Billy Apple: Goodwill Is Important
Hans Ulrich Obrist is a Swiss art curator and writer, and Artistic Director of London’s Serpentine Galleries. He is famous for his ‘endless conversation’—his ongoing project of interviewing artists and curators, architects and filmmakers, scientists and philosophers, and other cultural figures. Obrist was introduced to Apple’s work by Nicolaus Schafhausen, and saw the Apple show Schafhausen curated at Rotterdam’s Witte de With in 2009. Obrist interviewed Apple at the Mayor Gallery, London, on 5 October 2018, during his exhibition The Artist Has to Live Like Everybody Else 1961–2018. At several points, Apple’s partner Mary Morrison contributes to the conversation.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: We’re going to talk about beginnings, about how Barrie Bates became Billy Apple. We’re going to talk about Billy Apple’s many inventions. And we’re going to talk about the current work. But I want to begin at the very beginning and ask how you came to art or how art came to you.
Billy Apple: I arrived in Britain in September 1959 with a totally open mind—no historical baggage. My colleagues at the Royal College had to work their way through everything. That was the difference, for example, between Ron Kitaj and myself. His paintings addressed the classics. I didn’t have to do that. I could just jump in. I was thinking more about marketing and branding, and the language that goes along with them. That was my subject matter from the get go, and still is. You have to invent your own currency.
In 1960, I began my ‘hands off, head on’ approach, where the idea became paramount. I had just been in Spain, where I had photographed a barber shaving a customer. When I came back to London, I decided I’d never take another picture myself, and sold my camera to a fellow student at the College. I started to get others to make my work. All my friends were in Painting. They loved to paint and I could convince them to paint works for me under my instructions. Also, Richard Guyatt, in the graphic-design department, made it possible for me to go to every other department in the College and access technicians. All I had to do was supply the ideas and they made everything.
You’ve talked about this idea of the artist as a creative director, inspired by advertising agencies. You were casting.
In a way, yes, indeed. I was casting for people. I didn’t have the time to become the best in all those disciplines. The trick was to find who was the best and that’s what I became good at. And I’d have a conversation with them, so it’s going to be the way I want it. It was amazing who I could convince to work for me, like photographers Bert Stern and Richard Avedon.
Benoît Mandelbrot told me that, suddenly, on a blackboard that hadn’t been properly cleaned, he started to see fractals. It’s curious to me that you remember the precise day when this transition occurred. When did you become Billy Apple?
In 1962, I returned from New York penniless. Richard Smith suggested I stay with him. We were sitting there on Thursday 22 November 1962 and I said, ‘I’m going to proceed with the notion of branding. I could be the subject matter of the future. It has nothing to do with the landscape or anything else. I could be self contained in a windowless room and carry on.’ And that’s what happened. I became Billy Apple. And I made a series of works as visual aids to support the name change, for instance casting an apple and painting it in automotive paint, red or green. They became the paramount colours for the brand.
I have the card here from the archives for your 1974 Serpentine Gallery show, From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple.
After that show, I went to bed for months, exhausted mentally. I remember Dan Flavin saying the worst thing to do is a survey show. It takes you months to get over it. It was so fraught, with the police closing the show down and being made to remove works.
Why did the police want to close the show?
There was a big French door. And, from outside, you could see my work with soiled toilet tissues, although, from outside, they just looked like paper. Someone came in, read the label, and complained to the police, and they closed the place down. The curator had conveniently taken her annual holiday to Spain on the opening night. So Norbert Lynton from the arts council called the police and turned up to negotiate. The place was shut for three days. In the end, I said, ‘I’m happy to remove the work, provided we have someone photograph me removing it.’ The tissues were all taped to the wall. Each had a little piece of paper with the date and time stapled to it. So I peeled back the tape and took off the tissues. In the end, it was only the bits of tape left on the wall. I also ripped a page out of the book with photos of the work, and took a red marker and wrote ‘Requested Subtraction’ and the date on it, and taped it to the wall. With the ripped page and the tape remnants, it was all there. In fact, your imagination was running wild trying to figure out what had gone on.
In the 1970s, you did performative works in New York. It was a different kind of New York.
