Ninety Nine U recently visited the artist known for bringing new realities everywhere, from the Tate Modern to Instagram Stories, for a cup of tea in his new workspace in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It wasn’t only Burgerman in the studio – the space is crowded floor to ceiling with paintings of the creatures who inhabit “Burgerworld,” plus a puppet sidekick he uses in his Skillshare class and a 3-D printed doll of Burgerman that sits next to his assistant’s computer keyboard to make sure she’s working. “I used to have my whole head as the wallpaper on the iMac, but I thought it was a bit much,” Burgerman says.
We asked Burgerman about his early days developing his signature style, what his art has in common with the music industry, and the one thing we can all do to be more creative.
Q. You started out doing a fine arts degree. What did you plan to do with that degree, and what did you envision your career being?
A. I did start a fine arts degree and finished it in Nottingham. I never fit in any way. For my degree show – people go all out for their degree shows – I really couldn’t think of what to do. So I just collected all of the stuff I’d been making. I had a little cabinet of objects that I’d customized as sort of fake products. One of them was a Pepsi can, and I used a rubber band and a sticker and I put a flag on the top and people thought I was crazy. I remember having a really vivid dream of a toy train with my name, J-O-N, in wooden letters on the carriages of the train going around in a circle. I spent a week and ran to all the toy stores looking for it. Thank God I didn’t do that. I put them all together, and that was my show.
And all the tutors, friends of mine, asked me the same question: “What are you going to do? What are you going to be?” It’s weird when people ask you that. Well, I thought, Isn’t it obvious? Surely, all this suggests a really successful career.
Burgerman working on a colorful ink piece in his studio.
Q. What career were you picturing?
A. I had a vague dream of being a painter and having exhibitions. But whilst on the course, I was really into sort of design, sort of illustration – I didn’t know it was those things – like record sleeves, T-shirts, crappy merchandise. I was really torn. I liked going to galleries and museums, but I was particularly fascinated by the gift shops. You know, here are the Van Gogh sunflowers. And now, here they are as a tea towel. It’s so weird, but yeah – that is what I want to wash my dishes with. Even now, I just came back from London and I went to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. And the gift shops are full of crap: weird toys and things.
Q. Do you think it’s crap?
A. I mean, in a good way.
Q. How did you decide to move to America and why did you give everything away before you did?
A. Not everything. You know Michael Landy? He’s the artist that did Breakdown. It’s an amazing project. He destroyed everything he’d owned. I did a really mini, puny version of that.
Q. So it was an artistic gesture?
A. Not really. I just wanted to live somewhere else. I’d been traveling a lot and I’d come into New York for exhibitions and things, and I was having a great time coming here. And I said, “Well, I could be somewhere else; live another life.” I had a really successful run of it and decided to start again; hit reset. I came here with two suitcases and nowhere to live. If I had known what I was going to do, I would never have done it. I went to see an immigration lawyer in London. I was like, “I want to live in New York.” And she was like, “Do you have a job there?” “No.” “Do you have family there?” “No.” “Are you getting married to someone?” “No.” “Are you going to start a business there?” “Not really.” And then I left her office and I was like, “Shit, what have I done?” I just thought I should challenge myself a little. I’m not normally like that. I’m very lazy by nature.
Q. You are?
A. Yeah, completely. What you’re seeing – this is the least of what I could be doing. I do the bare minimum, which is why I’m always a bit down on myself. I know I could do more, be better.
Burgerman moving around his studio adorned with handmade shelves and doodle covered walls.
Q. So how do you manage yourself?
A. I don’t know. I just work. I work all the time. It’s not just that I go home and I take off my hat and I’m done for the day. It’s 24/7. It’s a lifestyle business. I know I am a freelancer, but I don’t really think of myself in that way. I have to be careful not to become President Business. I don’t want to be a company or a brand. I just like being a human being that makes stuff. I have to be a business to stay alive and stay in New York. But I can’t really get my head around it, because a lot of what I do is terrible business. Risks are not great business decisions.
Q. What’s a risk you’ve taken?
A. When I first moved here, I was in a band. That was a risk of time. Time is the commodity that I gamble with the most. Why would you spend all this time rehearsing and writing and performing? The only people who are going to come and see you are your friends, and people accidentally coming to the venue too early or too late. It was a completely frivolous thing. We painted backdrops on cardboard boxes and we’d get people onstage and then we’d do silly things. We’d auction our paintings during a song. I miss it a lot.
Q. Did you write lyrics?
A. Yeah, I would write the words and do sort of a skeleton of the song, like this chord and then this chord. And then [another bandmate] would flesh it out to an actual, real song. I still like making music, but the length of a song I’ll write now is only like 15 seconds.
Q. That’s the attention span we all have.
A. Exactly. It’s Instagram Story length.
Q. Do you remember lyrics from any of the songs?
Q. Can you tell me?
A. No. It’s too embarrassing.
A. There was a song called “Salad Ballad,” and I was always proud of the line. It’s…I can’t do it; it’s too embarrassing.
