Playboy, these identities are pre-crafted by pop culture, so it made some sense to bring him into this project.

Recently he’s become a complete car nut. He’s obsessed, in particular, with street racing. He has a car that he races. It was already there in his work: pop culture, iconography of America, cars, the idea of the West. He seemed to be a kind of natural collaborator for a project like this.

FM: Can you describe to me what the opening was like?

NW: The opening in Marfa?

FM: Oh, was there an opening in Marfa?

NW: No, there wasn’t, no.

FM: The opening at the Standard Hotel [in New York City].

NW: It was great. It was organized around a dinner. There were some playmates. Raquel, who’s the playmate of the year and had been photographed down there [with Playboy Marfa] graced it with her presence. There were a bunch of people from New York, and after dinner, there was a short film describing the installation. Richard spoke about it.

FM: Did anything funny or surprising happen?

NW: The most unusual, unlikely people seemed to be drawn to the playmates—the magnetism of that. [Laughs] There were art world people there who surprised me by enjoying it.

FM: When was Playboy Marfa conceived?

NW: The idea of doing something in Marfa was conceived before last year and started becoming a reality around April of this year.

FM: Were you surprised by the waves that the piece made in Marfa?

NW: Yes and no. Marfa is an interesting place and it’s a complicated place in that there are many different versions of it. There are the people who drive through, there’s the art community, the local community. All the reactions have been different. To me, it’s successful as an artwork precisely because it’s ignited these conversations. If it didn’t elicit any kind of reaction, it would have failed.

FM: What is the Texas Department of Transportation going to do?

NW: I don’t know. I think Playboy and TxDot seem to be having constructive conversations, but what the result will be, I don’t know.

FM: Playboy Marfa is the first part of a two-part initiative. Phase two has been described as a “reimaging of a Dodge Charger.” What does that mean, and how is it developing?

NW: Phase two is developing. The Marfa installation is really conceived as an artwork in its own way, but it’s also a chrysalis that is intended as an announcement to this other project that’s being hatched, which is getting close to completion now, and which will probably be unveiled in early December. And that’ s the car itself, which Richard has been working on.

The car is the blank canvas upon which Richard had electricians creating this new entity—a very, very different kind of sculpture, fully functional. It’s a ground-up modernization of the Charger that’s on the plinth. It’s taking the Nascar heritage and replacing it in literal and figurative ways. The era [of the Charger, the seventies,] in many people’s minds was the heyday of Playboy. To go and take that [Charger] form and give it new content, which is what Richard is doing, is interesting.

FM: As a critic, what do you think is the most significant thing to say about Playboy Marfa?

NW: The iconography of Playboy is part of the iconography of America and putting it in the small-town context, it then has this cosmopolitan art world appeal. Playboy’s always kind of traded between high and low, and I think this project continues that, and I think it’s a success.

FM: Do you have plans to see it in person sometime soon?

NW: I’m not quite sure. I think Richard is doing an interview out there next month, and I’ll probably go with him then.

[Editor’s Note: Richard Phillips’s interview at Playboy Marfa, which was planned for a national television segment, was postponed.]

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