I had a loft on 23rd Street. I started an alternative space there, where I showed and where I invited other people to show. I did works about the maintenance of that space. I didn’t want to call it Apple. I didn’t want to personalise it. I wanted it to be ‘161 West 23rd’. But when I went to the Village Voice, the New York Times, and New York Magazine asking to be included in their listings, they said, ‘What’s the name of the gallery?’ I said, ‘It’s 161 23rd.’ They said, ‘That’s not a name.’ I said, ‘I can spell it out if you want me to.’ In the end, I said, ‘My name is Billy Apple, so make it Apple.’ From then on, those publications ran listings every week.
Tell us about some of the shows.
Robert Watts did a show where he tried to copyright the words ‘pop art’. He presented his findings about others who had trademarked ‘Pop-Tarts’, ‘pop this’, ‘pop that’. It was a beautiful little show. These little envelopes with letterhead-size pieces of paper with a logo or a name on it. Then Lawrence Alloway, who was writing for The Nation, wrote an article, where even he, who had coined the phrase, did not think it had become a generic term. You can’t own generic terms.
I’ve interviewed several artists of the pop-art generation and they all said how much they were reacting to the mass production that surrounded them. Here, in the Mayor Gallery, you’re showing IOU and Bartered paintings, which others produced to your instructions.
It would be easy to make a hundred of these works, as we did with a previous series of IOUs. They were all based on the A-page system. The earlier work I did was three A3s, four A4s, five A5s. Their value was determined by the sale of the first one. They were like a chequebook. They were on paper, while these are on canvas, but I could do hundreds of each just the way they are.
I once tried to do an IOU with Leo Castelli. I’d shown with him in 1977 and 1978. In 1984, I went to see him with an idea for a show called Billy Apple Wants to Borrow. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Billy, we don’t borrow money.’ I wanted to say: If I fill it out, it’s my marker, not yours; we’ll add the commission on top and you’re safe; if they want their money back, I’ll have to give it to them. Writing ‘on demand’ with a signature makes it a legal contract. Without that, it’s just a pop-art joke. So, if someone with it needed cash quickly, they could tap me on the shoulder and say: Where’s my money? I’d be obliged to pay or take the consequences. But, in all these years of doing them, no one’s ever turned up demanding the money back. I think that’s because the commission is on top, and I don’t pay that back. Anywhere in the world, IOUs are tax exempt, because you’re borrowing, and you don’t pay tax on borrowing. They are the first works I didn’t have to pay tax on.
Promissory notes are currency. Your IOUs are like a private currency, bypassing the control of governments and banks. A lot of artists are inspired by new currencies, particularly Blockchain. Maybe you invented Blockchain.
I’d like that. But, no. There’s quite a history to promissory notes. They go back to the days of the Wild West. Before banks were around, that was how people did business. A guy gets drunk in a bar and the next thing is the barman owns his ranch. For me, my IOUs have been a way of keeping alive and paying bills. My Paids also go on and on and on. The invoices attached to them tell the story of my life. I read an interesting article on Art.Net a couple of years ago, surveying what artists in London and New York earned from their work. Not many artists live off what they do, though you hear these wonderful results through the auction houses. I’m sure some artists would like to think they’ll get rights of resale at five per cent, if nothing else. That’s the law in many places now.
That leads us to another aspect of this exhibition, in terms of everyday economy and artists living like everybody else. Besides the IOUs, there are the Barter works, another series where you develop a parallel economy. Can you tell us about the role of barter in your work?
With the Barters, there was quite a range of subject matter. But, in recent times, I’ve dropped that whole notion of identifying in the work who, where, and when, and go straight to the subject itself. So a canvas will just have a product or service name, like Gall Bladder. So a surgeon would get a work for doing my gall bladder, my hernia, or my knee. I’ve got to get a knee done, and I’ve got a good surgeon lined up who’s waiting anxiously for a work for it.
Well being is basic needs. You have to have food, water, shelter, clothing. You also negotiate barters with people who become invested in the basic maintenance of your life. Can you tell us about that?