Q. Please do it.
A. A lot of the songs were about heartbreak, and obviously that’s what “Salad Ballad” was. So it’s a song saying to a girl, “You should come over and watch Columbo.” And then, “Don’t be such a dumbo.” Everyone asked us if the band was serious. And the sad thing is, it was. But it was really silly and goofy at the same time.
That problem with the band, I think, relates to my art practice. There are a lot of people who say, “Are you serious? We get that it’s funny or silly, or colorful – playful.” People find it difficult to think about it the way they would if the artwork was about heavier, weightier things. Because it’s casual and funny and weird, they treat it in that way.
Burgerman in New York City.
Q. Can you tell me how you think about color? Thinking about what makes people take work seriously, I feel like there’s pushback when something is brightly or joyfully colored.
A. I can’t make stuff without color. It’s just a gut thing. Look at this paper. Just look at this paper. [Rifling through construction paper] Look at it; look. You don’t need to do anything to it. The yellow is really amazing. I love color. I find it very similar to music. The black and white is like the structure of the work. It’s the rhythm section. And maybe if you do a big swell of black, it’s a bit bass-y, and has some deep heaviness to it. I love drum and bass. I like rhythm and beats. But man can’t exist on beats alone. We can’t live just on rhythm. We need flavor. We need taste. We need sour and sweet. And that’s where all the color comes from. And these are all the notes. These are all the chords. The pink is all the high notes, the highlights, the squeaky voices, and little cheeky details. That’s why a lot of my work is very colorful. Black and white is good. And you’re right – I think people take it seriously because it’s more chic. If you go to an event and you’re wearing all black, people think you’re cool. “Oh, she’s a designer. An architect, maybe,” something like that. If you go dressed wearing bright yellow – yellow shoes, patterned trousers – they’ll think you’re a hippie. I’m getting aware, as I’m getting older, that maybe I should tone down wearing bright colors, because people are going to think I’m some strange-uncle weird guy. Coupled with my googly eyes, I’m not doing myself any favors in trying to be taken seriously. What can I do? I like working with colored paper and Play-Doh. Those are the materials of children.
Q. What is Burgerworld?
A. Burgerworld is the title I gave an exhibition a few years ago. It’s this imaginary place where all this work lives. This is how I explain it to myself, but I never had to articulate it before. All these different things in my practice are connected. Imagine it as a world. In this country, there are these colorful, goofy characters, and they look very clean and well produced. Then, in the neighboring country or village, they’re a bit scrappier, gruffer, weirder. Maybe they’re a bit more liberal. It was a way of thinking, because I really struggle with, What is all this stuff? Where does it all fit together? So I kind of imagine it in that place. And then there’s a Burgerworld book, which is a coloring book.
The cover of Burgerman’s coloring book of the intricate land of Burgerworld. Image courtesy of Jon Burgerman
Q. I thought Burgerworld might be your imagination, but it almost sounds like this is a thing that is beyond you.
A. It could live on once I’m gone. A big part of my practice in the last 10 years is getting other people to make stuff and sharing the world. If you love a thing, set it free; that kind of thing. I’m inspired by a lot of stuff, and so it’s really amazing if people are inspired by what you do, right? Rather than try and protect all this stuff, I think you have to purposely get rid of it. And then make something else.
An interactive Burgerworld mural at Hudson Yards in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Jon Burgerman
Q. Talking about the things that you’re inspired by, I’m thinking about your Jeff Koons adaptation or about the Infinity Room adaptation, where you created small models of both.
A. That’s the thing. They put out something, and then you can take it, tweak it to your end, and then put it back out into the world. That’s what music does. “Oh, they sampled this.” “Oh, this sounds like the ’80s.” They’re taking it, tweaking it, and putting it back.
Art does it a lot. I really love the idea of subverting it and playing with it. And I hope it doesn’t really upset anyone. But that’s what we should all be doing. It is kind of funny to see someone reinterpreting what you do. I know Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, used to collect all the fake Simpsons merchandise. Because that’s a huge form of flattery, right? I’ve got folders on my computer of stuff that I know is a knockoff. And most of the time, it’s very innocent.
Q. What advice do you have for people looking to add some more creativity to their lives?
A. One thing you can do: read more. I guarantee you, it’ll increase your creativity. Reading is the number one thing that any human being can do to increase their creativity, because it’s fertilizer for your imagination. You’re reading these little black shapes on a white background, converting them into words, and then those words become sentences and those sentences are telling you something. And then in your head, you’re feeling and imagining things: what it looks like, what they sound like. That’s the best thing you can do for your imagination and your creativity and your general well-being.
Q. Would you like to be more in the fine art world?
A. Fine art seems like the best thing, right? You just make what you want to make and put it in a gallery, and there are no clients or briefs. I’m in a kind of limbo world. Do I want to do more paintings and drawings just for the sake of it? Yes. But I don’t know if I would actually say I want to do more fine art. I’m happier on the edges of things.