I realised early on that not only did I need my own payment system, like a cheque account, which the IOUs were, but a Well Being series. So, I made works—contracts for 10,000 days, with fixed start and end dates. I made sure they included a doctor, a dentist, an eye doctor, a psychologist. I knew, if I gave them everything at once, they could say: Time to retire. Each work was a conglomeration of squares getting larger according to a ratio, with the smallest one for fifty-five days and the largest for 6,180. I give providers one, then, when I get to the next point in the 10,000 days, I give them the next one. So they’re getting paid as they go along. It’s worked well. Goodwill is important in these. And the people have become great supporters and a new type of clientele, a new type of collector. Dealers don’t create opportunities for these sorts of things to happen.
You work a lot outside the dealer system.
My first show with Leo Castelli was in 1977, and the last one was 1984. Four shows. I’ve had three shows with James Mayor—2010, 2013, and now—and hopefully there will be more. But I do things all over the place, so it’s not like I’m working for one show a year. I mean, I could do one of these every month, almost.
Mary Morrison: Billy operates in a wide variety of other spaces outside of dealer galleries, like the race track with his racing cars
Billy, tell us about the racing motorbikes and cars.
I don’t know how to ride a motorbike and I certainly don’t drive racing cars, but I have this collection of British Grand Prix motorbikes and racing cars. They are beautiful. My bikes have been around the Isle of Man. My cars have been on tracks around Europe and America. As a kid, I liked the idea of going to motorbike races on country roads. And then I had the opportunity to buy one, and then another one. The trouble is that I like them to be very original and go to great pains to get them back to that state. We do race them. The late John Surtees rode my Norton a couple of times. It’s fun to be able to enter another world that is not art and be accepted, not as a rider, but just because of the passion I have for these vehicles and letting people use them. But there comes a point in life, circumstances change, and now I’d like the Billy Apple bike and car collection to move on. I’d like to find good homes for them. Each of them has a provenance canvas, so you’d be buying a diptych.
How many are there?
I would give up three bikes and three cars.
Many artists today work with science. But, in the 1960s, you were already working with scientists.
I gravitate towards interesting people. My first science collaboration was with a physicist in 1969, Dr Stanley Shapiro, at General Telephone and Electronics Laboratories, a superstar in laser development. There were two columns at Apple, and I wanted to use little mirrors to bounce a laser beam back and forth between them to create a light wall you couldn’t walk through. The beam was so strong, it was like having a red pencil line making a red wall. It was on for one day only. I put a little ad in the New York Times and we had queues of people outside who wanted to see our laser beams. My lawyer said, ‘Make sure people sign a waiver, because if someone looks into this beam and it damages their eye, it’s serious.’ Litigation in New York! Luckily we locked up the equipment that night, because someone broke in through the fire escape thinking to steal the gear. I did another work before I had to return it. I said, ‘Could we shine the laser onto the moon?’ The guy said, ‘Yeah, fire it up.’ And they moved the beam until it hit the moon. That was an incredible moment. You could see the beam going out into nowhere. He did some calculations of how wide the beam would be on the surface of the moon.
So the next collaboration was with the neuroscientist. I saw the photos of the recording of your brainwaves as quite futuristic.
This wonderful guy took me to Montefiore Hospital in New York, where they were doing early work on sleep apnoea. They put me in a lab in a quiet room with a bed and a pillow, and they wired up my head to see when I was producing alpha and beta waves. I didn’t produce a lot of alpha waves. It’s something you can’t will, you’ve just got to let yourself go and it happens. The scientists usually go to another room and watch a lightbulb flash when the subject produces alpha waves. But, in this case, we had a buzzer, which I heard. And it was all printed out in dots and dashes. Dit, dit, dah, dah, dit, dit. Like Morse code. We did about three sessions like that. Later, I found myself in Vermont. I knew there was an Air Force base there. So I had my host drive me out to speak to a person there who knew Morse code. People don’t use it now. Anyhow, this guy gets out a pencil and starts writing it out, page after page, translating the dots and dashes into letters. I thought: Christ, this is the subconscious speaking..
Recently, you’ve also been working with genetics. Gene sequencing is at the forefront of many discussions and you’ve done this amazing piece, The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® .
I’m working with Dr Craig Hilton. There is a procedure.
They introduce a virus, Epstein-Barr virus, into the cell nucleus, which changes the nucleus so the cells are able to live outside your body at the correct temperature. That moment, when they will stay alive, is called ‘immortalisation’.
The cells can grow. Probably sixty million were sent overnight, door to door, from the University of Auckland to Virginia. There might be 600 million cells or more now. Works came from that. We’d attach special cameras onto a microscope and look at the cells in a Petri dish. I had a projection of the cells growing, splitting.
In themselves, scientifically, Billy’s cells are not that interesting. But they do provide a vehicle for research. Billy has made his cells available so the scientists have a medium to practice on.
There is a text here where you say: I consent to the wide distribution of cell lines derived from my blood, including deposit with the American Type Culture Collection cell bank.
My cells are in a collection and they can be used by scientists around the world for their research. My line is known as ‘the Billy Apple cell line from the American Type Culture Collection’. Out of that grew works like The Artist Will Live Forever. It’s true—part of me will go on forever, so long as they look after the cells. It’s nice to know that part of me is being used for research.
There’s an interesting connection to the idea that, from the very beginning, your work could be disseminated beyond the gallery.
That’s right. We did my full DNA analysis at the University of Otago. It was extensive. If I printed it out, it would require sixty reams of A4 paper, printed on both sides! Who would want to do it? But if some collection said they must have it, I would produce it, once only. My next work—with Dr Craig Hilton and the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland—was to do with microbiome in my gut. I still had my excretory wipings from the Serpentine show. From them, we could build a picture of my gut microbiome from forty-six years ago. The findings were presented at an international conference on microbiotics. The scientists were wonderful. They came up and kept saying, ‘We want to shake your hand.’
They usually took samples using this fully sterile technique. But with Billy they used toilet paper from the Serpentine show that had just been sitting in a box for decades, undisturbed. They were saying this had huge ramifications for them, because they realised they might not need to be so sterile or to process samples so fast.
I had a sample for 8 July 1970. So, on 8 July 2016, I took a fresh sample. They were able to do a complete analysis on both. The resulting work, Billy Apple® Is N=1, is a diptych printed on canvas. One panel is a photo of the two samples, the other has two coloured stripes contrasting their chemical makeup. I gave a set to the Liggins Institute. It’s in their reception area. As Mary says, there’s nothing scientifically significant in my immortalised cells. What was significant was presenting the process in a public arena, demystifying it. However, I think the microbiome project is important scientifically. There’s been a scientific paper published. It’s online. So, here I am, here’s my name, as one of the contributors in a scientific paper, along with various PhDs. It’s fun. I’m pleased to be associated with these scientists. The project continues. In 2017, my septic gall bladder put me in hospital. It was so messy, they couldn’t operate. It was a life-and-death thing. They had to get it under control, then, when things stabilised, they had it removed. I was concerned: Would this change my microbiome? So we did tests. I’m waiting for the results.
Now we move to an interview within the interview. Simon Denny, in Berlin, knows you well and has been inspired by you. He texted me some questions for you this morning. Simon wants to know: What is the thing you like most about being Billy Apple?
I feel very relaxed about being Billy Apple. I’ve built up a good brand image and it works. It gives me entry into the projects I do scientifically. I also like to do works to raise money for charities I believe in, like Women’s Refuge, the AIDS Foundation and youth programmes.
He also wants to know: What is the biggest thing that you thought or think you could or can do with art at any point in your career?
It’s a question I usually ask, because I am interested in artists’ unrealised projects. Simon’s question brings us to this. Is there a project you might not yet have been able to do, something which has been too big to be realised?
It’s hard to answer that, because I’ve always had a good team around me that I can call upon individually or collectively. I’m quite content with where we’re at at the moment, and things seem to keep developing. Like any good research, one thing leads to the next thing. If there was a dream project, it would be not yet written down or available because we haven’t reached that point yet.
And Simon’s last question: If you had to design an education curriculum, what would be at its core?
I would encourage people to think harder and develop their imaginations. The sky is the limit at that point.
The sky is the limit. There could not be a better conclusion. A big applause for Billy Apple.
Billy Apple 1935–2021
Wystan Curnow, Anthony Byrt, Natasha Conland, and Christina Barton pay tribute.
When the end came, Billy was ready. There was a to-do list, and, when I last spoke with him, he told me he was onto it, his work ethic seemingly undiminished. Billy was one of those self-employed people for whom time off was overtime. The main thing he wanted known was that he was satisfied with his life, that he was dying a happy man. I believe that was because of the attention, international attention especially, that his work attracted over last fifteen years of his life, attention that had eluded it earlier. Perhaps I can best celebrate his life by writing about that.
Billy made a few big changes in the course of his life, each of which had its up side and down side. In 1964, he abandoned a nascent career as a Brit pop artist to move to New York to become an American pop artist. In the late 1960s, he gave up pop to join the new ‘alternative’ downtown scene. When that scene ran its course, he began exhibiting in New Zealand, and later left his New York loft to settle in Auckland. There were too many new starts, which, for a time, meant being left out of survey exhibitions and books. On the other hand, in the long run, it made him a more interesting artist.
By the end of the twentieth century, diverse sectors of a more outward-looking art world were beginning to realise this. Apple’s inclusions in the bellwether show Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s at Queens Museum and Toi Toi Toi: Three Generations of Artists from New Zealand at Kassel’s Fridericianum (both 1999) were good signs. A string of pop-art museum surveys followed; among them were Shopping (Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, and Tate Liverpool, 2002), The American Supermarket (The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, 2003), and International Pop (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Dallas Museum of Art; and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015). In 2010, the Mayor Gallery, a Cork Street veteran, known for representing American artists of Apple’s generation, began showing and selling his earlier works. A combination of globalisation and ‘generational rollover’ was driving emerging artists, curators, and dealers in Apple’s direction.
Nicolaus Schafhausen was one of several young European curators now taking a serious interest in Apple’s career. Tobias Berger and Hans Ulrich Obrist were others. In November 2008, Schafhausen visited Apple’s warehouse with his curator Zoe Gray, to choose works for a show, to open the following May in Rotterdam’s critically acclaimed kunsthalle, Witte de With, where he was Director. For Apple, this was a career-defining event, which would set the stage for the international profile that distinguished his final decade. It included fifty works, occupied two floors of Witte de With’s spacious building, and was up for over three-and-a-half months. For the very first time, viewers outside New Zealand got to see Apple’s work as a whole and to understand its integrity and ambition. It was a knock-out show, succinct and compelling in its selection and presentation.
When I arrived, the day before the opening, Billy was eager to walk me round. The pleasures and rigours of installing with him came back to me: he pointed out the walls he’d rearranged, the fluorescent tubes he’d changed, the room-by-room fine tuning of ‘the white cube’ required by each work. There was a rapport with the preparators, whom he’d won over by his bloody-minded fastidiousness. The following morning, Tina Barton and I walked round the show together rehearsing our double-act floor talk, scheduled to follow David Elliott’s public conversation with the artist in the afternoon. Elliott, then Director of the Biennale of Sydney, asked Billy about his 1974 London survey show, From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple. Billy spoke of his bad memories of the Serpentine Gallery’s failure to back him up over a public controversy provoked by one of his works, while Elliott vividly recalled seeing the show as a twenty-five-year-old and how it had inspired him.
After Witte de With, there was a marked growth of international interest in Apple’s work. In 2010 and 2011, he had solo shows in London and group shows in New York, Paris, and Tallinn, and was featured on the Mayor and Starkwhite stands at the Basel and Hong Kong art fairs. Interest in New Zealand was also booming. Apple was in his late seventies, yet the number of his exhibitions was doubling. The last decade did wonders for his reception. Audiences for his work were expanding locally and worldwide, and advances were being made in its interpretation and appreciation. Most of this took place in New Zealand: Tina Barton’s long-awaited, comprehensive, and lively retrospective, Billy Apple: The Artist Has to Live like Everybody Else, at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 2015, followed by more specialised surveys at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary, Nelson’s Suter Gallery, and Hawke’s Bay’s MTG, plus three substantial books—my collected writings on Apple (Sold On Apple), Barton’s definitive biography (Billy Apple® Life/Work), and Anthony Byrt’s back story to Apple’s stunning London debut (The Mirror Steamed Over). His ending came in the midst of a bonanza, an Apple bonanza.
When Barrie Bates rinsed the Lady Clairol from his hair on 22 November 1962, the reflection he saw in the mirror perfectly embodied the societal transformation Western culture was then embarking upon, one that would shape the next sixty years. Despite emerging in London, Billy Apple was a fundamentally American invention—not just a riff on consumer branding but an expression of the larger force that consumerism was accelerating, American exceptionalism, which advertising helped raise to its bombastic peak. Billy had various ways for explaining his choice of name, but my personal favourite was always that it was ‘as American as apple pie’. American exceptionalism—unsullied, satisfying, sweet—was the world’s most sustained advertising campaign. It didn’t matter whether it was true, only whether we bought into it.
Billy and I talked about advertising a lot. He venerated the great advertising figures he learned from and worked alongside: Bob Gill, Herb Lubalin, Bert Stern, Helmut Krone, Bill Bernbach, George Lois, and others. He told me that Lubalin had taught him ‘how to make type talk’. (In reality, Billy had adapted a famous campaign Lubalin designed to advertise the services of the agency he worked for, Sudler and Hennessey.) Billy was obsessed with type, and with Futura in particular. He also had a remarkable memory for specific advertising campaigns. One of the great pleasures of researching my book The Mirror Steamed Over was going through The New Yorker archives and seeing the exact ads that, as Barrie Bates, he had encountered on his trips to New York in 1961 and 1962. The lessons he learned from American advertising became integral to the Billy Apple® project. The relationship between type and image—and type as image—was, in many ways, the key to the whole thing.
One of the best examples of Billy’s pure advertising work was his contribution to Tareyton cigarettes in the 1970s. Tareyton had established its market share with a full-strength product whose tagline was a celebration of its addictive qualities, masked as brand loyalty. ‘I’d rather fight than switch!’, the copy claimed, accompanied by an image of a model with a stylised smudge under their eye, like a bruise from a punch. Apple was part of the team that worked on the launch for Tareyton’s light cigarettes. The copy and image templates were reversed out. ‘I’d rather light than fight!’, read the new line, and the model instead wore a white smudge. The first campaign images were shot by Bert Stern. In Billy’s archive, there’s a Stern photo of Billy, with that same white crescent under his eye. Billy was at his most playful when working with reflections and reversals.
Although many people in the art world like to sneer at advertising, the truth is that the best of it is remarkable, hard to do, and more world shaping than anything contemporary art has dished up over the past sixty years. Advertising was the engine for consumer capitalism. But, while equal access to mass-produced goods was implicitly framed as America’s greatest social achievement, it also planted the seeds of America’s decline. The economy this consumption supercharged eventually launched the age of fiat currencies, with the US dollar as the world’s reserve (another strand of Apple’s practice was his fixation on the value of gold, which fiat USD effectively replaced). Fiat currencies led to the global explosion of credit and several decades of steadily falling interest rates. The availability of cheap credit to any and all created the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the GFC. The moment the United States pretended to have achieved equality through the democratisation of its greatest product, modern money—now everyone can own a home!—was also the moment the exceptionalist project fell apart. Billy Apple® was there throughout it all.
Since then, America has been on borrowed time. Advertising has been hollowed out too, turning as nihilistic and pornographic as the nation that created it. The pure brand-building advertising Billy admired subtly nudged its way into the dark corners of our capitalist desires. Now, potential customers stand naked and blinking under algorithmic floodlights—we know everything about you, what you want, and how you want it—endlessly slapped around by low-grade gifs and banner ads. We’ve moved from the sensual saturation of CMYK to the crass screen light of RGB, but I doubt Billy felt any nostalgic pangs about this transition. All great brands need to move with the times and Billy Apple® had a remarkable knack for feeling the coming cultural mood. Bates’s disappearance was an archetypal American act, pupate and Icarus-like. Always a hubristic character, Bates created, as his final gesture in this world, a brand that was both beautiful and radical.
In the catalogue to his 1974 survey exhibition From Barrie Bates to Billy Apple at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Billy Apple describes his transformation: ‘This change of identity which was done initially as an “art act” became a life situation and as such is a continuing process. During the time between the conception of the idea and its execution, the invented identity evolved into the actual identity.’ Apple wrote this clinically, reflecting on the seemingly frictionless transition as if commenting on it from outside of himself. By the time of the Serpentine show, he had already lived as Apple for over a decade, and, over the course of his later life, his transformation into a brand and ultimately a registered trademark would continue. Privately, I have wondered what psychological acuity it took to sustain this. In the process of transforming himself into a cohesive brand, I sensed there was something lost, a residual leftover particle of Apple—like the shadow of his psyche—to which he would occasionally allude.
In the year before his death, Apple and I had begun to develop an exhibition that he titled Billy Apple: Well Being, asserting his prior claim to a term New Zealand’s Labour Government has adopted as a key facet of its arts policy. The show would include works involving clinical observations on his biology and negotiations with medical practitioners and scientists. The first of these—Eye Examination (1962–7) and An Enlargement of the Left Eye (1963)—show Apple superimposing information on the malfunctioning vision in his left eye onto his transformation portrait. The show would also include his records of his bowel motions and nose blowings, as in Excretory Wipings (1974). We would then skip to his many Transactions with healthcare professionals, including his first golden-section Well-Being work (1991) and a work made for the ceiling above his dentist’s chair. Finally, there would be The Immortalisation of Billy Apple® (2010), which preserved his cells indefinitely, and The Analysis of Billy Apple® (2014), which recorded data from his genomic sequencing.
In addition, Apple proposed drawing into the scope of his Well Being show works that dealt with his psychological well being. On the surface, it would seem incongruous if his 1972 list of possible ‘Life and Art Activities’—such as ‘wood chopping’, ‘cleaning’, and ‘making a fire’—had also included ‘visiting my analyst’. However, Apple told me that sometime around 1975–6, in a bid to live by his edict that every action would now be an art work, he made an audiotape work, recording his therapy session at the Albert Ellis Institute, the headquarters of rational emotive behaviour therapy, a precedent for what we now call cognitive behavioural therapy. Just days before Apple’s death, we spoke of the tape and its status as a work of art in relation to this project. For Apple, this was clear. The fact that the session was taped indicated his intention to include it in the expanded field of his life actions. He told me that his request to retain the tape solicited initial disagreement from the psychologist and led to an inevitable discussion on the nature of his art practice, and, no doubt, questions of patient–doctor confidentiality.
With the tape yet to be located, due to Apple’s sudden death, the spectre of this work nonetheless extends his work beyond the visible and quantifiable, into the indeterminate area of the mind, at the time of his body’s final failure. Apple’s entry into the mind’s inner workings would seem to unravel our conception of this artist who denied interiority in favour of the outward signs of culture. Yet, that interest is there, particularly in the period 1972–6, a time of increased doubt for the artist. In 1974, in the Serpentine catalogue, he writes: ‘At significant points of marked alteration in my life and identity I did a new series of self portraits documenting both physical and psychological changes.’ Despite the shift in medium, it is possible to see some of Apple’s audiovisual works of the 1970s as an extension of his self portraits of the 1960s. In 1972, he made two video tapes: Card Reading, recording a fortune teller conducting a reading into his future, and Alpha State, showing electrodes attached to his head to indicate when he produced alpha waves, distinguishing ‘a condition of receptivity and acceptance without conscious effort’. While performing Negative Conditions Situation (1973), an action involving cleaning dirt from a floor, Apple writes, ‘psychological doubt existed even though physical acceptance through touch supported by visual verification was acknowledged’. Was he recognising that the mind—usually locked into neutral when performing such tasks—could ghost his actions?
The conversation with the psychologist is perhaps the last piece of Apple’s self portrait, and potentially the most daring in its reach towards the private recesses of the mind. I wondered why Apple didn’t throw my interest in this missing tape back at me. He had no insecurity about its ability to perform as a work or about showing it publicly, as he might an image of his face or a line demonstrating his shrinking height. Apple referred to the Well Being show as his ‘last exhibition’. It is possible that, with an exhibition that examined the works of his physical and mental being, he might ready himself for the final transformation into the merely cellular.
Billy Apple never stopped working. This made my job as his monograph writer difficult. As my book Billy Apple® Life/Work was in the final stages of production in late 2019, I was tempted to push pause to insert a postscript that would have extended the narrative beyond its 2018 cut-off date. I wanted to add a note about Tūmanako, a version of Apple’s work Basic Needs (2014), presented in the wharenui Te Ranimoaho at Te Rewarewa Pā in Rūātoki in the Bay of Plenty, on 31 July 2019.
I couldn’t attend the pōwhiri for the project (organised by ex–Te Tuhi director, now Whakatāne local, James McCarthy, and described by Hamish Coney in the Summer 2019 issue of this magazine). But, from Sam Hartnett’s photographs, it was clear I had missed one of the more remarkable collaborations of Apple’s career. This was with Tūhoe activist and artist Tāme Iti. Apple had been in conversation with Iti for some time over their shared connections to Rūātoki, a small township in the foothills of Te Urewera. This led to the artists delivering works that speak urgently about dispossession and social inequality in the context of Iti’s marae and the contested ground upon which it sits.
Rūātoki is one of the remotest locations Apple had ever been to. For an artist who looked to the international art world as his natural home, who had spent years living in London and New York, and who needed the complex infrastructure of an evolved metropolitan art scene to do his work, this small rural community, still scarred by the legacy of colonial land confiscation, might have seemed an unlikely destination. But it was, in fact, a homecoming.
Through his childhood, Apple had spent time there, sent from Auckland by his parents to stay with his paternal aunt Edna, her husband James, and their daughter Cherry Merritt. He remembered these visits with affection and with his usual vivid recall. He told of playing with local children, including Arnold Manaaki Wilson, who would, later, with fellow artist Cliff Whiting, restore and repaint Te Ranimoaho in the brilliant primary hues associated with the Ringatū faith, which still flourishes in the area. So, to return and reconnect was to bring one strand of his life story full circle.
‘Tūmanako’, meaning ‘hope’, is the term Tāme Iti gave Apple as a Māori equivalent for ‘basic needs’. In the work, it heads up translations in te reo of ‘food’ (kai), ‘water’ (wai), ‘shelter’ (haumaru), and ‘clothing’ (kākahu), the four essential items to which all humans are entitled, according to the United Nations. Printed in Apple’s distinctive all-capitals Futura font, in black and white on a red ground, and installed on two window panes on the back wall of the wharenui on either side of the tāhuhu (ridgepole), this was Apple’s fourth iteration of his Basic Needs series. The series had been commissioned by Artspace Director Misal Adnan Yildiz to support the Syrian refugee crisis in 2014, for the Artists for Kobanê online auction, a global event organised for E-Flux by Hito Steyerl and Anton Vidokle to raise awareness of and financial aid for that humanitarian cause. Since then, it has been translated from English into German, Romanian, Turkish, and Kurdish, and presented in online and physical venues where those languages are spoken.
If Rūātoki, the collaborative project undertaken by Apple and Iti in 2019, brought Billy back to a place he had not visited since childhood, Basic Needs marked another return. This was to a project he had worked on in the early 1980s with Wystan Curnow, in which he used information from the Consumer Price Index and the Labour and Employment Gazette to compile bar graphs and pie charts that set out his relative expenditure on the basic costs of living, calculated in relation to the national average of annual wage earnings. This was one investigative strand in an emerging body of work that used the line, co-authored with Curnow, ‘The artist has to live like everybody else.’
There is something fundamental, grounding, and profoundly democratic in this reckoning, which undoes assumptions people might have about Billy Apple’s penchant for the high life. Apple knew what it was like to grow up with little and to live hand to mouth as an artist, and that drove him to anatomise the economic system, focusing on its every niche, from the moneyed classes to those with next to nothing, finding alternatives to business as usual (like his IOU and Bartered series), and giving works to charity as a means to level the playing field. Basic Needs was a late project produced as the wealth gap widened. I wish I had found a way to factor this into my book, as it would have lent the publication a suitably trenchant but also personally poignant ending.